The first time he sees her, she is piloting with someone else. Her hair is as black as pitch and her mouth a hard, crimson slash on her face. She has just returned from a mission, and although the Kaiju is technically dead, it is not altogether a victory; she is leaving a blood trail behind her on the cement.
Boleslav, in the seat next to him, catches him looking.
“You’ll want to leave that one well alone,” Boleslav says. Boleslav Kaidonovsky is thin, wiry, but he eats like a man three times his size; he’s bolting his food down like it’s his last meal. “They say she’s trouble.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“The bad kind of trouble. What other kind of trouble is there?”
He can see the unyielding curve of her spine. The proud lift of her head. She isn’t very beautiful, he decides; too cold, too sharp. There isn’t anything soft or warm about her.
“She doesn’t look like the type to cause trouble,” he says finally.
Boleslav gives him an incredulous look. “Aleksis, one glance at a woman like that should tell you she’d sooner cut you into pieces than speak to you. One of the boys from Petersburg tried to cosy up to her a week ago and nearly got his balls cut off. She keeps a knife in her boot, you know.”
“You keep a knife in your boot.”
“It’s different. I’m not using it to castrate anyone. Are you going to eat that?”
He lets Boleslav steal his bread roll. Then Eduard, from two seats away, upsets the tenuous social balance by trying to steal a helping of his potatoes, and then the three of them are roaring like bears and tackling each other to the ground, and there’s a huge mock-brawl, and people are standing on their benches to get a good look, and he ends up with a half-hearted black eye and sore knuckles. They’re at an age when they’re still fighting for the sake of fighting; they’re still boys.
That night he sleeps deeply and well. He likes the twinge of soreness in his muscles, the deep-seated ache of his bruised eye. Tomorrow he’ll look like one of the battered refugees from the inland camps.
He has already forgotten her.
She is the youngest female pilot in the Russian program. By the time Aleksis Kaidonovsky is ready for a Mentor, she has already spent two years inside various Jaeger cockpits. She is already a veteran.
“You won’t be any good like this,” she says.
He looks up. Sweat is trickling down into his armpits. “What?”
“Your fighting. You’re no good.”
They’ve spent at least three hours sparring; he lost his patience somewhere along the one hour mark. She’s small but she’s fast, stronger than she looks, and she doesn’t follow any of the standard combat patterns. She slips around his bulk like mercury.
He scrubs a hand roughly across his mouth. “That’s the point. You’re here to make me better.”
“I can’t make you better. Nobody can. They should never have let you onto the program.”
He sees red. It’s the look in her eye that does it: she’s watching him like he’s something she wants to scrape off the bottom of her boot. Like he’s trash.
He forgets himself, launches his body across the mat with a roar.
Then abruptly he is flat on his back and her elbow is pushed into the soft meat of his throat.
“I cannot help you,” she says to him. Her knees are digging painfully into his sides. “You do not fight with a clear head. You have no endurance. I managed to get under your skin in less than a minute. When you are angry, you fight sloppily, like a cornered animal. I left you many openings that you did not take. Do you not realise how problematic this is?” She gets up off of him, leaves him gasping on the ground for breath. “When you are in the Drift, you and your co-pilot are one. Your anger becomes his. Your impulsivity becomes his. Your decisions will affect those that he makes. And sometimes you will be battling Kaiju for hours on end, deployed and redeployed without any rest. Three hours on a sparring mat is nothing.”
He stares up at her. His cheeks are hot. The bright fluorescent beam of the training light breaks over her shoulder, so that he can’t even make out her face.
“Someone like you,” she says, “will only get those around you killed.”
“I will not,” he shouts. “You are here to teach me. You are here to train me, so that I can – ”
“I am teaching you. Your first lesson, Kaidonovsky, is that nobody can make you better but yourself. It is not my responsibility to turn you into a Jaeger pilot. It is yours. I am only here to smooth the way. Do you understand?”
Stunned, he opens his mouth but no words come out.
She throws his towel at him. “Get up.”
He sits up gingerly. Winces at the residual feel of her kick against his stomach. At eye-level, her ankle is as slender as a child’s; he could snap it in one hand, if he ever managed to catch it.
