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The sign "Alaska Anti-Kaiju Barrier: Keeping our coasts safe" was sadly misleading. The four hundred feet high walls were equally misleading. There was no way that concrete, rebars and I-beams could hold back a kaiju. But what else was there? The Jaeger programme was being scaled back in favour of channelling the funding into the barrier.

Raleigh Becket, former Jaeger pilot – former celebrity and hero was standing in a crowd of Wall workers at morning muster on a typical, cold Alaska morning.

In the mornings, they had the benefit of the sun to warm them. In the evenings when they finished work, they would be coming from the deep freeze of forty storeys up to the deep freeze of late afternoon in the shadows. The morning musters were a frequently pointless briefing about work scheduling, materials and task allocations. On this morning, Miles the foreman informed them that three workers had died working on top of the Wall so their spots were free. Duty on top of the Wall was dangerous work so the workers got better ration cards.

Raleigh had volunteered – it wasn't as though he had anything to lose. Miles had given him a hard time as usual – jerk that he was. Give an incompetent man a little bit of power and watch him abuse it.

“Oh flyboy - still sticking around? You sure you got the cojones to work way up there?” Miles jibed. It wasn't as though Raleigh had tried to trade on his previous incarnation as a Jaeger pilot – it was simply that people recognised his face and knew who he had been and the fact that he was no longer that person.

As usual, Raleigh ignored Miles' dig. He'd heard much worse in his time, particularly in the years since Yancy had died. After a while, a certain numbness had set in and insults like Miles' didn't even sting anymore.

“I’m comfortable with heights,” he replied, his blue eyes meeting Miles' gaze steadily.

Miles didn’t give him the card. “Is that right? Well shut up and make sure you don’t swan dive. I got nobody left to mop you up. Comprende?”

Raleigh took the card and followed the rest of the up-top crew to the elevator. He could feel Miles staring at him as he walked.

*

Feet spaced across two parallel beams fifty feet above the framed part of the Wall and a hell of a lot farther from the ground, Raleigh welded the last angle brace from those parallel beams to a vertical one that stood another thirty feet above them. It was the highest point of the Wall. If you looked south, you could see the same thing all the way to the horizon: the Wall, different parts of it in various stages of completion depending on terrain and crew availability.

If you looked north, the same, all the way to Nome and the North Slope. No kaiju had ever appeared that far north, but it didn’t do any good to only build part of a wall. If it had been up to the brains trust behind the Wall project, it would have extended across the Arctic coast all the way to Newfoundland.

Raleigh finished the weld and waited for it to cool so he could get a look at it. Solid. He kicked the brace, just out of superstition, and clipped himself into a safety harness.

He jumped off the edge of the Wall and enjoyed the view for the fifty-foot drop down to the main up-top materials staging area, a steel platform bristling with crane arms. He endured a conversation with Tommy, the chatty guy who like everyone else, had to grill him about being a Jaeger pilot – a washed-up pilot at that.

To his relief, Tommy eventually fell silent so that they could get back to working, getting the beam lashed to a crane and as it lifted away to the highest reach of the Wall.

“So how’d you end up in a hole like this?” Tommy asked.

Raleigh signed inwardly, his vain hope had been that Tommy had decided to shut up.

He looked over at him and said pointedly, “I love the hours. And the silence.”

Nodding and completely missing the point, Tommy said, “Oh, me too. Love it. Some people just don’t get it. They yap and yap and they don’t know when to stop...”

Then he started talking about his kids. Raleigh sighed and flipped down his safety visor. He wouldn’t be able to hear Tommy over the sound of the welding torch... he hoped.

*

After work, he registered the sound of a helicopter and glanced around and saw it touch down on the other side of the briefing area where Miles handed out daily assignments. Raleigh recognised it as a Sikorsky, a small single-rotor transport, but there was too much snow and blowing crap to see any insignia on it. Raleigh watched. It had been a while since he was in a helicopter. Five years, as a matter of fact, if one was counting, which apparently he had been. Then he saw an unfamiliar figure emerging from the storm kicked up by the Sikorsky’s rotors.

