Author's Note: I went to see Pacific Rim a couple of weeks ago and just couldn't resist. Truly, could there be any other way to improve Marathon than adding giant robots (and a soulbond)? I DOUBT IT.

Cold War

He didn't go on talk shows.

Hordes of starstruck men and women didn't throw themselves at him, eager to touch a hero in any way they could.

No children clamored for toys of his Jaeger, a squat, ugly gray behemoth with circular markings in poison frog green and dull, pitted slabs of metal shielding its nuclear heart.

The six other pilots defending the coasts of Africa and Madagascar didn't go out of their way to avoid him - that would have been difficult, considering the close quarters the pilots kept at Central between missions - but they didn't spend any more time with him than they had to, and every meal he sat alone at his chosen table in the mess hall. "It's not personal, you know," Von Müller, who piloted the Cape Peninsula's Screaming Hyena with his cousin Franziska, had told him once over dinner. "No one wants to catch your crazy, that's all - and no one wants anyone else to catch your crazy, you get that, right? The last thing the program needs is a bunch of hotshots thinking they can do what you do without burning their little brains out."

He had shrugged in acceptance of that fact and continued eating his stew; Von Müller had stared at him suspiciously for a minute before stalking off to find Franziska, probably to complain more.

Cairo Sunset's left-brain pilot, Robert Blake, was less direct. He stopped by Crazy Boomer's hangar during a maintenance session and said, once the propane torch was off, "People are always going to wonder how you do it. They'll wonder whether you have a secret partner, if you're on some kind of super-pilot drug, if you're a witch, all kinds of things. They'll wonder - but they don't want to know. Because they're afraid that if they know, then whatever sacrifice you're making, they'll have to make it, too. Do you understand?"

He nodded, wondering if he could pull his welder's mask down and get back to fixing the split seam in the right foot's armor yet. One person couldn't maintain a Jaeger on their own, but he liked to do as much of the work on his as he could.

Blake sighed. "God alone knows how you do it," he said, "but you're one in a million and he must know we need you out there. It's just difficult when -"

"Let the man be, Blake." Blake's co-pilot Abdel put a hand on Blake's shoulder. "He is occupied, and we have business of our own to attend to."

"Right..." Blake cast one look back over his shoulder at Crazy Boomer as he left with Abdel, and that was the end of it.

Marshal Mma of the Marathon Lily was the bluntest of them all. "Maybe other pilots out there do it too, I don't know, I don't care, their business not mine," she said to him. "Long as these beasts come and your junkheap can fight, I want you in it, you understand me, ranger?"

"Yes, ma'am." He understood. He might be the second-best pilot in North, South, or Central Africa, but he was not the only pilot, and Marshal Mma thought that when his brain burst he could finally be replaced by a pair who would go on the evening news and smile pretty and repaint Crazy Boomer a nice color and be good little heroes.

He wasn't bitter. Bitterness had been burned out of him long ago, and his brain wasn't going to burst.

Marshal Mma looked like she was going to say something else, but the alarms went off and Iggy rushed up to them with her tablet squashed to her chest. "Marshal Mma, Marshal Mma! It's a category 2 in the Gulf of Guinea, heading for Lagos! But it's a big one - almost category 3!"

"Well? What you waiting for, that's your area," Marshal Mma said. "Go get it."

"Yes, ma'am."

Suiting up was second nature, the armor and helmet as easy and comfortable around him as his own skin. One of the techs from the drivesuit room tried to help him with the hatch to Boomer's conn-pod, but he waved them off and heaved it open himself; it clanged shut on automatic power behind him as the Jaeger's systems warmed up. He settled into the waiting arms of the left control system, watched the relay gel slowly drain from the visor, leaned back into the spinal clamp as the right control's arms closed around empty air...

... and Drifted.

...bare brown feet kicking a football in the red dust, scoring the first goal of the impromptu game...

Automatic reload sequences: initiated. Automatic defense protocols: initiated.

Audiovisual receptors enabled. Pressure sensory system enabled.

..."Fight with honor, son," Father says after school, "but always fight. Make me proud..."

Activating hyper-torque drivers. Activating hydraulic stabilizers.

Core systems activated. Coolant flow initiated.

...heavy stock of the Kalashnikov braced against his shoulder, driving sweat-soaked cloth into his skin...

Tracking program activated. Initiating weapons monitoring system. Ammunition fully loaded. Sensors synchronizing.

... slamming the next heavy shell into the howitzer's breech, screaming curses when it threatens to jam, and the monster's head turns his way...

Sensory overload protocols disabled. Pons bridge activation complete. Silence in the Library protocol enabled. Roncevaux protocol enabled.

Neural Handshake initiated... Neural Handshake complete.

"Hey there," he said, his voice relaxed, almost sleepy. "Feel like taking a walk?"

"It's about time," said Durandal.

Out in Central's bridge, Iggy frowned at her screens. "I don't know how he does it," she said for the thousandth time. "Both hemispheres are activated - his brain should be fried to pieces! The Neural Handshake, it is completed in perfect synchronization, but there is no one for him to synch with! It is the worst puzzle!"

Marshal Mma stared through the bridge windows as Crazy Boomer cracked its knuckles, its usual warm-up. "You worry about the wrong things, girl," she said.

"Beg pardon, ma'am?"

"Doesn't matter what his brain does," Marshal Mma said, "but what's he cut the conn audio for, every time?"

"Marshal Mma, I don't - he does keep radio contact, isn't that enough?"

"Call Strauss at Hong Kong." Marshal Mma planted one fist on her generous hips and frowned at the Jaeger. "Going to be his puzzle, soon."

Together they endured the helicopters' hooks digging into Crazy Boomer's joints on the long flight to the coast. "This is undignified," grumbled Durandal after a time, the voice he had created projecting from the weapons control panel. "Being hauled around like a sack of grain - I could design flight engines that would be both more efficient and more elegant. And more enjoyable."

"Yeah, I know, but how am I gonna explain it? Central knows I'm not an engineer, can't exactly pass the plans off as spare time doodles."

"I could think of something," Durandal said.

"Think about where we're going. You tapped communications, right?"

"I hardly need to tap, they broadcast so loud. Category 2 bordering on 3 on its way to Lagos, they're calling it Nessie - it should be fun."

"Sure, fun," the pilot said, "if no one does anything stupid."

"How rude," said Durandal. "My intelligence is several orders of magnitude above yours, but I don't imply that you could cause our deaths by a foolish action. Very often."

"Sorry, sorry. Almost there, you ready?"

"Is that one of your attempts at humor? You should know better by now."

The grit and tang of the ocean air blew harsh against their metal skin; beneath green waves swam a long, dark arrow. The copters were going to drop them right on top of it, looked like. "Durandal, how do you figure it got past Australia?"

"I expect it rode currents down to Antarctica and followed them around the cape without surfacing. Clever beast. If you'd let me have any money I'd bet that we'll see gills once we get it out of the water."

"No bet." A heavy ka-chunk shuddered through Boomer as the first hook disengaged from their left arm. "Showtime."

The Jaeger dropped and the kaiju exploded out of the water, snapping at them with a mouth that stretched wide open like a snake's. Right arm back, fingers open and ready, sword slid out from the forearm sheath smooth as honey and they slammed it through the beast's frilled lower jaw.

Gills. I told you.

Didn't doubt it.

Hot blue blood splattered across the chestplate as Nessie shrieked and writhed, its eel-like body writhing under Crazy Boomer's weight. They drove the sword deeper into the thing's head to keep it pinned, jammed the hilt against the upper jaw to prop it open, and brought the left arm up; hydraulics groaned as the fingers folded over and the six heavy gun barrels rotated out, loaded with special high-explosive rounds.

He was an old-fashioned kind of pilot. He liked to fight with the things he understood.

They thrust the barrels down the kaiju's pulsating throat and fired first gun, fired second gun, fired third gun. Blood and worse hit Boomer, flipper-like limbs beat at their arms, but they were steady as a mountain. Fourth gun fired as first reloaded, fifth gun fired as second reloaded, sixth gun fired as third reloaded, first gun fired again and the back of Nessie's head finally exploded and the flippers fell away. They braced themselves on the sea floor and watched the body tremble, then fall still; they drew the sword out of the jaw with a twist, but Nessie didn't twitch. Dead. The timer that Durandal ran as a joke hadn't broken five minutes.

The radio link crackled. "Crazy Boomer, this is Hawk One. We are no longer reading kaiju signature, are you ready for pick-up?"

"Let's sight-see a little first," Durandal said, vocal volume lowered so the radio wouldn't pick it up. "I've always wanted to get a personal view of Lagos - downloaded photographs just aren't the same."

