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

December 29th, 2013 (02:36 pm)
rejected

feeling: rejected

Other parts in the MASTER POST



It’s a heady feeling. Casey knows that. Hell, he misses it. There’s nothing like winning a hard-fought battle when everything is on the line. It’s tempting in these situations to just give in, to celebrate.


Casey knows better.


Casey knows that winning isn’t without its cost. Victory isn’t without its drawbacks. Killing a Kaiju is only part of the battle


The aftermath--


Well, that just gets more and more complicated every time something comes up out of the breach.


Annoyed, Casey pushes past the techs. He always thought most of them were worthless, and now that they’re hugging and kissing and showing emotions, they’re even less useful than normal. He edges his way to a console, sitting in the seat and looking over the readouts.


He doesn’t have to look back to know Michael’s right behind him. Casey scowls. “Get a hold of your command center, Dorset,” he growls. “We have work to do.”


Michael leans over, looking at the screen with Casey. “We just won,” he says. “I figure they’re entitled.”


“No, you’re just too relieved to stop them,” he says.


Michael doesn’t disagree. “People need to feel like we’re winning.”


Casey looks up at him soberly. “Even if we’re not?”


Michael flattens his lips. “The Kaiju is down,” he reiterates softly.


“Yeah,” Casey says. “And Mammoth is barely operational. It’s a miracle the conn pod is still intact. As it is, this is months of repair work. In the glory days, we’d scrap him and start over.”


“Higgins will never approve that,” Michael says.

“Exactly,” Casey says. “Disruptor is already pieced together. Now we’re going to have to do the same with Mammoth. That hardly makes us a fearsome fleet.”


Michael breathes evenly. “What do you want me to say, Malick?”


“I don’t know,” Casey replies tersely. “But maybe stay the celebration until we actually win this damn war.”


“One step at a time,” Michael says.


“Yeah,” Casey says with a snort as he looks at the screen. “Until we walk right off a cliff.”


-o-


It’s not that Casey likes being right.


Okay, that’s not entirely true. He does like being right in the same way any sane person likes being right. But that’s not what this is about. After all, of all the things to be right about, the downfall of the PPDC and the ultimate destruction of mankind is really not among them, even for a bastard like Casey.


That’s the point, though. Casey doesn’t want to be right for the sake of being right. He wants to be right so people will listen while there’s still time to make a difference. That’s what this is about now, after all. He’d never been so naive as to think about actually saving the world, not even while fighting the so-called good fight in the CIA. Even in his early days with the Jaeger program, he hadn’t so much been trying to be a hero as he had been looking for the next best thing to do with his infinite skills and wisdom.


But that’s gone now. Just like his CIA career; just like his days as a Jaeger pilot. He’s buried every partner he’s ever had, and he’d be okay with that, he really would, if he thought that it meant something.


And so really, it’s not that Casey likes being right.


He just knows he is -- and no amount of posturing or celebration or small victories will ever change that.


-o-


Casey leaves the commander center for two reasons. First, he’s tired of people trying to kiss him. Second, he’ll be far more useful in other locations.


And really, the third reason is that no one else seems to care about the fact that things actually still need to happen. They all seem to be under the impression that killing a Kaiju is a big deal. It’s not. It’s the necessary and expected course of action.


The fact that it’s getting harder is what is so disconcerting.


Casey grumbles past the droves of idiots in the halls, effectively glaring his way into the Jaeger Bay. He starts by taking inventory of the supplies they have on hand, and then cross references those supplies with the damage reports he’d seen on the screen. The good news is that they have a good supply of parts on hand. Better still, Orion Disruptor has taken minimal damage.


The bad news is that even if they have the parts for Mammoth, the repair work is going to be intensive. Worse still, it’ll deplete their supply base. Casey’s pretty sure restocking it is going to be easier said than done.


In fact, all of this is going to be easier said than done. He understand why Michael wants to take this win -- after all they’ve worked for, seeing Orion Disruptor work with Mammoth Apostle is a big deal. It’s a boon that will buy them time with the press, the public -- and with Higgins.


But it’s not going to fix things. It’s not going to fix the fact that the PPDC has slowed hiring in the last year. It’s not going to fix the fact that research and development has been moving at a snail’s pace and that there is only one Mark 5 officially being funded for release. It’s not going to fix the fact that they keep winning in the field while losing at home.


No one wants to foot the bill. No one wants to maintain the work. People are tired of rations and of the threat. The PPDC, which started so free of bureaucracy and mess, is becoming just like every other governmental program. Bogged down and micromanaged until it’s effectively useless.


Casey sighs, looking up at the empty Jaeger bays. It’s equipped for so much, but will now house only two. Mammoth Apostle, who limps along, and Orion Disruptor, who is forged together with salvaged parts.


To think, the fate of the Western seaboard lies in this.


Standing there, while the Shatterdome rejoices, Casey does not find himself optimistically inclined.


-o-


After a bit, techs starts to filter back in. In fact, they all come in, lining the walls in anticipation. Casey can hear crowds gathering in the hall for the triumphant return.


Mammoth is the first to arrive, dangling half-mangled from the copter. When he’s put in the water, he tilts badly to the side. The first step is precarious, but the pilots keep him together, until he all but hobbles into his docking bay.


