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Chaos/Pacific Rim: The First Line of Defense (3/7)

December 29th, 2013 (02:19 pm)
cranky

feeling: cranky

Notes and other parts in the MASTER POST





Sighing, Rick takes down the streamers.


“Another one gone, eh?” says the janitor, cleaning up the dirty plates and half-drunk water bottles.


“Yeah,” Rick says, crumpling a banner that says Best of Luck in Cleveland, Wilson!


“Seems like we’ve got one leave every week these days,” the janitor muses.


He’s not wrong. People are finding new lives. They’re starting over. They’ve moving on.


It’s only been a few years since the Kaiju attacked, but everything has changed. For the worst, and then the better. The Jaeger program is fully operational now; the coastlines are protected. The loss of life has been minimized.


In short, they’re winning.


The population in the shelter is below 100 now, and they’re the last one in the area. San Francisco has been fully converted into a graveyard for the Kaiju and the broken Jaegers. Rick cheers each victory; claps each person on the shoulder as they walk out and don’t look back.


He stands in the door and watches them walk away, wondering how they make it look so easy.


-o-


Still, Rick has his job to do. He stocks and he organizes. He makes the most of their scant supplies. He’s been here almost longer than anyone now -- the other employees and volunteers get burnt out and go home -- and recently they’ve just stopped coming at all.


It’s menial work. All he studied for and trained for, and this is what he does. He cleans and cooks; he does clerical work. He cleans toilets and makes phone calls. Whatever he can do to help.


Whatever he can do.


-o-


When the numbers drop below 50, Rick gets called in by his supervisor. She’s a weary woman, one of the lifers in this kind of work. She tucks her hair behind her ear and says, “Well, the good news is that we’ve done our job. We’ve helped people. We’ve been there for them.”


“And the bad news?” Rick asks.


She shrugs. “They don’t need us anymore,” she says. “It’s a compliment, really.”


“Wait,” Rick says. “What are you trying to say?”


She purses her lips, hesitating. “Our funding is being cut,” she says. “Our property is going to be absorbed into the greater San Francisco decontamination area for future PPDC work.”


“But the people…”


“Are going to be transferred to a halfway house in Reno,” she says.


“But--”


“But nothing, Rick,” she says. “We’ve done everything we need to do. We’ve done everything we can do. This is a testament to the human spirit. Things were bad, but they got better. We worked hard and we prevailed. The Kaiju can attack, but they haven’t beaten us. Not even the people who have been affected most.”


The protests are lodged in Rick’s throat and his chest feels tighten. Nothing he can say will make a difference, because she’s right. Rick wants to make the world a better place; he wants to be a hero.


But the world is a better place; and there’s already enough heroes out there.


There’s nothing more Rick can do.


There’s just nothing.


“Thank you, Rick,” she says. “It really has been a pleasure.”


“Yeah,” Rick mumbles numbly. “You, too.”


-o-


Back in his room, Rick goes over his things. He’s lived sparsely here. He didn’t come with much, and it looks like he won’t take much with him. He thinks of the mementos he left at his mother’s house, the soccer trophies and the baseballs. Things that used to matter to him, before the Kaiju. Things that used to define him.


Now…


Now he’s an empty man living in an empty room, desperate to be used.


For the first time since the Kaiju attacked San Francisco, Rick curls up on his bed and cries.


-o-


In the morning, Rick gets up early. He leaves most of the things he accumulated, saving a few of the pictures and notes and putting them neatly into his worn backpack alongside his money. He hasn’t been paid much, this is true, but he’s spent even less. It’s more than enough for a trip back home.


He leaves before the residents are awake; he doesn’t bother saying goodbye. Instead, he gets a ride from one of the National Guardsmen in the area, taking him back to the main highway. Rick hitchhikes down to the closest bus station and buys himself a ticket back.


On the bus, he sits alone in the back, turning on the seat to look out the rear. He watches the skyline fade into the distance, like it was never there at all.


-o-


His mother is effusive. She dotes and she frets. She bemoans the weight he’s lost and insists on cutting his hair within a week. She gives him money for new clothes and makes all his favorite meals. She invites all her friends over, and shows him off. “My boy,” she says. “Serving those less fortunate. Isn’t he such a good boy?”


It’s like he never left at all.


-o-


Rick watches the news as another Kaiju falls. He sees the pilots on TV.


His mother scoffs. “More of the same,” she says, flipping it off.


Rick protests. “Hey!”


“It is nothing we haven’t seen before,” his mother say sternly.


“It still matters, though,” Rick says. “The Kaiju…”


“Are not the only problem in this world,” his mother says seriously. “What of hunger and disease? What of law and order?”


Rick stares at her.

“Surely you have not forgotten,” his mother says. “The world needs heroes. Be they in a giant robot or someplace else.”


-o-


It’s easy to scorn his mother as a sentimental woman, but Rick thinks maybe she’s right. He remembers all his plans. To be a cop. To be a spy.


These things are still out there. These things are still important. It’s not the end of the world. Everyone else is moving on.


Now it’s Rick’s turn.


-o-


It’s surprisingly easy to get his resume together, and he submits a wide variety of applications to everything he can think of. He ends up with some job offers and some grad school acceptance letters, each just as impressive as the last.


