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2020, Los Angeles Shatterdome

“I told you, Newt, I can’t just come to Hong Kong,” Nolan Ross leaned back in his chair. “I’m needed here.” He cast a quick glance over his shoulder. Emily liked to think she was quiet and sneaky but he liked to think he was attuned to the particular squeak of her shoes behind him. That, and he’d rigged a warning system that made a small, unobtrusive red dot appear on his screen when anybody stepped on the pressure pad as they entered the lab, of course.

There was a disgruntled flurry of gesturing from the screen. Nolan pulled his headset away from his ears a little.

“Yes, I am. Anyway you’re getting Gottlieb.”

Nolan span around in his chair and nodded to Emily, who perched on the edge of a bench along the far wall, looking, as always, as though she was half ready to run.

“Sure, he’s a basketcase,” Nolan said. “I’m not asking you to marry him, Newt, just to work with him for a little while. Trust me. Look, I’ve got to go, TTLY.”

Emily slid off the bench and stretched, cat-like.

“You needn’t cut him off on my account.”

“Are you kidding?” Nolan raised an eyebrow, “I thought he’d never stop talking.” He took in Emily’s slightly dishevelled hair and the dark circles under her eyes. “Tough day at the office?”

“What makes you think that?” she said, but it was obvious from her sigh that her heart wasn’t in this particular deception. Nolan gave her a look that said he wasn’t buying it. “All right, it’s just... What am I even doing here, Nolan?”

“Aside from interrupting my long distance calls?”

“Here at all. I mean, I’m not a Jaeger pilot, not any more.”

“You’re an assault specialist and a damn good one,” Nolan said.

“The recruits all hate me.”

“You’re preparing them for war, not trying to get voted prom queen. You’ve been out there. Nobody knows better than you what it’s really like.”

“Nobody but me has lost two co-pilots, you mean.” Emily picked up a small pebble from the bench and turned it around in her hands. “They’re cutting the funding,” she said abruptly.

“Ah.”

“Three guesses where it’s going, and the first two don’t count.”

“The Grayson wall.” Nolan sighed. “Ems, look...”

“This has been their plan all along. To discredit the Jaeger program, so they could get the go-ahead for these walls. The entire Pacific Rim under sustained attack for seven years and all Conrad and Victoria care about is lining their pockets. You know what happened to Amanda wasn’t an accident.” She turned away, jaw clenched.

“I know, Ems.” Nolan got to his feet and took a step towards her, but didn’t quite dare to reach out and put a comforting hand on her shoulder. Emily didn’t want comfort, she wanted solutions. And approaching her from behind was a sure fire way of getting an elbow in your windpipe, he’d found that out the hard way. “You don’t have to convince me, you know. I wrote the programming code for the Mark 3 Jaegers, and there is no way Infinity Revenge should have buckled like that. Just... Don’t you think the best thing we can do is to prove them wrong? Prove that Jaegers really are our best defence?”

Emily went quiet.

“That’s what I thought two years ago. Now, I’m not so sure.”

 

Two years ago, two young recruits had arrived at the LA Shatterdome. Dedicated, disciplined and drift compatible, Emily and Amanda had been a formidable team. Nolan was pretty sure he was the only one who realised the woman calling herself Emily was the girl he’d known as Amanda Clarke, daughter and former co-pilot of the late David Clarke.

Amanda, Emily and Infinity Revenge had an impressive number of Kaiju kills under their belt when they’d been deployed along with Gipsy Danger to battle a Kaiju in San Diego. It should have been routine, as far as these things ever could be. It was a category III Kaiju. They’d had back-up. Amanda hadn’t come back alive.

 

It was a few days after the announcement of the funding cuts that Nolan next saw Emily. It usually happened like that; if she felt she’d been too open or too vulnerable she’d withdraw and regroup. When Aiden had left for Sydney Nolan had gone to her room with a bottle of Scotch. She’d thanked him, after a couple of glasses, for being a good friend. He hadn’t seen her for two weeks after that. Put in that context, it was hardly surprising that she’d vanished for three years and changed her name after her father’s death.

Today she was training in the combat room. Alone, as usual. During normal training hours this space would be used by pilots to practice together, to make sure their fighting styles were perfectly in sync, in readiness for fighting while bridged. There was something almost unbearably sad seeing a single ranger training alone. And Emily was a ranger. Nolan had worked with dozens of Jaeger pilots from the earliest days of the program and he’d never met anyone so absolutely focussed, so committed to the Jaeger program and so in tune with all the nuances of Jaeger piloting.

Emily paused in her exercises and turned to glare at him.

“This isn’t really a spectator sport,” she said.

“OK,” Nolan said, shrugging off his striped jacket, kicking off his shoes and stepping onto the mat, “but I’m not really dressed for it.”

Emily’s mouth quirked into a smile at this.

“And I thought you had the outfit for every occasion.”

“Why do you think I never applied to be a pilot?” Nolan quipped, picking up a staff, “I just couldn’t see myself in one of those grey suits.”

