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Chaos/Pacific Rim: The First Line of Defense (6b/7)

December 29th, 2013 (02:48 pm)
restless

feeling: restless

Other parts in the MASTER POST



Michael has always understood success to be relative. He sees victory where most people can’t make sense of anything. He can perceive failure even in the most robust accomplishments. He sets his own standards and defines his own stakes.


By all accounts, this is a victory.


Standing in LOCCENT command, cheers echoing around him, it feels like anything but.


-o-


For the world, this is where the story ends. The newspapers will print photos; new outlets will air footage. Everyone in the Pacific will breathe a sigh of relief.


Michael knows better, though. For him, the clock resets to zero -- and the whole damn thing starts again.


“Get me eyes on Disruptor,” he orders above the clapping. No one seems to hear him; no one seems to care. Frustrated, he pushes through to a counsel, tapping a few buttons and touching the comm link in his ear. “What’s our visual on Disruptor?”


The feedback is hard to hear, and Michael presses his finger in his other ear in an attempt to drown out the noise.


“Can I have confirmation on Orion Disruptor?” he all but demands now, voice almost pitching toward a yell.


There’s a buzz in the system while the various channels overlap. Finally, one comes back. “LOCCENT, we have visual,” is the reply. “Orion Disruptor is down.”


Michael’s stomach tightens. “Can you be more specific?”


“He’s taking water,” comes the reply. “Looks like he’ll be fully submerged within minutes.”


The tension in Michael’s shoulders is almost painful. “Any sign of escape pods?” he asks, trying not to sound hopeful. He wants to hope. He needs to hope. But he’s already lost two Jaegers and two pilots on this fight. And this is Billy and Rick. This is…


“Negative,” is the answer.


Michael closes his eyes. He feels physically sick. Four pilots. Billy and Rick. It’s never easy losing anyone -- Michael takes every loss personally -- but these are people he trusts with his secrets. These are the people he calls his friends. Billy was his choice for Disruptor. Rick, too.


And now they’re gone.


Just like everything else.


He sighs, opening his eyes wearily. People are still congratulating each other all around him, even as a few of the techs start back to their stations. It doesn’t really matter, though. The tasks, the protocols -- none of it matters like it used to.


“Understood,” he finally says, his voice sounding thin and brittle. “Stay in the air to monitor the situation. Keep the area secure while we establish a perimeter and get recovery teams onsite.”


Cutting off the comm, he turns back to the command center. “Okay, people!” he calls. “Okay!”


It takes a moment for everyone to settle, the tittering dying down until they’re all looking at Michael.


Michael takes a breath. “We have two Jaegers down, and I want them both up and out of the water ASAP,” he says. “And the sooner we get that Kaiju out, the less chance we risk contamination. So I want priority on this, all our teams, STAT.”


There’s a moment where they all stare at him, a little shellshocked and confused.


One of the techs looks apologetic. “Most of the teams have been reassigned to the Wall,” she says.


Michael holds back a curse, dropping his head into his hand and rubbing his forehead. When he looks up, his expression is terse. “Then, by all means, assign them back.”


Her mouth opens and she looks perplexed. “Can you do that, sir?”


“Would you rather leave our Jaegers and our men out in the water?” Michael snaps.


“No, sir--”


“Then, let’s go,” Michael says. He looks around. “All of you. The clock didn’t stop, and that damn wall isn’t built yet. So now is the time to do your jobs.”


With that, the room is galvanized back into action. People start to scurry; comm lines open. It bustles with a familiar energy that Michael used to find comforting.


It’s hardly a solace anymore.


Unsettled, he glances up toward Higgins’ office, where the other man is looking down at him, arms crossed, expression blank.


Michael refuses to acknowledge him further. Instead, he picks up his clipboard. Higgins has his objectives, and Michael has his. And for now -- and maybe for the last time -- Michael’s will win.


Until he brings his Jaegers -- and his pilots -- back home.


-o-


The overall response time is sluggish -- people have been too used to operations on the Wall -- but the years Michael drilled in the routines seems to pay off as people slowly rebound to Jaeger support. J-tech assembles two teams, and the air support mobilizes while the oceanic fleet gets into position. Ground troops have been stationed along the coast while the Kaiju alert is lifted and people are ushered out of the bunkers.