The problem is that Rick doesn’t care. None of the jobs sound better than the others; all of the school seem the same.


He goes to the coast sometimes, sitting and just looking out, wondering if it looked this peaceful the day the Kaiju first made landfall. Every time he sees it, it makes him think.


Rick knows what he has to do.


-o-


At home, he goes through the applications. He throws out all the ones in California and starts moving east until there’s just one option left.


Harvard University.


-o-


When Rick leaves, his mother makes her usual fuss. It’s less this time, though. Even she knows that it’s time.


Rick’s going to move on.


-o-


The rhythm of normal life comes back to him quickly. He finds a small apartment close to campus, and shows up promptly to all his classes. His study habits flourish, and soon all his professors are taking notice. His advisor is impressed.


The other students notice, too. Rick doesn’t seek friendship, but they find him anyway. It starts with study groups and turns in to a round of drinks on a Friday night. Soon Rick’s turning down weekend trips in the city.


By the end of the year, Rick’s the top of his class and the most popular kid on campus.


It’s like he never left.


-o-


The Kaiju still attack. Rick watches with restless uncertainty as the Jaegers fight.


They keep winning.


And Rick’s life goes on.


-o-


The next year is better than the first. He’s immersed in research now, and one of the librarian aids takes a notice. They talk; they hang out. They kiss; they date.


When his mother writes, Rick has so much to say that he barely knows where to start. He’s on track to graduate. He thinks he’s in love.


Life, after all this time, may just be perfect.


-o-


He’s too busy for the boards much now. He can’t keep up with his websites. He loses track of which Jaegers are fighting where. He doesn’t know all the Kaiju by name. Sometimes, when the latest footage airs, his girlfriend giggles and kisses him. At first, he deflects. But when she keeps at it, he starts to kiss back, until he’s barely looking at the screen at all.


-o-


The day he graduates, Rick looks at his degree. He’s proud, he realizes. He’s accomplished a lot, and he’s proud of it.


Then he gets out the box from his pocket and pops it open. The diamond glints. He knows what she’ll say, but he’s just waiting for the right moment.


He smiles.


Maybe there’s a future for him yet.


-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-


LA isn’t Sydney, and it certainly isn’t London, but Billy reckons the location is mostly unimportant. To him, life is what you make it. That’s the only way he survived his boyhood, and it hasn’t failed him yet.


When he sets foot into the Shatterdome, avoiding the ongoing construction and scurrying PPDC personnel, that’s what he tells himself anyway.


-o-


“Collins, is it?” Marshal Higgins asks with some disdain.


“Yes, sir,” Billy says with as much enthusiasm as he can muster. He’s all for first impressions, so he smiles winningly, too.


Higgins scowls. “Your reputation precedes you.”


“Aye,” Billy says. “I was the top performer in the Sydney Logistics division.”


Higgins is less than impressed. “I mean your extracurriculars.”


Billy allows himself to be somewhat chagrined. “Nothing is on my permanent record, sir.”


“A sudden transfer of a top performer?” Higgins asks. “They don’t need to spell it out.”


“It was nothing more than a week bit of boyish--”


Higgins holds up his hand. “I don’t want excuses, Collins. I just want results.”


Billy nods with a wide smile. “And results I will give you, sir.”


“You better,” Higgins warns. “Because don’t think I will keep you around anything -- and I mean anything -- goes awry. I run a tight ship here. And I’ve got my eye on you.”


Billy raises his eyebrows. “Well, then I hope you like what you see,” he says as congenially as possible.

“I better,” Higgins replies. “Dismissed.”


On his way out, Billy reckons that could have gone better. He takes consolation in the fact that it really could have gone worse. At least this way, the only direction to go is up.


-o-


It’s not exactly a grand reception, but Billy will take what he can get. The truth is, he doesn’t need his reputation to precede him, good, bad or otherwise. He knows how to charm even the most hostile of audience, and his patented grin and enthusiastic demeanor tends to make friends out of enemies in no time flat.


He still misses Sydney, that much is true. He misses the flair in the city; the upbeat ambiance of the Shatterdome. LA is more business, and it feels a bit grittier if he’s honest. His quarters are even smaller somehow, and while he’s not sitting on a milk crate, he does pine a little for his chair.


And all pleasantries aside, this is about the job. Billy’s here to save the world, just as much as he was in Sydney. He doesn’t need the flash and glitz, even if he rather likes it. He can dig his way out of the trenches -- for the very betterment of mankind.


In that, nothing has changed. He works, he flourishes. He makes friends in the mess hall. If he stops sleeping with every pretty girl who winks back at him -- well, one can never be too careful in these things.


The Kaiju are still coming.


Billy will do his part to make sure they’re ready.


-o-


All things considered, Billy has all intentions of being the model employee.


So it’s not his fault -- not in the least -- when the fight breaks out. He’s not even near the bloke that throw the first punch -- one of the prospective pilots, of course. The scientists and tech staff aren’t prone to violence, but the Rangers have developed something of an attitude. He can’t always blame them of course. They’re veritable rock stars, and the competition is fierce to see who’s going to get in the next Jaeger. Spots are limited; tensions run high.


And sometimes it breaks.


