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Handwriting of God

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Before K-Day Vanessa doesn’t think much about the ocean.  It’s there all the time, and you can see it when it’s not foggy, if you climb to the top of the hills in Lima or if you climb to the top of apartment buildings, like where David’s apartment is, on the tenth floor.  Sometimes they sit out on the floor of his balcony wrapped in blankets and watching the colors of the ocean change.

When Trespasser attacks San Francisco, Vanessa is at David’s apartment again; it’s winter, the sun sets early, and they huddle together and watch the news feed late into the night.  When she gets ready for work the next morning with sandy eyes and her stomach in a knot, she can’t stop looking out the window, staring at the ocean.

How big is Trespasser?  She can’t even imagine its size.  She’s never seen the Golden Gate Bridge but she knows it’s big — it was big, and Trespasser cut through it like butter.  The planes looked like flies swarming around its head.  How can you even measure that kind of size?

Three days later the attack is done.  Millions have died, the city is destroyed, and Vanessa has barely slept.

“It’s over now, thank God,” her grandmother says.  When Vanessa isn’t living with David she lives with abuela and her brother Fernando, who’s tall for his eighteen years and has always been a fighter.  His dream is to be a professional soccer player but now he helps Vanessa in the shop.

“Come pray with me,” her grandmother says.  Vanessa has an old wooden rosary that her mother gave her when she turned fourteen; the beads are worn in her hands.  But as she says the familiar prayers she can’t focus.  Her mind is a litany of Dios te salve Maria — Trespasser — llena eres de gracia — Trespasser.  Monsters invade her dreams until she forgets what she dreamt about before.

When the second attack hits Manila, Vanessa is in her own home; Fernando and her grandmother are shopping in the city center and so for a while she is alone in front of the television, her football game having been interrupted by an emergency broadcast of grainy, shakycam footage.  Her phone is just a foot away but she can’t even move long enough to text David or her brother.

When the third monster — now called a kaiju — attacks Cabo, everyone knows that this isn’t something that’s going to go away.  Everyone knows that more monsters are coming.  Vanessa huddles with her family and they pray the rosary again; they pray for the people they see fleeing the site, they pray for the military men of the newly formed PPDC, rushing in for a hopeless attack.

Vanessa rubs the slightly oily wooden beads between her fingers and imagines that she can feel the earth shaking with every step the kaiju takes.

She’s at work with ‘Nando when he calls her into the back room; on breaks, he goes to the private office to watch football while she continues to tinker.  Mechanics has always been her calling more than Fernando’s, but they both work at their father’s old shop.  It’s his legacy, and their bread and butter.

‘Nando only calls her like that when there’s something important, something really important on television.  For the past few years, the only really important things on TV have been kaiju attacks, so Vanessa’s heart is in her mouth when she rushes into the office, her wrench still in her hand and her curly hair still tied back with a bandana.

But it’s not a kaiju attack.

“Look at this!” ‘Nando says.  It’s the most enthusiastic she’s seen him in a while (his pro football dreams are not coming true).  “Look!”

She looks.  Their television in the shop is old and tiny, and sometimes it stops picking up signals altogether.  Fernando has the news turned on, and at first she doesn’t believe what she sees — a giant arm suspended by cables and chains, a giant arm that’s clenching its fist.

“What?”

“Look at that!” ‘Nando says again.  His face is flushed and his grin is wide.  “The army’s making things.  Things to fight them.”  No one needs clarification on who they are, not anymore.  “Giant robots.  Giant robots.”

Vanessa wants to scoff.  The idea is ridiculous.  But something stops her and she leans forward to get a better look at the television.

“We call it the Jaeger program,” someone says, with Spanish dubbed over their voice.  “Jaeger is German for hunter.  These things are the hunters.”  The news feed cuts from the arm to focus on a gray-haired, light-skinned man, his arms crossed over his chest.  There’s a set firmness to his jaw and a chiseled line between his eyebrows, like he spends a lot of his time frowning.

Dr. Jasper Schoenfield, the tagline reads.  Creator of the Jaeger Program.

“Jaeger,” Vanessa repeats contemplatively.  The name sounds strange on her tongue.

