The clatter of combat boots on the metal walkaway alerted Herc he was no longer alone. Herc didn’t turn away from the sight of the techs busy putting the finishing touches on what would be his and Scott’s jaeger, Lucky Seven.
“Thought I’d find you here,” Scott said, coming to a stop beside him. “How are you?”
Whatever hope Herc had harbored that his brother wouldn’t find out where he’d been all morning died. “How’d you find out?”
Scott shrugged. “Your duffel bag was missing and you aren’t wearing the boots I polished last night. You also didn't show up for this morning's meeting, which is unusual for you. I mean, considering we were meeting to discuss what our new uniforms would look like, it was easy to cover for you, but you're big on following orders.”
“You’re better at fashion than me,” Herc pointed out.
Scott studied him. “So you won’t care if I picked out tuxedos straight out of a Bond film?”
“You know I’d make you pay for it if you did, and I don’t think the PPDC would let you.”
“But you are mad at me,” Scott said perceptively.
Herc sighed. “Why the fuck did you think if you slept with him, he wouldn’t come for my head?”
Scott grimaced. “Thought it might work.”
“If I’d lost, he’d have come back for you,” Herc hissed, grabbing his brother by his shirt and pulling him closer. “And tied you up and raped you until you were bleeding. Then he would’ve told you of my death and left you to bleed out. If he could fix it so Chuck found you like that, he would’ve liked it even better.”
Scott’s blue eyes widened, horrified. “I…I didn’t know,” he said. “I thought I was helping you.”
Disgusted, Herc let go of his brother. “Next time, don’t.”
“You’ve gotten meaner,” Scott shot back, trying to cover up his mortification at how badly he’d miscalculated. “What happened to the guy who appreciated his little brother’s help? Burned away by all those –” He drew his finger across his throat.
Herc narrowed his eyes, aware that Drifting with Scott had given his brother far more insight into what it meant to be an immortal without the agonizing pain of actually taking a Quickening. This morning’s challenge had been his third win; the second had happened a month before, shortly after their arrival in Tokyo; the challenger had been a step above Herc’s first challenger, but not by much, and with a similar line of thinking as she had.
“Scott, I’m just trying to protect you and Chuck.”
Scott nodded sarcastically. “Sure. And I can’t do the same for you?”
“What part of ‘you’re not coming back if you die’ did you not get?” Herc asked, frustrated.
“Oh, I got it all right,” Scott said with a nod, “but I thought maybe if I took a chance, that creep would leave as all alone.” He stepped closer and gripped Herc’s right shoulder briefly. “I know you think all I see is pretty, but I saw how you reacted to him, knew the only reason you weren’t challenging him right then and there was because he was part of the manufacturer’s rep party meeting us.”
“He used your phone to text me the challenge,” Herc replied quietly.
Scott started, then swore. “So that’s where the fuck it went. Thought Chuck had borrowed it again; he was pissed I woke him up early.” Scott sighed. “I really thought I was doing the right thing, Herc.”
“I know,” Herc said, and pulled his brother into a hug. “Next time, though, give me a warning?”
Scott smiled ruefully. “Next time, I will.”
“So did you come to find me for my input on the new uniforms?” Herc asked.
Scott shook his head. “I went with what we talked about when we heard we got new uniforms to go with our jaeger.”
“So the vests and khakis are okay?”
Scott nodded. “We’ll have the final versions by the end of the week, since the PPDC employs its own tailors. I know you wanted the vest so you could hide your scabbard and not have to carry a duffel everywhere.”
Herc sighed in relief. “Yeah. Thanks, Scott.”
“You’re welcome,” Scott said. “Need me to cover for you the rest of the day, like the last time?”
Herc shook his head. “No, I’m good. Last time was just too much on top of jet lag and lack of sleep because Chuck was so excited about coming here.” He started to say more, only to be abruptly assaulted by the warning headache of another immortal.
Scott grinned, recognizing the look on Herc’s face. “Oh yeah. There’s someone in our new crew who wants to say hello.”
Herc and Scott made their way down to the jaeger bay floor. They’d been reassigned to the Tokyo Shatterdome as construction to the Sydney Shatterdome had been temporarily halted as the builders had been hit with a lawsuit that claimed they hadn’t done a proper environmental assessment. It was frivolous and a waste of money, but the UN couldn’t circumvent local law.
As a result, the launch ceremony for Australia’s first jaeger was not going to be held in Sydney as initially planned, but in Tokyo. Both Hansens could care less about the politics, especially since now that they were assigned a jaeger, they would not be pulled to do duty in anyone else’s. Herc knew, though, that they would be asked in interviews how they felt about the delays.
One of the benefits to being in the Tokyo Shatterdome was that they were the number two pick for jaeger crew technicians, after Hong Kong. Having spent the last six months juggling jaegers and Drift partners, Herc and Scott knew what to look for in a jaeger crew chief, and they felt they found a good one in Meitetsu Saiki. What mattered more to Herc now, though, was the way the peculiar headache that told him of another immortal was increasing the closer he got.
Lucky Seven had just conn-pod customizations left, so the crew not working on that was assembled around the crew chief, listening to something the chief was saying; some were taking notes. At the Hansens’ approach, the chief quickly dismissed his staff, which made Herc think instantly that whatever the chief was saying was clearly not meant for jaeger pilot ears – a joke or a story, perhaps; Herc and Scott had learned already that their crew chief had plenty to share from his days as an aerospace mechanical engineer.
“Is there something I can help you with?” Meitetsu asked.
“Heard we had an old friend in our crew,” Herc said easily.
Meitetsu smiled and nodded. “I will leave you to reunite, then. Please don’t keep him too long; we have a deadline to meet.”
“We won’t,” Herc promised, and Meitetsu stepped away.
The jaeger tech in question headed straight for them, grinning widely. His red hair had been cropped short, almost so short it was military grade. Herc almost didn’t recognize him, especially in the blue uniform of a jaeger crew tech, but his voice – combined with the unmistakable sense of immortality – marked him as Richie Ryan.
“Of all the ‘domes in the world,” Richie began.
“You son of a bitch,” Herc greeted, no real heat in his voice.
Richie’s grin grew wider and he stepped into the hug Herc offered before stepping back and giving Scott one. “You look good,” he told them.
“What happened with the hair?” Herc asked.
Richie shook his head. “Tried to apply lubricant during training class to a jaeger joint. My partner couldn’t lift the bucket, so she overcompensated and wound up dumping it on me. Stuff’s so thick it was easier to cut my hair than try to shampoo it out.”
“You couldn’t tell us you were doing that?” Herc asked, trying not to sound hurt.
“Didn’t want to get your hopes up,” Richie said. “Besides, there’s a gag order on talking to anyone during jaeger crew training. I wasn’t sure if I’d be assigned here or if I’d be pulled back to Sydney.”
“But you’re on our crew, right? Nobody’s gonna steal you away?” Scott asked.
“What, am I your teddy bear or something?” Richie teased, and Scott flushed. “Yes, I’m on your crew.”
“Good to have you, mate,” Herc said. “Are you eating lunch?”
Richie shook his head. “They want your jaeger to be ready to be launched in four days, so we’re all hands on deck. I’ll see you at dinner, though.”
Herc tried to rein in his disappointment. Richie didn’t become a jaeger tech just for him, but after the morning he’d had, Herc needed a little reassurance from his teacher.
“Unless you need to talk? I can spare a few minutes.”
“I’ll go get Chuck,” Scott said, taking his cue, “and make sure he eats something. I’ll see you in the mess hall, bro.”
“Thanks, Scott,” Herc said gratefully. To Richie he said, “It’s just been a bad morning.”
“Our kind of bad morning?” Richie asked, concerned.
“Yeah.” Herc paused. “It doesn’t get easier, does it?”
“Sure,” Richie agreed readily. “When you stop caring like you do.”
Herc stared at him. “I’d almost forgotten what a ball of cheer you are,” he said dryly.
Richie met his gaze. “You know I won’t lie to you about the things that will get you killed.”
Herc sighed. He wasn’t sure why he was hoping for something different. “Any chance you and I can spend some time together? I’ve…learned a few things.”
Richie nodded. “Probably not tonight, but we’ll work something out before Tuesday’s launch ceremony.”
Herc nodded; it was Thursday, and the jaeger crews would work the weekend to get the job done. “Let me know.” He studied the more experienced immortal. “Damn it, I missed you.”
Richie grinned and hugged him again. “Me too. I’ll see you at dinner.”
Herc returned the hug before he stepped back, feeling better. “See you then.”
Oops. Thought I posted this before other chapter. Please ignore the job-hunting, easily-distracted author. ::creeps away sheepishly::
Herc wasn’t entirely surprised that it took Richie until Saturday morning to break free, given the number of last-minute fixes that needed to be made. Every conn-pod was customized to its pilots, and the customization was usually done in the final days before launch so that the most up-to-date data on the pilots could be used. That also meant, for Herc and Scott, a lot of time spent in the simulator and in the medical bay, getting measured for baseline data, getting the neural underlayer of their drive suits recalibrated, and getting fit for their jaeger-specific suits.
Since it was a non-school day, Scott had volunteered to watch Chuck so that Herc and Richie could fight without an audience. Citing a private lesson, Herc had reserved the kwoon, which meant they could lock the doors for privacy. Now, he and Richie stood in front of each other as they had so many months before, sword against sword.
Now, however, Herc felt more confident about his swordsmanship. He’d dressed for the kwoon in a PPDC-issue navy shirt and gi pants, but he noted that Richie had changed out of his PPDC issue uniform into a rock band t-shirt and jeans. Out of respect for the mat, Richie and Herc wore no shoes.
“All right,” Richie said as they faced each other at opposite ends of the mat. “Let’s see what you’ve learned.” He launched an attack.
Herc parried and countered, and soon Richie was grinning. “What’s so funny?” Herc demanded, drawing back, but not making the mistake, as he’d once done, of lowering his sword.
“That? That move you just did? I remember you bitching that you didn’t understand it,” Richie said.
“Yeah, well, you drilled it into my head anyway,” Herc shot back, enjoying this fight, and attacked.
Richie laughed but parried, deliberately inviting another attack. Herc knew that he was being tested, so he decided to show his teacher what he’d learned.
Nearly an hour later, sweating profusely, Herc lost his sword and, unable to cross the distance he needed to grab it again, he surrendered to Richie’s superior experience. “You got me, teach,” he said, splaying his arms wide as he fell to the mat.
Richie grinned wolfishly. Switching his sword to his left hand, he offered Herc a hand up.
Herc shook his head and waved off the offer. “Not in the mood to see if we can wrestle,” he told Richie as he got to his feet. “So, teach, how’d I do?”
“You’ve improved greatly,” Richie said. “You’re looser, which means you can anticipate and react more easily. “
“But?” Herc picked up his sword and waited.
“But you’re second-guessing yourself in the back of your head. Is Scott giving you hell for defending yourself?”
Herc sighed. “No, but he thought if he fucked my last opponent, the guy wouldn’t come after me.”
Richie sheathed his sword unthinkingly and picked up the hand towel he’d brought, taking a moment to mop his head. He then picked up a lemon-scented towel and used it on the mat. He was silent for the length of time it took him to wipe down the mat, removing any evidence of the blood they’d spilled. “You think he’ll do it again.”
“I love my brother, but thinking about consequences hasn’t been his strong suit.” Herc put his sword away in the duffel bag he’d brought.
“You can’t be thinking of the last fight you had, the last thing you said, in a fight, Herc. You need to live in that moment as if it’s your last.”
Herc exhaled slowly. “I know. But…he’s my little brother, Richie. I’ve been taking care of his messes since we were kids.”
“How old is he?” Richie asked.
“So, more than old enough to know better. What kind of messes?”
“Nothing that would land him in jail, but we’ve had some close calls. He has a bad habit of seeing someone pretty and going after them, without asking for details or thinking much beyond how he can get them into bed.”
“He knows he can count on you to fix it if it goes wrong,” Richie surmised. “God. If Mac could hear me saying this, he’d be so smug. Like he told me back then, you can’t fix everything, Herc. Even if you are immortal.”