Billy is eating his dinner, talking to one of his mates in Logistics, when it starts. There’s chest-puffing, loud-talking and then the fist are flying. Billy has every intention of watching it unfold, but when a few of the J-tech staff try to break it up, someone’s glasses get smashed and blood spurts from a nose. One nose becomes two and then three, and when half a dozen becomes twice that, it has the appearance of a full-on brawl.


Even so, Billy’s watching with his eyebrows raised while his companion inhales sharply. One of the scientists has jumped onto a pilot’s back when he sees Dorset try to intervene.


Billy doesn’t know Dorset well -- they’ve met once or twice, and only in a business capacity -- but he’s inclined to like the man. He’s bright and practical and he gets results, which is really all that matters.


He’s also about to get his head smashed in.


Billy knows it’s probably best not to get involved.


But Billy’s never been one to let a fight happen without trying to help.


Plus, honestly, Billy has pretty poor impulse control -- and a killer jab.


So Billy knocks his chair over, lets the consequences be damned, and joins the fray.


-o-


It’s not the kind of find one wins, but Billy ends up giving more than he takes. He’s nursing a black eye and a puffy lip, and he’s sitting in a line outside of Higgins’ office like a little boy on his way to see the principal. It’s some solace that he’s not the only one, but it’s hardly reassuring to watch each participant come out looking more downtrodden than the last.


The tongue lashing Billy receives is expectedly severe. Higgins rants and raves and puts an official notation in Billy’s file. He has his travel privileges revoked for a month, and he’s on strict curfew for a week. Nowhere but his office or his quarters, not even for a meal.


On his way out, Billy makes his way back to his room, ready for a long rest and a good book. He sees Dorset in the hall.


“Collins, right?”


Billy inclines his head. “Aye.”


“You okay?”


“Ah, it look worse than it is,” Billy says with a shrug. “I reckon the punishment stings worse.”


“Higgins hit you hard, huh?”


“Let’s just say he was gravely disappointed in my lack of discretion on the job.”


Michael smirks. “Higgins has a thankless job, and he’s not all bad at it,” he says. “But he’s too rigid.”


“Well, it’s not for me to judge the powers that be,” Billy says.


Michael looks thoughtful. “Why did you jump in?” he asks finally. “I saw you -- you were halfway across the room. It had nothing to do with you.”


Billy shrugs. “You needed a hand,” he says. “You were wading into a fight you couldn’t win; I thought I’d even the odds.”


“I’m still not sure we won,” Michael quips.


“No, but it was worth trying,” Billy replies with a wink.


Michael laughs. He nods for a moment. “You were good, you know?”


“Well, I was a bit of a brawler in my youth.”


“No, more than that,” Michael says. “You’ve got good instincts. You can see things that are happening. You know had to anticipate and react before most people even have a chance to think twice.”


Billy tilts his head, not sure what to say.


“That’s a rare skill,” Michael continues. “One we look for in Rangers.”


Billy furrows his brow faintly.


“You ever consider it?”


Billy’s mouth opens for a moment. “Well, of course,” he says. “Who here hasn’t?”


Michael studies him. “But you didn’t apply?”


“I was lucky enough to get this posting,” Billy says. “I didn’t think to press it.”


“Well, you should apply now,” Michael says. “Come by my office tomorrow. I’ll walk you through the process.”


“I’m not exactly allowed out and about,” Billy says.


Michael scoffs. “I’ll take care of Higgins,” he says. “Just be there.”


“In that case,” Billy says, starting to grin. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”


-o-


The next day, Billy applies for Ranger training. With Michael’s glowing recommendation, he’s accepted in less than a week. He’s put into training immediately, and all his contacts are transferred over to other members of the logistics team. Instead of phone calls and sweet talk, Billy’s world becomes physical rigor and mental acuity. There are endurance tests, flexibility tests. He’s put through mental stimulations and is probed and examined by every doctor and scientist on base.


All the reports come back the same.


An excellent candidate for neural connections.


An apt pupil for Jaeger training.


A prime example of the mental and physical needs for Jaeger pilots.


Higgins looks grim when he approves Billy’s status, but Michael is beaming at his back. Billy’s going to be a Ranger. He’s going to pilot a Jaeger. He’s going to fight monsters.


Suddenly, getting kicked out of Syndey and jumping into a fight are the best things that ever happened to him.


-o-


It’s more exciting than his life in Logistics, but it is more challenging. Billy’s physically fit, but the training strains him even more than his time at MI6 had. He’s pushed to all his limits, and he has to find his rhythm with the drills and exercises. Even getting in to training is no guarantee of a Jaeger.


Billy works hard, memorizes the moves. He’s sore at first, but his body acclimates as he does the repetitions in his room, again and again and again.


When he’s not training, he’s studying. J-tech loads him up with technical manuals, everything they can about how Jaegers work and what the controls mean. When he sleeps, he sleeps heavily, dreaming of martial arts and electrical circuits.


It’s the hardest he’s ever worked in his life.


Nothing’s ever been more worth it.


-o-


Of everything, Billy struggles with the bō the most. He’s a brawler at heart, and the refined moves of martial arts are hard for him. When the bō slips from his hands, he curses, pulling out of formation and hitting the wall.


“That’s stupid,” one of his instructors says.


Billy looks up. “Hmm?”


The instructor -- Malick -- nods at him. “If you break your hand, you’re out,” he says. “That’s stupid.”