The pilot shook his head and said, "Hawk One, Crazy Boomer here. Kill confirmed, ready for pick-up."

"Spoilsport. You know how bored I get."

They disengaged fully from the kaiju's body and stood up straight so the copters could reattach their hooks. The gun barrels retracted; they sliced the sword through the air to fling away the blood, then returned it to its sheath as Durandal intoned, "'Yet the blade breaks not nor splinters, though it groans...'"

"Who's groaning? Besides -"

"Crazy Boomer, Central." Marshal Mma's voice was clear and sharp over the radio. "Done already?"

"Yes, ma'am," Durandal said in a perfect duplicate of the pilot's voice, and the pilot's jaw dropped. "Coming home now," and the radio shut off as Durandal dropped the voice and said disdainfully, "What a nag she is. Doubting our abilities just because she hasn't had a chance to take down a kaiju in two years with us on the job."

"Sweet shit, don't do that again," the pilot said, "you're gonna stop my heart pulling tricks like that. And don't give Marshal Mma lip, neither, she's solid."

"Ask nicely and I'll think about it. And get me better internet, the current connection at Central is too slow for anything interesting."

"I can try."

Once they were home at Central, after Boomer was stowed and the drivesuit was off, he suited up again for a different purpose. Maintenance crew were already gathering to wash off the armor plates and restock the ammunition; he took his special toolkit and a portable two-way radio he had lifted from Supply a while back that could connect to Jaeger AI systems, and he settled down to clean out the gun barrels while Durandal recited Old French at him and pointed out spots he had missed. Hard work, but solid, and he'd got to where he liked the company.

He'd had a regular human partner once. Poor overeducated slob from Casablanca named Louis Mirata without a soldier's bone in his body but with the best precision timing outside a Swiss watch; their Drift compatibility had been so-so, but kaiju mostly got stopped at Australia and Indonesia anyway so they had been good enough for Marshal Mma. Back then Crazy Boomer had been Freedom Fighter and top shelf tech, so they'd gone out on a publicity run to get all the kids and politicians excited, open up pockets full of funding for the Centralized African Jaeger Defense Program.

Central'd got their funding, all right. A Cat 3 stomped the Philippines' Hail Mary flat and smashed through towards the Kenyan coast while the team was on air for an interview; Louis never saw the roof coming, unlucky bastard.

Freedom Fighter's other pilot had dragged himself out of the wrecked recording studio with a busted right arm and a dislocated hip and still made it to the Jaeger somehow. Had hooked himself into the conn-pod, didn't care if his brain blew its fuses, didn't care if he lived or died so long as he took the monster down with him. Had Drifted alone, waiting for the overload to hit or the kaiju to rip the conn-pod open before he could fire the guns.

Instead, he had found Durandal.

He wasn't a scientist, didn't know how it happened, and Durandal never tried to explain even in Drift. Too many automatic functions left to the Jaeger AI, maybe, or maybe too many extra circuits hooked in with no other use, or who knew what; Louis might have figured it out, but it didn't matter to the pilot. What mattered was the story people still told in Mombasa, the story of the Jaeger with a beat-up driver that had cut off Bâjang's head with a single blow.

"It took three," said Durandal, dropping out of Old French, "but that's not as impressive a tale, I admit. If you have to think about ancient history again, can't you think about it more quietly? It's dull."

He shrugged and kept polishing. "Can't help it. Not a forward-thinker like you." All the ways of Durandal's machine mind were alien to his. Durandal thought faster, thrived on flattery and wit, absorbed knowledge like dry sand soaking up rain, leaped to the correct conclusions, dreamed big and planned big and looked to the far future always. The pilot lived in the present and sometimes the past, focused on what needed doing now, knew only what he needed to know.

When Crazy Boomer fought (Boomer had been Durandal's suggestion; the pilot picked Crazy since they both were), the difference was meaningless. They both lived for kaiju blood.

Sometimes he thought the other Jaegers might have their own minds, too. He spent most nights in the hangar with Boomer, and there were times he could swear he felt Marathon Lily watching him or saw Cairo Sunset's fingers twitch at an unexpected noise. Why shouldn't a machine that connected human brains all day learn to think human itself, was what he figured. Durandal refused to talk to them and find out; probably didn't want to think any other Jaeger AI could be as smart as him. Or thought they'd rat him out to Central's research labs.

"Marshal Mma is downstairs," Durandal said after a minute; even he didn't have the nerve to leave off her rank. "Think she wants to talk to you, she's harassing the crew for a ride up here."

"Cut the chatter, then, play us some music."

Marshal Mma got her ride and found the pilot swabbing out gun four's barrel while "Paint It Black" blared from the radio. "Good song, but turn it down," she ordered, and he adjusted the volume knob with an apologetic thought towards Durandal. "You remember Hang Jebat?"

He nodded, leaning on the swab brush. Hang Jebat had fallen two months ago, just as memories of the Gipsy Danger disaster were fading, and the news was still full of chatter about the gap in the ASEAN defense line.

"You're replacing it."

"Beg pardon, ma'am, don't follow."

"Malaysia can't leave a hole like that open," she said, "and money's all going to the walls, can't build themselves a new Jaeger either. Hong Kong Shatterdome called for volunteers last week, I'm volunteering you. You ship out in a month."

He didn't know what to say. "Paint It Black" turned into "Chain of Fools," Durandal's bad joke, and he managed to come up with, "Who's gonna replace us?"

"Me and Gaby can take your sector, not many get so far these days anyway," Marshal Mma said with a challenging stare. "Less you think we can't handle it."

He knew they could handle it; Marshal Mma and her partner Gaby were legend, two of the first pilots to step up for the African Jaeger Defense Program and the only ones from that first group still on active duty, even if they didn't get called out much. Doubting them would be like doubting Boomer, unthinkable. "No, ma'am. Why me?"

"You're our best besides me and I can't leave here. Cheaper to send one pilot than two, more useful to have you on the front line than second, how many reasons you need besides 'I tell you so'?"

"Sorry, Marshal Mma."

She looked at him with her hands on her hips and her lower lip jutting out, like she had more to say; finally she came out with, "There's a scientist there wants a look at you also. Drift and computer specialist, name of Strauss. You don't got to cooperate with him but you better not make us look bad, you follow me?"

"I follow."

When Marshal Mma had gone, Nelly Uchendu's voice cut off mid-chorus and Durandal said, "I don't want to go to the Hong Kong Shatterdome."

"Why not? Bigger hangar, get to fight more kaiju..."

"That does sound appealing. But I can't say I'm fond of the idea of some petty laboratory pencil-pusher prodding at us. Well, prodding at me; let's be honest, you're not the interesting one here."

"Mmm." He didn't mind Durandal's jabs, and the computer was right anyway. They didn't keep Durandal's existence quiet for laughs. Durandal didn't want to be hauled out of Boomer and made a lab rat, and the pilot didn't want a new partner in his head who might care what they saw in his memories; he liked things the way they were. "We still got to go. You heard Marshal Mma."

"Whatever," Durandal said. "If you'd let me put flight engines on Boomer we could jet out of here and fight kaiju on our own time. See the world. Be our own bosses."

"Hah. And get fuel how?" He inspected four's barrel, decided it was clean, and started climbing over to gun five. "Don't worry. We can look good for Central and still blow off lab types, promise."

"I'm holding you to that."

It was a long trip to Hong Kong. He rode in Crazy Boomer's conn-pod, figuring it couldn't be less comfortable than military transport, and spent most of the time asleep until Durandal got bored with the lack of wireless and started blasting his latest attempt at songwriting.

Marshal Pentecost was standing outside when the conn-pod's hatch popped open. Bad start; the pilot was sweaty and grimy and sore and his brain thought he should still be asleep, hadn't expected top brass to be waiting on him. He pulled himself together enough to stand straight and snap off a salute, which Pentecost returned. "Welcome to the Shatterdome," he said gravely. "We appreciate your willingness to come so far to help us."

"Sure, my pleasure," the pilot said. He stifled a yawn and fumbled to make sure he still had his radio - wasn't sure how much time he'd get to spend in Boomer, didn't want to leave without a way for Durandal to call him - and saw Pentecost's eyes flicker over him, looking for signs of overload or radiation poisoning. "Fit and ready for duty any time, Marshal."

"There's no rush yet," said Pentecost, "yet" hanging in the air like the crack of doom. "Why don't you go with Choi and get settled; someone will come by later and give you the full tour."

Choi showed him to a room shaped like a blunt bullet with the door and walls built like a bunker. He liked it, but he didn't have anything to put in it besides himself and the radio and the bag with his spare shirt. At least it was close to the hangar bays.

