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.
Six years ago, the first kaiju emerged from deep within the ocean and rampaged through sixty square miles of the Pacific Northwest, including the town that used to be my home. In the months that followed, we found out we weren't the only ones to be attacked—across the dimensional divide, our friends in Equestria suffered even more cataclysmic losses than we did. Even after our two species came together, we couldn't stop the beasts from coming, nor could we save any city they chose to destroy. We were at war—and we were losing.
But then, two years after the kaiju war started, billions of dollars and millions of wasted lives later, we figured out how to get back on top. We fought back. We started winning. And it was all thanks to six teenage girls, a little bit of magic, and their technicolor talking pony clones.
Okay, yeah, I should clarify: there was a lot of magic involved.
A Pacific Rim crossover several years in the making, first published in my printed anthology The Voices Are Telling Me to Hug You.
To be honest, high school for me ended exactly the way I always daydreamed it would: with a giant monster attack that smashed the whole building flat. In retrospect, that’s probably kind of messed up.
Everyone remembers the first kaiju attack differently, but we all definitely remember it. It surfaced in Puget Sound on a sunny Thursday morning and smacked into downtown Seattle like a ballistic missile—two hundred feet tall, covered in armored plating, and filled with lethally acidic blood and the baddest attitude anyone in our universe had ever seen. By the time the military scrambled jets and tanks, the beast was six miles inland. By the time they finally killed it four days later, eighty thousand people were dead and four cities were uninhabitable. I lived—past tense—in the third. I haven’t seen the place since.
The media or the army brass—never did find out who—named the beast “Armis,” the Latin word for whatever the hell kept it upright and angry in the face of everything we threw at it. We couldn’t bury it—Armis was what we thought at the time was a big boy, and a very radioactive one by the time we launched enough nukes to finally take him down—so eventually we all just moved on. We mourned, we healed, and little by little we started to rebuild.
Then, of course, Hammerhead leveled Tokyo five months later. After another two months, Pesadilla wiped out Lima. Welterweight, Anchorage. Chupacabra, the whole Baja peninsula. We noticed a pattern. We realized we were at war. And pretty soon, it dawned on us that the world we lived in was no longer one in which we were the apex predators.
I never did get all the gory details, but the gist is that our universe exists more or less next to a bunch of other universes out in theoretical nonsense space, close enough that there were sometimes portals between them that almost no one knew about. That’s actually how we met Twilight Sparkle for the first time: about nine months before Armis introduced himself to Earth, Sparkle—as we call her now—introduced herself to me, as well as four other girls and one runaway-unicorn-turned-human-teenager—bit of a long story there—who soon became my collective best friends.
We eventually met our world’s version of Twilight later in the year once Sparkle went back to her home universe of Equestria, but what we didn’t know then was what we’d already set in motion hundreds of miles away. See, the portal that Sparkle used wasn’t actually as stable as she thought, nor was our universe the only alternate one out there. When the next portal opened, it was at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean—and instead of pony princesses, it spit out beasts the size of skyscrapers that took great pleasure in knocking said skyscrapers over all across the globe.
They didn’t even want us in the same building when the Jaeger program first started, let alone within paint-scratching distance of humanity’s last-ditch Hail Mary to avoid ending up as a planet-coating layer of kaiju paste. Even though we were the ones who basically came up with the entire idea—and by we, I mostly mean our Twilight—they just wouldn’t budge. Turns out the government’s best and brightest get their Fruits tied up in a big ol’ Loom when a twenty-year girl with a magic crystal necklace—another long story—makes them all look like kindergarteners in front of each other.
I mean, at that point the “magical powers” part really shouldn’t have been a dealbreaker anyway, given the thousands of little pony refugees—led by our old friend, Princess Sparkle—who popped up in the Washington Exclusion Zone while we were busy with Welterweight. They assimilated quickly, to their credit, but that I guess that’s easier than usual when your historically xenophobic hosts are knee-deep in an extinction event.
In any event, thank God for us that they did, because in some wild twist of fate or irony or I don’t know what, the cute little ponies who sort of caused all this are also the ones this whole operation hinges on. We were the ones who came up with the Jaegers, built them hundreds of feet tall, and loaded them up with every weapon and war machine we had to spare, but the ponies were the ones who figured out how to make them work.
They were the ones who discovered—through magic and mayhem and a touch of dumb luck—how we could make monsters of our own.
• • •
You know what the weirdest thing about sharing a bunkroom with a sentient pegasus who’s technically you from another universe is? Dash nickers in her sleep. Sure, it’s probably just a thing ponies do, but I can’t help wondering about the implications. Is it gross that I think it sounds kind of cute if I’m sort of the one doing it? Does that mean she’s dreaming, or is it just like snoring? Does that mean I snore and no one’s ever had the guts to tell me?
Yeah, it’s a weird train of thought to focus on, but sometimes idle idiocy like that is the only way I can keep from losing my mind. Ever since our last sortie three weeks ago, Dash and I both have just been vegging in the Corona Military Base barracks a dozen miles north of Los Angeles, reading what passes for trashy magazines in mid-worldwide apocalypse and needling the commandant for an extra power ration so we can at least get a JoyBox or something in here. Lately, I can’t even get anyone to kick around a soccer ball with me—apparently the jarheads are too afraid they’ll accidentally hurt a chick with eight kaiju kills under her belt.
For the record, they all suck at soccer anyway. Seriously, it’s like dribbling around traffic cones with two left feet and massive inferiority complexes.
“Rainbow,” comes a voice from the top bunk—which Dash always gets wherever we deploy to because, well, duh. “I’m bored.”
“Join the club,” I mumble through the glossy pages of Kaiju Beat covering my face. “Take This Quiz to Find Out Which Kaiju You Are!” shouts the translucent headline resting over my eyes. Unbelievable, I know. There’s no way I’m actually Tattletail.
“Is it a fun club?” Dash responds, sounding like she’s got her face buried in her pillow. “Are there video games in the club?”
“You can’t even play video games, you don’t have hands.”
“Can too! I can swing the little… ninja things.”
“Nunchuks,” I can’t help but mutter. “They’re called nunchuks, you dumb horse.”
“Takes one to know one, you stupid monkey,” Dash replies, just before a yawn punctuates our daily tradition of helpless griping. “Well, I’m gonna go get a snack. You want anything?”
“Granola bar,” I start to say. “Soda if the machine’s not still bro–”
An ear-splitting klaxon cuts me off and sends Dash and I flying out of bed—literally, in her case. In seconds we’re upright and scrambling to get dressed, tugging boots onto hooves and feet with our respective wings and fingers twitching in anticipation. Everyone in the world knows exactly what that klaxon sounds like and means—and call us crazy for it, but we’re probably some of the only ones in any version of that world who get totally psyched to hear it.
