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Chaos/Pacific Rim: The First Line of Defense (2/7)

December 29th, 2013 (02:16 pm)
irritated

feeling: irritated

Notes and other parts in the MASTER POST




Rick has his application in the day the PPDC accepts them. His mother has tried to talk him out of it, but Rick doesn’t care. Nothing matters except stopping the Kaiju.


Saving the world.


He watches the mail more eagerly than he waited for his acceptance letter to UCLA.


This is his future; the one thing he wants. Rick has always been single-minded and fully dedicated in pursuits, and this more than the rest.


The competition is fierce, he knows that. Spots are limited; the criteria are high.


Rick has confidence, though. He’s never failed in anything he’s worked so hard for. He’s never failed anything at all.


And this is his destiny.


He knows it.


-o-


Rick follows the news. He reads about the preliminary tests, and the mental overload. People on the message boards are saying it won’t work, it can’t work, but Rick believes.


He’s done his research on Caitlin Lightcap. She’s a genius; she can make this work. The technology is a stretch, but it can be done. To save the world, it has to be.


-o-


His studies slip further. When he’s put on academic probation, he hardly cares. He moves back with his mother and tells her it’s temporary.


“You’ll go back next year?” she asks hopefully.


“If I’m not accepted, sure,” Rick says.


“Oh,” she tuts. “I’ve lost enough to these monsters. Don’t let them take my only remaining son.”


“Mom, life doesn’t work that way,” he says. “If I can serve, I should. It’s my duty.”


“What about your duty to me?” she says. “Who will look after me in my old age?”


“This is bigger than that,” Rick argues.


She tsks her tongue. “You want to save the world,” she says. “But you forget why it’s worth saving.”


-o-


Rick spends his days studying mechanical engineering. He learns how robots work and the theory behind neural interfaces. He keeps up his sharpshooting. He improves his physical regimen. When the time comes, he’s going to be ready.


He checks the mail anxiously every day.


-o-


Acceptance letters have started to go out. People share their good news online. The news covers the first class, and Rick looks at them in awe.


They’re strong and sturdy; their eyes are keen and sharp.


They’re heroes. Every last one.


Rick just wants it to be his turn.


-o-


Another week passes, and his frustration mounts. He slams the door shut when the letter doesn’t come another day.


“Rick!” his mother says. “You know better than that.”


Rick huffs, sitting down at the table. “I just thought it’d be here by now.”


His mother’s face is taut. “That letter means that much to you?”


Rick looks at her intently. “It’s everything,” he says. “My entire future. I’m not saying this to hurt you, but I’m meant to make a difference. I know it’s hard to understand, but this is what I want. This is what I need to do.”


His mother sighs wearily. She reaches over to the counter and pulls out a letter. “I was hoping you’d change your mind.”


Rick’s eyes widen. He pushes his chair back noisily and gets to his feet. “How long have you had that?”


His mother shrugs stiffly. “A week,” she says.


“Mama,” he says, both in frustration and wonder as he takes it, looking at it. The return address is clear:

PPDC Recruitment Office
Hong Kong


He swallows.


“Well, open it then!” she says. “Let’s see that future of yours!”


Rick looks up, grinning nervously. He chews his lip, looking down again. He wants to be mad, but he’s too nervous. He wants to be cross, but he’s too damn excited.


This is it.


And Rick opens the letter.


-o-


Dear Mr. Martinez,


Thank you for your application for Pilot Training with the Pan Pacific Defense Corps. We have been overwhelmed by the number of qualified, dedicated individuals who are seeking to help humanity in its time of greatest need. Because of this, we regret to inform you that we cannot currently accept your application to Pilot Training.


If you are still interested in helping with the goal of the PPDC, we recommend you look into other job opportunities. We have many divisions that are currently accepting applications. We are also happy to welcome any donations or volunteer work in local shelters throughout the Pacific Rim.

Thank you again for your interest.


-o-


Rick goes to bed early. He leaves the letter open on the table next to his bed. In the dimness, he looks around his room. His mother hasn’t changed much. The accolades from his youth are all still there. His Mathlete awards. His valedictorian medal. Citizenship prizes. His acceptance letter to UCLA.


None of it means anything now.


Because he can’t add his way into stopping the Kaiju. He can’t earn a 4.0 to stop the attacks. No matter how good of a citizen he is, no matter what school he goes to, it won’t save the world.


The night is long.


-o-


The next week is a blur. His mother feeds him; sometimes he gets out of bed. He starts helping with the household repairs he’s been putting off, and his mother has never been more content.