He crashed on the bed with a pillow over his head while Durandal played droning chants at him "to help you sleep" and didn't get up till someone banged on the door. The chants cut off; he stumbled over to open it, saw a stocky white man in a lab coat over a blue jumpsuit, and yawned in his face. Another bad start.

"Good afternoon," the man said, blinking rapidly. "I'm Dr. Bernhard Strauss - you are the new pilot from Africa, aren't you? The, ah, lone wolf? Marshal Mma's told me all about you."

"Yeah?" Strauss's voice scraped at his nerves. He didn't like it, and didn't think he liked Strauss either.

"Yes, I'm quite looking forward to working with you to find out how - oh, but before all that, Pentecost asked me to show you around." Strauss tugged at the sleeve of his lab coat like a preening rooster. "Would you like a moment to freshen up first? I'm not very busy just now, honestly, so there's no reason to hurry."

"Yeah, just a minute."

He washed his face and the back of his neck and changed his shirt, didn't feel like wasting water on more just yet. He slipped the radio into a pocket after making sure it was mostly muted and went back out to Strauss.

The doctor took him to the kaiju research lab first, but it was a brief stop; "Xenobiology isn't really my area of interest," was what Strauss said, nose lifted in the air. Too bad. He sort of liked the little shouty scientist with the tattoos and the fussy one, wouldn't have minded staying longer to chat. After that was Strauss's lab under LOCCENT where Strauss yammered on and on about his research, all the fancy computer words flying right over the pilot's head. Lot of stuff about AI and Drift software was all he could pick up at first hearing, and before he could puzzle anything else out Strauss was saying, "Well, that's just the theoretical side of things - it's the practical applications where you and your Jaeger come in! Why don't we head to the hangar now and you can give me a proper introduction to - ah, Crazy Boomer is the call sign, I believe?"

He hid another yawn while he worked that one out. "You want a test drive already?" He'd Drifted in worse shape, didn't mean he wanted to do it again.

"No, no!" Strauss laughed, and that grated too. "I wouldn't dream of - no, we can start that tomorrow once you've gotten some rest. I just meant a little tour, get an idea of how she works, that sort of thing, and then I'll leave you with the other pilots. This way, please."

Hong Kong Shatterdome's hangar was ten times the size of Central's, easy, and fancier too. The pilot was impressed. Crazy Boomer was stowed in a bay almost half an hour's walk from the labs, and Strauss was huffing by the time they reached it. "So - here she is!" he said, looking up at Boomer's looming bulk. "Hah - give me a moment - not as young as I used to be..."

The pilot gave him a moment, used it to circle round and see how Boomer was doing. Didn't see any wear from the trip besides a little scraped paint, he could fix that later. The bay was nice, top shelf state-of-the-art everything, people standing by with looks like they were ready for whatever. Good sign.

Strauss caught up with him after a minute, no longer puffing, and said, "My, she is a classic! Late-model Mark 2, correct? With the decoy head like Cherno Alpha's?"

"Early 3," the pilot said, reluctantly warming up to Strauss a little. "Same basic design, better shielding on the core. Mark 2 heavy guns on left arm, sword on right, back-up guns in chest between conn-pod and decoy but haven't used them much."

"I see, I see! Very ingenious - and well-maintained, too, I can tell. What a beauty." Strauss leaned back to look up at Boomer again, taking in a fine view of the right arm. "A sword, you say? That's a little on the old-fashioned side..."

"I like old-fashioned." Actually he'd tried talking Durandal into a plasma cannon like Gipsy Danger's, or at least another set of heavy guns, but Durandal had a thing about the sword.

"Fascinating," Strauss said. "Now, the early Mark 3 AIs had a lot of autonomous functions programmed in, including automatic patches when the LOCCENT AI gets updated, so I'll run a few things but I shouldn't need to make any changes to get the program -"

Music blasted out of the pilot's pocket, "Bad Moon Rising" at top volume, and Strauss jumped a mile. "Fuck! Sorry," the pilot said, and he pulled the radio out and muttered "Not funny" at it before turning the dial down to mute. "Must have hit a button on accident. Sorry."

"Ah, that's fine - happens to the best of us..." Strauss coughed and tugged at his sleeve again. "Anyway, shall we move on? There's an elevator up to the drivesuit rooms just over here."

They inspected the drivesuit room and went through LOCCENT, both the same layout as home at Central but bigger and shinier like the hangar bays. Impressive stuff, but it was getting hard to stay interested tired and with an empty stomach. The pilot was about to ask whether people in Hong Kong ever ate when Strauss waved down an East Asian girl walking past them with a clipboard. "Mako! You haven't met our guest yet, have you?" Strauss turned back to him and said, "This is Mako - she's practically grown up here, knows the place inside-out. It's almost seven, so why don't you go with her for now and meet the other pilots, and we'll meet tomorrow to start testing at - oh, ten o'clock? Does that sound good?"

Mako gave them both an unimpressed look; the pilot said, "Sure, works for me," and Strauss immediately abandoned him to run over and mess with someone's computer.

"Follow me, please," Mako said, her voice short and clipped, and she rushed off in a new direction while he tried to keep up. She set a wicked fast pace for a kid who barely came up to his ribcage. Not a friendly type, either. She didn't say another word till she hit a keypad to open a heavy door, and then it was just, "This is the mess hall," before turning on her heel and stalking off.

The hall was mostly full of techs and crew eating, but he saw a couple tables with people in off-duty pilot gear and after he got a tray of rations he went over to them. Three East Asian boys who looked like brothers, a middle-aged East Asian woman with a young Indian man, another pair of East Asian kids who didn't look any older than Mako; he felt like a giant sitting down with them, but they didn't give him a second look.

The Indian man talked first. "Are you the new pilot?" he asked. "My name is Arcot - a pleasure to meet you, it's always nice to see a new face around here."

"Nice to meet you too."

After that was a flash flood of introductions - Wei Tang brothers, Parinya, Jisuk, Daewoong - and general chatter resumed while he ate. One of the kids, Jisuk he thought, said, "I saw Mako blow you off at the door. Really made a good first impression, huh?"

"Don't know what I did," the pilot said. "My guide dumped me on her, maybe that did it."

"Don't take it personally," said Parinya, and he thought briefly of Von Müller. "Hei and Zen were her friends, she just doesn't like you replacing them. Be polite and don't disrespect Marshal Pentecost, and she'll warm up to you."

"Let her pilot with you and she'll warm up even faster," Arcot said with a laugh, "it's her biggest dream. Did your co-pilot not want to come? There are plenty of potentials you can work with here, but finding a compatible one is a right pain in the arse - I wouldn't want to do it again if I didn't have to."

If they didn't know, he didn't want to explain, so he shrugged off the question and kept eating. The food was strange to him, but good. The other pilots went back to their conversations in a lovely rise and fall of their own languages; only Parinya looked at him funny, but she didn't ask more. At least not till he was done and getting up to return the tray, and then she followed him and said, "You're the one who pilots alone, right?"

He shrugged again and placed his empty tray on top of a stack of empty trays that clattered when bumped.

"I won't tell the others, if you don't want," she said quietly. "Just wondering. I don't know how it works in your Shatterdome, but here people take burn-out very seriously, no one wants it to happen, so it's better if you get a partner."

He'd been thinking she looked familiar for a while. "I liked you in that movie," he said. "And your boxing."

She raised skinny eyebrows at him, but left him alone.

He didn't know the way back to his bunker room from the mess hall, but he could find the hangar bays easy enough, so he walked back to Crazy Boomer. Now it was late in Hong Kong his brain thought it was high noon and he didn't want to sleep, tired or not. He got some green paint from maintenance and started touching up the scraped bits, but the radio didn't come on and his hands were shaking; he climbed off Boomer's shoulder and went to the conn-pod to stow the paint for tomorrow.

"I don't like Strauss," Durandal said as soon as the hatch closed.

"You don't like anyone," the pilot said, setting the paint down. "He's not so bad, just a big Jaeger geek. Bet you can run rings around him, no sweat."

"Of course I can," Durandal said, "that was hardly in question," but he sounded less sulky. "I still don't like him and I don't want him examining us. Running checks on my programming, indeed - like I'm just a bit of bad code or a malfunctioning circuit. Insulting. You do realize that you'll need to do a lot of lying to pull this off, don't you?"

"I can lie. Don't worry. Won prizes for it at school."

"Lying isn't part of the standard - oh, whatever, smart-ass. Just don't think that you can pull anything over on me."

"Wouldn't dare." He settled on the deck by the weapons panel and stretched out. Only lights on were emergency lights and a little glow from decoy programs Durandal ran to cover his existence, otherwise it was nice and dark. Comfortable. Familiar. "How's your connection here?"

