?

Log in

No account? Create an account
do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Chaos/Pacific Rim: The First Line of Defense (5a/7)

December 29th, 2013 (02:30 pm)
apathetic

feeling: apathetic

Other parts in the MASTER POST




The first time he applied for Jaeger training, everyone thought it was a great idea. People bought him beers and slapped him on the shoulder. People thought it was treat that he was trying to serve the world that way.


This time, people don’t even know what to say. They raise their eyebrows and wish him luck with varying degrees of sincerity.


His mother cries.


His girlfriend tries to understand.


“But what about us?” she asks.


He can answer every doubt, every question except that.


-o-


He packs the day he gets the acceptance letter. He sits at the table, waiting for her to come home. The ring is tucked in his pocket.


When she sees his bags, her face crumbles. “You’re really going, aren’t you?”


“I’m sorry,” he says. “This is what I have to do.”


She swallows and keeps her gaze steady. “And me?”


He clenches his teeth. “You’re an amazing woman,” he says.


Her lips turn up in a sad smile. “But I’m no Jaeger.”


Rick inhales deeply. “This is something I’ve needed to do for a long, long time,” he says. “Since the Kaiju first came -- this has been what I’ve been meant to do.”


“And the last few years?” she asks. “Everything we did together?”


“It was more than I deserved,” he says. “In another world -- one without the Kaiju -- all I would want is to spend the rest of my life making you happy.”


“But the Kaiju--”


“They aren’t going to stop,” he says. “I don’t know if I can make a real difference, but I have to try.” He shrugs. “I have to.”


She nods. “Okay,” she says, even though her voice sounds thin and broken. “I guess this is goodbye, then.”


He blinks a few times, surprised to find tears in his eyes. “Yeah,” he says. His fingers clench around the ring in his pocket and then let go. “I guess it is.”


-o-


He has his bag over his shoulder and his acceptance letter tucked into his front pocket. He buys a one-way ticket to LA.


He’s ready.


He’s been ready since K-day, but it’s finally his turn to make a difference.


In whatever way he can.


-o-


Getting to LA is easy.


Getting to the Shatterdome, on the other hand…


He’s nearly arrested when he hits a checkpoint, and he’s detained for the better part of an hour while PPDC security empties his body and puts him through several invasive full body scanners. They’ve confiscated his acceptance letter, and after several phone calls a woman in a suit comes in.


“Mr. Martinez,” she says warmly. “I’m so sorry for the mix up. We weren’t expecting you until next week. Shatterdome security has been heightened in recent month. I’m sure you can understand that.”


Rick nods. “Whatever the needs are,” he says. “The letter did say within the next two weeks.”


“Yes,” she says. “But we only sent it out four days ago.”


“I took one of the first flights out,” he says.


“Well, we are honored by your supreme dedication,” she says. “Now, if you’ll follow me.”


Rick stands, looking awkwardly at his things. “Can I--?”


“Oh!” she says. “Yes, please.” She moves to start tidying his things but stops when she sees a pair of his boxers. “Why don’t you just knock on the door when you’re done.”


Rick nods, and watches her go.


He looks at his things.


It’s not exactly the grand reception he was expecting. But then again, he didn’t join the PPDC for the pomp and circumstance. He knows the program’s been struggling. That’s why he’s here.


Determined, he repacks his things and holds his head high.


-o-


The reception isn’t exactly what he was expecting, and he has to admit, the grounds aren’t either. The facility is not, that is certain, but it seems to be running on half-capacity. The hallways are subdued; the open areas are almost vacant. He’s seen pictures of this Shatterdome -- read reports and exposes -- and the vibrant atmosphere of innovation and diligence seems to be a stretch. The closest he sees are a pair of tired looking scientists who trip over each other in the halls, spilling their paperwork everywhere.


When he gets to the Marshal’s office, he feels his hope buoy. This area is organized and well maintained. There’s a receptionist and he’s shown directly into the Marshal’s office. It’s a large, sun-lit room, adorned with pictures of Jaegers and other paraphernalia.


Anxious, he takes a seat as the Marshal looks across at him appraisingly. “Mr. Martinez, is it?” he asks.


“Yes, sir,” Rick says, straightening a bit.


Marshal Higgins frowns, looking at the file. He takes a breath, and closes it. “I’m afraid you were brought here under questionable pretenses.”


Rick tilts his head, not sure what to say. “I have my acceptance letter…”


Higgins raises his hand dismissively. “I have seen the copy of your acceptance letter,” he says. “While it is a genuine article from this Shatterdome, its approval was based on...faulty operations.”