For a moment, no one speaks, staring up in wonder and fear. When the pilots step out, waving and grinning, cheers erupt again.


Casey doesn’t cheer, though. It’s a relief the pilots are safe, but he keeps looking at Mammoth. He’s taken this battle hard, and he’s sacrificed more than he should. In person, the damage is more extensively, and his once-refined body is scarred and tattered. He’s a weary soldier, sent to the front lines when it should be someone else’s time to serve.


Casey won’t pity him, although he understand the weariness. He won’t mourn for him, but will give him his due respect.


And he won’t tell anyone, but part of Casey envies him a bit, too. He gets to do his job.


Even until the very end.


To Casey, there is no higher calling.


-o-


Mammoth limps home.


Disruptor, on the other hand, comes back with fanfare. The Jaeger stands proudly, and the damn thing almost waves. If Jaegers could smile, Disruptor would be grinning from ear to ear.


This is what they get for putting an over-eager kid and an idiot Scotsman in the conn pod. They take their time bringing Disruptor in to dock, and by the time they finally initiate the power down, Casey is tapping his foot restlessly. Disruptor looks in working order, but he’ll need a full physical when all this is over, just to be sure.


No one seems to care about, though.


The technicians are cheering, and the entire Shatterdome has turned out for the homecoming. If they cheered for Mammoth, they go downright nuts for Disruptor.


It figures. They had to beg and bargain for help building the damn thing, but now that Disruptor has scored a kill, everyone wants to celebrate the Little Jaeger That Could. Not that Casey wanted their help much earlier, but it certainly would have been more appropriate than sneaking in for the celebration.


And it is a celebration.


When Billy and Rick exit, the roar is deafening. Atop the Jaeger, Rick looks shell shocked and overjoyed. Billy soaks it up, positively preening for the appreciative crowd.


This is how it used to be, Casey remembers. Back in the early days. When pilots were rock stars. When they came back as heroes. Before the stopped coming back at all.


Billy and Rick fit the part, at least. They’re young and attractive. Rick’s face is glowing. Billy’s smile is contagious. If the Jaeger program is going to have one last pair of heroes here, they could definitely do worse.


Slinking next to Michael, Casey has to yell to be heard. “Shouldn’t we clear the crowd out? We have work to do?”


Michael makes a face. “It can wait until tomorrow.”


“Can it?” Casey asks with an edge. “We don’t know how much time we have. But we do know we have more work to do.”


Michael gives him a long suffering look. “It can wait until tomorrow.”


“Of everyone, I never thought you’d be so averse to common sense,” Casey tells him as Billy and Rick start their way down.


Michael pins him with an icy glare. “Don’t question my resolve,” he says. “It will wait until tomorrow.”


There’s no room for argument, and Michael doesn’t give Casey any chance. He’s already moving back through the crowd to Billy and Rick, shaking the kid’s hand and clapping Billy on the back. They raise their hands together in victory as the crowd swells with adulation again.


Red faced, Casey turns and storms out.


Michael can wait until the morning. The whole damn Shatterdome can wait until the morning.

But Casey sure as hell isn’t.


-o-


The celebration moves down the corridor and into the mess hall. Casey sneaks through, ducking a few congratulatory handshakes as he steals a little food and makes his way back out. He considers stopping by and thanking Rick and Billy for not screwing up, but they’re so surrounded by a gaggle of adoring observers that he doesn’t bother.


He finishes off his scant meal in a few small bites as he makes his ways down the hall. He’s done with his bottle of water just as fast. The only advantage of everyone crowding into the mess is that no one bothers Casey as he scans himself into the Jaeger Bay.


Inside, he lets the door close and remembers how to breathe. He spends several seconds in a near meditative silence, finding his center and letting the frustration and resentment go. This is why he’s still here. This is why it matters.


Moving forward, he looks up at Mammoth and Disruptor.


“I know everyone else wants to wait until morning,” he says, his lone voice echoing off the vast metal walls. “But I think you two deserve better.”


-o-


He starts with Mammoth.


Jaegers don’t have the same critical care needs as humans. Generally, once damaged is sustained, its effect is stagnant. Cascading system overloads can happen but only in the field. By the time a Jaeger arrives back at the Shatterdome, the damage is done.


Therefore, there is no need for emergency care. Even the idea of triage is a bit of a stretch in this context. But Casey makes his choice on compassionate grounds. Mammoth isn’t his baby, but he respects the machine.


He deserve to stand tall. Casey’s not so naive to think that can happen in one night, but he has to start.


If everyone else, who did a mere fraction of the work of these two machines, gets to celebrate, then Casey owes them at least this much.


-o-


For Mammoth, Casey starts by tapping into his central computer. He takes a clipboard and makes a list of the damaged systems, prioritizing them in terms of importance and ability. Then he does a manual inspection, checking through the conn pod and addressing as many areas as he can see.


It takes several hours -- long, tedious hours -- and he ends up with a list that spans multiple pages. The work will be hard and expensive. It’ll take weeks -- possibly months -- if Mammoth is going to be field worthy at all. If Disruptor hadn’t been on hand, Mammoth never would have survived.


“It’s not your fault,” Casey assures him. “You were never built to be invincible, even if people think you should be.”