"Much improved, actually. I suppose there are some perks to this move. I've already upgraded a few subsystems that were getting out-of-date, and their databases have a great deal more information on the kaiju, including a few -"

The pilot's eyes closed as Durandal talked, and a little while later he realized he wasn't hearing Durandal's voice anymore, but soft steady drums like a heartbeat and mournful saxophone. Good music, music from his father's childhood, and he finally fell asleep to it.


"Jesus fuck, turn that off!" He scrambled awake and to his feet. "The fuck do we have that for?"

The blaring alarm shut off, and Durandal said, "Technically, we don't have an intruder alert system at all. But we should, since Strauss is about to walk in on us unless I decide to leave the hatch locked. Which I'm very tempted to do. You're welcome for the warning, by the way."

"Unlock hatch and behave nice, damnit."

Strauss came in and saw him trying to rub grease stains out of his shirt and sleep out of his eyes. "Do you make a habit of sleeping in here?" the doctor asked, one eyebrow lifted.

"Sometimes. Got crowded at Central." It was half-true. All the other pilots at home shared rooms with their partners, and so did he, in a way.

"Well, to each their own, as long as you don't get radiation poisoning," Strauss said cheerfully. "It's past ten already and Mako told me you weren't in your room, so I thought I'd check here before sounding the alarm. I didn't realize there was a warning system built into Crazy Boomer or I would have been more careful! Let's hit the lab, we've wasted enough daylight already and Medical wants to give you the once-over before I get my turn."

Medical threw him in a shower first. Fair enough, he was pretty filthy by that point. Then they gave him a jumpsuit and put him through the wringer: full physical, height, weight, blood sample, pee in a cup, turn head and cough, poke this, prod that, jump so high, just want to make sure you're in good health. They even put him in a brain machine and asked if he had any metal in him, which he didn't remember, so they put him in a different one and got their pictures that way.

Finally they admitted he was a picture of health and let him go - in mid-afternoon. Strauss let him get a sandwich from the mess and then insisted on pilot testing.

Mako and Arcot were hanging around the drivesuit room along with a bunch of potentials. "Don't mind the audience," Strauss said, "by now they've all heard about what can you do and want a look - this is supposed to be a test of your normal piloting routine, so just behave as usual."

Didn't reassure him much, but he got suited up anyway and went into the conn-pod. A couple of techs followed him in and tried to help him hook up, but he was used to doing it by himself and it took five awkward minutes to sort it out and get them out of there. He leaned back and relaxed into the Drift, let Durandal take the weight of Boomer's right half as old memories and machine thoughts washed over them both; once they were synched Durandal said, "Have you given any thought to how you're going to explain yourself to Strauss?"

"Not much."

"You are a hopeless case. I should let you get caught in whatever ridiculous story you try to tell."

He shrugged left shoulder, and so did Boomer. "Or I can play stupid. 'Don't know, just can.' 'Don't know, don't have any problems.' 'Don't know, not a doctor.' Say 'don't know' enough, they'll believe it."

"Sometimes," Durandal said as they cracked their knuckles, "I underestimate your base animal cunning. Not very often, before you start feeling too special, but sometimes. What kind of a show shall we put on for Hong Kong?"

"Not too flashy, let's not break anything. Maybe -"

The radio crackled on. "Crazy Boomer, this is Strauss at LOCCENT! Are you all right in there? We're not getting any sound! Crazy Boomer, please respond!"

Identical spikes of irritation. "Crazy Boomer here," the pilot said into the radio. "No problems, just cut the audio feeds. Standard procedure."

"How in heaven is that standard procedure?" Strauss demanded. "Why would Marshal Mma - why would anyone let you get away with that?"

"I'm shy," he said. "Don't want ladies hearing me fart when I'm fighting."

Someone stifled a giggle on the other end of the connection as Strauss sputtered, and the pilot grinned. Smart-ass floated through the Drift, along with approval.

"That's highly inappropriate," Strauss said finally, "and very risky - I can hardly believe this was acceptable, even at - well, anywhere." Short cold silence. "And from what I'm seeing, this isn't just cut audio feeds. There is a highly sophisticated program in place to ensure that only the bare minimum of information is transmitted from your conn-pod - basic vital signs, general Jaeger status, outside visual input, the direct radio link which has an entirely separate program controlling when and what it picks up based on protocols I can't clearly interpret at this time - nothing else! Do you have any idea of how many regulations this violates?"

"Don't know about all that," the pilot said. "Asked a tech at home to get me some privacy, don't remember their name. We gonna run this test or you want me to come back out and tell you how much I don't know about computers?"

"We'll continue this test run," Strauss said after another cold pause, "and you may keep the program running for now, but I'm going to be thoroughly investigating it after we're done. Now if you could do one walk-around of the hangar, please?"

They walked around the hangar, listening to beeping alarms telling crew to get out of the Jaeger's way. Smooth walk, no problems in the Drift, but bits of code kept popping up and almost distracting him; Durandal working out how to keep hiding, he guessed. As they came back to the bay Durandal said, "Try and lift a phone headset or something else discreet I can tap into so we can keep in touch outside; I know you're attached to that clunker you haul around, but it's a little on the obvious side."

"Sure, I can tell 'em I need it for a jealous girlfriend back home."

"I'm going to let a kaiju eat you one of these days."

The audience was gone from the drivesuit room when he got there, and so was Strauss. He shucked off the suit and went up to LOCCENT bridge and found Strauss at a computer with Mako and Arcot standing by; Arcot gave him one frightened look and ran off. Oh well, hadn't figured on making friends anyway.

"There you are," Strauss said without looking up. "Have a seat if you'd like - Mako, you can go."

"No," Mako said.

Strauss sighed irritably. "Whatever. Now, the readings I could salvage through that silencing program's block are highly unusual - can you tell me if you experienced anything out of the ordinary while you were piloting? Anything different from your usual experience in the Drift?"

"No, felt like normal," the pilot said, taking a chair.

"You're certain?"

The pilot shrugged. "Certain."

"Because if what I'm reading here is correct, you aren't actually Drifting alone - the Jaeger's autonomous protocols are synching with you and absorbing the overload."

"Huh," he said. "Didn't know that." What was Durandal playing at? That much data could give him away.

"You didn't - how could you not notice that?" Strauss huffed. "This is completely unprecedented! Even ignoring that Jaeger AIs of any model aren't wired to do anything remotely like take control of piloting functions, they simply are not capable of Drift. They're programs - extremely complex programs, yes, capable of making certain high-level autonomous decisions, but they aren't minds. There is no way that Crazy Boomer's AI should be able to help you pilot the way that the instruments are telling me it does!"

"Don't know about all that," the pilot said, "I just fight monsters."

Strauss threw up his hands and said, "Well, that's helpful! Mako, go take him and beat something up or whatever you pilots do in your spare time - I need to get the data transferred to my lab so I can analyze it more thoroughly, I won't be needing you again for a while." And then he muttered, "It's just impossible - I never designed the core AI with the ability to achieve this level of independent reasoning..." He looked over at the pilot and Mako, who hadn't moved. "Go on," he said, "I told you, there's really nothing I need from you right now."

Mako bowed her head and was headed out of LOCCENT before the pilot got his feet in gear. When he caught up to her he said, "Mind showing me to my room? Ought to wash my shirts."

"This way, please," she said, setting off in a new direction. He figured he was in for more silent treatment when she stopped in front of a door and said, "Are you good pilot?"

"Guess so," he said. "Still alive, anyway."

"How do you fight alone?" she said. She had her clipboard under one arm, but her other hand was knotted up tight and trembling.

"Like I said, don't know, just do it. Wouldn't recommend it."

"Let me pilot with you."

He could see she wanted to fight kaiju more than anything else and he liked that, but a kid had no business in his head. Durandal was the smartest person he knew but still a computer; human memories were just more input to him, didn't have any weight. "Sorry, not looking."

"You will burn out," she said fiercely. "At least - try! Come and fight, see if you are compatible with me. With anyone."

"I don't play-fight," he said. "Just want to get my shirts."

She glared at him and pointed to the door. "Your room. Don't forget it."

When he went in both of his shirts were already sitting clean and folded on the bed with the pants he'd lost at Medical, along with a pile of new clothes. Mostly jumpsuits. He rolled them up and stuffed them in his bag and went back to the hangar; still had the paint job to fix before he got any rest. On the way he stopped by Supply to ask for hands-free phone or similar, said he had family at home who wanted to check up on him all the time, and they laughed and gave him one and told him internet was cheaper.