A small, slender young Japanese woman in a uniform Raleigh didn’t recognise approached him, her face calm and expressionless. Although she wore a heavy black greatcoat to protect her from the cold, it seemed to make her look even smaller and more fragile.

"Mr Becket," she said politely, inclining her head slightly. Her hair fell around her face, and Raleigh noticed that the glossy black mane was dyed a deep blue where it framed her jawline. She had an excellent jawline, equalled if not surpassed by the rest of her. She wasn't his usual type at all, but he found her very attractive despite himself.

"And you are?" Raleigh asked curiously.

"My name is Mako Mori and I am here on behalf of Marshall Pentecost. I am honoured to meet you." She said formally, her voice was soft and low. Although heavily accented, her English was perfectly understandable.

Raleigh wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that. Had anyone ever been honoured to meet him? He knew what she was seeing – a tall man, carelessly dressed in well-worn clothing, a slightly ragged jacket over a thick knitted sweater. Certainly nothing about him at that moment screamed being worth honouring.

He shook the young Japanese woman's hand and they got clear of the rotor wash from the waiting helicopter.

"It has been a long time since you have been involved with the Jaeger programme, Mr Becket."

“Five years, four months,” Raleigh said. He didn’t add the days and hours, though he could have. His face was tense as he thought back to the day that Yancy had died and a part of his own soul had gone away forever.

He stared into Mako Mori's large dark eyes. Unlike most people, there was no pity or sympathy – just a shuttered acknowledgement of what he had been through.

She understands, Raleigh thought. She's lost people, too. Like him, she carried her loss and sorrow in a quiet place deep inside of her that could only be recognised by someone else who had suffered a similar loss.

Raleigh wasn’t self-centred enough to go around thinking his losses were worse than anyone else’s just because they were his. But he also knew that he was the only man alive who had survived the death of his co-pilot. That set Raleigh Becket apart. Brother or not, two people who Drifted together achieved a kind of intimacy that didn’t exist in normal human relationships.

When you had suffered that kind of a loss, time was exactly what it was. It didn’t move faster, and it never seemed to pass too slowly. That was one of the worst things about losing Yancy, the way it had doomed Raleigh to experience every single moment of time without being able to fool himself into just letting it slip away. He couldn’t forget. He had to be present in every moment to remember.

She handed him an envelope which he opened, staring down at Stacker's bold and almost arrogant handwriting.

Mr. Becket,

I had hoped to meet with you in person, but unfortunately there are extremely pressing matters that demand my attention. In my place, I have sent Ms Mako Mori to speak with you. She is one of our brightest and is in charge of the Mark III Restoration Project. I would be extremely grateful if you could take the time to hear what she has to tell you.

Stacker Pentecost

Raleigh looked up into Mako's calm eyes. She looked far too young to have a position of such responsibility, but the war had forced everyone to step up their game.

“Mr Becket - is there somewhere that we may speak?" Mako asked him formally

It seemed to Raleigh that they already were speaking. He nodded anyway.

Mako looked around, up at the Wall and then back to the collection of tents and temporary barracks, surrounded by heavy equipment for moving earth and steel.

“Previously, there was a Jaeger factory near here,” she remarked. “They made a few of the Mark Is here: Romeo Blue, Tango Tasmania.” She looked back at Raleigh. “These days, the Mark Is are melted down for pins and girders and used in the Wall." She glanced around, an unreadable expression in her large, dark eyes. "You might have welded part of a Mark I in here somewhere.”

“Yeah, well, I guess they’re still helping,” Raleigh pointed out and Mako, who had been staring at the Wall, returned her gaze to his face, her expression suddenly very thoughtful.