“FORWARD OPERATING BASE CORONA PERSONNEL BE ADVISED, KAIJU ACTIVITY AT RIFT SECTOR EPSILON. ESTIMATED SIZE: CATEGORY THREE. CODENAME: SILVERBACK. PREDICTED COORDINATE PATH TO FOLLOW.”
Neither of us listen as the droning voice from the loudspeaker rattles off a set of numbers and letters that probably mean something to someone in this place. We don’t care where we’re going. All we need to know is whether we’re on deck to kill whatever pops up there.
“JAEGER TEAMS CHROMA VORTEX AND TITAN SEQUOIA, REPORT TO LAUNCH BAYS ONE-OH-FIVE AND ONE-OH-SIX FOR IMMEDIATE DEPLOYMENT. JAEGER TEAM FROSTBITE ARCHANGEL, REPORT TO BAY ONE-OH-NINE FOR TRAINING DEBRIEF AND MISSION PREP.”
Dash and I get the obligatory fist/hoof bump out of the way the second we hear our name called, but the third team announced gives us both reason to pause. I look down at Dash, who looks down at the zipper of her mission suit still clenched in her teeth. She mutters something to herself, then finishes the job without looking up.
We enter the hallway, scores of mechanics and mission techs flattening themselves against the walls as we jog and fly past, and say nothing more about it. I know what Dash is thinking because I’m thinking it too, but I can tell she refocuses the same moment I do. Whatever the circumstances, the mission’s the same: get loaded, get set, and ride the freaking lightning.
Halfway to the bay, we meet our companions for this sortie: Jack falls into step next to me as Apple slips under Dash’s dangling hooves. Just like Dash, the top of Apple’s head only comes up to the bottom of my ribs, but she keeps pace alongside Jack and I like it’s nothing, like the path she cuts through the world is as straight and narrow as she is. They fight like that too—deliberate, efficient, unforgiving. We’ll never tell them this, but both Dash and I love to watch Titan Sequoia rumble. Especially when Chroma Vortex gets to one-up them at the same time.
“So… training mission, huh?” Apple says, her breath as steady as if she’s leaned lazily up on a fence post. Pretty much all the crews are nicknamed like Dash and I are: human gets one half of our collective name, and pony gets the other. We all agreed early on it’s the simplest way to handle this situation. Better than constantly calling ourselves “the Rainbow Dashes” or “the Applejacks,” anyway.
“Guess so,” I reply. “Explains why you guys are tagging along. Don’t you have some latrines to scrub?”
“Go ahead, Rainbow, keep talkin’,” Jack says as we round a corner, beelining towards the launch bay lift at the far end of the corridor. “Get it outta the way now, so you’re quiet later when school’s in session.”
“Ooh, you’ve been working on that one, haven’t you?” Dash cuts in. I don’t mind at all—it’s exactly what I would’ve said. “How long’s that line been in the shop? Couple months? Think that’s the last time you guys had a lead over us.”
“And that’s why we had that lead, Dash,” Apple says after a chuckle. “Patience kills kaiju.”
“Actually, I’m pretty sure Jaegers kill kaiju,” I reply as we reach the lift and step in, the gates closing behind our heels in perfect synchronicity. “And I can name eight tall-dark-and-uglies who’d agree with me.”
The lift jolts upward, and Apple and Jack smirk—a perfect match, like two sides of a trick mirror. “Reckon you can keep ‘em,” the latter says. “We’ll take care’a the ninth.”
Damn the timing, but she definitely got the last word in. Once the klaxon’s on and the lift goes up, the time for friendly banter has officially passed. Even Dash lands for once—one of the few times you’ll ever see her do that—and starts to limber up, and the lift falls silent but for the soft sounds of shuffling limbs and cracking necks and knuckles.
“Dash?” I hear Jack murmur. I’m not surprised she’s talking to me—though she and Apple are identical in soul, they aren’t symmetrical in body, or in which one knows me just a little bit better. “What’s this feel like to you?”
“The mission?” I mutter without looking over. “Standard-issue, why?”
“Standard-issue ain’t three Jaegers for one kaiju, even if one team’s rookies,” she goes on. “Somethin’… doesn’t feel right.”
No kidding, but I’m not about to give her gut feeling—or mine—the satisfaction. “We’re past it, all right?” I tell her. “And if it does go sideways, Chroma’s got your back.”
She nods once, raises her fist. “And Titan’s got yours,” she says as I touch my knuckles to hers. And with that, there’s nothing left to say.
The lift’s doors open directly into the base’s operation center, a cross between a conference room and a computer lab that contains approximately every single nerd in a ten-mile radius—mostly people, but a few unicorns here and there as well. At the center of the room, a massive table displays a holographic map of the surrounding area, which we’d use for a mission briefing under more complicated circumstances, and which everyone here will use to watch the upcoming fight.
Weirdly enough, it’s actually one of the few pony contributions to our tech in here. Apparently there used to be one just like it in Equestria, but that one was used for “friendship quests” instead of Magic-Per-View kaiju battles. For the record, no, I don’t know what a “friendship quest” entails. And yes, for the record, I have asked more than once.
As the other pilots and I circle around the battle map and head for the double doors at the ops center’s far end, not even so much as a stray whisper makes note of our intrusion. In a weird way, I kind of admire the ops nerds for that: while everyone else on the planet is hoping they don’t get eaten alive today, all that these pencil-pushers are worried about is how much we’re gonna ding up the repairs they just finished after the last attack. Guess I have a soft spot for people with priorities.
Whether they even noticed us or not, I don’t get a chance to find out for sure. The cacophony cuts out the second the ops center doors slide shut behind us, and of the four pilots left alone in the catwalk high above the launch bay floor, none of us break the silence with more than gently clattering footsteps and hoofbeats. We don’t call this “The Long Walk” for nothing—aside from being an even four hundred yards long, this walkway is also the last time we’ll see each other before deployment. And though not one of us will say it aloud, we all know it could be the last time ever.
There’s no time for fear when you’re in a Jaeger. You can’t think about not landing your next hit or what will happen if you don’t. You just act, and react, and win or die trying. But here, for four hundred yards and with no one and nothing else to distract us, we let the fear in—let it reverberate through us in cold sweats and goosebumps and a vague, trembling, implacable sense of mortality.