J-science has its own team in overdrive; the reports of Mincemeat’s double-hinged jaw apparently has them salivating. Higgins hasn’t said a word from his glassed-off office, but Adele Ferrar makes herself readily available to help manage the transition. It’s not as smooth as Michael would like, but it’s not bad, all things considered.


And with so much to do, he doesn’t have to think about the implications. Of losing his Jaegers. Of losing his Rangers. Of what comes next.


Of what doesn’t come next.


“Hey, Michael,” one of the techs says. “We’ve got chopper one on the line--”


“Patch him through,” Michael says.


“LOCCENT,” comes the garbled reply. “I repeat, we’ve got unusual activity in the water.”


Michael’s chest clenches. He covers his comm. “Bring up the live feed again.”


Someone presses a few buttons and the large screen shows a choppy video feed.


“Unusual how, chopper one?” Michael asks. “Are we having Kaiju activity?”


“Negative,” is the answer. “But it looks like...it looks like…”


Michael steps forward, narrowing his eyes as the image on the screen bobs toward the waves. It’s hard to make out, but there is something on the water.


Someone.


Michael’s heart leaps into his throat. “Billy and Rick,” he breathes. “Chopper one, can you confirm that we’ve got Collins and Martinez in the water?”


The room around him has gone suddenly silent, and everything else stops. The rest of the recovery operation is suddenly insignificant. They just need to know…


“Yes, we can confirm that,” the chopper pilot says. “We have a visual on the Rangers now.”


There a gasp of excitement around him, and Michael feels the blood rush to his head. He feels shaky, but he keeps his footing, working to keep his voice even as he replies. “Then by all means,” he says. “Let’s bring our guys home.”


-o-


When a Kaiju exits the breach, Michael spends the entire time in LOCCENT. He is there from the first alarm to the final all clear. He waits until everyone is done celebrating; he works straight through even as people stand down. He stays in LOCCENT until the Kaiju falls and until his Jaeger and Rangers are home.


No matter how long that takes.


No matter what condition they’re in.


It’s Michael’s way. More than that, it’s his responsibility.


Which means, Michael will probably live in LOCCENT for the next few weeks until every last bit of his Jaegers are drudged from the bottom of the ocean. At least, that’s the way it should be.


But not the way it is. Michael’s lost both Jaegers and two more pilots. If he can save two of them -- if he can save the last two -- if he can save his friends -- then that’s what he’s going to do.


He checks the stations and assigns duties. Adele is something of a competitive entity most days, but she’s a team player when it counts. Even if she’s not, she’s skilled and adept. He trusts she can handle making basic command decisions in his stead.


Really, at this point, there’s not much to screw up.


So when the call comes in that chopper one is a mile out, Michael breaks with his own protocols and walks out of LOCCENT. He can feel Higgins watching him, but he doesn’t look back.

He’s not even tempted.


He’s going to see Billy and Rick. That, more than anything else, is where he belongs.


-o-


Down the hallway, Michael stops for no one. He’s halfway there when Casey falls into step next to him. “They got them?” he asks.


“Where have you been?” Michael asks, giving the man a sideways look. “It was all hands on deck.”


“I have no official status in LOCCENT command,” Casey reminds him.


“That’s never stopped you before,” Michael says curtly.


“You didn’t even miss me,” Casey says.


“This is as much your project as it is mine,” Michael snaps. “I would have thought you’d want to be there for that, to support your team--”


Casey stops, reaching out and grabbing Michael to a halt, too. He stares at Michael unrelentingly. “I was there for my team,” he says. “So don’t take your frustration with failure out on people who still consider you an ally.”


“Allies are there,” Michael says. “Billy and Rick -- and everyone else -- they needed us. And where were you?”


“You lead, Michael,” Casey says. “That’s your job. It’s not mine.”


“You just want to hurt people,” Michael says. “That’s all you’ve ever wanted.”


“But not all I’m good at,” Casey returns. “I have other abilities. And I have other friends.”


“So you don’t need us?” Michael asks snidely.


Casey glares at him. “So I have other ways to help you, moron.”


