The shoes made an irregular tapping noise crossing the bare concrete from the shelter door, getting louder until they finally paused in front of him: fine black leather, oxfords with a subtle pattern of perforations mimicking the curve of a toe cap, consciously stylish and not heavily worn. John was pretty sure, with the part of his brain that still automatically catalogued these kinds of things, that they were new enough they had to have been bought in the last year — since the first attack. Probably since the second one.
When they stayed right by his head, John rolled onto his side and squinted up at the owner without warmth. Large watery blue eyes looked down at him through wire-rimmed glasses, a compact body in a three-piece suit that matched the shoes: expensive, tailored, elaborate in green and grey. The man was flanked by two obvious bodyguards in more ordinary plain black suits, the three of them standing out like neon lights among the crowded dark of the shelter: everyone else on their cots and bedrolls was eyeing them, some hungrily, others warily, backing away from the potential for some kind of fight.
"If I owe you money, I'm fresh out," John said, and didn't bother to make it anything other than a sneer. He also didn't bother to put a hand over his mouth while he belched up some of the whiskey fumes. He'd managed to scrounge a fifth two days ago out of the corner of a mostly crushed liquor store in the condemned zone. Most people didn't want to risk going into the worse-damaged buildings. He reached under his pillow to dig out what was left of the bottle.
"You don't owe me anything, Mr. Reese," the man said, and John stiffened. "But I was hoping you would be willing to listen to a proposition."
"Like what?" John said, bitterly. He brought out the bottle and took a swig. He'd had a few offers since quitting. From the kinds of people who wanted the services of an ex-assassin these days, the kinds of people who would exploit even the worst of human misery and devastation. If this asshole with his five hundred dollar shoes tried to make him another, John was half tempted to put him and his two bodyguards down hard, invite everyone else to pick them clean, and throw them out naked.
"I believe we can help each other," the man said. "You see, Mr. Reese, I have a purpose. And you need one."
"Getting you another pair of those shoes?" John said.
The man glanced down at his own feet briefly; a bite entered his voice. "I don't feel the need to put my tailor and shoemaker out of business in order to demonstrate my recognition of the danger the world is presently facing, Mr. Reese, nor have I considered it appropriate to drink myself to death and save the kaiju the trouble. If that's really the best thing you can imagine doing, I'll leave you to it; if on the other hand you'd be interested in contributing more productively to the defense effort, I can offer you a chance to do so."
John went with him. It wasn't the money Finch dangled for his time, although after a couple months in a refugee shelter, John wouldn't have minded a night in a hotel. It wasn't the promise of something to do, something that would matter in the face of monsters. That was just a fairy tale. John was still about ninety percent sure that Finch was leading up to some kind of profiteering scam, or maybe something personal — a guy who was still spending money on shoes at the end of the world would probably spend it having somebody killed, too. "I don't feel the need to put my hitman out of business, either," he imagined Finch saying, pursed and prissy, and snorted to himself.
Finch glanced over from the other seat but said nothing. Inside the closed car, he had to be getting a good strong whiff of John's two solid months of stink by now, but he hadn't so much as wrinkled his nose. He had a stillness, something hard about him, not brittle but steel. Maybe that was why John had gone along even this far. He thought Finch could maybe tell a good fairy tale. The kind that John could believe in for five minutes, and that would be five minutes of peace more than he'd had since he'd stood in front of a television in Morocco and watched the third kaiju come boiling out of the Pacific surf five miles from his parents' house. A helicopter camera had stayed in tight and close as the crushing feet smashed his high school and marched onward to Tacoma and Seattle, thrashing tail leaving nothing but flattened houses in its wake, cars crushed, corpses in the street.
He had just killed somebody that morning: some kind of arms dealer, Mark had said. There had been a photograph in the man's wallet of a dark-eyed smiling woman with four young kids around her. John watched the kaiju go casually and murderously blundering through his own life, staring at his reflection in the television screen as the kaiju's body filled the camera, dark hide blotting everything out. He'd quit that night and caught one plane after another to Spokane, as close as anyone would take him, and from there he'd stolen a motorcycle.
The kaiju had been brought down outside Portland by the time he got to his neighborhood, but it didn't feel anything like victory when John walked through the blasted streets. He dug the corpses of his sister and her children out of their half-crushed basement. He'd never met the younger one, the little girl, and he didn't recognize the boy, the baby he'd held for half an hour that last Thanksgiving after 9/11, just before he'd told the recruiter yes and gone into Delta. The kids were both huddled against her body, faces coated with ash, clinging. He never found his parents.
He hadn't talked to any of them in ten years, but he'd carried them in his heart into what he'd thought were going to be the worst dangers in the world. He'd gone to protect them. Even after the first kaiju, even after the second, he'd let Mark talk him into staying. The world's going to get darker before it gets light, John. We need you more than ever now. So he'd been in Morocco instead of Seattle when the third one came. They'd died, and he was alive. It felt like retribution.
A few tears were leaking down his face along the side of his nose, itchy. He stared out of the window at the wreckage outside. Finch's car was fighting its way over the half-patched roads in the refugee zone around Tacoma.
They headed east on the highway for almost an hour, rolling past farmland and through the mountains until the car took an exit into a cupped valley. A chain-link fence enclosed a big industrial property: a private airstrip and an airplane hangar, some kind of processing plant, some trucks and stacked shipping containers. John watched the hangar grow bigger as they drove across the lot. "So what are you building here?"
"We call it the Jaeger Project," Finch said. The car pulled up to the hangar and he climbed out.
John followed him inside. The hangar was hollow and empty, except for a large round enclosed room against the far wall with big glass windows: he could see a few people working inside it. "The kaiju are obviously not invulnerable to conventional weaponry," Finch said, as they walked towards it across the metal floor, their footsteps ringing. "The problem is their sheer size and density: the vital organs are extremely well protected, and as a result, killing them becomes a long battle of attrition. Am I boring you?" he added, waspishly: John wasn't paying him a lot of attention.
"I've had free time lately," John said. Only a handful of people and equipment around, and though the buildings outside were old, solid, the hangar itself was too clean, too undamaged. It was made of light metal: there were gears along the edges of the roof that made him think it was retractable. It had the air of something new and flimsy, thrown up in a hurry. He didn't see any signs of serious construction. "Assume I know as much as a newspaper article."
"I hope not," Finch said. "They're nearly all badly misinformed. At heart, this is a logistics problem. We have the firepower. We need to concentrate it, deliver it rapidly and flexibly, and ideally before rather than after the kaiju make landfall." They'd reached the room: the guard on the door opened it for them. Inside there were computer screens everywhere, diagrams and schematics, for something that looked like a suit of armor. Finch gestured to one of the diagrams, on a large screen in the middle of the room. "This is the solution: a jaeger."
"Very Don Quixote," John said, raising an eyebrow. "Where's the horse and the jousting pole?"
"Perhaps the scale isn't entirely clear," Finch said, and touched a button: the diagram shrank and slid over, and the outline of the Manila kaiju appeared next to it. The jaeger was roughly the same height.
John stared at it. Finch was going on, apparently serious. "A single, self-contained fighting unit, which can be deployed rapidly through a six-helicopter airlift, operates underwater, with total firepower equivalent to an aircraft carrier. We've done comprehensive studies to — "
"That's enough," John said flatly. Finch paused and blinked those watery eyes at him. "You want to build a giant robot the size of a football field and beat a kaiju to death with its fists. That's not a purpose. It's a joke." He looked around the room: the people at the computers were peeking around at them sidelong — mostly young, twenty-something kids, men and women fresh out of college. John had no idea how Finch had sold them on buying into this — just money, maybe. "How much funding did you weasel out of the government for this?"