It sounds crazy, but so do half the things Shy’s ever asked me to do—and like just about all of those things, damn me if it doesn’t work. Every time I make this walk, I end it with a clear mind and a focus sharper than I can get anywhere else in the world—my fears recognized, allowed to breathe, and then softly but firmly smothered.
In the meantime, though, it’s still rolling through me, tensing my shoulders and jacking my heart rate up to the moon and back—and this time it’s worse than usual, because it’s not me, Dash, or even Jack or Apple I’m scared for. It’s something else, something different and new. The past, the present—and Frostbite Archangel.
Of all the Mark IV Jaegers to be first out of the blocks, why’d it have to be Sweetie Belle piloting it?
Seriously, if we didn’t have a kaiju to go urgently send to hell, I’d still be back in the ops center screaming my head off at somebody—anybody—who signed off on this. Sure, being the little sisters of the most successful Mark III team in the Western Hemisphere makes them somewhat special cases, but Belle’s hardly a month past eighteen—or whatever the equivalent is in pony years—and Sweetie’s barely taller than her pony version with about as much muscle mass.
Or at least, that’s all I can remember her looking like—stealing extra rations out of the mass hall, staying up past curfew to sneak into the launch bay and watch the Jaeger techs at work, struggling to do another pushup when even her instructor was telling her to quit–
–doing her homework on Rarity’s couch, feet kicked up behind her with a platform shoe half-dangling from her heel.
Whether she’s got the guts or not, I can’t say, but she’s not ready for this. No one is. I’m not.
But I have to be. And I will be. In three, two, one…
“Pilots on deck!”
As soon as he’s announced our arrival, the sergeant-at-arms at the end of the Walk turns away from the maintenance crews and focuses on us. “Chroma Vortex to the left, Titan Sequoia to the right,” he informs us, nodding in both directions as he speaks. “Go for deployment in T-minus five. You’ll be briefed on parameters in-flight.”
Jack and I meet eyes—Dash and Apple do the same between us—and then we’re gone. Dash takes off again as I ascend the ladder up to Chroma’s entrance hatch, stretching her wings one last time before diving inside after me. The interior of Chroma’s head used to feel claustrophobic, but now it just feels nostalgic. I’m so used to being Chroma that it still feels strange to be just near her instead.
Techs converge on us as we take our respective seats for the ride to come. Clasps automatically lock into my boots as I step into the harness, and the techs follow suit with straps, wires, and plugs for my legs, torso, arms, and neck. The last part of the process—the Drift helmet—hovers above me for a moment, waiting until Dash is fully secured before descending in tandem with Dash’s.
I hear the techs file out, then the hatch slam closed. For an ephemeral moment, silence reigns. For an even shorter one, I’m back in the Walk again.
“PILOTS ABOARD,” says a computerized voice, echoing all around the suddenly cramped space. “DRIFT SEQUENCE INITIATED.”
“Hey, Rainbow?” says someone else—softly, so only I can hear.
“ENTERING DRIFT IN THREE… TWO…”
I turn to Dash, who grins at me and winks. “Let’s kill this thing.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
• • •
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…
It was 2:09 PM on a Thursday afternoon, and all around me, the world was coming to an end.
I didn’t know where my teacher was, where any of the other students in my class ended up. I couldn’t see anything through the smoke—hear anything but crashes and screams and, in the distance, a titanic bellowing roar. I was under what was left of a desk—arms cut up, jacket torn, blood slick against my knees and between the ridges of my fingers. It wasn’t mine. I never figured out who it belonged to.
I gritted my teeth and grabbed for the little geode tied around my neck, a homey little memento of a previous adventure. It was supposed to be magic—supposed to help me stop things like this from happening. I didn’t even get a chance to use it. There was a rumble, and then a tremor, and then an explosion of splinters and stone dust that wiped away half the classroom as quick as erasing a blackboard. Now I could feel the little rock’s power pulsing between my fingertips, but I couldn’t get a grip on it. My fingers were too slippery. I’d already forgotten why.
Then I scrambled over rubble and edged around collapsed linoleum floors, ducking under sparking light fixtures and sputtering water pipes until I found myself on ground level somewhere near the cafeteria. In front of me, there was nothing—a gaping hole in the hallway, empty sky and sirens where there used to be fifteen classrooms. The atrium was buried under three stories of wreckage, the east wing stomped flat as a pancake.
I was in the west wing with most of my friends—seniors, all of us. The other wing was the freshman hall. East, west; dead, alive. The kaiju wasn’t even aiming for them—for anything at all. It just moved where it wanted and did what it pleased, and killed everything it touched along the way.
The screams had fallen silent—the army would arrive soon. The advance troops would chase after the beast for another day and a half. The reserves would gather everyone into the community center, pass out rations and water, bandage wounds and perform medevacs and watch in grim silence as we started counting heads and realized who we saw for the last time that morning. We’d leave this town. We’d never return.
Except for me. I’d stay behind. I’d never leave, because every night for a year I’d come back here, to this wreckage of my old life. Every time I lost my focus in training—every time I couldn’t handle what the brass and the jarheads and the Jaeger program expected of me—I’d return to this half-demolished hallway and feel the heat of a dozen fires scorching my lungs, hear the crumbling of drywall and the blaring of the few fire alarms still intact enough to function.
See what was left of the freshman hall—of children with no place in this new world—of sons and daughters and brothers and sisters. Of a hand outstretched—of an ashen face—of the light inside glassy violet eyes as it flickered, sputtered, coughed.
Nobody ever talks about the ones who didn’t make it: the people, the ponies, the families, the friends. Mostly, no one has to: after six years of fighting kaiju, there’s not a soul on base who hasn’t lost someone—including the ponies. Especially the ponies.
It wasn’t until after we met up with our counterparts months later that we found out the chaos wasn’t constrained to just our world. Equestria saw just as many monster attacks as we did, and what we were able to fight off with bloody knuckles and nuclear warheads, they didn’t have a prayer of stopping. Sparkle never talks about it and we know better than to ask, but I know from Dash’s memories that the sixty thousand ponies she brought with her were all of them—every last living remnant of what used to be an entire sentient species.
Our six doppelgangers fought off the first two kaiju to attack Equestria with minimal casualties. Sparkle’s brother died fending off the third until they could arrive to stop it. After that, they were spread too thin, and the attacks came too fast and from too many directions. Everyone lost their parents—Flutter, her whole family, and almost Apple’s too save for her little sister.
Their other three princesses sacrificed themselves to get what remained of their population here, someplace they’d been before and thought they’d be safe within—out of the frying pan, into the fire. But within the flames, we found hope together: that Twilight’s insane idea would work, that we could keep our world from ending from theirs did, and that in the meantime we might see someone we lost miraculously reincarnated, either as a pony or a hairless ape.