“Training for today is over,” Aleksandra Dmitriyeva says. “Come and find me once you have the answer to my question. Until then, Aleksis Kaidonovsky, I don’t want to see you.”
He wakes to Boleslav wrestling his blankets off his bunk. “Get up! Get up! Jesus Christ, it’s like trying to move a boulder. How on earth are you so heavy? I eat twice as much as you do.”
“I am going to rip your testicles off by hand,” he threatens. He rolls back over in bed. “Go away.”
“The new Mark 5 is out! Don’t you want to see? Aleksis, by God, you meathead, get up.”
By the time they reach the common area it is already packed with trainees. People are jockeying for the best view of the screen. The Mark 5 is Australian – they’ve been hit the hardest in recent years, so it makes sense – it’s sleek, looming, with two huge wing-like projections from its back. Fins? Already there is a wild debate over what their purpose is. Surely the Australians haven’t worked out a way to make Jaegers fly?
There’s a flash of black in the corner of his vision. Dmitriyeva in her military khaki. Her red mouth is set firmly in a scowl, her arms crossed over her chest; all of his bruises start aching again just looking at her.
As he watches, she turns on her heel and leaves.
“What I wouldn’t give to see a Jaeger fly,” Boleslav chatters excitedly next to him. “That would be something to see. I’d give up a whole month’s worth of ration tickets. Two months, even. Hey! Hey, Aleksis, where on earth are you going?”
“I’ll be back.”
“Don’t you want to see – ”
He follows her. He can tell that she’s seen him behind her, but her pace doesn’t change.
She looks even smaller now that he’s viewing her from some distance away. It takes him some effort to admit even to himself that she is younger than him. Most of the time, she doesn’t look it: shoulders back, a military curtness to her, an icy glare that stops you clean in your tracks.
He draws up beside her. “You look like you’re dressed to head out.”
“I’m being deployed,” she says, shortly. “Go back to your room, Kaidonovsky.”
“There’s been an alert? Where?”
“That is classified information.”
He feels huge and clumsy next to her. She isn’t even looking at him. “I’ve been thinking about what you said. I want to teach myself to fight.”
“Then teach yourself.” She draws up in an abrupt halt, swivelling towards him. Her eyes fix on his face. All of a sudden he feels as if he’s being pinned to the nearest wall. “This was not what I meant, about returning to me once you had your answer. I did not mean a verbal answer. I meant improvement. You have not improved.”
He can feel his hackles rising. “How can you say I have not improved? You haven’t even seen – ”
Then he remembers: I managed to get under your skin in less than a minute.
He snaps his mouth shut.
She doesn’t exactly smile at him, but her mouth twists up slightly at the corners. She turns away.
“Now you’re getting the hang of it,” she says.
The details of the mission are classified. In the absence of fact, rumours fly like wildfire.
There is no doubt that Dmitriyeva is finished as a pilot. Drifting requires the most absolute degree of neural synchronisation; only relatives, with their abundance of memories and long-standing emotion, syncytial in their very blood, are able to hold a neural handshake for any useful period of time. Twins are the most highly sought pilots in any program. And the Dmitriyevs had been the very best.
He sees her for the first time three days after the incident. He almost does not recognise her: she has dyed her hair a gold so pale it is almost white.
“A bit bizarre, for someone in mourning,” Boleslav whispers to him. “I would’ve thought a darker – ”
“Shut up,” Aleksis Kaidonovsky says.
There is not a trace of grief in her expression. If anything, her eyes are harder than before; her hair is pulled back severely out of her face.
The training centre falls utterly quiet, every set of eyes fixed on her.
“Fight, Kaidonovsky,” she says to him, very briskly. “No talking today.”
He is still unsure. Her left arm is set in a splint. And he is conscious, again, of how much larger he is – she barely comes up to his shoulder. Boleslav, who had stepped off the mat to get a drink of water, is hovering uncertainly on the edge of his peripheral vision, unsure of whether or not to intervene.
“With all due respect,” he starts to say.
She delivers a lightning-fast kick to his flank that almost drops him.
