While I hadn’t anticipated that a crack between the earth's plates would yield gigantic sea-monsters of bewildering malevolence and nearly-impenetrable armor, I am not exaggerating when I say that the resulting apocalypse did give me pretty much every single thing I would have asked for, had I thought that prayer was an option.
Of course, I didn’t know that at the time. When the first waves of kaiju came up out of the Pacific, I thought the news coverage was kind of disturbing and tremendously entertaining, like a found footage horror movie. It never crossed my mind to become a Jaeger pilot, not even in my daydreams, because I’m no good with violence and I can’t think of anybody less suited to becoming a soldier. It did occur to me, when the first crack in the Atlantic opened and half of Reykjavík died before Jaegers could get there, that Ireland probably would’ve been the next stop on the kaiju’s European tour. But I didn’t worry about it. At that point in my life, I was beyond the reach of fear, for reasons irrelevant to sea monsters.
After the Reykjavík wipeout, the EU set up their own Jaeger pilot program, meant to protect Europe’s western coasts since the Chinese-led program was wholly preoccupied with the Pacific and the American-led program spared only a couple Jaegers to protect their eastern coast. But I didn’t pay much attention to that. There were almost biweekly kaiju battles on the Pacific front, and that was far more interesting. The night Sam called me, I was so preoccupied with a nasty but engrossing combination of vodka, Monster Munch, and the Battle of Hamamatsu, that I almost didn’t bother to pick up my phone.
I know that this is going to sound like an excuse, but I truly think that that was the first and last time all of this could have been avoided. Everything that came after I picked up that phone was going to happen. There are such things as laws of the universe. If you hold a rock in your hand, and then you let go, gravity is going to make it drop. If you are going to put me within reaching distance of anything worth protecting, anything worth saving, anything you don’t want to be fucked up, maybe you deserve what you get. I fooled you once, shame on me, sure. But twice?
They flew me to Iceland. Out the plane window there was more pure blue in that expanse of sky and sea than I had ever seen before, so intense that it couldn’t possibly be real, so vivid that it couldn’t possibly be fake. I had not left Dublin in years. It was like flying into another world.
On the base, there were construction projects everywhere, a wide flat stretch of pavement, and two Jaegers so huge I had to crane my neck to look up at them. Still and empty as they were, they looked like gleaming monuments to futuristic gods. The only thing that convinced me that I wasn’t dreaming was the soldier they had taking me around like a tour guide, a petite German machinist named Mia who was clearly thrilled to show off and tried to impress upon me how special I was to even get to see it in person, given the espionage concerns and other bullshit.
The whole thing felt like one of those Make A Wish days that celebrities grant to dying kids. I kept my eyes flat, leaned on my English accent as hard as I could, and kept my answers monosyllabic when possible. By the time the tour was halfway through, Mia had decided that I was a cold bastard and she didn’t like me. Mission accomplished.
And then, there in the huge white tent they called the cafeteria, sprawled on a picnic blanket with a sandwich in one hand and a paperback in the other, was Cassie. She didn’t see me, and I couldn’t even see her face properly at that angle, but there was something in the angle of her shoulders and the long tumble of her curly hair. I just knew.
Everything else about that day, I’ve forgotten. I know they put me through a lot of tests in the lab, one of the only buildings they had finished and running; blood tests, endless doctors. But the rest of the day in my memory is only Cassie, and something wrong with my throat, wrong with my chest. That night, lying in a bottom bunk in the barracks, I finally diagnosed it: I was terrified that someone would finally catch on to how utterly unfit for the work I actually was, and I would be sent home before I could look Cassie in the eye. I had got fear back.
The next day, the head of Research and Development, a gangly woman named Lena, looked at me strangely all through my tests, and I was feeling completely paranoid about it when she finally said I must be some kind of a saint. Most people were scared shitless of the Drift, of their co-pilot learning their secrets, stuff about family, pasts, sex. But not me, and she’d never seen anything like it. I did my best not to laugh. Cassie knows my sins as intimately as possible; it’s why I never once doubted we were drift compatible. For once, that was more than just a point of crippling guilt.