Rick shakes his head. “I don’t understand.”


Higgins sighs. “The money used to justify your position was largely misappropriated and directed under falsified verifications,” he says. “Quite frankly, this Shatterdome isn’t looking to hire more pilots. Your position simply doesn’t exist.”


Rick feels his stomach drop. He wants to be sick; he wants to cry. “But my letter…”


“This Shatterdome is undergoing massive budget reallocations,” he says. “Simply put, the Jaeger program is being minimized. While there is some possibility that another Shatterdome may be interested in a pilot candidate, I’m simply not sure we have the resources to support you.”


Rick stares. “But. Sir,” he says. “I’ve wanted to be a Jaeger pilot since K-day. This is what I’m meant to do. Nothing else.”


Higgins chews his lip. “Well,” he says finally. “I can’t promise you a Jaeger, but there is one reason I can think of to let you undergo training with the rest of the remaining class of pilots.”


Rick perks up. “Anything, sir,” he says. “Anything.”


“This Shatterdome is only as good as its ability to stay united,” Higgins says. “From the beginning, I have sought to keep this Shatterdome as transparent as possible. We serve the people. They have every right to know what we do.”


“Agreed,” Rick says.


“We have certain...elements here,” Higgins continued, “that continue to work against my efforts. These are the elements largely responsible for this hoax of an acceptance letter. If you could help me determine how they’re getting their funding -- how they’re managing to circumvent my procedures--”


Rick stops, shaking his head. “Wait,” he says. “Are you asking me to be a spy?”


“No,” Higgins says. “I’m asking you to be diligent while you train. And you will train. That is what you wanted, isn’t it?”


It is. It’s the only thing he’s wanted. He gave up his career, his girlfriend, his family.


Still. “Can I think about it?” Rick asks.


Higgins shakes his head. “No,” he says frankly. “You have a choice, Mr. Martinez. You can walk out of this office as you came in -- a civilian. Or you can walk out of this office as a Ranger. The choice is yours.”


Rick’s conscience pangs. But all these years he’s wanted and worked and waited.


It’s really no choice at all.


-o-


From Higgins’ office, Rick is given a map of the Shatterdome and a training itinerary. They issue him a temporary access badge, and circle a tech lab he’s supposed to visit in the next 24 hours. That will have to wait, though. Apparently he arrived in time to join the other pilots for an afternoon training session, which means Rick wants to drop off his bag and get changed.


That means he has to find his quarters first.


Higgins’ assistant took the time to circle his quarters and pointed vaguely down the hall. However, he finds that the hallways are a bit harder to navigate on his own. He has a good sense of direction, but it’s a little like a labyrinth in here, and Rick can’t deny that he’s a little distracted.


Because he’s in a Shatterdome. He’s here. Not the way he expected, maybe, but it doesn’t matter. He’s given up everything to get here, and he has to believe it’s worth it.


He knows it is.


-o-


He finds his quarters, and he even ends up getting his badge finished by chance thanks to a strange but helpful man named Blanke in the hallway. He’s grateful when the other man waits for him to finish and shows him to the training area.


“Thanks,” Rick says. “What do you do here again?”


“Oh,” Blanke says, waving his hand through the air. “A little of this, a little of that.”


Rick nods. “J-tech?”


“Sometimes,” Blanke says. “Truthfully, my department got cut about two years ago and they’ve still been looking for a permanent place for me.”


Rick furrows his brow a little. “I don’t--”


Blanke grins, leaning close. “I figure, as long as the access badge still works, there’s something I can do around here,” he says with a wink. “We all got to do our part!”


“Well, yeah--”


Blanke claps him on the shoulder. “Now, good luck!” he says. “Pilot training -- it’s not for the weak of heart.”


“I think I can handle it,” Rick says.


Blanke nods. “Oh, no doubts!” he says. “But hey, if it doesn’t work out...I can probably help you out. I know how to stick around here even when you’re not really wanted.”


Rick doesn’t know if he should thank him or report him.


Instead he nods awkwardly and goes inside.


-o-


It’s actually a little bit of a relief that the room is crowded. Rick’s been perplexed by the lack of staff in the corridors, but the training bay seems to be completely active. There’s a group of twenty or so, varying ages and backgrounds, all clad in workout gear and talking amongst themselves. Rick wets his lips, and tries to look like he belongs even if he has no idea what he’s doing. He’s grateful when someone claps his hands together and says, “Okay, okay, I want everyone around here.”


