The first time Sasha awakens, she is alone.
She finds herself clinging to a piece of Cherno Alpha, floating amongst a sea of rubble. The water is laced with the unmistakable blue blood of a kaiju. With a slow, halting right hand, she pries her half-crushed helmet off carefully, grimacing at the pain lancing through her arm and side. Luckily, the armor on her body has kept most of her skin safe from the corrosive kaiju blue. The worst is where her skin was exposed: there is burning around her neck, and on her chin. She gingerly shifts and bends her right arm – broken – and resettles upon Cherno’s floating leg plate, using it as a makeshift raft.
Her left side is numb. She tries to flex her fingers and they do not respond. It’s no matter; she’s right-handed, and Aleksis is always the left anyway –
Lyosha. Sasha scans her surroundings for her husband. Her chest tightens when she sees nothing, but the kaiju blue is stinging her eyes and she cannot keep them open for long. She calls out for him once, twice, three times. Nothing but the sound of surf answers her.
Aleksis is alive. She is sure of it. They had gone down as one, minds tightly entwined – stay with me, Sashenka – we go together – clinging to each other as metal and fire and the waters of death swirled and combusted all around them. For as long as it had mattered, they had been one; if they were to die, they would go together. So Sasha’s faith is ironclad that he would not leave her behind. She can still feel him in her mind – a ghost of his steady, calming presence left over from the Drift. Perhaps he is asleep, but he is there, so he must be alive.
She comforts herself with that as she surrenders to exhaustion, dreaming of Aleksis in wistful fragments.
The second time Sasha awakens, it is to the sound of foghorns.
She opens her eyes, wincing at the stinging, which still has not abated. Her vision is blurry but she makes out a half-ring of boats. There are men waving their hands and shouting. There’s one short, bespectacled figure that is irritatingly familiar to her –
“Lieutenant! Lieutenant Kaidonovsky! Oh my god, you’re actually alive!”
That shrill, hysterical voice – it is Dr. Newton Geiszler, the short scientist, the kaiju groupie. Sasha has never liked him, especially after the time she had seen him with shirt sleeves rolled up, revealing that he’d desecrated his skin with sickeningly glorified tattoos of their enemies. Right now he’s over-excited, bouncing up and down at the side of the boat, talking about how he’d won his bet with Hermann, that he knew the Russians were way too tough and scary to just drown in the Hong Kong Bay, nuclear explosion be damned.
Thankfully, the others on the boat have already moved, pumping acid neutralizers into the water as they make their way out towards her in bulky dry suits. Wordlessly, she accepts their help as they push her makeshift raft up towards the ladder at the back of the boat, and she staggers up, one-handed, step by step. Her legs are shaking more than she will admit, so upon clearing the ladder she sinks down onto the deck, her armor clanking upon impact with the floor. Her left arm still lies inert, useless.
Dr. Geiszler approaches her, shouting about how he can’t believe it, hours of exposure to kaiju blue and the explosion and Cherno Alpha destroyed and what amazing heroes and –
She cuts him off with a look. He gulps.
“Have you found my husband?”
“No, not yet!” he squeaks. “We’re looking!”
Behind him, a man has pulled up the fragment of Cherno Alpha that she has been drifting on for who knows how long, and they are gesturing to it excitedly and conversing in rapid-fire Mandarin. She does not know much of the language, but enough to realize that this is not a PPDC rescue boat but a scavenger crew.
“How is it that you have joined the likes of these scavengers, doctor?” Sasha sneers at Geiszler. “With the world at an end, you could not find something better to do?”
“Hey, I’m on behalf of PPDC here! We still need kaiju parts to study!” Newt exclaims in an automatic defense, before he realizes that she doesn’t know. With that his excitement bubbles up again. “The world isn’t ending! We won! Gipsy Danger and Striker Eureka - they destroyed the breach! We’re all going to live!”
Geiszler continues, but Sasha does not hear him. They’ve won. The war is over.
She closes her eyes. She does not know the right way to feel; all she feels is relieved. Yes. That’s it. Relieved – and bewildered. She and Aleksis had never planned for the end of the war; they had expected to die as they had lived – fighting – but they’d never imagined that there was another side, and that they could possibly come out on that side alive.
Lyosha, she thinks. Did you hear it? We won. He is still there in her head, she thinks – but is that her imagination, or is he fading a little?
Her eyes narrow. Her job is unfinished. She must find Aleksis, and he must be alive. There is no meaning in a future without him.
The scavengers are kind to her, and a little afraid. She has a reputation, after all, the Russian warrior woman who’d taken down six kaiju (the last two don’t count; they lost that battle) alongside her looming, taciturn mate. They are, however, excited to have hauled up one of the PPDC’s heroes, and they hope for some kind of reward, or at least some coverage in the media. Aside from that unsurprisingly opportunistic attitude, they are kind, for pirates – they give up their cabin to her, and she’s immediately put on a cot, and someone comes with medical supplies to treat the acid burns and to set her broken right arm. With those discomforts behind her, Sasha is beginning to take note of other injuries – wrenched knees and sprained ankles and bruised ribs as well, not to mention a patchwork of bloody lacerations showing clear signs of infection. But the scavengers do their best, with bottles of hydrogen peroxide and vinegar and a dirt-tasting herbal concoction that they insist she drink. When it’s over Sasha smells pungently of Chinese herbs.