Funny -- Casey knows how that feels.


-o-


Disruptor is obviously in better shape, but Casey sees more damage than most people notice. He knows how every bolt should look, the contour of every panel. The leg they’ve struggled with since the beginning has taken damage again, and Casey does not look forward to the meticulous work in trying to fine tune it back to peak operating conditions.


Assuming it ever gets there.


In some ways, the fact that Disruptor is being hailed as a hero is problematic. Casey prefers to be the underdog. He uses low expectations to his advantage. Disruptor performed well in the field, but he’s still a hodge-podged mess. He’ll always need more maintenance, and as the new golden robot in the LA Shatterdome, he’s probably not going to get the same time to work out his kinks.


Casey suggested list of repairs is several pages long, and he throws on a few upgrade he’s been meaning to push through. He has a feeling they’re going to need all the improvements they can get down the road.


Still, Casey is proud. Not just of his work, but of Disruptor himself. He’s not much to look at, but today he saved the world.


-o-


Casey works through the night. He makes copies of his notes, putting them on the consoles and desks before taking several for his own purposes. At the doorway to the Jaeger Bay, he lingers.


“Thank you,” he says solemnly to the two sleeping giants. “For more than you know.”


-o-


When he finally makes his way back to his quarters, it’s late.


Rather, it’s early.


The party in the mess hall doesn’t seem to care.


Casey doesn’t bother checking back in. Instead, he goes into his room, locking up tight. He’s not against a celebration, but he’ll only indulge at the proper time.


Like when they’ve actually won.


-o-


It’s only a handful of hours later that Casey’s internal alarm wakes him. Rolling over, he eyes the clock with a small display of indignation, but that’s all the more protest the morning will see out of him. He knows his body’s limitations, and a few hours less for sleep is hardly the worst he’s experienced.


In fact, in the grander scheme of things, it’s really not so bad. Sure, Casey prefers a nice eight-hour hibernation in the proper context, but since he’s effectively lived on the front lines of a war, he hasn’t indulged in such pleasantries since K-day.


Funny, he thinks about his deep cover years with the CIA as easier times. At least back then, missions did end. Eventually. He had never doubted his ability to control the outcome of an operation.


With the Kaiju war, however…


Well, that’s so far beyond his purview that it is mildly distressing. He does what he can, and he still grapples with the inevitable truth that it might still not be enough.


Some people would take that as an invitation for fatalism.


Casey merely sees it as a challenge.


Because if mankind falls, Casey will be the first one on the breach, fighting back until the very end.


That’s the dramatic conclusion, anyway. For this morning, it means getting out of bed and getting back to work.


-o-


Casey up and ready in time.


Apparently, he’s the only one.


The halls are noticeably vacant, and the few people who do make it out for the morning shift look bleary-eyed and miserably. Several people are actually asleep at the table, one of whom is snoring.


Casey glares, sitting his tray down and starting to eat. It’s bad enough being forced to eat the slop they call food these days; watching other people fail to manage their own physical needs is just plain infuriating.


Needless to say, he’s downright relieved when Michael sits down across from him. The man looks tired, but that’s been Michael’s natural state for most of the years they’ve known each other.


“Didn’t see you last night,” Michael observes, starting in on his breakfast.


Casey grunts. “Like you could have missed me with the party.”


Michael is one of the few people who is entirely nonplussed by Casey’s dry vitriol. It’s actually a little comforting. “I think we earned that one,” he says. “We did collectively down a massive beast from the bottom of the ocean.”


“After all this time, you’d think people would stop being impressed by that,” Casey mutters.


Michael arches his eyebrows. “After all this time, I would think you’d realize why it’s important. We can’t all have your fortitude, Malick. Some people need morale boosters.”


Casey eyes the rest of the people in the room with general disdain. “If it’s necessary,” he says. “But what about Collins and Martinez?”


Michael looks away, taking a bite. He chews noisily. “I’m guessing they’re in bed,” he says. Then he smirks. “Not the same bed, though, as far as I know.”


Casey doesn’t even blink. “We need their full report if we’re going to start assessing the upgrades from Disruptor,” he says. “Plus, we can start refining their battle skills. So far, it’s all been theory but now that we’ve had some practical application--”


Michael shakes his head. “They worked their asses off yesterday,” he says. “Cut them some slack.”


“We all worked our asses off yesterday,” Casey reminds him.


“Were you face to face with the Kaiju?” Michael asks. “I know you know what that’s like. And I know you know the toll it takes--”


“It’s mental fortitude--”


“Come on,” Michael says. “For the rest of the world, then. That was Rick’s first Kaiju. That was Billy’s first Kaiju since one nearly killed him. They can take the damn morning.”


Casey wants to object. Virulently. He wants to chew Michael out, here and now. He wants to make his point, because it’s a damn good point, it’s an important point. It’s probably the only point that actually matters.


But that’s not his place. Not here. Not now. He’s trusted Michael, and Michael has earned his respect.


Even so, it takes all his self control to swallow back his rant. Instead, he stiffly takes a bit. “How’s Higgins taking all this?” he diverts.


Michael almost looks amused at that. “About as well as you can imagine.”


“And he hasn’t threatened to fire you?” Casey asks.


