“You really should tell him, you know.”
Chu Nianzhi nudged his twin brother’s shoulder as they climbed into the conn pod. It was only a training session, but Shaolin Rogue’s crew was as diligent as if preparing for a real engagement.
“Tell who what?” Chu Shuzhi, who was older by seven and a half minutes, and had therefore declared himself the primary pilot, locked his feet into the command platform. He stood still as the technician interfaced his drivesuit to the operating system. He didn’t like being manhandled, but he’d already tried connecting himself to the system without help from a technician and had actually dislocated his own shoulder in the attempt. After teasing from almost every person in the Shatterdome, he’d relented, although the technicians still took every effort to touch him as little as possible.
Next to him, Nianzhi fidgeted, causing the tech closest to him to smack his hand away from his collar like a child. Even if he’d never Drifted with his brother before, he would be able to guess how much he disliked the tightness of the black bodysuit they wore under the armour.
It still didn’t stop Nianzhi from needling him though. He gave Shuzhi a wild grin. “Every time I’ve been in your head during the last six months, you’ve thought non-stop about him.”
Shuzhi’s eyes widened as he frantically looked around, unsure of who might be listening. Not that his brother had mentioned any names, but he didn’t want his personal business becoming Shatterdome gossip.
“Relax. He’s not here.”
Before Nianzhi could say anything else incriminating, they were handed their helmets. At least he’d had a couple of moments of blessed peace while the relay gel settled into place. The gel slid along the inside of the helmet, temporarily blocking out all sound. It only lasted a few seconds before the sound of the LOCCENT Mission Controller on duty was in his ear.
“All systems connected. Both sets of vital signs steady. Ready for neural handshake.”
Shuzhi turned to his brother. “Ready?”
“Shaolin Rogue ready to handshake.” Even in a training session, Shuzhi got a small thrill from being able to say those words. Even before K-Day, before kaiju had destroyed their small town and killed their parents, Shuzhi had enlisted in the Army. After K-Day, he barely hesitated before applying to switch over to the Jaeger Academy. Nianzhi had taken a little more convincing, but Shuzhi knew that having his twin there with him would give him a better chance at finding someone he was Drift compatible with. It meant they’d had to do a lot of extra training – Nianzhi didn’t have the temperament to be a fighter without his brother’s encouragement – but they’d made it. And the first time they’d Drifted together, they both knew they were in the right place.
He closed his eyes, experience having taught him that the first burst of a handshake was disconcerting enough, without overlaying the images with whatever your eyes could see, and waited for the familiar sense of Nianzhi in his mind.
The first memory was always the same one, although the exact viewpoint varied between them. They were having a picnic with their parents in a small park near their home. The sun was shining and they were watching as a young girl with a dog ran around close to them. Nianzhi asked their father if they could get a dog themselves, maybe for their birthday that was coming up in a couple of months, and their father smiled and told them that maybe if they were good…
Nianzhi was arguing with their father on Shuzhi’s behalf. The two of them fought over almost everything, but fighting over Shuzhi seemed to be their favourite shared pastime. This time it was about Shuzhi dropping out of college to join the Army. Nianzhi even suggested he could do both his own studies as well as Shuzhi’s if their father wanted Shuzhi to get a qualification that badly…
Their first day at the Academy was everything Shuzhi had hoped, and everything Nianzhi had dreaded. Twins were highly prized as potential Drift partners, and with Shuzhi’s military background everyone automatically assumed they’d be among the successful minority. It took less than an hour for someone to refer to them as the Chu twins, as though neither of them had their own identity. It only took another five minutes before Shuzhi had bloodied that person’s nose and made it perfectly clear that they were never to be referred to in that way again.
“Neural handshake was successful. We have a beautiful Drift, even if I do say so myself.”
Shuzhi looked over at his brother to see him shaking his head, as if to clear away the thoughts. The final memory was always tough on Nianzhi, but no matter what they tried, it always pushed its way to the forefront of their shared mind. One day he’d ask his brother why that particular one caused him to mentally flinch each time.
