Everyone knows how Rangers when they see them, usually because they walk together, in eerie sync too perfect for anything but animation and people who are in each other’s brains. Xena recognizes a few sets as soon as she comes into the New Zealand Shatterdome, not from the television or acquaintance (it’s sad how few pilots she knows these days, after five years out of the Dome) but because of the walks, the movements, and in a few cases the flashy jackets.
She isn’t given long to look around before she’s approached by Lao Ma, who approaches from the side, just enough in Xena’s view that she doesn’t react with violence. “Ranger. It’s good to have you in the Shatterdome again. I assume you remember the layout?”
“I’m not a Ranger again yet, Marshal.” Xena forces a smile onto her face and shakes Lao Ma’s hand. “But yes, I’m finding my way around.”
“I don’t think Amazon Chakram would move for anyone else. It’s why I asked you back.”
“She also won’t move without a second pilot.”
Lao Ma only smiles. “I have some ideas about that. Walk with me, please.”
Xena hasn’t been away long enough that she doesn’t recognize an order.
“I’ll be frank, Xena. The government is putting all its faith in the containment wall, but that isn’t going to stop a kaiju. Not for long, anyway, and it certainly won’t kill one. Our program is in danger, and we need to hold the coast.”
“And you need me to do it? I’ve been out for five years, I’m sure you’ve got new pilots waiting to take over the controls on Amazon.”
Lao Ma keeps walking them through the halls, not bothering to point out the rooms, because Xena recognizes them anyway: crew quarters, mess hall, officers’ quarters, offices, the science labs. “New pilots, maybe. But we need experience, and that’s why I want you here.”
“You don’t know what—”
“I know exactly what you’ve done in the last five years,” Lao Ma cuts in without raising her voice. “I know you ended up in the boneslums in Sydney, working with Draco and Caesar and men like them, that you were married …”
She leaves off before she mentions Borias’s death or mentions Solan at all, because Lao Ma is kinder than anyone in this business has a right to be. Xena still feels herself stiffen as Lao Ma leads them ever closer to the hangar where the Jaegers rest. “It’s going to be hard to find anyone I’m Drift-compatible with these days. It was hard enough with Lyceus, and I have more sharp edges now than I did then.”
They come into the hangar then, which is bustling with people, technicians everywhere. None of the pilots are in, though Xena remembers hardly being able to tear herself away from Amazon back when she was still a Ranger. Maybe she just came at the wrong time. “The California Shatterdome is sending us one of their most promising candidates. I have a few others lined up for you, but I want you to have a look at this one. She’ll be here tomorrow.”
Xena finds Amazon Chakram, farthest berth to the left. She looks just like she did the day before she and Lyceus took on the first Category Three kaiju, technicians swarming over her doing the final repairs. There’s no sign she was ever broken-legged, that her Conn-pod was smashed open, that someone fell out of it, unconscious and weighed down by his flight suit, and that the someone was crushed when Amazon fell to her knees, just before she finished the Category Three off. “What’s different about this candidate?”
“Her empathy ratings are off the charts. She’s Drift-compatible with an incredible amount of people. The problem is that she’s inexperienced, prone to flinch from violence even though her simulation scores are excellent. You would counteract that.”
“So you’re going to throw me into this poor rookie’s head?”
“Give her a test. That’s all I ask. We have a few other candidates available, but Gabrielle is the best match we have.”
Xena thinks about Amazon, and the Drift, and what it will be like with someone who isn’t Lyceus, and the next time she looks to her side, Lao Ma is gone.
That night, Xena has her first meal in the mess. She expects to eat it alone, at the end of a table with some rookies who don’t know who she is, but it seems she underestimated everyone. The second she has her tray, she’s accosted from both sides—on the left by Autolycus, who was base control for her and Lyceus and is wearing his usual easy grin even with five years’ worth of grey hairs on his head, and on the right by Aphrodite and Ares, imports from the Alaskan Shatterdome, pilots of Olympus Bravo who trained the same time Xena did.
“I was totally shocked to see you walk in earlier!” says Aphrodite, who doesn’t talk like a ruthless warrior but is one, for all her perfect hairdo and the way she talks like an old beach movie.
Ares looks like exactly what he is, but he’s cut his hair since the last time she saw him, when she was still half out of her mind missing Lyceus and dragged him into her bunk before he got called away to fight off the second Category Three with Aphrodite, which only made her feel worse. “It’s good to see you, Xena.” He’s smirking, probably trying to remind her of the circumstances he last saw her under, but Xena doesn’t bother responding.