Many of us did—Jack saw her little sister again, Apple her big brother, Pie one sister and Pinkie another. But for some of us, hope brought us a crueler pain than before. For some of us, neither world had a miracle to give.
On both sides, the kaiju took Twilight Sparkle’s parents, Fluttershy’s brother and mom, Pinkie Pie’s sister Limestone. Sunset Shimmer—Equestria’s unofficial ambassador, our group’s cornerstone and de facto leader—didn’t have a copy we knew of, nor even a body the salvagers could ever find. And though death didn’t come for me or Dash, it brought us together anyway over a spunky little tomboy who looked up to us both—a fighter, a firebrand, a little sister in all but blood.
When we met again after the ponies crossed over, all it took was a look, and we knew: Scootaloo was gone. There was no world left that she was a part of, no other universe to fix our mistake, no parallel plane of reality where I—she—we didn’t watch her die. The Drift is the only place she exists anymore—a motionless corpse under a slab of concrete I’m not strong enough to lift, a cold and bloody sign that my mind has cracked apart under the strain of Jaeger-piloting and I’m slowly, surely, inescapably drifting out.
This is the memory I’ll fade away into. These are the moments I’ll repeat over and over again, until there’s nothing left of me but the smoke and the agony and the knowledge that every second I continued to live was borrowed from the life Scootaloo could’ve had—that it should’ve been her breaking her fingernails trying to pull me out of this shallow grave, if only I’d been a little bit faster.
That I failed, and she’s dead, and soon I will be too. And it’ll be right. And I’ll deserve it.
I stop digging. My hands are raw, dripping crimson onto empty concrete. Scootaloo is gone. No matter how hard I try, I’ll never get her back.
I stand—turn my head. Dash looks at me and then through me, all the way down to whatever soul I have left. Her hooves are clean. Her eyes are red and dry.
“This isn’t real, Rainbow,” she says. “You need to come back.”
I can’t come back. I never left. I’m supposed to be here, supposed to have–
“If you were supposed to die here, you’d be dead. We’re not dead. We have a job to do.”
I shut my eyes—ball my fists until my arms shake from the pain. My face is wet. I don’t know whose tears they are.
“We don’t get to die yet. Not today. Not when Titan and Frostbite need us.”
Frostbite. Oh god, Frostbite. I shot her—blew a hole clean through her chest. I shot Sweetie Belle—Scootaloo’s best friend. And I killed her. Just like I killed Scoot–
Dash slaps me. It stings less than my hands, but it gets my attention—makes the school and the rubble and everything start to blur out white. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself!” she screams. “We’re Jaeger pilots! We win or we die, and we’re not dead yet. So pull yourself together, come back to the real world, and–”
• • •
“–help me, moondammit!”
I open my eyes, only for a splash of freezing seawater to force them back shut. I’m soaked to the skin, lying on my back, half-submerged up to my toes and the back of my waist. When I look up again, I see what’s left of Chroma’s cockpit—watch the ocean tide roll in through a half-dozen gashes in her imploded faceplate. Dash is out of her harness and straddling my chest. She looks ready to slap me again.
“Did you just swear?” I mumble once I spit out enough saltwater to talk past its bitter aftertaste.
“I don’t know, did you just drift out on me?” Dash snipes back. When I don’t answer, she sighs and seems to brace herself against me for a moment. I’m tempted to think she struggled to come back from the Drift too, but the ponies have always been better than us humans at keeping their heads on straight. Maybe it’s a cultural thing, or maybe their egos are less fragile than ours. Hell, maybe they just don’t have a choice anymore. Like Dash said, it’s win or die out here, and somehow, we’re not dead.
But judging by the state of her head, Chroma might be—and without her, we’re limited to pretty much just the latter option as far as what we can do next. As Dash clambers off me and goes to strap herself back into her drift harness, I take in a breath and expel it in a coughing command.
“Star Swirl… systems check.”
A faint crackle wafts into my headset, then an ear-splitting burst of static. In fits and spurts, Chroma awakens around us, her OS speaking for her in a fragmented but slowly strengthening voice.
“Star Swirl, cancel evac, override code sierra-three-niner-quebec-charlie-four,” Dash interjects. “Estimate time to core failure.”
It takes a moment for Star Swirl to respond. For a moment, I imagine he’s actually taken aback. “OVERRIDE CODE CONFIRMED. EVACUATION CANCELED.” Another pause. “CORE INTEGRITY COMPROMISED. ESTIMATED OPERATIONAL CAPACITY: SIX MINUTES.”
“Star Swirl, how much time will rerouting aux power to the core buy us?”
“WARNING: REROUTING AUXILIARY POWER TO CORE IS NOT RECOMM–”
“Override overcharge protocol. How much time?”
“ESTIMATING… WITH AUXILIARY POWER REROUTED, CHROMA VORTEX CAN OPERATE FOR AN ADDITIONAL FOUR MINUTES BEFORE CORE OVERLOAD. WARNING: WEAPONS WILL BE INOPERATIONAL DURING THIS TIME.”
Dash leans back into her harness—doing the same math in her head that I am mine. “So…” I say, “ten minutes. With no guns, no sensors, and a time bomb in our chest.” I look over at Dash, gin up every ounce of strength and courage and grit I have left. It’s not much. Half of me is still in the Drift—still staring into the void behind death’s open door. “Well, I’ve heard of worse odds, so let’s–”
“You’re wondering why I didn’t drift out.”
Dash doesn’t look at me, but I can feel her attention directed my way in the link we share through Chroma. I can feel something else too—bulging, taut with pressure, like a tarp over a truck bed that the wind’s slipped underneath. “You’re wondering how I haven’t broken yet,” she continues. “How a little pony like me can handle any of what we’re expected to do.”
I don’t want to admit she’s right, but I don’t have to. She knows. She keeps going. “I’m you, Rainbow. And you’re me. But you’re afraid of what you are—what the kaiju will turn you into. You think you’ll lose yourself. You think you’ll turn back into that helpless, powerless teenager again.”
Now she turns her head. “I know what we are, and I know why we do this,” she tells me, a look in her eyes I’ve never seen a pony have. A cold look—a human one. “Let me in. Let me remind you.”
I close my eyes—lean back into the Drift. Dash’s mind grows closer to mine—bumps into its edge—rushes in and swallows me up.