Michael doesn’t have time for this. He doesn’t have the energy for this. “Such as?”


“Such as I can’t tell you now,” Casey says. “So you’re just going to have to trust me.”


“Trust?” Michael asks. “I don’t think you know what you’re asking anymore.”


“To the contrary,” Casey says. “I know better than anyone else.”


Michael shakes his head. “It’s been a long day, Malick,” he says wearily. “Too long for this.”


“So let’s not,” Casey says. “You said something about collecting to rest of our team?”


It’s an easy out -- probably too easy. But Casey’s a part of this, just as much as Michael. And, as it turns out, easy outs aren’t so easy after all.


“Fine,” Michael says. “If it means something to you, keep up.”


With that, he turns and keeps walking.


He’s not surprised to hear Casey right behind him.


Although, he may be a little relieved.


-o-


The relief is somewhat short lived. He pushes through the door until he’s on the helipad, where two teams of medics are already stationed. Michael refuses to look at them, turning his eyes instead toward the horizon. His timing is damn good -- because there’s the chopper, approaching in the distance.


Squinting, he makes his way to the edge of the pad, nodding to the lead medic, whom he vaguely recognizes. “Have you received any further information about their condition?” he asks over the roar of the wind.


Casey takes up a position next to him, easing alongside Michael’s flank with a ready expectation.


The medic shakes his head. “We were simply told to expect two casualties,” he replies.


“That’s not very helpful,” Casey mutters.


The medic shrugs.


Michael purses his lips, looking out across the water again. “I guess we’ll find out soon enough.”


They’ve waited this long, and if Michael’s honest, maybe he doesn’t want to know. Because his hope is tenuous and fleeting.


He doesn’t want to think it’s all they have left.


-o-


All trepidations aside, there’s not much choice in the matter. It takes a mere matter of minutes before the chopper circles and settles down. Michael pulls back, ducking slightly as the blades pound above them. Still, he’s the first one out when the door opens.


The flight medic is the first down, edging Michael out of the way as he helps unload the first stretcher. At first, all Michael can see is the mess of equipment crowded on the stretcher and the thick bandages wrapped around most of the head. The ground medic is already along the other side, asking, “What have we got?”


“Most of the lacerations are superficial, but he’s probably low on blood volume given his blood pressure,” the air medic says. “We’ve packed the cut around his eye -- looks pretty deep.”


The ground medic frowns. “Corneal damage?”


“Probably,” the air medic says. “He’s been unconscious since we picked him up but he’s showing signs of awareness so at least we’re not looking at head trauma.”


They’re moving beyond him now while Casey slips alongside the gurney, and Michael finally recognizes the still features and the dark tufts of hair. Martinez.


Martinez. They’re talking about Martinez.


Michael’s stomach turns, and his limbs feel heavy. He’s not sure whether to go with Martinez or stay with the chopper when the next stretcher is pulled out of the helicopter. Whereas Martinez was hard to identify, Billy is impossible to miss.


The Scotsman is writhing, trying to lift himself off the gurney. His blue eyes are wide and wild, and his IV is swinging wildly as the second air medic tries to push his shoulders down.


“Rick!” Billy says, almost hysterically. “I need to see Rick.”


For a second, Michael can only stare. He’s been here before; he remembers this. He remembers seeing Olivia curled up and sedated in a hospital room. When he’d finally offered to take her to see Billy, she’d refused with a look of pure panic in her eyes.


That look. The look of loss -- and not just any kind of loss. They’d all lost something in this world, but not like the Rangers. Not like the Rangers who gave up more than their lives -- they gave up their souls. It was why Olivia had left -- she’d opted for the emptiness over the insanity. He’d never blamed her, but seeing Billy’s absolute terror reinforced his sympathy for her choice.


It was too late to help Olivia.


It’s not too late to help Billy.


“I’ve got to see Rick,” Billy insists, voice hitching. “I need to see Rick.”


The medic looks frustrated, and Michael slides in alongside before anyone has the chance to react any further.


“Billy,” he says, keeping pace and trying to get the other man’s attention. “Hey, Billy!”


