• Published 2nd Sep 2019
  • 560 Views, 23 Comments

Monsters of Our Own - Aquaman



The first portal opened outside our high school, but the next opened deep beneath the ocean—and the kaiju it spawned nearly wiped us out. Fortunately, me and my friends had heroic experience to spare—and some magic pony friends to help us use it.

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Part 2

Of all the many science-y things I don’t understand, drifting is probably the most justifiable. Like everything else in the world that’s complicated, the basics are simple: you can’t fight in a Jaeger unless you are the Jaeger, unless the split between what your brain thinks and what your massive mechanized bodysuit does is near-instantaneous.

From there, though, there are three problems to deal with. One, achieving that split-second reaction time means you have to jack your brain directly into the Jaeger’s operating system. Two, “jacking into” a Jaeger is a lot more complicated than just running an extension cord out of your skull and plugging yourself in. And three: if only one person does it alone, their brain kinda… melts.

In case you’re wondering: yes, the brass did melt multiple jarhead brains before we got a word in edgewise. Pour one out for those slack-jawed homies when you get a chance.

What Twilight and Sparkle quickly figured out—and what the brass eventually deigned to let them explain—is that a giant monster-fighting robot is way too big with way too many moving parts for just one person to operate it. Forcing that kind of “neural load” on a single human being is like “rendering the Sistine Chapel on a TI-84.” (I was told that means “the hardware can’t handle the software,” and was then told that means “big data make dumb human brain go POP” before having a coffee mug thrown at me and being asked to leave Twilight’s lab.)

The solution: two-man crews for each Jaeger. Or rather, that was what the brass thought Twilight said, based on how quickly they shouted them down with the reasoning that they’d already tried that. (Godspeed, Melted Jarheads Four and Five.) What she and Sparkle really meant, though, pissed the brass off even more: they wanted two-creature crews—one person, and one pony.

And not just any person and pony—the same one. According to their plan, each Jaeger would be piloted simultaneously by a human and her perfect pony counterpart, because that was the easiest and most elegant way to make sure each and every pilot pair was perfectly drift-compatible—built with brains so close to being biologically identical that they could seamlessly slot their minds together and fight with a single deadly focus.

Huh. Maybe I understand this stuff better than I thought.

Anyway, it took some needling and a practical demonstration that, sure, technically involved helping Twilight and Sparkle break into the launch bay and joyride a Jaeger as a minimally destructive proof-of-concept, but ultimately the brass got on board. And hey, whaddya know, they just happened to have six ponies with extensive heroic experience—and their likewise-seasoned human doppelgangers—sitting right there in front of them.

Fast-forward through six months of training and several years of successful sorties, and that’s how Earth got the Seattle Six: the foundational kaiju-killing dream team with dozens of victories to their names, scores of fans and copycat programs all over the world, and seriously just the dumbest nickname imaginable. God, I’m still pissed off about that.

How are you still mad about that, by the way?

Dash is—well, not talking to me, exactly. When you’re in the Drift, your mind and your partner’s are basically joined into one, so your thoughts and emotions get mashed together too. Dash didn’t speak out loud and I didn’t hear her voice just now, but with how razor-sharp focused we have to be to put one foot in front of the other right now, each concentrated thought she has enters my mind as clearly as if it’s something I just thought of myself—and, unfortunately, vice versa.

<Because it’s still a dumb name. Literally anything would’ve been better. The Hunters. The Killers. The… Hunter-Killers. You know what I mean. There’s a theme to work with.>

Dude, we were the Mane Six back in Equestria. Like, a pony’s mane. Don’t talk to me about stupid group names.

<Point granted. Back to focusing now.>

I feel Dash’s mental presence reshape itself, mold over my own mind and work with it to lift our right foot—stomp down—raise the left foot—repeat. It sounds easy, but that’s probably because you’re normal-sized and your feet are like two yards away, max. Our feet, on the other hand, are about eighty-seven yards away, give or take a few inches. They’re also covered in navy-blue titanium-alloy plating, packed from heel to steel-toe with short-hop booster rockets, and weigh approximately six tons each.

So, just to clarify, it’s not easy. Dash and I just make it look like it is.

“Star Swirl!” I shout. “You got a sitrep for us?”