Rick follows eagerly, drawing closer to the man. He’s maybe 40 with a plain appearance and a tired face. He has no particular designation in his clothes, but he carries himself with authority.


“I know most of you have been here for multiple rounds,” the man says, “but we’ve called you all back and brought in a few new recruits for one last round.”


“So it’s true?” someone asks. “We’re getting another Jaeger?”


“Well, why else would we bring back pilots?” the man says. He glances around, his eyes passing over Rick. “For those of you who are new, I’m Michael Dorset, Chief LOCCENT Officer. If you have questions or concerns about the program, please, talk only to me.”


There’s a small amount of chatter, and Rick glances about self-consciously.


“Even for those of you who have been through this before,” Dorset continues, “you’ll want to pay special attention. We’ve developed a unique training regimen, which means you’re all starting from square one. Each of you has an equal chance of being picked.”


“Are we testing for drift compatibility, though?” another asks. “Rumor has it you have a pilot already.”


“Hopefully, yes,” Dorset says. “We’ll pull you each for a drift assessment as we go, but we’re looking for flexible options here.” He pauses, nodding slightly. “Now, most of you know Casey Malick.”


A smaller man comes forward. He’s not much to look at but his eyes are hard as he looks them over. It takes a moment, but Rick recognizes him immediately. He’d been a Mark 1 pilot in Hong Kong -- one of the only ones left.


“If you want a shot at getting in a Jaeger, you will do everything he says, no questions, no arguments,” Dorset says. “It’s not going to be easy.”


It’s a warning. Maybe it’s even an invitation to leave, but no one flinches.


Dorset nods, almost as if in approval. “All right,” he says. “Then good luck in your Ranger training.” He smirks a little. “You’re going to need it.”


-o-


Rick is fairly certain that Dorset is using hyperbole. It would be fitting, he thinks. Trying to talk tough to new recruits, hoping to either gird them for success or prepare them to leave.


It turns out, however, that Michael Dorset is telling the truth.


Rick has had some tough teachers in his day, but none of them compare to Casey Malick.


Not even a little.


He starts them with a routine of physical exercise that is nothing short of exhausting. Rick’s in shape and he’s got good stamina, but after thirty minutes, he’s dripping wet and staggering around the gym.


They take a break for stretches, which basically requires Rick to contort himself into unnatural positions for twenty minutes. By the time they switch back to cardio, Rick’s muscles are a quivering mess and he’s so tired that he wants to cry.


People start collapsing. A few lay down and close their eyes on the mat, leaving the rest to trip over them as they finish their calisthenics. Rick drags himself a final distance and gropes blindly for a bottle of water, which he drinks half of and then douses the rest over his head.


“We’ve seen Kaiju attack for day straight,” Malick says. “If you can’t last three hours, then you don’t belong here at all.”


Rick stares at him miserably.


“So get up,” Malick growls. His eyes lock on Rick. “Or go the hell home.”


Trembling and exhausted, Rick pushes to his feet.


Malick appraises him coolly. “Impressive,” he says.


Rick feels himself grin, almost drunkenly.


Malick’s gaze turns malicious. “Now give me three laps,” he says. “As fast as you can go.”


Rick groans and starts to run.


-o-


After several hours, they are finally dismissed. In the locker room, Rick’s legs give out and he slumps down against the row of lockers. People shuffle past him, until someone seems to take pity on him and throw him a towel. Rick doesn’t even have the energy to catch it.


When he manages to pluck it off his shoulder, there’s a bottle of water in his face.


“He doesn’t have the power to sack you, you know.”


Rick squints up. The man standing above him looks unnaturally tall from this angle. He’s sweating, his spiky hair clumped and splayed randomly about his head. “Huh?”


“Malick,” the man says, sitting down on a bench and taking a drink. “You don’t have to do everything he says.”


Rick continues staring, still too spent to open the bottle of water he’s been given. “I came here to be a Ranger,” he says. “I’ll do whatever it takes.”


“A death wish, then?” the man asks.


“I just want to do my part,” Rick tells him earnestly.


“Ah,” the man replies. “Heroes’ work, then.”


“Something like that,” Rick says, finally twisting the cap off. He takes a swig. “You’re Scottish.”


“Aye,” the man says with a nod. “I reckon you’re too exhausted to recognize me.”


Rick tilts his head, studying the man. “Wait,” he says. “You’re…”


The man grins impishly.