Billy’s face is already red with exertion, and he’s dripping with sweat. “Aye, no doubt,” he says. “At this point, though, I’m not sure it’d make much difference.”


Malick rolls his eyes, leaning down and picking up his bō. He holds it for a second, as if judging it, before moving it gracefully through the air. “We consider training with the bō to be among the most important we do.”


“It’s a bloody stick,” Billy scowls. “I signed up to fight monsters.”


“A stick that you wield as an extension of your body,” Malick says, moving the bō again in a grace arc. “If you want to pilot a Jaeger, you have to become one with it. There can be no separation between you and the machine. In essence, it’s just like this stick.”


Malick holds it out to him and Billy takes it disdainfully. “It’s still just a stick.”


“Yeah, and you’re thinking too much about stick and not enough about the moves,” he says. “It’s rhythm. Cadence. Movement.”


Billy chews his lip. “Like poetry?”


Malick scowls. “I think that’s a stupid analogy but if it works for you--”


“Poetry,” Billy says again, looking over his bō again. He shifts his grip, moving it slowly and carefully. “Rhythm.”


“Better,” Malick says as Billy starts to move.


He resumes his pattern, breathing in and out while he counts the beats in his head. He feels it, he breathes it, and the movements are still awkward, but easier.


“Better!” Malick coaches. “Come on, stay in the flow. You can do this.”


And Billy does.


-o-


Training gets easier. Under Malick’s tutelage, he masters the bō. He still can’t meditate, but if he closes his eyes and starts reciting Shakespeare’s sonnets, the effect is much the same. It’s the unity of the mind and body.


Soon to be the mind the body and the machine.


-o-


For two months, Ranger training is all Billy thinks about. He stops socializing. He stops wasting his time in the mess hall. His focus is singular until the day they’re called in to meet the next Jaeger.


Its name is Avalon Challenger, and it’s nothing short of spectacular. It’s not the biggest Jaeger, but it packs a punch. The chrome body glistens, with hints of red and blue around the chest and conn-pod. Most of its offensive capabilities are in the arms, which each have four different weapons, which can be deployed simultaneously for the maximum effect. The core is solid but small, and the long limbs are clearly made for movement and combat. The joints are specially hinged to promote extended movement, and there’s a single, large cannon located just below the conn-pod for a centralized attack.


His fellow trainees are awed, but Billy takes one look and sees her.


Long dark hair, pulled back all business. She’s wearing a Ranger suit, and she stands squarely at attention, her head high.


“Avalon Challenger is slated to be operational in the next three months,” Dorset explains. “Which means, we need to get her pilots inside and doing simulations ASAP. Which brings me to an introduction.” He pauses, gesturing to the woman. “This is Olivia Drummond. She’s the first pilot slated to fly Avalon. Olivia has served the PPDC since the beginning, being one of the first pilots in combat to go after the Kaiju. She’s helped us with support in the air since the Jaeger program has been operational, and because of her skill, we’ve worked with her to design Avalon for her.”


The woman -- Olivia -- smiles.


“That means starting tomorrow, we’ll begin compatibility testing,” he says. “At this point, it’s not a matter of skill that’s going to get you into this Jaeger. It’s a matter of compatibility.”


“More like luck,” one of the pilots mutters.


“All the work, and it comes down to chance,” another commiserates.


Billy’s eyes stay on Olivia, her eyes pass around the room before locking on his. They stay that way for a moment, connected across the room, two strangers, perfectly suspended together. In harmony.


She blinks and looks away.


Billy knows it’s probably a long shot. The odds are not really in his favor. But still, Billy knows.


The way his life is going, he feels very lucky indeed.


-o-o-o-o-o-o-


“Collins?” Higgins asks, fully apoplectic now. “You want me to put Collins in Jaeger training?”


“We pull our recruits from anywhere,” Michael reminds him.


“Yes, but normally I don’t reallocate staff that is high performing elsewhere,” Higgins says. “Collins is the best we have in Logistics.”


“And what’s more important, funding or Jaeger pilots who can down a Kaiju?”


Higgins works his jaw. “Every part is important,” he says. “If we don’t have funding, we don’t have Jaegers.”


“And we made it just fine without Collins in Logistics before,” Michael says. “Look, I’m not saying we won’t miss him in Logistics. I’m just saying I think we’ll see more of an impact with him in a Jaeger.”


“We have an entire class of pilots,” Higgins points out. “And just one Jaeger to fill. And just one seat in it. The chances of Collins…”


“Avalon Challenger is just the first,” Michael says. “And who knows? Collins could be a good match for Drummond. There’s potential there.”


“Collins is a disrespectful delinquent,” Higgins says. “Drummond is a highly trained and disciplined RAF pilot.”


“Stranger things have happened,” Michael says.


Higgins narrows his gaze, pursing his lips. “You better hope so,” he says. “Don’t think yourself so invaluable as that you won’t be dealt with in case of a failure.”


Michael tilts his head. “Is that a threat?”


“It’s a promise, Dorset,” Higgins snaps. “You better hope that Collins isn’t a bust. Or you may be looking at your career in the same way.”


-o-


Higgins is trying to scare Michael, and it’s not that he doesn’t have any grounds. He can fire Michael, pretty much whenever he wants. But only if Michael fails.