“CHROMA VORTEX SITUATION REPORT,” comes the onboard computer’s ethereal response that—despite Twilight’s hard-coded name for him—sounds exactly like the guy who played Dr. Brody in the last Daring-Do movie. “TWO FRIENDLY JAEGERS DETECTED: TITAN SEQUOIA, ONE HUNDRED TWENTY-TWO METERS SOUTH. FROSTBITE ARCHANGEL, FIVE HUNDRED SIXTY METERS EAST-SOUTHEAST. ALERT: KAIJU PRESENCE DETECTED, THREE THOUSAND SEVEN HUNDRED FORTY METERS WEST. CATEGORY THREE. CODENAME–”

“Yeah, yeah, we got that part,” Dash interjects. “Skip to the systems check.”

“CHROMA VORTEX SYSTEMS CHECK. MAIN POWER: NINETY-NINE PERCENT. AUXILIARY POWER: ONE HUNDRED PERCENT. NAVIGATION: OPERATIONAL. TARGETING: OPERATIONAL. COMMUNICATIONS: OPERATIONAL. WEAPONS: OPERATIONAL. OVERALL STATUS: READY TO WRECK KAIJU FACE.”

With one voice, both Dash and I snicker. I’m so glad you got that mod working.

<Don’t tell Twilight. Pinkie promise.>

“Star Swirl, open comms,” I order, a crackle of radio static bursting in my ears a moment later. With the one-hundred-twenty-degree vision Chroma’s nav systems allows me, I can already see Titan Sequoia in the corner of my vision, but I turn to face him anyway, thousands of pounds of metal and magic twisting at the torso just so I can flash Jack a cheeky thumbs-up. “You gettin’ tired yet, Titan? I know you hate missions where you have to walk.”

Titan’s head swivels, all two-hundred-ninety feet of him set into the expressionless robot version of a disgruntled glare. “We like the missions where we have to walk,” Jack replies. I can tell it’s her because, unlike Apple, she never bothers to sound like she isn’t rolling her eyes when she answers one of my taunts. “Means we intercepted this thing early. Deep water’s a small price to pay for safety on the mainland.”

Yeah, for Chroma, maybe. But this far out from shore, the water’s halfway up our thighs and well over even Titan’s knees. Jack and Apple may prefer a Jaeger smothered in magisteel armor plating, but me and Dash’ll take the speed and flexibility of Chroma Vortex any day of the week.

“Don’t worry, we’ll take care of the hard stuff. Give the kids a show while we’re at it,” I say. And speaking of which… “Frostbite, sound off. You good back there?”

“We copy, Chroma Vortex,” Archangel replies, and thank whatever gods we haven’t killed yet that whoever it was didn’t call me Rainbow Dash. Aside from the protocol faux pas, that’s the last thing I could handle hearing Sweetie’s syrupy, singsong voice say right now.

“ALERT: KAIJU PRESENCE DETECTED, TWO THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED METERS WEST.”

“All right, y’all, Star Swirl’s gettin’ antsy,” Titan affirms as he about-faces, matching my thoughts exactly—albeit with a less sarcastic tone. “Let’s run through tactics real quick. Vortex, you’re lead blocking. Once you make contact, circle around and keep it occupied ‘til we engage, then stay in close unless there’s a mutation with a wide AOE. Archangel, you’re the safety. Keep that shield charged and corral the kaiju back towards us if it gets any fancy ideas about heading for shore. If either’a you get hurt, vent auxiliary power and gut it out. If you go down, take the son of a gun with you.”

A moment of silence follows, for obvious reasons. “Nice pep talk, Titan,” Dash chimes in. “Way to inspire the troops to greatness.”

“There’s nothin’ about a Jaeger that ain’t great,” Apple replies. “But great and dead ain’t mutually exclusive. Now stack up and wait for our signal. Archangel, hold position.”

“Aye-aye, cap’n,” I said, raising our arm—agonizingly slowly, twenty tons at a time—into a salute. Eternal note to self: Jaegers are great for punching things, but terrible for comic timing. Regardless, we shuffle southwest and meet Titan halfway, turning back to the horizon once we’ve maneuvered directly in front of them.

“ALERT: KAIJU PRESENCE DETECTED, ONE THOUSAND SEVEN HUNDRED METERS.”

“Star Swirl, private channel to Frostbite Archangel,” I murmur. “Hey, kids? Tell Star Swirl to record video and audio. You’re gonna love this.”