I see devastation, towns in flames, cottages and castles torn to pieces by creatures darker and more terrible than anything I’ve ever seen before. I hear voices—screaming, begging, asking why this would happen, and for what purpose. I hold Princess Twilight as she snaps out of her voyage into a freshly defeated kaiju’s brain, pull her into my chest as she shudders and sobs and chokes out the truth: that there isn’t a purpose, that kaiju exist not to conquer or feed or even terrorize into submission, but simply for their own sake—as idle, irreverent fun for other-dimensional beings with a limitless greed for every world they care to take.
And I feel—feel the cover rip off Dash’s mind, the tempest and terror raging within, the pulsing black core where once there was a belief that the world was just and the good guys always won in the end. It’s still there—that conviction, that unshakeable sureness that life must win each battle even though death may take the war—but it’s hardened, spiny and blackened, swamped in a red fog that sears through and stains every thought that passes by. It’s what drives her—sustains her—makes her so willing to give every second of life she has just so she might shorten that of a kaiju.
It’s hate. Blinding, all-consuming, murderous hate. The kind that only love can inspire, that she reserves to be directed at anything that wishes harm against the people and ponies she protects. The kind that lives by only one rule: find kaiju, hurt kaiju, make them suffer for every life they took and will take again, and if you die in doing so, drag every single one of them down to hell with you.
I can’t compare to what Dash feels—I haven’t loved enough, lost enough, been loyal enough to steel myself against anything that might challenge what I know is right. But I have loved, and I have lost, and if loyalty to every person and pony left is what ends my life today, then I’m okay with that. And for now, I can borrow a little from her, and fight with it, and use to do what has to be done.
“Star Swirl,” I order, “restart the core.”
Chroma responds with a clunk, a keening groan, sprays of sparks that bounce off my harness and helmet—and then, finally, a deep and vengeful roar. Her full weight settles into my arms and legs, the familiar numbing tug of our neural link wrapping around me like an old friend at my hospital bedside. She’s deaf, blind, and beaten to hell and back, but she’s alive. We’re alive. And with life coursing through me now—crystallizing my thoughts, honing my focus, shaving my mind down to a single sharpened point—I know what we’re going to do.
We’re going to get up. We’re going to reroute aux power directly into Chroma’s core. We’re going to get back in this fight and find the two kaiju that tried to kill us and four of our friends and allies.
And in the next ten minutes, no matter what happens to Chroma, no matter whether me and Dash live or die—we’re going to fucking annihilate those things.
And for the record? Those are Dash’s words, not mine. Turns out she’s got a bit of a potty mouth.
Even without anything to go by visually, I can feel enough around me to get my bearings. Chroma’s flat on her back and sunken several meters into the soft ocean shore, fully submerged but for where her head’s propped up on something solid and sharp. With Dash and I working together, her left arm trembles and rises out of the waves, and then her right, and then we slam them both back down and drive them into the silty shoreline muck hard enough to push her chest—and her spinning, searing-hot core—back out into the dim light of oncoming dusk.
We don’t have enough purchase to sit up straight, so we swing Chroma’s torso right and roll her onto her stomach. I’m thrown forward in my stirrups by the sudden motion, a wall of water rising high enough through her faceplate that I have to shut my eyes as it slaps against my nose. As we rise, though, the water recedes farther and farther away until, past the crashing of waves and the buzzing of busted cables, we can hear a battle raging—screeching steel, screaming kaiju. Titan’s still in this. There’s still a fight to win out there.
But to win it, Chroma will have to see—meaning Dash and I will have to see for her. Propped up on one knee with the sea and sun at our backs, I raise my hand to my head, closer and closer until the stripes of light in front of me wink out and I feel the shuddering impact of Chroma’s palm against her faceplate. I tense my fingers, and five new stripes appear. I yank my hand away, and the light floods over us, revealing the craggy cliffs of the Pacific coastline and the crumbling, Jaeger-shaped indentation we left in it when we fell.
On the bright side, I’m not too worried about dying to a kaiju anymore. If we make it back to base after all this, Twilight will murder us both herself for ripping her Mark II pride and joy’s face clean off.
“ESTIMATED TIME TO CORE FAILURE: FIVE MINUTES.”
“Time to fly,” Dash mutters. “Star Swirl, reroute auxiliary power to the core.”
If Chroma’s reboot a moment ago was like a warm hug, the moment our aux power reroutes is like a full-body orgasm. Every nerve in my body lights up like New Year’s Eve, and my heart races like I’ve just stabbed a syringe full of adrenaline straight through it. No wonder the brass threatened a court martial to any pilot who tried this. I may be less than ten minutes from meeting my maker via a miniature nuclear explosion, but at least I’ll feel like a billion goddamn bucks until I do.
“AUXILIARY POWER REROUTED. ADJUSTED TIME TO CORE FAILURE: NINE MINUTES.”
Thighs quivering and fingertips flexing for lack of a giant scaly neck to wrap them around, Chroma stands fully upright and turns in place, the motion as easy as spinning in an office chair. Though we’re without sensors or a sitrep, Dash and I can size up the situation simply enough through our makeshift viewport.
Four hundred meters or so straight ahead of us, Frostbite Archangel is slouched over on her knees, her arms locked out and braced just high enough on something underwater to keep her motionless head above the oncoming waves. Six hundred meters to our right, Titan Sequoia is spurting coolant and swinging Truth around like he’s trying to fell his namesake, managing to keep the Serpent Kaiju at a distance but leaving himself open to body blows from the Bird’s balled-up talons.
Where before the ocean felt like molasses to wade through, now it feels like cotton candy. When Chroma takes her first step, she does it so easily we almost stumble over it. It takes us only a moment to right ourselves, but it’s one we couldn’t afford to lose. Six hundred meters away, the Bird dives into an opening between hammer swings and stabs its warped beak straight through Titan’s chest.
I can tell even from here it got close enough to the core to cripple it—Truth rolls limply from Titan’s hands, and the splash of his rear meeting the ocean overlaps the sizzle of the water meeting his dying power source. If there’s a radiation leak, it won’t penetrate the pilot chamber in his head, but for this fight and maybe more to come, Titan Sequoia is a dead stick—and the Bird hovering above knows it. It announces its triumph with a mocking screech, chest already bulging with a liquefied killshot. It hasn’t seen us yet. It thinks they’ve won.
Time to fly, hell. Time to bring that oversized pigeon back down to earth.
Chroma closes the final stretch like an Olympic sprinter, her auxiliary power and Dash’s internal fire rocketing us all forward faster than any Jaeger’s ever moved. At the last moment, both the Serpent and the Bird hear us coming. Both swivel their heads our ways—recoil in equal parts confusion and rage.