But then a Kaiju attacks Panama City and Rick remembers what matters.


The next day, he’s packed up and ready to go.


“But where are you going?” his mother frets.


“San Francisco,” he says.


“It’s a disaster area! You can’t even get in.”


“I know that,” Rick says. “But there are still thousands of people displaced. There are shelters, clean up--”


“The radiation--”


“The shelters are in the safe zone,” Rick says.


“But it’s not safe!”


He looks at his mother. He sees her fear. He understands it, even if he can’t indulge it. “The Kaiju never attack the same place twice,” he says. “There’s no safer place to be.”


“But I need you,” his mother insists. “Please.”


“Mama,” Rick says. “Not like they do.”


-o-


He sets out with all the money he has. He packs light and travels fast. When he reaches the first checkpoint, Rick hands out his Driver’s License. “I’m here to volunteer,” he announces.


The guard raises his eyebrows. “Here?”


“Sure,” Rick says. “I’ll do anything you want. I’ll work at the shelters. I’ll do clean up. Anything.”


“None of it pays well,” the guard says. “And you’ll sign away all your rights to safety.”


“I know,” Rick says resolutely.


The guard takes a breath and nods. “Okay, kid,” he says. “Why don’t you come with me.”


-o-


After he passes a background check, he’s hired as a low level aide in one of the shelters outside of what used to be Oakland. The work is hard, the hours are terrible, and the facility is overrun and poorly equipped. There’s no hot water, and the food is nothing more than sludge.


There are so many people, though. Elderly couples, single parents with children. All races, all ages. Suddenly none of their divisions seem to matter when they’re all trying to survive.


It’s hard. Sometimes people cry themselves to sleep. Children play with balls made from crumpled newspaper. The medical tent is always full, and some people still limp on prosthetic limbs.


There’s a suicide once a month.


Rick’s not a hero here, but he’s needed.


He’s more than needed.


-o-


There’s just one TV, and the reception is terrible. The crowd gathers with each attack, and they clutch each other. When the Jaeger appears, they cheer. When the Kaiju falls, they celebrate.


Rick can’t blame them, even if he excuses himself and turns in early for the night.


-o-


Children build robots out of scraps of metal. They draw pictures of their favorite Jaeger, and they all know the pilots by name. Stacker Pentecost. Hercules Hansen. Casey Malick.


Heroes.


Every last one of them.


-o-


Rick gets letters from his mother, and he reads each one every night until the next arrives.


My son, I’m so proud of you. You are a hero to me, and you always will be. Let that count. Please. Let that count.


Rick falls asleep, telling himself it’s true.


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


The place is still under construction, and, in truth, it’s mostly a mess. There’s open paneling in more places than he can count, and he’s lost track of the number of times he’s showed up to work just to find his department undergoing a routine upgrade.


“It’s routine, all right,” Billy quips. “Though I’m not seeing up the upgrade.”


“Well, to be fair, most of our resources go to the Jaegers,” the technician says. “Here in Logistics…”


“Ah, yes,” Billy says. “Here in Logistics, we best fend for ourselves.”


“It’s not so bad, though,” the tech consoles him. “I think I got it so you can print on the server!”


“Marvelous!” Billy says, clapping his hands together as he looks out over his workspace. Logistics is a small group, and he’s nobody special in it. Bottom of the totem pole, as it were. His desk is shoved into a corner, and he’s equipped with a working phone and a laptop.


Down the row, his workmates suffer from much the same lack of resources. The Sydney Shatterdome is still under construction, even though it’s been fully operational for the better part of a year now. In that time, they’ve successfully launched two Jaegers.


Two successes.


That’s the kind of morale you can’t buy with fancy gadgets and state of the art equipment. Besides, their boss assures them it’ll get better, that in Hong Kong the Logistics division even gets windows.


Still, Billy likes what he sees. It’s controlled chaos; there’s more work to do than they can ever hope to accomplish. And considering that they’re wresting money from the hands of fretful governmental officials, it’s hard work, too.


Important work.


The best damn work in the world.


He looks at the pictures on the wall, specifications for their Jaegers, with pictures of their pilots standing proud.


Well, almost the best damn work in the world.


-o-


The thing is, Billy’s good at what he does. His handlers at MI6 had been reluctant to approve a transfer, but there’s no doubt once he arrives that this is where he’s meant to be. He’s always been something of a jack of all trades, and all that goes to good use now.


Thank God he couldn’t pick a major in college.