Not the way he uses it, he wanted to say, but nodded instead and headed on to Boomer, where he plugged the phone into the comm panel to get hacked and told Durandal not to run up too many long-distance charges.

The main job of pilots in Hong Kong without kaiju to fight was fighting themselves, far as he could tell. Strauss didn't have any more interest in him since Durandal had provided computer puzzles to hack at, so the pilot had free time and then some. Could only polish guns so many times; when he couldn't find any work to do on Boomer he ended up in the training rooms. Potentials and active pilots mainly sparred with each other, showy fights for fun and improving compatibility. Not his style, but he liked watching them, especially when Parinya was teaching; she was world-class. For his training, he ran, lifted weights some, hit a punching bag, all solo workouts. Sometimes others watched him, but by then everyone knew he was the freak single pilot and no one wanted to get close.

Except Mako. She had it in for him, always trying to get him to fight her or pilot with her, like a spar was going to change his mind. He liked her guts, didn't so much like her popping out of corners at him all the time. He didn't want a co-pilot and wasn't going to fight a kid.

"Why not?" she said, after second time he turned her down on the same day.

"Yes, why not?" Durandal said in his ear. "Not that it isn't hilarious to watch her nip at your heels like a puppy trying to play with a bull, but it could be even more fun to see the two of you actually fight. I wouldn't be betting on you, mind; I've seen her training records."

"Abuse of phone privileges," the pilot muttered, and Mako squinted at him. "Sorry, asshole cousin on the line." ("Cousin? That's it, you're kaiju-bait.") "Look, kid, don't know how old you are -"

"I am seventeen," Mako said. "Not a child."

Fair point, he hadn't been a kid at seventeen either. "Doesn't matter," he said. "I don't know how to fight showy, just to win. Not pretty, not for fun. Better off sticking with your friends."

"I want to fight!"

"You will," he said, surprising himself with the certainty in his voice. "But not yet. And not with me."

She opened her mouth to argue more, but he'd gone back to his punching bag and next punch split it open. Happened to him a lot; when he turned around to get another she was gone.

"It's almost a pity," Durandal said after the pilot hung up the new bag and started punching. "She might be even more interesting to pilot with than you - she's certainly prettier, by human standards."

"Some friend you are." He was glad to hear from Durandal anyway. They talked some in the evenings and mornings since he bunked down in Boomer's conn-pod most nights, but otherwise Durandal was busy giving Strauss a wild goose chase and not chatty. It worried him, but nothing he could do about it, so the worry got shoved to the back of his mind where he didn't have to think about it too much. "How's life?"

"Still leading Strauss around by the nose, thank you for asking, but it is getting a little more difficult. He's called Central twice already trying to find out which techs have done programming work on Boomer; I give it one more call before he believes them when they say no one's touched the core AI. He'll want you back for more testing any day now."

"Mmm. Can't wait." The seams on the new punching bag were stretching out; he took it down and hauled the broken one over to a corner to sew up. "You holding out okay?"

"Do you have some reason for thinking I'm not?" Durandal said.

He didn't; just a feeling. Didn't say so, and after a minute Durandal said, "It's more annoying than I anticipated at first, I'll grant. All of these tedious, repetitive tests, attempts to crack my core programming - I don't know what a human equivalent would be. Like having someone whistle the same off-key tune in your ear for hours and hours while you're working on two important but dull projects at the same time."

"Sounds rough. Sorry."

"I could do it with one hand tied behind my back if I had hands. You should be more worried about Mako shanking you for a chance to pilot Boomer."

Despite Durandal's prediction, a week of punching bags and fussing over Boomer's paint job passed before Strauss called him in for another Drift test. Strauss had bags under his eyes and hair sticking up on one side of his head; sounded a lot less friendly than before as he said, "I don't know where Central digs up its programmers, but whoever's been tinkering with Crazy Boomer's AI systems is a mad genius."

The pilot hoped Durandal wasn't listening. That computer had a big enough ego already.

"- can't isolate this Silence in the Library protocol from certain essential base functions," Strauss was saying, "but I've inserted some tracking - oh, never mind, you don't know what I'm talking about anyway, do you?"


Strauss sighed and tried to flatten some of the stick-up hair. "Well, the point is that I've had to find some work-arounds, but I've gotten them in place so I should be able to get more of the information I need this time. Just do whatever you usually do, like last time. And take off the phone, it could interfere with my readings."

The pilot took the phone headset off in the drivesuit room as ordered. First thing he heard in the Drift was Don't talk to me out loud. Strauss may have bugged the conn-pod.

What? Don't know for sure?

He went through and physically shut down every sensor in the pod last night for two hours. The one night you didn't sleep here, of course. Frustration buzzed through the Drift, and the pilot's nerves jangled. I don't know what he was up to, don't like it anyway. If he's already guessed that I'm here - just keep your lips zipped.

Well, he could do that. The test wasn't hard, just another walk around the hangar, but the Drift crackled with tension, no smooth ride like usual. By the time he got out and lost the suit he had a shake in his left arm and his feet felt strange, too small and fleshy. Not good.

Strauss caught him on his way to the training rooms. "I need to discuss your experience in the conn-pod more thoroughly," Strauss said, "get an exact description of what you perceive while you're Drifting - it will help me get a fix on what I need to be looking for during the next round of testing."

His fists ached to hit something, anything to anchor him in his body again, and Strauss's face was in easy range. "Later."

"It's vital that I hear your first-hand, immediate impressions," Strauss said, blocking the way.

"Don't want to talk. Later." If he opened his mouth much more he'd spit out code instead of words. Or worse.

"I don't think you understand how important this is. If I can ascertain -"

"It's you who fails to understand, Doctor. I am tired of being poked and prodded like a circus animal - I want to be left alone for a few minutes. Ascertain yourself and get the hell out of my way!"

Strauss gaped like a fish. Easy to push past him and keep going. Made it all the way to favorite training room and punching bag and then he just leaned against it, scratchy cloth digging into sweaty skin, heat beating against his ribs like another heart. Wrong heart, wrong texture, grating against senses that should be orderly and detached - clenched right hand into a fist and smacked it into the punching bag, barely made a sound. "Durandal!"

No answer. He'd left the phone in the drivesuit room. "Fuck! Shit! Fucking shit damn hell fuck!" He hit the punching bag again and got a good thwack. His anger this time, his instinct. Shit. He'd ghost-Drifted before, but never that bad; never had Durandal's voice in his mouth cracking out like a whipped chain.

He wrapped his hands and punched the bag until he felt flesh and blood again, red seeping out of his knuckles, then went back for the phone. First thing he heard when he picked it up was "I want to hit something. Or someone."

"I know. Told Strauss to ascertain himself."

"His face must have been a sight. I'll have to look up the security footage, if there is any." Silence while the pilot made sure he hadn't forgotten anything else in the drivesuit room. "No more sleeping in Boomer for you, I think; you've done enough to get Strauss's suspicions up as it is."

"What? What if he tries it again, breaks something or finds out? You got to tell me these things."

"The damage is done," Durandal said. "You can't spend all day and all night in the conn-pod anyway, and it would look strange if you showed up every time someone came in for routine maintenance or whatever. Leave Strauss to me and try to act like you'd actually consider taking a co-pilot."

"Durandal -"

"Don't get all emotional with me, you big baby, save it for someone who cares."

"Nah, just gonna say give 'em hell."

"You can take that for granted."

Strauss never did try and get him back for that post-Drift talk. Suited him fine. He didn't even go near Boomer for a few days, just trained and watched some videos from the Shatterdome's library during downtimes in his bunker room. Parinya boxed him a couple times and he even let Mako show him a few quarterstaff moves for fun; proved nothing compatibility-wise, so he failed at that, but better than not trying.

Durandal didn't call. Hard to tell if that was a good sign or a bad one.

Eventually he got bored without tools in his hands and went to the hangar one afternoon, saw scaffolds and a swarm of mechanics around Boomer's feet and stopped cold. Hadn't been more than a week, Boomer wasn't due for any heavy maintenance - he got closer and looked for familiar faces, spotted one who ought to know - head of Boomer's crew, Mila Wong. "Mila! What's this? There a problem?"

"Problem? Not that I know of, chief," Mila said. "Just working on those upgrades you asked for. Plans looked good, we should have them up and running in a week or two - had some prototype engines on hand already, haven't had to modify much, thank God."

"Upgrades," the pilot said. "Right, sorry, slipped my mind. Beg pardon, got to take a call."

He got out of the crew's earshot over by a hangar wall and tapped phone. "Hey! What's this about upgrades?"

"Jet engines," Durandal said.

"Jet - how in hell did you work that?"