"None," Finch said.
"Really," John said, and tapped a knuckle on the screen. "How much is one of these bad boys going to run you?"
"Nine billion dollars," Finch said. "Maintenance will add a further billion dollars over the jaeger's average lifespan."
John's mouth twitched, a parody of a smile. He felt dangerous, his hands wanting to clench. Finch was facing him with an impenetrable face, mouth a thin line. "So is that the idea?" John said softly. "You want someone to put on a uniform and go to D.C. with you, explain why the government should write you a nice fat check — "
"You would hardly be the ideal candidate for a lobbyist, and I'm funding the development of the prototype personally," Finch snapped back. "Tell me something, Mr. Reese. You were halfway around the world killing people for the CIA when the kaiju landed here. Did you enjoy watching safely from afar while it slaughtered two hundred thousand people? Including your family?"
John had him slammed up against the column, arm jammed up under Finch's chin, his other hand immobilizing Finch's wrist painfully against the desk. Finch's gaze didn't waver or flinch from his. "Do you think it was any easier being in the Bay Area, for the first one?" Finch said, though his voice was straining against the choke-hold.
John stared at him, his own chest rising in deep rapid pants. He let Finch go and backed up. Finch reached up with a slightly shaky hand to rub his throat and settle his tie. He made a gesture: the security guard who'd started coming towards them — he hadn't gotten into range for a kick yet — stepped warily back to the door. Finch cleared his throat. "As you yourself seem to have grasped, Mr. Reese," he said, already pulling himself back in, his feathers smoothed, "money doesn't really matter very much anymore. However, I happen to have a great deal of it, and I'm not shy about spending it."
John was slowly coming down off the adrenaline rush. He took a deep gulping breath. "I guess not," he said, letting it out. "Not if you're blowing it on this — fantasy." He had a sour, bitter knot in his belly. He'd wanted a fairy tale, he'd gotten one. But it turned out he couldn't stomach it after all. "You could put together a Death Star instead. Even if you built this thing, even if it had enough muscle to hurt a kaiju, how do you think it's going to work? Give an order in the core, five minutes later the arm crew take a swing? We've seen kaiju swat jet fighters out of the sky. One of them will put your jaeger on the ground and rip its arms off in ten minutes." He shut his eyes for a moment, shook his head hard. "We're through here. Have that car take me back to the shelter." He turned to go.
"I suppose it's something that you've managed to zero in on the primary design problem," Finch said behind his back. "Reaction time was indeed our main difficulty. Please take us down, Dr. Sung," he added, to one of the people at the desks. She punched some buttons and the whole round room shuddered slightly, then started to sink down through the floor, like one huge elevator.
"I said I was leaving," John said, turning back. He took a warning step towards Finch.
"As it happens, the issue you describe is exactly the one that the jaegers are meant to solve," Finch said, ignoring him. "The humanoid design isn't a cosmetic affectation: I assure you I would build a mech shaped like the Death Star or for that matter a bunny rabbit if analysis had indicated one of those would be more effective. But the closer the mech parallels the human body, the more intuitive the user interface becomes, and the faster reaction time gets."
John stepped in closer, right up against Finch, who only leaned back slightly and stared up at him. "I'm going to make this simple," he said. "You're going to take me — " He stopped. Through the windows, behind Finch's head, a monumental statue was coming into view. The jaegar was right outside.
John stepped almost involuntarily past Finch and toward the windows as they kept gliding down. The jaeger looked like something out of the dreams of Ozymandias: a smooth polished metal helmet, its blank featureless face illuminated with small work lights and framed with scaffolding; shoulders the width of an aircraft carrier, gleaming steel. There were construction workers clambering all over it, anonymous and faceless in helmets and overalls and thick gloves, wielding drills and blowtorches, long cables snaking away like climbing vines.
"You actually built this thing," John said. It was an effort to speak. He couldn't take his eyes off it. They were past the shoulders now, the trunk sliding by. The jaeger stood inside a cavernous shaft, ten times the height of the hangar up on the surface — no, more than ten times. He couldn't see the bottom yet. It had jagged stair-step walls spiraling around and down — a former quarry maybe, or some other kind of mine. They'd just slapped the hangar on top as a cap.
"Yes," Finch said. "And I assure you, it is fast enough to take down a kaiju."
John licked his lips: his mouth felt paper-dry. "You've tested it."
"Yes," Finch said.
"How does it — ?"
"There's no crew, Mr. Reese," Finch said. "The jaeger's control systems interface directly with the human brain. When the pilot moves, the jaeger moves. No manual input, no delays."
John turned to stare at him: that made it sound like more of a fantasy, not less. "And that works?"
"Yes," Finch said. "The problem is, it kills the pilot."
The chamber settled slowly onto the ground with a dull clang. John turned back and looked up out of the windows, at the head of the jaeger far away in the distance crowned with lights, at the huge hands hanging to either side, bigger than tanks. Enough power to stop a kaiju, if you were willing to die for it? John knew he'd take it, unhesitating.
But Finch said, "This isn't the build up to asking you to go on a suicide mission, if you're wondering. If that's all it took, I wouldn't need to go recruiting a drunk out of a refugee camp. This way, please."
He turned and led the way out through a set of back doors that slid open onto an antiseptic white hallway. John followed him immediately. He couldn't guess what Finch did want from him, but he didn't care anymore. He'd chase Finch all the rest of the way down his rabbit hole.
The hallway ended in a huge laboratory, two large exam-room chairs in the middle of the room, thickly padded, with a snaky nest of cables suspended over the headrests. There was a wall of glass cages full of mice; scientists in white coats were moving among them.
"In order to tap into unconscious motor control, the jaeger control interface requires the mind to be in a state we call drift. We expected any number of problems to begin with — lost signal, miscommunication — the jaeger raising a foot instead of a hand, so forth. When those didn't materialize, we became overconfident. We didn't realize that there was a limit on the amount of signal that the brain could process until we ran a full-scale test," Finch said. His voice sounded even more clipped than before. "But once the neural load exceeds the capacity of the brain, as it does with a jaeger in full combat mode, seizures begin within five minutes and rapidly increase in severity. Convulsions start within ten minutes, and death follows by the fifteen minute mark."
"Not enough time to take out a kaiju," John said.
"No," Finch said.
"Can pilots trade off?"
Finch raised an eyebrow. "What was it you said a kaiju would do? Rip off the jaeger's arms in five minutes? In any case, it wouldn't work. The pilots couldn't swap back in. The damage caused by even one minute of excess neural load is permanent. But you are approaching the solution," he added. "Two pilots can share the neural load."
Tandem drift, as Finch described it, sounded even more of a fairy tale than the jaegers, except this time it was one of the bad old Brothers Grimm versions. Someone else inside your mind, not just reading your thoughts but sharing them, having them right along with you, their thoughts flowing through your own head. "Sounds — creepy," John said.
Finch grimaced. "I don't disagree. It's also difficult to arrange. From what we've found, less than a tenth of a percent of the population is capable of drift at all, and among those, very few are compatible with one another. Finding a drift-capable pair is not a trivial problem."
John said, "And that's what you need me for."