Autolycus rolls his eyes and pulls her attention back before Xena can let them throw her off-balance anymore. “Come on, kid, sit with me and tell me what you’ve been up to, you don’t call, you don’t write, you left me with Salmoneus for company, not to mention these idiots, and I swear the rookies we get are still in high school these days.”
She lets him take her arm, but she isn’t surprised when Ares and Aphrodite follow after, walking in that perfect Drift-caused sync she isn’t used to anymore. “Is the Shatterdome that hard up for candidates?”
“Well, they brought you back,” says a blonde woman at the table Autolycus chooses for them, and Xena immediately guesses that’s why there was such a large space next to her. She’s got a sweet voice and a wicked smile and a tattoo hidden under her sleeve when she reaches out to shake Xena’s hand. “Dr. Jane Callisto, K-science.”
“Ignore Callisto, she has to share a lab with Joxer since he got transferred from California and no one should have to survive that,” says Autolycus, but he doesn’t look very friendly, which with Autolycus and beautiful women is never a good sign.
“Joxer is still working for the PPDC?” she asks when Autolycus doesn’t continue.
Autolycus looks long-suffering. “He’s decided his next project should be to find a kaiju brain and Drift with it so we can find out their plans and defeat them.”
“It might work,” says Dr. Callisto, sounding bored, “if he doesn’t have an aneurysm. And assuming they have a plan beyond wholesale destruction. But we all have our pet plans to save the world. Even if we don’t like to admit it.” With that, she picks up her tray and walks out of the mess.
“Parents got killed by Cortese when it made landfall,” Ares says with all the false sympathy he can muster, and Xena stiffens.
“It won’t be a problem,” Autolycus says before Ares can say anything else. “Now, let me tell you all about the other teams who are here. Obviously, Ares and Aphrodite here are on Olympus Bravo, and Ilainus and Athena on Silver Arrow, and …”
Xena does her best to pay attention to Autolycus, getting used to the familiar tone of his voice again, and after a while, even Ares stops looking like he wants to bait her and points out a few people around the room.
Xena spars with three candidates in the morning. None of them spark the fight into a conversation the way it always felt when she sparred with Lyceus, but Lao Ma, watching from the sidelines, doesn’t seem to mind.
“Gabrielle arrived this morning and Aphrodite is settling her in,” she says over lunch. “The two of you will meet in the afternoon, and we’ll see then.”
Xena shakes her head. “I’m still not sure this is a good idea. You saw how it went in there earlier. And from what it sounds like, this Gabrielle is just a kid.”
“Give her a chance, Xena. That’s all I ask. We need Amazon Chakram. We need everything we can have, and that means you.”
“If you’d just wanted me back to train recruits, I would have understood.” She takes a few bites of lunch. “I don’t know if people like me too much around here. Dr. Callisto—”
“Dr. Callisto is an asset to the team, and she may not like you but she’ll wait until after the world is saved to do anything about that. Are you going to let dislike keep you from doing everything you can to save lives? That’s not the Xena I know.”
Xena sighs. “I could pilot with you. I trust you.”
She knows it’s impossible before Lao Ma even opens her mouth. “I have too much business to take care of, and I haven’t piloted a Jaeger since Mark I. You and Gabrielle will be great, Xena. I know that already.”
Gabrielle is short, with short blonde hair and a determined set to her chin, and Xena is worried she’s going to break her the second she picks up a stick to spar. Word has gone around about Gabrielle, and the people who know her have come to say hello—she got a hug from Joxer, and Aphrodite seems to like her, and some of the other candidates give her friendly nods. She gives Xena an uncertain smile when she comes in, and Xena gives one back before they both start warming up.
When they finally square off, Xena starts easy. Gabrielle looks wide-eyed and untested and it makes Xena pull her hits—but, she discovers within five attempts, they never connect. Gabrielle moves like she knows where Xena is going to be, and she’s never there, dancing right out of reach. She barely uses her stick unless Xena gets close, and then their sticks clash at just the right angle, neither of them getting the advantage.
It’s barely a minute before Xena stops holding back, curious to see if Gabrielle can still follow her, and amazingly, Gabrielle does. She doesn’t try for hits of her own, but Xena never lands one either, when even her bouts with Lyceus or Ares or even Borias were trading hit for hit instead of never getting or giving one at all. She finds herself smiling, a bit disbelieving, at the ease Gabrielle has predicting her movements, and when Lao Ma crisply calls time from the sidelines, she has no idea how much time has passed.