Emily stared at him for a second, as if considering something. Then she bowed before raising her staff. Her blows were infrequent and easily blocked. It was more like a dance than an attack, measured and graceful. Nolan had seen her when she was really going for it, raining down blows on unsuspecting opponents. He knew if she set her mind to it she could demolish him in a matter of seconds. He had seen her with Amanda, too, the two of them perfectly in sync. And, later, with Aiden -- they’d put each other through their paces in sparring, but they’d never been drift compatible.

“Have you heard from Aiden?” he asked, as he blocked another blow. It was the wrong thing to say, he knew, because her face slipped into the cool, impassive mask she wore around other people.

“I heard he and Niko took down a Category III last month,” she said. The next blow from her staff caught him sharply on the hip and although it stung, he couldn’t help but be a little bit pleased to know that he’d gotten under her skin, that she wasn’t as cool and collected as she pretended to be. He returned the gesture tit for tat, feinting left and striking right, surprising her.

“The Mark 5s are fast,” he said. He found himself anticipating her next blow. The fitness training he had been doing must be paying off, he decided.

“Stats aren’t everything,” Emily replied.

“True.” A Jaeger was only ever as good as its pilots. Jaegers were a perfect blend of technology and human psychology. It was both their greatest strength and their greatest weakness. Conrad Grayson was always taking pains to point out the human fallibility side of the argument in every public forum. David Clarke was the example he brought up every time.

Nolan caught her next blow and parried. He considered his next move carefully. Bringing it up while she was holding a weapon might not be the smartest move in the world, but if she hid herself away again after this, he didn’t know when he’d have another opportunity.

“So,” he said, eyes on the staff’s trajectory, “have you tried it with anyone else since Aiden?”

“Excuse me?” She arched an eyebrow as he ducked out of the way of the staff, and he realised how that must have sounded.

“Drifting,” he clarified.

“No,” she said shortly. He expected another blow but she threw the staff to the floor, bowing perfunctorily before turning away.

“You could go to the Academy, trial some of the recruits.”

Nolan could see why Emily was hesitant. She had a lot of secrets. Her identity, for a start. She found it difficult to trust anybody, which wasn’t really surprising after everything that had happened to her.

“Do you think you’re the first person to suggest that? I’ve had all this before, from Marshall Takeda.”

“The difference is, though,” Nolan said carefully, “that they’re concerned about the future of the Jaeger program.”

“And you’re not?”

“I’m concerned about you.”

He expected her to walk out without a backward glance but instead she turned back to face him, giving him a long, searching look.

“And what about you?”

“Me?” The question took him by surprise.

“I heard you on the phone to Geiszler the other day. They want you in Hong Kong. That’s where all the important breach research is happening, isn’t it? So why are you still here?”

She didn’t wait for an answer to her question which was probably just as well, as he couldn’t exactly tell her the truth.

Which was, of course, that he stayed for her.

 

He hadn’t taken much notice of her, back in 2015. When he arrived at the Shatterdome he’d been far too distracted by all the shiny new scientific possibilities of Jaegers and drifting (and, being honest, all the hot men and women in uniform). David, he’d been friends with, of a sort. His daughter Amanda had just been some punk kid with a sharp black bob and a permanent scowl. Then David had disobeyed a direct order in an attempt to save an airliner from a Kaiju attack, and died for it. In the resulting military and media furore, Amanda had been more or less overlooked, except for the relentless debriefs and psychological probing. Nolan had taken it upon himself to look out for her, as much as he could. And then she’d disappeared.

When she’d turned up again in LA, blonde and fighting fit and calling herself Emily, at first he’d only wanted to know the truth, then to convince her that she could trust him, could count him as a friend. Maybe it was for David’s memory, maybe to assuage his own guilt at having lost her in the first place. But soon it was just for her, the smart, competent, beautiful woman he was proud to call his friend.

 

They used to say bad things came in threes. Since K-DAY, though, things more or less kept on coming in a relentless stream of bad.

Romeo Blue sustained damage. Not in combat, which would have been justifiable, but in a fire which reeked of sabotage. The Graysons, Emily insisted, but there was no proof, of course. Graysons didn’t get their hands dirty. An engineer named Frank, a cousin of Sydney-based Jaeger pilot Herc Hansen, disappeared shortly after and turned up dead. Case closed, as far as the authorities were concerned.

With Alaska’s Gipsy Danger out of action as well, the entire American coast was practically undefended, a fact that Conrad Grayson gleefully relayed to every media outlet willing to listen.

And then Nolan got the call from Hermann Gottlieb.

“I’m telling you, Ross, it is a pattern. The Kaiju attacks are becoming more frequent, and I believe that over time the frequency will continue to increase.”

“There’s not enough evidence for that.”

“When was the last attack?”

“February, but...”

“And before that December. That’s two months. Compared to six between the two previous.”

“It could be a blip.”

“There are no such things as blips, Ross. Everything is a pattern. Everything.”

“So you’re trying to determine the pattern.”

“It could take years to be sure, at this frequency.” Gottlieb sounded frustrated.