Billy’s back arcs and his eyes dart wildly. His breathing is quick and labored, and there’s blood smeared across him from sources that are hard to pinpoint. He shakes his head. “Rick--”


It’s clear that Billy’s only marginally lucid, but Michael can work with that. He will work with that.


Without any other options, though, Michael takes the one that feels less natural -- but that he knows matters. He reaches out, taking Billy’s flailing hand in his own and squeezing.


Billy fights him at first, but finally his eyes lock with Michael’s and his eyes widen. “Michael?” he asks, sounding far too young. It’s hard to remember that Billy’s the senior partner; the experienced pilot. He’s strong and he’s capable and one of Michael’s best friends.


And now he’s bleeding and crying, a wet, dripping mess, desperate for answers Michael doesn’t have. He can’t give Billy want he wants; he probably can’t even give Billy what he needs.


But that sure as hell doesn’t mean that he’s not going to try. Michael’s not out of things to fight for, after all. Not yet.


He adjusts his grip, nodding resolutely. “They’re taking care of him,” he says, almost like a promise. “Just like they’re going to take care of you.”


Billy’s eyes fill with tears, and he shakes his head. “I felt him,” he says. “I felt him let go. I need to find him. I have to bring him back.”


“You did,” Michael says. “You got him out. You got him here. It’s going to be okay.”


It might be a lie, but Michael has to believe it isn’t. They’re at the doors now, and the elevator creaks open as the medic leads them inside. He can hear the medics talking, and while Michael is curious, that’s not where his attention needs to be right now.


Instead, he squeezes Billy’s hand again, even as the Scotsman’s strength seems to flag. “You just have to hold on, okay?” Michael cajoles. “You hold on.”


Billy’s eyelids flutter, and he nods distantly. “Rick…”


“He’ll fight, just like you are,” Michael assures him. “Don’t let go, Collins. And that’s an order.”


Billy mumbles something as his eyes slip shut and his body goes lax. The monitor at Billy’s head chirps and one of the medics comes in, putting a mask over Billy’s face. It’s unnerving, maybe. But Billy’s fingers are still tight around his, which tells Michael all he needs to know.


Billy’s holding on.


This time, no one is letting go.


-o-


Michael does what he can. He stays with Billy all the way to the infirmary, helping as they transfer to Scot to an examination table and start to strip him down. It’s work to remove the bulky suit, and when it’s finally clear, Billy looks strangely small on the table.


The IVs have both been hung, and there are new wires hooking him up to monitors. The oxygen mask is strapped down now as one of the nurses hurried attaches a pulse-ox monitor to Billy’s pointer finger.


One of the doctors peels away the medic’s bandage, showing a series of bloody gashes along Billy’s already scarred abdomen. It almost looks like Mincemeat tried to finish what the other Kaiju started all those years ago.


In that, it’s eerily similar. Billy laid out and unconscious, fighting for his life.


“I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” the doctor says, looking Michael steadily in the eyes.


Michael does his best to retain his composure, even as he watches one of the nurses apply a fresh bandage to the seeping wounds. “How is he?”


“Would it really be much solace to tell you he’s had worse?” the doctor asks.


Michael grinds his teeth together. “You’ll let me know?”


The doctor offers a small, grim smile. “I don’t think there’s anybody else to tell.”


It’s not as much as Michael wants, but at this point, he’s used to that. At this point, it’s something. It’s still hope -- something to hold on to.


And Michael’s still not letting go.


-o-


He finds Casey in the waiting area. He’s pacing restlessly across the back of the room, and his attention is perked immediately when Michael comes in. “So?” he prompts.


Michael tries to take a relaxing breath, but his chest just feels tighter. “Collins is in surgery,” he says.


“He looked bad,” Casey says, and it’s a statement, but Michael hints the concern that motivates it.


“It’s not as bad as last time,” Michael says.


Casey stares at him. “He nearly died last time,” he points out. “He was in a coma, hovering near death for weeks. I’m not sure you’re putting the bar very high.”


Michael draws his lips together, stiffening. If he had something more, he’d offer it. As it is, he doesn’t. “How’s the kid?”


Casey’s face darkens into a scowl. “Vitals are pretty good, but he got his bell rung,” he says. “They’re mostly worried about his eye.”