Nianzhi smiled at him and they both reached out for a fistbump, the action as automatic and natural to them both as breathing. Shuzhi turned back to check the internal monitors while Nianzhi held the jaeger still.
“Right-hand pilot online. All systems are green.” As primary, Shuzhi was responsible for making sure their connection with LOCCENT was stable. In their case at least, it also meant he took slightly more of the neural load than his brother. That wasn’t a standard configuration, but it was something he’d manage to arrange with the neural bridge operator for Shaolin Rogue from their first Drift. Nianzhi probably knew it was in place – after all, it was impossible to keep secrets in the Drift – but he never mentioned it. The only side-effects were that Shuzhi was usually even more exhausted than most pilots after a fight, but ‘more’ wasn’t relevant when most of them were barely able to stand.
“Left-hand pilot online,” Nianzhi echoed. “Let’s get this party started.”
“LOCCENT confirms all systems are green. Neural connection is at 100%. Shaolin Rogue is good for launch.”
Vibrations shuddered through the whole of Shaolin Rogue as cables were attached to her shoulders. While all jaegers were designed to be able to walk, and the Shatterdome itself was built on the southern end of Tsing Yi Island, overlooking the harbour, launching a jaeger directly from its bay was a logistical nightmare, and, in actual kaiju incidents, it was also a lot slower. The V-50 Jumphawks had been specially built for this role and their pilots needed these training sessions just as much as the Rangers did. With four cables on each shoulder, the eight helicopters would have to take the full weight of Shaolin Rogue and fly in close-contact formation for several miles.
“Shaolin Rogue is airborne. ETA three minutes to drop zone.”
“Acknowledged. Pilots going to private comms. Will reconnect before drop.”
With a flick of a switch, Nianzhi turned off the comms that automatically broadcast everything they said back to the LOCCENT. During a fight, or even during the main training session, all comms would be broadcast. Although seasoned pilots were able to communicate wordlessly, thanks to the Drift, they’d all been trained to articulate out loud as much as possible, so that LOCCENT was aware of their actions. Conversations between pilots often became a mixture of vocalised comments and shared imagery. While private conversations would still be recorded, they wouldn’t be listened to unless there was a major incident and the pilots were lost. It was the closest thing they had to privacy once they were hooked into the jaeger’s systems.
“You still need to tell him,” Nianzhi said, continuing the conversation from earlier. He was like a dog with a bone – once he got an idea into his head, it was almost impossible to talk him out of it. Apparently Shuzhi’s alleged crush on their technician was his current bone.
“It’s… it’s not like that,” Shuzhi insisted, although if he was being completely honest with himself, it maybe was like that a little. “He’s just so good with Rogue and he’s so nice to everyone.”
Guo Changcheng was one of the newest technicians, and he’d been assigned to Shaolin Rogue’s team to replace one of the previous j-techs who had transferred to the science division. He’d been so quiet at first that no one noticed him. Shuzhi had woken up one night, unable to get back to sleep, and had gone over to sit with Rogue. A lot of the pilots did it, and everyone knew to just leave them alone. Guo Changcheng had been there, doing a late-night check on the jaeger. He hadn’t seen Shuzhi, but Shuzhi had watched him as he worked, listening to the way the tech spoke to her.
“You’ve had a tough couple of days, haven’t you? Well, I’m here now and I’ll get you all fixed up so you can get back out there and keep us safe. You’re such a good girl, aren’t you?”
He’d never heard a tech speak like that to one of the jaegers. Pilots did it all the time, but they had a special bond with their jaegers. But this new tech treated her like a princess.
Nianzhi laughed and shook his head. “You really can’t hear yourself right now, can you? I swear this memory you’re currently trying to hide from me might as well have a love heart filter over it.”
“30 seconds to drop zone.” Shuzhi was eternally grateful to the automated alarm. He threw a final warning glance at his brother, who simply chuckled once more, and switched the comms back to broadcast.
“Shaolin Rogue back on comms.”
“Which one of you won the fight?”
“I did, of course,” Nianzhi answered the mission controller before Shuzhi could respond. “You know Lao Shu always lets me win.”
“Because you’re a brat and you pout if I don’t.”