“ONE THOUSAND THREE HUNDRED METERS.”

“Ready up, Vortex,” Jack mutters through my headset. “Move at a thousand.”

“ONE THOUSAND METERS.”

“Go.”

I lift my right leg—Dash, her right hind hoof—and lean forward. Above, beneath, and all around us, Chroma Vortex drives forward through the waves, slicing through millions of gallons of seawater like a knife through butter that fish pee in.

“SEVEN HUNDRED METERS.”

We pick up speed with each step, our strides elongating into waterlogged bounds. The water’s even deeper now, but we can manage it. As a matter of fact, for the wrinkle in Jack’s plan that Dash and I instantaneously agreed upon, we’re counting on it to help us out a bit.

“FIVE HUNDRED METERS.”

Finally, with a titanic spray of seawater and an earth-shaking bellow, Silverback emerges. Star Swirl runs a quick scan and crunches numbers to display on Chroma’s visor: three hundred twenty feet tall, one-twenty-five wide at the shoulders, a hundred deep from belly to butt—and bipedal, apparently, judging by how it rises before us to beat its scabby, faintly glowing chest and howl.

It takes a second for the butt-ugly brute to point its beady eyes our way, and another to lower its horned head and start wading forward to meet us. It’s clumsy out here, using both overlong arms to bull through cresting waves. Time to introduce ourselves.

“TWO HUNDRED METERS.”

Welcome to our house, Silverback. You’re not even gonna know what hit you.

<Now.>

At one hundred meters, Chroma twists to the left and lowers her shoulder, arms bent into a grappling position. Silverback throws up its own arms to counterattack, eight stubby fingers stretching for our midsection—and grasping empty air. Our hands smash into its face, grab hold of its horn, and push down as Chroma’s booster rockets light her legs and back ablaze.

We rise—out of the water, over Silverback’s head, fully inverted for just a moment as our fingers gouge into its eyes—and then fall again, twisting one-hundred-eighty degrees in midair to land in a balanced crouch in Silverback’s frothing wake. The beast slaps away the tidal wave that washes over its ribs, swivels in place as it figures out what happened, opens its mouth to roar again—and crumples as Titan’s fist crashes into the back of its skull.

They really should put us on TV more often.

As Titan and Chroma have done so many times before, we fall into a dancer’s rhythm to start: advance, strike, withdraw, repeat. Every punch that Titan lands on the kaiju’s head, Chroma follows up with a jab to the gut. By the time Silverback throws a swing of its own our way, we’re already ducking and dragging a bladed elbow—another personal favorite Chroma Vortex perk—across its chest.

For the first minute or two, we pitch a perfect game: spurting lesions and fractured bones mar Silverback’s head and torso, and Titan and Chroma don’t even have a dent between them to show for it. Eventually, though, the kaiju gets wise to what we’re doing—a particularly obnoxious trait they’ve started developing recently. The next time Dash and I lower ourselves under an errant swipe, Silverback’s other paw is there to meet us, scratching at our chest and finding purchase at the base of Chroma’s neck.

A screeching alarm tells us the beast’s getting a little too close to the core for comfort; we remedy that by spinning with the contact and planting our shoulder in whatever the kaiju equivalent of a solar plexus is. Annoyingly, and I promise completely by accident, we follow Jack’s previous orders to the letter: get low, drive forward, and throw a motherlode of a lead block.

Silverback staggers, smacking impotently at Chroma’s head as its heels dig foggy furrows in the ocean floor. Just before it loses its balance and topples over, we hit it again. One hand rises to grab it by the neck, and the other clenches into a fist that crunches into its chin hard enough to shatter multiple teeth.

As we straighten up, Star Swirl reads our minds and gives Chroma a once-over for us. Her core integrity’s good to go, but now we’ve got a new problem: Titan’s behind us, and there’s a big damn kaiju blocking my view of the mainland. Silverback clues in a second earlier than I wanted it to, whipping around before I can catch hold of its shoulder and finish my makeshift root canal.

Squealing in triumph and gurgling through the blood dripping from its maw, the kaiju takes a single off-kilter step forward—and that’s as far as it gets before the unmistakable crackle of pony magic sets every bristly hair on its back on end. With no time at all to react, it smashes face-first into a hundred-foot-high translucent red wall that sears its skin raw at every point of contact. The bone-white Jaeger behind it barely flinches in response, her brand-new frame’s orange highlights completely washed out by the magical shield emanating from her left forearm.

