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Heeding The Call

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1.

They have lived in Shatterdomes for most of their marriage.


2.

There was a time when they were simply a courting couple, before the kaiju and the Jaegers, before the worldwide economic collapse. She was from Moscow, born and raised, he had moved to the city for work. He towered over everyone, crushed himself into an office, an apartment, a bar down the street. When she first saw him, she thought he must be a laborer. He looked like he could crush rocks in his bare hands.

"Big man," she said. "Is there room there next to you?"

And he had shifted for her, self-consciously huge, and he had bought her drink after drink and had watched in fascination as she touched cigarette after cigarette to her scarlet lips.

She took him home that night, guiding him through the rain-wet streets of Moscow. Her fingers laced through his like twine through branches and she pulled his hair as she straddled his lap on her mattress on the floor, afraid to let the giant on top of her. He had a fierce face, like an eagle. A good Russian face.

She fell asleep tucked against his side. It was their first night together, and they never spent another apart.


3.

She was a gymnast when she was young, before she got too tall. It isn't something that she looks back on with regret, as it was never her passion. She enjoyed the rings, the uneven bars, anything that let her feel the burn in her arms and shoulders.

She was not graceful. Her form was not perfect. She was powerful, aggressive. Her coaches suggested other sports, where she might find an outlet.

She took up boxing and was soon a popular draw in the underground bare-knuckle fighting rings. She fought men and women alike and defeated them all. The money was good. It paid for a cheap apartment for her and an expensive school for her little sisters. She made her way in a world of violence and ugliness so that they wouldn't have to.

To her spectators, she was a champion. To her family, she was a hero.


4.

He came from a family of farmers in a town that was so small it might as well have not had a name. His parents were quiet, simple people. His brothers and sisters were farmers, with their roots firmly planted in the land. None of them knew what to make of him, a colossus who longed for the stars.

They sent him away to school at the Polytechnical University. His mother was displeased that they were losing the strongest of their sons. His father was proud in a mystified way. They did not understand one another, this simple man and his brilliant son, but there was love between them. They clasped hands at the train station and said nothing, because there was nothing to say.

It was a long ride to Saint Petersburg. He spent it reading books on aerospace engineering.

He never saw his family again.


5.

The kaiju emerge in 2013.

Sasha and Aleksis have been lovers for nearly five years. He is twenty-four, she is twenty-nine. They sit in the apartment they share and watch the news avidly, holding hands. Sasha smokes cigarette after cigarette, climbing out onto the fire escape and bristling in the cold. The wind snatches the smoke from her lips and she wonders.

Aleksis watches her when she is not sitting next to him. She is tall and strong and fierce. Her hair is still platinum, her lips are still red. She still rides him some nights, her fingers locked in his as she rocks back and forth in his lap, laughing, teasing him in her husky voice.

He loves her more than anything in the world.

They get married the day after the kaiju is put down. Aleksis insists. If the world is going to end, they will go to their deaths as husband and wife.


6.

The Pan Pacific Defense Corps is established in 2014. The Jaegers come shortly after.

Aleksis applies for and gets a job with the PPDC. They are eager to have him; her man is a genius, a fact which leaves her simultaneously bemused and fiercely proud.

They pack their things and move to Vladivostok. Sasha does not ask questions; she's happy to follow her husband, but it is her first time out of Moscow and the strain on her is great. She cries in the bathroom of the plane, and when she returns to her seat, Aleksis does not mention her red-rimmed eyes.

They hold hands the entire way there.


7.

Vladivostok is not what Sasha expects. They live on a base, in an apartment twice the size of the one in Moscow. Aleksis is gone most days and does not come back until late at night. She misses him terribly and, with no friends and nothing to do, she rattles around the apartment like a loose screw.

"Go, meet people," Aleksis urges. They eat dinner at a small table. His arms are long enough that he can reach across it to cup her elbow. "They are friendly."

"They are scientists," she answers. "They have no use for me."

"I am a scientist," he teases, "and I have plenty of uses for you."

She throws bread at him and he lifts her out of her chair, presses her against the wall. She is not a small woman but he can lift her easily, and his lips find a spot behind her ear that makes her giggle like a girl. His thick beard scratches her skin, and she laces her fingers in his dark hair to hold his face against her neck.

"Maybe I should put a baby in you," he rumbles.

"Maybe you should," she purrs. She wraps her legs around his waist, pulls him in close. "A baby couldn't leave me home alone all day."

He carries her to the bed - a real, actual bed on a frame; Sasha is still not sure she likes being so far off the ground - and lays her down on the mattress like a queen. She laughs and stretches and loves the light in his eyes when he looks at her.