"Yes," Finch said. "I've obtained substantial numbers of brain activity scans. Your former employers had you undergo one in 2008." John looked away. He remembered the scan. He'd been held by a North Korean cell for nearly two weeks, drugged and interrogated nonstop before Kara had managed to break him out. The CIA had put him through every test they had: they'd worried he was lying when he told them he hadn't broken. Finch went on. "You were one of twenty-three candidates we turned up, and the only one who might be compatible with — myself."
John eyed Finch with an evaluating eye. In his fifties, myopic, about ten pounds overweight. No muscle tone to speak of. He hadn't been exercising lately, that was for sure. Finch gave him an annoyed look back. "I assure you, Mr. Reese, that my physical fitness or lack thereof has absolutely no relevance to the amount of power the jaeger can exert. Without experiencing the control system myself, my attempts to work on it are — " He made a frustrated, inarticulate gesture. "A man groping in a dark cave. I need to get in there. We built this prototype to be combat ready, but we haven't even been able to trial it live, not since — " He stopped. Not since the first pilot died, John supplied, mentally.
Finch didn't continue that thought. Instead he said abruptly, "There are significant side effects of the process."
"It doesn't matter," John said.
"I'm afraid it does," Finch said. "I realize you're prepared to die, Mr. Reese, but that's only one of the potential outcomes, and by no means the most unpleasant."
He led John out an airlock at the back of the lab that opened onto a startling explosion of color: humid air, lush green vegetation, blooming flowers, a painted backdrop, warm natural light. John blinked and stepped out. They were inside some kind of plexiglass tunnel looking out at an indoor jungle, some thirty chimpanzees moving around the enclosure on the other side. Two of them lazing by the wall and sharing a mango peered back at John with mild interest.
"It's the complexity of the brain — specifically the sense of self — that makes tandem drift difficult," Finch said. "Virtually any two mice can drift together, as long as they're induced to have their thoughts run along similar lines — we teach them that a door with a particular symbol on it has a food reward on the other side, and then we show both of them the symbol, and that's sufficient. By the time you get to chimpanzees, the success rate drops to twenty percent even after extensive training. With people, it plummets much further, but primate testing enabled us to identify the factors necessary for two people to get into drift together."
"But not the ones that tell you if that's going to kill them?" John said.
"Oh, it's not going into drift that can kill you," Finch said. "Failing to drift together simply dumps the two people into individual drift states, and that feels only like a state of near-sleep, with memories becoming unexpectedly vivid and intense. It can be unpleasant, particularly for anyone who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, but not life-threatening and not harmful, as far as we can tell. Success is the real danger."
He gestured to the two chimpanzees eating their mango. "These were our first successful pair. Two pairs before them went into drift and successfully remained there for more than an hour with no apparent distress. But they became catatonic when they were taken out of drift, and all died within a week. This pair remained conscious and have stabilized, but — at a certain cost. They can't endure separation. If one is taken from the other even briefly, they both become intensely upset. They've largely disconnected from the rest of the social group."
John said blandly, "So you're saying the downside is, after the drift you're going to find me completely irresistible?"
"Assuming we don't simply die coming out of it," Finch said, with some asperity.
"About that — wouldn't that put a little damper on your chances of improving the jaegers?" John said.
Finch turned to face him. "No," he said quietly. "The observing team will be able to determine, based on our brain activity, whether we're likely to survive coming out of drift. If we can't — they'll keep us in tandem drift indefinitely. And that, Mr. Reese, is the true risk I'm asking you to run."
John was silent. Finch wasn't wrong. He'd spent most of his life ready to die. He wasn't afraid of it. Living, though — living tied up to another person, someone in his head all the time every minute of the day — and he'd be tied to Finch, who couldn't be spared. John wouldn't even be able to ask to be let go. "How would it work?"
"They'd remove the drift unit from the jaeger with us still inside it, and bring it to the lab," Finch said. "The cables can maintain full-strength signal over thirty feet, so we'll have full range of the room. There's a bathroom, we'll set up a privacy partition — "
He trailed off and shrugged minutely, his hands barely lifting from his sides. "The mechanics of the grotesque. I can't tell you how long we'd have to endure it. As long as we could possibly stand, I suppose. My — heir is aware of the situation, and he's prepared to continue the work from a financial standpoint, but there's no one who can replace me on the technical side in any reasonable timeframe. And it won't simply be a matter of getting the jaeger functional. We already have three Mark 1s in the preliminary manufacturing stage, and the Mark 2 design stage will begin as soon as we get real-world feedback from this one. My work won't ever be finished, per se."
"Okay," John said, after a moment. "When do we start?"
Finch heaved a small sigh. "You'll need to detox. Will that be a problem?"
"No," John said.
"Two weeks to get you clean," Finch said. "Two weeks more for you to practice drifting alone. There will be various mental exercises you'll need to work through, which should make a successful tandem drift more likely. Then we'll make the attempt."
It had been six months between the other kaiju attacks. Four months left to go. "If this works — " John said.
"I'm aware of the timeframe," Finch said. "Yes, our goal is to be ready for a real-world trial by then."
"Okay," John said. "Then while I'm doing that, you're going to get into shape. Even if you're sitting in a cockpit, a fight with a kaiju isn't going to be a cakewalk."
Finch paused. Then he said, "All right," a little glumly. "I suppose I can't argue with that."
John spent the next week sweating out the liquor, mostly with water and exercise. A doctor came by his room the afternoon after Finch had gotten him settled in. John had showered; there were clean clothes waiting on the bed; he was shaving at the sink. "Come in," he said: a guy came in, young, looking like a hipster in jeans and a slouchy shirt under his white coat, but tired-eyed. John eyed him doubtfully: he looked all wrong, incongruous. Everyone else he'd seen here wore suits under their labcoats, if they weren't actually in coveralls and doing welding.
"Hey," the guy said. "I'm Will Ingram. And yeah," he added, with half a smile, "I'm really a doctor. I've got some Ativan for you, in case you start having withdrawal symptoms. You've only been drinking heavily for two months?"
By the time the kid left, John had gotten convinced of his competence, but the medicine stayed on the dresser anyway. The shakes didn't come, although the insomnia did. John didn't feel tempted to drink at all. He'd never really wanted to, it had only been an exit ramp slow enough not to feel like suicide. Throwing himself off a bridge had been too much like handing the kaiju a final victory.
When he couldn't sleep, when he was restless, when he couldn't focus on the mental exercises any longer, he jogged up the stairs on the jaeger scaffolding, all the way to the top and back. There were people always working on it, every hour of the day: shifts working on complementary sections. He always stopped at the top and took a minute to go into the cockpit, to stand inside and feel the titanic weight all around him. At night he dreamed about it moving under his feet, like an earthquake.
Finch was almost always in the main control room, any time of day. John stopped in the back of the room to watch him sometimes, silently; Finch didn't seem to notice, or at least he didn't seem to mind. He had screens on either side of him with always-open videoconferencing, one to a team in Japan that was doing the hardware design, one to a team in China that was handling the manufacturing: they were apparently working on the Mark 1. Finch's own screen was full of code: the control interface. He'd type in a command, and on the other side of the windows, the jaeger's hands would slowly clench into a fist and open up again, over and over, until a graph of reaction time went up, dropping another few seconds with each new revision. Or he would run another diagnostic, and the whole cavern outside would go dark except for a string of lights going up one after another inside the jaeger's hull, like a Christmas display for giants.
John caught him at a workout a few days into his own new routine, when he went to the fitness center for weights. Finch was working with a personal trainer, a guy with gym muscles and way too much deference. "I'm taking over," John said, and shut down the treadmill. "Get down from there. We're going up the stairs."
