Chapter 1

They were called the "next step in jaeger technology:" fully autonomous jaegers. There was no need to find drift-compatible pilots because no pilots were necessary. With the new, revolutionary AI developed by PPDC, the new jaegers could operate with faster reflexes in combat than human-piloted jaegers. The AI had been developed using the neural patterns of dozens of jaeger pilots, pooling their combat techniques into a machine that could fight the kaiju on its own. Plus, the AI would learn from its past experiences and would improve with each fight, adapting to any new challenge that the kaiju threw at them. By all accounts, the new line of jaegers were impressive feats of engineering and programming.

Standing on a service catwalk in the Los Angeles Shatterdome, Sy watched as one of the new jaegers was trucked in and slowly raised into an upright position in one of the empty maintenance stations. As much as he had rolled his eyes at the breathless brochure language used by the PPDC's public relations' department when talking to the press about the new jaegers, now that he'd actually seen one for himself... Well, 'impressive' just didn't feel like a big enough word to describe the machine in front of him.

Next to Sy, the chief engineer on the new jaeger's team leaned on the railing. "She looks awfully fierce, I'll give her that," Jack said. "But pilot herself?" He shook his head. "I read the specs, but I'll believe that when I see it."

"The test runs in Anchorage were spotless," Sy replied, still looking appreciatively at the new jaeger as it rose from the tractor bed. His gaze roamed over its sleek black and yellow lines, already noting areas that he was sure were going to need special maintenance. The more advanced the tech, the more upkeep it needed, after all. "But yeah, I really want to see what this thing will do against an actual kaiju."

Jack grinned at Sy. "I'll bet you can't wait to get your mitts on her systems. Did they send you the source code to look at?"

Sy shook his head. "Not yet. Tomorrow I'll get my first chance to get in there and see what kind of monster they've created for us to work with."

"Well, I'm just glad I get to work with you again," Jack said. He gave Sy a grin. "You may not be much of a grease monkey, but you did amazing things with Cosmic Panther's systems before..." The engineer's voice faltered.

"Before we lost her," Sy said, finishing Jack's sentence. He nodded and glanced at Jack. "Thanks, man. I'm glad to be working with you, too."

Jack nodded soberly, then looked back at the jaeger. "In any event, I'm sure that we're both going to have our work cut out for us. I'm really surprised they didn't send down a dedicated team with it, considering all the new tech this thing's sporting. Not that I'm complaining about new toys to play with, though," he said with a wave of his hand.

Sy laughed. "You and me both!"

Jack slapped Sy on the shoulder. "Anyway, I better get down there to make sure they don't scratch the damn thing before I get a chance to even touch her. I'll catch you later."

"You got it," Sy replied, not turning his head as Jack walked off.

Sy leaned on the railing again. The jaeger had an odd design for the conn-pod, with broad cooling vents on either side. He'd read something about the vents being necessary for the amount of computing power the jaeger was packing to handle the advanced AI. The conn-pod was set squarely on broad shoulders, which branched down to a wide chest, sturdy hips and long legs designed for speed and power. The jaeger looked amazingly like one of the heavyweight fighters Sy had run into on the boxing circuit.

He waited until the jaeger was fully upright in its maintenance bay and the monitor screen next to it had finished initializing, indicating that all systems were green and charging or ready.

"I'll see you tomorrow, Sun Streaker," Sy said, and turned to head back to the control room.

Sy knew that if he punched the keys on his laptop any harder, they were in danger of flying loose. But he didn't really care, because he needed to burn off this anger somehow.

The handover technician who came to Los Angeles with Sun Streaker had been amazingly unhelpful, condescending, and arrogant. "You aren't going to get access to the AI sectors," he'd said when Sy had asked for the passwords to those partitions in the jaeger's systems. "There's no need for you to be mucking around in there. Besides, you might fuck something up, and I don't want to have to fly back here to clean up after you." He had given Sy a haughty grin and added, "You've got the standard access to the OS. Just do your regular maintenance there, and leave the rest of it to R&D."