“Billy Collins?” he asks, brightening. “I watched that attack. What you and Drummond managed to do with Avalon Challenger was nothing short of impressive.”


Collins beams a little, even as he drops his gaze. “Drummond and Avalon deserve most of the credit,” he says. “I wasn’t much good after the first good blow.”


Rick frowns a little, remembering. “They said it was a miracle you survived.”


Collins looks up with a wry little grin. “I’m not sure miracle is the word I’d use.”


“I didn’t realize you were still up for piloting,” Rick says. “I heard Drummond quit.”


Collins sobers, and Rick realizes he’s probably spoken out of turn.


He hedges. “I just, you know, assumed--”


“Well, that probably should be the case,” Billy says. “But there’s a dearth of experienced pilots these days.”


“So you still want to go back?” Rick asks, genuinely curious now. “After almost dying?”


Collins’ smile is small, the look in his eyes wistful. “Heroes’ work,” he says. “Reckon you and I might not be so different in that regard.”


-o-


The second day, Rick is the first one there. He’s already warming up when Malick comes in.


“Impressive,” Malick says.


Collins is not far after him. “Teacher’s pet,” he mutteres.


Malick snerks. “But stupid. You’re going to be extra tired by the time we’re done.”


Rick rolls his shoulders. “I can handle it.”


Malick raises an eyebrow.


Collins shrugs. “Better him than me, mate.”


“Okay, rookie,” Malick says. “Let’s see what you’ve got.”


-o-


Rick can barely move when the day is over. He seriously considers sleeping on the floor in the locker room and just hoping for the best.


He’s still the first one there in the morning.


-o-


After a week, Rick still feels like dying every night.


He’s still the first one there.


Malick rolls his eyes. Collins shakes his head.


Dorset gives him a critical look. “We know you can work,” he says. “But can you think? We’re not looking for slave labor. We need fighters.”


“I can do that,” Rick says. “I can do anything you ask me to.”


Dorset looks at him. He looks at Malick, who looks at Collins.


Dorset grins.


-o-


“A secondary compression coil for the interior digital display,” Dorset says. “It’s small; it’s vital.”


“Okay,” Rick says slowly. “So why don’t you already have one?”

“We do,” Dorset says. “We have nine, to be exact. But each of them is in Mammoth Apostle’s repair kit.”


“The coils are one of the quickest things to go,” Collins says.


Rick shakes his head. “I still don’t understand.”


“Mammoth Apostle will never go through nine coils,” Dorset says.


“At least not any time soon,” Malick adds.


“And we so happen to just need one,” Collins says.


“But for what?” Rick asks.


“Look, do you want to pilot a Jaeger?” Dorset asks.


“Yeah…”


“Then you need that coil as much as we do,” Dorset says tersely.


“But--”


“I told you he didn’t have the guts,” Malick says derisively.


“A shame,” Collins agrees.


Rick’s face darkens. “Give me until tonight.”


-o-


Common sense dictates that Rick leave it alone. That there’s no possible way. That obtaining a piece of secure equipment from within a secure area wouldn’t just be criminal. It would be stupid.


As it turns out, though, Rick’s not exactly big on common sense.


-o-


Rick breaks a dozen or so Shatterdome rules. He violates his promises as a Ranger in training. He breaks into secure areas; he lies. When he gets caught, he apologizes and blinks his eyes like a damn puppy dog until the J-tech assistant who caught who kindly shows him on his way. He knows that when they do inventory, they’ll be able to track the part to him. Hell, it’s likely that security caught him on camera even though he’d done his best to keep turned away to hide what he was doing.


He sweats the entire time, and his face feels flushed. He can’t calm his heart down, and he’s as terrified as he is angry when he finds Dorset, Malick and Collins at a table in the mess hall.


They look up, curious.


He sits down. “You do know what you asked me to do, right?”


Dorset raises his eyebrows.


Malick looks less than impressed.


Collins grins. “Any luck?”


Rick glares. He lets the coil drop out of his sleeve behind the table. Next to him, Dorset takes it, inspecting it discreetly.


He nods. “That’s the one,” he says, handing it to Casey.


“Finally,” Casey says, pocketing the coil.


“Ha!” Billy says. “I told you he’d do it!”


“That’s because you have blind faith in people,” Dorset says with a snerk. “Though it is a little impressive you got it out without getting caught and sent up to Higgins.”


“Impressive,” Malick says. “But stupid. The fact that you were willing to risk your career without an official order or even a clear sense of why denotes an extreme lack of self-preservation skills.”