He knows enough mechanics to understand the working parts when he tries to explain what funds will pay for.


He has an understanding of physical training to talk about the rigors of being a pilot.


He has a sense of international politics to know the hesitations from each government.


He knows a thing or two about finance, which is sufficient to talk the numbers when it gets down to the nitty gritty.


And he’s charming as hell, so when he makes a hard sell, he hooks his buyer every single time.


-o-


Life in the Shatterdome is different.


There are certain drawbacks, of course. Life in a Shatterdome is hardly a cozy flat in London. The food’s not that great, and the metal walls are bleak. And his bunk room is positively tiny, which is really all the same since he has almost no personal effects. They live on constant alert, and working over 12 hours each day is pretty much a given.


There’s never enough time. There’s never enough parts. There’s never enough monitoring. There’s never enough funding.


It’s an upward battle, every step of the way.


As a spy, Billy had been set to work in the shadows.


Now, Billy still works in the shadows: the massive, looming shadows of the Jaegers, ready to save them all.


-o-


“Come on, now,” Billy says. “It’s not that much money. Yes. I am aware. But what are those programs going to mean if a Kaiju comes out and destroys your market base? You know as well as I that Chinese consumers are especially important to your consumer-base.”


That’s several million dollars from India.


“I respect that, I really do,” Billy says. “But it is precisely because of your proximity to the Rim that you should be first in line to allocate funds. What’s going to be easier? Spending the money on a Jaeger now? Or spending countless time and money trying to clean up after a Kaiju decimates your coastline?”


That’s a donation from Chile.


The United States, England, France, Germany. Billy is the first to reach out to Africa, to schmooze with the elite. He makes contact to the oil companies in the Middle East and finds benefactors in Saudi Arabia.


“Keep that up and we may give you a real chair,” his boss says.


“No more milk crate?” Billy asks hopefully.


His boss chuckles. “Get me another billion, and I’ll get you whatever you want.”


-o-


Billy gets the best damn chair in the office, delivered by the head of the division himself.


-o-


When he makes visits out, he always leaves on his own.


He rarely stays that way.


All the women around the pubs are fascinated that he works at the Shatterdome. They ask him about what he does, and how he does it.


Afterward, in the morning, they always ask him about the pilots, though.


That’s not why Billy starts leaving before they wake up.


Really.


-o-


When a Jaeger goes out, everything comes to a stop. Phones go silent. Laptops are closed.


Billy chews his fingernail, listening to the updates. No matter how many times they do this, no matter where in the world it’s happening, it never gets easier.


When the Kaiju falls, everyone cheers.


-o-


It’s a celebration, and Hercules Hansen is lauded as a hero when he comes back. They serve Herc’s favorite dish in the mess, and someone breaks out the champagne.


Billy wins a thousand small victories everyday.


But these are the wins that really count.


-o-


Sometimes, they don’t come back.


The mess hall is quiet, and someone from J-tech organizes a reconnaissance mission. Billy quietly works the phones, trying to get funding to collect the broken Jaeger.


Those are the hardest sells of all.


-o-


“Who’s the kid?” Billy asks when he sees a young boy sitting in his chair.


“Oh, that’s Chuck Hansen,” is the reply.


Billy looks surprised. “Son of Herc?”


“Yeah,” he’s told. “Little bugger apparently. It’s our turn to make sure he doesn’t do something stupid.”


-o-

Things are going well. For Billy and the program. There’s talk of the Mark 2 designs coming out, and Billy’s been making more sales than ever.


And then he’s called into the Director’s office.


“Collins, they say you’re doing good work down there in Logistics.”


“Well, sir, I do take pride in my work,” Billy starts humbly.


“That’s good,” the Director says. “Which is why I’ve called you in here.”


Billy straightens. He’s been angling for a raise, a promotion -- something. There are openings closer to the Jaegers, something in Command, maybe.


“Because my first impulse was to fire you, but given your work record, I can’t very well do that no matter how much I can’t stand the sight of you.”


The vehemence is startling. Billy gapes. “Have I done something--”


“Oh, stuff it, Collins,” the man says crossly. “Do you remember the girl you met in downtown Sydney last week?”


Billy tries not to make it look like he’s thinking as hard as he is. There were several girls. And lots of alcohol….


“She was my daughter.”


Billy’s stomach drops. “Oh,” he says. Then adds, “Lovely girl.”


“Wrong answer.”


Billy winces. “I thought you said you weren’t going to sack me.”


“I’m not,” is the Director’s clipped reply. “But I am going to transfer you to the LA Shatterdome.”