“Good effect, Archangel!” Jack shouts into comms, and as a sudden moment of clarity washes over me, I realize how long it’s been since I even remembered the radio was on. Hope Jack hasn’t been yelling at us for the last five minutes while we were in the kaiju-smashing zone.

“Now push it back towards us and stand clear. Vortex, you made this mess, time to clean it up!”

Yep. She’s definitely been yelling at us. “Solid copy, Titan,” I respond. “Cleaning crew’s en route.”

With a radio-audible grunt of effort, Frostbite braces herself and drives her shield towards and through Silverback, which backpedals as best it can while screeching bloody murder and clawing at the boiling skin sloughing off its face. “Good effect” is an understatement for the ages—we’ve got to get one of those shield things installed in Chroma. In the meantime, though, this kaiju’s staggered but far from out of the fight. It’s tougher than most, I’ll give it that, but we’ve still got plenty more left to give.

With a thought from Dash and I, Chroma’s right elbow blade detaches and slides down her forearm along a mechanical track, relocking back into place once it reaches the outside of her closed fist. Silverback hears us sloshing forward, but its stumbling counter never has a prayer of hitting us. One of its eyes is gushing neon-green blood, and the other is barely visible beneath its swollen brow.

Another thought starts in Dash’s head and flashes through mine in almost the same moment. We can end this right now if we get a little help.

“Hey, Titan, got an idea,” Dash reports as we reengage, thrusting our bladed fist between two of Silverback’s ribs. All the fresh stab wound visibly does is piss the monster off even more, but it also confirms what we need to do next. “This thing’s way too meaty for body blows. We’re gonna be out here all day if all we do is slap it around ‘til it tires out. Its head’s its only weak spot, so let’s go for the knockout. We’ll hold it up, you bring the hammer down.”

Apple’s the first to clue in. “By ‘hammer down,’ you mean…”

“Yep,” I confirm as we extract our blade, alien gore sizzling along its length. “Time to show this bad boy the Truth.”

Jack sighs, which is how I know she likes the plan. “We copy, Vortex,” comes Jack's terse reply, “but for Pete’s sake, stop callin’ it–”

“Ksssssh-what?” I yell at we duck under another off-balance counterpunch. “You’re-ssssh-breaking up, I can’t hear you over how-bzzzzt-awesome that name is.” I give Jack enough time to sputter for a bit, then take charge again. “Post up three hundred meters to our starboard and be ready when we reach you. Frostbite, keep that shield ready just in case.”

We hold back for just a moment—enough time for Frostbite to copy and Titan to start moving into position. Silverback seems glad for the respite—it’s sucking wind now, its arms sagging and bloodied jaw hanging open.

It took us a bit to realize it, but this big beast’s a prizefighter: all power and no stamina. It’s taking hits like a champ, and any solid blow it got on one of us would probably be a one-hit knockout, but with three Jaegers to deal with at once, it went and tired itself out already. Now, we’ve got the beast on the ropes, and all we need is one last haymaker to take it down for good—or, given what Titan’s unsheathing from behind his back right now, maybe one last steel chair.

Dash and I send Chroma crashing into Silverback like a freight train, raining blows down on every square foot of kaiju we can reach and staying one step ahead of every move it tries to make to escape. Some steps are shorter than others—it grazes our cheek once, and gets a good shot in during the next volley that deadens our left shoulder and forces us to improvise with a forearm bash under its chin—but after a minute or two we succeed in spinning it clockwise away from shore.

Directly behind Silverback’s shoulder, Titan is almost ready, so we slow down a bit to let the kaiju catch its breath and recognize the opening we’ve left it. The next hook we try to throw doesn’t connect—Silverback blocks it with one mangled hand while the other shoots straight for our throat. It grabs Chroma by the clavicle again, splattering our faceplate with blood as it snarls with animalistic fury, and for just a moment we find ourselves staring directly into its one good eye—machine versus beast, a tiny human and pony against an unearthly, world-breaking spawn of alien hell.

Just the way we wanted it.

Chroma’s hands come together and clamp onto Silverback’s outstretched arm, squeezing tighter and tighter until the bone deep underneath fractures with a crack like a thunderclap. With Silverback’s agonized howl as background music, Chroma pushes down, forward, and all the way around to its backside, twisting its broken arm along with us to lock it flush against its spine. For good measure, we go ahead and kick into the back of the kaiju’s knee as well, bringing it to heel in front of us.