From then on, he was with Finch eight hours a day. They didn't talk. Finch didn't have the breath: John was channeling memories of basic training, ratcheted down only a little. Whenever John let him go for a lunch break or the evening, Finch staggered back to his computer screen and sat staring at it blankly, too tired to even think. John didn't offer to cut back. None of Finch's work was going to matter for shit if he couldn't last an hour in the ring with a kaiju. Finch didn't complain, didn't try to get out of it. He did everything John told him to do.
The days were ticking away: towards the drift attempt, towards the next kaiju. In the refugee camp, people had talked about it endlessly: maybe there wouldn't be another one. The next one wouldn't come to the same region. The government would have come up with something by then. It wouldn't be as bad. Here, no one talked about it. They all knew another one was coming. They were the ones who had to come up with something.
The last day before the drift attempt, John took the elevator up out of the underground complex and went for a long solitary hike through the Cascades. The air was cold and the trails were empty. He climbed high enough to find a scenic overlook that looked out on the whole range stretching away from him, jagged peaks and a huge wide-open sky and silence: not another human voice. He took deep breaths of the air and shut his eyes. One way or another, after tomorrow he'd never have another moment of privacy, of solitude.
When he got back to his room, Finch was there, sitting on the bed. He'd given up the three-piece suits for workout gear over the last month, but tonight he was back in dark grey with subtle violet lines, a soft suede purple waistcoat. He looked as precise and neat as his schematics, not a line out of place. "I wanted to make clear — " he said abruptly.
"Understood," John said, before he could finish. "I'm not backing out."
Finch paused and inclined his head. "Then I'll see you in the morning," he said. He stood up stiffly: they looked at each other. John still found Finch's face mostly unreadable: exhaustion and mild grumpiness and pleasure all looked pretty much the same. Amusement was a raised eyebrow, so was annoyance; the distinction was all in the angle of his pursed mouth. But tonight there was something else, just barely showing. Fear.
"Are you sure?" John said, low.
Finch paused. "I've spent the better part of my life — all of my adult life, in fact," he said after a moment, "doing my very best to conceal everything about my identity, from my past to my name. There were things about me that even Nathan — " He stopped and pressed his mouth shut for a moment. "Even my closest friends didn't know the ordinary minutiae of my life. My address, my favorite color — I've kept secrets so long I keep them reflexively. But to answer your question, yes, I'm sure that I have to do this."
"You're also sure you don't want to," John said.
Finch didn't deny it.
"But you weren't hoping I'd say no," John said. He was sure of that. "You don't want me to back out."
"No," Finch said. "I don't have that species of cowardice."
"You're afraid it's not going to work," John said, finally understanding. "Because of you."
Finch heaved a short unhappy breath. "I had difficulty staying in drift at first," he said. "I — disliked having memories dredged up, the sense of a loss of control over my own mind." He made a small looping gesture with his hands. "That's why I wasn't — "
"The first pilot," John said. "Nathan."
"Yes," Finch said.
"He was your friend," John said softly.
"My friend," Finch said. "My partner, my — alter ego, really. We met at Berkeley, before we left and started working together..." He trailed off. "The day the first kaiju attacked," he said after a moment, "I was working — our headquarters were in San Jose. I was in a concealed office, without windows — I didn't even know when the building was evacuated. I felt the tremors, but I assumed it was just the usual minor earthquakes, nothing to be concerned about. Everyone else was fleeing the area, but Nathan came from a meeting on the other side of the city to find me and get me out. The helicopter took us out about fifteen minutes ahead of the kaiju. We had — a very good view."
John nodded slightly.
"He put together our consortium to build the jaegers," Finch said. "He wasn't a particularly gifted engineer, but he was a genius with people. He used every contact he had, got them to clear paperwork and bureaucracy out of the way — he had enough of a reputation to be given his head, particularly since we weren't asking for money. He found our partners in Yokohama and Guangdong.
"But it frustrated him tremendously that he couldn't do more on the technical side, particularly once we were up and running. When I had trouble getting into drift, he argued that he should be the first pilot — that he'd be able to convey any problems to me, identify what wasn't working well. We'd worked that way many times, and I — I agreed. Because I disliked the process."
"And if you hadn't," John said, "if you'd died, instead of him — would he have been able to get the tandem drift working?"
"Much of the implementation was done by the neuroscience team," Finch said, which wasn't a yes. He was silent a moment and then he said, "The concept was mine."
John nodded. "Then he didn't die for nothing."
"As long as it works," Finch said.
Everyone in the room was nervous: voices pitched too high, speaking too fast; several low angry exchanges going back and forth. The neuro team were moving around behind John's head, hands and arms coming in and out of his peripheral vision, the occasional tug on the transmitters attached to his temples and the base of his neck. The young doctor who'd brought him his meds was there, but not working; he had his hands shoved deep in his pockets and was standing by Finch's chair, his face drawn and unhappy. Finch looked over and up at him. "It's all right, Will," he said softly.
"I already lost my dad to this thing," Ingram said, and John abruptly put names together: Nathan Ingram, the founder of IFT. So that was where the nine billion dollars had come from.
"You've looked over all the data yourself," Harold said gently. "It's a risk worth running."
"Just — don't fry your brain, okay?" Ingram said. "I'm not even done being mad at you for lying to me all these years."
Finch gave him a brief, vanishing smile.
"We're ready," one of the doctors said, behind them.
Finch took a deep breath and fixed his eyes on the ceiling. John turned his own head up. "Ready," he said.
"Ready," Finch said.
The drop into drift was always like a free-fall, past faces and moments: Jessica turning away from him in an airport, the baby in his arms at Thanksgiving, Kara's mouth hard and hot on his in a bloody hotel room in Paris. The trick wasn't to ignore them; it was to let them slide by, not latching on to any of them. But there were other faces moving past him. A tall blond man in rolled-up shirtsleeves eating Chinese food across a desk, talking animatedly; the same man lying back in a chair just like the ones they were in, smiling easily, and then a brief terrible flash of his eyes mazed with blood and unseeing, dripping from his nose, blood on his own hands when he looked down. Blood on the floor, bodies slumped with gunshot wounds, a gun John had fired.
They slid through the red haze together. More images were coming by, faces John knew, faces he didn't, but he knew the ones he didn't know: he knew them all, knew their names and voices and everything about them. He let them go by and concentrated on the first of the mental exercises, rotating the gear-shape in his head. Abruptly he felt another lock into place with it, and they were in. His vision was clearing; he could hear again, someone saying, "We've got confirmed tandem drift," oddly echoing in his head, and then a doctor was shining a flashlight in his eyes.
"Mr. Finch?" the doctor said. "Can you hear me?"
John stared up at the ceiling tiles, hearing Harold answer. He felt Harold's mind like another limb, the cool, sweet precision of it, new calculations already moving through, schematics and code unrolling, and beneath all of it, clear and hard as glass, certainty. "Mr. Reese!" one of the doctors said, and they were gathering around him. "What are his vitals? Mr. Reese, can you hear me? Are you in pain? Can you twitch your finger for me — "
"He's all right," Harold said. "He's fine." John blinked the tears away and turned his head in the cradle: Harold was looking back, his own eyes gentle. "He didn't entirely believe the jaeger was going to work."
"And now I know," John whispered. He didn't just know that Harold was sure; he understood why Harold was sure. He could follow the path of the calculations and the code, he had the complex engineering analyses settled neatly into the back of his head, ready to be referred to at any moment, the kaiju locked into cages built of diagrams and physics.