Billy frowns. “But all my work and contacts--”


“Are just as easy to maintain there,” the man says.


“But the LA Shatterdome -- it’s months behind Sydney,” Billy protests. “It’d be like starting from scratch.”


The sinister smile on the man’s face is answer enough. “I know,” he says. He holds out the papers. “The transfer is effective as of next week. Enjoy LA, Collins.”


-o-


Back in his room, Billy packs his things. He stops by his office and sits in his chair one last time. There’s no point in going through his desk, so he takes his contact book and laptop and figures that’s enough.


He’s started over once. He reckons he can do it again.


Sighing, he gets to his feet. Either way, it’s time to find out.


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


“Dorset, is it?” Marshal Higgins asks.


“Yes, sir,” Michael says, keeping himself somewhat at attention. He’s still not used to the formalities here. It’s not the military -- thank God -- but it’s also not the CIA.


Higgins looks down at his file with moderate consideration. “Your record is...sparse,” he notes. “Though you come with some impressive recommendations from the State Department.”


Michael forces a smile. He’s not CIA anymore, but since he still has active assets in the field, his association with the department is classified. “Yes, sir.”


Higgins looks back up. “I know something of mysteries,” he says. “May have one or two secrets myself.”


“Then we should get along fine,” Michael wagers.


Higgins’ slim humor fades. “I don’t like secrets,” he says. “I accept that they are sometimes necessary evils, but I hope you understand that there is no place for them here. I intend to run a tight operation here. Everything that happens, I want final say on. You don’t approve anything without consulting me first.”


“When you say anything…


“I mean anything,” Higgins orders tersely. “I wasn’t given this job to let someone else make decisions.”


“But the small things--”


“Aren’t small,” Higgins says. “We’re waging a war, Dorset. A war we have a very good chance of losing if we aren’t careful. This Shatterdome is the only line of defense from Central America to Canada. We can’t afford mistakes. And I won’t tolerate them.”


“That’s good,” Michael says, rocking back on his heels slightly and smirking just a little. “Because I don’t intend to make any.”


-o-


Everything is different. The protocol at the PPDC is almost nothing like it is at the CIA. There’s no secrets, no time for lots of red tape. The intelligence isn’t online chatter or intercepted phone calls; it’s scientific journals, mechanical patents and deep water sonar observation.


Michael makes maps and plots courses; he collates data from deep sea expeditions. He analyzes patterns in the attacks. Over the years, he’s gotten pretty good at predicting the moves of terrorists and criminals. The Kaiju are a whole new game.


When he’s not working with K-science to better the predictive models, he’s spending time with J-tech, facilitating feedback regarding the best way to deploy and monitor Jaeger activities. He mercilessly watches all the footage he can of Kaiju battles, looking for what works and what doesn’t. He offers suggestions for improved balanced, increased agility and superior potency.


That takes up most of his time, but that’s not everything. As the Chief LOCCENT Officer of J-Tech, he’s also responsible for streamlining procedures and maximizing on-call effectiveness. Because it’s only a matter of time before a Kaiju strikes.


And Michael needs his Shatterdome to be ready.


-o-


It takes a week for Michael to memorize every inch of the LA Shatterdome, from the deployment bays to the observation deck. He knows the name of every employee and where they sleep at night.

It takes him a month to read every file in the LOCCENT database.


It’s only three months in that he knows every component of a Jaeger, that he can delineate every difference between every one in the fleet.
Michael doesn’t just read information; he consumes it.


This is his world now.


Down to every last detail.


-o-


For six months, Michael’s job is all theory.


Then, when he’s working late one night at his station, trying to standardize control procedures, he hears the blip.


Frowning, he looks up.


The screen is flashing, and Michael’s eyes widen before the alarm goes off.


Frantic, he presses the call button to Higgins. “We’ve got a Kaiju,” he reports.


“Location?”


“Still in the Pacific, but it’s moving our way. Approximate location is….” He taps on the screen impatiently. “Panama City.”


“That’s us, then,” Higgins says. “The Shatterdome there isn’t operational yet. I want Romeo Blue ready to go. It’s go time, Dorset. Don’t let me down.”


As if Michael even knows how.


-o-


Despite all the months preparing, the base is sloppy in its response. Everyone reports for duty, even if they’re slated as off-duty during times of emergency. And the entire staff crowds the launch bay, and Michael has to physically force a path for the Gage twins to board.


“Remember,” Michael tells them. “I’ll be with you the entire time.”