Fernando grins.  “Imagine how big they’re gonna be.  They’re gonna beat the fucking kaiju to a pulp.”

When Vanessa comes home, her grandmother is praying the rosary in the kitchen again, using the beads Vanessa bought for her last Christmas — bright red and yellow plastic.  She’s gotten more religious as she’s gotten older; before, when their parents were alive, she rarely prayed or attended Mass.

Vanessa, by contrast, has become less religious as she’s grown.  She still goes to weekly Mass and participates in the processions, but she’s stopped praying on her own now.  She figures if God knows everything, He will understand.  So now she simply smiles at her grandmother and kisses her on the cheek as a greeting, then hurries to the room she shares with abuela to grab the notebook where she keeps all of her drawings and notes and designs.

“I’m going to David’s,” she tells her grandmother.

Her grandmother looks sad but only nods and says, “Be safe,” so Vanessa takes that as permission.

Really the only reason she is going to David’s right now is because he’s a full time student, so he has a computer that connects to the internet.  He’s not even home when she gets there, so she makes herself a cup of tea and logs in.

Programa de Jaeger, she types into the search engine.  Then she starts to read everything she can find.  By the time David comes home an hour later, she’s filled ten pages in her notebook and exhausted all the Spanish-language resources.  She’s spent the last fifteen minutes working through English ones with the aid of her rudimentary language skills from high school and Google Translate.

“What are you doing here?” David asked, though he’s smiling when he sits down beside her and kisses her cheek.

She starts talking about the Jaeger program and what she’s learned and they don’t even sleep together because all Vanessa can talk and think about are giant robots, giant mechanical robots, giant machines that will save the world.

After two weeks, David gets annoyed with her using his internet so much, and to research things “that don’t matter to us,” as he says (that’s their first big fight), so Vanessa finally gets an internet connection for the shop.  She held off before, because even with just the TV and the radio it’s hard enough to keep ‘Nando from getting distracted, and they don’t need to advertise online or maintain a website or anything like that; they have regular customers and their business increases by word of mouth.

But they have a pretty ancient computer in the back, where she does all the accounting, and she has enough money saved up that this expense won’t really make a dent in their finances.  Her neighbor Martin helps them with the internet connection, and Vanessa starts to use forums.

Her first online handle is paradis29, referencing her postal code and the singer who gave her parents inspiration for her name.  At first she only watches, but then JAEGER|HUNTER gets a leak of the blueprints for the new Jaeger and she can’t help but chime in with some suggested improvements.

These are the early days of the Jaeger program and pretty much everyone on the internet has something to say about it.  Vanessa’s English gets better and better as she navigates her way through the maze of forums and fansites and scientific papers, and she even begins to pick up a little German.

She learns words like torsion and friction coefficient, which she always knew but never had the words for, as well as completely new concepts like recharging energy cell and pons device and iso-thor reaction chamber.

One notebook becomes seven.

Though her relationship with David is a bit cooler now, they still watch Brawler Yukon’s first test together.  The test isn’t televised, obviously, but with the help of JAEGER|HUNTER and forums like it, Vanessa locates a grainy stream; she and David are two of the 2.5 million viewers and the video keeps stalling as the site tries to keep up with its traffic.  Even though the quality is terrible, the size of the Jaeger is amazing.  She holds her breath when the Jaeger takes its first step... and another.  She grabs David’s arm.

When the Jaeger stops, at first Vanessa thinks it’s something wrong with the livestream.  Then, like a building collapsing, the Jaeger crashes to the ground.

She leans forward, trying to see what’s going on, when the stream gets cut off and all that’s left is a blank black screen and 2.5 million people, confused.

The forums blow up.  So does twitter, where her account, jaeger_paradis, has about 673 followers.  The speculation is rampant, but eventually nearly everyone comes to the same conclusion: the test was a failure.

Later, they find out that the first Jaeger test pilot, Adam Casey, died.

“The program is not going to work,” David says.  He’s always been a skeptic, and usually Vanessa doesn’t mind.  But this time, it’s something she’s passionate about.  She knows in her heart that it will work; she has faith in this like she has faith in her grandmother or in God.  David thinks she is being foolish.  “A giant fighting robot is like something from a movie!  It can’t work in real life.”