The man acting as her nurse slips out, and from the conversation outside the cabin, Sasha makes out Dr. Geiszler’s orders to leave the scary Russian lady pilot alone, and to let her rest. Sasha closes her eyes and concentrates again on the feeling – that little wisp still remaining of Aleksis that she knows is still there, a remnant, a ghost of their Drift. Her left arm is twitching, now, when she wills it to move.
The door creaks and Sasha starts, snarling at being disturbed. The intruder jumps, with a soft yelp, then apologies in a small voice, in Mandarin. It’s a teenage Chinese girl of perhaps 15, still in pigtails – perhaps a daughter of one of the scavengers. Sasha watches her evenly as the girl visibly gathers her courage and approaches with a respectful bow. “Sah-sha Kai-doh-no-fu-su-kee,” she attempts valiantly.
The girl launches into a bubbly diatribe that Sasha cannot follow, all hope and longing centered on one phrase that she repeats over and over again – “Ku-rim-son Tai-fun”. It’s the Wei triplets that she’s asking for. In the corner of the room, above the third-level bunk covered in Hello Kitty blankets, Sasha notices a poster of the three identical men, in wife beaters and sweats, posing with a basketball at the giant red feet of their Jaeger.
She doesn’t know if the Wei Tang Clan survived. She certainly has not seen them, although fragments of their Jaeger had surfaced in the bay. Sasha shakes her head, not unkindly, and the girl’s face falls. The girl has just turned away when Sasha reaches out to hold her in place. The girl snaps around, blinking in surprise, gaze moving to nervously study Sasha’s firm grip on her arm: the slender, unyielding fingers, the blood-red nails, and the marks left by ten burning rings.
“Aleksis,” Sasha enunciates clearly. “My husband.”
There is a moment of puzzlement, but the girl straightens, suddenly, as if in understanding, and nods.
At Sasha’s insistence they comb the waters for several more hours, but as night falls they retire to shore, the boat laden with Jaeger parts and one angry Jaeger pilot. Dr. Geiszler insists on taking her back to the Shatterdome despite her loud and vehement protests. Back at the Shatterdome, she is in no mood to tolerate the welcoming cheers of the crew, telling them that there is nothing worth celebrating until they find Aleksis, and they better get a helicopter out there now or else. The crowd rapidly scatters after that, and somehow she finds herself rushed to medical for examinations.
The doctors irritate her, as they always have. They are worried about everything; they are muttering about internal bleeding (she probably had some, but what could she do about it while floating on the water?) and infection (“Too late,” Sasha mutters, eyeing the black-and-blue crusted gashes on her right shoulder) and post-traumatic stress disorder too (Sasha snarls that she’ll be just fine once her husband is here). What worries them most is her unresponsive left arm, and they rush around postulating about the side effects of neural handshakes torn apart prematurely – especially the Kaidonovskys, who had had the strongest, most unassailable connection of all.
Sasha refuses to allow them to scan her brain. She has other things to worry about. That feeling of Aleksis in her mind has gotten smaller still, so much that she can’t sense him anymore at times – and worse, she does not know if it is because of the fading of the Drift hangover, or if Aleksis is bleeding out somewhere in the ocean, slowly losing his life.
After the examination, she returns to their room, only to find that it’s been half-cleaned out already, their clothing folded and bedsheets missing. She finds Herc Hansen there putting back their belongings. Herc starts at the sight of her, a tube of lipstick in his hands, frozen halfway to the shelf. He clears his throat. “I was returning your personal effects,” he says, needlessly. “We all thought…”
Herc is a good, brave man, but he is not talented with words sometimes, Sasha knows. He has never been, or else he might have rescued the travesty of a relationship he had had with his now-deceased son. So Sasha speaks, bluntly as always.
“I am sorry, that I am the wrong Ranger to come back from the dead.”
Herc doesn’t say anything in direct response, but from the look on his face, he understands that Sasha is telling the truth, and not only for his sake - that there is nothing for Sasha in life without Aleksis. Sasha takes a seat near Herc on the mattress, staring blankly at the large armchair in the corner. It is a drab, faded gray, but it is oversized, the only one they could find that was comfortable for her husband. He’d spent hours there reading, and in the Drift the details of Anna Karenina or Great Expectations would occasionally trickle down into their connection.
Herc is looking down at his hands – so small compared to Aleksis – and Sasha waits for what he has to say. In the silence of his hesitation, she hears the rhythmic clinking of metal tags. Max the bulldog waddles in, wandering boldly up to Sasha and putting his front paws on her knees.
Sasha studies Max’s wrinkled face, pointed up at her with an expression of adoration. She wonders if the dog is remembering the numerous instances where she had fed him sausage drenched in vodka from a small bowl. Max is the most absurd kind of dog she’s ever seen. In Russia dogs were large and noble and brave, bred to hunt and guard. She knows Max is noble and loyal, but the dog spends most of his days trailing people around the Shatterdome, slobbering on their pants while begging for attention or food. Which he is doing now. Sasha obliges him, playing with the bulldog’s soft ears and scratching under his collar. Max pants in gratitude, revealing a comically long pink tongue lolling out of a bulldog grin.
Beside them, Herc stands. There are undoubtedly things that he needs to tell her: her place as a figurehead in a new world to be rebuilt; the role of the Shatterdome and what they’d do with no Jaegers and no kaiju; but neither of them are ready. So Herc says the only thing that Sasha needs to hear.
“We’ll find him.”