“Careful, Hermann, it almost sounds like you’re wishing for another attack.”

“You must be mistaking me with this Kaiju-loving dummkopf over here.” Hermann Gottlieb tilted the screen so Nolan could see Newton Geiszler in the background, wrestling with something that looked suspiciously like a Kaiju tentacle.

“So, they’ve got you two sharing a lab. How’s that going?”

“It’s highly probable that I am going to murder him. Very soon.”

“And here I thought working in close quarters would give you a good chance to work off all that sexual tension, get it out of your system.”

“You are not a funny man, Mr. Ross, not at all.” Gottlieb tilted the screen back down so it was filled once again by his face, pale and serious. “This is purely a guess, of course, there is insufficient data to be sure, but preliminary analysis of the pattern suggests that the next attack could occur within your vicinity, possibly within days.”

“Thanks,” Nolan said, as the screen blinked out. Gottlieb was never one for protracted goodbyes. He sagged back in his chair, one foot hooked up and resting on the opposite thigh, and chewed his lip thoughtfully. Gottlieb had said it was only a guess, but when it came to Kaiju, Gottlieb’s guesses were better than most people’s certainties.

 

If the next Kaiju attack was going to be within days they didn’t have time to wait for Romeo Blue to be fixed up. Fortunately, he’d been working on something that meant that they wouldn’t have to.

 

“Infinity Revenge?” Emily looked almost wistful as she looked up at the refurbished Jaeger.

“Good as new,” Nolan assured her. “Better, in fact. I made some modifications to the code based on the Mark V upgrades.”

She continued to stare and Nolan wondered whether she was thinking of the last time she had piloted it, when she’d been fighting for her life as her co-pilot was ripped out along with the whole left arm by the Kaiju. Or maybe she was longing to pilot it again. It could be addictive, both the bridge itself and the feeling of power that came from piloting such a formidable fighting machine. There was hardly a kid in the Pacific Rim who hadn’t dreamed of suiting up and fighting the monsters. Hell, he’d dreamed of it himself once or twice.

“It’ll seem weird, seeing someone else pilot her,” Emily said.

“Her?”

“I always thought of it as a her. Like a boat, I guess.”

 

It was 3 am when the alarm sounded, waking Nolan. He made a mental note to ask Newt the next time they spoke if there was a reason Kaiju kept such unsociable hours. He ran into Emily, hair immaculate, everything immaculate except the dark circles under her eyes. He wondered if she ever slept.

“Category IV,” she told him curtly. “Mammoth Apostle is in trouble.”

“Brawler Yukon and Chrome Brutus have been deployed from Anchorage,” Marshall Takeda informed them.

Nolan leant over the shoulder of the nearest operative, frowning at what he saw on the screen.

“Too far away. They’re not going to make it before it hits the coast.”

Suddenly, quite clearly, he knew what needed to be done. What could be done.

“Ems, suit up,” he said. Everybody stared. Marshall Takeda looked at him as though Nolan had grown a second head, giving orders on his command, but Nolan faced him down.

“Nolan, what...” Emily started.

“Trust me,” he said, turning to look her in the eye, and after a long pause she simply nodded and turned away. Nolan sucked in a breath, almost relieved. Really, that was the hard part over with.

 

Emily was ready to go by the time he reached Infinity Revenge. She didn’t look up immediately.

“Good job I’m the only person on this base who’s piloted solo before, huh?” Emily said. There was a slight shake to her voice. After all, solo piloting was practically a suicide mission.

“Good job there’s one person on this base you’re drift compatible with, huh?” Nolan said, mimicking her.

Emily looked up. And stared.

“You’re kidding me,” she said, taking in Nolan’s get-up.

“I know, really not my colour, but what are you gonna do?”

“Nolan...”

He didn’t want to hear protests. That was another thing about the drift. It would only work if you both really believed it would work. Fairy dust and happy thoughts and you were flying.

“I wrote the code on these damn things, what I don’t know about Jaegers isn’t worth knowing. And I can hold my own in a fight, you’ve got the bruises to prove it,” he said, reminding her of their sparring session.

But it was that last bit, the important bit, that had always been missing for Emily before, the reason she hadn’t been able to find another co-pilot since Amanda died. And that, he knew already they’d got. “You said you trust me, right? And you know we’re compatible. You know it.”

Emily nodded a wordless assent.

There was no more time to waste. They were strapped in, helmets on and ready to drift. Nolan would have been lying if he’d said he wasn’t nervous. There were all kind of things that could go wrong. Emily had had all kinds of bad experiences. But right at the last, it wasn’t Emily’s thoughts and memories that were troubling him, but his own. In about thirty seconds they were going to share minds and --

“Wait,” Nolan said, voice less steady than he’d like. “Ems, before... Look, there’s something I need to tell you, about how I...”

“Nolan,” she said, cutting him off. “I already know.”

He turned his head to the right and could see she was smiling He couldn’t help grinning himself.

“Okay then,” he said, “let’s go fight monsters.”