As Silverback limply struggles to break free from our armlock, Titan advances towards it at a leisurely pace, cradling in both hands his signature weapon that fully deserves the nickname Dash and I have for it. At over two hundred feet long with a collapsible shaft and a head weighing nearly five tons all on its own, Truth is quite simply the biggest war hammer ever created by human hands—and as galling as it is to let Jack and Apple take the lead over us in confirmed kaiju kills again, it is an honest-to-God treat to watch them play with their favorite toy.

“For the record, Titan,” Dash informs Apple and Jack on both our behalves, “we’re still counting this as eight and a half kills for us.”

“Count it as whatever you like,” Jack says. “Just keep it still.”

That’s Jack and Apple for you: never appreciative of the finer things in kaiju-fighting life. I could put the image in front of me on a t-shirt and make millions: Titan Sequoia—the Mark II Mauler—raising Truth up to striking level, striding forth through the Pacific waves like a football-field-sized paladin of pain. In fact–

“Star Swirl, cap visual feed so Rainbow stops being weird and helps me hold this kaiju down.”

With an artificial shutter snap sound, Star Swirl does as Dash so pointedly asked him. <Arguably, that’s a self-burn,> I remind myself.

Arguably, I don’t care, now pull.

With both our minds focused on doing so, Chroma yanks our captive back down to its knees with all her strength, twisting the kaiju’s other arm behind its back once it thrashes close enough to grab with her free hand. If it were just me doing this to another human, they’d be looking at a pair of dislocated shoulders and six weeks of medical leave. As it stands, Silverback’s not gonna have that long to wait.

“Any time now!” I yell through my teeth—and thankfully, finally, Titan obliges. I watch through Chroma’s eyes as he lifts Truth level with Silverback’s frothing mouth, then higher and higher still until it’s all the way over the monster’s head, glinting in the light of the setting sun a full four hundred feet above ground level. Even Silverback seems stunned by the sight—its muscles bulge a little less, and the tension seems to drain from its shoulders. Maybe it’s weighing its options; maybe it’s accepted the inevitable. Doesn’t matter to me. I’m just here to watch the show.

“Bring it home, Titan.”

Truth swings down, big and fast enough to leave a thin vapor trail arcing in its wake. At the last second, Silverback tries to duck. At the same moment, we give it a little tug back in place. It’s more than enough—the hammer connects.

Bullseye.

At least, I have to assume it was, judging by the absolute mess of blood, brains, and bony bits that splatters every sensor and camera Chroma has. Really should’ve used that last second to turn her head a bit. By the time our Jaeger’s internal cleaning systems get rid of enough of the gunk to see past, Silverback has all but vanished into the Pacific Ocean, invisible but for a lone limp hand sinking beneath the waves and a foggy green cloud where what’s left of its body is leaking into the harbor. Definitely gonna hear it from Shy later about all the dolphins dumb enough to swim through that.

Very good effect, Titan,” Dash groans. “Ugh.”

“Awful perturbed about your own big idea there, Vortex,” Apple teases, and that’s how I know for sure that this one’s in the bag. Stiff as both of them can be sometimes, I never hear Apple or Jack more self-satisfied than right after adding another mark to their kaiju kill list. “Scratch one Cat Three with no friendly casualties, Command,” Apple goes on, keeping the channel open so we can hear the reply from home base. “Permission to withdraw?”

“Permission granted,” comes Command’s scratchy response, distorted a bit by what I can tell is applause in the background. “Exfil helos are en route. Excellent work, Jaeger teams. Command over and out.”

With Chroma’s faceplate as clean as it’s going to get out here, I’m finally ready to fulfill my post-op banter duties. “So you are admitting it was a good idea, then,” I ask as we swing around to face the shore. Apparently opting not to reply, Titan likewise starts hiking back to where the transport helicopters can pick us up and carry us back to the launch bay harbor. “Aaaaand your silence means yes, it was. You’re welcome. We’re very proud.”

We still get nothing over comms, so I try a different tack. “Frostbite agrees with me, right? You copy, guys?”

“Copy,” one of them—Belle, I think—replies. Frostbite’s fallen behind Titan and us a bit, seemingly ready to trail behind us on the way in just like she did coming out. “It was… very effective.”