“Hey, assholes!” I yell loud enough to go hoarse, my voice drowned out nonetheless by crashing waves and churning steel. “We’re baaa–”
All of a sudden, we’re vertical again. I manage to steal a lungful of air just before Chroma flops face-first into the ocean with a colossal splash, her arm raised just in time to keep the oncoming tidal wave from shredding me apart in my stirrups. Behind us, the Serpent’s tail slithers out from under our dented ankles, its knobbed tail knocking impudently against Chroma’s calf as it slips away into the depths.
Fine. Fuck you first, then, you overgrown fish bait.
We’re barely upright again before the Serpent’s back for another pass. This time we’re ready for it, but without targeting software to perfectly time our counter for us, all we can do is parry away the kaiju’s thrashing tail so it smacks into our forearm instead of our head. Just as quickly as before, though, it vanishes again, leaving me with a throbbing ache in my elbow and nothing to show for it.
It’s smarter than the others, Dash thinks alongside me, her mind swirling with the Serpent’s inky black slime. It knows we’re slower. Knows right where to hit us.
A disturbance behind our knees is all the warning we get before the Serpent rears up with a spray of silver foam and whips its tail towards the base of Chroma’s spine. Again, we catch it with a flailing forearm, but it still hits hard enough to leave us arched back in pain and gasping for breath.
<It’s playing with us,> I respond. <It thinks we can’t see it coming.>
The Bird seems content just to watch for the moment, still preening over its kill as acid drips from the edges of its beak—except it’s not a kill. Apple and Jack are still alive in the cockpit—I can hear them, even, their voices coming through our busted-up comms in random spurts of incomprehensible noise. If the Bird’s not fighting us, why isn’t it finishing off Titan?
A half-dozen thoughts hit me all at once, echo off Dash’s mind as she processes them and radiates her agreement back at me: because it doesn’t know they’re in there. Because it doesn’t know Jaegers have pilots. Because it doesn’t realize that it’s humans and ponies—the little technicolor blobs that go squish between their toes—who started fighting back and killing all their broodmates before.
Because it thinks Jaegers are monsters just like them.
<It thinks we can’t see it at all.>
The Serpent glides up forty degrees or so to our left—its slowest approach yet. It swings its tail almost lazily, and this time Dash and I whiff entirely on purpose, swinging our arms aimlessly as the kaiju slams unimpeded into our waist and sends us down to one knee. It hurts—we knew it would—but we can already see it was worth it. The Serpent doesn’t even bother to descend again; it just swims leisurely in a wide arc in front of us, its head jutting out of the water like a Lovecraftian submarine’s periscope.
Now I understand why the kaiju attacked the way they did this time. Now I know why these two and Silverback were sent—not to kill people or ponies, but to kill Jaegers. To watch us fight a beast built just like us, learn our strategies for killing it, and copy them to use against us right when we were least expecting it.
Whoever’s making all these kaiju may be sadistic multiversal psychopaths, and the greatest moment of my life will surely be when I or Chroma get to grab hold of one by the neck and squeeze until they pop like a party favor, but they’re not stupid. They know what we’ve been doing to stymie them, and they figured out how to beat us at our own game—and with Frostbite along for the ride, how to do it in a way that would crush our spirits at the same time.
But the kaiju themselves don’t know any of that. They had orders and they followed them, but they never comprehended what’s really going on—who they’re really up against. So when they saw Frostbite and Titan stop cold after they took enough hits—when they saw us get our face caved in by the Serpent’s tail—they thought they killed us just like we killed Silverback. They don’t realize that Jaegers are just hulking, horrifically expensive machines—that who’s really killed dozens of their kind over the last few years was a half-dozen former high school classmates and their cuddly, magical little pony friends from another dimension.
And most of all, they don’t realize how wrong they’re about to find out they are.
The Serpent sidles back up to us like a PFC looking for a bar fight, oozing swagger and bravado even as it gins up a sucker punch to aim right underneath our jaw. Subtly, with tiny movements that feel agonizingly slow, Dash and I get ready as well. We’re only going to have one chance at this, but by the look of things, it won’t be a hard one to take: I can see right through this kaiju, past its oily scales and grimy gray fangs all the way to the pea-sized brain rattling around beneath its orange-tipped frill.
It wants to finish this how it almost did before: one shot to the head, quick and clean, and then off to gloat with Big Bird and friends back at Netherworld Street. Just to drive the illusion home that that’s all it’ll take to finish us, I angle Chroma’s head up and swing it haphazardly from left to right, never focusing on the end of the Serpent’s twitching tail but always keeping it in range of my own eyesight. The Serpent takes the bait, inches closer, almost in range…
Thirty meters or so in front of us, the Serpent comes to a stop. In the corner of my vision, I watch its tail rise and its head sink. Out of the Serpent’s sight, the fingers on Chroma’s right hand uncurl—spread apart—tense. Its tail whips forward. We react.
A dozen feet from the hole in Chroma’s head—so close I can smell the briny stench of the putrid flesh covered it—the Serpent’s tail slams to a halt. Chroma’s fist is wrapped around it, clenched like a vise just below its twitching metallic tip. For a moment, everything is quiet. The kaiju looks up at us, and I stare back dead into its beady eyes.
“’Sup,” I snarl.
The next few moments stream by in a blur. The kaiju lets out a deafening screech as it thrashes and spasms, slapping against the water as it ducks its head out of sight and strains against our grip. We hold fast, and in the same breath guess its location from the direction we can feel it tugging to break free. At Dash’s and my command, Chroma lifts her left foot and stomps it down twenty meters up and to the right. We feel it shudder as it slices through the water, shift as it impacts something rubbery and alive—lock firmly in place as it pins the Serpent’s midsection against the ocean floor.
Its head breaches the surface again in response, its jaw falling open with a pained, helpless yelp. Before it closes again, we jab Chroma’s free hand inside it and squeeze as hard as we can, shattering teeth and tearing at flesh until we find purchase somewhere inside its palate. The beast’s roar softens to a gurgle—its eye depresses and bursts as Chroma’s thumb digs it. One shot left, messy and slow.
All together, Dash, Chroma, and I plant our feet, contract our cores, and pull with everything we’ve got—every muscle memory of overloaded barbells and screaming drill sergeants, of aching limbs after extra reps, of knuckles bloodied against sparring partners and training pads and shower walls we collapsed against, sobbing through clenched teeth and seething with rage we could do nothing to quell. All leading up to this—to the moment when we’d need them all at once, when we could do something to dampen the fire the kaiju started inside us. When could make them feel what they did to us. When we could make them bleed.
Our hands reach our waists—our rib cages—our chests—and then the tension is gone, snapped like a rubber band stretched way too thin. Chroma’s fists shoot up into the sky—one holding the Serpent’s severed tail, the other its pulverized, bleeding skull.