“I think he’s been too busy fielding congratulatory phone calls from his superiors and fending off jubilant interview requests from the press to think much more on that,” Michael comments.


“That’s something, anyway,” Casey says. “Now we just need to convince him that the Jaeger program is his best option.”


Michael sighs. “Now,” he says decidedly. “I think I just need to get through the morning.” He picks up his coffee mug and looks down sadly. “I hope somebody put on coffee.” He looks up forlornly. “A lot of coffee.”


Casey doesn’t have the heart to tell him that coffee really isn’t going to help this time.


-o-


Casey will spare Michael.


But he’s really the only one.


He checks in with the few PPDC techs who show up in the Jaeger Bay, pointing them toward the list of repairs. In some ways, their brain dead docility makes things easier; they don’t think to question Casey’s authority in this situation, of which he has none. He orders them to get to work and that he expects progress by the time he gets back.


Then he makes his way back to his office space, and begrudgingly completes some paperwork. Toward the end, instead of answering the questions about the Kaiju incursion, he writes “watch the damn video” and gets up and makes his way to the gym. Not surprisingly, there are even fewer people there than the rest of the Shatterdome. Frustrated, Casey looks at his watch.


He implicitly agreed to give Billy and Rick the morning.


Now that it’s noon, however -- all bets are off.


-o-


Casey doesn’t bother with Rick’s room, heading instead toward Billy’s. It’s not uncommon, he knows, for Jaeger pilots to end up living together. Casey himself had refused such forms of closeness, and he’d once caught one of his copilots sleeping just outside his door. There’s something about the aftermath of the drift that leaves him mentally in need -- most people end up missing the other person. Essentially it becomes an addiction.


Casey has never allowed that to happen to him, but it doesn’t take a genius to know it’s happened to Collins and Martinez.


At the door, he knocks.


When there is no answer, Casey glares at it suspiciously. He walked through the mess hall on his way here; they weren’t in the gym. The odds that they would do paperwork before anything else is slim.


No, they’re still in there.


He knocks again. “Open up,” he growls. “Or I will let myself in.”


Maybe they don’t think he can do it. Maybe they’re sound asleep. Maybe Casey doesn’t care.


He was a spy, after all. Getting into a locked door is not exactly outside his area of expertise. He prefers opening things by force, but he can use finesse when absolutely necessary. Since they’re not allowed to carry firearms in the Shatterdome, Casey settles for a pair of paperclips instead.


Kneeling down, he starts to jostle the lock. He’s suddenly thankful Higgins hasn’t approved budgetary allocations to updating the facilities. Electronic mechanisms would have been far more frustrating.


As it is, someone walks by and gives him a look. Casey glares back until the passerby just keeps on going.


The lock finally snicks into place, and Casey turns the knob anxiously, pushing the door open and walking inside.


It’s pretty much just like he expected.


Billy is passed out on the bed, limbs sprawled in every which direction. The covers aren’t even pulled down and he’s still in his clothes. He’s sleeping slack-jawed, snoring intermittently.


Rick’s on the floor, curled up with nothing more than a pillow and what appears to be one of Billy’s dirty shirts. He’s tucked up almost in the fetal position, breathing deep and regular, oblivious to the world.


It’s beyond pathetic.


The only good thing is that this means Casey gets the pleasure of waking them up.


He smirks.


Rudely.


He steps over Rick, grabbing the blanket on Billy’s bed. The Scotsman snuffles once before Casey pulls and tugs -- and promptly dumps Billy on the floor. He hits with an oof, rolling into Rick, who startles into full awareness with a gasp and a flail.


Rick’s flailing hits Billy; Billy flops hard on Rick. They end up blinking at each other sleepily and in total confusion.


“Get up,” Casey orders.


Billy squints at him. “I’m hoping this is a dream.”


“If so, I’m having the same one,” Rick comments.


“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Billy points out.


“This isn’t a very good dream,” Rick mumbles.


“Yeah, I know,” Casey says. “And it’s about to get worse.”


Billy groans. “I’m not sure you know just how badly my head is throbbing.”


“Probably not,” Casey says. “But I’m pretty sure I don’t care.”


Rick wrinkles his nose. “You’re grumpy.”


“Aye,” Billy says. “I was thinking the same thing!”


“I know, right?” Rick asks.


Casey rolls his eyes. “Get up and be in the gym in ten minutes.”


Billy looks up at him. “Or what?”


Casey huffs, turning back toward the door. “You don’t want to find out.”


-o-


All things considered, Casey is feeling quite smug about everything. It’s not so much that he likes to torture other people -- it’s that he really enjoys torturing Billy and Rick. And besides, they do have a lot of work today. Casey wants a full report on how their time together went, and he’s analyzed the readouts from Disruptor, so he wants to create a comparison chart based on pilot experience and mechanical reality.


It’s actually going to be rather invigorating.


Plus, he’s ready for a workout.


Therefore, he is quite disappointed when they miss the ten minute mark. Casey’s not used to that kind of rejection -- usually his threats are never considered idle -- but he’s forgotten what it feels like to fight a Kaiju -- and win.


As it is, Rick comes in looking moderately alive about twenty minutes after Casey’s ultimatum. Billy is trailing behind him, looking less than presentable. Rick staggers to something resembling attention; Billy doesn’t even bother and basically passes out on an exercise ball.