Vanessa grits her teeth and ignores him, scrolling through her twitter feed for something, anything to give her hope.  It will work.

“I’m going to class,” David says, and gets up.  She continues to ignore him as he leaves.

The second test isn’t videotaped.  In fact, the PPDC official twitter account actually makes the announcement that the technician who filmed and screened the first test will be court martialed, and that further leaks will not be tolerated.

But everyone knows what time the test is happening.  Vanessa closes her eyes, sits on her hands, and prays like she hasn’t prayed in years.  She’s actually at work when the results come in.  She’s programmed her phone to receive updates from multiple PPDC twitter accounts, and she’s fixing her neighbor Gloria’s scooter when the news comes in.

@PPDC: Jaeger test successful.

It’s a busy day and that’s all she hears about the test until that evening, when she finally gets back on the internet.  Despite the PPDC’s severity about leaks, by the time twenty-four hours have passed, everyone knows about Sergio D’Onfrio and Caitlin Lightcap.

A week later, while she’s on her way to David’s apartment, she gets another tweet from the PPDC on her phone.

@PPDC: Jaeger Program receives official authorization. Testing continues under Dr. Schoenfield.

David rolls his eyes when all Vanessa can do, when she reaches his apartment, is talk about the Jaegers.

She breaks up with him before Karloff attacks Vancouver.  It’s not because of Vanessa’s new passion — not technically; David is moving to Bogota for a year, to continue studying engineering at el Universidad de los Andes.  And to get further inland is left unsaid between them.

He says that they can stay together if she wants, but he doesn’t really mean it and Vanessa knows that. Both of them have long since moved on.  They say goodbye and Vanessa takes her things from his apartment.

She’s at home when Karloff attacks Vancouver.  She sees it on twitter first, on her phone, and then interrupts dinner to turn on the television.  They see the usual grainy footage — the monster rising from the deep, the newscaster’s panicked voice.   There are fewer people living in coastal cities now.  Even Lima has been emptied out somewhat; the population of inland Arquepia, on the other hand, has swelled.  But there are always people who refuse to move, or can’t move, and they’re the ones that suffer the most.

The entire family, including some aunts, uncles, and cousins, is glued to the TV, even ‘Nando comes home from partying with his friends.  (He hears there is another kaiju attack and the party breaks up early.)  Abuela takes her hand; Vanessa is amazed by the strength in her group.

Vanessa’s phone beep and compulsively, she looks at it.

@PPDC: Brawler Yukon being sent to Vancouver.

“Brawler Yukon,” Vanessa whispers, quietly enough so that no one can hear her over the noise of the television.  And sure enough, the camera jerks away from the monster long enough to reveal a gigantic mechanical silhouette — the first Jaeger, carried by Jumphawk helicopters.  (Vanessa has not only learned about robots but also about other military technology over the last year.)

Madre de Dios,” someone whispers, reverent and afraid at the same time.

The Jaeger drops to the ground and its weight shakes the earth, shakes the already shaky camera.  Her grandmother squeezes her hand more tightly.  Vanessa watches, her heart in her throat, as the Jaeger takes one step, and then another, and then another — more than before, on that grainy livestream.  More than Vanessa had ever dreamed.

The kaiju notices the Jaeger almost immediately, turning towards it and screeching.  Over the course of the next two hours, they watch the monster battle the giant robot until it’s killed by a blow to the head.

At first, the entire audience is stunned by the victory.  Vanessa feels like she’s been tense and holding her breath for years; it all comes out of her in a whoosh.  Her eyes fill up with tears.  Fernando whoops and cheers and suddenly the house, the neighborhood, the entire city of Lima, maybe the whole world is engulfed in a massive celebration.

The Jaeger won.  The Jaeger program is a success.

@jaeger_paradis: @PPDC PILOTS D’ONFRIO AND LIGHTCAP FELICIDADES FROM PERU

By the time everything calms down, Vanessa feels like she’s laughed more, cried more, hugged more than in the entire past year.  Later when she finds herself on top of one of Lima’s hills, she can look all the way down to the Pacific without feeling the too-familiar twinge of dread.  Now it’s defiance, and that defiance has a name: Jaeger.