“Doesn’t change that I want to,” Herc countered.
“Not saying it does. But it does mean you need to try to make Scott understand there are some things you can’t fix.”
“I’m trying,” Herc told Richie. “But I’m never sure if Scott’s listening.”
Richie patted Herc on the back. “Maybe once you two are Drifting more, he’ll see it better.”
“I can only hope,” Herc said, and changed the subject. “I told Chuck you were here. He got excited; he’s hoping you’ll surrender that jacket you let him borrow.”
Richie laughed. “Not likely, sorry. And did you tell Chuck anything about immortality?”
“No. I…I don’t know how to even start that conversation.”
“Then I won’t mention it, either,” Richie promised. “How’s he doing in school?”
“Top of his class in math and science and loving that he gets to have class with a whole bunch of other students in a virtual environment. I ran with your suggestion on Russian, by the way, so we’re learning that together. I’d love for you to stop by and quiz Chuck – that’ll give him a thrill.”
“And have you picked up more than just how to ask for directions to the bathroom?” Richie asked in Russian.
“I sure as hell hope so,” Herc replied in the same language, and Richie laughed.
“I have until lunch free,” Richie told him in English. “I’d love to visit with your son.” Hand on the door to the hallway, Richie added, “One more thing.”
“I’m glad you didn’t lose your head in the last six months to either one of us or the kaiju.”
“Thanks, Richie. I was beginning to wonder if I’d see you again.”
“Jaeger tech training is six weeks, but I’d just missed the cutoff and I needed my visa to reflect that I could be in this country, so it took me longer than I expected. Plus I took a quick trip back to Paris. Had to make sure my boyfriend understood what I was doing.”
“And did he?” Herc asked as Richie opened the door to the hallway.
Richie sighed. “Yeah, but he didn’t like my explanation, and we argued. We’re both stubborn assholes, so it’ll be a while before one of us bends and says we’re sorry for being idiots.”
Herc raised an eyebrow. “That doesn’t sound like a healthy relationship to me.”
Richie smiled ruefully. “It’s what happens when you fall in love with an older and more cynical version of yourself.”
“Got it. So why does he disagree with you?”
“Mostly, it’s his typical knee-jerk reaction,” Richie said. “He’s an ex-cop. He wants to protect people. So when I tell him that I’m joining the jaeger corps so I can work on jaegers, Nick’s first reaction was….”
“Aren’t you going to get hurt?” Herc guessed.
“Right. Which sets me off and there we were, being stupid over nothing.” Richie glanced at Herc as they made their way down the hall. “I don’t suppose you’d know anything about that?”
Herc chuckled. “Absolutely not. Angela and I never argued like that. Ever.”
Richie grinned. “So give me an example.”
“Her cell phone battery was dying,” Herc started.
“Say no more,” Richie said, waving it off. “I can just picture how that ends.”
Herc smiled as a pang of grief surged through him, and glancing at Richie, he knew his teacher understood.
The Hansens’ quarters in Hong Kong were less luxurious than what they had in Sydney. The room had bunk beds, a mini-kitchenette, a single desk, and a three-piece bathroom. A wide closet was the room’s saving feature. A twin-size air mattress had been set up for Chuck’s use.
“Home sweet home,” Herc said as he led Richie inside.
“I’ve seen closets bigger than this,” Richie noted.
Herc laughed. “So have I. At least the room’s wide enough that the three of us can move. Can’t wait to get back to Sydney.”
Chuck sat on his bed, watching a video on his laptop.
“Where’s Scott?” Herc asked.
“Dunno,” Chuck shrugged, and returned his focus on the video. “He got a text and he took off about an hour ago.”
Herc made a frustrated sound, but he knew his brother thought Chuck was capable of taking care of himself. The marshal of the Tokyo Shatterdome did not share the Sydney marshal’s view of ensuring Chuck’s safety, beyond informing Herc that, if there was a kaiju attack, Chuck was to evacuate to the ‘dome’s shelter for non-essential personnel.
“So what are you watching, Chuck?” Richie asked in Russian.
For a moment, Chuck didn’t react. Then it registered who was there. He hastily ditched his laptop and scrambled to his feet. “Richie!” He ran to greet him.
Laughing, Richie knelt slightly to hug Chuck. “Hey, champ,” he greeted in English.
Chuck leaned into the hug shamelessly. “You’re here!”
“Yeah, I’m one of the jaeger techs for Lucky Seven.”
“Awesome!” Chuck didn’t seem to want to let go.
Richie hugged him a bit longer, then stepped back. “You’re getting taller.”
Chuck looked disappointed at being let go. “Dad says I’m gonna be as tall as him.”
Richie glanced at Herc, who was six feet tall, then at Chuck. “Yeah, I’ll take that bet. How are you doing?”
“I don’t like it here,” Chuck said. “I don’t get to go out like in Sydney.”
“He’s restricted to quarters,” Herc said by way of explanation. “The marshal in Sydney lets him visit her and talk jaegers.”
“How long are you stationed here?”
“Til they get Sydney finished,” Herc said.
Richie considered. “That could be a while. You should ask –”
Herc shook his head. “Already did. This is what they’re giving us.”
“I want to go home,” Chuck said. “You have money, Richie. Can’t you get me home?”
“I can’t, Chuck,” Richie said, turning to look at the preteen boy. “Your place is with your dad. Plus, I can’t do the job I want to do if I took you.”
Chuck stuck his lower lip out, unhappy.
“But maybe, if your dad okays it, I can take you for a motorcycle ride, give you someplace else to look at? It’s a sunny day but cold; you’ll need to bundle up.”
“You have your motorcycle here?” Herc asked, surprised.
Richie nodded. “I don’t like being without transportation, so I’m willing to pay whatever it takes to ship it.”
“We didn’t bring our gear or our bikes,” Herc said. “They said we couldn’t take them. But you have extra gear?”
“Please, Dad, can I go with Richie?”
“I’m due back on shift in three hours,” Richie said. “But yes, I have extra gear. Long as you haven’t gotten a bigger head, Chuck.”
“I don’t have a big head!” Chuck protested.
Richie looked at Herc. “Permission to take your son for a ride?”
Herc considered, then nodded. “Be good for him to get out; he’s been going a little stir-crazy, I think. Probably why Scott left him alone.”
“One of the other techs has a Honda cruiser,” Richie said. “Want to see if you can borrow it?”
Herc shook his head. “Wouldn’t be comfortable asking; besides, I don’t have an international driver’s license or my gear.” He paused. “Long as you bring him back safe and we have some time to talk before you go on shift?”
Richie nodded. “I’ll protect him like he was my own, Herc. Never worry about that.”
“Is that a yes, Dad?” Chuck asked.
“Yes, it is, kid,” Herc replied. “Now I need you to promise me you’ll be good for Richie, okay?”
“Yes, sir, I will.”
“Meet me down in the motor pool in twenty? I need to shower.”
“So do I, ” Herc agreed. “See you there. And Richie? I know I keep saying it, but thanks.”
Richie grinned. “You’re welcome.” He exited the small quarters.
“All right, Chuck,” Herc told his son, seeing that he hadn’t changed out of his pajamas. “Time for you to get dressed while I shower.”
Twenty minutes later, Herc was in his duty uniform and Chuck was in a sweater, a long-sleeved t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. Herc had spent a minute to make sure the laces on his son’s shoes were securely tied, a move that earned him an eye-roll, but Herc didn’t want to take any chances. January in Japan meant the weather was cold but the day was clear and sunny. Herc made sure Chuck had his winter gloves before they headed down to the motor pool.
“We won’t be out too long; I don’t want Chuck to freeze,” Richie told Herc as they stood in the motor pool next to Richie’s bike. “But expect us back in about half an hour.” He proceeded to bundle Chuck into a heavyweight leather jacket, lined with a furry lining Herc suspected was fleece, and handed Chuck the helmet to put on. Herc then made sure Chuck put on his gloves.
“This is so cool,” Chuck exclaimed, his voice muffled by the helmet.
Herc waited until Richie had donned his gear and mounted the motorcycle before assisting Chuck onto the passenger seat.
“Hold on tight, Chuck.”
“Yes, sir,” Chuck promised, nodding.
“He’s ready,” Herc told Richie.
Richie grinned. “We’ll be back,” he promised Herc.
Half an hour later, they returned. Herc had spent the time chatting with the officer in charge of the motor pool, talking about motorcycles, and was surprised at how quickly the time had flown.
“Did you like that?” Herc asked his son as he helped him off the BMW RS 1200 motorcycle.
“That was fun!” Chuck said, taking off his helmet and handing it over. “Thank you, Richie.”
“You’re welcome,” Richie said, taking the helmet. “Come on, let’s get you warmed up. Colder out there than I was expecting.”
Richie started to lead them to the lounge near the motor pool when they heard the kaiju alarm sound. Seconds later, they heard, “Ranger Herc Hansen and Ranger Scott Hansen, please report to LOCCENT. Ranger Herc Hansen and Ranger Scott Hansen, please report to LOCCENT.”
“Go,” Richie told Herc. “Chuck, you’ll stay with me, okay?”
Herc spared a moment to hug his son. “Be good for Richie, all right? I love you.”
Chuck nodded somberly. “Yes, sir.”
Herc kissed his forehead and stood. Not letting himself look back, he jogged to his destination.
Herc met his brother in LOCCENT, which was the control room for the jaeger operation. Scott’s dark auburn hair was mussed, as if he’d dressed hastily, and his uniform shirt wasn’t tucked in properly. Herc suspected his brother had been doing his favorite activity: fucking someone.
“Tuck your shirt in,” he hissed.
“Thanks. Where’s Chuck?” Scott asked, hurriedly making the required uniform adjustment.
“With Richie,” Herc said as he watched the Toyko Shatterdome’s marshal, a stern-looking mixed-race man, stride into the room.
“Coyote Tango is launched?” the marshal asked the LOCCENT chief, who sat in front of a bank of monitors.
“Yes, sir,” the LOCCENT chief replied. “Lucky Seven’s modifications are only 40% complete, sir.”
The marshal’s eyes narrowed. “Notify the military,” he commanded. Turning to the Hansens, he said, “The pilots of Tacit Ronin are sick with food poisoning. Report to the drive suit room and be prepared to launch in their jaeger.”
Scott started to protest, but Herc said, “Yes, sir. Going there now,” saluted the marshal, and then guided his brother out of LOCCENT.
“Are you nuts?” Scott demanded. “We won’t fit in those harnesses! Tacit Ronin’s pilots are tiny!”
“Orders are orders, Scott. Be grateful we’re not going to Drift with anyone else, and they can recalibrate the harnesses.”
“Do you even know what that jaeger can do?” Scott hissed as they headed down the hallway.
“No, but we’re gonna learn, aren’t we?”
“This is a recipe for disaster,” Scott bitched. “We’re supposed to be off duty, damn it.”
“Problem, Scott? You didn’t get off before the alarm sounded?”
Scott glared at his brother. “No need to be crude.”
“Oooh, so you didn’t get to shower,” Herc mocked. He hated knowing that his brother would sleep with anyone given the chance; knowing that his brother was fastidious about being clean afterwards was just one more thing in the ‘things he wished he didn’t know’ column.
“Why don’t you just fuck Richie and be happy?” Scott shot back, annoyed.
“Because I’m not interested in him that way and unlike you, bro, I don’t do guys.”
Scott shook his head. “Told you before, you don’t know what you’re missing.”
“I’ve been in your head, so yes, I do know and I don’t think I am.”
“Bet you if you met the right guy you’d bend over so quick your head’ll spin,” Scott shot back.
Further conversation was halted as they reached the drive suit room. Both men had learned that the drive suit techs were gossips; anything that was said in that room was often dispersed within a Shatterdome within minutes.
As it turned out, they suited up for nothing. Coyote Tango managed to kill the kaiju before Herc and Scott could do more than take a crash course in what Tacit Ronin could do.