Yep, definitely Belle, judging by that quiet, wavering, trying-really-hard-not-to-throw-up tone. For all the pilot crews I know of, our pony halves typically take their first up-close encounter with a kaiju a little harder than us humans. I can feel Dash’s kindred sympathy radiating off her, strong enough that it inspires me to switch to a private channel just between the three Jaeger crews for a minute.

“Hey, Command’s not gonna say it and Titan’ll probably save it for after we debrief, but you guys were awesome out there today,” I tell Frostbite. “I know we and Titan got in most of the flashy hits, but we seriously would’ve had our hands without that shield of yours.”

“Thanks, Rai… Chroma team,” Sweetie says, catching herself way too late to hide the adrenalized tremor in her voice. “It’s a lot different from the sims out here.”

“No kidding,” I agree, “but you handled it well. You didn’t freeze up, and you helped when we needed you. Training mission or not, I can tell you guys are cut out for this.”

“I… thanks,” Sweetie says, pausing for a moment before finishing. “I hope we get to prove it soon.”

“Nah, you really don’t,” Dash cuts in, half-teasing and fully in line with what I was thinking. “But when the time comes, you’ll get it done. Just like we all do.”

Sweetie seems to understand, or at least knows well enough to let that moment stay between us. And come to think of it, it really is just between us—once we switch back to the main channel, Jack is still oddly quiet, even now that we’re close enough to shore that the seawater only laps at the bottom of Chroma’s knees.

“Hey, earth to Titan?” I call out. “Kaiju got your tongue?”

A second passes, then two, then ten. Finally, the mic clicks on.

“That was too easy,” Jack says.

I can’t see much inside Chroma’s cockpit with my eyes still jacked into her camera feeds, but I can tell from Dash’s thoughts that she’s side-eyeing me as much as I am her. “Yeah, no kidding. It was three on one. I’d be worried if it wasn’t easy.”

Titan still keeps pace with us, but I can see his head shake a little in tandem with Jack inside it. “It had you, Vortex. When it got you on the shoulder. It had a perfect shot right at your head and it just… missed. From that distance, it couldn’t have.”

Even with open comms, I can’t help but let a sigh slip out. “Look, I’m all for ragging on each other like we always do, but could we at least save the technical critique until after we get a shower?”

“Rainbow, you’re not listening!” Jack snaps—with my real name, even. She’s not putting this on for anybody, she really is shaken up. “It threw that fight, I know it did. There’s somethin’ we’re missin’ here, somethin’ wrong about all this.”

It’s been a while since I’ve heard Jack talk like this, and longer still since she did it long enough to worry me. This happens sometimes to pilots—Flutter and Pie both had moments like this in their early missions, and Twilight’s perpetually antsy about everything even now—but Jack’s never been this paranoid before. I guess the Long Walk wasn’t enough to shake the Frostbite-shaped bug out of her brain this time.

“Jack, listen to me: we’re good, okay?” I tell her on private channel, as quiet and calm as I can manage. “I know this went quicker than most ops, but it’s because we’ve both done this a dozen-odd times by now, and we had Frostbite helping out too. We know how to kill kaiju, and we know kaiju don’t do much other than smash stuff and eat it, so believe me when I say that there’s nothing to worry about, all right? We’re half a minute out from shore, so just stay on course for a little bit longer and then everything’s gonna be–”

“Command to all Jaeger crews, hold position and standby.”

The radio drones out my last word, replacing it with a harried message that ends before I can comprehend what it meant. “Uh… Command, we’re almost to the exfil zone,” I say back. “Everything good back home?”

Nothing. White noise. Command never ignores a transmission from an active Jaeger crew. A pit forms in Dash’s stomach. I grit my teeth and try to fill the one growing in mine. “Command, give us something to work with here, we’re a little on edge as it is.”

Still nothing. The pit gets deeper. Finally, after I don’t know how long, the radio crackles to life again, but it’s local—coming from Titan. “Star Swirl, sitrep,” Jack says, in a dark, husky tone that sends a shudder down my spine. “Broadcast to all Jaeger teams.”