I got no warning. Hours of tests and suddenly Cassie was right there in front of me. With a mad kick, my heart went into overdrive and my brain lit up. I still felt like this could be taken away at any second and I desperately needed to remember her exactly as she was in that moment: smattering of freckles, hair trying to burst out of its coil, uniform navy jumpsuit cuffed at her wrists and ankles because it was a bit too big for her. Cautious dark eyes taking me in. I preferred the nighttime, for walking, for even sitting inside my own home; in daylight I could be seen, and I didn’t want to be seen. But being seen by Cassie was different, like a finger pressed into a bruise, and I wanted it, wanted more of it, so badly I could feel it all down my jawbone.
As Lena wired us up to what looked like torture devices, we said a few words to each other, nothing that mattered. What mattered was the flick of her eyes when I asked after Sam, the bitter little smile when I brought up DV, the long, nearly imperceptible breath out when Lena fastened long wires to the base of her neck. The muscle memory of it cut into me. Some of our best conversations had been mostly silent.
When Lena asked if we were ready, we both said yes simultaneously. The complex egg-shaped machine we were sitting in came to life with an ominous whir.
Suddenly, Cassie reached over and touched me. Her fingers around my wrist burned with a clear white fire.
“Don’t chase the rabbit,” she said, urgent.
Don’t let go, I almost said back, and then we went under.
In that first month, the Drift always felt the same. Each time was too much, too bright, left me raw and trembling and on the edge of tears. I had gone from having no friends and no family but my miserable beer-soaked father to having Cassie standing right next to me, eyes closed, breathing hard, more deeply inside me than if she’d stuck her hand through my chest.
We had few conversations outside the Drift. We didn’t need to. Trying to make her understand my mother’s death would've taken me hours of whiskey and records, back in the day; in the Drift, it took ten minutes. I never fought the exposure, not once. She deserved my submission, and she got it.
I had only one problem, and of course Cassie had spotted it right away. To chase the rabbit, in Jaeger terms, is to follow a memory down so deep that you forget it’s a memory at all. That’s why they tested us for so long. They had lost an entire Jaeger when an inexperienced pilot got caught in one of his co-pilot’s memories and walked it into the sea, never to return. They say the ghost of the lost Jaeger comes back, sometimes.
If I hadn’t been so terrified of losing the drift, I would have done the same, lingered somewhere—buttery popcorn, Abby’s fingers in my hair, Rafe on the piano, song in my throat—barefoot on the beach, Sam’s coat around my shoulders, a wild fierce wind from the sea—and gotten lost. Easily. I always flinched away from her memories of Murder. If I put one foot over that threshold into our shared past, I would be gone, and I knew it.
Before the Drift, I had fantastic nightmarish ideas of Cassie, Sam, or both secretly harboring a revenge plot as an explanation for why I’d been invited to be a co-pilot. In my defense, nobody reasonable could have imagined that Cassie would actually want me as a partner again, and for something as important as this. But after that first time, I felt I should have known all along. In ways more indelible than shared blood or a shared bed, I belonged to her and always would. You might ask well ask an amputee why they want their missing hand back.
As for me, I still loved her. It’s not the victory that it sounds.
Piloting a Jaeger turned out to be a clumsy affair, and I was always acutely aware that I was the one holding us back. Though Cassie had only done it for three weeks before me (with Frank Mackey, of all people), she was a natural; her mind could blossom with a dozen different tactical approaches to a problem within seconds. No wonder they wanted her to stay so badly. I tried to make up for my end by training as hard as I could, to the point that my limbs always ached, despite ice baths. That whole summer to me is one long bout of training, with a few exceptions.