Though he and Scott had been introduced to the other two jaeger teams when they’d arrived, he’d noticed that they kept to themselves. Partly, Herc knew, was because the pilots of Tacit Ronin were Japanese and their English, while passable, was more fluent in what they needed to communicate with LOCCENT than casual conversation. Coyote Tango’s pilots were British, and Scott had made the mistake of trying to flirt with Tamsin. He’d been resoundly rebuffed and informed that Tamsin was a lesbian.
All of the Shatterdomes had a small lounge just off the jaeger pilot quarters; in Toyko, it had been set up as a media room, complete with game consoles, a large-screen TV, and a comfortable sectional capable of seating twelve. This was where Herc sat, reading the tablet he’d been issued, trying to figure out how he might’ve approached the Category II kaiju. Richie had texted him, saying that he couldn’t bring Chuck back to his quarters since the marshal had ordered that Lucky Seven be more functional in case of another kaiju attack, but that he’d have someone bring Chuck to him. Scott had crashed as soon as they’d been cleared to be off duty; though Herc normally didn’t pay attention to his brother’s snoring, it got on Herc’s nerves when he was trying to concentrate.
“Ranger Hansen?” a deep, British-accented voice asked, catching Herc’s attention.
Herc glanced up to see the tall, dark-skinned lead pilot of Coyote Tango before him. Everyone knew who Stacker Pentecost was; he’d volunteered to test the Pons system during the early days of the Jaeger Program, and his input had been critical for the success of the two-pilot system. Still, it was one thing to know who he was; it was another to meet him, in person. Stacker oozed confidence and authority.
Stacker had changed from his drive suit into the PPDC’s duty uniform. As the PPDC’s Senior Ranger, no Ranger outranked him, so Herc quickly rose to his feet and saluted.
“Sir,” Herc said crisply.
Stacker grinned. “I’m off duty; call me Stacker if I can call you Herc.”
It was then Herc noticed that Stacker held his son’s hand. Chuck looked wide-eyed, as if he’d seen something amazing.
“Since you’re bringing my son back, it’s Herc,” Herc said, shaking hands. “Hey, Chuck, can I get a hug?”
Chuck shook himself and launched himself at his father. “I watched Coyote Tango kick ass!”
“Oof,” Herc said, stumbling back and landing on the couch but managing to catch his son. “What do you mean?”
“Your jaeger tech couldn’t get your son to the shelter before it closed, so he asked for permission to keep him with the jaeger crew,” Stacker explained, taking a seat opposite Herc. “They have a live feed of all the battles in the crew lounge.”
Herc frowned, trying to remember his mental map of the Shatterdome. “We were over by the motor pool. Isn’t the shelter closer to the motor pool than the jaeger crew area?”
Stacker shook his head. “It’s faster to run across this dome than it is to get to the shelter, which is two floors underground, and the elevators lock in an emergency. The jaeger crew lounge is considered a mini-shelter zone.”
Herc breathed out, relieved. “Thank you for bringing Chuck to me. Did you enjoy watching the battle, Chuck?”
“That kaiju was huge! And Coyote Tango’s cannons are awesome!” Abruptly aware of his manners, Chuck let go of his father and turned to Stacker. “Thank you, Mr. Pentecost.”
“You’re welcome,” Stacker said, looking amused.
Chuck darted off for the nearby restroom at that point.
“Thank you again,” Herc said.
Stacker nodded acceptance. “I came to ask if you were free to join me for dinner,” he said. “A few of us like to go to a pub after a day like today; they have good food and good beer.”
Herc looked startled. “Just me?”
Stacker nodded. “If that’s not a problem.”
“No, it’s not,” Herc said hastily. “I’ll see if my brother will watch Chuck.”
Stacker shook his head. “I’ve arranged for Chuck to get a tour of Coyote Tango, and my crew chief will make sure he gets dinner and she’ll watch him until we’re back.”
Herc stared at Stacker. “I take it you know something I don’t?”
“It’s not a secret your brother prefers to be elsewhere on a Saturday night,” Stacker said evenly.
Herc let out a breath. It didn’t sit well that the most senior ranger had noticed what Scott was doing, which meant that Herc had to talk to his brother, and fast. “He won’t get in trouble for it, will he?” Herc worried.
Stacker shook his head. “Not as long as he is careful and can do his job,” Stacker said.
Herc considered the invitation as Chuck returned from the restroom. Turning to Chuck, he asked, “So, do you want to tour Coyote Tango and spend time with her crew chief?”
“Please, Dad? Mr. Pentecost already introduced us. Her name’s Kim and she’s Vietnamese and she has a GameForce,” Chuck babbled, naming the latest in handheld game consoles.
“I feel outmaneuvered,” Herc said, making Stacker grin shamelessly. “All right. What time?”
“It’s 1530 now,” Stacker said. “1930? I’ll meet you here.”
“Sounds like a plan. Appreciate the invitation.”
Stacker smiled. “Thank me after we’ve had a beer. Young Mr. Hansen, it was a pleasure speaking with you. You make your father proud.”
Chuck blushed. “Thank you, Mr. Pentecost.”
Stacker nodded once, and exited the room.
“So how was the jaeger crew lounge?” he asked Chuck.
“Really cramped, not like this,” Chuck said. “But Richie introduced me to everyone and they had sweet rice crackers.”
“Oh really?” Herc knew his son had developed a weakness for the treat. “Better than the ‘dome’s shelter?”
“I wasn’t scared,” Chuck bragged. “Richie thought he’d get in trouble for taking me with him, but Meitetsu said it was okay. I need to run faster, Dad. Can you train me? I got tired and Richie had to carry me.”
It hadn’t occurred to Herc that his son needed to be in shape for his safety. Belatedly, Herc realized that since Chuck was in school online, he wasn’t getting the outside exercise that his old school provided, both in the walk to school and in P.E. class. “We’ll start tomorrow,” he promised his son.
The pub was not far from the Toyko Shatterdome. Stacker and Herc rode there with four of the crew from Tacit Ronin and Coyote Tango in one of the PPDC’s large SUVs. It wasn’t anything remarkable from the outside, and to Herc, stepping inside, it looked like a hundred other close-to-a-military-base bars.
The waitress led Stacker and Herc to a table near the back; their compatriots headed for the crowded bar. Herc meant to follow, but Stacker’s hand on his arm pulled him back.
“Trust me, you’ll want a table,” Stacker said.
Herc sat down, wondering what the fuss was. Then he saw the menu, which was in both Japanese and English. Beers from all over the world were featured, and the food was what one would find in a gourmet pub.
“This was a tourist spot before the kaiju attacked. The owner has connections who’ll get him anything despite the rationing,” Stacker told him. “He swears he’ll keep running as long as we keep fighting. Government looks the other way; they think it’s good for Shatterdome morale.”
“Wow,” Herc said, noting the prices were all in yen. He had no clue what the exchange rate was; he hadn’t bothered to go off base, more concerned with making sure Chuck wasn’t left alone, bored. “You’re gonna have to guide me, mate. I have no clue what any of this costs.”
“Don’t worry, Herc. I have you covered.” Stacker smiled.
“I’ll owe you, mate.” He waited for the waitress to take their orders before speaking again. “So do you think we’ll win?”
Stacker laughed. “Save the shop talk for the ‘dome, Herc. I’m more interested in knowing how you managed to steal a helicopter.”
Herc started. “I didn’t steal it,” he protested. “I was already in it. I just took off without permission.”
“Uh huh, a fine distinction,” Stacker said, grinning.
“Oh, like you haven’t ever done anything like that,” Herc shot back, certain of it.
They traded stories of earlier times, getting to know each other better over beer and some of the finest fish and chips Herc had had in years. For a few hours, it felt like he was among friends again, and he’d go home to his wife and his son like the only threat he had to face was being called to active duty in a combat zone. He knew the difference, though, and so did Stacker.
“Time to head back, I think,” Stacker said, sounding as regretful as Herc felt.
“We’ll do this again, yeah?”
Stacker smiled. “Count on it.”
Back at the Shatterdome, Herc collected a sleepy Chuck from a tired but cheerful crew chief.
“Did he give you any trouble?”
“He was a good kid,” she said. “Asked a lot of questions.”
“Do I owe you anything for your time?”
She shook his head. “Tonight, no. Ranger Pentecost took care of it. Have a good night, you two.”
“Thank you,” Herc said gratefully.
Chuck was so sleepy, Herc wound up carrying him back from the jaeger crew area to their quarters. He found Scott waiting up for them.
“Where the fuck have you been all night?” Scott demanded. “You left your phone here.”
“With Stacker,” Herc said as he put Chuck to bed.
“Who the fuck…Senior Ranger Pentecost? What the hell?”
Herc undid Chuck’s shoelaces and put him to bed as he was, aware that if he tried to undress him, Chuck would wake up and then not be able to fall back asleep. Dropping the sneakers to the side of the air mattress, Herc rose to face his brother. “He invited me to have dinner,” Herc said evenly. “We figured you had other plans.”
Scott looked unhappy. “I got turned down,” he said. “Went looking for you and couldn’t find you or our boy.”
Herc’s eyebrows shot up. “Chuck spent the evening with Coyote Tango’s crew chief.”
“Didn’t think to ask over there,” Scott groused. “So what did Pentecost want?”
Herc looked at his brother. “He’s ex-British Royal Air Force,” he said simply. Something told him if he said how good it felt to talk with Stacker, like he wasn’t just another jaeger pilot, Scott wouldn’t take it kindly.
Scott rolled his eyes. “Good thing I wasn’t there,” he said. “I’d be bored listening to you swap war stories.”
Relieved that his brother accepted that story, Herc started to undress for bed. Curiosity got the better of Herc and he asked, “So who were you trying to pick up tonight?”
“Second engineer on Tacit Ronon’s crew,” Scott said, shrugging. “Turns out she’s married and not in an open relationship.”
“You’d better watch it, bro,” Herc said warningly. “People are noticing what you’re up to. Maybe cut out hitting on people in the ‘dome?”
“Whatever,” Scott said, unconcerned, and lifted himself into the top bunk.
Tuesday dawned bright and clear. Suited up in their new uniforms, Herc and Scott spent the morning doing the pre-launch press interviews. Scott loved this part of their job, and the camera loved him. Herc tolerated the interviews as a necessary part of being a jaeger pilot; he understood that the public would support the program more if they felt like they knew who was piloting the jaegers. He was not, however, as exuberant about doing it as Scott was. The PPDC’s PR department had warned Herc that he’d be painted as the more reserved pilot. He was, by PPDC standards, the lead pilot in Lucky Seven, since he was in the right harness; if he was painted as more serious, that was fine by him. Herc had always thought being a leader meant being more serious.
By the time they suited up in their drive suits for the launch ceremony, it was 1000 and they’d been up for five hours. Herc walked out of the drive suit room, Scott a step behind him, the elevator to their jaeger a short distance down the hallway. Out of a door Herc hadn’t realized existed, Stacker Pentecost stepped forward. Chuck was right beside him.
“Dad! Uncle!” Chuck cried, running to Herc.
“Hey, Chuck,” Herc said, surprised, bending down to hug his son while Scott snapped off a salute in a knee-jerk reaction.
“At ease, gentlemen. Thought he’d appreciate watching this in LOCCENT,” Stacker said easily. “You only launch a jaeger once.”
“Appreciate that, sir,” Herc said respectfully.
Scott grinned. “Front row seat, huh, kid?”
Chuck nodded, wide-eyed.
“Good luck out there,” Stacker said to Herc and Scott, smiling. “Come on, Chuck, your dad and your uncle are on a deadline today.”
The worry that his son was missing out on this occasion – stuck doing schoolwork and not able to move freely – eased as Herc watched Stacker take Chuck away.
“How’d he know you were worried about that?” Scott wondered as they stepped into the elevator.
“Dunno,” Herc replied, “but I’m glad he did it.”