"Anyway, come this way," he told her and she started walking alongside of him. Being taller than she was, he deliberately shortened his stride so that she didn't have to jog to keep up with him. She noted his consideration. She had been expecting someone brash and arrogant and a little rough around the edges. The reality was a quiet, self-contained and courteous young man. It was a little unsettling to see the previous war hero reduced to this – dirty clothes, even a dirty face. Nonetheless, he still carried himself with pride and self-assurance despite his reduced circumstances.

“It took us a while to find you,” Mako told him. “Anchorage, Sheldon Point, Nome...”

“Man in my position travels with the Wall. Chasing shifts to make a living,” he said with a shrug.

She walked with him as he led her to the commissary to pick up his day’s rations. A bored functionary stamped cards in the booth.

The preferred dining area for the Wall crew was a tent with a bunch of tables in it, where the crew drank beer, ate bad food, and watched the world slowly come to an end on screens around them. Now, Raleigh’s food was slightly less bad because of the red ration card.

"This way," he indicated to Mako. He held the door of the tent open for her and they went inside, where as usual the TV was on, and a chirpy talking head was saying, “Less than an hour ago, a Category III kaiju breached the Sydney barrier.” In the middle of the sentence, shaky cell-phone footage of the event replaced the image of the reporter. A scrolling feed along the bottom of the screen identified the kaiju as Mutavore.

There was a momentary flicker of surprise at Mako's presence in the tent but the focus of the men in the tent was the news report on the television screen about the kaiju Mutavore which had wreaked devastation in Sydney.

In Sydney, the wall was built around the perimieter of Sydney Bay, hopscotching islands along an artificial archipelago that had been built in order to keep kaiju out.

“It went through the Wall like it was nothing,” someone said in horror as they watched aircraft firing useless missiles at Mutavore as it slogged through the harbour, swamping ferries and pleasure boats on its way to the city.

The TV reporter kept talking. “This is the third such attack in less than two months. Two more Jaegers were destroyed.”

Cued by the change in topic, the feed cut to a Jaeger sinking in the coastal shallows, its torso ripped open and flames roaring in the open ruins of its head. Raleigh recognized it as Echo Sabre. The broadcast cut again, to Mutavore hammering away at another fallen Jaeger, beating it into scrap with the Sydney Opera House in the background. Raleigh knew this doomed Jaeger, too: Vulcan Specter, a Mark III just like Gipsy Danger, launched the same year. He couldn’t suppress a shiver and glanced down to see that Mako was watching his face intently. Clearly she had already heard the news so none of this appeared to be a surprise to her, but she was deeply interested in his reaction to the story.

Then the news anchor’s tone brightened. “But the Australian Jaeger, Striker Eureka, a Mark V piloted by father and son team Herc and Chuck Hansen, finally took the beast down.”

At the mention of the pilots, service portraits of the Hansens flashed across the screen, quickly replaced by a ground-level view of Striker Eureka and Mutavore going at it. Raleigh had never been inside a Mark V. None had existed when he was a Ranger. He couldn’t help being a little bit awed at Striker Eureka’s speed and power. It could have broken Gipsy Danger over its knee. Raleigh felt a little bit envious, but mostly what he felt was the anger and guilt he’d carried with him for the past five years. If he’d had one of those, Knifehead wouldn’t have lasted thirty seconds... and Yancy would still be alive.

He’d fought with Striker Eureka once, in Manila. Together they’d taken down a big Category 4. That was Gipsy Danger’s last engagement before Knifehead.

On the TV screen, Striker Eureka lit Mutavore up with a rocket barrage from short range. The rockets dug into the kaiju’s carapace and detonated inside it, blowing away huge chunks of flesh and shell. Mutavore staggered and Striker Eureka finished it off with some kind of bladed weapon. The dying kaiju slumped and then toppled over sideways at an angle from the Sydney waterfront deeper into the city, crushing an entire block of condos and tourist shops as it fell.