“And you two saved the world yesterday?” Casey asks skeptically.


“We were up kind of late,” Rick says with an apologetic shrug.


“Yes,” Billy says without getting up or opening his eyes. “Because we saved the world! I reckon we’re entitled to a bit of a lie in.”


“It’s well past noon,” Casey points out.


“I didn’t figured we’d have anything to do today,” Rick says.


“And why the hell would you figure that?” Casey snaps.


“Um,” Rick says. “Because we saved the world yesterday?”


Casey takes a breath and feels his anxiety skyrocket. “You saved the world,” he says. “So what? Big deal? I’ve saved the world too. Dozens of other people have saved the world in this war against the Kaiju, not to mention in every war before that. But the thing is, the world isn’t safe yet. We have to be better. We have to be stronger. We have to keep winning.”


At this, Billy sits up and looks at Casey with bloodshot eyes. “If you haven’t noticed, the Kaiju tend not to come back to back, mate.”


“For now,” Casey says. “You’ll also notice that fewer and fewer come back at all. Is that what you want? Do you want to end up mangled in a scrap of metal being dragged from the bottom of the ocean?”


Rick flinches; Billy blanches. Billy’s on his feet, then, towering over Casey. “You think I don’t understand the risks?”


Casey doesn’t back down. “Your martyr complex isn’t as helpful as you think it is,” he replies. “We need people who will fight to win, not fight to die.”


On the side, Rick is breathing fast, eyes flicking between Casey and his copilot.


“Last I checked, I’m still breathing,” Billy says darkly. He eases back, casting a sideways glance at Rick. “Which is why we’re taking the day. You’ll have us both first thing tomorrow morning.”


“Michael--”


Billy turns a hard look at Casey. “If Michael has a problem with it, then you can have Michael come tell us, yeah?”


Casey’s fists clench at his sides. “I’m trying to help you. I don’t want to see you two end up as another pair of statistics.”


Billy’s expression softens just a little. “I don’t think we fancy that either, do we, Rick?”


Rick shakes his head minutely.


“But we can’t deny that it’s a possibility,” Billy continues, voice low. “We survived yesterday. Let us live today.”


It’s ultimately a simple plea, and Casey sees Billy’s glance toward Rick again. This isn’t just about Collins being a lazy and reckless son of a bitch. He’s worried about the kid. He plays it cavalier, but Billy’s not like Casey. He can’t maintain professional distance from his drifting partner. With Olivia, he’d been all too willing to die before Olivia dragged him out alive. Now, it seems, the positions are reversed.


That’s something, anyway. Casey can’t justify such emotions but he can’t deny them either. Just like he can’t keep Billy and Rick here, no matter how much he wants to.


“I can help you,” Casey says again.


“Aye,” Billy says. “Tomorrow.”


With that, the Scot turns and leaves. Rick gives Casey another apologetic look before following after Billy.


Alone in the gym, Casey’s fists are still clenched. His chest is tight. He has the overwhelming desire to kill something. No one else wants to face the truth. No one else wants to see this victory as a relatively small one. No one is taking this seriously enough.


Which means that everyone, he fears, is probably going to suffer for it.


And all Casey can do is watch.


-o-


Casey spends the better part of the afternoon in the Jaeger Bay, which does help his spirits somewhat. He’s happy to find more people have showed up for duty, and the repairs are beginning in earnest. Mammoth Apostle is still a mess, and when Casey asks the lead tech how it looks, she just shakes her head.


“With the amount of time and money it’ll take, we might be better off just buying a new Jaeger,” she admits.


“He’s still got some fight left in him,” Casey defends. He looks up at Mammoth’s hobbled frame. “Appearances can be deceiving.”


“It’s not a question of ability,” she says. “It’s a question of costs and performance. In all honesty, we’ve never tackled a repair job this large before.”


“What, and you think someone is going to give you the cash you need for a Mark 5? We had to scrape together to make Disruptor,” Casey points out.


“Look, I’m not arguing,” she replies. “I’m just telling you how it is.”


“And I’m just telling you that I don’t think you have any idea how it is,” Casey says emphatically. “Keep going on the repairs. Talk to Michael when you run out of parts.”


She doesn’t look convinced -- but then again, no one ever does -- and Casey gives her a look until she nods her acquiescence.


-o-


Feeling better after being marginally productive, Casey makes his way back to his office. He’s almost there when he hears a commotion in the mess. Casey’s not prone to idle curiosities, but he doesn’t like things happening in this Shatterdome that he doesn’t know about. He makes his way in that direction and soon wishes he hadn’t.


He sees the lights first, and then the cameras. And then he sees Billy and Casey, being primped and powdered.


“We’ll keep it real friendly,” a woman says, her face caked with makeup as she adjusts her well-tailored suit. “Upbeat. We want the world to see there are still heroes out there, fighting for the rest of us.”


“And fight on we will,” Billy says with a winning smile.


“It is part of our job,” Rick says with a bit more reservation but it’s pretty clear he’s loving the attention, too.


“People are talking,” the reporter says. “Orion Disruptor -- he was only rumors and then we see him in action. It’s a very compelling story.”


Billy winks. “We do what we can.”