“It was cut?” Michael asks, remembering snippets of the conversation he’d heard on the helipad.


“The Kaiju sliced them both up good,” Casey confirms. “They think they can save the eye, but there’s no telling how much damage has been done. He could be fine, or he could be blind.”


Michael sighs, lifting his hand to pinch the bridge of his nose. “You’re telling me he’s probably never going to pilot a Jaeger again?”


Casey looks at him. “What Jaeger?”


Michael breathes a curse.


“It could be worse,” Casey says finally.


Michael sits heavily. “Yeah,” he agrees. “But it sure as hell could be a lot better.”


Casey sits next to him, just as heavily. “And I thought you were a realist.”


“Malick,” he says, “after all this, I have no idea what I am.”


-o-


After a little bit, Michael tells Casey to stay and keep him informed of any changes. He wants to know when Billy or Rick are out of surgery; he wants to be there to talk to the doctors, to see them wake up.


Until then, however, Michael still has a job to do.


He makes his way back to LOCCENT Command, expecting the usual chaos. But when he arrives, he finds it functioning normally, people quietly working. Adele smiles at him. “How are Collins and Martinez?”


Michael picks up his clipboard, scanning over her neat notations with skepticism. “In surgery,” he says. “Is everything--?”


“Under control,” she says. “Clean up has commenced, and we’ve retained a strong control of the area. I even took the liberty of releasing a few press statements, but I was waiting for official word on our Rangers before being too specific.”


Michael glances at her darkly. “Have you started damage control in the press?”


“As best I can,” she says.


“It’s pretty complicated,” Michael says, flipping through some sheets.


“Yes,” she agrees. “But you did leave exquisite notes.”


Michael looks at her doubtfully.


“You literally wrote the manual for efficient Shatterdome functionality,” she says. “All the procedures are perfectly documented. It’s brilliant.”


She’s being nice, he realizes. She’s being complimentary. It’s easy to hate her; it’s easy to pin the blame for everyone on her. But she’s smart and she’s dedicated. Her heart is probably even in the right place, just like Martinez says it is. They’re not on the same team, necessarily, but they’re not enemies.


He puts the clipboard back down. “For what it’s worth now.”


“It’s worth a lot,” Adele says. She falters a little, shrugging almost in embarrassment. “Anyway, it’s all ready for you--”


She’s handing the baton back to him. It’s tempting. Michael is a control freak in every possible way; he wants to control the details. The thought of someone else doing his job is bothersome.


But as he looks around LOCCENT, as he thinks about the time he spent there -- the hours and the years and all the rest -- he realizes he’s done all he can. It may not be enough, but it’s all he can give.


It’s over.


The Jaegers are gone.


The last of his pilots are in surgery.


It’s just over.


He shakes his head. “Nah,” he says. “I think you’re doing fine.”


Her eyes widen, in obvious shock. “But the press release--”


“You do those all the time,” he says. “Make the call.”


“But--”


“But we both know this is the way it is now,” he says. He raises his eyebrows. “Isn’t it?”


She looks ready to protest, but finally she nods.


Michael nods back, smiling a little. “Good luck,” he says. “I think you’re going to need it.”


-o-


He’s on his way back to the infirmary when he runs into Fay. There was a time when he would have relished such a coincidence; this time, however, he’s ready to duck his head and just keep walking.


No such luck.


She moves to intercept him. “Michael, hey.”


He offers her a fleeting smile.


She stops, though, showing no signs that she’s just going to let him walk. It figures. All his years of chasing her, and when he’s ready to walk on, she’s standing there in front of him. “I heard that Billy and Rick are in surgery,” she says. “Any word on their condition?”


He shrugs. “Like you can’t find out if you want.”


A pain expression crosses her face. “I know how much it matters to you.”


“Do you?” he asks.


“Of course I do,” she returns.


“But you just don’t care until I’ve lost everything?” he asks coldly. He’s being a jerk, but he’s tired and he’s worn out. And he just doesn’t care anymore.


“That’s not fair,” she says.


“No,” he agrees. “But none of this is fair. I’ve been doing this job for years now, working against a system that wants me to fail. I’ve bent over backward to train my pilots and to keep my Jaegers in operation. I had to beg you to help me then, and now when it’s all gone, we’re going to play nice?”