“Fight, Kaidonovsky,” she says again. “I’ve told you. I don’t want to hear a word out of your mouth.”
Hesitatingly, he brings his arms up.
It takes him less than a minute to realise that she is serious. Her blows have force. She isn’t pulling any punches. After a while, he stops pulling his own; realises that, since everybody is watching them anyway, if he’s going to beat up a woman who recently lost her twin brother to a Kaiju, then he might as well succeed at it.
They’re still swiping at each other two hours later. Everybody has stopped watching. By this time the adrenaline has them both; her eyes are wild, shining, with a heat in them he hasn’t seen before.
He doesn’t spare her injured side. She remembers every bruise she left on him the last time, every sprained ligament and every almost-snapped bone, and she doesn’t spare those either. When they’re finally done her splint is lying in pieces on the floor and he’s gasping, limping a little, trying not to flex his right arm.
He sits and she drops down onto the mat next to him.
“I’m sorry,” he manages, “about your brother.”
She doesn’t look at him. “Don’t be. It wasn’t your fault.”
“From what I’ve heard, it wasn’t your fault either.”
“I know that,” she snaps at him. Then she pauses, re-evaluates. Sighs. “That is not why I am upset. We had done everything right, we were both fighting hard, nobody could fault either of us. But I had made a promise to him at the very beginning.” She twists a bandage around her arm. “And I broke that promise.”
He doesn’t know what to say to that.
“Grigor and I were inseparable when we were children. I assume it is the same for you and your brother.”
“I fished him out of a lake once. He didn’t know how to swim.”
She laughs, soft. “That’s probably what drew the recruiters to you. They can spot sentiment from ten miles away. The greater your love, the better of a weapon you are. They can sense it.”
“But Boleslav, he – he doesn’t like to fight. He’s better at technology.”
“But you’ll need him,” she says, “if you want to become a pilot.”
They sit for a while longer in silence.
Finally, she stands. He watches her put herself together. The plates of armour slotting back into place, tanks and machinery, the cracks welding themselves silently shut.
“Thank-you, Kaidonovsky,” she says. And then she slips away.
“I can’t read any of this,” he complains finally. From across the room, Boleslav sighs. “Their plurals, they don’t make a bit of sense – I don’t understand why any of this is important.”
“We’ve had this discussion before. Back when we were in primary school.”
“I hate English. It’s a bull-headed language.”
“Are you going to moan about it all morning?”
Boleslav reaches over and snatches up his book. “You do realise that if we ever become pilots, we might have to work with the American division. Or the Australian division. It might actually be useful to be able to talk to them without consulting a dictionary.”
“But your English is fine,” he points out. “So I can tell you what to say, and then you can say it.”
His brother laughs. Already, his translation has various red scrawls all over it. “In that case, we’ll make an excellent team. I can do all the translating, and you can do all the Kaiju-killing. Fair division of labour.”
“Sounds good to me.”
“It’s a pity you missed the rest of the Mark 5 unveiling. The wings on its back? Anti-turbulence fins. Genius. No need to worry about overbalancing the next time you throw a hard punch.”
“You couldn’t throw a hard punch if your life depended on it,” he says.
Boleslav throws his book down in mock disgust. “And you can’t spell. Look here. What on earth is this?”
“I don’t know,” he admits. “Just write over it, I’ll touch it up later.”
“Dmitriyeva didn’t look too happy when she saw the Mark 5.”
“She’s angry,” he says, before he’s even had a chance to think his words through. “She’s angry that the Australasian program, which started up two years after our own, is already developing Mark 5s. While our pilots are still stuck with the original Mark 1s. She thinks we deserve better.”
“She told you that?”
“No. But it’s obvious enough.”
When he next glances up, he finds Boleslav giving him a strange look.
“What?” he demands, perplexed. “Did I say something wrong?”
There’s a pause. Then, the strange look still in his eye, Boleslav returns to the translation. “No, Aleksis,” he says. “Nothing is wrong.”