In the distance, still hovering over Titan, the Bird sees the carnage and screams—a raw, pathetic sound of absolute anguish. Maybe the Serpent was its partner, its brother in all but blood. Maybe watching it be torn apart and tossed aside for the ocean to consume is like watching a sibling—a best friend—an innocent child die.
I hope it is. I hope it hurts.
“FIVE MINUTES TO CORE FAILURE.”
The Bird beats its wings and beelines towards us, murder emanating from every inch of its frame. We close Chroma’s blood-slicked left hand into a fist and brace for impact, all the while swinging what remains of the Serpent’s tail around in a circle in her right. Once we think the Bird’s close enough, we heave the Serpent’s blunt end at where we think it’s about to be.
We’re close—impressively so with the naked eye—but not close enough. Our organic missile clips the Bird’s wing and takes a sizable clump of feathers with it as it passes, but it does nothing to alter the kaiju’s path. Before we can get our arms up to block, the Bird crashes into Chroma’s chest claws-first and latches on hard, pushing us back and then prone and then up as it arcs back skyward with us limply in tow.
I feel Chroma’s feet leave the water, and my stomach sinks to my tailbone before rocketing up into my throat. At the apex of its ascent, the Bird loosens its grip and throws us back down, and at the end of our weightless descent we crash into the coastline cliffs hard enough to knock me dizzy, the rockface evaporating into powder as it does absolutely nothing to break our fall.
We don’t get time to recover—for even the smoke to start clearing. The Bird punches through the smog and slams down on Chroma’s torso claws-first, a piledriver from the top rope that leaves Dash and I gasping for dust-clogged air. What little’s left of Chroma’s chest armor sloughs off her in zig-zagged ribbons—her pain prickles through my skin, like the memory of a chemical burn pulsing through its unhealed scar.
We raise our right hand towards the Bird’s feet. The monster swings its beak and slaps it away, then stabs the appendage down into the synthetic fibers of Chroma’s pectoral. I feel something tweak, then tear, then snap. When I try to lift my arm again, a thousand needles pepper it from shoulder to palm, and instead of rising it splays out limply besides me, held up only by the straps of my harness and the pockmarked rocky shore beneath us.
I don’t need Star Swirl’s countdown anymore. Chroma’s given everything she’s got, and so have we—I can feel the realization settling over me, smooth and warm like summer-soaked sand. We did what we could, and it was enough. We got up, we fought back, we tore one kaiju literally to pieces, and we’ve already killed the second even if it doesn’t realize it yet.
On top of shutting off the failsafe that was supposed to keep us from rerouting aux power to the core, Dash also got rid of the one that was supposed to keep said core from overloading. The Bird will keep ripping away at us and shredding Chroma apart until all ninety-five yards of her is spread from Vancouver to Cabo, but the core’s not gonna stop for anything now, least of all a kaiju. The only question left is whether it’ll remember to fill Chroma’s hollowed-out skull with acid before our collective last few minutes are up. I hope it doesn’t. I’d like the last thing I see to be its ugly face as it realizes—right at the very end—that the ornery little bugs from Earth and Equestria won yet again.
“FOUR MINUTES TO CORE FAILURE.”
Dammit, I think the Bird heard that. Its head snaps up like it did, and either way it only takes a moment for it to line up one beady eye with Chroma’s exposed cockpit and its two battered and bloodied occupants. At least Star Swirl will get to go out doing what he loved too: being a buzzkill. “’Sup,” I manage to wheeze, thankful even now for small blessings, like the last embers of sunlight on the horizon and the fact that my left middle finger still works perfectly fine.
Its priorities shifted, the Bird settles back on its haunches and turns its maw skyward, throat swelling up with the acid bath we kept it from giving Titan. I don’t have much time to think about my last moments, nor would I want it. I lived long enough to feel good things and make great friends, and eventually to do what needed to be done. I was a Jaeger pilot—I won, and now I can die.
I turn to Dash. In the corner of my eye, the paunch in the Bird’s throat has grown from a lump to a glowing red bulb. “It’s been fun,” I tell her.
She looks back at me, and through our melded minds gives me the only things I wanted to feel: concurrence, and harmony, and peace. “See you someplace better,” she replies.
I keep my eyes open. So does Dash. The Bird twitches, a premature retch betraying its intentions, and our pulses near the finish line as our final kill arches its neck, flares its wings, splits its beak into a deadly crooked smile…
… and I blink.
I must have blinked, right? Because I’m still here and the Bird is gone, and only a fading chemtrail of acid remains, arcing down and to the right from where it used to be. From where a massive, metal, snow-white fist now hangs with glowing kaiju spit dripping from its knuckles, still quivering from the strain of smashing right into the hinge of the monster’s jaw.
“Hey, Chroma?” another voice intones—syrupy-sweet and bitter, like salted caramel carved into a shiv. Above us, Frostbite Archangel stands as tall as the sky, her one remaining hand now extended down towards us. “Let’s kill this thing.”
For a moment—just a moment—we’re paralyzed, struck dumb by the rebound from accepting our own deaths to suddenly—holy shit—maybe having a chance of surviving this after all. That’s all the time Star Swirl needs to urgently snap us right back into the moment.
“THREE MINUTES TO CORE FAILURE.”
“We gotta move.” The words leave Dash’s mouth as a mumbled statement of fact, then she repeats herself with a rise in her voice that almost sounds like panic. “Rainbow, we gotta go!”
She didn’t need to tell me once. The moment I feel what Dash is thinking, I act on it, reaching up to clasp onto Frostbite’s arm and yank us back on our feet. From what I can sense once we’re upright, the Bird didn’t reach Chroma’s spine or any key nerve clusters—she can stand, and clearly her left arm works well enough. Her right, though, is beyond repair, dangling uselessly by what feels like magisteel threads. At least we match Frostbite now. Arm for an arm, or something like that.
From our new vantage point, I can see that the Bird’s still stunned, scrabbling to pull itself up the rock face so it can take off again. We have a few seconds, and I have an idea. “Eyes up, Frostbite,” I radio to the other team, talking as fast as I can before our torn-up comms crap out again. “We’re beat to hell and our core’s literally gonna go nuclear in three minutes. Your call whether you wanna stick around for the fireworks.”
Whether she senses the urgency of the situation or not, Frostbite doesn’t waste any time thinking things over. “We’re not going anywhere,” comes her low reply. “Win or die.”
“Then stack up behind us,” we tell her crew. “We’re the shield, you’re the spear.”