“Well, he is trying to be a Jaeger pilot,” Billy points out. “Sort of part and parcel of the job description.”


Malick rolls his eyes. “It’s a miracle you’re still alive.”


Rick shakes his head. “You said I needed to prove myself,” he says. “Well, I did. I lived up to my end of the bargain.”


“And now we owe you?” Dorset asks.


“Well,” Rick says. Then he squares his shoulders. “Yeah. Yeah, you do.”


Dorset smirks, and Malick sits back ominously.


Billy makes a face of sympathetic disagreement. “You were doing so well, too,” he says, shaking his head.


“What?” Rick asks. “Come on. You asked me to prove myself. I did.”


“Kid, all you proved is that you’re pretty easy to talk into anything,” Dorset says, getting to his feet and clapping Rick on the shoulder. “Keep trying, though.”


“We do appreciate the coil,” Malick says, following him.


Dorset turns back. “Oh, and if you think about telling this to Higgins, just remember we have security footage of you grabbing the coil.”


Rick’s stomach drops. He gapes.


Malick smirks. “Welcome again to the PPDC.”


-o-


For a second, Rick can only stare. He risked his career -- everything that mattered to him -- and for what?


For what?


Next to him, Billy makes a small sound in the back of his throat. “It’s not so bad, son.”


Rick huffs. “Really? They used me.”


“Aye,” Billy says. “They are bastards to the fullest extent.”


Rick shakes his head in despair. “How can you say that like it’s no big deal?”


Billy shrugs. “I told you, you’ve got the heart of a hero, and you’d be surprised to find that Casey and Michael do, too.”


Rick is nothing short of incredulous.


“Being a hero isn’t as easy as they make it sound these days,” Billy tells him. “It’s not just bravery and willingness. It’s knowing how to work the system, knowing how to take advantage of the situation not only for your own benefit but for the world’s.”


“And how is blackmailing me with a stolen coil doing any of that?” Rick asks.


Billy nudges him with a reassuring smile. “Stick it out, and you may find out,” he says. “Just remember, you can still have a bright career with the PPDC. Just remember to play your cards right.”


With that, Billy gets up.


Rick watches him go, feeling forlorn. “Cards?” he calls, even though Billy doesn’t look back. “I have cards?!”


-o-


He goes to bed early that night, but he can’t sleep. He stares at the ceiling and thinks. About his mother. About his girlfriend. About his friends. About the brother he lost and all the years he spent pining to make it right.


He thinks about Michael and Casey and Billy.


He thinks about Higgins.


Just remember to play your cards right.


Then, he understands. He does have cards. Because Higgins has asked him to watch out for unusual happenings. Hell, stealing the coil is exactly the tricks Higgins is probably hoping to stop. Rick could go there first thing in the morning, tell the man everything.


Or he can hold his cards.


And look for the best time to play them.


Because he doesn’t want to be a snitch; he wants to be a Jaeger pilot. He’ll do the first to get the latter, but if he can work with Michael and Casey and Billy to get there, he’ll do that, too. He’ll do whatever it takes.


Now he has leverage with Higgins. And, if push comes to shove, he has it in training, too.


Rick falls asleep with a smile on his face.


-o-


He’s the first one in the gym in the morning. When Malick shows up, Rick looks him square in the eyes. When he’s asked to do extra reps and extra laps, he does so without complaint.


-o-


During the psych sessions, Rick answers every question. When they get personal, he doesn’t flinch. When they’re flat out inappropriate, he replies with a candor that leaves Michael eyeing him carefully.


-o-


He works with the other Ranger candidates.


They’re good.


He’s better.


-o-


In the locker room, Billy grins and throws him a towel. Rick catches it and smiles back.


Means to an end, he tells himself.


It’s an end that matters.


-o-


Higgins calls him in. “Anything to report, Mr. Martinez?”


“I’m not sure what you mean, sir,” Rick says.


“Have you noticed any...irregularities?” Higgins ventures. “Lapses that should be brought to my attention?”


Rick shrugs. “I’ve been training pretty hard, sir,” he says. “Maybe once the candidate pool is narrowed down…”


Higgins nods, eyes narrowed. “Yes,” he says. “I suppose that would help.”


-o-


The next day, Dorset posts the cut list. It effectively cuts the pool in half.


“If you’re not on that list, you’ll want to talk to personnel to see where we need you next,” Dorset says. “I hear our fearless Marshal has some good ideas.”


People start to walk away with their head downs, but Rick can only smile. Because there he is, one step closer to his goal.