That’s funny to Casey. Billy and Rick are too tired to get up, too worn out to work, but they can give interviews. They can work the press but they can’t work the mission.


The mission.


That’s what this is supposed to be about -- even if Casey’s the only one who remembers it.


-o-


Casey forgets about his office. Instead, he makes a beeline for Michael. At the door, he doesn’t pause to knock, and when he barges in, Michael barely looks up. “You made it longer than I thought,” he says.


Casey makes a face. “Made what longer than you thought?”


Michael jots down a few more things. “You followed my orders to lay off for longer than I thought,” he says. “I fully expected you to barge in here three hours ago.” He glances up. “You have more self-control than I thought.”


“I have more self-control than anyone,” Casey says tartly, even if it’s not entirely the point. “You, on the other hand, seem to be suddenly lacking.”


Michael inhales measuredly and looks back down to his work. “Don’t lecture me, Malick.”


“Then don’t be stupid,” Casey snaps back. “The entire Shatterdome is running at half capacity today, and your two star pilots are having a press day in the mess.”


“I’m not in charge here,” Michael reminds him.


“Like hell you aren’t,” Casey says. “If we leave this to Higgins, today’s antics are going to be the least of our concerns.”


Michael gives him a look. “When have I ever left this to Higgins.”


“Never, I thought,” Casey says. “So what the hell are you doing today?”


“My job, last I checked,” Michael says.


“Since when do you prioritize paperwork and let other people do nothing?” Casey says indignantly. “You’re a paranoid bastard most of the time, which is why I agreed to work with you. But if you’re going to act like some idiot bureaucrat who is willing to hand the Kaiju everything they need--”


Michael looks up, eyes flashing. “Don’t,” he warns.


Casey scoffs. “Don’t what? Call it like it is?” he asks. “Because you’re letting your years of work slip right through your fingers.”


Michael exhales heavily, putting his pen down. “What the hell is your problem? Last I checked, things are actually going exactly like we planned.”


“Sure, up until the Kaiju fell,” Casey says. “But killing a single Kaiju was never the plan. The plan was to win the war. All we did was get lucky on one battle.”


Michael’s face screws up. “You think I don’t know that?”


“Well,” Casey says, crossing his arms over his chest. “Hiding in your office while the Shatterdome wiles away certainly doesn’t make it seem like you do.”


“Not everyone is a machine,” Michael snaps. “Some of them do need time off.”


“Then they can fill out a request and take it at the appropriate time,” Casey says. “Collins and Martinez are acting like damn rock stars out there. I thought we were past that.”


“Did you?” Michael asks. “Tell me, where do you think we get our funding? How do you think we’re going to get enough money to field Mammoth’s repairs? You made the itemized list -- you know we don’t have those parts.”


“So you call in favors--”


“I’m out of favors,” Michael says tersely. “I’m out of money and I’m out of leverage. I’m pretty much out of time. All I’ve got left -- the only thing this Shatterdome has got left -- is a broken Jaeger, a piecemeal Jaeger and a few attractive pilots. I can’t very well sell the first two, but if I can work the last, you better damn well believe I’m going to.”


“They need to be focused,” Casey insists.


“And we need the press,” Michael hisses. “Damn it, we need everything we can get. This entire thing is so close to falling apart, and I’m doing everything -- and I mean, everything -- to keep it together. So I’m sorry if you think I’m being lax. I’m sorry if you don’t agree with my methods. But not all of us have the luxury of being a damn asshole.”


The tirade is about as much as he’s ever heard Michael say on the matter. It’s also the most vindictive he’s ever heard the man -- not to mention the most tired. He’d underestimated the toll this was having on Michael. He’d been quick to assume negligence where really there was the start of desperation.


This is as reassuring as it is disconcerting.


He’s not sure what to do with that. He does know, however, that anger is probably not his best approach, no matter how valid it may be. Instead, he stiffens, going silent for a long, tense moment. “Fine,” he relents finally. “You do what needs to be done. But you need to remember that they’re soldiers. And they need that discipline if they’re going to survive this war.”


The tension drains from Michael’s shoulders, and the anger fades until he just looks tired. “Why do you think I keep you around?”


-o-


Michael has a point.


It’s still not a point that Casey likes, but he has to give the man credit. He knows how to play his cards. By shifting responsibility to Casey with a tart compliment, he effectively ensured Casey’s cooperation.


For now.


Casey appreciates the skill involved with Michael’s tactics, but that doesn’t mean he’ll humor him forever. Casey will cooperate in a team environment for long as it is practical. Once the difficulties prove too cumbersome -- well, Casey doesn’t intend to bolster a sinking ship. He has other options. And if he doesn’t, he’ll find some.


He’s seen what Michael can do. He’s seen what Rick and Billy can do. He’s seen what they all can do when working together.

Which means, despite current appearances, there may be hope for them yet.


-o-


He’s still the first one in the gym, but to his surprise, Rick and Billy are on time. Granted, Collins looks like he’s half-asleep, but Martinez is wide-eyed and awake. “So you went over the footage?” Rick asks.


Casey is pleasantly impressed. “Yes,” he says.


“So you have some suggestions?” Rick asks.


Casey nods, reaching over to one of the tables to pull out the notes he made -- and the two photocopies he’d made for Rick and Billy. “Just a few.”