“Please say you’ll take me,” Gabrielle says, chest heaving, the second they both still, arms dropping slowly to their sides. They started the bout yards from each other, but they’re ending it as close as they could have and still used their sticks effectively. “You’ve got to teach me how to do that thing with the kicks, I studied up on Amazon Chakram the second they said I might be a candidate and you were famous for not just punching and I can see why, but you already know that, I guess, and—”
She’s just a kid, an eager one, and Xena has seen the PPDC ruin a lot of eager kids, asking them to fight monsters when they should be sent as far from the Pacific coast as they can get. But Xena hasn’t felt this good in a fight since Lyceus, and maybe not even then. “Come on,” she says, and offers her hand to Gabrielle to shake. Gabrielle holds on a few extra seconds, her face lighting up. “I’ll introduce you to Amazon.”
“She’s beautiful,” Gabrielle says in the hangar, after having done a full circuit around the Jaeger, looking up from ground level at the sheer size of her. “Does she look the same?”
“Mostly. But she’ll settle differently, once we’ve been in alignment.” This is the last time she’ll see Amazon Chakram resting exactly like this. It’s not something anyone but a pilot or one of the very involved technicians or engineers would notice, but she’s heard other Rangers talk about the difference, and she trusts the pilot superstitions more than she’d like to say. She minds the thought less than she’d assumed she would, and she bumps her shoulder against Gabrielle’s. “You’ll see.”
“I’ve never Drifted inside a Jaeger before.”
“It’s like nothing else in the world. It’s hard, easy to get stuck in the feedback, and most of the time when you’re in it, you’re in it to take down a kaiju and you can’t enjoy it, but sometimes there’s a second … you’ll see. Lao Ma says Drifting is what you’re good at.”
“And Joxer says you’re the best fighter in the Pacific.”
Xena snorts. “Don’t let Ares hear you say that.”
A speaker crackles near them, and then there’s Autolycus’s voice, a smile in it already. “Do you ladies want to take her for a spin?”
Drifting with Lyceus, even the first time, was shared experience, as simple as seeing a few childhood memories from a different position and getting to tease him later for finding out what had really happened with his first girlfriend. Drifting with Gabrielle, the second Autolycus says “Initiating neural handshake” while they’re in the Conn-pod, is something different.
It’s a whirlwind of memories, Gabrielle trying to show her everything all at once and see just as much. It’s a childhood spent writing carefully printed stories in class and then the a sunny California day, hearing there’s a monster in San Fransisco, just half an hour’s drive away, and the terrified drive away from the coast when the second monster comes, and looking at the first Jaeger on the television and knowing that, that’s what I’ll do someday, putting the pages of stories away and finding a kickboxing video stuffed in her mother’s things. It’s moments of connection with other pilot candidates, more than Xena would ever have guessed, and everything being functional but never comfortable, and it’s reading about Amazon Chakram in the papers it’s simulations it’s getting a call from Lao Ma it’s
Xena is calling Lyceus in for supper, she’s being woken in the middle of the night by her mother sobbing about the end of the world, she’s looking at fish dead in the water from Kaiju Blue she’s losing Lyceus she’s losing Borias she’s giving up Solan because she can’t leave the coast she’s helping people but she wants him far away from all of this she’s looking at Gabrielle from the just the length of their sticks away and Gabrielle is looking at her
And Amazon is moving, her arms in fighting position. Xena isn’t sure if the giddiness is hers or if it’s Gabrielle’s or both or maybe if it’s Amazon, glad to be alive and moving again. She skates the surface of Gabrielle’s memories and feels Gabrielle doing the same, steering easily away from the spots that sting, that keep Xena up at night.
“How’s it going in there, Amazon Chakram? You remember test maneuvers?” Autolycus asks.
“Neural handshake holding steady,” says Xena. “And yes.”
Gabrielle is already moving the left side where it needs to go, catching the pattern from Xena as Xena begins her own pattern in perfect sync.
The Drift is different with Gabrielle than it was with Lyceus, and if it feels disloyal to say it feels even more natural with her than with him—well, she doesn’t have to say it.
Afterwards, she and Gabrielle end up walking shoulder to shoulder, needing the contact after being in each other’s heads. Xena remembers this from before, but Gabrielle seems a little surprised by it, shy until Xena sighs and reaches for her hand, ignoring the way Aphrodite giggles and Autolycus smirks.
Lao Ma meets them at the door to the hangar. “I’d like to talk with you, Rangers.”
The title feels like it fits again, and Xena doesn’t bother hiding her smile at that. “About what?”
“About how we’re going to stop the apocalypse, of course,” says Lao Ma, and leads them towards her office.
For the first time, with Gabrielle by her side looking shocked and excited, Xena thinks they may actually be able to do it.