"This might take some time," he says, thoughtful. "We'll have to try a few different things."

"Don't know how to make a baby?" she sneers, hitting him with a pillow as he climbs into the bed. "I thought you were a scientist!"

"I am an engineer," he answers calmly, taking her wrists in his huge hands and pinning them to the bed. "If you were a rocket or a plane this would be much easier."

He kisses her and she laughs into his mouth and for a while they forget that the world is ending.


8.

At his insistence, she leaves the apartment and wanders the base.

There is not much to see. The buildings are all pre-fab, the people are all in a hurry. Aleksis has not told her what he is working on, and she has not asked. When he talks, she often does not understand what he's saying.

She walks until she sees a group of men dressed in fatigues standing in a circle, watching something intently. There is the unmistakable sound of a fist connecting with flesh. She jogs over to get a better look, unmindful of the fact that she is the only civilian.

The men take turns fighting, strapping padding onto their hands and heads. They are good, quick and brutal, but not as good as her.

The men who are not fighting stand in a semi-circle, smoking cigarettes and laughing and placing bets. She joins them, unselfconscious, and lights her own cigarette. Some of them stare at her askance but one laughs and elbows her gently. He is only slightly taller than she is, and much older.

"What do you think of them?" he asks. "They're very good, aren't they?" She makes a noncommittal noise. He smiles broadly at her. "They are cadets for the Jaeger program."

She freezes, cigarette halfway to her bright lips. "The Jaeger program?" she murmurs. Is that what Aleksis is working on? "I did not know it had come to Russia."

"Oh yes," he says happily. "They are building the first Russian Jaeger now, and we are looking for pilots."

"And they will protect us from the kaiju?" she asks.

"They will destroy the kaiju," he confirms, satisfied.

"Not these two," she states, pointing with her cigarette. "His form is sloppy and the other one is too emotional."

The old man laughs and calls to the men to switch. Another pair takes their place and Sasha shakes her head after watching for a moment. "What is wrong with these two?" the man asks, amused.

"That one is too slow." She tosses her cigarette down and stamps it out in the brittle grass. "The other is fine, but he telegraphs his punches."

One of the cadets, near enough to hear, leans around the old man and glares at her. "You think you can do better?"

"I know I can," Sasha answers simply.

"Then go, my dear," the old man tells her. "Gentlemen! The lady would like a fight!" The men all laugh, but it dies off into nervous silence when she takes off her coat. She has not boxed since she and Aleksis came to Vladivostok but she works out still, and her arms are hard and thick with muscle.

"I know you!" One of the cadets eyes her with new respect. "I won a lot of money betting on you in Moscow. Aleksandra Vetrova."

Sasha cracks her knuckles, bounces on her toes. The air is cold and her blood is hot. She bares her teeth at the cadet. "Kaidanovksy," she corrects. "Now come, little boys. Who wants to fight me?"


9.

Aleksis is home late. She has dinner prepared and she sits at the table, glowing with satisfaction.

"Sasha!" he cries, dropping his things, cupping her face in his huge hands. They are cold, chapped, and they smell like metal. "What happened to your eye?"

It is swollen shut, a lucky blow landed in one of the last fights. She broke his arm in retaliation. The old man - who turned out to be Fyodor Tsvetkov, the man in charge of the Russian Jaeger program - had made it abundantly clear to her that she is now the top of his list.

"I will give you the night to think about it," he’d said. "And to talk with your husband."

But she has already decided, and she stares up at Aleksis with a ferocious smile on her face.

"I am a cadet," she says. "I will pilot the Jaeger you're building."


10.

He takes her to see it, the metal colossus that will be her new partner. She stares up at it, examines its broad chest and massive fists, its head that looks like a nuclear reactor. Aleksis holds her hand too tight and looks grimly at the Jaeger that he has helped build.

"Does it have a name?" she asks.

"Cherno Alpha," Aleksis answers.

"Cherno Alpha," she repeats, smiling. She is in love.


11.

"I don't want you to do it," he says that night, cradling her close. She aches from their fucking. Aleksis was rough, desperate, and now she knows why.

"Why not?" she demands, sitting up. The sheets fall away, exposing her breasts. They are covered in bruises from his mouth.

"The kaiju-" he begins.

"The kaiju are shit!" she shouts. "I'll kill them all!"

Aleksis sits up. Even like this, he towers over her. His big hands close around her biceps, twisting her to face him. "You and who?" he shouts back.

"What?" For a moment, she is confused, and in the next, she understands. "You mean my co-pilot." His hands clench with bruising strength, then release.