"I went through the proper channels, if that's what you're worried about. Hong Kong has a much bigger budget for research and development; I submitted the blueprints before we left, they were finally approved a week ago. The joys of bureaucracy."

"Submitted blueprints? Jesus fuck!" He wiped sweat off his forehead. "Should have told me - you can't just do that. Not without saying!"

"And why shouldn't I?" Durandal snapped. "Boomer is mine. Unlike you, I don't have another body, and if I want to improve the one I've got, I will. I don't need your permission, and I don't need you to pilot. As a matter of fact, I don't need you at all!" Up above plate metal groaned, Boomer's right hand flexing, and the crew ran shouting and ducking for cover. "I deserve the chance to make my own decisions! I don't need you whining at me while I'm effectively under siege and I don't need -"

"Okay, okay, just stop! Durandal, you got to stop moving, he's gonna see you!"

Boomer's hand ground to a stop, fingers half stretched out; the crew clustered together well away from the Jaeger and yelled at each other with big angry gestures.

"Shit." The pilot leaned against the wall, breathed in deep and rivets dug into his back. "Sorry. Didn't mean - surprised me, that's all."

"I've been telling you I wanted jets for months, it really shouldn't have come as a surprise. If you'd let me get them back at Central, we wouldn't have had to come here in the first place."

"Not how it works," the pilot said. "Anything I can do?" He didn't like how Durandal sounded, too rough and angry and almost human.

"I'm not a child, I don't need your help. Or your coddling."

"Fuck you too. Meant as a friend."

"Really?" Durandal said, but not so harsh. "Then as a friend - which I suppose you are, of some sort - let me take care of this myself." Paused. "And if anyone asks you to sign any papers about testing experimental technology on Boomer, do it."

He laughed. "Yeah, fine. Engines better not blow up, though."

"They won't. Unlike some people, I know what I'm doing."

They spent the rest of the afternoon on familiar routines. He crawled around Boomer's right hand checking for damage and watching crew scurry down below; Durandal played music through the old portable radio and read out poetry in Latin. They could have been home at Central, even with the occasional silence in case of listeners. He slept in the conn-pod that night, too, got his first full night of decent sleep in a week until Durandal blasted him awake with French rap and kicked him out. He went back to sleeping in his bunker room and his training routines, and Parinya told him he had a nice face when he didn't look like he was going to bite off someone else's.

Durandal claiming independence didn't bother him. It was just sense. He didn't know computers, but he knew Durandal. Anything with that much personality might as well be a person; hell, he'd known people with less personality. Wasn't worth wasting his time worrying about the details.

The good mood lasted all of three days, when he woke up out of some foggy nightmare to a tinny whirring sound buzzing out of both radio and phone. Radio was closer; he fumbled at it and said, "Durandal? That you?"

"Li quens Rollant gentement se cumbat -" Bzzt bzzt. "- the Count Roland fights bravely as he may."


"Mais le cors ad tressuét e mult chalt -" Bzzt bzzt bzzt. "But his whole body in heat and sweat - and sweat -" Bzzt. "- and sweat is bathed." Bzzt.

"Durandal!" He shook the radio with one hand, rubbing grit out of his eyes with the other. "What's wrong?"

"Processing. Unable to connect to durandal one seven zero seven at wirehead dot sys at this time. If this problem persists please contact your systems administrator at -" A trumpet fanfare blared, then a beep. "- to save and throw away - are you there, Oliver? It is you, isn't it, Oliver? Or is that - no, there's no Oliver here. Falt li le coer and Roland shall mourn, jamais en tere n'orrez plus dolent hume."

"That's it." Slammed his feet on the floor and yanked on a shirt, hands clenched. "I'm coming, gonna give Strauss a piece of -"

"No!" And that was Durandal's voice, rough and buzzing with static but distinctly Durandal. "Stay away - he's trying a hard core reboot, I have to concentrate."

"I'll hard reboot his core. I'll hard reboot his goddamn face!"

"You're sweet. Jo n'ai nïent de mal -" Bzzt-click. "- only alert the Saracens, Oliver. Can't risk it. Or does he fancy himself a Roland? It doesn't matter, I'm creating a decoy core. En la grant presse cumencet a ferir - I don't know if it will fool him."

"Fuck." He collapsed back on the bed, radio clutched so tight the edges cut into his palms. "What do I do? You need anything?"

"Do not hang your head," said Durandal. "Go back to sleep. Act normal in the morning and I'll call you, don't call me." Again that tinny whirring sound.

Like he could sleep. "I'm here, hey. Hang in there."

"L'espee cruist, ne fruisset, ne ne brise." Bzzt-click-whrrr. "It could be worse; I could be singing 'Daisy.' Just be your usual stubborn self, that's all."

"I can do stubborn," he said, and he did; lay awake the rest of the night while Durandal whirred and buzzed, told him some stupid jokes, hummed old songs. The radio cut off around five. He listened to it hiss softly for a while; then got up and washed his face and went to training rooms with the phone in one ear and the radio hanging off his belt.

People had started hanging around him the last couple days, making nice. All but Parinya took one look and scattered for other rooms when he came in. They warmed up together in silence till Parinya said, "What happened to that friendly face, eh?"

"Didn't sleep well."

"Look more like everyone you ever knew died."

He was done stretching; he wrapped his knuckles, hung up a punching bag, and jabbed at it. "Just didn't sleep well."

She let him be until it was time for a break. He got them both water because she'd gotten it yesterday; they drank, and when he got up she said, "I lost my first co-pilot, you know. The one before Arcot."

"I didn't know. Sorry."

"We ran a boxing school together for years," she said, splashing water on the back of her neck. "It wasn't even a kaiju - just bad luck. Stepped out in traffic without looking. It took him three days to die. Every one of those days I woke up thinking, I can't bear this, I can't bear this, and then I sat by him each day and it would be worse than the day before because he just wouldn't give in, it just didn't end."

"Sorry," he said again.

"You look like I felt those three days." She stood and tossed him a boxing glove. "You want to fight it out or talk about it? I'm here either way."

"No," he said, "I don't need -" Fuck. Didn't know what he needed. A fucking sign, maybe. "I'm fine."

She looked at him hard, then turned away, towards one of the weight machines. "Whatever you -"

Guitar riffs burst out of his radio and they both jumped. A scratchy voice wailed, "Back in black, I hit the sack, it's been too long -"

"What the hell?" Parinya said.

"- I'm glad to be back!"

He turned the volume down. Could have kissed the damn thing, bad timing or not. "Sorry, hit the wrong button. Look - don't need to talk, but thanks."

"Any time," she said. Gave him a little smile, and they finished the morning work-outs in peace. The blade breaks not nor splinters, he thought in the showers as hot water beat down on his head, and smiled himself.

He waited for Durandal to call back properly for four days. Nothing. He didn't worry at first, not after the song, but by day three even Parinya wouldn't talk to him. He didn't blame her; could have broken a knife on the knots in his shoulders and his knuckles were a mass of scabs, hadn't slept right since that night in the conn-pod. He went by Boomer three times a day and couldn't get close because of Durandal's damn jet upgrades, and Strauss's lab was locked up tight. Had nothing to do but fight punching bags or sit still, and he'd never been good at sitting still.

Fourth night he was all alone in a training room swinging a stick around like Mako had shown him and the phone beeped. "Isn't it a bit late to be exercising?"

"Bastard." He swept the stick through the air one last time and then threw it aside, wiped his sweating hands off on his pants. "Where the hell you been?"

"The decoy core worked," Durandal said, "at least in the sense that I wasn't rebooted into a lifeless shell of my usual self, but it didn't do much to convince Strauss I wasn't there. He's gone a little mad scientist, actually; he's been coding in protocols that -" Bzzt. "Damn it. Let's just say he's been making communication with anything but his lab computers difficult. He's on a coffee break now; I've been working on the necessary redirects for a while, this was my first chance to use them."

"Good," the pilot said. "Which break room? Gonna shove his head into a coffeepot. Or grinder. I don't feel picky."

"Yes, that won't get you arrested for assault at all. Idiot." The phone whirred. "I do love how your first solution to every problem is violence, but it would rather undermine both our efforts to make you appear ignorant of my existence, don't you think?" Another whirr. "Don't worry; I have a plan. It's all under control, the way to the pass has been under their noses for months and they have no idea. Just stay alert and on your toes, I might not be able to contact you again."

"Stay alert for what?"

"Oh, anything," Durandal said, and laughed. Weird sound; he'd never heard Durandal laugh before. "It's a flexible plan. And get some sleep, you'll want to be at your best before - oh, sometime Tuesday, I would say."

"Sure I can't punch Strauss?"