Fifteen minutes later, they put Lucky Seven through its paces. The Drift between the Hansen brothers wouldn’t set any new records for strength, but it was solid, which, in Herc’s mind, mattered more. They wouldn’t fire any weapons today, but later, in a more secure environment where, if something went wrong, the public wouldn’t see. Today was all about exercising Lucky Seven’s limbs, arming but not firing the weapons, and making sure the systems worked as expected. Lucky Seven passed with flying colors.
It was late afternoon by the time they were finished with the launch testing. By then, both men were grateful for their training and dedication to being fit; nonetheless, the effort of moving a two thousand-ton jaeger was exhausting. Grateful to be finished, Herc and Scott got out of their drive suits, assisted by the suit techs, and headed for the nearby locker room to shower and change into their new Lucky Seven duty uniforms.
“Man, she’s faster than I thought she’d be,” Scott remarked as they changed. “Lighter than those Mark Is, yeah?”
“I like her,” Herc said, his voice muffled as he pulled on his T-shirt. The Drift had been full of Scott’s thoughts about their jaeger and his sheer excitement over finally getting to Drift with his brother after the months of being reassigned to others, feelings and thoughts Herc shared with equal measure, but Herc knew, too, that Scott liked to talk.
“Maybe this’ll get the stupid politicians to shut up and let us come home, yeah?”
Herc laughed. “We can hope. Is that you or me who’s hungry?”
“Both of us,” Scott said, the ghost Drift between them a gentle tug. “We missed lunch being out there. If you do all the talking when we brief the marshal, we can be in the mess hall that much faster.”
“He’s going to ask you questions,” Herc said knowingly.
“I’ll keep it brief,” Scott promised, spraying his damp hair with gel and then combing it through. “Talk like you.”
Herc laughed, enjoying the feeling of satisfaction that hummed between them. “You all pretty yet?”
“Give me a sec,” Scott said, and checked his hair in the mirror. Herc reached over and adjusted his vest and Scott grinned his thanks. “Lead on, bro.”
Both men shared a dislike for the Tokyo Shatterdome’s marshal, having been spoiled by Sydney’s more approachable one. They were professional enough, however, to hide it, but it did drive Herc to be more succinct with his answers than he might otherwise be so that he didn’t spend more time than he had to with the man. In the end, the debrief took them half an hour, with Herc promising the marshal a more complete report via email by 1600 the next day, once they weren’t so tired.
“You’re writing that report,” Herc told Scott in an uncompromising tone as they headed for the mess hall.
“Aw, come on, Herc. You know I suck at that stuff,” Scott countered.
Herc rolled his eyes. “So it’s practice. I’m going to look it over anyway.”
“Can’t you just write it? Not like you weren’t right there.”
“Hey, I did the talking. You do the writing.”
Scott made a disgruntled sound. “Fine. I’ll do it tonight so you can nitpick it in the morning. That good enough for you?”
“Works for me,” Herc agreed with a nod. “Hey, we should stop by LOCCENT, see if Chuck is still there and pick him up.”
“I’ll meet you in the mess hall,” Scott said. “My stomach won’t wait.”
Herc took the detour to LOCCENT and found his son happily talking to the LOCCENT’s second-in-command.
“Uh oh, looks like it’s time for you to go, padawan,” the 2IC said, seeing Herc enter.
“Can I stay, Dad? They’re monitoring the Breach!” Chuck pointed to the big screen where the Breach map was shown.
“Sorry, kid, but you’ve gotten to spend all day here instead of being in school,” Herc told his son, who immediately pouted. “Wouldn’t want to wear out your welcome now, yeah?”
“I guess,” Chuck said, but stood up from the chair he’d been occupying. He turned to the 2IC. “Thank you, Assistant Chief Moreno,” he said formally.
“You’re welcome, Padawan Hansen,” she said with a grin. To Herc she said, “You need to show him Star Wars.”
“Was waiting until he was old enough,” Herc returned. “Guess it’s time. Thank you again.”
Assistant Chief Moreno shook her head. “You’re welcome, but it’s Senior Ranger Pentecost who made the request. Chief Horne and I just made sure your son learned a few things along the way.”
“Still, I appreciate it, and if you see Senior Ranger Pentecost, please pass on my gratitude.”
“Will do, Ranger Hansen.”
“Come on, Chuck,” Herc urged his son. “I don’t know about you, but I skipped lunch and I’m hungry.”
“The screens are so cool,” Chuck said as they walked out of LOCCENT. “Did you know they monitor your blood pressure and your oxygen intake?”
“That’s what they told us in the Academy,” Herc said with a nod, and let his son babble about what he’d learned, watching them take Lucky Seven through her paces.
Life settled into a routine after that. Saturday mornings, when both of them weren’t busy, Herc would fight Richie in the kwoon – sometimes with swords, sometimes not. Herc started running with his son and teaching him some of the basic moves of the kwoon, just to keep him active. Sometimes Scott joined them; it was more likely he didn’t, since he preferred weight training to martial arts. In February 2016, Lucky Seven was launched as the primary jaeger on a Category II kaiju in Victoria Harbor. It was Lucky Seven’s first fight where it was primary – and the Hansens managed to kill the kaiju before it could enter the harbor.
Two weeks after that kill, the Hansens received word that they would be reassigned to Hong Kong until Sydney was complete. The new estimated construction completion date was March of 2017, a date in which neither Hansen believed.
Hong Kong, like Tokyo, was spare in its furnishings, but it had been built to house and launch thirty jaegers with maximum efficiency. Everyone who was a jaeger pilot did at least one rotation in Hong Kong.
“Why can’t we just go home?” Chuck whined as they packed their belongings in Tokyo. “And why can’t I just go with you in Lucky Seven?”
“No place to put you, kid,” Scott told him. “There’s no such thing as a jump seat in a jaeger.”
“I hate being in a jumphawk,” Chuck whined.
Herc looked at his son. “Thought you liked it,” he said.
“I don’t like ‘em because they’re helicopters and you’re not flying them,” Chuck said.
“Oh for the love of –” Herc said exasperatedly. “Chuck, it’s only two hours in the jumphawk; it’ll take us three and half. You’ll be there before us, and Richie said he’s gotten permission for you to be in the jaeger crew lounge to wait for us.”
“I dun’wanna go.”
Herc sighed. Chuck had been moody lately, and he was tired of fighting with his son. That didn’t mean, however, that he was prepared to lose; it just meant, in Herc’s mind, it was time to fight dirty.
“Chuck, would you rather go back to your grandparents?” he asked.
“No,” Chuck said vehemently.
“That’s the choice I have if you don’t go to Hong Kong,” Herc said quietly. “You won’t be able to do all that higher level math you love.”
Chuck looked stubborn. “I can do my classes anywhere.”
“Not if you’re not my dependent,” Herc pointed out.
“I still don’t want to go.”
“Chuck, you hate sleeping on that air mattress.”
Chuck just glared at him for daring to point out that truth.
Herc sighed again. “You leave me no choice,” he said, and picked his son up.
“Dad, don’t! Don’t embarrass me like that! I’m not a stupid little kid!” Chuck said.
Herc put his son down. “Then don’t throw a tantrum like one, understood?”
Chuck said mulishly, “Yes, sir.”
“Now. You have two choices. You can finish packing your duffel and you have that GameForce you somehow acquired or I can do it for you and the GameForce goes into my duffel bag.”
“I’ll do it,” Chuck said hastily.
“Hurry up, then,” Herc said, hiding a grin; he knew his son loved that handheld gaming device, especially since someone had loaded it up with the official PPDC jaeger vs. kaiju game. “We need to get you on the flight deck in half an hour.”
Chuck started shoving clothes into his duffel.
Thank God for a Quartermaster, Herc thought as he returned his attention to his own last-minute packing. If I had to buy him new clothes every three months, I’d be broke. Technically, the PPDC took it out of his pay through a clothing allowance, but considering that Herc didn’t need to spend much of his pay on anything – he wasn’t worried about a mortgage or a car payment – Herc barely noticed.
Scott, ever the fastidious one, took the longest to pack, but Herc had allocated time for that. He left Scott to his ‘must pack this a certain way’ obsession and took Chuck to the flight deck. He was surprised to see Stacker on the deck.
“Morning, sir,” Herc said, saluting.
Stacker returned the salute. “At ease. I came by to wish you luck in Hong Kong.”
“Thanks. Hopefully we won’t need it.”
“As for you, young Hansen,” Stacker turned to Chuck. “I have a present for you.” He handed Chuck a set of earmuffs, emblazoned with the Lucky Seven logo.
“Really? These are for me?”
“Do they say ‘Coyote Tango’ on them? I think not,” Stacker said dryly, handing them over. To Herc, Stacker said, “They’re rated for a better sound protection than the standard issue ones and they connect with the comm system on the jumphawks. Your son mentioned he hated the noise to my crew chief.”
“Thanks,” Herc said gratefully.
Stacker grinned. “You’ll get your own set in Hong Kong. The PPDC wants your authorization to make copies for the civilian market.” He turned to Chuck. “So when you meet your dad, be sure to tell him what you thought of them, okay?”
“Yes, sir,” Chuck said eagerly, and grabbed his duffel bag to lift it onto the waiting jumphawk. A crewman reached to assist him, then helped him into the jumphawk.
“See you in Hong Kong, Chuck. I love you,” Herc said, ignoring his superior officer for the moment.
Stepping back, he looked to Stacker. “Anything else you needed from me, sir?”
Stacker shook his head. “Only to tell you that you might want to swing by Medical and pick up some muscle salve for later. It’s a long walk to Hong Kong.”
“I’ll take that advice, sir,” Herc agreed. “It’s been a pleasure.”
Stacker nodded and shook hands. “Same here.”
It would be the last time Herc would see Stacker for a year.
Keep in mind - these are still the Glory Days of the jaeger program, and I wouldn't doubt there was a fair amount of tie-in merchandising, given what we learn in canon later....
The rest of the year passed in a blur. The first Category III kaiju exited the Breach in November and was defeated, after much struggle, by two of Lima’s jaegers. Lucky Seven was reassigned to Lima, then Anchorage, and back to Hong Kong in time for Christmas. Chuck took the moves in increasing resignation, while Scott saw them as opportunities to further increase the number of notches on his bedpost. Herc managed to talk his way of a challenge in Anchorage, but Richie wasn’t as lucky.
“Figures,” Richie said disgustedly to Herc, the morning after that challenge. “I manage to go a year without someone wanting to my head, and the moment I come back to the States, it’s boom time.”
“Maybe we have homing beacons,” Herc half-joked. “Welcome to your home country, now be prepared to be hunted.”
“Well, that means I’m doubly screwed,” Richie said sourly as they sat in a private corner of the Anchorage Shatterdome, a bottle of whiskey and two shot glasses between them on a borrowed crate. “I have dual citizenship in the US and France.” He waved his hand at Herc’s look of concern. “Don’t mind me, Herc. I’m pissed off that I had to take another Quickening.”
“Besides the obvious reasons?”
Richie met Herc’s gaze. “Yeah. That shirt I was wearing? Joe’s Bar doesn’t exist anymore in Seacouver. That’s the last shirt I had from that bar.”
Herc eyed his teacher a moment. Richie had told him that he handled Quickenings fairly well, but Herc hadn't expected this. Then Herc saw the hint of a grin playing on Richie's mouth and he burst out laughing. “Like you don’t know where or how to get more.”
Richie’s grin widened. “Yeah, but I was only supposed to borrow them, not take them permanently.” He shrugged guilelessly. “Joe handed me a box and told me to take whatever I needed.”
“Reformed thief, yeah, sure,” Herc teased, even as he wondered if he'd ever get to the same point with Quickenings.
Richie saluted him with a shot glass full of whiskey, which he promptly downed. He savored the burn a moment before shaking as if he was cold, then exhaling. “All right. Back to work. Thanks, Herc.”
“Anytime, Richie,” Herc said, picking up the impromptu bar.
In February 2017, Lucky Seven took down the first Category IV kaiju, its third kill. As if that were the magic signal, they were ordered back to Sydney, which was still under construction, but had a working jaeger launch bay.
“Welcome home,” Marshal Carrodus greeted them as they stepped off the jumphawk. Jumphawks had transported Lucky Seven for the lengthy trip from Hong Kong, a fact that made the brothers grateful.