“Not all of us have the luxury of working against the system, Michael,” she replies tersely.


“You think any of this has been a luxury for me?” he asks. “I made my commitments. I made my priorities.”


“Yeah, your job, at all costs,” Fay says. “Everything -- and everyone -- else came second.”


“We were divorced before either of us came here,” Michael warns her.


“And you really think that made it easier?” she asks. “You’ve been trying to flirt with me for years.”


“And I wasn’t much better at that than I am this,” Michael says. “Because now that it’s over, I’ve got nothing.”


Her expression twitches. She shakes her head, her dark eyes soft. “Not nothing,” she says. “Billy and Rick -- they’re probably going to survive this.”


“For what?” Michael asks with a defeated shrug. “Are you telling me that Higgins is going to keep two obsolete Rangers on the payroll? Or an over-the-hill LOCCENT command tech?”


She draws her lips together, but she can’t deny it. “You wouldn’t want that anyway.”


“You’re right about that,” Michael says. “But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s over. Whatever happens now, I can’t do a damn thing. I’ve spent years defending this coastline, and now I’ve got to trust a wall just like everyone else.”


“The wall could work,” Fay says.

Michael gives her a look.


She sighs. “It was a fight you could never win.”


“We have to win,” Michael says. “The Kaiju aren’t going to stop.”


“I wasn’t talking about the Kaiju,” she says.


“Well, not that it matters,” Michael says. “It wasn’t worth much in the end.”


“It’s worth a lot,” she says, almost like a promise. “More than you know.”


He cocks his eyebrows. “How do you figure that?”


She hesitates. “Trust me.”


He wants to. Looking at her, he still sees the woman he fell in love with, the only one he’s dreamed of spending his life with. When he tried to save the world, it was always for her.


Which just makes the failure even more bitter.


He shakes his head. “I wish I could,” he says. “I really wish I could.”


-o-


In the waiting room, Casey is still pacing restlessly. “Any word?” he asks.


Casey’s look is hard. “What do you think?”


Michael heaves a sigh. “Do we have an updated ETA?”


“They think another hour or so with Billy,” Casey reports. “They want to be sure before they close him back up.”


“And the kid?”


Casey’s expression turns even more stark. “They’re doing a lot of delicate repair work on his face,” he says. “They’ve flown in an ocular surgeon and a plastics specialist to handle the work. He’ll be longer than that.”


It’s not reassuring. But it’s not as bad as it could be. It leaves Michael with a tightness in his chest that he can’t ignore but he can’t do anything about. “But they’re going to be okay?”


“They’re going to live,” Casey says. “I imagine that’s a far cry from okay.”


Michael almost laughs in exhaustion. “Thank you.”


Casey make a face of disgust. “For what?”


“For stating the obvious,” Michael says. “Exactly when I need it.”


Casey’s face contorts into something resembling concern. “Are you feeling okay?”


Michael rubs a hand over his face. “Not really,” he says. “But there’s something I’ve got to do.”


Casey lifts his eyebrows. “More important than this?”


“Not really,” Michael says. “But I’ve put it off long enough.”


Hesitating, Casey looks unusually expectant. “You’ll be back?”


“Yeah,” Michael says. “This time, for good.”


-o-


The walk back to LOCCENT is long. Climbing the stairs to Higgins office is the hardest ascent of his life. He feels people watching him, but he refuses to look down, he refuses to look back. He’s never second guessed himself. He’s never let them see him doubt. He’s not going to start now.


He’s going to finish this like he started it: head high, eyes forward, heart certain.


He feels his composure waver, however, when Higgins greets him with a smile. “Mr. Dorset,” he says warmly. “I’ve been waiting for you.”


Michael makes his way in slowly, approaching the chair opposite Higgins’ desk with caution while he waits for the punchline. “I apologize that my report will be late,” he says. Then as an afterthought, he says, “Sir.”


Higgins shrugs, nonplussed as he rocks back on his chair. “You’ve had quite the day.”


He’s too cavalier; he’s too friendly. This isn’t like Higgins. Even when he’s smug, he’s not so happy about the loss of property and the loss of life. He wouldn’t gloat over tragedies just to say I told you so.