And Michael doesn’t intend on failing.


As it is, Michael may not do things by the book but he gets things done. Within a few months, the LA Shatterdome is on par with Syndey. Their Jaeger production is ahead of schedule, and they’ve developed an alert system that has revolutionized the entire communication lines in the PPDC network. And the two successful Kaiju kills along the western seaboard speak for themselves.


It’s not that Michael is trying to be a subversive son of a bitch. He has no problem with following orders, as long as they make sense. He supposes for some people at the CCPD, it all comes naturally. They’re military men who were trained to say yes, sir without a second thought.


Michael’s a spy, though. And he’s a paranoid bastard. If an order is stupid, he’s not going to follow it. If the powers that be aren’t going to listen, well, then Michael will find ways to do it anyway.


Getting away with insubordination really isn’t the point. It’s about what the program needs. What the planet needs.


But Michael won’t deny that insubordination is sort of fun.


-o-


Insubordination is only one part of Michael’s job. He has plenty of other tasks to do, many of which are actually all well within his job description. Namely, he has a Jaeger to get operational.


He likes his job overall. He could do without the red tape and the lofty orders, but it’s generally a position he enjoys. He likes to organize the operation; he likes to monitor the seas; he likes to maintain and observe and all the rest.


But what he really likes -- what he loves -- are the Jaegers. He’s a grown man and a professional, but there’s something about seeing a massive robot that brings out the kid in him. He’s been fascinated since he first saw the specs at the CIA, and he’s spent more than a little time fanboying Romeo Blue. But with Avalon Challenger.


Well, Avalon is a little like his baby.


Michael generally doesn’t have parental instincts, but he’s seen Avalon Challenger develop from the drawing board up. He’s worked with J-science to refine the interface. He’s spent hours with J-tech going over the specifications. He’s worked with other Jaeger pilots to iron out the details. He’s overseen every step of the construction, from theory to parts acquisition to this.


A Jaeger. Gigantic. Fully capable. Ready to fight.


Well, almost ready to fight. Avalon has come a long way in a short amount of time, but she’s still under development. She’s slated for launch in six months, which means it’s time for live tests.


“Hey, Blanke,” Michael says as he enters the bay. “How are we today?”


“We are moving right on schedule!” Blanke tells him enthusiastically.


“Did the crew get the modifications done?” Michael asks.


“Done and ready for testing,” Blanke confirms.


He gives the man a quizzical look. Blanke is dutiful and exuberant, but Michael has no idea what he actually does. He’s not J-science, and as far as Michael can tell he’s not J-tech. But if Michael’s ever looking for a quick, cohesive update, Blanke’s always the one to ask.


“If I may say so, she’s looking beautiful today,” Blanke says. “Wouldn’t mind getting a chance in her myself.”


Michael scoffs. “I don’t even get a ride,” he says. “So stop drooling and get back to work.”


Blanke nods and, for some reason, salutes.


Michael makes a face and walks on.


-o-


As he approaches, he sees two teams working on Avalon’s arms -- presumably her weaponry. He watches for a moment before Drummond joins him.


“She’s looking good,” Drummond says.


“That’s what Blanke said,” Michael says.


“Blanke is a Jaeger junkie,” Drummond replies. “I’m the pilot, remember?”


Michael looks toward Drummond and smiles. “As if you’d ever let me forget.”


Drummond is undaunted, pressing her lips together. “When do I get to take her out? We’re six months away from launch, Michael.”


Michael sighs. “Olivia, you know she needs two pilots.”


Drummond’s shoulders slump. “The technology has improved since the early tests--”


“The technology uses two pilots,” Michael says. “That’s how the conn pod is designed.”


Drummond is a professional woman, and sort of scary as hell. Michael is fairly certain she could put him on his ass if she were so inclined. But even so, she almost pouts. “Against my wishes.”


“Hey,” Michael says. “You got plenty of say on every step of the development. Most other Jaeger pilots just take what they get.”


Sighing, Drummond gives him a pleading look. “Then when am I going to get a copilot?”


Michael grins. “I’m glad you asked,” he says. “Stick around. I’m having Malick bring in the latest class in a few hours.”


Drummond looks pained. “Are they even trained?”

“They’re not puppies who need to be housebroken,” Michael says with a roll of his eyes.


“You know what I mean,” Drummond says. “I’m a professional pilot. I have maintained the utmost attention to my training. Some of your candidates have been...unconventional.”


“That’s because this is an unconventional job,” Michael says. “What we’re looking for isn’t always textbook intelligence or disciplined training. We’re looking for people with instincts. More than that, we’re looking for people who can connect.”


Drummond sighs again.


“Hey, you should feel lucky that Higgins agreed to put you on Avalon without a copilot to begin with,” Michael points out. “Usually we recruit compatible pilots first before putting them in a Jaeger. I convinced him to break the rule book with you.”


A smile plays on her lips. “And for that I owe you thanks?”


Michael snorts. “I’ll settle for less derision.”


Drummond chuckles. “I reckon that’s fair,” she says. “So any good prospects in this class?”


“Yeah, they’re a good bunch,” Michael says. “You’ll see.”


She postures, straightening her shoulders. “I better.”