Bruce grins. “Somehow I think that’s easy for you to say.”


But as Michael watches them go, it’s not easy at all.


-o-


In the commander center, Higgins is standing, still and impassive. Michael takes his chair, pulling on his headset, and looking at the runs of data he’s missed.


“What do we have, Dorset?” Higgins asks.


Michael swallows. “Category 2,” he reports. “The name we’re going with is Trishira.”


“Wonderful,” Higgins says banally. “What’s its ETA?”


“At the speed it’s going…two hours, tops,” Michael reports.


“And Romeo?”


“Already in the air, sir,” Michael says.


“Has the city been alerted?” Higgins asks.


“Mandatory evacuations in all areas within a fifty mile radius,” Michael confirms.


“I want support personnel in the air, now,” Higgins says. “Any additional visuals we can get will be imperative. And send in combat-ready fighters, in the air and on the ground.”


“Romeo can handle her,” Michael says, looking back at his boss.


“Your confidence is heartwarming, Dorset,” Higgins says. “But a Jaeger is just the first line of defense. We have cities to protect. Millions of people. Send in the backup.”


Michael turns stiffly back to the screen. “Yes, sir.”


-o-


There’s so much preparation that when the fight starts, it almost seems surreal.


“Whoa!” Trevin says. “We’ve got visual.”


“Easy,” Michael advises, watching the monitor. “This isn’t the biggest one we’ve seen--”


“But it’s fast,” Bruce concludes.


“Engaging…,” Trevin says.


“Now!” both brother say together.


And the fight begins.


-o-


It’s harder than Michael anticipated, sitting on the sidelines. He reads the data; he demands predictions about Jaeger performance from J-tech. He coordinate commands from other personnel in the vicinity. He listens.


But for all his planning, all his work, he has to wait just like everyone else.


As they put their hope on two men in a giant robot.


-o-


“I can’t pin him down!” Trevin says with a curse.


“Bastard’s too fast,” Bruce agrees.


“He’s fast, but it’ll only take one hit from your cannons, as best we can tell,” Michael advises.


“Oh, that’s good,” Bruce says.

“Now if we could just ask it to stop and let us shoot it…”


Higgins leans forward into the comm. “Try luring it back to the open sea,” he says. “We have air support, which should be able to distract it.”


“The damn thing keeps ducking into the water, though,” Trevin hisses.


“We need another plan,” Bruce says.


“Try the open water,” Higgins says again.


Michael feels himself starting to twitch. His head is already shaking.


“That’s an order,” Higgins says.


Michael can’t stop himself. “Nix that,” he says. “Move into the city. The buildings are still intact. If you make landfall first, you should be able to set up a defensive position long enough so when Trishira makes her landfall, you can blast her.”


“What about her speed?” Brace asks.


“J-science thinks she’ll be a lot less nimble on the ground,” Michael says. “It’s our best shot--”


Higgins shakes his head. “The open water--”


“And we hit land,” Trevin announces. “Come on, baby.”


“We found our niche,” Bruce relays.


Michael tenses, watching the monitor as the beast hits the shore. Its movements slow; it’s following the Jaeger.


His fists clench. “She’s almost there,” Michael says, chewing his lip. “Almost, almost--”


The sound of a cannon burst fills the comm. There’s a horrible shrieking noise and the sound of crunching metal. The racket persists, and when it falls deadly silent, everyone in the control room is silent.


Michael’s heart stutters.


Please, please, please.


“And ding dong!” Trevin whoops.


“The bitch is dead!” Bruce finishes.


The entire Shatterdome erupts into cheers.


-o-


“Sit down, Dorset,” Higgins says when he half-drags Michael into his office. The Shatterdome is still celebrating, and there is a massive party planned for the Gage twins and Romeo Blue when they arrive back in a few hours.


Michael sits, all smiles. “You don’t need to thank me,” he starts brightly.


Higgins sits down across from him, but he’s not smiling. “I’m not going to thank you,” he says. “You’re lucky that I’m not going to fire you.”


Michael’s mouth falls open. “But I was right,” he says. “Romeo downed that Kaiju the minute the Gages took my advice.”


“Yes,” Higgins says. “And you proceeded to destroy nearly two miles of downtown Panama City in the process.”


Michael tries to protest.


“We had other options,” Higgins continues. “Options that minimized risk to the city.”


“Luring it back to the open sea?” Michael asks. “That was a long shot, and you know it.”


“It was a viable plan,” Higgins says. “One that reduced the risk of collateral damage.”