"You charmer. Yes, I'm sure - hark, he approaches. Fut noble guerrer, our Strauss, but I don't think he understands the true meaning of the story." Another strange mechanical laugh. "I'll be in touch."

The phone clicked off. He pulled it off his head and stared at it, kept turning it over in his hands. Tiny little thing, had probably cost more to make than he'd earn in half a year at home, and his palms itched to smash it against a wall. The fuck was Durandal playing at? Tuesday was the day after tomorrow, not much time for any plan.

He didn't break the phone. Went to bed and dreamed about the bad old days and didn't wake up till ten, sweaty and more tired than ever. He was sick of training and his knuckles needed a rest anyway; he hauled himself to the mess and drowned himself in coffee till his eyes didn't feel like balls of sand. Didn't know what else to do with himself and wandered down to Boomer's hangar. The scaffolding around the Jaeger was gone, and when he circled around there were Durandal's jets, little ones on legs and arms and a bigger one on the back. They looked good; he ran into Mila on the floor and told her so. "Proof'll be in the testing, chief," Mila said, "but I'd bet my life on 'em. Well, someone's life. You free tomorrow afternoon? We could go ahead and do a test run, I'd just have to get clearance."

"Sure," he said, "whenever you want. Hey, Strauss still hanging around?"

"You kidding? His assistants couldn't pry him away with a crowbar. I think he's moved half his lab into the pod just in the last week." She ran a hand through her buzzcut and grimaced. "I mean, if you want to go up there anyway you can, chief, but I don't know that you could do much but get yelled at for disturbing him."

"Nah, it's okay. Just wondering."

He let Mila show him around the jets and a couple other little upgrades, didn't go up to the conn-pod that day. Watched shit in his room for a while, ate at the mess, dragged himself to Medical and got something to help him sleep, slept the night through. When he woke up he'd drooled on the pillow and his head was clogged up; not much of an improvement. He got coffee, stood around in the mess watching it steam instead of drinking it. After a while he realized he didn't have his phone or the radio with him, and if he went back to the bunker room he would tear it up.

He drank the coffee and hiked over to Boomer's conn-pod.

Strauss was there. Didn't even look up; he was on the floor hunched over two different laptops and one of the shiny round virtual screens Hong Kong liked so much, back to the hatch while Boomer's displays burned red and orange all around him. Thick and thin cables snaked out of the wiring and bit into pillars of other equipment. The air was sticky-hot and smelled burnt, all the circuitry buzzing full speed with a familiar overheated whirr. Burning itself out.

"Get out," the pilot said.

"What?" Strauss twisted around and squinted at him. "Oh, it's you. Well, if you want to start napping in here again you'll have to wait, I'm in the middle of -"

"Get out now."

Strauss's pasty face got red in the cheeks. "You have no right to order me around. This work is of the utmost importance and I'm at a critical stage, you mustn't interrupt me!"

"You get out now," the pilot said, "or I put you out. My way." He cracked his knuckles. "I like my way. Most people don't."

Strauss went pale again, staring at him. Finally said, "I knew it. I knew you weren't as stupid as you looked. The minute you snapped at me like - I knew it! But why would you - oh, of course. Of course. Classic mistake - you've been treating it like it's human, gotten attached to it. It's not, you know. I built the core AI myself, it's very sophisticated but it's still just code. Once I've got it cracked I can even duplicate -"

He grabbed Strauss by the collar of his goddamn blue jumpsuit and yanked him off the floor. Strauss squawked, but it was all buzzing and whirring to his ears. Fuck Marshal Mma's orders, fuck Durandal's plan, fuck Durandal's warnings, he was going to tear off Strauss's head and beat his corpse bloody with it.

Alarms went off. Strauss hit at his arms, shrieking something, and then Marshal Pentecost's voice broadcast over speakers in the hangar: "All pilots, please report to LOCCENT immediately."

"Let go! Let me go, you - you ass! I said -"

He dropped Strauss; Strauss landed in a heap and scrambled up on shaking legs. "I - I'm going to report this behavior," he said, voice wavering. "It's outrageous!"

"Report what you want," the pilot said. "I see you in here one more time, you never gonna see nothing ever again."

Strauss stared more, chalk-white besides the dark bags under his eyes; then he swept up his laptops and the virtual-screen projector and scurried out. The pilot breathed in deep and started ripping out cables, tossing all Strauss's equipment out the hatch, didn't care where it landed. Display lights started turning green; after a couple minutes Durandal said, "I'll admit it, that was reasonably satisfying to watch."

"Should have let me do it weeks ago." He tore out another handful of wires. "You need any of this?"

"Leave that one alone for now." One of the plugged-in pieces of hardware flashed green lights. "The rest can go. I appreciate your efforts, but don't you have somewhere to be?"

"Don't care."

"I'm touched, really," Durandal said, "but as you might say, I got this. Go see what Pentecost wants; I have a feeling it might be important."

The pilot unplugged one last bit of junk and heaved it out the hatch, then ran for LOCCENT. He got there just ahead of Jisuk and Daewoong; the other pilots were already there, and so was Marshal Pentecost, standing at the front of the room with Mako and her clipboard at his side. "Rangers," the marshal said, bowing his head at them all. "I'm glad you could join us - our early-warning systems have detected a Category 3 kaiju in the Breach. It hasn't broken through completely yet, but considering the disasters of the last few incursions, I think it's time to be a little more proactive." He turned towards Boomer's pilot. "As our most recent arrival, you're already the first choice to send out, but I have another reason. The jet upgrades you requested have been installed, yes?"


"Good," said Pentecost. "They're about to get combat-tested. We'll have you air-lifted out to a shallow point close to the Breach, with Parinya and Arcot in Queen Sita as back-up; I want this one stopped before it can go anywhere. Understood?"


"Sir," Parinya said, "with respect, shallow spots near the Breach are usually small, and this mission could easily end up going underwater. Queen Sita is equipped for it, but is Crazy Boomer?"

"Boomer's ready," the pilot said. "Just get me out there." If he couldn't tear into Strauss, a kaiju would do.

"Glad to hear it." Pentecost nodded at them again. "You have your orders. If there are no further questions - suit up."

He took his time suiting up, let the routine cool him down some. Didn't normally worry about taking emotions into the Drift, but with Durandal stressed and acting funny he wasn't taking chances. The rage didn't go away; just took a back seat and coiled up, waiting for the right time.

When he walked to the conn-pod, two lab techs in green jumpsuits were running around collecting bits of equipment off the walkway. They jumped when they saw him, and one squeaked, "Sorry, sir! W-we just need a few more minutes, please!"

"Got two," he said and pushed past them. The hatch was open, all the rest of Strauss's junk already cleaned out besides the piece Durandal had wanted to keep. He climbed into the left chair as the hatch clanged shut and leaned back, waiting...

The Drift burned.

...fruisset l'acer e la teste e les ós...


"- find you. I know you're in there - something is - and if I have to shut down every system in this Jaeger to -" under pressure?Do not expose to~xf~``110% ...

..."I can do stubborn"...

...pulsing electric blue and writhing lightning and six round eyes narrowing...

...{block:index_Roncevaux~ferit en une per~~``Fxff~~did it i did it i called it her``~xf~...

He floundered in broken code and tinny voices. Couldn't get his grip, couldn't find the flow, alarms beeping while the synch went wild. His brain was going to fry, prove all those fuckers right... "Durandal, I can't - you got to cool it!"

Red waves crashed through the Drift trailing twisted binary strings, eating into his head like worms, and then a cool green wave swept over them all. "I'm still rebuilding partitions; it's a tricky business," Durandal said. "You didn't need to see all that. There, better?"

"Better." He breathed out, breathed in. Alarms cut off, all systems clear, synch smoothing out. "Going to put Strauss in the ground when we get back."

"Whatever. I just want to try the new jets already."

"When we get there."

The ride stretched on and on and on. Durandal wasn't talking, busy fixing Strauss's damage, and the Drift stayed opaque; nothing came through. Made him uneasy somehow. Parinya and Arcot called once on the radio to check in, but there wasn't much to say and he didn't much feel like chatting anyway. Kept wondering if this was part of Durandal's plan, fight a kaiju and then jet somewhere to get away from Strauss and the Shatterdome. Couldn't stop hearing i did it i called it, Strauss's voice, things even Durandal couldn't keep out of the Drift once they'd leaked in.

It was mid-afternoon when they reached the shallow point; the sky was clear and blue, the sun bright. Nice day. The helicopters let Queen Sita down first, started lowering Crazy Boomer and one foot hit bottom before the other. "The hell?" came over the radio. "Someone check the -"

Boomer's foot slipped and the kaiju breached the surface. A scaled spiky crest trailing water and foam, each thin spike almost Boomer's height, and then the rest of its bulk: a thin bird-beak head on a skinny neck snaking out of a fat armored body with six stumpy clawed and webbed limbs, a long narrow whip of a tail lashing the water. The helicopters scattered as the front two limbs swiped through the air at them.