“TITAN SEQUOIA SITUATION REPORT. TWO FRIENDLY JAEGERS DETECTED. CHROMA VORTEX, NINETY-SIX METERS SOUTH. FROSTBITE ARCHANGEL, SIX HUNDRED AND SEVENTY-FOUR METERS WEST-SOUTHW–”

Another burst of static interrupts Star Swirl’s report. Over the quivering transmission from Command, I can still hear exactly what Star Swirl says next. “All Jaeger teams, be advised–”

“… KAIJU PRESENCE DETECTED, THREE THOUSAND AND SEVEN HUNDRED METERS SOUTHWEST. ESTIMATED SIZE: CATEGORY THREE. CODENAME: UNDETERMINED.”

I suck a deep breath in—hold it—feel myself start to choke on it—and work with Dash to turn Chroma in place. At the very edge of her sensor range, a blurry red blip lights up in her HUD—not under or even level with the water, but above it, almost a thousand feet at Star Swirl’s best guess.

“The hell?” I whisper to myself. Dash is less accustomed to swearing, but judging by what I can feel from her, she definitely agrees with the sentiment. There’ve been a few double events here and there over the years, but never staggered like this that I can remember—and never two Cat Threes.

“THREE THOUSAND THREE HUNDRED METERS.”

“Looks like we’re gonna tie the score up sooner than we thought,” Dash mutters. “Your call, Rainbow.”

And I make it without hesitation. “Okay, eyes up, Jaeger teams,” I shout. “We’re not out of the woods yet. Titan, get that hammer back out and get ready to engage. Frostbite, double-time back to the launch bay and fry this thing alive if it gets anywhere close.”

I can see Frostbite pick up her pace from my position, and although Titan doesn’t respond over comms, he at least turns around to eye up the incoming threat. His hands rise halfway to where his hammer’s sheathed on his back, but then dip back down as if he’s suddenly lost the will to move them.

“TWO THOUSAND SIX HUNDRED METERS.”

With Chroma’s eagle eyes, I can just barely see the kaiju’s finer details now: a bulbous gray torso with a glowing orange sac beneath it bookended by craggly talons and a lumpy hooked beak, held aloft by patchy leather wings that easily span a hundred yards tip to tip. Next to me, Titan still hasn’t readied up.

“It’s flying,” Jack says, but her voice sounds distant, like it’s filtered through fog only she can see. “It’s flying straight at us…”

“It doesn’t matter what it’s doing now, just what it will do if we don’t stop it.” I say aloud. Dammit, Jack, don’t you dare drift out on me, I keep to myself. Not now. Not in front of Sweetie Belle.

“TWO THOUSAND TWO HUNDRED METERS.”

“Why would it fly at us if it could just go…”

Jack trails off again, and the truth of the situation finally sinks in: for the time being, we’re down from three Jaegers to two. Frostbite’s four hundred meters away and churning through the water as fast as she can, but the kaiju’s bearing down on us even faster, gliding down in a gentle incline that looks like it’d end right at Chroma’s reactor core. Good—at least it’s focused on us instead of home base, and the million of civilians right behind it. I can work with this—especially since I don’t have another choice.

“Frostbite, come in. How big can you make that shield?” I call out. Thankfully, Sweetie’s much quicker on the mic than Jack is.

“With auxiliary power added in, about twice as big as normal. Why?”

“Change of plans,” I say. “Adjust course and come to us and Titan. You know what a phalanx looks like?”

“Uh… a guy with a shield in front of a guy with a spear?”

“Pretty much,” I confirm, “except we’re not gonna be using a spear. Star Swirl?”

“ONE THOUSAND SEVEN HUNDRED AND FIFTY–”

“Star Swirl, switch visual feed to ranged targeting mode. Zero the scope for six hundred meters.”

The world goes dark for a second, then fades back into a washed-out shade of green. A transparent grid sweeps over Chroma’s vision, centered by a cross-and-circle reticle that settles right on top of our incoming target—still flying in a straight line, almost lazily drifting its way towards land.

I lift my left arm—Dash, her left foreleg—then bend it at the elbow to snap it back level with my shoulder. When Chroma follows suit, she adds an extra step at our command: her forearm splits open to let a long matte-gray barrel emerge into the fading light, already emitting a bassy thrum as the arcane components within begin to spin up and glow out of each crack and crevice. By the time we straighten our arm out in front of us, our “spear” is charged and primed to fire five hundred megawatts of magically-charged plasma straight down this interloper’s throat.