“The city was evacuated,” Michael says.


“And we both know that some people never follow those orders. Maybe they got stuck. Maybe their Kaiju-shelter was below the city block you decided to obliterate,” Higgins says. “Do you know how expensive our operation is?”

“Of course,” Michael says.


“Do you really?” Higgins asks. “Do you know how hard it is to fund just one Jaeger? Do you know that we have to share funds with other divisions? That when we destroy a downtown, we have to help fix it?


Michael closes his mouth. “Of course I do,” he says tautly. “But this is more than a monetary issues.”


“Yes, it is,” Higgins fumes. “It’s a question of prudence. It’s about weighing all the factors.”


“With respect,” Michael says. “I thought it was about stopping the Kaiju.”


“It’s about winning a war,” Higgins says. “And all facets that come with it.”


Michael raises his chin. “Is this the part where you fire me?”


Higgins purses his lips. “No,” he says. “But just know that in the future, I expect you to follow my lead. I am the Marshal of this PPDC. I’ll be open to your ideas, no matter how unconventional, and I’ll respect your information when it is relevant and important. But no matter how brilliant you are or how highly recommended you come, I have you immediately transferred to the PPDC Sanitation division if you disagree with me in public once again. Is that understood?”


Michael takes a breath. He nods coldly. “Understood.”


“Now get out of here,” Higgins orders. “We still have a celebration that we both need to be at.”


-o-


It’s a raucous party, and Higgins doesn’t shut it down until late. Afterward, Michael goes back to his room, but he can’t sleep. Sometime past midnight, his phone buzzes in his pocket.


He picks it up. “Fay?”


“Michael!” she exclaims. “Why don’t you answer your phone!”


“Well I’ve been kind of busy,” he says.


“Yeah, I know,” she says. “Congratulations, by the way. They’re saying that’s the most effective response yet.”


“Not as good as it could have been,” Michael says. “There are some kinks to work out.”


“Well, not bad for your first time, anyway,” she says. “And hey, you saved an entire city. That counts for something. A lot, actually.”


Michael sighs, flopping back on his bed and staring at the ceiling. “I wish Higgins thought so.”


“Is he still giving you a hard time?”


Michael sits up a little. “Is that concern?”


“It’s a question,” Fay asks.


“I think it’s concern,” Michael says. “You know, if you wanted to come out, I could show you the place…”


“We’re divorced, Michael,” she reminds him.


“Then why are you calling me again?”


She sighs. “I just want to make sure you haven’t done anything stupid yet.”


“I never do anything stupid.”


“You know what I mean,” she says. “You aren’t always right, you know.”


“Actually, I sort of am.”


“It’s a good thing I didn’t fall for your modesty,” she quips.


“But you did fall for me,” Michael ventures.


She sighs again. “You know what, never mind,” she says. “I’m just glad everything’s okay.”


“It’s my job to make sure it stays that way,” Michael confirms.


“I know,” Fay says. “So don’t piss Higgins off too much, okay? We need you out there.” She hesitates, but doesn’t say anything more.


He still hears the plea. I need you out there.


To protect the coastline. To stop the Kaiju. To make their divorce and all the pain of separation worthwhile.


“I’ll see what I can do,” he promises.


-o-


Michael learns. Michael adapts.


He plays by the rules when he has to, but he stops relaying every detail to Higgins. Sometimes the conversations with J-tech are off the books. Sometimes he buys the guys in K-science a few beers and they make shop talk.


Higgins doesn’t want secrets.


Michael knows they have their advantages. They’ll help him keep his job.


And if he plays his cards right, they may just help save the world, too.


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


Casey’s not the first pilot, much to his supreme chagrin. He consoles himself in the fact that he joined up later than some. Caitlin Lightcap probably deserved first dibs, since she developed most of the technology, but he doesn’t see what’s so special about D’onofrio. It’s hard to envy Adam Casey, all things considered, but part of Casey thinks he could have handled the load.


The rest of the introductory group is satisfactory, Casey supposes. Of them all, he appreciates Pentecost’s grit, and at least one of the Hansen brothers isn’t totally impossible to tolerate. But the rest…


Well, Casey’s been more impressed by Chinese gangsters.


Still, it’s a source of some pride that he nabs the second spot at Hong Kong. He’s offered spots at Anchorage and he’s told that he can have first pick in LA, but Casey doesn’t want to wait. And after two years undercover in China, he fits in just as well as anywhere else.


Besides, Hong Kong is the best. The best technology; the best support staff. The best.