Fernando has never shared Vanessa’s enthusiasm for mechanics, nor her interest in the budding Jaeger program. But the fight changed him: now he no longer dreams of being a professional footballer like Lionel Messi.  He stops wearing his Barcelona jersey every week and buys himself a shirt (cheap, from one of the tables at the market) with a silhouette of Brawler Yukon.

“I’m going to be a pilot,” he says.  “I’m going to drive one of those things.”

Vanessa learns about the Jaeger Academy, with its first class open for qualified students, eighteen years old and above.  She speaks only English with Fernando so that he can improve his comprehension skills before he tries to enlist.  Everyone wants to be a Ranger for the PPDC now, and Vanessa wants to give Fernando a leg up.  She makes him read blog posts on the inner workings of the Jaeger, because he hasn’t quite mastered the level of scientific English required to read the more official publications.

“It’s important,” she tells him.  For once, he listens, and does what he’s told.

The day before he’s supposed to take his entry examination at the PPDC-Lima branch office, Vanessa catches him kneeling on the ground by their grandmother’s chair.  “I’m going to save the world,” he’s saying quietly, and abuela is nodding, although she looks sad.  This isn’t how she lost her son, Vanessa thinks, her hand on the doorpost as she hesitates before entering the room.  Vanessa’s parents were killed in an earthquake.  You couldn’t fight an earthquake.  But you could fight kaiju, who made the ground shake with each step, and that was what Fernando wanted to do.

She watches abuela put her hand on Fernando’s head.  It’s a blessing.

Vanessa and her grandmother spend the three hours of the exam sitting in the office waiting room along with other mothers and fathers and siblings and cousins.  There are nineteen other candidates, and their scores will be measured against a national average.  The PPDC has nationality quotas for the Jaeger Academy; five Peruvian students will be accepted.  To keep calm while she waits, she reads the Jaeger Pilot’s Manual that she’s downloaded onto her phone.  It’s a scanned copy, not official, and hard to read in some places.  The difficulty helps her to concentrate.

“Do you think I got in?” Fernando asks her in English as she drives them both back to the house.  “The written section was hard but the physical was easy.”

“We will see,” Vanessa replies.

Fernando passes the examination.  It’s almost a miracle.  Vanessa and abuela help him pack for Alaska.

Sometimes she thinks about becoming a Ranger herself.  She’s grown up running around the streets of her neighborhood, playing football with ‘Nando and her cousins until ‘Nando outgrew them and went on to more official leagues.  She’s got strong arms, and she’s got a good, if self-taught background in the Jaeger program.  Sometimes she even imagines herself in a pilot’s suit, strapped in to the conn-pod and seeing everything through the Jaeger’s multifunctional sensor array.

But it just doesn’t click for her.  She doesn’t love it like Fernando, doesn’t dream about punching monsters to the ground.  Instead, she dreams about circuitry, hydraulics, the movement underneath the Jaeger’s metal exoskeleton.

Fernando sends vid-messages back from Alaska, and Vanessa downloads them on her phone while she’s in the office to take back and watch with her grandmother.  He seems tired.  He’s gotten thinner.  Vanessa feels a tendril of worry snake around her stomach.

But Fernando says he is doing fine.

They keep us very busy.  We have our free weekend next month.  I will tell you when so we can Skype.  How is abuela doing?  My roommate is from Colombia.  We try to speak English but his English is worse than mine.  It is winter here and cloudy just like home.  Sometimes we visit the “Proving Grounds.”  We can see new Jaegers being built.  Vanessa, you would love this.  I miss you.  I miss abuela’s cooking.  When I come back I want to eat tamales and ceviche.  We play football here but it is very cold.

Fernando is in the Jaeger Academy’s third official class.  There are three hundred and fifty other students just like him, desperate to prove themselves.  But each month, the number gets smaller and smaller as students drop out, are transferred to non-pilot tracks, or are expelled for violating the Academy’s strict rules.

The forums call the Academy’s dropout list the “wall of shame” even though it’s posted online, rather than on an actual wall.  It comes out every month; Vanessa always looks for Fernando’s name, just in case.

But he stays with the program.