He goes about his ordinary ways. He trains. He studies. Every now and then he gets into a fight in the common room; except now, with Dmitriyeva’s advice in his ear, he rarely starts them, mostly finds himself ending them. February comes, and with it the first Category IV Kaiju: half of Honolulu is flattened. March sees a record tidal wave hit New Guinea. April is his first trial inside a Simulator, Boleslav sweating bullets next to him, his first proper neural handshake a muddle of confusion and panic.
When it’s over, Boleslav peels the helmet off and sags. “I can’t do this. For the love of God, I can’t.”
“It’s our first try,” he says. He’s also shaking; he feels like his joints are melting together. “Nobody has a proper connection the first time. We’ll try it again.”
“No.” Boleslav’s voice is surprisingly fierce. “No. I mean it, Aleksis. I can’t do this.”
“You’re just tired – ”
“I’m not,” his brother cuts in. “You see the problem? We aren’t in sync. Even outside of the Drift, we aren’t in sync. You don’t have a clue what I’m thinking right now. Do you?”
“I need to sit down. I can’t have this conversation standing up.”
“I’m not built to be a Jaeger pilot. I’m not like you. I can’t spend two hours in one of these things, slowly hacking a Kaiju to bits. Aleksis, I’m – you know what I’m good at. Or, if you don’t, at least I do. And it isn’t this. I’m good at blueprints, at designs. My physical scores are barely scraping by as it is.”
He stares up at him. “Boleslav, what are you saying?”
“I – I can’t go ahead with the program. I just can’t. I’ll get you killed. I know it.”
“But I – without you, I can’t go ahead with the program either. I don’t have a co-pilot.”
“This idea that only relatives can co-pilot – that Drift compatibility is based on blood. Who said so? Where is it proven?” Boleslav rips at the catch of his armour, struggling to get out of it. “It doesn’t make sense. Sure, we share many memories, we share a very deep bond as brothers. You saved my life once, and neither of us will forget it. But that does not make us compatible, Aleksis.”
“All the best Jaeger crews, they are all – ”
“So what? While we were connected just then, can you honestly say you believe we can fight like that?”
He remembers the inside of his brother’s mind. The shifting swirl of equations, diagrams, thoughts, ideologies that he could not understand. He had thought, upon entering it, that it was like travelling in a foreign world without a compass: impossible to find true north.
“I’ve seen you with Aleksandra Dmitriyeva,” Boleslav goes on. “I’ve seen you spar with her. You match each other move for move.”
“She doesn’t have a co-pilot either – ”
“I said no.”
He tears his armour off. Cords and wires rip, showering them both with bright blue sparks. In the end the technicians have to chase after him, trying to dismantle him as he pounds his way back to his room.
It is after dinner. She is dressed as casually as he’s ever seen her: she is barefoot, with a spray bottle of bleach in one hand, a brush in the other. Her hair is wet and loose and falls to around her shoulders. Her dog-tags rattle as she lets him in.
“You’re here to tell me that you’re leaving the program,” she says, before he’s even opened his mouth.
He stares at her. He feels too big for the room. “How – ”
“It’s written all over your face. I’ve been your Mentor for almost six months now, Kaidonovsky. Your thoughts are relatively easy to guess.”
“It’s my brother.” He sits down on the end of her bed, then realises the inappropriateness of this and stands up again. “He has already requested a transfer to the Technical division. They have accepted him.”
“Leaving you without a co-pilot.”
“It’s a pity,” she says. “You had a lot of potential. But then, I suppose, this way it’s better.”
“You don’t think I would’ve made a good Jaeger pilot?”
“Any pilot is only as good as his or her partner. And your brother has never been able to keep up with you.” She sets the bottle of bleach down on the table, reaches for a towel. “In any case your brother has excellent timing. I was just about to start the process of looking for another Mentor for you. Now, with his transfer, he’s saved me the trouble.”
“Another Mentor? You’re not – ”
“I’m leaving the program at the end of June.”
He feels a quick surge of anger. “But why? You’re one of the best pilots we have! They can’t just pack you off, now that you don’t have – ”
“I have no other living relatives, Kaidonovsky. You know what that means.”
“I don’t see how that affects your ability to be a Mentor.”