It wasn't anything like he'd expected. It was transcendent. "Tandem drift levels confirmed!" one of the doctors was saying, from the control table. "We're in the safe zone for detachment!" People started cheering, clapping; Will was slumping with relief into a chair. John looked at Harold and found him looking back, and knew it didn't really matter at all.
"Not that it won't be considerably more convenient," Harold said — no, thought, with an effort to return to brisk efficiency. It was failing. John grinned at him, and Harold gave up and took the invitation: he could feel Harold go browsing through him with the same hungry curiosity he'd felt himself. Harold paused among John's large mental catalogue of guns and weapons systems with bemusement. "The jaeger doesn't have any external weaponry, really — it's intended to cause direct physical trauma. I thought it best to err on the side of simplicity. But I wonder if we should diversify..."
John agreed. You wanted options, just not so many you wasted time choosing the best move. At least three or four, though. They started thinking about it in the back of their heads while they wandered on through each other. They both liked classic movies. They saw some pink things in slightly different shades. Harold had a deep reservoir of nitpicky knowledge about men's clothes, and also he really hadn't wanted to put his tailor out of business: he was one of the few remaining clients since the kaiju attacks, and he'd started to buy more suits than ever to keep the man afloat. John eyed Harold narrowly. He did not need a new — oh, hell, all right.
"All right," one of the doctors said. "Let's go ahead and start with the synchronization tests. Put up the partition. Mr. Finch, we'll begin with you." A blackout panel slid down between them, and the doctors started showing Harold poses they wanted him to make.
"Hang on," John said. "There's a problem: I'm seeing them."
"What?" the doctor said.
"He's right," Harold said. "He's seeing the pictures you're showing me, through my eyes. We want to test truly shared motor control, not simply whether he can make the same movements at the same time."
"If you just move randomly," John said. Harold moved their left arms in a sweeping circle overhead, then raised their right legs. He held all their hands up and wiggled the fingers. John watched his body move, fascinated: it didn't feel creepy at all. It just felt like — breathing. "Can we stand up?" he asked.
They were helped carefully out of the chairs, the cabling extended out. The partition was still down. John took them through a light pilates routine to warm up, then a basic kata, then a complex one. Harold watched that time, letting him drive: he was mildly surprised that he wasn't falling over. John showed him how to center and balance from inside — it turned out that was a lot easier than trying to demonstrate it.
"All right," another one of the doctors said. "We should go ahead and detach now. We'll want to monitor your vitals and your brain activity for at least twenty-four hours — "
John felt an instinctive protest; Harold shared it. But it wasn't going to get any easier, Harold pointed out. "All right," he said, and they braced themselves.
They didn't go catatonic, and they didn't crash. Their vital signs stayed completely fine. They could talk in complete sentences and stand at opposite sides of the room, out of each other's view, with no hysterics. The doctors were jubilant, and one of the managers broke out some bottles of champagne. John waited out the rapidly developing party for ten minutes, watching the clock, and then he slipped through the crowd, detached Harold, and pulled him out into the hallway.
They stood and stared at each other. "The stairs?" John offered. It felt wrong to have to talk out loud. Harold nodded.
They went all the way up to the head. For once, there was no one working. They slumped down on the edge of the control pit together to catch their breath. "I still can't describe it at all," Harold said after a moment. "Everything I imagine saying would just make it sound absolutely appalling. I'm sure it looked appalling, from the outside."
John spread out his hand and looked at it. Harold had moved it around, like a puppet master with a marionette. But it hadn't been like that. It had just been — Harold's hand, as much as his own. The same way Harold's body had been his: not an invasion but a sharing. He looked across the control pit at the blank screens where their eyes and ears would be, all their incoming data. "When do we drift again?"
"In twenty-four hours, I suppose," Harold said. He glanced down at the monitoring wrist cuff, the LEDs all lit steadily: pulse, blood pressure, temperature, wireless signal.
John nodded. Twenty-four hours wasn't too long. He could make twenty-four hours. Probably. "We should eat something and get some sleep," he said, and reached to pull Harold to his feet.
The party had spilled over into the mess hall by the time they got back down. Somebody was making instant cake in the microwave. Harold had a sweet tooth also: John remembered it with a distance that felt unnatural. He got two helpings while Harold loaded up their trays with dinner, and they retreated to Harold's room: a large suite with three laptops on the desk, and a couple of small overflowing bookshelves. John had never been inside before; it felt familiar anyway. They ate in silence at opposite ends of the desk.
Harold pushed back his tray finally — the cake was gone — and then he hesitated, looking over at the bed, his cheeks flushing slightly. John said roughly, "Yes," and pulled his shirt off over his head. Harold shut his eyes and heaved a breath and took off his own as well.
Sex was frustratingly good: closer, but not close enough. There was one moment, after John had come the first time: Harold got particularly bossy, shoving John's leg back and pushing him into position, moving him, and John shut his eyes and groaned before Harold even started to push in. It still didn't feel like drifting, but it was the next best thing, Harold's skin against his, Harold's pulse inside him, the quick rhythm of his strokes. They went three rounds and finally managed to fall asleep from exhaustion, tangled up in a limp heap.
"We've got some unusual readings," Miranda Lin, one of the doctors, said, frowning at the screen the next morning, when they went in for the check-in. "The alarm didn't go off because the numbers are within the bounds for your elevated heartrate, to allow for exercise, but these were at night—"
"It's fine," John said.
"No, you don't understand," Lin said earnestly, as Will and all the other doctors converged on her station like a school of starving and anxious piranha. "You both experienced elevated heartrate at exactly the same time, for nearly the exact same duration — "
"Yeah," John said mildly. "It's fine."
"What?" The doctors all stared at him and then at Harold, who was wooden-faced with embarrassment.
"If we're ready to move on," Harold said, very pointedly, and everyone burst into a confused and awkward babble of agreement.
It took two hours to crane the control pod up to the jaeger head and hook it in. John had to fight himself not to jitter or fidget. Harold managed to lose himself in some code; John leaned against the desk next to him, looking out at the control room, people murmuring as they worked, checked numbers, made sure everything was fine, triple-checked. John recognized some of the ones who'd been here six months ago, when Ingram had died. He remembered their faces, pale and sick and horrified looking down at him, on the floor with Nathan's collapsed body in his arms. He remembered sobbing; he remembered them helping him gently to stand, easing him up, as they took Nathan away.
He reached out and put a hand on Harold's shoulder, and felt the hard thrumming tension there: so Harold wasn't losing himself all that effectively. John slid his hand onto Harold's neck and rubbed gently, working the knots in a small way. Harold breathed out under his touch, relaxing minutely.
Finally it was ready. They suited up, put on the heavy boots, stepped into the elliptical-style platforms and locked in. They gripped the hand stabilizers and the screens came up one after another: a full 360 view all around, and a dozen overlays moving in and out. "Ready," someone said over the radio from the control room below. "Ready," Harold said. "Ready," John said.
It was even better the second time — easier. They slid into tandem drift at once, memories just a smear of light and emotions going by quick: they both wanted to get in a lot more than they wanted to linger. Harold wondered if this was how it would be for everyone. "We're both somewhat — isolated. I wonder if it intensifies the experience."
John was too busy reveling in the feeling to spend much time dissecting it. Harold fit into him like a missing piece: they were together, they were one, a single entity with two bodies to work with, and then the control room said, "Initiating jaeger control systems, left arm only," and abruptly they had another arm too, an arm like a piledriver, limitlessly strong.