-o-


His bravado with Higgins and Drummond aside, Michael does have his doubts. If only because new pilots are unpredictable, and they generally cut more than they keep.


Which is why he visits Malick.


Casey Malick is the lead trainer, a recent transfer from Hong Kong. As a former Mark 1 pilot, he’s got the experience Michael needs. Most of the other Shatterdomes passed him over for more palatable choices. Malick’s got one hell of a record -- he’s talented, adept, and basically antisocial.


Still, Michael can work with that.


“Malick,” Michael says, jogging down the hall to catch up.


Casey doesn’t slow.


Michael finally catches his pace. “You ready to bring your class down to the bay this morning?”


Casey makes a noise of discontent in the back of his throat. “They’re green.”


“Well, that’s sort of how it works,” Michael says. “There’s no such thing as a qualified Jaeger pilot.”


Malick rolls his eyes. “They don’t have enough mental control. You put them in the drift, and they’ll all chase rabbits, every last one of them.”

“Everyone does the first time,” Michael says. “It takes practice.”


“Not everyone,” Malick corrects. “And I still think our training regimen isn’t aggressive enough.”


“There’s no way we can approve 24 hour participation,” Michael says. “They need downtime.”


“They need to be fully immersed,” Malick argues.


“We’ll get them there,” Michael says. “Right now, you just have to get them good enough to start. Once we figure out who matches up with Drummond, then we’ll step it up.”


Malick inclines his head, still moving at a good clip. “At least Drummond is a respectable choice.”


“So you think you’ve got enough talent to match her?” Michael asks.


Malick stops, looking at Michael roundly. “On their own? Unlikely. But after months under my training?” he asks seriously. “You’ll find your damn pilot.”


Michael grins, clapping Malick on the shoulder. “Just what I wanted to hear.”


-o-


Time is tight, but he still swings by J-science on his morning rounds before meeting the recruits over in the bay. He’s been working on a new list of system upgrades, and he wants to make sure they’re implemented properly -- before Higgins can catch wind and tell him to stop.


“Tell me the good news,” Michael says.

“Well, we had a bit of trouble with one of them,” one of the techs admits. “We had to rewrite some code, but thankfully the new transfer came in.”


Michael cocks his head. “You mean the new co-lead that Higgins brought in?”


“Yeah, she’s pretty great,” the tech says. “You should meet her.”


“I’d like that,” Michael says, because if this is Higgins recruit, he needs to know early if she’s friend or foe.


“Hey, Carson!” the tech calls back.


Michael follows his gaze, and his eyes widen when he sees the curly head. He recognizes the hair, the curves of her body before she turns.


“Carson, you should meet our Chief LOCCENT Officer,” he says. “Michael, this is--”


“Fay Carson,” Michael finishes for him as Fay faces him. Her face turns red.


The tech is surprised. “You two know each other?”


Michael doesn’t look away. “Something like that.”


-o-


“So when were you going to tell me?” Michael asks after he and Fay duck into the halls.


“I figured you’d see the paperwork,” Fay says.


“Oh, so that would have been so much better?” Michael asks.


Fay sighs. “We’re divorced, Michael.”


“Sure, which is all the more reason you should have told me,” Michael says.


She presses her lips together. “I tried to,” she says. “I just didn’t want it to be...weird.”


Michael laughs. “Good job with that.”


Fay gives him a look. “You know what I mean.”


Michael shakes his head. “That doesn’t explain why you’re here anyway,” he says. “You always told me I was crazy for wanting this job.”


“No, you were crazy because you were an obsessed, paranoid bastard,” she says. “And I don’t know. National interests have shifted. The workload at the CIA is less. They needed more people, so I volunteered. I was going to head up the program in Lima but got switched to LA at the last minute.”


“Your request?”


Fay is not amused. “Theirs.”


“Uh huh,” Michael says with a smirk.


“This has nothing to do with you, Michael,” she warns.


“Whatever you say,” he says with a shrug.


“Michael--”


“That’s Chief LOCCENT Officer Dorset to you.”


“Michael--”


“I’d love to stay and talk, but I have work to do,” he says. “But if you wanted to get dinner later…”


She rolls her eyes and turns back toward the J-science lab.


“Rain check on dinner, then,” Michael calls after her.


-o-


Drummond is less than impressed with the candidates. Most of the candidates are more smitten with Avalon than Olivia. Michael has worked hard with J-science to update the compatibility measures, and he spends late night pouring over the raw data and plotting it carefully.


The results aren’t encouraging. Some are too structured; others are too off-the-cuff. The fighting styles are wrong, the personal preferences don’t match.


And then he sees Billy’s profile.


At first glance, it’s not much to go on. Drummond is all business; Billy is long-winded. But they both fight to the point and prefer direct tactics in combat as opposed to carefully executed strategies. They both have stellar instincts, and they both have working class, British backgrounds. With Drummond being career RAF and Collins’ background at MI6, they’re both in this for patriotic reasons without a lot of baggage along the way.


Besides, Collins doesn’t just talk about Avalon. In fact, he hasn’t talked about Avalon at all. He talks about Olivia.


Michael works the numbers; he smiles.


Billy Collins and Olivia Drummond.


This might work out better than Michael ever imagined.


-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-


Casey’s life is normal.