Sam and I had a bizarre lunch together in the tent. He wandered over, we both made affable noises with our mouths, I got the impression that he wanted to be on friendly terms, I tried to give off the impression that if I did hurt Cassie again, I’d offer myself up to him quite willingly to be murdered. At some point he gave me an extra blueberry scone and wandered off again.
I also made myself a lab rat for Lena, because if she invented better Jaeger technology, then I wanted to be first in line. She hooked me up to things, watched my hands twitch, projected old WWII footage into my brain, had me write answers to quizzes about subjects I’d never studied, that kind of thing. I had no idea what the tests were for, but being useful felt good, even if it meant I had to endure her obsession with Polish death metal.
On rare nights, Cassie would get a mechanist friend of hers to lend her their Land Rover so we could drive to the beach. Occasionally, she would point out a constellation that she had made up, and I’d tell her that it was actually Orion’s Belt, though we both knew that neither of us could tell Orion’s Belt from a Chinese satellite. Lying there next to her, the both of us wrapped up in huge afghans that her aunt had crocheted, taking swigs from her flask of hot whiskey, it occurred to me that I was happy. That was the last emotion to come back to me, and it felt permanent. She had made certain promises to Sam, and I knew that, but what we had was enough. We didn’t need to touch.
When the second Atlantic kaiju arrived, Cassie and I were out in our Jaeger doing coordination drills and privately bickering about the precise definition of silver fox (I was of the mind that silver hair was necessary, while Cassie insisted that salt and pepper counted). We ran to intercept the kaiju. It wasn’t far.
The kaiju was long and low, with a wicked whip of a tail and huge jaws like an alligator’s. We tried hit it from a distance with one of the blasters embedded in our palms, but that didn’t do much. It ran at us, and we barely had time to get both hands on our blade before we swung. In one smooth motion, the kaiju turned so its head would be out of the way and smacked us with its tail, knocking us over.
As we scrambled up, I thought something panicked to Cassie about danger at both ends and she replied something like tail first. Then it was lunging again, and we dove out of the way, lifted our blade and brought it down. We hit it near the base of the tail, where it connected to the kaiju’s body, and the blade went deep. When we tried to yank it blade out, it caught on a spur of bone, and then the kaiju had turned, wrenching the blade out of our hands, knocking us flat on our back.
It was on us—crawling on us—hot breath steaming up our eyes, biting down hard on our left arm, jerking its head from side to side. Cassie thought something about it only having the bite left, which wasn’t much—fuck!—it tore a piece of our left arm off, which felt dizzyingly wrong even though there was no pain—and then Cassie thought, stick our hand down its throat, clear and commanding and I did it without question, we did it. The next time it opened its jaws to let the gleaming pieces of our old arm fall to the beach, stuck our hand all the way down its throat as deep as we could till our shoulder hit its teeth, and then now thought Cassie and we opened our palm in one continual blast until the whole Jaeger filled with a smell like meat burning, until the body on top of us went limp, until our batteries were empty and the lights went dark.
After that fight, we were beyond distinct thought, but if you had been able to pry open our minds and pull something out, it would have been one long curl of white paper with the words Mine mine mine mine on and on for kilometers. We were one, and that thing had tried to end us, to tear us limb from limb, and with a deep, terrified animal instinct, we knew that we had been very close to the end.
It wasn’t until the Commander shut down our powerless Jaeger and a pair of techs pried open its chest to get us out that we realized we had won. The sun was blinding and there were dozens of scientists and machinists and soldiers swarming onto the beach, cheering, and this time when I reached for Cassie’s hand there was nothing stopping me. She was reaching for my hand too. Something about the brightness of the sun and the suddenness of vacating our old body had me so lightheaded I felt like I could float away, but Cassie was holding onto me so tight it hurt, and that grounded me. She didn’t let go until we were back at base.