Before concrete dust and smoke obscured the monster, Raleigh saw it hit the ground hard enough that the impact bounced parked cars into the air—the feed was nearly overwhelmed with alarm sirens. The dying kaiju’s blood, bright blue and as corrosive as any substance found in nature, smoked and sizzled its way across the asphalt and concrete.

The feed cut to overhead footage, probably from a helicopter. Raleigh had seen similar shots before, but he was stunned every time by just how big the kaiju were. The immense carcass lay stretched out across three blocks. Between it and the water was nothing but rubble and fire.

As the news finished, people began to return to various parts of the tent to eat and drink and Raleigh managed to find an empty makeshift table and pulled up two dirty, wobbly chairs so that they could sit down. Mako accepted the cup of hot instant coffee with thanks and he sat down across from her, his face still, his eyes reflecting his curiousity at her presence.

There was some laughing and colourful language being shouted out in the corner of the tent and he grimaced.

"Sorry 'bout that …"

Mako smiled, the faintest smile that disappeared as soon as it appeared. "Mr Becket – I work in Shatterdomes – I've heard much worse."

That made him smile. "I'll bet."

"I can swear in many languages now," and her faint air of pride made him give a short laugh despite himself.

"Awesome. Now what can I do for you and the Marshall?" he asked her.

"For the last six months, the Marshall has been activating as much as possible from the Jaeger programme as he can." She paused for a moment before saying,"There is an old Jaeger that we are getting back online. A Mark III. She needs a pilot.”

Raleigh looked at her and raised an eyebrow.

"Has the Marshall told you that he had me grounded for insubordination?”

Mako grimaced. "He said that you would mention that. He asked me to tell you that he is a great believer in second chances, Mr. Becket."

Raleigh had heard that the Jaeger program was on the way out. Now Pentecost wanted him back in. What was going on here?

“I’m guessing I wasn’t his first choice,” he commented.

“You were,” Mako told him bluntly. “All of the other Mark III pilots are dead.” Her soft voice was matter of fact but her eyes were sad.

I bet they are, thought Raleigh. He saw Yancy, tangled in the debris of Gipsy Danger’s Conn-Pod. He heard Yancy, crying out in Raleigh’s mind in the last moment before the neural handshake was broken. Raleigh shook his head.

“I don’t need anyone else in my head again,” he said. “I’m not a pilot. Not anymore.” He paused. “Without Yancy I have no business being one.”

Mako Mori stared at him, saying nothing but her eyes showed that she did not agree with him.

Part of him wanted to leave, preferring the mindless company of his fellow workers to the young woman with the dark eyes who could see into his soul with an unsettling clarity that was not unlike a neural connection. The rest of him wanted to stay and keep talking to her.

"You're not going to say anything?" he asked her evenly and she lowered her eyes and stared at the dirty table with its scratch marks and stains.

"You are not as I imagined you would be," she said softly.

There was a flicker of anger in his eyes. "You don't know anything about me," he told her. With Yancy gone, though, he hadn’t seen the point in going on. Who else was he going to Drift with? Some random Ranger wannabe, deemed compatible by the eggheads after a bunch of tests? He was supposed to do that after sharing the Drift with his brother? No.

Mako met his eyes squarely. "I know a great deal about you, Mr Becket. I have selected all of the potential candidates for your new co-pilot. I tried my best to match them to your Drift pattern."

"You and the Marshall were making a lot of assumptions there..." Raleigh said grimly.

This young woman had pre-screened his potential Drift partners. This young woman thought that she understood him.

“You pre-screened them personally?" he asked her, raising an eyebrow.

She nodded. “I did, Mr. Becket.”

He wished she wouldn’t call him that, but he didn’t say anything.

Instead he asked, “What’s your story? Restoring old Jaegers for combat, coming to recruit has-beens like me... that can’t be it.”