-o-


The next few days are sort of awesome. With fewer candidates, he gets more one-on-one training, and he really thinks he’s getting somewhere. He knows some of the other candidates have been around for longer, but he’s just as good as them -- if not better. He has the physical capacity. He has the mental fortitude. He even thinks he has the right psychological make up.


This is going to happen.


He has no doubt.


-o-


When Dorset asks to see him after training, Rick’s feeling pretty good. He follows Michael back to his office, where he sees Malick and Billy already waiting.


Rick smiles.


None of them smile back.


Primly, he sits down. “You wanted to see me?”


Dorset settles himself in the seat across from him, rocking back and crossing his hands over his chest. “Yeah,” he says. “You’re doing pretty well in training, I see.”


“He’s doing acceptably,” Casey qualifies.


“And you’re passing all the psychological factors with flying colors,” Billy adds.


“Preliminary data suggests you may be a good match for Billy,” Michael concedes.


Rick brightens. “That’s good news, right?”


“It would be,” Michael says.


Rick hesitates, his smile fading as he glances nervously at Casey and Billy.


“If you weren’t using a partnership with Higgins to get ahead,” Michael concludes.


Rick swallows, shaking his head in denial.

“You think we didn’t know he asked you to spy on us, Mr. Mole?” Casey asks.


Billy looks truly disappointed.


“I haven’t told him anything,” Rick protests. “Although I could. I mean, you guys had me steal a coil and then tried to blackmail me with it.”


“We had you take a superfluous part that is easily replaceable,” Michael corrects. “But is still absolutely essential to the ongoing success of the Jaeger program.”


“And intimately connected to your potential future as a pilot,” Casey adds.


“Then why didn’t you do it yourself?” Rick asks, feeling smug. “Why have me risk my career.”


“Because Higgins is after us,” Michael says. “He’s been after us ever since we started pushing through the work to get another Jaeger to defend the Western Seaboard.”


“And you, on the other hand, he seems to trust,” Casey says.


“It only made sense,” Billy continues with a shrug. “You were the only one who wouldn’t get fired on the spot if caught.”


“Probably,” Casey amends with a disinterested shrug.


Rick glowers. “So is this just a game to you, then?”


“No,” Michael says. “We take this very seriously. If Higgins had his way, we wouldn’t have brought in another training class at all.”


“He seems to think the best offense is a good defense,” Casey mutters.


“And you, I’m afraid, would have been out of a job,” Billy points out.


“Well, that’s why I didn’t tell him,” Rick says.


Michael smiles wryly. “You didn’t tell him so you could play all your cards. Not a terrible idea for politics.”


Rick feels his hopes buoy.


“Less of a good idea when it comes to earning trust,” Casey says. “I mean, really. Do you think trust can be owned in this kind of thing? You think by trying to leverage Higgins you’re going to get inroads with us?”


“Normally I wouldn’t say this,” Michael says. “But trust is earned here. It has to be. And you can work hard. And you’ll break the rules to get ahead. But in the end, it’s all about you.”


“Self-preservation is good to a certain extent,” Casey says.


“But in the end, you have to be willing to give yourself up to the cause,” Billy says.


Rick’s mouth drops open. “But that’s why I’m here!” he exclaims. “That’s why I’ve done everything. I want to be a Ranger. That’s all I’ve wanted to be since I first saw them on TV. I know I could die out there. I know I probably will. But this is what I want. No, this is what I need to do.”


There’s a moment of silence as his words resonate. Casey looks unconvinced; Billy’s face is guarded. Michael is downright inscrutable. “Is that what you’re going to tell Higgins?”


Rick feels something in his chest ache. “I won’t tell him anything,” he vows. “I promise.”


“Until it’s convenient,” Casey adds snidely.


“You have my word,” Rick says.


“That doesn’t mean much now,” Michael says.


Billy chews the inside of his lip. “There is one way we could determine the truth…”


Rick sits up. “Yes, anything,” he says. “You name it.”


Michael makes a face. “You sure?”


“We haven’t completed the other standard protocol to prep him,” Casey says.


Billy flicks his hand through the air. “I always say the best way to go is to learn as you go,” he says. He grins. “Baptism by fire.”


Rick looks uncertainly around.


Michael shrugs. “You sure?”


Billy is still smiling. “If you can get us the access….”


“Oh, I can get the access,” Michael says.


Casey makes a face. “But how much of your soul will you sell for it.”


Michael regards Rick. “More than I like,” he admits. “You better be worth it, kid. Because if we find out you’re lying…”


“I’m not,” Rick replies readily.