Michael finds himself at a loss. This isn’t a common feeling, and it’s not particularly good. “I’ll have a full breakdown of events by tomorrow,” he says. “With full documentation--”


Higgins waves a hand. “There’s no rush,” he says.


Michael waits for more, cocking his head. “There’s not?”


Higgins shrugs. “As I said, it’s been a long day.”


Michael shakes his head. “With respect, sir, I’m not sure I understand.”


“I am capable of compassion--”


Michael doesn’t hold back his snort. “Capable, yes,” he says. “But are you inclined to it?”


The benevolence fades from his features. “I am merely trying to be considerate,” Higgins says. “I know this has been a trying day for the entire PPDC.”


Michael’s not buying it. “Every day is hard,” he says. “And every time a Kaiju comes toward the Western Seaboard, it’s hard. But you’ve never cut me slack before.”


“Perhaps I’ve never felt you’ve needed it,” Higgins muses.


“And you think I do now?”


Higgins takes a measured breath. “Perhaps I can merely indulge you now.”


“Just say what you want to say,” Michael demands. “No more beating around the bush; no more clichés. The passive-aggressive conflict isn’t worth it now. Not anymore.”


“My point exactly,” Higgins says. He sighs. “Mr. Dorset, you have done exceptional work. Today and every day before that. You have never ceased to impress and surprise me. Every barrier I put in your way, you found a way around it with undue success. You have been nothing short of extraordinary.”


The compliments are not what he is expecting. In fact, Michael vaguely wonders if he’s dreaming. “I don’t understand.”


“You have been a valuable asset to my Shatterdome and to the PPDC. You have been an integral part in protecting the American continent from peril and harm,” Higgins continues.


Michael practically gapes. “You hated me,” he says. “You did your best to screw me and my efforts over time and time again.”


“I hated your methods, yes,” Higgins amends. “And I could not tolerate your insubordination without due attention. However, I never questioned your dedication.”


Michael almost laughs. “Then why did you work so hard against me?”


“Because the Jaeger program is unsustainable,” Higgins says. “It’s the same truth I’ve been telling you all along. I don’t have the luxury of supporting methods that simply cannot be prolonged. I have my orders, just the same as you.”


“The Jaegers are the only thing that protects the human race,” Michael counters. “And if you respect anything about me, then you know that orders are only worth as much as you give them.”


“That is easy for you to say,” Higgins says.


“No,” Michael says. “It’s not.”


Higgins chews his lip. “Perhaps,” he relents. “But also understand my position. I will do the best I can with the resources I’ve been given. It’s not perfect and it’s not ideal, but I will always make the best efforts I can.”


“The Wall is a dead end, sir,” Michael says.


“With respect, Mr. Dorset, so are your Jaegers.”


The truth of it burns, and Michael clamps his mouth down hard.


Higgins takes no obvious pleasure in it, and he sits forward. “We do what we can,” he says. “We work with what we have. If that’s funding for a wall, we’ll build the best damn wall possible. If that’s an insubordinate LOCCENT Controller, well, then we’ll keep him employed as long as possible despite all his obvious failures to follow the chain of command.”


Michael scoffs. “Are you saying--”


“I’m saying,” Higgins interrupts. “That you did good. Your service and your valor are noted for the record.”


“Does this mean I can get more funding?” Michael asks. “Salvage one of the Jaegers?”


“It means,” Higgins says decidedly. “That you are relieved of active duty until you receive final notice about your reassignment.”


It hits Michael like a ton of bricks. “That’s it?” he asks. “You want me to wait?”


“I want you to do what you do best, Mr. Dorset,” Higgins says. “Starting with what’s left of your team.”


Michael’s chest constricts, and his palms start to sweat. “Sir--”


“Those are your orders,” Higgins says, louder now, more definitive. “The Jaeger program is officially over. What comes next -- we’ll just have to see.”


It’s not said unkindly, but it still feels like a slap in the face. Michael’s gut is heavy with resentment, and he stands abruptly and turns to leave without a reply. He won’t consent to this, even if he can’t fight it.


All he can do is walk away.


All he can do is walk back to his team.