She met his gaze but said nothing. Her small hands tightened into tense little fists convulsively. Looking at her, how wound-up and uptight she was, he could tell that she probably had a detailed dossier on him and equally detailed assessments on all of the candidates to be his partner. He had no desire to see any of it. Data and pre-action analysis maybe helped to frame big generalisations about people, but Raleigh didn’t think they predicted much about how real flesh-and-blood human beings would react in real-time situations.

“Are you a pilot?” he asked her abruptly, curious about this enigma of a woman who sat so composedly despite the chaos around her.

“No. Not yet. But I want to be one. More than anything...” She hesitated and there was real vulnerability in her dark eyes. Raleigh saw her change her mind about something she’d been ready to say. “I want to be one.”

Something was going on here. Mako Mori was a puzzle, and she didn’t seem to be interested in letting anyone solve her.

“What’s your simulator score?” Raleigh asked.

“Fifty-one drops, fifty-one kills,” she said evenly and without boastfulness. Raleigh let himself be impressed.

“Are you one of the candidates?"

Regret leapt into her dark eyes. She answered but he didn’t hear her right away. He looked up at her questioningly.

“I am not,” Mako repeated quietly. “The Marshal has his reasons.”

“With fifty-one simulated kills, though... what could they be?”

Mako looked him right in the eye and dodged the question.

“I hope you approve of my choices. I’ve studied your fighting technique and strategy. Every one of your victories... even Anchorage.”

“Really? And what did you think?” he asked her, his blue eyes not moving from her face.

“Mr. Becket. It is not my place to comment.”

Oh, but you want to, don’t you? Raleigh thought. She had been sent her to convince him to return with her and he was interested to see if she would be honest or if she would temper her response.

“The Marshall isn’t here, Miss Mori.”

The briefest shadow of irritation crossed Mako’s deliberately expressionless face.

“I think... you’re unpredictable,” she said.

Finally - a genuine, unfiltered statement. What next, he wondered

And he found out, because Mako wasn’t done.

“You have a habit of deviating from standard combat techniques. You take risks that endanger yourself and your crew. I don’t think you are the right man for this mission—”

With that, she caught herself and looked down. Raleigh looked away from her at the same time. He wanted to ask her about the mission she had referred to but was sidetracked replying to her statement.

“Wow,” he said. “Thank you for your honesty – you might be right. But one day when you're a pilot, you'll see that when you're in combat, you make decisions and you live with the consequences.”

It was a little sharper than he’d meant to be, but Raleigh didn’t appreciate someone waving her perfect simulator record in his face and then telling him about what he did wrong fighting real kaiju.

Raleigh didn’t consider himself an especially sharp judge of women, but he could practically smell the ozone in the air between him and Mako. Tension, attraction, rivalry, suspicion—all at once. It was good. Invigorating and for the first time in five years, he felt alive again.

He found himself smiling. Mako Mori smiled back despite herself. "So will you come back to Hong Kong with me, Mr Becket?" she asked him as he rose to his feet and started walking out of the tent.

She followed him, walking with him in the cold evening air to the tent he shared with half a dozen other men.

"What makes you think I'm interested in going back to that life?" he asked her, even as he reached for the two bags near his foldout bed. She reached out to take one from him but he shook his head with a smile. "Answer the question, Miss Mori," he told her as he walked with her back to the waiting helicopter which started up its engine as they approached.

"Because you want to help," she told him simply. "Helping to build the anti-kaiju wall – this was your way of protecting your country – the world. Your way of helping even though you were not a Ranger."

"Building the Wall is a way to make a living," he corrected her.

She shook her head. "You never left the fight, Mr Becket. Come back and pilot a Jaeger again." Her voice was soft but somehow he could hear every word above the thump of the rotors and the whine of the engine.

They stood in the cold, the storm blowing around them and he smiled, slid the door open. "After you," he gestured. She ignored his attempt to assist her in and with a faint glance around the yard, he clambered in after her.

The chopper lifted away into the storm, and Raleigh was a Ranger again.