“It’s good to be home, ma’am,” Herc said, saluting the middle-aged copy of Tinker Bell. “I see you’re no longer a deputy marshal; congratulations.”
She smiled. “They let me finish my Shatterdome, and we’re on track to be finished in May,” she told them with satisfaction. “Your quarters are in the same location as before; I’ll let you get to it. Report to me at 0800 tomorrow for duty.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Herc and Scott chorused.
“Nothing to say, young Mr. Hansen?” Marshal Carrodus asked, looking at Chuck.
“Tired, ma’am,” he said quickly. “They woke me up at o’dark early.”
Marshal Carrodus laughed. “I imagine they did. Get some sleep, then.”
“Yes, ma’am, I was planning on it.”
Herc was grateful for her words; Chuck had perked up slightly, almost as if he’d been prepared for the friendly but firm woman to be absent.
“Dismissed then, all three of you,” Marshal Carrodus said briskly.
Herc and Scott saluted her, then picked up their duffels and headed inside with Chuck in tow.
After sharing often-cramped spaces, it seemed like heaven to have separate, actual beds. In Sydney, Chuck had his own room, and their quarters were spacious enough that they had their own living room. All told, it was about six hundred square feet of efficiently divided living space.
“I feel like I’ve stepped into a five-star luxury hotel,” Scott said as he unpacked. “God. I’ll never take this for granted again.”
Herc laughed. “I’m just glad it’s not dusty and cobwebby like Lima was.”
“That too. How the hell it got that way when Lima’s only been open a few months is beyond me.”
“Just glad we’re out of there. My Spanish is for shit.”
Chuck stepped into the bedroom Herc and Scott shared. “Dad, I can’t find my toothbrush.”
“Did you check the bottom of your duffel bag?”
“No,” Chuck said, as if it were obvious.
“Then don’t stand there and do it,” Herc said impatiently. It was getting harder and harder to deal with his son, he thought, especially since he’d gotten into the habit of ‘accidentally’ being in the jaeger crew area anytime Lucky Seven was launched. Even knowing that Richie would look out for Chuck, Herc had been warned to make sure his son made a greater effort to be with the nonessential personnel during a kaiju attack. Even more worrisome in Herc’s mind was Chuck’s determination that he was going to be a jaeger pilot.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do about Chuck,” Herc told Richie a few days later during one of their spars. “He wants to be a Ranger like me and Scott.”
“He can’t hide and enlist as someone else,” Richie pointed out. “Everyone knows who he is. Not like there’s a lot of jaeger pilots with families.”
Herc rolled his shoulders and shook out his wrists. “Be grateful for small favors?” he asked Richie as he picked up his sword.
“Well, it’s either that or you forbid him to do it, which will just make him more determined to do it. What’s legal age in Australia?”
“Sixteen. He’ll be fourteen in August.”
Richie shook his head and moved to a ready position, swinging up his cavalry-style rapier. “Your other choice is to figure out a way to seal the Breach so he doesn’t have to fight.”
“I don’t see how,” Herc said, and attacked.
Richie easily parried the attack and held Herc’s sword trapped for a moment. “Want me to talk to him?”
“Doubt it’ll help,” Herc said gloomily, and disengaged his blade.
“Ranger Herc Hansen, please report to Medical,” the Shatterdome’s intercom blared, in the too-pleasant female voice that was the ‘dome’s default computer voice. “Ranger Herc Hansen, please report to Medical.”
Alarmed, Herc and Richie locked gazes. Herc quickly sheathed his sword as Richie did the same. Herc spent a moment putting his sheathed sword in his duffel bag. Richie did the ‘significantly more experienced immortal’ trick of making his sword vanish. Watching Richie do it, Herc spared a moment to wish he could do the same, but Richie had warned him it required a lot more experience in the Game than Herc wanted to acquire.
Together, they jogged the distance to Medical. All of the Shatterdomes had been set up as combat-theater-quality hospitals. Five years into the Kaiju War, ‘dome medical personnel had treated everything from industrial accidents (working on a 250 foot jaeger was not without risk, even with safety protocols in place) to radiation poisoning to kaiju blue exposure from decontaminating the jaegers post-battle. Feeling confident in the medical staff’s competence was assuring, but Herc’s first thought was that something had happened to Chuck. Glancing at Richie, Herc knew that that was his thought as well.
To their shared relief, they found Chuck standing worriedly in the lobby. “They won’t let me in,” he told his father.
“What’s going on?” Herc asked.
“Uncle Scott wasn’t waking up,” Chuck said, sounding scared.
“You stay with Richie; I’ll find out what’s going on,” Herc said, moving to speak with the receptionist.
“I’m Ranger Hansen; I was paged here?”
“Yes, sir. Your brother is being treated now; he was unconscious when he was found. Please wait a moment and I’ll have someone bring you back.”
Herc swore, wondering what the hell Scott had done. The receptionist pressed a buzzer on her desk, and as if on standby, a nurse stepped out from behind the glass door to the left of the receptionist’s desk. “Follow me please, just you for now, Ranger Hansen,” she said.
Herc glanced over to where Chuck was leaned up against Richie as if he could find comfort that way. “I’ll be back.” Not waiting for their assent, he turned to the nurse. “I’m ready.”
The nurse brought Herc back to one of the patient treatment rooms, where his brother lay hooked up to machines and an IV line. To Herc’s relief, he could see that Scott was breathing, but looked to be asleep. An oxygen mask was over Scott’s face, helping him breathe. A bag hung to one side of the bed, collecting waste. Herc winced as he deduced that meant a catheter.
“What happened?” Herc asked.
The nurse shook her head, refusing to answer. “Dr. Lavrova will be with you in a moment,” referring to the ‘dome’s head physician.
The Russian doctor walked in at that moment as if on cue. “Ranger Hansen, your brother has been stabilized,” he said. “We will keep him under observation for the next twenty-four hours, but he really needs to be more careful of his alcohol intake in the future.”
“What the fuck happened?” Herc demanded.
“You don’t know?”
Herc shook his head. “I haven’t talked to Scott since yesterday afternoon. I heard him come home around 0230 but figured he’d been out with someone like he usually is when we’re not on duty.”
“Your brother drank too much last night and has alcohol poisoning. We were fortunate that his condition was discovered so it could be treated. We had to flush out his system. He was having difficulty breathing.”
Herc stared, shocked. “Are you telling me he almost died?”
The doctor stared back. “Yes. He should wake naturally in the next hour or so. He is also suspended from duty for the remainder of the week since he will not be in any state to perform until his body recovers.”
“Fuck.” Herc knew they were due for another kaiju attack; it had been three months since the last one, and they were next on call. Anger surged through him, but he forced himself to calm. “My son would like to see him.”
“He is welcome to visit, but I wanted to brief you first, Ranger Hansen. Also, the marshal would like to speak to you at your earliest convenience.”
“Scott’ll recover, though, yeah?”
“He will,” Dr. Lavrova assured him, but the disapproval radiating from him was evident.
“This isn’t normal behavior for him,” Herc said, annoyed.
“His liver function is less than it was when he entered the program,” Dr. Lavrova said mildly.
Herc compressed his lips to bite back the words he wanted to say. He’s my little brother, he’s not that much of an idiot, he doesn’t drink to excess…but he knew anything he’d say wouldn’t change the reality. “I’ll talk to him,” Herc compromised.
The doctor looked at Herc as if he’d heard that line before. Maybe he had, Herc thought. Most of the head physicians were from top medical centers all across the world, recruited specifically for their experience; many were combat surgeons or emergency room doctors.
“I’ll make sure he’s more careful,” Herc said, hoping that the doctor would believe him.
Dr. Lavrova smiled gently then. “I hope he listens. I’ll let the nurse know to bring your son back.”
“Thank you, Dr. Lavrova.”
The doctor nodded once then headed out of the room. Now that they were alone, Herc studied his brother. Shadows ringed Scott’s eyes, as if he hadn’t slept well. “What are you trying to prove, Scott?” Herc asked softly.
Scott slept on, unaware.
Herc turned at the feel of Richie’s immortality and saw Richie bringing in Chuck.
“He’s not dead, is he?” Chuck demanded.
“No,” Herc hastened to assure him.
Chuck stared at his uncle. “I thought he was.”
“You did a good thing, son,” Herc said. “You saved him.”
Chuck preened at the praise and allowed Herc to reel him in for a hug. “I don’t want him to die,” he said in a small voice.
“He won’t,” Herc assured him. “Not today.”
Chuck considered it. “Okay,” he said, and wriggled out of the embrace. “Can I go watch the crew work on the second jaeger bay?”
“No. Don’t you have school?”
“No. It’s a teacher work day or some shit.”
“Chuck, no cursing,” Herc said.
“Why? You and Uncle Scott do it.”
“Because we’re adults,” Herc said for what felt like the umpteenth time.
“When I’m a jaeger pilot, I’ll curse all I want,” Chuck said defiantly.
“No, you won’t,” Herc tried.
Chuck shot him a look full of hate. “I don’t want to be here,” he announced and started for the door.
Richie stopped him. “Then ask if you can leave, Chuck.”
Chuck glared at him sullenly. “You always side with him.”
“We won’t get into that,” Richie deferred. “Don’t you want to be here when your uncle wakes?”
“No,” Chuck said. “He won’t thank me.”
As shocked as Herc was at that declaration, he didn’t have time to react to it. Scott started to stir, moaning faintly.
“Easy, bro,” Herc hastened to assure him. “You’re in the hospital. You have an oxygen mask on.”
“Hurts,” Scott slurred.
“Yeah, I imagine it does,” Herc said. “Come on, Scott, wake up for me.”
Scott opened his eyes slowly, blinking against the light. He pulled the oxygen mask off, licking his lips as if his tongue was fuzzy. “My head....” he moaned.
Herc reached for the nurse call button, hoping she could bring his brother some painkillers. “You have a hangover. You poisoned yourself with alcohol.”
“Was that the train that hit me?” Scott managed.
“Yeah,” Herc agreed. “So put that mask back on. You’ll be here at least another day.”
Herc glanced at Chuck, who just looked like he wanted to be elsewhere. “Maybe you and Richie should come back later.”
Richie nodded agreement. “Come on, Chuck, let’s see if you can beat me in Final Fantasy,” he suggested.
“That game sucks,” Chuck protested, but allowed himself to be shepherded out of the room.
The nurse arrived just as Richie and Chuck were exiting. “Awake are we?” she asked, not expecting a reply as she bustled to attend to her patient. “Let’s see if we can ease that migraine.” She injected Scott’s IV with a painkiller and added a fresh bag of saline. “Let’s take that oxygen away, too. How are you feeling, Ranger Hansen?”
“Like I have a hangover,” Scott said as the nurse disconnected the oxygen line and removed the corresponding mask. “A suck-ass one.”
“Well, you know how to prevent that from happening, right? Don’t drink,” she said cheerfully, her movements efficient as she proceeded to check Scott’s pupils. “I’ll be back in a bit to check on you, and Dr. Lavrova will be in to speak with you.”
Herc waited until she was out of the room to speak to Scott. “Just answer me this, Scott. Was drinking that much worth being grounded for the rest of the week?”
“What?” Scott jerked in surprise. “Grounded? What do you mean?”
Herc heard footsteps and glanced over his shoulder to see the doctor step in. “I’ll let Doctor Lavrova tell you. I have to meet with the marshal.”
“Herc, wait, what?” Scott tried to stall, but annoyance and frustration drove Herc to leave without answering.
Marshal Carrodus looked about as happy as Herc felt when he stepped into her office a few minutes later. Herc saluted her, a gesture she returned before gesturing for him to sit.
“You and your brother are Australia’s only jaeger team,” she began, her voice even and firm. “There are more teams ready for a jaeger, and only so many jaegers. It would behoove you as the lead pilot and as the older brother to make sure Scott does not do anything to endanger your status as Australia’s preferred choice to be in Lucky Seven. Understand that?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Herc said crisply. “I will remind Scott to be more careful.”