One day, in the vid message, he has a fading bruise on his cheek.  “We are working on combat practice this week.  We work with sticks.  There is one boy who doesn’t like me.  He hit me before I was ready.  Luckily my classmates saw.  He got in trouble.  My roommate is gone.  I have a new one.  He is from Korean.  We can only speak English together.  He misses his family too.”

As the year goes on, Vanessa expects him to drop out.  It isn’t anything against Fernando — it’s just statistics.  The dropout list stays lengthy no matter what week it is, and no matter how long these candidates have been in training.  But somehow, he sticks it out, and it makes her smile to think about it.  He sends her his ranger candidate headshot and she goes to her neighbor Manuel’s copy shop to get two copies printed out, one for her garage and one to hang proudly on the wall by the television.

Meanwhile, PPDC bases, “Shatterdomes,” are going up around the world, with fast construction expedited by preexisting blueprints and large allotments of PPDC funding.  Lima is the second city to get approval to build one of these PPDC nerve centers.  The president makes an announcement in May.  No kaiju have attacked Lima yet, but they will, no one doubts it.  It’s one of the biggest cities on the coast of South America.

Winter has already fallen over the city again, with its continuous rain and heavy fog, when Vanessa goes down to visit the site in early June.  There is plastic sheeting over everything to keep it dry.  Already the construction towers over her head.  The site is bustling with workers.  She gets shooed away quickly.

@jaeger_paradis: Welcoming the 1st @PPDC Shatterdome in the west/south hemisphere to Lima. Hopefully weather improves.

That winter, too, abuela gets sick.  It starts with a rattling cough that comes in with the rain, but then it doesn’t go away.  By July, Vanessa is desperate; she only takes what jobs she needs to support the two of them and spends the rest of the time with her grandmother.  They try inhalers, antibiotics, herbal remedies, Tia Carmen’s spicy shrimp soup.

Nothing works.

She’s sitting in her grandmother’s hospital room, standing vigil, she thinks, as abuela sleeps, her breath rattling in her lungs, when her phone vibrates in her pocket.  She gets texts and tweets all the time; her twitter account has over two thousand followers who depend on her for the latest jaeger-related news.  But with her grandmother sick, she’s fallen behind, and she hasn’t gotten as much traffic as usual.

She’s never gotten tweets like these before, either.

@gojirageiszler: @jaeger_paradis ur not PPDC are u

@gojirageiszler: @jaeger_paradis Have u thought about working w/ PPDC? they need ppl who care. like u.

The messages make Vanessa feel suddenly weary.  Her vision blurs slightly; the bright hospital room swims in front of them.  She’s dreamt about working for the PPDC before, but she’s never really thought about it seriously, never considered it a valid career choice.  They can take their pick out of the best and brightest minds in the world.  People who have gone to college, people who have graduated college and then studied more.  She is just a mechanic who loves Jaegers.

Her grandmother stirs and coughs, and Vanessa immediately puts her phone down to straighten abuela’s covers, to make sure her head is elevated just right.  She has more important things to think about than an impossible future.

Their grandmother dies in the last week of July.  Fernando is given a week off before his official graduation ceremony.  He stands beside Vanessa, broad shoulders stiff and mouth grim, at the funeral.  They are comforted by their uncles and aunts and cousins, but Vanessa is used to losing family.  She lets abuela’s death sit in her stomach like a cold lump, like she swallowed a piece of the grim winter.

Three days after Fernando leaves for Anchorage again, she remembers the tweets.  She even scrolls all the way down her twitter feed to find them, and clicks on the name of the man who sent them.

Vanessa is shocked when she finds out that he works for PPDC, that he is PPDC — and that he still thinks that she could be a good candidate.  She forces herself to eat before she drives herself down to the PPDC office, with her helmet off so she can feel the wind in her hair, and asks about applications.

“I will pass any test about the Jaeger that you can give me,” she says, giving the man a confident look and clenching her hands into fists to hide the fact that they’re shaking.  And she does.  She passes all the tests.

When the Lima shatterdome opens on August 9, 2016, Vanessa Reyes is there, working as second deputy mechanic for the crew constructing the South American Mark II Jaeger Diablo Intercept, to be piloted by the team of Ji-Hun Cheung and Fernando Reyes.