“It affects my ability to train you in compatibility.” She drapes the damp towel over the back of a chair. “That is the primary goal of a Mentor: to foster compatibility. To prepare you for the Drift. I can’t do that, now that I’ve lost my other half. Or, at least, I can’t do it properly.”
“It isn’t your fault my brother and I aren’t compatible.”
She shrugs, indifferent. “Perhaps not. But it doesn’t change things. I don’t belong here any more.”
He sits for a while and watches her.
“You always do that,” he says finally. “It happened the first time we met. I remember now.”
“Pull back,” he says. “Pull away. You won’t invest until you’re absolutely sure. The first time, you told me you wouldn’t teach me until I committed. You didn’t want to take a chance with me.”
“I wanted you to take responsibility for yourself.”
“No.” He shakes his head. “No, you were afraid. Of failure. And you’re afraid of it even now.”
Her hand, where it rests on the desk, clenches visibly. Her knuckles go as white as her hair.
“You speak as if you’re different,” she says at last. “You speak as if you’ve never had anything to prove. How many people know where you come from, Kaidonovsky? That your parents were dirt-poor potato farmers from Siberia? I knew there was something about you the moment I saw you. Starting fights everywhere you went. Losing your temper every time anybody hinted that you weren’t worthy of the program. You come here, telling me you’re going to quit, and then you act as if I’m letting you down by making the exact same choice as you – ”
The tight rein he has on his temper fails. One moment he is sitting on her bed; the next moment he has knocked her from her chair, the momentum carrying them both to the floor. She yells – full-force and harsh, almost ecstatic – lays into him like she’s been dying for the chance.
They knock over the table. And then they break the table. And then they break various other things.
By the time they pull apart he has a dislocated shoulder, blood dripping past one eye, possibly one or several fractured ribs; she seems to have fared a bit better, although not by much.
They sit there for a moment, slumped on the floor and breathing hard.
“Your left hook,” he manages, finally. Her eyes dart instantly to his face. “You don’t put as much force into it as you used to. It’s been almost half a year since you broke that arm, it should’ve healed by now.”
“It’s still miles ahead of your left hook,” she snaps back. “And I always pilot on the right side anyway.”
He gives a lopsided shrug. “I pilot left. That’s the only reason why I noticed.”
She doesn’t answer.
He can taste fresh blood on his lip. It could be his, or it could just as easily be hers. He looks at her, at the shape she makes opposite him: how, despite the awkward slouch of her injured body, there is still an obvious elegance to her. The hard but graceful line of her jaw. The cold, metallic glint of her eye. The long, bloody slash over one cheek, dripping a puddle onto her shirt. Boleslav was right, he decides: she’s matched him from the start, blow for blow, move for move, and for the first time since he saw her six months ago he realises that Aleksandra Dmitriyeva is beautiful.
“We could do it, I think,” he says.
She blinks at him suspiciously. “What?”
“Pilot together. You and me. Right and left.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“I know it hasn’t been done before. And it might not work. But just because we’re not related to each other – Dmitriyeva, the only times I neither win nor lose a fight is when I’m fighting you. That was how you were with Grigor, wasn’t it? That’s how it should be.”
“They’d never let us. We’d never be able to hold a handshake. I don’t share any deep memories with – ”
“You’re pulling back again,” he interrupts. She stops talking immediately. “We can make memories. We’ve still got time. I’m still training. And if we don’t try, of course we fail.”
Her blue eyes rest on him. Considering. He appreciates for the first time that he knows what she is thinking: her fear, her apprehension, her doubt.
Finally, she looks away. “Get up.”
“You heard me, Kaidonovsky. Get up.”
He does. In the same movement, she rises as well, fluid despite her bruises and sprains.
“Alright,” she says and beckons him towards her. Her hand lands lightly on his back; she takes his elbow, bends it up and in. “Alright, Aleksis Kaidonovsky. We will try.”
And then, with a jerk, she resets his shoulder.
Their first kill together is a night in October. The sea is howling, the dead beast already beneath the waves. The gale-force wind drives the rain in at a slant.
“Dmitriyeva,” he starts to say.
“No,” she says. “No. Call me Sasha.”