"I don't want you to do it," he repeats.

"Aleksis..."

"I don't want anyone in your mind," he says. His eyes are ashamed but steady. "I can't live with that."

Sasha slaps him, shoves him down and straddles his hips. "Then you be my co-pilot," she orders. He rests his hands on her thighs out of habit.

"I can't fight," he protests.

"I can. I will teach you," she says. "It will be better that way. You are the brute, I am the brains." He laughs at this reversal, knowing it to be true. A faint smile appears on his face and she leans down to kiss him. "You built him, you should guide him."

"Tsvetkov will not like that," Aleksis tells her. Sasha thinks of the laughing old man and of his cadets. She doesn't want any of them in her mind, has been avoiding the thought of it so as not to spoil her pleasure.

"Tsvetkov wants me to pilot Cherno," she answers. "He will agree."


12.

It is a heated argument, and Sasha quits twice, but in the end, Tsvetkov agrees.


13.

They set up the neural handshake before Cherno Alpha’s body is complete. "We must make sure you're Drift compatible before this goes any further," Tsvetkov tells her. He makes a face like he's sucking on lemons when he looks at Aleksis now, but he does not try to talk her out of it anymore. He has seen the progress they've made, the way they move together.

Aleksis is not a pretty fighter, but he is big and powerful and has a knack for spotting his opponent's weakness. He loses himself in the fighting, in the joy of violent movement. He is more aggressive than she ever though he could be, this man with his brilliant mind and his gentle hands, but what he lacks in control, she will make up for him. They fight as one.

And Sasha is very proud of him.

They sit next to each other as the technicians strap them in, settle the Pons headsets on each of their heads. It will be more complex inside Cherno Alpha's Conn-pod, a full body connection with the Jaeger’s AI instead of the strictly mental connection they are testing today. This serves their purposes for now, shows the strength of their neural compatibility.

Aleksis looks across at her and winks. She smiles and blows him a kiss.

"Initiating neural handshake," announces a tech and then she is inside her husband's mind.

-the farm and the family and his mother looking at him as though he has betrayed her [shame/guilt] and his father's encouraging smile and the train [freedom] and St. Petersburg is massive bigger than anything [trepidation] and perhaps he doesn't belong here perhaps he should go home he is not smart enough not smart enough not smart enough [fear] but there is so much to know mother dies in the winter [sorrow/pain/guilt] and he cannot afford the train ticket cannot miss his exams but he passes he makes it out with a degree [pride] and he gets a job in Moscow and he moves into a cramped little apartment and tries to be at home in a city that he feels does not want him [lonely/homesick] and he meets her [love] and he sleeps with her [love] and they eat together [love] and she laughs at his jokes [love] and she is so beautiful [love] and she [love] watches the kaiju [fear] destroy [anger] so much [fear] but they are married [love] and they are married [love] and they are married [love] she is his wife [love] and they will always be together [love] always [love] always [always] he. loves. her. -

"Successful Drift established." The tech's voice is a soft buzz in the background. Sasha stares at Aleksis, wonders if he felt as strongly her love for him. Even as she wonders, she can feel his mind in hers and she knows.

"This is the steadiest link I've ever seen," one of the tech's says. Sasha and Aleksis move as one to look at him. Tsvetkov stares at them wryly, then gestures.

"Unhook them," he orders. "We've found our pilots." He steps close, leans down to look at Sasha. He is not laughing now.

"Welcome aboard, Ranger," he says. "I hope you know what you're doing."

"Of course," Sasha answers. Tsvetkov cannot hear it, but she can; her husband's voice, echoing just behind her own, the way it is meant to. "We live together, we die together, we kill together." Aleksis laughs, slams his fists together.


14.

Cherno Alpha is launched in 2015, two years after the first kaiju attack. The Vladivostok Shatterdome is finished the following year. Sasha and Aleksis are the first to take up residence, moving from their home on the base to cramped quarters in the Shatterdome. They wear the uniforms of Rangers. Sasha spends two days safety-pinning Russian eagles on the backs of their bomber jackets.

For a while, they are the only Rangers in Vladivostok, but eventually Cherno gains little brothers. Eden Assassin and Nova Hyperion loom in their bays, their pilots train with Sasha and Aleksis. One of the three is always gone, always out patrolling; the Russian Jaegers are built for long-term deployment, and they take turns walking up and down the frigid coasts, two people and a machine and the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean.

It is a hard life. It is nearly impossible. There is no time for a family, no time for hobbies, no time for friends. They exist to defend, to kill kaiju, but it is well. They are content.

There is time for one another, and for Cherno Alpha, and it is all the time that they need.