If Casey’s not the first, then he’s going to be the best.


-o-


The idea of having a partner -- a copilot, an equal -- is hard enough to swallow.


The reality of it…


Is a lot harder.


-o-


Casey tests with every other pilot candidate available. Most of them aren’t compatible. In fact, after a week of compatibility profiling, he’s called in by the Marshal.


“Malick, I have never seen a candidate more impressive or well prepared for the job of a Ranger,” he says.

Casey raises his eyebrows. “But?”


“But your thought processes -- everything about the way you think -- it’s almost impossible to match.”


Casey sighs. “Your profiles are for lesser pilots.”


This time, the Marshall raises his eyebrows.


“Find me the most qualified pilot,” Casey says. “And I’ll drift just fine.”


The Marshal looks concerned. “The neural handshake is a difficult and precarious thing. It’s hard to maintain--”


“I know how to control my thoughts. I can drift with anyone.”


“It’s not that easy.”

“Give me one try,” Casey says. “Trust me.”


-o-


His Marshal is a son of a bitch, Casey respects that much about him. The next day at the simulator, he’s met by a young, petite girl with dark skin and a shaved head. When she speaks, Casey detects an African accent.


“You’re the best pilot they could find?” Casey asks dubiously.


She isn’t intimidated. “The best of my class,” she says.


She’s also nothing like Casey. Which is the point of course. The Marshal is calling Casey’s bluff.


Only, Casey doesn’t bluff.


He just succeeds.


“Okay,” he says, nodding to the J-science technicians. “Hook us up.”


-o-


The second Casey enters the drift, the world comes alive. His sense are invigorated; his response time is heightened; his awareness has been maximized. He knows everything; he feels everything; he is everything.


He takes a breath, blinks his eyes and relaxes his fingers from clenched fists.


He can do this.


He turns to the side, frowning. The girl is standing, mouth gaping. Casey sees her, and he sees her mind. He’d rather keep this impersonal if he can, but he also wants a Jaeger. If he can’t make this work.


His concentration narrows, and he enters her memory. In an instant, he knows everything about her. Her name is Joanna and she’s from South Africa. She grew up poor, and her father left when she was no more than six. Her life has been hard, but she’s worked hard to be here. She remembers those she left behind. The younger sister who gotten AIDS as a teenager. The brother who served and died in the military. Her mother who begged her to stay.


“Hey,” Casey says. “I get that all of this is...emotional.”


Joanna looks at him, eyes full of tears.


“But if it’s all the same to you, we can talk about memories later,” he says. “You know, after we’ve gotten a Jaeger and killed a few Kaiju. You know?”


She blinks. Then nods.


“Okay, great,” he says, and the memories fade. Joanna straightens. The link solidifies.


One of the technicians says, “Neural handshake complete.”


-o-


After the test, Casey walks up to the Marshal. “Now how about a Jaeger?”


The man nods. “Okay.”


-o-


Casey doesn’t care much about his partner. He tolerates the techs and the scientists. But the first time he sees his Jaeger…


It’s massive, of course. Its chrome body is dark and shiny, the parts expertly attached and welded. It’s not the largest one in the fleet, but it’s well balanced, proportioned for speed and protection. It has a cannon in its arm, supplemented by smaller weapons and a number of blades. Casey is fond of the electrical current in the hands, which is designed for close combat.


It’s a machine, lifeless and metal. But with Casey...it’ll be so much more.


The first time Casey sees his Jaeger, it’s nothing short of love.


-o-


Casey’s been dedicated to the Jaeger program since the day he got accepted, but he takes to the training with new vigor. It consumes him, and he challenges himself to be better. He pushes his physical limits and takes to training his mind. He meditates and does other mental exercises.


There are no barriers.


There is only perfection.


-o-


He works with Joanna, too. He teaches her, instructing her on the finer points of combat and how to control her mind and body. They meditate together, until each drift is cleaner than the last.


Many people talk about the drift as a controlled chaos.


For Casey, it’s purity.


It’s damn near spiritual.


Mostly, it’s everything.


-o-


The first call comes only a few months later, after Sierra Paladin has been cleared for combat. The Kaiju is headed straight toward Shanghai.


As they get strapped into their harnesses, Joanna knows better than to look for reassurance or to make idle small talk. Instead, she holds Casey’s gaze.


They nod.


And then start to drift.


-o-


When the Kaiju roars out of the sea, Casey feels a spike of fear from Joanna. But Casey girds them both, locks their legs and Sierra Paladin charges headlong into the fight.