"You aren't even leaving anyone here," Sy had said. He looked at the base commander in disbelief. "Are you seriously telling me they're just dropping an experimental jaeger on our maintenance teams and not giving us the tools to do the upkeep ourselves?"

"Headquarters assured us that the AI requires no upkeep and no special maintenance. If any updates are required, they will provide us with the data package over the network or by sending us a drive with the necessary patch," said Commander Magnus. He had looked at the handover tech and frowned. "I already expressed my disagreement on how this is going down, but headquarters said they're shorthanded on AI experts. They need them all in Anchorage to work on the next one."

"Load of crap," Sy muttered, banging on his keyboard. He sat inside the jaeger's conn-pod, his laptop plugged into the main console. Smiling grimly, he finished making his standard access changes to the OS. Now if Anchorage needed to patch in to do any work on the jaeger's AI, they would need to ask him for the passwords. It was a small feat of defiance, but the only one he felt he could get away with right now. After all, you didn't screw around too much with a piece of equipment that cost over eight billion dollars.

Still, it was a shame he couldn't get into the AI partitions. He tapped his fingers on the desk. It wouldn't do any harm to just look at them, right?

Sy teased at the locked partitions that held Sun Streaker's AI, testing the security protocols. He knew he could probably get past the first layer of security without raising any alarms. Then at least he could see the directory structure.

After a few minutes, Sy succeeded in getting past the first barrier. He frowned at the maze he found underneath. They had this thing locked up tighter than anything he'd ever seen before.

Sy set up a quick scan to test for weaknesses in the second layer, and leaned back in the chair as it ran. He looked around the conn-pod as he considered his options.

The inside of the conn-pod looked like it could belong to any regular jaeger. It contained two pilot harnesses like the other jaegers, just in case it needed to be piloted manually, and had all of the same controls and HUDs. The real differences were all internal, inside Sun Streaker's operating system and the new AI.

"I can't wait to see what you look like all powered up, Sunny," Sy murmured as he turned back to his laptop. He knew they had a few days of post-travel checks to complete before they booted the jaeger up.

A moment after he spoke, the lights on the control screens lit up, and the non-emergency lights flickered on. Sy stared around as the conn-pod came to life with a faint whir of fans and hum of electronics.

Sy's radio crackled to life with Billy's voice. "LOCCENT to Sy, what the hell are you doing?"

Sy fumbled for his radio and keyed it. "Nothing! I swear!" Sy jumped out of his chair and walked a few steps towards the main control screens, staring at the displays. "All I did was my base system checks and security patches for the OS." He didn't mention the poking he'd done to the AI partitions; after all he hadn't actually done anything except look.

"Sun Streaker just lit up like a Christmas tree, and it's running through its whole boot cycle," Billy said. He made a low whistle. "And... Wow, it's just about booted already. They improved that part, anyway. It's almost like it hadn't been completely powered down for transport."

Sy watched the control screen show the boot progress. "Well, we did have a boot test on the docket for Thursday. We can just cross it off the list early," he said more cheerfully than he felt.

"Yeah, yeah," Billy replied. There was a pause. "Except now it's not responding to shutdown requests. Can you try shutting it back down from in there?"

"Sure," Sy replied, and looked back to his laptop.

He felt his stomach drop when he saw the requestor on his screen.


Sy's skin prickled.

"Let you out of where?" he whispered, staring at his laptop.


Sy's mouth was dry, but he somehow was able to croak out a reply to – Christ, was he actually talking to the jaeger? "You can't fight yet. Your hydraulics and coolant systems need to be reconnected and refilled. They were emptied for transport."


Holding up his hands in a placating gesture (to what? His laptop?), Sy said, "Once they've refilled your tanks, you'll get run through some tests – make sure all your systems are working right. We'll run you through some motion and training exercises. Then..." He swallowed, still staring at the blocky text that had appeared on his laptop. "Then when the next kaiju shows up in our area... They'll let you fight."