That’s really the only way to describe it. He gets up; he does his job. He finds time to eat and to meditate, and there is always some form of usually unfortunate socializing in between. It’s routine. It’s predictable.


Casey’s had a long and illustrious career. From the military to the CIA to one of the best damn Jaeger pilots in the world.


To this.


Mundane.


Uneventful.


He’s a teacher. Apparently, the adage is true. Those who can’t…


Resign themselves to teaching.


And Casey’s never going to be allowed in a Jaeger cockpit for the rest of his life.


So now he’s going to teach every other hopeful with every trick and secret he knows. None of them are as good as him; somehow, that doesn’t matter.


Because this…


Is all that’s left in the world for a grounded pilot.


-o-


Technically, Casey had had options. He could have taken a job in any division he wanted. His Marshal had given him free reign to pick a position and a Shatterdome, and they’d make it happen. And he also knew that he could go back to the CIA; they’d take him back in a heartbeat.


But none of those options mattered. He wanted to be a pilot, and that was off the table. Worse still, with his radiation exposure, it’s a near certainty that he’d never make field clearance for the CIA. All things considered, teaching had been the least of all evils.


Casey hates people, though, especially those who are overeager and cocky. Since that describes every Ranger candidate he sees, he loathes them all. He often feels his knowledge is wasted on them, but he has to try.


Because there’s the sticking point Casey doesn’t want to admit. He hates his students, but their success is his success. The only way his life has any meaning is when they flourish.


Which means, Casey hates his job.


But he does it better than anyone else.


-o-


Not that the idiots he’s training make it any easier.


The Diedrichson sisters have the elegance of a block of ice. Vance has the control of a poorly parented toddler. Evans has to go to the bathroom so often that if she did make the cut, they’d have to build a catheter into her suit. Hawley has an uneven gait; Mulholland always pulls left; Yen’s depth perception is too shallow.


Some of them can’t meditate. Others are too aggressive. Some are too thoughtful. None of them are ready.


Casey has his work cut out for him.


-o-


“Malick,” Dorset says, setting down his dinner tray next to Casey. Casey lifts his eyes to glare at it, but Dorset seems oblivious. “How’s it going in the trenches?”


“The trenches are in the ocean when you face a Kaiju,” Casey corrects him. “Training the idiots is going acceptably.”


Dorset takes a bite of his hamburger, eyebrows raised. “Acceptably?”


“Acceptably if you consider that they’re all completely underskilled and poorly equipped for the challenge ahead of them,” Casey concludes.


Dorset, for his part, is nonplussed by his assessment. “That’s what they’ve got you for.”


“There’s only so much I can do,” Casey objects. “Sometimes they’ve got it; sometimes they don’t.”


“This is a good group,” Michael says.


“No, this is an acceptable group,” Casey says. “The best all get shipped to Hong Kong and Sydney. We’re a step up from Lima, but that’s not saying much.”


“We just need one,” Michael reminds him. “You can get me that one.”


“It may be asking me for a miracle,” Casey mutters.


Dorset shrugs, taking another bite. “I thought nothing was impossible for you,” he says. “Unless your resume was wrong.”


Casey narrows his eyes. “I know what you’re doing.”


Dorset smirks. “Is it working?”


Casey takes a bite of his food, sulking. “Maybe.”


-o-


That night, Casey dims the lights in his room. He sits cross-legged on the floor and takes a deep breath. He breathes in. He breathes out.


He closes his eyes.


He lets his limbs loosen; his muscles release their tension. Casey breathes in through his nose; out through his nose. The Shatterdome is a place of chaos and confusion, but Casey is a center of control. This is his sanctuary, not his small room but his mind.


This is what he misses about the drift. Its infinite depth; its untapped power. It can control pilots, or pilots can control it.


Meditation is a pale shadow of it.


Nothing compares.


He inhales.


In his mind, he sees Joanna. He sees the kid. He sees Linda. He sees Sierra, feels his connection to her with such an intensity that it hurts. These are things that were.


He exhales.


He sees Dorset. He sees his students. He sees the Shatterdome. These are the things that are.


He inhales.


He exhales.


Acceptance is power. Acceptance is control.


He inhales.


He exhales.


He accepts -- and he almost lets go.


-o-


Sanderson is cocky as hell. Perez might have some potential but she chews her nails.


And Collins nearly knocks himself out with a bō.


But when Casey tells him how to fix it, he listens.


Maybe Casey can work with that.


-o-


Casey visits J-tech at night, asking for the schematics of Avalon Challenger. He says it’s to better tailor his training practices. No one questions him.


Hours later, he’s still memorizing the blueprints, studying every component. Drummond comes up. “She’s a beauty, isn’t she?”

Casey shrugs. “Some impressive features,” he acknowledges. “But why did you make the legs so long?”


“More speed and agility,” Drummond says. “Some of the most recent Kaiju have literally run circles around the Jaegers. It’s a risk.”


“Yeah, but this makes the Jaeger too light,” Casey says. “If you go down, you’ll have a hard time getting up.”


“Well, the point is not to go down,” Drummond says.


Casey snorts. “Good luck with that.”


“They could be a tactical advantage,” Drummond protests.


“Right, since you’re going to kick it to death?” Casey says. “Don’t get me wrong, good offensive capabilities is important, but this is a Kaiju. You’re not going to use a Jaeger to kick it to death. You’re not Bruce Lee.”