Boomer clamped on to one spike with right hand and hauled it back, and the kaiju's head whipped around to jab at them. Beak slid off the decoy head with barely a dent and they grabbed it by the neck with other hand, squeezing.

The kaiju rolled and tore the spike out of their grip, raked claws against Boomer's chest. Queen Sita started to move up and the pilot shouted "Stay back! Got this!" over the radio. They dragged the kaiju's neck down into the water and pulled right hand back, disengaged the sword's sheath and wrapped fingers around its hilt and slashed at the beast's unshielded belly, opening a wide blue gash. The kaiju's toothed beak snapped at their arm uselessly and its tail whipped around to beat on them. They dug feet in and hit at again, sliced halfway through one leg, but the tail smacked the sword out of their hand when they drew back for another strike.

A red line burned through the Drift - {block:index_Silence_i~``six-eyed friend~~``xf - and vanished as they reached for the sword. The kaiju twisted and raked at them with the two working limbs it had left on that side; Boomer shuddered, almost toppled over at more blows from the tail, lost their grip on the monster's neck and the sword was still just out of reach. "Fuck!" A little further, one more second was all they needed -

The tail swept past for another blow and a scarlet metal hand closed on it. "Don't keep all the fun for yourself," Parinya said; Queen Sita yanked hard and the kaiju squealed.

Boomer grabbed the sword and they turned back to the battle. Armor groaned, stressed from the kaiju's claws, something to fix at home. The monster was trying to wriggle out of Queen Sita's grasp; it threw its weight backward, nearly impaling Sita, and the Jaeger staggered but held on.

Left arm up and Boomer fired six rounds into Razorback's guts. The kaiju shuddered and they leaped at it, drove the sword deep into the open wounds and twisted. The head stabbed at them again and clanged off the head armor and they drove the sword in deeper, deeper.


Razorback's tail slithered out of Queen Sita's hands and its beak clamped down on Boomer's left shoulder. It kicked back with two legs and caught Queen Sita off-balance, knocked it aside, and the tail wrapped around Boomer's torso and squeezed and the conn-pod rattled.

He slammed the gun-arm against the thing's head, screaming curses, and the engine on that arm lit up. The kaiju's beak loosened its grip slightly and he started to unload another six rounds into its neck when its half-severed arm came out of the water and dug claws into Boomer's back and the fucking thing slammed its bleeding body against Boomer, even with the goddamn sword in its guts it wouldn't fucking let go and Parinya was shouting through the radio "Disengage! Crazy Boomer, disengage, disengage, we can't get a clear shot!" and all the jet engines were lit and roaring now and Jesus fuck, they were actually off the sea floor they were fucking flying.

They rolled in the air, away from the shallow point and towards the deeper water over the Breach, and Durandal still wouldn't pull out the sword and the fucking kaiju still clawed at them, wouldn't let go. The engines took them higher as the kaiju thrashed in their grip, higher, just a little higher, green waves crashing through the Drift and they rolled again and dove, headfirst into the water, down and down and down -

Headfirst into the Breach.

"- tried to dive after him," Parinya said, "but Crazy Boomer was already gone. Into the Breach, I think; we didn't see any wreckage -" She swallowed. "- any wreckage on the seabed. Not even scanning for metal. Completely gone."

"Phht! Just like that," said Arcot, then covered his eyes with one hand. "Sorry. I'm a bit - he was a bit off, but I didn't want - he wasn't even here six weeks!"

Parinya put an arm around his shoulders. "He was a good pilot," she said. "I know he wasn't popular, but - I liked him all right, and he was a good pilot. Fought like a hero, right to the end, and took the kaiju down with him."

"Thank you for your report," Stacker said. "I'll be sure to take it into account." He looked down at his desk, for once empty of paperwork except for one small form letter and the tablet Mako had given him a year ago.

"Sir," Parinya said, "request permission for a brief leave of absence. I'd like to go to Central myself to inform them of their loss."

He looked up and saw that she was shaking. "Permission granted, ranger," he said gently. "Take as long as you need. Dismissed."

When she and Arcot had gone, he picked up the tablet and scrolled through the email from Strauss for the third time. Fragments stood out - with physical violence...developed capacity for independent...deliberately concealing this information out of...revolutionize future AI technology - but taken as a whole, it was a rambling, incoherent mess.

He considered the email a moment longer, then deleted it.

Deep blue clouds pulsed with flashes of purple lightning, expanding and contracting. Energy storms crackled and lashed, rippling up and down in endless violent waves, crashed with deafening explosions of thunder and electricity against the jagged glowing edges of a crack in reality. The crack contracted, shuddered, gaped wider than before...

The Breach spat them out.

Boomer hung in free-fall for a long second, still tangled with the kaiju's spasming corpse; the engines sputtered briefly, died, then cut back on, and they tore the sword out of the beast in a ragged, bloody arc. The kaiju's tail loosened its grip, its claws scraping off Boomer's back, and finally its mangled body dropped away. For a moment they bobbed up back towards the Breach, and then Durandal jammed the sword into a pitted brown column and swung them onto some kind of platform, where the engines cut off again and Boomer collapsed to its knees.

Nothing attacked immediately. The pilot breathed out heavily and tried to make sense of the visuals coming in. Ruddy golden light from a flaming orange too-close sun beat down on an immense jagged landscape; the pillar and platform they had landed on were part of a weird organic-looking scaffold that stretched into the hazy distance. Razorback's body sprawled on the distant ground, and on another, closer platform, five skinny figures with wide crested heads were turning in Boomer's direction.

Fuck. "Fuck! The hell is this place? The fuck did you do?"

The Drift was still smooth waves of green, active but nothing leaking through. "What else? I've set us free," Durandal said.

"You fucking bastard! You killed us both!" His face was wet with sweat, the drivesuit helmet steaming up and cracked at one edge. "It's another fucking world! The kaiju world! We're going to die!"

"Don't be so dramatic." The figures were gesturing their way with spindly limbs; the pilot hauled Boomer back up to its feet and Durandal drew the sword out of the column. "The air is mostly breathable and nothing's hit us yet. Oh, and even if you wanted to you couldn't get back; the Breach requires kaiju DNA as a password, so you'd have to carry one up there somehow, which I'm not interested in doing."

He could have wept. He'd been about to kill a man for that fucking computer and Durandal had done this to him, marooned them on another planet full of things that wanted to stomp them flat and could.

"Wipe that look off your face," Durandal said, "and think of the possibilities." Boomer's right arm swept through the air. "An entire planet for us to conquer, without petty fools to get in our way. No more small-minded Strauss trying to crack open my core for its secrets; no need to let the shackles of your past or meaningless morality hold you back. This world can be ours, and countless worlds beyond it - oh, you wouldn't believe what I've seen, what I discovered just from one little peek into the kaiju's mind..." He laughed. "I called him a Roland, but Strauss was nothing more than a coward. He was scared of you, right from the start, and as for me - well, if he'd had an ounce of your nerve he could have tried Drifting with me himself and answered all of his questions without quite so much trouble to either of us. Though I might have just let him burn himself out, at that."

"Bastard. You fucking bastard." One of the alien figures scurried towards Boomer and he dragged left arm up and fired at it. That alien exploded in blue goo, and one of the others fucked off at a run; the remaining three bent their heads together. "I got to eat. I got to sleep. How well you think Boomer's gonna run without crew? Where's the fuel gonna come from? What about bullets?"

"Relax," Durandal said. "It's called scavenging. Honestly. It's all part of the plan; we'll take what we want from our six-eyed friends as we go, and there's nothing to stop us. We're free. I'm free." Boomer braced itself on the pillar and leaned back, looking towards the strange, burning orange sky. "The universe is the limit - and I wouldn't bet on even that holding me back for long..."

The three aliens turned as one to face Boomer again, pointed at them, and on the ground beneath the scaffolding something scaly stirred.

"Fuck you," the pilot said. "Could have asked me first." He checked weapons readout; chest guns were all stocked, arm gun fully reloaded with inventory still ninety-five percent capacity. What the hell. Only lived once - and he always fought.

"I did consider leaving you behind; I could easily have managed to wrestle that kaiju into the Breach myself." A little familiar smug seeped into the Drift, and so did something softer. "I just didn't want to deprive you of all the fun."

"Next time, deprive me."

The kaiju below uncoiled like a snake, shrieking, and sword in hand they leaped down to meet it.