The mission controller laughed. “If the media ever heard you two bickering, they’d have a field day. So much for the image of the big tough Rangers with their perfect bonds.”
“Drop in 3… 2… 1.”
Shuzhi braced himself against the impact of the landing. The impact on the water wouldn’t do the jaeger any harm, and thanks to their armour rigging, there was no danger of whiplash for the pilots, but it was still a jolt to the system.
“Ugh. The water’s cold.”
The design of their bodysuits meant that the pilots could feel everything their jaeger did, albeit in a toned down way, including heat and cold. Nianzhi hated being cold, and he complained about the temperature of the sea every single time, as if Shuzhi could somehow fix it.
“You’ll warm up in a minute. Let’s get the drills started before Guardian Envoy turns up.”
When Guardian Origin had been badly damaged in a fight against Hammerjaw, the only piece of her that could be saved was her heart – the nuclear power core. One of her pilots had died in the fight, and it was a minor miracle that the other pilot had survived. Technicians took that core and installed it into a new model, the Mark IV Guardian Envoy. Her new pilots were Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei, who had only recently been assigned as Drift partners. It was the newest jaeger at the Hong Kong Shatterdome, and its two pilots were keen to get any additional training sessions in.
While battling against another jaeger wasn’t quite the same as battling against a kaiju, it would give them all good experience, even with their weapons powered low.
In the perfect unison of seasoned jaeger pilots, Shuzhi and Nianzhi began to run through a series of familiar movements. Based vaguely on the Shaolin Kung Fu style the jaeger was named for, but with her own unique interpretations, the moves were designed to not only test the limits of Rogue’s physical manoeuvrability, but also to test the fitness of her pilots.
Guo Changcheng had been working on improving Rogue’s knee joints during the last week, and they all hoped it would give them a few extra seconds if they needed to kick. He’d looked so earnest when he was telling Shuzhi about the new mechanisms, and all Shuzhi wanted to do was be able to go back to the Shatterdome and tell Xiao Guo that he’d done some really good work.
“Shuzhi, your reaction speed is a split second off Nianzhi’s today. Everything okay with you?”
Shuzhi didn’t have to look to know his brother was laughing at him. He cussed him out in the privacy of their own headspace and forced himself to stop thinking about the technician. He really hated to admit that maybe Nianzhi was right, but this wasn’t the best time to figure it all out.
“All good,” he responded, checking the status of the incoming jaeger. “Just planning how to kick Guardian’s ass.”
“You know we can hear you, right?”
That was Zhao Yunlan, which meant that Guardian Envoy was within a couple of kilometres. They’d known Zhao Yunlan since he joined the academy, but thanks to his amnesia, he didn’t know them quite as well as they knew him. Shuzhi liked him though – he was a damn good pilot and a good man – although he was less sure about Shen Wei. He remembered Shen Wei from the academy. Not in too much detail, but enough to have an uneasy feeling about him. Although if he was Drift compatible with Zhao Yunlan, he couldn’t be that bad.
“We thought you and your shiny new jaeger had gotten lost on the way here,” Nianzhi responded, even as they turned Rogue around to face them. Unlike a kaiju, a fellow jaeger wouldn’t start a fight without warning, but it was only polite to face your attacker – even if it was a training attack.
“Just giving your marionette time to warm up.”
Rogue’s unusual design meant that her joints were especially visible and resembled the ball joints one would find on a puppet. While it looked strange, it also gave her the ability to move in ways other jaegers couldn’t manage, including turning at both the neck and waist a full 360 degrees. The marionette nickname had originated in an online news article about the Shatterdome’s newest twin pilots, and they’d quickly received the additional nickname of ‘Puppetmasters’. Shuzhi didn’t mind it so much – other pilots received nicknames that were far worse – but Nianzhi hated all puppet-related references.
Which Zhao Yunlan knew full well.
Guardian Envoy approached, suspended below her jumphawks, central core standing out brightly against her dark colouring. At night time, her core could be seen from miles away like a lighthouse. Even now, during the brightest part of the day, she could still be seen from a distance. Shuzhi suspected that Zhao Yunlan enjoyed being the centre of attention.