Billy chuckles. “They’re always so cute when they have no idea what’s coming.”


“We’ll find out soon enough,” Casey grumbles.


“Is there, um, something I should be doing?” Rick asks.


“Just come with us,” Michael says. “And if you have any confessions, now’s the time.”


-o-


At the J-tech lab, Rick waits outside with Casey and Billy while Michael goes in. It’s awkwardly quiet, and Rick hedges. “So, you know,” he says. “You guys keep talking about the Jaeger…”


“Well, it would be stupid to train pilots without a Jaeger,” Casey says.


“But I haven’t seen it,” Rick says. “No one has. Some of them say it doesn’t exist.”


“And why do you think they’ve all been reassigned?” Casey snarks.


Billy smiles. “Never fear, lad,” he says. “All your questions will be answered soon.”


“Good,” Rick says. “So, like a Q and A? Because I have some other concerns…”


The door opens, and Michael pops his head out. “This way,” he says. “And if someone asks what you’re doing, say it’s just standard procedure.”


“Wait, what are we doing?” Rick asks as they start in.


Billy turns back. “Standard procedure!”


-o-


They walk through the main lab, and at one of the offices, they run into Fay Carson. Rick doesn’t know her well, but he knows who she is. It’s hard not to, given her proximity to Higgins.


She regards Rick coolly. “You guys really do know how to pick them,” she muses.


Michael doesn’t rise to her sarcasm. “That remains to be seen,” he says instead. “Thanks for this, by the way.”


She purses her lips. “I can get you in,” she says. “But if you get caught…”


“I know, I know,” Michael says. “We’re on our own.”


Rick frowns. “But what are we doing?”


Fay rolls her eyes. “Just standard procedure, Mr. Martinez.”


-o-


Inside, the room is dim, the lights of the interfaces glowing. There are two chairs in the middle, with wires and headgear running along the top. It looks a little familiar, though Rick’s never seen it. Not in person, anyway.


“Wait,” he says. “Is this a neural interface?”


Billy settles down in one of the chairs. “The technology can hardly be a surprise,” he says. “All things considered.”


“It’s an older version,” Michael says as he goes over to one of the consoles. “Less advanced than the ones we put into the Jaegers now.”


Casey helps Billy start to hook up the equipment to his head. “We use them for tests and other exploration regarding drift technology,” Casey says.


Rick is awed, walking around in wonder. “So this is really how you drift?”


“These are the mechanics of it, yes,” Michael confirms as a panel starts to whir.


Billy adjusts a strap. “Hardly does it justice, though,” he says fondly.


Rick fingers one of the wires. “We can do this?” he asks. “Right now?”


“Technically, no,” Michael says. “You have to have Marshal approval to run a drift test.”


“But that takes weeks,” Casey says.


“Too much paperwork,” Billy agrees.


“Higgins usually insists we have full psychological makeups for comparison in order to ensure that drift compatibility is there,” Michael says. “Fewer risks, that way.”


Rick looks at him, frowning. “Wait, risks?”


Billy nods seriously. “Mental anguish, debilitating headaches, seizure, brain damage, coma,” he says. “Death.”


Rick blinks.


“Like we said,” Casey says, grabbing Rick by the shoulder and shoving him into the other seat. “Standard procedure.”


-o-


Rick wants to protest.


But then again, he doesn’t.


Sure, they might be lying to him. Yes, this could get him fired or killed.


But…


Rick wants to be a Jaeger pilot.


And this is the first step.


Hooked up to the machine, he leans back, trying to relax.


“Oi, before we start,” Billy says. “Just don’t follow the RABIT, aye?”


Rick glances toward him. “What?”


Michael flips the switch. “Okay, then.”


“Don’t do anything stupid,” Casey advises.


Something whirs and buzzes. Noise fills his ears and light floods his vision. Rick has the briefest of second thoughts.


Then, somewhere, Michael says, “Neural handshake initiated--”


Rick stops thinking.


And starts to drift.


-o-


It’s a lifetime in a moment. One breath, and Rick isn’t just Rick anymore. He’s every version of himself. He’s Billy and he’s...Olivia.


The memories take a painful bend, and he sees Billy and Olivia together. There are other memories -- a lonely childhood, fighting in the streets, getting recruited to MI6 -- but none of them are as strong as this. Olivia stands out like a beacon, and Rick’s struck by the way she tries not to smile, the musical sound of her laugh, the way she turns into Billy without saying a word.