Sy's radio chirped. "Hey Sy, any luck yet? The crew chief is on his way up to the conn-pod now to see what's going on."


"Look, I promise that you're going to get to fight. We've got kaiju attacks coming almost once a week now. It might be a while before there's one that you're deployed to, but... Trust me." Sy flashed a grin, trying to look confident. Maybe it could see him. "Just - please shut down? You've gotta shut down so we can finish getting you ready."

Holy crap, please shut down, he thought.

Silence. Then, more words appeared on the laptop.


There was a pause. Then:


As soon as the words appeared on the screen, all of the HUD and system lights started shutting off. Sy stared around him as the emergency lights came back on, and he was left in the semi-darkness of Sun Streaker's conn-pod once more.

"Hey, good job!" Billy said over the radio. "Figured it out, huh? What did you do?"

Sy watched as the unidentified window vanished from his laptop screen, and the admin console for the jaeger OS appeared in its place. "Ah, nothing special," Sy said into his radio with a brightness he didn't feel. He hoped his voice wasn't shaking. "I just asked nicely."

It didn't take long for Sy to read through all the documentation the handover tech had provided about the AI. It could be summarized with: "This jaeger has an AI. Don't touch."

Fortunately, the internal libraries of the PPDC were more helpful. Sy found hundreds of white papers and technical documents about the AU prototypes they had been working on, as well as some conceptual documents on the current AI branch. Unfortunately, there were no details. It was all just how it should work.

And it looked pretty straightforward. The jaeger could be given some basic commands: go there, patrol here, fight that, return home, and so on. The AI would control how those commands were carried out. It would decide what path to take to get to its directed destination, or analyze a kaiju's attack patterns to figure out how best to counter it. It was like a really sophisticated autonomous car that was equipped with a plasma cannon and fangblades.

Nowhere did Sy find any reference to the AI being able to talk, or to request things. Yes, it could learn based on its experiences, but all the jaeger had done so far was demos. That didn't seem like it would be enough to have it start demanding things. In fact, the more he delved into the theory of the AI, the more convinced he was that someone was trying to get him into trouble, or trying to freak him out because they knew he couldn't resist poking at the AI's locked partitions.

And Sy had a prime suspect in mind.

"Nice try, asshole," Sy said, plopping his tray down across from Jack's.

Jack looked up at him with wide eyes and a mouth full of instant mashed potatoes. The engineer swallowed. "Nice try at what?" he asked.

"That joke program you put on my laptop," Sy said, carefully flipping one of his peas back over the plate divider so that it was out of the gravy. "But you got me, and now I'm gonna get you. Game on."

"I honestly have no idea what you're talking about," Jack said. "I haven't touched your laptop. There's no way I could have – you've always got it with you."

"I know. And I can't figure out how you did it," Sy replied. He nudged the laptop closer to his tray. "Something like that could only have come from you or Percy, and... Percy's got no sense of humour." He sawed off a piece of meat and waved it at Jack. "But trust me – your turn is coming."

"Sure. Mind telling me what I supposedly did?" Jack asked, digging back into his meal.

"The 'make Sy think the AI is talking to him' thing," Sy said. "Very convincing. I just wish I knew how you tied it into the admin console." He lowered his voice to a hiss and added, "You scared the shit out of me! I thought I broke something."

Jack stared at Sy and chewed for almost a full minute. Then he swallowed. "Sy. I swear to God I didn't touch your laptop, and certainly didn't install some joke program on it." He put his fork down. "What happened?"

Sy shook his head. "You know what it did. 'Sun Streaker online. Let me out. Let me fight.'" Sy mimed robot motions with his arms.

Jack watched Sy's performance and then put his fork down. "It wasn't me, man."

Sy stared at Jack for a moment and then turned his attention back to his meal. "Well, someone did it. I read the specs. There's no way it was the jaeger."