*

Raleigh's first view of the Pan Pacific Defence Corp compound in Hong Kong came through a driving rainstorm as the Sikorsky came in low and touched down on the helipad at the edge of the complex. From the air, Hong Kong looked unaffected by the Kaiju War, but Raleigh knew enough to be able to pick out the general area of Hong Kong’s Boneslum.

It sat right in the heart of Kowloon, built around the massive skeleton of the first kaiju to attack Hong Kong, and only the second kaiju the world had seen. The Hong Kong Exclusion Zone officially prohibited rebuilding and residence in that area—but this was Hong Kong. Nobody paid attention to laws where there might be a dollar to be made. In the time since the kaiju had gone down under a nuclear barrage, Kowloon had regrown over its bones, almost organically. Raleigh had never seen anything like it.

The kaiju’s corpse had absorbed some of the radiation, and then been picked clean for black-market sales. The world was full of crazy theories about the health benefits of kaiju tissue. Raleigh couldn’t tell for sure because of the rain, but it looked to him like parts of Kowloon were integrated right into the kaiju’s skeleton, and there were all kinds of weird decorations and lights on the giant skull.

There were other Boneslums, Raleigh knew. He’d seen one in Thailand, and there was a place in Japan where survivors of a kaiju assault had positioned the creature’s skull on their coastline, the way you would put an invader’s head on a stake on your city walls. Raleigh didn’t think the kaiju would care. They didn’t seem like the caring kind, about each other or about anything else.

He and Mako Mori stepped out of the helicopter and crossed the helipad in the direction of what Raleigh took to be the command centre. He was full of questions, and Mako hadn’t answered many of them on the long trip from Alaska to Hong Kong, via refuelling stops in Petropavlovsk, Sapporo, and Shanghai. Which Mark III needed a pilot? Why him? Why come looking for a guy that had been grounded and then who had walked away after more than five years? The academies were still producing Rangers, though Raleigh knew there were fewer and fewer Jaegers for them to pilot. They were being redirected to other tasks within the PPDC, or seconded to national armed forces of member nations.

All Mako would say was that she was not the right person to answer his questions. So instead, he asked her about her training, about her aspirations to be a pilot, about how she felt about being inside a jaeger. This was when she was at her most animated. The look of hatred that crossed her face when she spoke of the kaiju mirrored his own feelings.

Neither slept. Since Knifehead, Raleigh had discovered insomnia. He wasn't sure of Mako's reasons for wakefulness but she also showed no signs of falling asleep, her slim body remained taut and alert during their journey. She was an interesting contradiction of assurance and shyness, strength and vulnerability.

He had never met anyone like her before. For all that she tried to keep a cool, professional distance from him, there was an odd comfortableness that made both relax and be more talkative than they might otherwise have been.

She was interested in his life at the Wall, at the Academy and he was happy to answer her questions although he was careful not to ask too many personal questions of his own because he did not want to see her withdraw from him.

As they walked away from the Sikorsky, they were met by Marshall Stacker Pentecost himself.

“Mr. Becket,” Pentecost said calmly, his face cool and distant.

Raleigh nodded. “Marshall. Looking sharp.” It was true. Pentecost was wearing a tailored suit under a fine-looking topcoat, all shades of navy blue and charcoal except for the pale blue shirt. The only thing different was there were no stars on Pentecost’s collar.

"I see that Miss Mori did not disappoint me," he said with a faint nod at Mako Mori who bowed slightly in acknowledgment.

Mako followed them as the Marshall escorted Raleigh through the Scatterdome. She said nothing, but she remained near, listening to all that was said and Raleigh found his eyes returning to her time and time again, lingering on her pale face, her dark red mouth and her large dark eyes. She was constantly looking at him as well, her face a mixture of calmness and curiosity.

There were many things about his new life that Raleigh Becket was looking forward to and getting to know Mako Mori better was definitely one of them ...