"Oh, how strange," Harold murmured, and they slowly and gently lifted it, brought that titanic hand up in front of their face, and closed it into a fist.
No one wanted to take risks this time. The tests were all showing halved neural load, just as expected, but even so the team went by cautious creeping steps. A week for each limb, and another one just to turn the head gently from side to side. Then a week for both legs together, marching in place, up and down, with the arms dangling inert, and afterwards endless tests every day, anything the doctors could possibly imagine to test: John's inner elbows turned into a battlefield of blood-draw punctures. A week for both arms and the head together. And after that, finally, ten minutes with all systems live, the jaeger another body to share. It was exhilarating, a savagely satisfying feeling, the jaeger's power something they felt as part of them, even just walking in place, moving through a slow pirouette that didn't so much as scrape the walls. But afterwards, the doctors insisted on a week off, entirely, to do full PET scans of their brains and see if any damage showed up anywhere.
John could handle it by then. Drifting together almost every day for two months had settled the most urgent hunger for it. He still missed it badly, but it was a week without eating instead of a week without breathing. They worked out and worked. Harold was ripping ten and twenty seconds at a time off their — the jaeger's — reaction speeds now, cleaning up any pathways that had felt slow or halting. John had started talking to the team in Japan about weapons: a couple of big shoulder-mounted missiles that could soften a kaiju up at a distance before closing; a chest-mounted set of railguns, in case of grappling. He spent the nights curled around Harold in their bed, drowsing, making love, listening to Harold read aloud. And knowing that at the end of the week, the gloves would come off. They'd be taking the jaeger topside, and after that, it was going to be outright combat practice, every day until — until they had something to fight for real.
"One more month," he said softly, his head in Harold's lap, Harold's fingers stroking him absently as he turned the pages. He'd forgotten to keep reading out loud. John didn't nudge him. The PET scans had come back clean: they were on tomorrow. He'd catch up then.
"Yes," Harold said. "We're going to have company, by the way: we told the Pentagon we're ready to give them a demonstration, and they're taking us up on it."
John grunted acknowledgement.
The Pentagon team came in by helicopter, and the principals were a woman named Alicia Corwin and a weasel-faced man named Denton Weeks. John pegged them as intelligence before the handshakes were over: they weren't here to see a weapon that could stop the kaiju, they were here to get a look at what kind of technology Harold was putting together, and, John would bet, trying to dig up a reason to shut down his entire consortium. They were the kind of people still worrying about sharing intel with China and Japan. They had a Marine officer with them, a tall, powerfully built black man who looked young for his rank, with two Kaiju Stars that meant he'd seen combat in both U.S. attacks: but even so he was only a major and irritated, obviously saddled with token military representative duty: he looked around the bare complex with a hard mouth, and swung a glowering gaze at John.
John met his look straight on and as they fell in to follow Harold to the observation deck, he said quietly, "Just so you know, sir, this isn't bullshit."
Pentecost cut his eyes sideways at him. "Is that so." He had a British accent, a little soft around the edges: probably he'd been here on officer exchange when the first kaiju had landed. It said something that he'd chosen to stay. He glanced John up and down. "Former military?"
"First SFG," John said. "But I spent the last ten years mostly working for people like them." He jerked a chin towards Corwin and Weeks, up ahead.
"And now you're working for him," Pentecost said, looking at Harold.
"He's the real thing," John said.
"You sure about that?"
"Pretty sure," John said dryly, and held the door to the control room: it had been brought up to the ground again. The entire hangar building was already retracting, roof and walls rolling up into the ground, leaving only the skeleton of joints up; then those folded themselves down too.
"Mr. Reese and I will be going down to the control pod now," Harold said. "You can watch our progress through the monitors." He touched a screen and it lit up, a camera following them. "Dr. Sung will explain the jaeger control system, and Dr. Levin will cover the tandem drift process. You'll be able to observe the entire initialization procedure, but I ask you to please reserve any questions until we're fully up and running: at that point we'll be able to speak with you from the cockpit."
They could have been listening in, so John didn't say anything to Harold while they went down. The team had built a short staircase down to the jaeger cockpit from the ground floor, with a prep room at the bottom. They suited up into the new gear that had come in from manufacturing three days ago: lightweight body armor with power supports that could keep you standing even if you were asleep, a long insulating stripe along the spinal column to improve signal processing. Harold threw him a frowning glance, a question in his face; John shook his head slightly: not now. They stepped through the door and onto the retractable platform to the jaeger's head.
John locked his boots into the platforms and pulled on the helmet as it lowered from above. The screens were coming up all around them: the full view, a window looking into the control room. Corwin had her arms folded across her chest, skepticism visible; Weeks was just wearing a small polite smile. Pentecost was leaning against the back wall of the room, expressionless, watching.
Sung leaned forward to the microphone. "Initiating drift," she said, and John closed his eyes until he became them, Harold's mind warm and bright easing against his own, calm with sure confidence: he had no doubts about the success of the demonstration.
John didn't either: he was worried about what happened next. "You know those guys aren't friendlies."
Harold did know. "Mr. Weeks and his unit have been trying to hack into our systems for the past two years, since Nathan first talked the administration into allowing us to set up the consortium." They were already powering up the jaeger systems. It wasn't like talking and working at the same time; in drift, it was less a conversation than a shared train of thought. "But on the other hand, that will make them exceptionally powerful advocates once convinced."
"Only if they don't go back, lie to get us shut down, and try to seize control of the entire project themselves," John thought.
Harold understood that they might want the credit, for any number of reasons. "But they could hardly make a convincing argument that they were responsible if a project they took over today was fully combat-ready a month later — " The thought slowed and stopped. "You don't really think they'd — "
"Let another couple cities get taken out by the next attack, so they could take the credit for stopping the one after that? Yeah. I'm not saying they would. But I wouldn't be too quick to put it past them, either." Harold was resisting, a weird sensation: John could feel him not wanting to even have the thought. John pushed it, gently. "Odds are, some other country is in line to take the next hit, and these guys have spent all their lives telling themselves a story about what people matter. About how you can murder someone and call yourself a hero and a patriot for it. And once you start telling yourself that story, it — it takes a lot to make you stop."
John knew Harold had already seen the truth of that, felt it in the drift. There wasn't a way to hide the things you were ashamed of. But Harold had looked at those parts of him, the things he'd done, with sorrow and pity, and more than that with a total lack of comprehension. John was pretty sure that if he put a gun in Harold's hand and shoved him in a room with someone trying to kill him, the first thing Harold would do was put the gun down.
Harold disagreed, mildly: he wasn't a romantic. He'd hold on to the gun as a deterrent, and try and make the other person talk things through — not to mention that in practice, the addition of a gun to a hostile confrontation rather increased than decreased the potential for deadly violence — statistics started to roll out in their head, until John nudged them back onto the main line of thought. Harold a little unhappily conceded John had a point, and in any case agreed they couldn't take the chance. "But for now, I think it's time we demonstrated why this project would even be worth their attention in the first place," he added.
John smiled, and felt Harold smiling with him. "All systems go, Control," Harold said out loud.
"Roger that," Dr. Sung said. "All systems go. We're opening the roof."
Sunlight poured in as the hangar floor cracked open overhead, retracting. The helicopters were overhead, dropping the smart clamps to the delivery team. John felt them locking in, one after another, all around the hull. "We're good to go," he said. "Take us up."