During the fight, we weren’t thinking of all the helpless people in the cities beyond, we were thinking only of ourselves and the enemy, but in the end, we did one good thing. I took that with me to bed that night like a child with a newfound treasure: just this once, I did something good. And the next morning, when I woke up, there was something inside me. I probed at it like it was the stub of a new tooth, and found that I deserved to be there, on that base, in that Jaeger pilot’s uniform. I had Cassie again, and we were partners, and I might actually deserve it.
I checked my phone. The Commander had texted me to say I could sleep in, Cassie had texted me a gif of a woman flexing gigantic biceps, and Lena had texted me, come get your tech treats, you big fucking hero you! this is gonna be the best Jaeger of all time. In the split second before I moved on to her next text, I was bursting with excitement for the rest of the day.
Lena’s second text was: I finally figured out how to build a one-man Jaeger.
I knew something was wrong. Lena always kept the door to her lab shut, so nobody would be bothered by her loud music, but that day, the door was ajar. For a second, I wished that Cassie was there, and then I got ahold of myself and pushed the door open.
Tim, one of the younger lab techs, was hurriedly putting some papers into his backpack, and when he looked up at me, I knew he was guilty of something. Automatically, I yelled, “Gardaí, put your hands up,” but it barely broke above the death metal and Tim went for me, swinging a beaker in his hand. It shattered into pieces when it came into contact with my head, but it barely slowed me down; somehow, all those drills I had done daily for months kicked in, and it was like my body moved of its own accord. I pinned him down on his stomach with his arm twisted up behind his back in seconds. He had his head to the side, and I was pushing his cheek into the concrete floor with all my weight behind it. Tim was shaking.
“I didn’t mean to hit her that hard,” he was saying, wretchedly, and I recognized that note in his voice because I had heard it often enough in mine before. “I just had get it out without anybody knowing, and she came in—”
“Get what out?”
“The tech,” he said. “The one-man Jaeger. Please.” He was begging me for something he didn’t expect, but he was begging anyway. That, too, I understood. And then I understood a lot more.
I let go and got off of him. He scooted himself away from me on the floor before he got up, still shaking, wide-eyed and bewildered, and then bolted for the door. I got in his way.
“You forgot to take it with you,” I said.
When he left, I went over and checked Lena’s pulse. There was no pulse, and I didn’t expect there to be; the back of her head was a bloody mess, and I could see fragments of bone on the floor beside her. She had been good to me. I held her hand with the Polish death metal boring into my head like a drill until somebody came and found us. Later, I said that I hadn’t called for help because I was in shock.
They had Cassie and I help with the investigation, since we were big bad Murder Detectives who had solved heinous child murders back in the day. That meant interviewing scientists. Some of them cried when they talked about having to miss Lena’s funeral, which was going to take place in Poland; others cried when they talked about all the technology that Arlo had stolen. Nobody knew anything useful, although when they let us search Arlo’s bunk, I found a couple things that indicated he’d been spying on behalf of the Chinese Jaeger program. He was long gone, though, and there would be no extradition. Not that it mattered to me. I had other concerns. When Cassie found out, I’d be fucked. She could send me straight to prison, but knowing her, I thought it more likely that some fake PTSD on my part would be the exit she chose.
When we finally Drifted again, I was completely stunned. Cassie's grief permeated everything, immense, painful, and impossible to fight, and I knew it wasn’t for Lena. No, it was for Sam. His rough, warm hands, the silence where he should have been pleading, the way his head dropped when Cassie told him—I watched it all, fascinated and sick, and realized that Cassie had known what I had done before we went into the Drift. That was why she had already broken up with Sam: so she wouldn’t have to lie to him. It was the worst sacrifice she could make, and she had made it for me. I wished I had somebody to give up for her.
I gathered up my courage and asked her about Sam after dinner, when we had taken the Land Rover to the beach. The air was colder then, forbidding. When I asked, “What did Sam say?” I already knew the answer, and I was hoping she would repeat the part I kept coming back to: I thought this might happen when I called Rob, but I had to do it, didn’t I? It’s wartime. We all have to make sacrifices.