They’re perfect together, two complementary parts, halves of a whole. They live and breathe as one.


They fight as one.


Rick sees Avalon Challenger, glistening in her prime. He sees the Kaiju bearing down, roaring as it crashes to the waves never to rise again.


And then, there’s pain and everything is screaming. He panics, and the blood starts to flow. Olivia is begging, but consciousness is slipping, ebbing until there’s just nothing left.


-o-


Rick staggers, blinking blindly as he inhales desperately. He’s alive because Billy’s alive and recovering. It’s long and slow and lonely. But Casey is there, offering understated support. And Michael...Michael has a plan.


They know, Rick realizes. They know everything about him. They flagged him from the beginning, and they’ve been watching him more than he’s watched them. Billy smiles because he’s watching him closest of all.


“He’s not bad,” Billy says. “And I do rather like him.”


“But?” Michael asks.


“He’s no Olivia,” Billy muses. “Not even close.”


-o-


Casey pushes him. Michael tests him.


They think he’ll fail just as much as they want him to succeed.


He has to succeed.


Because--


He catches a glimpse of the Jaeger, looming darkly in the bay. It’s not pretty, and it’s still in pieces, but it’s something. It’s something.


“Not so fast, lad,” Billy says, too clearly now. Rick looks up, and Billy’s there, plain as day. But this isn’t a memory.


Rick frowns. “This is…”


“The drift,” Billy says. He nods. “Go on. You’ve seen mine. Now show me yours.”


Rick’s frown deepens, but before he can protest, they’re already gone.


-o-


And Rick’s back in his apartment, thinking about proposing. He’s living with his mother, trying to find his purpose. He’s working in the shelter; he’s applying for Jaeger training. He’s sitting in a dorm room in UCLA, watching his entire world change.


He still feels it, the absolute loss deep inside of him. From the friends, his brother, his country, his future. Nothing is the same.


Nothing will ever be the same.


He’s going to make it right.


If it’s the last thing he does.


-o-


Startled, he comes to. He’s gasping, and his heart is racing. He feels terrified and invigorated, and he turns, looking at Billy in absolute wonder.


The Scotsman grins. “Not bad for your first go.”


Rick honestly doesn’t know what to say.


“The first time is always terrible,” Casey commiserates.


“The question is,” Michael says, approaching them. “Is there going to be a second?”


Rick blinks stupidly, and follows Michael’s gaze to Billy.


Billy shrugs. “He already knows he’s no Olivia,” he says.


“That’s a given, moron,” Casey mutters.


“The question is, will he do?” Michael asks. “Is Martinez here our man? Can we trust him?”
Billy turns his gaze to Rick, and gives him a knowing look. Rick’s still shell-shocked, but he’s surprised to realize, he already knows the answer before it comes out of Billy’s mouth. “Yes,” he says. “I honestly believe he is.”

Michael looks both relieved and worried.


Casey settles back and sighs. “Great,” he says. “Now, since we’re in love again, are we finally going to show the kid why all this has been worth it?”


Rick turns with new interest. “Wait -- really?”


Michael seems resigned to the idea. “I guess so.”


Billy beams, disconnecting himself from the rest of the equipment. “You’ve already had a sneak peek,” he says. “But this is one thing that a memory doesn’t do justice.”


-o-


Even after they sneak out of the lab, Rick’s so overwhelmed that he follows his teammates -- and that’s what they are now, he realizes, he’s closest and only real allies here, insane as they may be -- almost entirely without question. He doesn’t need to question now. He’s seen what they’re all about. He’s seen their dedication and their purpose and their intent.


Even so, when they get to the Jaeger bay, he’s not sure what to expect. He’s seen the bay for Mammoth Apostle a few times, and it’s perfect and pristine. This, is less so. The parts are scraped together and it’s darker and cluttered. But when Michael flicks on the lights, it comes to life slowly, and Rick looks up.


The Jaeger is massive, though not the most impressive he’s seen. The metal is mismatched and tarnished, and the welding joints are visible to the naked eye. The styles are disparate, and he quickly recognizes bits and pieces -- from Romeo Blue, from Avalon Challenger, from Tacit Ronin.


Not the best bits, maybe, but together…


Together.


The leftover pieces; the misfit parts. Come together to make something greater than they are apart.


He stands, staring up, shoulder to shoulder with Casey and Michael and Billy.


“Orion Disruptor,” he breathes, saying the name like he’s known it all along.


And for the first time in Rick’s life, everything is exactly how it should be.