The camera had been showing the jaeger cockpit to the people in the control booth, and they'd seen the schematics. But their faces changed as they watched the jaeger coming up out of the ground: Corwin's arms unfolded, her face going rigidly controlled, eyes widening. Weeks rocked back on his heels, mouth pursing, and put his hands in his pockets. Pentecost pushed himself off the back wall and come straight up to the front windows, looking up, and he didn't budge even when Dr. Sung tentatively tried to suggest he move back so he could see the system readings on her screen as well as watch.
The helicopters took them clear of the hangar and put them down in the center of the open lot — carefully, but the asphalt cracked slightly underfoot anyway. John and Harold detached the clamps and waited for them to be retracted. After the copters cleared the area, they turned to face the control room: three steps to get turned around, each one within the target timeframe, under 2 seconds from impulse to movement complete.
"We're going to go through a basic kata first," John told the control room.
Harold was a solid supportive presence, but paying more attention to the internal readings. He particularly wanted to see how the jaeger's systems handled the more elaborate moves they were about to make: the jaeger wasn't balanced quite exactly like a human body, but the system was supposed to translate for them, let them feel the tolerances of the jaegar's body mapping to their own. This would of course be the first real full-body test of that system —
John decided to skip the formal bow. "And hopefully I'm not about to dump us on our ass," he muttered.
He didn't dump them. There were a couple of places in the kata where things didn't feel quite right and he backed off, Harold already sketching out code fixes, but for the most part every move went easily. The hardest part was time. The sheer distances the jaeger's limbs had to travel made it feel like he was pretending to move in slow-motion while the jaeger moved at full speed. "Would it help to be working against resistance?" Harold wondered, envisioning a kind of body framework, equipment that they could physically push against that would resist them just the right amount and for the right length of time to slow them to jaeger-time.
In the meantime, John imagined moving through water, focused on control instead of speed, and moved into the next sequence, one he'd designed himself. He'd been watching footage of the kaiju attacks, studying analysis of the way they moved and their anatomy, and he'd been coming up with good strikes and blocks to use against them. Harold talked the control room through it while John moved. "Given the thickness of the brain case, head blows like these will mostly be useful early in a fight — they're intended to target the eyes and the ears, and hopefully cause disorientation and pain, as well as opening up additional targets in the torso. We've observed that the kaiju react defensively to protect their eyes by turning away — Dr. Haneko, I believe you can show them the footage — exposing several vulnerable spots along the flank."
John finished the second head blow with both hands meeting, clasped them, and pulled them down in a hard cross-body strike. "Given that behavior," Harold said, "this particular blow should ideally impact an organ we're calling the kaiju's secondary digestive sac: it holds acids used to dissolve metals the kaiju ingests, and is among the more vulnerable parts of its body. A hard blow could cause it to rupture, spilling those acids into the kaiju's abdominal cavity. We believe this is what occurred late during the Manila attack, when the fourth missile strike penetrated the hide and exploded, and the kaiju immediately showed signs of extreme distress and its range of motion grew severely constrained. Apart from the fighting advantage this offers, we're fairly certain that such an injury alone will kill the kaiju within two hours. It's therefore another early target."
John pulled back from the move: time for a throw, he thought. "This is intended to be performed while executing a hold on the kaiju," Harold said. John gripped his hands around in front and pushed off both legs, getting a good thirty feet into the air, and turned halfway around before they smashed back to earth, the whole complex shuddering with the impact.
"Jesus," Corwin said involuntarily, half under her breath.
"While we'd obviously want to avoid this maneuver in any populated area, forcing the kaiju to support the weight of the jaeger is likely to destabilize it," Harold said. "The jaeger can recover more quickly from a wider range of positions than a kaiju, making moves of this sort a useful tactic."
There wasn't a lot of conversation after the demo. Harold offered Weeks and Corwin a tour of the facility that cleared them out of the way; John offered Pentecost a look at the fighting routines he was sketching out for the jaeger. He waited until the control room had slid down out of sight, and then he turned to Pentecost and said, "Or, if you want, we could take a look inside."
Pentecost hadn't said a word, but there was an intensity in his eyes. "Lead the way," he said.
They went down the stairs and into the jaeger cockpit. Pentecost walked around the small space, touched the surfaces lightly, his eyes roving over the blank screens, the handful of controls. "You've been up against them," John said. "What do you think of our chances?"
He didn't answer right away. "Don't think they're stupid," Pentecost said finally. "Not for a second. You know why they hit population centers? They're looking for them. Anytime they're out in open ground, they follow the biggest highways they can see. They're not dumb animals."
He turned to face John, shoulders straight, hands clasped behind his back, eyes narrow. "You're slower than they are, and those joints look vulnerable. They get some leverage on a limb, get you on the ground long enough to jump on you, I think you're dead. You need to win a fight fast, or you won't win it at all."
"That's the idea," John said. "We're fighting on our own territory. The fight goes a long time, we've already lost."
"Can you get it faster?"
"Mark 1 is going to be a general twenty percent improvement," John said. "Harold thinks he can get the Mark 2 down an effective sixty percent by specializing for different conditions, assuming we get the funding to build at least twenty of them."
Pentecost nodded. "What do I think of your chances?" He looked back around the cockpit. "Better than anything else I've seen. By a long shot. When are you combat-ready?"
"If a kaiju came out of the water today, we'd go," John said. "But we could use some serious practice, especially submerged. I was wondering if you might be able to swing us clearance to head down to one of the Marine bases — Miramar or Camp Pendleton."
Pentecost raised an eyebrow. "You're asking?"
John looked at him. "You heard Dr. Levin tell you about tandem drift. He couldn't tell you what it's really like, though. When you're in there, in drift — you're one person. When I'm asking, Harold's asking too."
"Hm." Pentecost studied him. "And why are you asking me?"
"Because quite frankly, I don't trust Weeks half as far as I can throw him, and I want more momentum behind this project before he comes up with an angle on it," John said.
After a long moment, Pentecost's mouth twitched up at one corner. "It so happens I've served out of Camp Pendleton the last three years," he said, and took out his cell phone. "Miranda?" he said after a moment. "This is Major Pentecost. Would you ask General Rodriguez if he can give me a minute for something urgent?"
"Thanks," John said quietly, while they waited for the general to come on the line.
Pentecost glanced at him. "Don't thank me. I'm expecting something in return." John raised his eyebrows. "If this thing works, you'll be needing more pilots."
Half an hour after the car pulled out, carrying a smiling, smiling Weeks, all of Harold's helicopters were refueled and back in the air, dropping the clamps down to the jaeger.
"Pack up everything you can and get office space in San Diego as close to the Marine base as you can," Harold was saying to Will, who was standing in the control room with his hands shoved in his pockets looking at them. John was handling the clamp checks, but he had a moment to glance over at him, feeling the warmth and deep intensity of Harold's love, the touch of regret and sorrow. "Possibly buy some factories if you can find them, or any ground that looks useful — we'll need all the manufacturing capacity we can possibly get in any case."
"Got it," Will said. "I'll see you down there. Don't drop this thing on San Diego."
"We'll do our best," John said. "We're clear to go."
He punched in the route and fed it to the pilots as they got aloft. "Uh, sir," the lead pilot said over the radio, "I'm pretty sure that's going to be in view of I-5."
"I don't care if we have to come in over downtown LA, we're taking the straightest shot down," John said, instead of explaining that was in fact the point.
The honking followed them all the way, and by the time they hit San Diego, they had a cautious escort of seven news helicopters, staying well back. Harold had been monitoring the Internet: there were a dozen livestreams and photos everywhere. John smiled grimly with him as they came into Pendleton airspace and a flotilla of Marine helicopters showed up to hold back the news crews.