I’ll say this as many times as it takes: ponies may not be naturals at armed combat, but when they give it a go, they go hard.

“ONE THOUSAND THREE HUNDRED METERS.”

I spare a glance at Frostbite. She’s cut the distance between us to three hundred meters or so—maybe thirty seconds until she’d be ready in front of us with her shield. According to Chroma’s targeting systems, I have about twenty seconds before the kaiju’s in range. So be it. I’ll just have to make this quick.

“ONE THOUSAND ONIt’s lead blockingDRED METERS.”

I don’t have the time or patience to interpret what Titan just said. I’ve got fifteen seconds to fire. “Star Swirl, mute co–”

“Vortex, it’s lead blocking! The sitrep’s a satellite feed, it can’t see what’s und–”

“NINE HUNDRED ME–”

“Star Swirl, mute everything!” Dash roars.

Vortex, disengage, it’s right b–

Silence. Ten seconds. The reticle’s right between this overgrown vulture’s eyes. It stares back at me—doesn’t even try to move out of the way. We initiate the firing sequence. The cannon glows even brighter. Five, four, three, two…

Motion. Screaming sensors. An oily black shape explodes out of the water on our left—arcs over Chroma’s arm—yanks it hard to the right. Our visions follows—Frostbite fills every inch of it.

Zero.

• • •

A droning keen fills my ears—from the cannon or from what it did, I can’t begin to tell. Frostbite’s doubled over in front of me—her left arm a smoking stub, showering the water with sparks as the remnants of the shield she tried to raise drain into the red-ringed hole in her gut. The kaiju that hit me—long, scaly, dark as midnight—dives back into the sea as quickly as it came, its departing tail just visible in the corner of Chroma’s eye. It’s a triple event—the first ever. And the first Jaeger ever lost to friendly fire.

Don’t panic. Don’t drift out. Focus. Fight.

Dash spots motion under the water. I swing the cannon down and fire again, tracking the monster’s path with three staccato bursts of fire and seafoam. The water settles. No blood rises. Far in the distance, an alarm is blaring.

We look back up, and the airborne kaiju slams dead-center into our chest.

Dash and I stagger in our stirrups—we keep Chroma upright, but the kaiju’s talons latch into Chroma’s breastplate and tear through her armor like tissue paper. Each flap of its wings smacks our hands away and sends us stumbling another step back, its head reared back like a scorpion’s stinger. It lashes out with its beak—misses our head by inches and rakes the back of our neck instead. More alarms ring out—we’ve lost combat sensors. The attack we thought was harmless tore right through them.

Finally, there’s a gap between wingbeats big enough to slot Chroma’s fist through. We grab hold of one of the beast’s feet and peel its talons loose, each tug sending shooting pains through my torso like it’s my own chest I’m ripping the things out of. In response, the bird’s gut illuminates, throbbing and glowing like an ember in a fireplace, and it screeches and coughs as it yanks its other foot free and rises to hover above us.

Its beak splits open, and sizzling red acid blasts out from its throat, coating Chroma’s torn-up chest and seeping into the gouges the kaiju left behind. A dull ache smothers my ribs, so heavy I can barely breathe past it. Fine. Play dirty, you big bastard. I’ll be glad to return the–

My shoulders seize and scream with tension. The bird’s grabbed Chroma’s right arm and yanked it behind her back—exactly like we did with Silverback. A moment later, I feel something brush against Chroma’s ankles, then slam into the back of her knees. We can’t help but kneel—I can’t even concentrate on standing back up through the pain pulsing through my entire right side.

Focus, Rainbow. Ignore the pain. Ignore the pit in your stomach. Fight. Fight back, goddammit.

A shadow falls over Chroma’s surf-smudged visor, rising vertically out of the waves and blocking what’s left of the sunset. In the distance, Titan is charging towards us, Truth raised to strike—too far. Won’t get here in time. In front of Chroma, the third kaiju regards us with black eyes set above glistening white fangs, its serpentine form swaying back and forth to maintain its position. Behind its head hovers its twitching tail, capped by a near-skinless sphere that gleams like solid steel in the dying day’s light—like the head of a hammer, ready to strike.

The pit is a chasm. I feel myself fall in.

The bird’s beak latches onto our neck. The serpent’s tail lifts above its head. It bends, descends, whips forward faster than I’ve even seen a kaiju move…

I’m sorry, S–

… and connects.