“I will speak to him as well,” Marshal Carrodus said. “The kaiju are starting to come more frequently. I cannot afford to have my only jaeger team to be incapacitated, understood?”
“I have notified the PPDC of our status. They are sending us more crew to complete the construction of the second jaeger bay so that we have a backup and do not have to request the loan of a jaeger team from Hong Kong. If there is a kaiju attack, Hong Kong will cover us until you and your brother are fit for duty. That fitness for duty will be at the discretion of Dr. Lavrova and myself.”
“Understood, ma’am. Is there anything else, ma’am?” Anger simmered in Herc.
Marshal Carrodus let out a breath and studied Herc. “I understand you’re angry, Herc, but you cannot let it consume you,” she said gently.
“Yes, ma’am, I understand. Permission to be dismissed, ma’am?” Herc retreated to the cold formality that had served him so well over the years, hoping she’d get the hint.
Looking as though she wished she could say more, Marshal Carrodus nodded. Saluting her crisply, Herc rose to his feet and exited the room. He suspected as generous as she was, Marshal Carrodus didn’t take kindly to being taken advantage of, and Scott’s actions had crossed a line. Even if it was an accident – and Herc thought it had been – it didn’t excuse Scott’s inability to think about what might happen next.
Anger carried Herc outside, and he ran an impromptu circuit around the ‘dome until he thought he wouldn’t immediately go and punch his brother for being stupid. He didn’t know what to do, given that he suspected it wasn’t the first time Scott had drunk to excess. He clung to the hope that the thing that motivated them both – to kill the kaiju to keep the world safe for Chuck – would be enough to give Scott a reason to stay sober.
Two days later, Scott was released from Medical. Dr. Lavrova had kept him another day, citing a need to make sure he wasn’t feeling any side effects, but Herc suspected it was the chief physician’s effort to make sure Scott didn’t immediately go out drinking again.
Herc arranged for Meitetsu to distract Chuck with more jaeger engineering; he didn’t want an audience for what he wanted to say to Scott.
“Cut the solicitous brother bullshit,” Scott said the moment the door to their quarters was closed. “You’re pissed off at me.”
“I thought you fucking around with everyone was one thing. You nearly killed yourself and you got us grounded with a kaiju attack imminent!” Herc roared. “Don’t you care about anything?”
Scott stared at Herc. “Don’t get your panties in a twist, Herc. I fucked up, all right? I won’t do it again. I didn’t think the drinks were that potent.”
Herc eyed his brother. “You’re killing yourself. What am I gonna do if you’re not here to pilot with me?”
“I’m sure you can find someone, Mr. Universally Compatible,” Scott shot back. “Or go into the officer corps. Did you think I’d miss you and Marshal Carrodus talking about that?”
“It’s just a fucking option. I still want to pilot, you idiot, not deal with the suits and ties. Is this all this about? You’re jealous?” Herc asked incredulously.
Scott flopped onto the couch, trying to look like he didn’t care. “Yeah, I’m fucking jealous. Nobody’s asked me if I want to be an officer.”
Herc stared at his brother. “That’s not it. You’ve never cared about leading anyone.”
Scott shook his head. “You don’t get it, do you? Immortality’s wasted on you. You don’t drink, you don’t fuck around, and you’re sorry that you have to murder someone just to keep on living.”
“Oh, is that what this is about?”
“Yeah, maybe it is,” Scott shot back, sitting up. “Because from where I’m sitting, you have all the benefits and you don’t even bother to take advantage of them.”
“You know I’ve never been the party guy,” Herc said evenly. “Why the fuck do you think I’d start now?”
“Because it’s the fucking end of the world, you asshole!” Scott shouted, jumping to his feet. “I was down in the K-science lab day before yesterday and they’re saying the kaiju are getting worse – they’re predicting we could see even bigger, nastier kaiju!” He stepped into Herc’s space, jamming his finger into Herc’s chest and poking repeatedly as he spoke. “And you – you think it’s easy being in your head, having to keep your fucking secrets? When are you going to tell Chuck, huh?”
“Not a fucking minute sooner than he has to know,” Herc shot back, grabbing his brother’s wrist to stop him. “Because I don’t want him dying in the body he’s in. You know he’s been climbing our jaeger without a safety harness? Twice he’s been caught doing that. You get that? You want our boy to be stuck at thirteen forever? Forever caught in that hormone surge, that height and mass he’s at now?”
Scott stared at him. “No,” he said finally, and Herc let go of his wrist. “How old was Richie when he died?”
Scott breathed out. “Chuck wants to be a Ranger like us,” he said, turning worried eyes to his brother. “He had the application form on his computer screen when I walked in. I just…I couldn’t handle that idea. Especially after talking with that kaiju groupie down in K-Science.”
“So you decided to poison yourself with alcohol instead?” Herc asked as his anger over Scott’s actions lessened.
“Seemed like a good idea at the time, and the bar up the road was having a $2 drink special on fru-fru cocktail shots.”
Herc’s eyes narrowed. “Thought you hated those.”
“Yeah, well. They wanted $20 for a shot of cheap whiskey.” Scott ran a hand through his hair and grimaced. “Look, I need a shower. What do you say you and me take a spin through the kwoon? We haven’t done that in a while and maybe Marshal Carrodus will hear about it and put me back in her ‘like’ column?”
“Did she yell at you?” Herc wondered.
Scott made a face. “She didn’t have to. She just said she was disappointed and that she had higher expectations for an Aussie pilot who’d told the recruiters that he wanted to kick kaiju ass so his nephew didn’t have to. The way she said it, I just wanted to throw myself on her feet and apologize and promise never to do it again.”
“And?” Herc asked expectantly.
Scott shook his head. “Not going to do it again. That was not fun at all.” He looked at Herc. “Give me twenty and I’ll be ready to go at it, yeah?”
Herc nodded agreement and went to change his clothes while his brother showered. Herc felt better, now that he had explanations for Scott’s behavior, and made a mental note to check with K-science to hear the news for himself. Still, the worry that this wouldn’t be the last time Scott screwed up lodged in Herc’s mind and heart.
Much to Herc’s relief, Scott didn’t drink to excess again, and he was making a concerted effort to work out more. Whatever Dr. Lavrova had told Scott about his liver seemed to have spurred Scott to make a change, and Herc was grateful. Scott even started helping Herc keep Chuck fit, teaching Chuck how to lift weights. Chuck basked in the attention, and some of his sullenness towards Scott – who had yet to tell Chuck thank you – eased.
In May, the Sydney Shatterdome was officially launched, and its second jaeger, a Mark-3 named Vulcan Spectre, was added to its roster. Herc welcomed the new pilots, both of whom were recent Academy grads who, like most jaeger pilots, had lost someone to the kaiju. They were also, the Hansens discovered, complete introverts who only had eyes for each other outside of their jaeger.
“Creepy,” Scott remarked, a week after Anabella Sisneros and Emma Kennedy arrived. “It’s like we don’t exist.”
Herc laughed. “Is that because they aren’t flirting with you, or that they’re doing the Kaidonovsky thing?”
Scott shook his head. The Kaidonovskys piloted the Russian Mark I jaeger, Cherno Alpha, and were notorious for being so Drift compatible they were inseparable. “No, I get that the Kaidonovskys think that calling each other ‘Sasha’ is funny and they’re glued to each other’s hip. This…this isn’t cute. It’s like they’re telepathic.”
“Chuck says they have high Drift compatibility, better than ours,” Herc said.
Scott made a face. “Our boy is comparing us against everyone else? Great. We’ll just have to see who takes down a kaiju better, yeah?”
Herc nodded his agreement and lifted the weight bar to put on the rack so Scott could bench-press it. “Definitely. Wonder who’s going to get the new American jaeger?”
“Probably an American pair,” Scott guessed with a grunt as he lifted the weight bar. “Since the early photos show it being stamped with American military insignia.” He stretched his arms out, then let the bar drop slowly to its resting pegs. “Sure does look fucking cool, though – like it has sunglasses.”
“Don’t tell me you don’t love Lucky Seven anymore,” Herc teased. “Thought you liked how it has a visor like on a knight’s helmet.”
“Yeah, but –” Scott lifted the bar again “- doesn’t mean I don’t wish she was better. The new jaeger’s got plasma cannons instead of ballistic mortar cannons like we have. Only reason it’s a Mark-3 jaeger instead of a Mark-4 is the hull.”
“That would be sweet,” Herc agreed as he continued to spot for his brother. “Maybe we’ll see it in action and can compare, yeah?”
Before Scott could say anymore, the kaiju alarm sounded. “Ah, fuck,” Scott groaned. “My arms are going to hate me now.”
Herc shot his brother a glance. “Annabelle and Emma are on deck,” he reminded his brother. “We just gotta suit up and be ready.”
“Right,” Scott said with a nod. “But it’s gonna suck anyway.”
Much to Scott’s regret, he was right. It took both Vulcan Sceptre and Lucky Seven to take down the kaiju, one of the heaviest yet on record.
February turned into August in a flurry of press interviews and several runs between Shatterdomes as the PPDC tried once again to predict where the most coverage would be effective. Lucky Seven and Cherno Alpha participated in a joint training exercise that turned into a surprise kaiju kill. Investigation proved that the Russian tech in charge of monitoring the Breach had fallen asleep at his post, which eased fears that the kaiju were changing pattern.
Herc made a point to celebrate his son’s birthday, but Chuck wasn’t in the mood since his only wish – to be allowed to train as a jaeger pilot – was firmly denied. Not even the now-rare treat of a flourless chocolate cake – Chuck’s favorite dessert – could sway his anger.
“You haven’t finished school yet,” Herc tried to argue.
“Raleigh Becket’s the youngest pilot ever, and they don’t have a minimum age anymore for the Academy,” Chuck countered, referring to one of the pilots for the new American jaeger, Gipsy Danger.
“Chuck, he’s 18. That’s still four years older than you.”
“Then you can make it up to me by teaching me how to use your sword.”
Alarm shot through Herc and his voice came out sharper than he’d intended. “No. You’ll cut yourself and you don’t….” Herc shut his mouth before he could say ‘heal like I do.’
“I bet Richie will teach me.”
Herc sighed. “I bet he won’t,” and watched Chuck stomp away to prove him wrong. When Chuck came back ten minutes later, he was even more pissed off and greeted Herc with “I hate you both.”
“So you’ve said,” Herc noted, relieved that the other immortal had taken his side. “I take it this means you don’t want your cake?”
Chuck eyed his father. “It’s my birthday still,” he said, and reached for the tin holding the cake. Rationing meant that Herc had had to trade favors to get the cake made, since chocolate was now considered a luxury item. The result was only a 6-inch wide cake, but the smell of chocolate had been making Herc drool for hours.
“If I promise to get you a mini-figure of Gipsy Danger signed by the Beckets, can I have a bite?”
“Only if,” Chuck bargained, and took a bite of the cake first before letting Herc have a bite. He then scampered off to his room before Herc could steal another.
Laughing, Herc waited until he heard Chuck slam the door before he looked over at his brother, who opened the kitchenette’s microwave and revealed a second, much smaller cake – lighter in color thanks to less chocolate.
“You owe me a bottle of whiskey for this,” Scott told him as he put the second cake down on the coffee table along with two forks.
Herc reached down beside him and pulled out a small, travel-sized bottle. “Will one shot suffice?”
Scott looked at it. “Next time, I’m specifying size of bottle,” he said, and Herc laughed.
The following two years flew by in a haze of interviews, kaiju, and new protocols. Both Hansens were promoted to Senior Rangers along with the Kaidonovoskys in recognition of their long service to the PPDC. Stacker Pentecost was promoted to marshal of the Anchorage Shatterdome, and adopted the sole survivor of Onibaba’s attack on Tokyo. Herc found himself in the odd position of being Stacker’s confidant regarding parenting issues, a position that Scott thought indicated that Herc was being groomed for more. Given that Herc didn’t quantify the conversations, Scott’s interpretation of the friendship Herc had with Stacker was often full of innuendo. Despite Herc’s reluctance, he was ordered to take officer training; Scott accepted the snub with less grace, and it started to show in their neural handshake.