Rick takes the packet, eyebrows knitted. When Casey gives a packet to Billy the Scotsman groaned. “There are a hundred pages!”


“You estimating skills leave something to be desired,” Casey muses. “There are 213 pages, to be exact. And your tendency to underestimate your obstacles is covered over pages 35-49.”


Billy groans again. Rick looks a little gobsmacked. “You do remember the part where we won, right?” Rick asks.


“Sure,” Casey says. “Your victory is analyzed on pages 111-112.”


“We get two measly pages for victory and the rest of the bloody tract is what exactly?” Billy yelps in incredulity.


“Room for improvement,” Casey says.

“That’s not very encouraging, you know,” Billy mumbles.

“I could say it’s all about how much you suck,” Casey says. “But I was trying to be nice.”


Rick is almost gaping. Billy snorts. “You’re serious?” the Scotsman says.


“Very,” Casey replies. “Now let’s go. We have work to do.”


-o-


It’s not their best training session ever. It is, perhaps, one of their longest. Billy basically collapses when it’s done, and Rick looks like he wants to cry.


Which means, things are finally looking up.


-o-


Things get better.


The repairs to Mammoth are slow, but consistent. With enough foresight, Michael has already put pressure on the fleeting logistics staff to start working the phone -- they don’t want money as much as they do parts, and things start filtering in.


Disruptor, at least, is fully operational within a week. Still, Casey pushes for more upgrades on the side, doing what he can to appropriately balance the workload between the two Jaegers. Michael gives him free reign in this, mostly because Casey knows how to keep it under the radar. He has no jurisdiction, after all, but apparently with enough wherewithal and wits, he doesn’t need it.


Billy and Rick, though sluggish at times, fall back into the routine fairly well. If anything, the kill has made Rick more confident, and Billy’s showing surprising signs of restraint. That’s good. It’s what they both need if they’re going to continue to grow.

He meets with Michael daily, and they go over the plans. They make sure things are on track. They pour over the latest information that Fay slips them from K-science and go over the details from Casey’s time in J-tech. They watch Billy and Rick take Disruptor out for simulations.


Things get better.


-o-


Then, they get worse.


Casey knows something up when Higgins starts making the rounds. He’s always been more hands-off in his approach, so when he shows up in the Jaeger Bay and is seen in J-science, people start to talk.


Billy and Rick make light of it, but Michael’s clearly nervous. When the memo finally goes out for a Shatterdome-wide announcement, speculation runs wild.


“What if he’s retiring Mammoth?” Rick asks fretfully at breakfast.


“That would be foolish, even for Higgins,” Billy says. “We haven’t snagged a dime out of budget for repairs.”


“Unless there is no more budget,” Michael predicts. “All the talk is about money, these days. Hiring is at a standstill, and we’re losing people to attrition all the time.”


“You guys are all missing the point,” Casey says, shaking his head.


“Well, what do you think it is?” Rick asks.


Casey huffs in annoyance. “Budget close are long term and progressive. They don’t warrant an immediate meeting. More than that, telling people that the end is coming is counterproductive. Higgins hasn’t played his hand carefully all this time just to throw the cards in the air in apparent surrender.”


“Which, pray tell, leaves what, then?” Billy prompts.


Casey shrugs. “I guess we’ll find out soon enough.”


-o-


Higgins has everyone meet in the largest conference room. It’s a tight fit, but with the decreasing staff size, they make it work. People are equally excited and anxious, with some even blindly hoping they’ll be getting a Mark 5. Casey knows better.


And when Higgins starts talking, his certainty just gets stronger.


“We have all worked hard, and I think we should all be very proud of what we accomplished as a Shatterdome. We served the coastline loyalty, saving millions of lives,” he explains.


It’s nice lip-service. It might even make for a good pep talk. But Casey doesn’t miss one critical detail. It’s all in the past tense.


Higgins gathers a breath, smiling. “This is why I am proud to announce that we will be the first Shatterdome to lead the effort regarding the Wall of Life.”


There’s a collective gasp, then uncertain silence. Michael’s face is stony; Rick and Billy look aghast.


“I realize this may seem like a startling change, but it is a decision that has been long in coming,” Higgins continues. “The Jaeger Program has been important and effective. But we simply cannot accept the losses we have endured so far. The Wall of Life offers a safer, more longstanding solution to the Kaiju problem.”


The Kaiju problem. Like it’s a minor inconvenience and not the pressing threat of annihilation. The tittering in the crowd starts to grow, but Higgins pushes on.


“There will be many questions, but let me assure you of a few things. First, although we will have to restructure, it is currently not planned to let any staff go. We still need you -- all of you -- as we redirect our efforts. This is not abandoning our project. This is a shift in focus. Which brings me to the second point. I want you to remember that every choice we make, we make for the betterment of mankind. We need a long term, feasible solution,” Higgins explains, looking around at the room. “And the Wall of Life can offer us just that.”


-o-


“A long term feasible solution?” Rick asks as they walk down the hall, back to their offices.


“More like expensive suicide,” Billy mutters, keeping stride.