Drummond wrinkles her nose. “Who’s Bruce Lee?”


Casey groans. “I don’t know if I should blame the fact that you’re barely legal in this country or the fact that you’re a damn Brit.”


“Maybe I’m just too busy to waste my time worrying about obscure pop culture references,” Drummond says coolly.


“But not too busy to think about what your Jaeger actually needs to do in combat.”


Drummond sizes him up. “Well, okay, then,” she says. “What would you do?”


Casey tilts his head. “Are you asking for my advice?”


She shrugs. “If you’re willing to give it.”


And Casey starts to smile.


-o-


When they master the bō -- or at least stop maiming each other with it -- Casey takes his students into the pool.


They wade in and shift uncomfortably. One of them yelps. “The heater’s broken! Has anyone called maintenance?”


Casey sighs. “It’s not broken, I turned it off.”


His students look a bit horrified. “But why?”


“Because you’re going to be piloting a Jaeger in the ocean,” Casey says. “Is the ocean heated?”


None of them reply.


“For the record, it’s not,” Casey says. “And when you find yourself in the water -- and you will find yourself in the water, you need to know how to fight, move and think with no hesitations. Because what happens if you hesitate?”


“You probably don’t come home,” Collins chimes in.


Casey meets his gaze and gives a slow nod. “Exactly,” he says. “Now take your bōs. Pair up. And maybe one of you will impress me today.”


-o-


None of them impress him, but when the session is over, Casey is cleaning up when he sees Collins still in the water. He’s going through the steps, moving his bō.


“Time’s up, Collins,” Casey calls.


Billy finishes his motions, but doesn’t look up. “Just need a bit more time.”


Casey watches a second more, seeing the determination on the kid’s face. He’s focused.


He’s also doing it wrong.


Casey sighs, shaking his head. “You’re not compensating for the drag,” he says.


Billy increases his force.

“It’s not just a question of force,” Casey reminds him. “It’s a balance. You’re losing your sense of yourself in the water.”


Billy keeps trying, but he’s still off.


Casey sighs again, picking up a bō. “No, you’re still not doing it right.”


Billy’s focus falters, and his form does, too.


Casey all but groans. “Oh for goodness sake,” he mutters, getting into the water and wading closer to Billy. “Like this.”


Surprised, Billy stops.


“See?” Casey says. “Now you try.”


Billy stares. “But...you’re helping me?”


“I’m your teacher, aren’t I?”


“But class is over,” Billy says.


“We’re facing giant monsters that may be trying to annihilate mankind,” Casey says. “I’m pretty sure class is never over.”


“But the others…”


“Got out of here as fast as they could,” Casey says. “If they want the extra help, they’re welcome to stay. Now do you want to get this right or keep doing it wrong?”


Nodding, Billy resumes his position and their training begins.


-o-


Dorset has been eating lunch with him for weeks, and Casey glares at him every time, but somehow that never matters to him.


“So,” Dorset says, shoveling corn into his mouth. “I was thinking about Billy Collins.”


“He’s impulsive, and his instincts aren’t always good,” Casey reports.


“You’ve been working with him, though, right?”


“He wants to learn,” Casey acknowledges. “He’s teachable.”


“Teachable is good, isn’t it?”


Casey shrugs, but doesn’t deny it.


Michael takes another bite and washes it down with a glass of water. “I’m thinking he’d be a good match for Drummond.”


“Did you do the compatibility test?”


“Yeah, the traditional measures were lukewarm,” Michael says. “But my alternative measures…”


Casey gives him a critical look. “I’m assuming these are unsanctioned?”


Michael shrugs. “Drift compatibility isn’t purely science,” he says. “There’s a lot of other, harder to quantify elements that go into it.”


“Don’t tell that to Higgins,” Casey says.


“Even Lightcap acknowledges it,” Michael says. “But the PPDC likes to standardize the measures.”


“With reason.”


“But you know there’s more than that,” Michael says. “Come on, you of all people. You know it’s more than that.”


Casey takes a breath and lets it out. “What does Drummond think?”


“Haven’t mentioned it to her yet,” Michael says. “But I’ve been around this every way I can think. It’s got to be them. They’re the only ones who can make Avalon Challenger work.”


“Pilots are expendable,” Casey reminds him.


“You don’t believe that,” Michael says. “Come on, with the right pilots, we can make a difference. We can change the face of this war. We’re not going to beat the Kaiju by thinking by the book. The entire Jaeger project was built outside the box and we’ve spent all our time trying to fit it back in. We can do better than that. I know we can.”


Casey chews his food diffidently. “I never took you as an idealist.”


“I’m not,” Michael says. “I’m a realist.”


“You think you can do this?” Casey asks skeptically.


“With the right pilots and the right Jaeger,” Michael confirms. “So what do you think? Collins and Drummond?”


Casey considers this. Order and disorder. Discipline and intuition. The drift is so often defined by similarities but sometimes that’s not really it. It’s about two complementing parts, working together. Two halves of a whole.


Collins and Drummond.


Casey takes another bite. “I think it could work,” he relents finally.


Michael grins. “I’m glad to hear that. Because I’ve got an idea…”


Casey starts to suspect that he has no idea what he’s just gotten himself into.