It didn’t help that Scott had found increasingly more dangerous ways to get his rocks off. Seeing his brother experimenting with BDSM was a RABIT Herc refused to chase, but something about the memory made Herc think that Scott had deliberately thought of it, just to see if he could get a rise out of his brother. When that failed, Scott demanded, “Is there nothing you don’t find freaky anymore?”
Herc just looked at his brother. “I’m immortal and we’re fighting alien monsters. You discovering you like a little pain with your pleasure seems normal in comparison.”
“You seriously need to get laid, bro. Your imagination is getting limited,” Scott shot back.
Herc shook his head. “Whatever,” Herc said, and dropped the subject.
“I’m going to the Academy and you’re not going to stop me,” Chuck declared the moment Herc walked into their quarters after a sparring session with Richie a few days later.
Stunned, Herc stared at his son, who continued, “I’ve already applied and they’re accepting me for the class of 2019.”
“They can’t do that without my permission,” Herc managed to find his voice.
“So?” Chuck stood defiantly. “I’m gonna be sixteen and I won’t need your permission. Besides, they need all the jaeger pilots they can get. Dr. Geisler says we have to be prepared for more attacks.”
In that moment, all Herc could think of was that he’d failed in his mission to kill the kaiju so his son wouldn’t have to. Worse, if something happened to Chuck at the Academy and he died, he wouldn’t have anyone to explain what happened, not like here in Sydney. Herc had figured out that Marshal Carrodus was a Watcher and that Dr. Lavrova always made sure he was Herc’s examining physician, which made Herc believe that the physician knew something but wouldn’t ask.
Taking his silence for an answer, Chuck lifted his head defiantly. “Nothing to say, old man?”
Herc closed his eyes briefly. “Chuck, you haven’t even graduated from high school.”
“I can test out,” Chuck bragged. “I’m only taking a few classes this year anyway since I’ve done so well.”
“Damn it, Chuck, the whole reason your uncle and I are doing this is so you don’t have to!” Herc exploded.
“But I want to,” Chuck said aggressively, and took the wind out of Herc’s argument. “I want to fight beside you and Uncle Scott. I want to be the best the PPDC’s ever seen.”
Herc pressed a hand to his forehead as if it would stop the headache from forming in his head. Another man would’ve put his foot down and forbid his son from taking this step, but Herc wasn’t that man. He studied his son, aware that Chuck was a Hansen by upbringing if nothing else, even if Richie was convinced that - due to Chuck's latent immortality - he wasn't Herc's biological son. Chuck had just been born a little early, that was all. Not for the first time since Angela had called him in a panic because she was pregnant, Herc’s heart surged with love.
Finally, Herc spoke. “I can’t stop you from going,” he said quietly. “You’ve been telling everyone the last few years that you want to be a jaeger pilot, a Ranger. So I’m going to let you go – but on two conditions.”
“Name it,” Chuck said, nearly bouncing in his delight at being able to go.
“You keep your grades up and you don’t try to ‘accidentally’ be in the jaeger crew area when Scott and I are out in Lucky Seven.”
Herc silenced Chuck with a look. “And you don’t let Scott or anyone else convince you to try anything stupid. I know he’s slipped you a couple of drinks.”
Chuck stared at Herc. “I don’t like the taste,” he said defensively. “Besides, he thinks it’s funny if I’m drunk and I hate it. I’m not dumb, Dad.”
“I know,” Herc said, and pulled his resisting son into a hug. “I just…don’t want to lose you. You’re all I got.”
Chuck squirmed out of the embrace. “You smell like blood,” he said, wrinkling his nose. “You were sparring with Richie, weren’t you?”
“Yeah, I was.”
“How come you never get hurt?”
Herc smiled painfully, aware that the window to tell the truth was narrowing. “Magic,” he told Chuck, and tickled him to distract him. The sound of Chuck’s indignant squeal was one Herc treasured as only a parent could.
Six weeks after Chuck started the Jaeger Academy as a member of the class of 2019, Herc was on his motorcycle, enjoying a rare afternoon off. In his gear, he was anonymous, not the famous jaeger pilot, not the father being called names for allowing his son to join the Jaeger Academy, not the brother whose sibling was looking for the next thrill. Beside him, Richie was on his motorcycle, pacing him.
The road was wide open; fall was in the air. For a moment, Herc could almost pretend that he had no responsibilities, that his phone wasn’t mounted to his bike and counting down the minutes before he was due back on duty. Staying in the ‘dome had proven to be its own security from headhunters; Herc hadn’t had to fight anyone in years, though he knew Richie had been challenged more often.
“Take a right,” Richie called over their in-helmet comm units.
“Don’t think we’ve been down this road, mate,” Herc said as he executed the turn.
“All the more reason to take it,” Richie said with a laugh.
They traveled down the country road a short distance when a car pulled out in front of them, causing both men to brake hard to avoid a collision. Herc heard another car coming when he felt a strong, unfamiliar immortal presence.
Richie swore. “Fucking trap. Two choices – run or face them.”
Herc looked at the way the two cars neatly blocked them. His motorcycle wasn’t built for off-roading, though he knew Richie’s was. “If we run, they’ll just chase us, and the ‘dome’s fifty kilometers the other way.” He glanced at his gas tank. “I don’t have enough gas to waste like that.”
Richie nodded once then shut off his engine. In one fluid motion, he dismounted and drew his sword. “Is this a challenge or just a bad way of saying hello?” he called.
The driver of the first car stepped out – dark haired, sunglasses, shearling coat, about five inches shorter than either Richie or Herc, and smiled. “It’s a challenge if you’re Herc Hansen,” he said with a German accent.
“And if I said I’d rather fight the kaiju than you?” Herc asked, turning off his motorcycle and drawing his sword.
“Well,” the stranger said, nodding to the car behind them, “considering you’re sucking at the job, I don’t think we’re going to miss you too terribly.” He shut the car door and stepped forward, drawing a sword as he did so.
Herc turned to see the driver of the second car step out. She looked like she’d stepped out of a Hollywood casting call for a rapier-wielding Rapunzel, with blonde hair braided past her knees. Automatically, Herc found himself thinking he could easily use that to his advantage.
“Since you know my name,” Herc said, “who the fuck are you?”
“Emil Kreuze,” he said as he and the woman walked closer, “and my lovely wife, Celeste Dusseljee-Kreuze.” To Richie, he said, “You can go fuck off.”
“Now, see,” Richie said with a shake of his head, “that’s where you’d be mistaken. One on one, or did no one teach you that?”
Startled, Emil did a double take. “You aren’t Scott Hansen?”
“No,” Richie said, his tone implying that Emil was an idiot. “I’m someone else.”
Emil looked to his wife and smiled wolfishly. “In that case, you can fight my wife. After I’ve fought Herc, since you’re such a stickler for the rules.”
Open fields on each side bordered the country road; signage further up the road had indicated they were abandoned farms for sale.
Herc knew his teacher would avenge his death and would make sure that Chuck was taken care of, but it was cold comfort. He put all thoughts away and focused on the moment. “Left field or right, so we don’t damage the vehicles?”
“Left,” Emil decided.
Emil was more skilled than any previous opponent Herc had fought, but Herc was in better shape. As before, Herc’s training came into play – and Emil had clearly never fought anyone who was willing to use both sword technique and jaeger martial arts to win. Herc attacked with all the ferocity that he used when killing a kaiju; Emil was quickly overwhelmed. It was clear, too, that Emil relied heavily on a two-on-one strategy; he kept looking over Herc’s shoulder as if expecting Celeste to jump in and save him.
“Sorry, but not today,” Herc swore as he took the killing stroke. Emil’s head came away, his sunglasses flying, as the Quickening took root in Herc.
Distantly, Herc heard swords clanging, as if Richie was now starting his fight. He spared a moment to wish Richie well before focusing on absorbing Emil’s Quickening. Screaming his name, Herc bent the Quickening to his will, feeling the power of the headhunter’s multiple kills. It felt like an eternity passed before Herc was able to conquer that last battle. Panting heavily and aroused beyond belief, Herc shook himself. He wiped his blade on Emil’s coat, then went to see how Richie was doing in the field across the road.
Celeste’s hair was clearly not helping her at all. Richie defeated her as easily as breathing, leaving her barely time to gasp an obscenity before her head fell to the ground. Herc stood back, not wanting to find out what a Double Quickening felt like, and waited for Richie.
Richie rolled his head and grimaced as he met Herc in the middle of the road. “I hate cheaters,” he said. “They liked to tag-team.”
Herc nodded. “What do you want to do with the bodies?”
“Put them in the trunks of the cars. Use gloves.” He shook his head. “I didn’t bring a shovel, else I’d suggest graves.”
Herc nodded again. “We’ll have to leave ‘em cracked or they’ll mummify.”
Richie grimaced. “How the fuck do you know that?”
“Chuck’s history class last year,” Herc said as he opened his saddlebag to grab his spare motorcycle gloves. “I think I worried him getting so interested in his schoolwork.”
Richie chuckled. “Yeah, he said something to me about that.” Richie reached for his spare gloves, and together, the two immortals disposed of their now-vanquished opponents.
Riding back to the ‘dome, Herc discovered something Richie already knew – the vibration of the motorcycle underneath him acted as a soother for the Quickening-induced arousal. It meant that Herc was a little stickier in his shorts than he liked, but compared to losing his head, he figured it was a mild discomfort to endure.
“You doing all right?” Richie asked as they drew near the Shatterdome’s front gates.
“Yeah. Just need a shower.”
“And a drink,” Richie suggested.
“Something cold would be awesome,” Herc agreed as he stopped to show his ID before being waved on. “But none of that moonshine I hear K-science is brewing.”
“Hey, it’s not as bad as boom-boom,” Richie said.
“That’s completely not reassuring,” Herc replied.
Richie just laughed.
Herc returned to empty quarters that smelled a little too strongly of disinfectant. A note on his tablet indicated that Scott had gone out; no surprise there. He was halfway through showering when he heard the kaiju alarm sound. Swearing and wondering where his brother was, Herc rinsed off quickly, dressed, and headed for the drive suit room.
Scott stumbled into the drive suit room five minutes later, looking panicked. He said nothing to Herc, as had become their custom, while the drive suit techs fitted them into their armor. As the suits were adjusted and bolted on, Herc thought about how Emil had paid off a gate guard to tell him when Herc left on his motorcycle, and set up trip-wire sensors to tell him when Herc crossed into the kill zone – an area Emil and his wife had used before to do the very same thing with someone else.
With a slight mental shake, Herc refocused on what they knew about the kaiju they were about to face. Category III, average size and weight, nothing remarkable other than it was headed inland if the Hansens didn’t take it out in time – just like any other day in Lucky Seven.
Herc looked over his brother as they met in the elevator that would take them to the conn-pod. Scott offered him a sheepish shrug but didn’t offer any excuses for his tardiness. In silence, they stepped into the conn-pod.
“Good afternoon, Rangers Hansen,” the French-accented male voice of Sydney’s chief LOCCENT officer, Fiacre Rhéaume, greeted. “Marshal Carrodus on deck. Prepare for drop.”
“Ready for drop,” Herc said, speaking for both of them as had become their custom.
Lucky Seven’s conn-pod plunged into its body, and was quickly connected as the pilot-to-pilot protocol sequence began as the jaeger was rolled out of the jaeger hanger. Jumphawks would transport Lucky Seven to the drop site, since the kaiju was spotted in the Bismarck Sea, and walking there from the ‘dome wouldn’t save any time.
“Left hemisphere aligned,” Lucky Seven’s female AI intoned. “Right hemisphere not aligned.”
“Hey, Scott,” Fiacre said, “I know you’re excited about kicking kaiju ass, but you need to calm down. Your heart rate is up.”
Scott deliberately took a deep breath, closed his eyes briefly, and straightened his shoulders. Reopening his eyes, he exhaled and was rewarded with the AI intoning, “Right hemisphere aligned. Lucky Seven ready and aligned.”