-o-


Casey’s fought mobsters. He’s taken down arms dealers. He’s gone head to head with assassins. He’s beaten people with all forms of martial arts and other conventional fighting techniques. He once defeated a sumo wrestler when one of his arms was broken.


None of them compare to this Kaiju. It’s gigantic and feral, the glint in its eyes cunning and bent on destruction. It gnashes its teeth and writhes, landing powerful blows against Sierra’s armor. They volley; they fight.


He’s never fought an opponent like this.


But the Kaiju falls just like all the rest.


-o-


Back at the Shatterdome, they’re heroes. There’s talk of a parade tour on the coast, but Casey refuses. When other pilots go on talk shows and do interviews, Casey has no comment.


He’s not a spy anymore, but that doesn’t mean he’s forgotten. He’s not doing this for the glory.


He’s doing it for the challenge.


The other Rangers can be heroes.


Casey’s just going to fight.


And win.


-o-


A month later, Joanna falls sick. When she’s pulled from Active Duty, Casey receives word that he’s being pulled too.


“Wait a second,” Casey says. “I thought I told you I could drift with anyone.”


The Marshal sighs. “It’s standard protocol…”


“Standard protocol my ass,” he says. “Get me another copilot.”


-o-


This time, the kid is from South Korea. He’s young and idealistic, and not quite as quick as Joanna. But he has a killer instinct, which Casey can work with.


After their first neural handshake, Casey nods. “It’ll do.”


-o-


The second call is playing back up. When the Kaiju gets the upper hand, they’re dispatched with haste.


It doesn’t take much to finish off the Kaiju, saving both Jaegers, the pilots and the city.


At the Shatterdome, Casey doesn’t attend the celebratory dinner.


Victory alone is all the satisfaction he needs.


-o-


The third call, he’s on point. This Kaiju is a pain in the ass -- wily as hell. They’re just about to finish her off with a series of cannon bursts, when the neural link explodes.


The pain is blinding and Casey’s concentration is shattered. The explosion of white is encompassing, and he’s too disoriented to stop when the Kaiju lands a blow that sends them into the ocean.


They tumble, and Casey struggles to get his bearings, looking frantically over at the kid.


He’s passed out, blood pouring from his nose.


The Kaiju mounts them, squeezing into the armor. The conn pod creaks and moans, electrical circuits start to blip. They’re going to die…


Casey growls.


He’s not going to die.


He’s not going to die.


With a surge of strength, he bucks, using his half of the Jaeger to roll the Kaiju. They tumble together through the water, until Casey ends up on top. The Kaiju is still squeezing the conn pod, and the cannon is controlled by the other half of Sierra.


Casey doesn’t need a cannon.


Instead, he deploys his blades and stabs. He goes for the throat, repeated deep gouges the bring forth blood. He stabs as the Kaiju howls. He stabs until it loosens its grip. He stabs until it’s throat is cut open and gaping.


He stabs until it’s dead.


Until he’s won.


And then he promptly passes out.


-o-


He wakes up in the medical bay. He’s hooked up to monitors and there’s an IV in his head. Looking to the side, the Marshal is there.


“Malick,” he says seriously. “How do you feel?”


“Like crap,” Casey says. “The Kaiju?”


“Dead.”


“The kid?”


The Marshal hesitates. “Not good, I’m afraid,” he says. “He suffered a seizure.”


“And Sierra?”


The Marshal’s expression darkens. “That’s what we need to talk about.”


-o-


It turns out Sierra Paladin has a leak. A bad one. It’s been seeping radiation the whole time. That’s why Joanna got sick. That’s why the kid suffered a seizure.


“We have to retire her,” the Marshall says.


“Can’t we fix her?”


“At this point, the repair work is cost prohibitive. We can salvage some parts, but the decontamination alone…”


Casey is indignant. “That’s my Jaeger. She’s part of me. What the hell am I supposed to pilot?”


The Marshal’s expression is grave. “That’s the last thing.”


Casey’s never been scared of anything, but he’s scared of what comes next.


“Your exposure to the radiation is profound,” the Marshal says. “The doctors are surprised you aren’t experiencing more symptoms. At this point, any further exposure is likely to lead to lethal complications.”


“I don’t care,” Casey says. “I know my body’s limitations.”


“It’s a risk we can’t take,” the Marshal says.


Casey’s mouth drops open. “Well, what am I supposed to do then? I’m a Ranger.”


“Not anymore,” the Marshal concludes. “As of today, Malick, you’re grounded.”