Warming up, Shuzhi and Nianzhi both swung an arm in a wide arc, causing Shaolin Rogue’s left arm to echo their movements. As they reached the highest point of the arc, the twins flicked their wrists, their actions perfectly timed together. A bright blue electric whip cracked into the air from Rogue’s hand, leaving arcs of lightning across the sky. The arc whip was a newer weapon, created specifically for Rogue’s unique manoeuvrability and fighting style, and designed as a distance weapon rather than a close combat one.
“Arc whip deployed and ready for testing.”
In a real fight, the whip could send shockwaves of electricity through its length, more than enough to slow down any kaiju, or bring down any building. In one especially memorable fight, it sliced through the tail of a kaiju aptly named Tailspitter. Today though, it was powered down to minimum levels; it had enough power to make dramatic looking lightning bolts, but wouldn’t do any real damage to Guardian Envoy.
Before Guardian Envoy could set down, alarms began to blare throughout the conn-pod.
“All hands be aware. Kaiju sighting at the following co-ordinates. Prepare for weapons recalibration.”
Shuzhi swore out loud. They were always prepared for a fight – that was their job – but there was nothing worse than being caught off-guard like this. They’d psyched themselves up for a training session, and now they were heading out to protect innocents from a kaiju. He just prayed that their weapons would reinitialise correctly and they wouldn’t be putting everyone at risk.
Nianzhi’s hands were already punching in the co-ordinates, and Shuzhi watched the status screen as the weapons system came back online. It would take a few minutes to bring the weapons on both jaegers back to full strength, but that would still be faster than deploying other jaegers from the ‘dome.
Guardian Envoy’s jumphawks made a wide turn, heading back for the co-ordinates.
“We’ll try not to finish before you get there, Shaolin Rogue.” This would be Guardian Envoy’s first kaiju fight, and Shuzhi thought he could hear a slight tremble in Zhao Yunlan’s voice. You could train all you wanted, but until you faced a kaiju for the first time, you never truly knew how you, your co-pilot, or your jaeger would react.
“We’re right behind you,” Shuzhi replied over the comm, his way of reassuring his fellow Rangers that they weren’t alone. No pilot would ever admit out loud that they needed support, but none of them were too proud to accept the help.
The co-ordinates were close enough that it wasn’t worth recalling Rogue’s jumphawks. Shuzhi and Nianzhi started to move Rogue’s legs. Their movements were slow at first, simple steps as they found their rhythm, but they were quickly up to running speed. Had she been closer to the shoreline, she would have caused huge waves to hit the coast. Instead, her movements splashed ice-cold water as high as her waist. Jaegers weren’t usually built for running, but her upgraded knee joints meant that she had the additional flexibility to move at a fast speed. The twins were silent for a few minutes, both concentrating on the running movement. Even with all of the technologies that made moving two tonnes of metal possible, it was like running through quicksand with a huge weight on your back. Pilots had to be in peak physical condition, but this was above and beyond what they usually trained for.
“Maybe I should have told him.” Shuzhi’s voice was quiet, almost fully drowned out by the heavy metallic sound of Rogue’s leg joints, but Nianzhi didn’t need to hear his brother’s words to know exactly what he was thinking or saying.
None of them were naïve. Every single person in the PPDC knew of at least one pilot who had died during a fight. Most pilots had trained or even Drifted with someone who was no longer with them. They all knew that their chances of coming back alive decreased with every fight. They were playing the odds, and eventually their luck would run out.
“Not today,” Nianzhi replied, reaching his hand out to gently punch Shuzhi’s shoulder. “You’ll have your chance when we get back to the ‘dome.”
As the weapons system finally finished its reboot, they heard the ‘all systems online’ from LOCCENT, assuring them that their weapons were fully powered again. Shuzhi made himself a promise. When they got back to the Shatterdome, he’d go and talk to Guo Changcheng.
Nianzi smiled at him and Shuzhi felt a warmth through the Drift that felt a little too much like a hug. His brother was a secret romantic at heart.
“Shaolin Rogue ready to go. Let’s get this party started.”