Casey harrumphs. “Usually I can’t stand your penchant for hyperbole, but I think I agree this time,” he says. “The Wall of Life is anything but. Even if it does hold a Kaiju back, what are we going to do? Just let them hang out in the oceans?”


“Or worse, nuke the oceans,” Rick says. “We’ve already done too much ecological damage.”


“Not to mention the fact that we may be able to keep one back, but if they start living there? Bringing their friends. The wall won’t hold.”


“Maybe used in combination,” Casey says with a diffident shrug. “But even then, we’re better off developing better Jaegers. This is worse than I imagined.”


At the point position, Michael’s shoulders are stiff. He hasn’t slowed his brisk pace; he hasn’t even looked back. From this, it’s hard to tell if this is a scenario Michael saw coming. It’s entirely possible that it is, given Michael’s tendency to account for everything. But what is certain is that this is a possibility he didn’t want to entertain.


And now it’s happening.


Billy and Rick have fallen silent alongside Casey, all eyes on Michael. He is their boss, after all. More than that, he’s their team leader in every possible sense. They’ve gotten this far with his direction and Rick’s heart and Billy’s vitality and Casey’s dedication.


Now…


Casey narrows his eyes on Michael. “I assume we have a plan?”


Michael doesn’t stop, doesn’t look back.


“Michael?” Billy prompts.


They walk a few more tense paces toward Michael’s office door. He stops, turning back. His face is pinched and white. “I’m working on it.”


-o-


Michael works on it for the better part of two weeks. When Casey tries to ask him if he needs anything, he gets clipped answers and evil glares. Michael’s office starts to look cluttered and disorganized -- hell, it’s almost as bad as Billy’s quarters -- and it’s clear that the man is literally tapping every resource he’s ever had access to. There are K-science reports highlighted and noted; there are J-tech manuals with large sections blocked off and others circled three or four times. There are battle photos, logistics statements, policy manuals -- basically, everything.


Casey tries to keep things going otherwise. He continues to oversee the repairs for Mammoth, and he makes sure Rick and Billy have time in the gym and in Disruptor. It’s not lost on him, though -- that he’s trying to maintain a status quo that just doesn’t exist anymore.


-o-


The J-tech engineers feel it first. At first, it’s just the high level designers, but eventually the techs start to be reassigned to start building. It’s just a few people at first, then a few more and a few more. After a month, the Jaeger repair team is down to under half its size.


J-science is pulled in, too. Instead of looking at offensive strategies, they look for the best defensive measures to protect against the Kaiju.


Michael still doesn’t leave the office.


Casey feels his anxiety start to ratchet up. He left the CIA for the lack of something useful to do; he’s not about doing such things again.


But his team. Michael and Billy and Rick. He still has reasons to stay.


For how much longer, though, he’s not entirely sure.


-o-


The next Kaiju heads for South America. This is the first time Casey’s seen Michael in LOCCENT Control in weeks. They’re not on point, but everyone’s always on call when a Kaiju clears the breach.


There’s nothing they can do but watch and listen.


It’s a Category 3, and a big one. It’s not fast, so that gives everyone reason to be optimistic for Lima’s Mark 4. She’s had a good run.


The battle rages for forty-five minutes. When the Jaeger falls, the silence is deafening.


-o-


Lima has no other Jaegers, so they use air and ground support to try to contain the Kaiju while Panama flies in theirs. Mexico has theirs on standby, just in case.


The Kaiju levels a city, and decimates Lima’s air and ground forces. When Panama’s Jaeger arrives, it takes another 30 minutes to down the Kaiju.


It’s the most costly, most deadly, most devastating attack since the Jaeger program started.


Casey looks at Michael across the control room.


Michael just looks away.


-o-


Michael is stony and silent. Billy is sulky and pouty. Rick is anxious and fidgety.


No one wants to say it.


So Casey does. “Odds are, ten to one, Lima is going to be closed.”


“Lima is responsible for a huge amount of coast,” Rick objects.


“What good does it do them, though,” Billy points out. “Without a Jaeger…”


Casey shakes his head. “The Jaeger Program is a dying thing,” he says. “I mean, Higgins is transitioning us to the Wall of Life and we still technically have two Jaegers.”


Rick’s forehead is creased. “That’s a supplementary program,” he says. “He’s not decommissioning our Jaegers.”


“Sure, but he’s also not supporting them,” Casey says. “He’s basically hamstrung Mammoth’s repairs. If it weren’t for our roundabout measures, he’d be in Oblivion Bay right now.”


“But we need the Jaegers,” Rick insists.


“And the PPDC needs money and a publically viable solution that doesn’t involve continued losses,” Casey says.


“The Wall of Life is a terrible option,” Billy says.


“I’m not disagreeing,” Casey says. “That won’t stop them, though.” His eyes flit from Rick and Billy to Michael, who is staring hard at his food. “And it’s about time we admitted that.”


-o-


The announcement comes the following week.


Due to recent events, the resources and staff at the Lima Shatterdome have been repurposed and redirected toward the Wall of Life project. As it has been pioneered at the Los Angeles Shatterdome, the Wall of Life offers the world an affordable and practical means to control the Kaiju incursions.


Rick reads, pale faced. Billy looks livid. Michael crumples the paper and locks himself in his office.


Casey shrugs. “I told you so.”


He’s never been so unhappy to be so right.