General Rodriguez clearly meant to be wildly pissed off right up until the jaeger actually hit the ground in front of him. He and his people were the ones who'd finally taken out the Bay Area kaiju, granted after the thing had taken a hell of a pounding already, and they'd also been in at the end of the Seattle one. He'd seen it personally, and he'd lost a lot of men. Instead of yelling, he stood in complete silence, his face on the screen looking rigid and locked, and then all he said was, "Right. We need to give this thing a shakedown?"
The next three weeks blurred into one long stretch. When they weren't in mock combat, they were working on the systems, designing battle plans, collecting still more intelligence on the kaiju from the men who'd fought them. They mostly lived in the cockpit, and they only came out of drift to sleep. Even then, it almost didn't feel like they'd left. John had Harold's dreams sometimes, glimpses of Nathan and Will and flowing endless seas of code. Harold had his, a hundred places across the world, people dying at his hands.
John wasn't alone very often. Will Ingram came onto the base two weeks later with a team of the collaborators getting ready to build the Mark II. After the demo, Harold went to dinner with them to talk low-level routines, and John had a few hours to himself. He went for a jog along the beach. He could see the jaeger from a long way off, standing like a massive sentinel at the water's edge. He stopped at a snack bar a couple miles down the sand: there were dozens of them, shacks catering to the crowds of tourists coming to watch the jaeger demos. He ordered a bottle of water and put a couple dollars on the counter.
The guy on the other side handed him a cold bottle dripping ice and pushed the bills back. "Sorry, man," he said quietly. "Your money's no good here."
John blinked at him. The guy — a kid, really; couldn't have been eighteen yet — shrugged. "My father's stationed at the base," he said. "Pointed you out to me the other day."
"Thanks," John said, bemused. He took his bottle and went to the railing overlooking the ocean: it was deserted; all the tourists were crammed along the one facing the jaeger.
A voice said, "You're looking better than the last time I saw you."
John turned. "Kara."
She was holding a small ice cream cone, smiling faintly. John felt the absence of a gun, a knife, anything, like a missing limb. He forced himself not to look away from her, even though he badly wanted to scan the area, identify how much support she had. He was angry with himself, furiously angry. He'd let himself stay in Harold's mind, Harold's world, where everyone was pulling together to build the jaegers, where ego didn't matter and all other considerations vanished next to the need to save people. He wanted to be in that world; he'd forgotten to worry about the other one. His world, where Denton Weeks had watched the jaeger flying down to San Diego on national TV and fumed, because now he couldn't use it; where phone calls had been made and Kara had been sent here, probably with a team, to get at the one critical point of vulnerability a jaeger had: the pilots.
He had a moment of gut-clenched fear: Harold. He forced it down. Will and Harold had stayed on the base. Kara wouldn't have tried him here if she'd had a better option.
"You don't call, you don't write," she said, mocking. She looked over at the jaeger in the distance. "You don't want to share your toys."
"Looks to me like it's the other way around," John said sharply. "Kara, listen to me. They can't find pilots for this thing all that easily— "
"Oh, I know," she said. "I figured that much out when I heard you'd been recruited out of the refugee tanks."
"The next kaiju's due in a week," John said. "You know how many people it's going to kill — "
"John, John, John," she said, shaking her head. She tossed the rest of her cone in the trash and wiped her fingers. "You know better. I don't question orders."
John clenched his jaw. "I'm not going with you," he said.
"The easy way or the hard way, John. You choose." Four other men were coming out of the crowd behind her, hard-faced, wary. He spotted the smoked-window SUV they had waiting at the end of the boardwalk, only a few yards away. He wondered if he threw himself over the railing, dived deep enough, he could get away, swim back.
"Please," Kara said, rolling her eyes, and flipped her coat back to show him the taser on her left hip. And she'd use it, too: she'd use it even if it meant he drowned, and he had to live. He had to live. Two of the men were on either side of him, reaching for his arms.
"Hey!" John looked over. The kid at the snack bar was frowning his way. "Hey, man, you okay?" he called.
John stared at him.
Kara turned, frowning, and said, "Mind your own — "
"Hey!" the kid was yelling at the bored cop on the rail, already yanking off his apron and climbing over his own counter. "Hey! Officer! That guy's one of the jaeger pilots!"
The tourists were turning, staring at him. The boardwalk cop was running towards them. John ducked under one guy's arm and punched the other, kicked the legs out from under a third. The fourth one slammed a doubled fist against his temple, though, and John staggered to his knees, seeing stars. Kara narrowed her eyes. "Get him to the car," she said, and turned around, pulling her gun. "No!" John shouted, but she fired, and the cop went down.
People were screaming. She fired two warning shots into the air, and people were cowering away from her. The guys heaved John up to his feet, and then someone shouted, "They're trying to kidnap him!"
"Keep back," Kara said flatly, sweeping the gun around, and John saw people staring at them, at her, on the other side of it; and he had one moment when he knew; a moment for tears to gather, to start sliding down his face. Then the whole crowd was surging in towards them, as one, and he was in Harold's world; this was Harold's world, after all.
He woke up. Harold was asleep beside him and the green military clock in their quarters said 0214. John sat up and rubbed his face and stretched a little, testing for soreness. It was pretty much gone. He'd gotten more bruises from the rescue than the attack, and he didn't mind any of them. The doctors — the dozen doctors — had all finally, grudgingly conceded he didn't have a concussion.
He looked at the clock again, and around the dark silence of the room. Two more days left. He lay down to sleep again, but he didn't close his eyes. There was something happening. He listened: the sound of rotors. He got up and went to the window. The helicopter pad was lit up, and the dozen jaeger-transport copters were starting their engines. John turned into the room and knelt next to Harold's side of the bed and stirred him awake. The knock came a moment later, a Marine private at the door, shaved head and crisp dress uniform.
"Sir," he said, saluting.
Harold sat up behind him in the bed, yawning. "What is it?"
"It's here," John said. The private nodded. "Tell the general we're on our way. Where is it headed?"
"Straight-line course would take it to Tokyo, sir. ETA twenty-one hours."
John got into his suit and turned to help Harold with his; he was fumbling with the chest seal. "Yes, all right, we should have drilled for this," Harold muttered. John just smiled faintly and fixed the neck collar so it lay smooth, and they were on their way.
Someone handed them cups of coffee and a stack of power bars as they stepped into the cockpit lift. John put them in reach on the console, and he climbed into the harness and hooked in. Harold was talking to the anxious operations crew, most of them with strawstack-messy hair, some still in pajamas. "No," he was saying. "We'll stick with the current firmware. No last-minute changes. Dr. Sung, if you see anything unexpected in the readings, don't hesitate to alert me or ask questions no matter the circumstances, even during combat. If anything should go wrong, it will be absolutely critical that you obtain as much data from the experiment as possible."
Sung nodded, a small movement; they all knew that meant if Harold didn't come back. Harold looked at Will. Will stuck his hands in his pockets and tried to smile and said, "Go get 'em, Uncle Harold." Harold smiled back at him, a quick flicker of movement, and then he stepped into the harness. The video window closed, and it was just the front viewscreen, the schematics, all the console readings; it was just the two of them.
"Ready to initiate drift on your mark," Dr. Levin's voice came over the radio, and John glanced once more at Harold, Harold looking back, his eyes warm, unafraid.
“Let’s go,” John said. The end of the world was headed for Tokyo, and they were going to stop it.