“Rangers, this is Marshal Carrodus. Prepare for neural handshake.”
Fiacre counted down the fifteen seconds to neural handshake.
“We going to do all our talking in the Drift today?” Herc wondered.
“Not like you don’t already know what I’m going to say,” Scott shot back.
“Neural handshake…initiated,” Lucky Seven’s AI intoned.
The memories flew past – them wrestling as kids, Scott looking at Herc in uniform for the first time, Herc rescuing Chuck from school, the not-quite-chocolate cake they’d shared at Chuck’s last birthday. Both men let them flow by; focusing on one for too long was detrimental to their connection.
“Right hemisphere calibrating,” Scott said.
“Left hemisphere calibrating,” Herc said a moment later as they pulled back their arms and made Lucky Seven make a fist, with one hand cupped over the other, then pulled Lucky’s arms back.
The screen in front of them read, “Calibration complete.”
Sounding satisfied they’d completed that routine task, Marshal Carrodus said, “Gentlemen, your orders are to prevent the kaiju K-13 from making landfall in Papua New Guinea. The kaiju is a Category III, of average size and weight, but beyond that we don’t know much.”
“Got it,” Herc said.
Twenty minutes later, they were plunged into the Bismarck Sea and caught their first glimpse of the kaiju, which looked like an armored turtle.
She looked so pale spread out like that, Scott thought. I didn’t mean to hurt her.
Images assaulted Herc: a girl, no older than fifteen, naked, bound in what had been Chuck’s bed with ropes, a gag, and a mask. The same girl hours earlier, giggling as Scott sneaked her into his room. Scott offering her a drink of something blue-green and fizzy, with a smell that didn’t smell legal. Scott fucking her, the knife Richie had given him an added spice to his pleasure as he held it against her throat; she screamed against the gag, struggled against the ropes. Scott passing out as soon as he came, only to find her dead.
For moment, Herc lost himself in the RABIT – then viciously tore himself free. In the back of his mind, he heard Fiacre speaking in alarm while the AI intoned warning after warning. Without thinking of the consequences, Herc ripped himself out of his harness, screaming, “You fucking asshole!” and started beating Scott, who fought back.
Scott stared at Herc, holding off another blow. “Like you’d care what happened to her; she's nobody,” he said. It’s not like you don’t know what murder’s like, he shot back in the Drift.
You killed her for no good reason, Herc shot back. And you’re still high on whatever the fuck that shit was you took.
Not the first time, Scott said.
“WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON OUT THERE?” Marshal Carrodus screamed. Her voice cut through the haze of anger. “DO YOUR JOB!”
With a last shake of Scott’s body, Herc stepped back into his harness. “Sorry, Marshal.”
The kaiju crashed against Lucky Seven like it was just an obstacle in its way, shocking both men. Aware that Scott’s reaction times would be even more off than they were when they stepped into the conn-pod, Herc forced Scott to bend to his will like Scott’s mind was a Quickening he had to overcome – and then turned his anger onto the kaiju.
K-13 was not Lucky Seven’s neatest kill. It was bloody, messy, and nowhere near the Hansens’ usual clean execution. When the battle was over, Lucky Seven’s right side was stained kaiju blue, and Herc was seeing double. Scott hung limply in his harness.
“Herc, our data shows Scott’s unconscious,” Fiarce said worriedly. “Everything ok?”
“No,” Herc said, staring at his brother in disgust. “Scott…Scott can’t pilot anymore.”
“You look like hell,” Richie said as soon as Herc opened the door to his new and much smaller temporary quarters two days later.
“Couldn’t sleep. Surprised the marshal’s letting you visit me,” Herc said, nodding to the security guard posted outside his door, who very neatly made sure the door didn’t shut all the way.
“I claimed teacher-student privilege,” Richie said as he stepped inside the room. “What the fuck happened, Herc? And before you ask, I have permission from the marshal for full disclosure.”
Herc sighed and ran a hand through his red hair. “Scott was stoned on that new shit that’s supposed to be better than ecstasy – blue fever – and he paid off a suit tech to make it look like his heart rate was normal so he could get in the conn-pod. He forgot about LOCCENT’s monitoring.” Herc rubbed his head tiredly. “He also killed a girl during sex play. She was underage, and he did it in Chuck’s old room. He’s been arrested and the body’s still in Chuck’s room, last I knew. Scott’s in Medical right now, detoxing and getting patched up. I, uh, I got pissed at him in the conn-pod and beat him up.”
Richie’s eyes widened. “Shit. That explains the eleventh degree I got from Marshal Carrodus about what I taught him and what you might’ve been thinking.”
Herc jerked at that.
“Before you start apologizing,” Richie held up a hand, “I told her that Scott never learned more than how to handle that knife, and whatever choices he made are not yours to shoulder. You might’ve shared a brain in that jaeger, but outside of it –” Richie shook his head slightly. “Outside of it, that was all Scott.”
Herc shuddered out a breath and closed his eyes briefly. “I called Chuck and told him that Lucky Seven was destroyed,” Herc said. “Figured he’d better hear it from me than the grapevine.”
“It was on the news. He already knew, and now he thinks it’s my fault.”
“Because I’m the lead pilot and the older brother.” Herc put his head in his hands and tried to ignore the pain in his heart. “I…” He shut his mouth, hearing the self-depreciation in his thoughts, and equally aware of Richie’s steady, patient gaze. “I feel like it’s my fault.”
Richie reached out. “I know that feeling. I’m not gonna lie, Herc. It’ll feel like that no matter what happens. But you have to believe that no matter who’s blaming you, you didn’t put that knife in his hand, you didn’t pick up that girl, you didn’t pour drugs down his throat.”
“Didn’t I?” Herc asked tiredly, moving to sit down on his bed; the only other piece of furniture in the room was a desk chair. “He was always jealous that I had the things he didn’t – a wife, a family, a job I loved, immortality. He called Chuck his – and I know Angela wouldn’t have cheated on me, but with everything that’s happened, I suddenly wonder if he was just….” Herc stared at his hands as if he could physically change what he knew.
“Herc.” Richie’s gentle grasp on Herc’s biceps caught Herc’s attention, and he looked up to see the redheaded, wiry man kneeling before him. “Your son’s parentage is not the issue here. As you’ve so vehemently reminded me, Chuck is your son. If Scott gave you any reason to doubt that Chuck was your son, it’s because he knew what that would do to you. The issue is that Scott’s an asshole and he fucked up, big time. You saw it in the Drift, right?”
“Which means he made those choices. He knew exactly what he was doing, Herc.”
“Yes, but…I should’ve seen this coming.”
“And if you had, could you have stopped him from doing what he did?” Richie asked reasonably, but something in his expression reminded Herc that Richie knew a lot about what it meant to lose faith in someone you trusted implicitly.
“Maybe.” Herc took a deep breath and was surprised to have to choke back a sob. “Richie, he was my brother. I was going to….we were going to….” Herc blinked back tears as he thought about the dreams he’d had about Scott doing something good for once in his life, something that was bigger than himself, and how they’d thought that being a jaeger pilot was that something. Where did it go wrong? Herc wondered.
“I’m not your shrink,” Richie said quietly, taking Herc’s hands and squeezing gently before letting go, “and I think you’re going to get one whether you want to or not, because that’s how the PPDC rolls. But I think you need to consider this, Herc. What you do from here is your choice.”
Herc considered his teacher’s words. “How’d you get so smart?”
“Like I told you before, Herc, I’m a graduate from the school of hard knocks. Learning to forgive someone is harder than it looks, especially when that person is yourself. And if you want to get away from here, just say the word and I’ll watch your back.” Richie rose and headed for the door.
“I…I’ll think about it. I appreciate everything, Richie.”
Richie half-grinned. “You’re welcome.”
Ten minutes later, Herc was summoned to the marshal’s office. “Morning, ma’am,” he said as he saluted her.
“Sit down,” she ordered, gesturing to the chair in front of her desk. “Scott Hansen will be transferred to a secure facility for a minimum of five years for additional treatment for his drug and alcohol abuse, and barred from returning to the PPDC. As part of this, neither you nor he will be allowed to speak to the press or anyone else regarding what happened in Lucky Seven outside of counsel or, in your case, anyone you might pilot with in the future. Your other exception is Jordan Richards, whom we both know is Richie Ryan.”
“So there will be no trial?” Herc asked. He was not surprised she knew Richie’s real name; she was a Watcher, a member of the organization that documented and tracked immortals.
“The PPDC has consulted with local police, and a judge has ruled in favor of long-term inpatient rehabilitation rather than prison since it appears the girl’s death was accidental.”
Shocked, Herc tried to find words.
Marshal Carrodus shook her head, silencing Herc before he could do more than mimic a fish opening its mouth. “We have more pressing concerns, Ranger Hansen. The newest jaeger, a Mark-5, still needs two pilots, and you and your brother were scheduled to be in it since, once again, Australia is requiring that since it funded the jaeger, the jaeger will be piloted by at least one, preferably two, Aussies. It will be ready in eighteen weeks. You are on administrative leave for the next two weeks; after which, you will begin compatibility testing for a new pilot unless you prefer someone already. Given your history for universal compatibility and previous experience with other jaeger pilots, we felt that you might have one.”
“No, ma’am,” Herc said. “All of the other pilots I jockeyed with are either with someone or dead or in other positions in the PPDC. Could…could we begin testing sooner?”
Marshal Carrodus slanted a look at him. “I’ve seen the report from our resident psychiatrist. Herc,” she said gently, “you need a vacation. Go take one. Go look at something other than stuff that will remind you of your brother. Do something you’d have never done. I know Richie’s out of a job since Lucky Seven won’t be repaired. He usually heads back to either Paris or New York when he’s done with being somewhere. I’m sure he’d be willing to take you.”
Herc closed his eyes briefly. He’d never been to Paris or New York. It certainly sounded like a better notion than staying here, wondering who would judge him for Scott’s breakdown. Given how insular the ‘domes were, the gossip was undoubtedly already raging. “What about the press?”
“Officially, Scott is being treated for undisclosed medical reasons. Given Lucky Seven’s destruction, this is being seen as a very reasonable scenario. The facility he’s in is very discreet and very private. If you want to visit, I can send you that information.”
Herc shook his head. “I never want to see or speak that asshole ever again, ma’am. He implied that taking a Quickening was the same as getting high and he killed someone for no reason. Even if it was an accident and he didn’t mean to go that far.”
Marshal Carrodus’ face reflected sympathy as she adjusted the Watcher symbol ring she wore in an unconscious movement. “Understood,” she said briskly, clasping her hands before placing them on the top of her desk, palms flat. “Shall I have Richie meet you at your quarters?”
“My old ones or the temporary one?”
“You’re no longer under house arrest, Ranger Hansen. I’m sorry I had to do that; it was protocol while the investigation was underway. Your old quarters have been thoroughly cleaned; Scott’s belongings have been removed and packed for his transfer.”
“In that case, ma’am, my old ones.”
Nodding, Marshal Carrodus keyed a few commands into her computer; Herc couldn’t see the screen, but surmised she was using the ‘dome’s messaging system to page Richie. Through the closed door, Herc could very faintly hear the ‘dome’s AI call for Jordan Richards.
“Please enjoy your trip.”
“Thank you, ma’am. If I run into any reporters?”
“I’ll remind you that ‘no comment’ is a perfectly valid answer, Ranger Hansen. Dismissed.”
Herc nodded, rose, and snapped off a salute, grateful that he had her as his commanding officer. Two weeks didn’t seem like long enough time to forget what Scott had done, but Herc knew he wanted to spare his next copilot that memory if he could. Fresh memories would go a long way towards avoiding RABITs in the Drift, he knew. It didn’t stop him from playing ‘what if’, though, and if Richie noticed that Herc’s thoughts were dark and his answers clipped, he didn’t comment on it. It would be awhile, Herc thought, before he could feel like life was normal again – or whatever passed for normal when one was immortal and a jaeger pilot.