After a fraught pause, Cassie said, “He said that he still considered me family, and no matter what, he would always be on my side.”
I wanted the ocean to come take me. “What a bastard,” I said. Somehow, that felt less evil than saying I was sorry.
We got very drunk that night.
Out of the blue, one day, I found a man sitting on my bed, smoking.
“Wrong room, Mackey,” I said.
“What the fuck,” he said, every word laden with a startling amount of bitterness, “did you do to Cassie?”
“Are you back?” I said.
His blue eyes glinted. “Shut up.”
Frank Mackey was Cassie’s co-pilot before me. He’d gone back to Dublin for a weekend to fix some issue with his daughter’s passport, and his brother had tried to kill him. Last I heard, he had been in a coma.
He said, “Do you know that when two people Drift, they come out different? Not better. Different. I read a whole scientific paper about it.” Another inhale, another exhale. “Theory is, over decades, it’s possible that both pilots end up having more or less the same personality.”
“You read a scientific paper?” I was laying on the accent as thick as I could. I think on some level I was hoping he’d hit me.
“I was in hospital, trying to prepare. I read everything I could find. Did you know that co-pilots sometimes they experience the Drift even when they’re not hooked up? It’s called ghost Drifting. It’s like Drifting, but not good enough. It’s like grief, but it never ends.”
And that’s when I knew. “You’re not compatible with her anymore.”
“No, she’s not compatible with me. I got flickers, but she has these walls up—” As he took another drag, I did my best not to show my relief. I shoved my hands in my pockets.
“You know I used to want to be replaced?” he said. “I hate the Drift more than anything else. Who the fuck wants someone else inside their head? I just wanted to protect my city, my family. But now.” When he looked at me, I had to look away. “It’s like a drug. I’m going to miss her for the rest of my life. And she’s not even happy.”
I heard him drop the cigarette and stand.
“No, I’m not back. I’m going, I’m gone. But before I go, I just thought I’d come here and say—” His hand on my jaw forced my head up. His blue eyes burned into mine. “Fuck you, Rob Ryan. I don’t know what you did. But fuck you.”
I could still feel his hand on me long after he was gone.
I left a note for Cassie in our shared locker. An apology, however much that was worth. It was a rainy, misty day, and by the time I had walked to the Denmark ferry, my hair was plastered to my head and I was wet all over. Sam was gone. Lying to everyone in sight. She isn’t even happy. I was shivering.
Walking to the ferry was my mistake. It gave Cassie time to drive. She caught me standing on the edge of the seawall, watching the waves break into white froth below.
“Going for a swim?” she said.
“No,” I said. “Just going.”
Her red lip balm was running like a faint trace of blood down the corner of her mouth.
“Why do you always get to run away?” she said. “I’ve had to live with what you’ve done. You should have to, too.”
I realized she was crying, and I moved forward before I knew what I was doing. I only knew that I wanted to be with her and I didn't want to hurt her and it was my own fault for pretending to both of us that those two things were not incompatible. She grabbed my arm so hard I could feel every finger through my jacket, and then her other hand was on the back of my neck, and then she tasted like rain, clean and sweet, and we wordlessly agreed that for a little while we would comfort each other and forget all the reasons we needed comforting. Once, I heard her make a sound in the back of her throat, like she was pleading with me.
Maybe some part of me knew that a few days later, the body of a man would wash up on the shore near Höfn. But that would be somebody else’s problem, not mine. Not ours.
The mists grew thicker. Silently, a figure came up out of the mist at us, taller than a tree, all gleaming metal, blade over its shoulder: home. It went down on one knee in front of us and held out its hand, entreating. Palm up, fingers splayed. Curiously gentle, almost tender. Gingerly, I stepped off the seawall onto the slippery metal, and then reached back for Cassie. She looked at me searchingly—curls blown back off her face, tiny drops of water all over her cheeks like pearls—and took my hand.