There’s no time to explain further. The Bird’s already on top of the cliffs and leering down at us, its beak bent and jaw askew at a nauseating angle. I raise Chroma’s left arm, and behind us Frostbite raises her right. Between the two of us, we’ve got one fully functioning Jaeger and two whole species worth of pent-up aggression. Time to work some of it off.
The Bird strikes first, launching itself off the cliff with both wings spread and aiming to tackle Chroma right between the numbers. We angle Chroma’s forearm to take the brunt of the hit and use it to force the Bird to ground, putting it right in range for Frostbite to reach around our shoulder and chop down on its wing. The snap of a giant bone ricochets around us, and the Bird screeches as it backpedals in a wobbly retreat. Point to us. We push forward.
With the rock face at its back, the Bird ducks its head and then slashes its beak upward, droplets of acid sizzling against Chroma’s shoulders and neck as its now-blunted tip swipes just shy of her peeled-open face. Frostbite strikes again while the Bird isn’t looking, pinning its broken wing against the cliffside with a thunderous jab. The Bird’s keening stings in my ears. I want a recording of it played at our funerals.
The Bird peppers us with wing slaps and talon scratches, sinking lower and lower on the rocks with every hapless attack. I can taste blood in my mouth, and see it dribbling from a dozen cuts on every part of the Bird within our jabbing reach. Chroma’s core is close to fragmenting, but our hearts will hold out for her, and for all the holes the kaiju have cut through both.
“TWO MINUTES TO CORE FAILURE.”
The next time the Bird lashes out, I lash back, driving Chroma’s hand into its sternum and letting her whole body follow. We crash into the cliffside in a jumble of wires and feathers, our shoulder forward and legs driving like we’re lead blocking the whole Western Seaboard. The Bird gasps for air—finds less and less with every haggard breath. Now, Frostbite, I think-pray-scream. “Do it now!”
And she does. Again and again, back and forth across the Bird’s purple, pulped face, possessed with something she’ll never be able to explain to anyone who wasn’t born to be a Jaeger pilot—the conviction of a hero, the will of one broken and now reformed, the uncontainable drive of a righteous killing machine. And for once, Dash doesn’t gripe at me for waxing poetic. She knows I’m right, and also that our pulse is skyrocketing and our vision is washing out white.
Suddenly, the fighting stops. I hear the ocean crashing against the cliffside—the Bird’s ragged, hacking coughs. Frostbite’s backed off. The kaiju isn’t getting back up. Little by little, the tension leaves my legs, until each one feels hollow and light as air. I feel a hand on Chroma’s back—a gentle tug to the side. I can’t stop her from rolling off the Bird and onto her back, but I don’t need to. Before the Bird can lift itself up, Frostbite’s foot forces it back down, all her weight driven into the kaiju’s creaking chest.
For a moment, they just look at each other—machine and beast, predator and prey. I have a perfect view of them both—of the first stars speckling the horizon. I can’t see the rest of Chroma’s cockpit. I can’t feel my legs at all.
The kaiju struggles to lift its head, throat bulging, eyes screwed up with the strain of dredging up one last attack. Frostbite doesn’t say a word. She just raises her hand, clenches her fingers, cocks her shoulder back, and drives her fist—and the Bird’s skull—fifty feet deep into the seaside cliff wall. There’s a rumbling thoom as the rock face collapses, a burst of acid that sprays harmlessly up Frostbite’s arm—and nothing else. The Bird goes limp. The kaiju is dead.
“ONE MINUTE TO CORE FAILURE.”
Dash’s hooves feel like a warm blanket, like ocean waves rolling over me as I sink beneath the water’s surface. I’m tugged forward, backwards, then straight up in the air, the torn straps of my harness trailing off my arms. Dash yanks me to the left—the stars blur, and then wink out. A boulder the size of a semi-truck embeds itself in Chroma’s divot of a face. Hole in one. My toes are starting to tingle.
I’m free of Chroma’s sensory feed, but my mind still feels blunted, like my alarm’s going off and I’m still stuck in a dream. Dash’s wings flash in the corners of my eyes, feathers slapping against my shoulders as she dodges crumbling remnants of the cliff and lifts us higher towards its summit. Between my feet, Chroma’s broken form shrinks into view. I’ve never seen her like this before. The glow of her core paints the whole sea red.
I catch a glimpse of Frostbite sprinting towards Titan—I swear I can hear Star Swirl complaining too—and then we crest what’s left of the cliff face and beeline inland, every muscle in Dash’s forelegs straining to keep me with her. I’m dead weight, dangling limply beneath her. She can barely stay above the treetops skimming my ankles, let alone get us out of the blast radius of Chroma’s core, but still she keeps flying, and keeps her iron grip on me. She won’t leave me behind. I would die before I left her.
The last of the Drift’s fog lifts from my mind, leaving behind only an afterimage of sensation: bloodstained fingers slipping over each other, struggling to grab the stone humming beneath my throat. I fumble with my pilot suit, tearing the zipper down a few grinding notches at a time until I can get to the pendant bouncing off my dog tags. Most of its magic faded long ago, but we all still wear them on every sortie—a reminder of what we lost and what we still have, and maybe what’s about to save our punch-drunk blue butts.
The second I close my fingers around the geode, I feel it come to life in my palm—and not a moment too soon. When Dash’s strength gives out and my arms slip from her grasp, I hit the ground rolling and come up sprinting, faster and faster until the color fades from the trees and my feet leave smoke trails as they tear through the underbrush. Without a human to lug with her, Dash’s own magic lets her match my pace and then some, a rainbow streak trailing her in the air to match the one I leave behind me on the ground.
I don’t know how far we make it in the few seconds we have, just that it’s far enough. The shockwave of Chroma’s core failure still flattens trees in every direction and knocks Dash and I into a tangled heap, but when the dust clears and we sit up together beneath the sod-choked roots of a torn-up pine, we do it with working limbs and clear eyes—and a matching shudder as her wings fold in and my geode goes cold against my heaving chest.
“You good?” I ask her, though I’m barely able to get the words out before my trembling shoulders dump me onto my back again. I really did forget how much Equestrian magic takes out of you—and also fighting three kaiju and nearly dying three different times in less than an hour.
“I’m…” Dash flops onto her back next to me, wings and legs splayed out like a veritable Vitruvian Mare. “Fuck.”
“Ditto,” I mumble. “Also, language. Pretty sure ponies aren’t supposed to swear.”
“Fuck you,” is Dash’s reply, along with a listless slap against the comms unit in her pilot suit’s wrist. The radio’s fried—no doubt a byproduct of Chroma’s core detonating—but the analog radar beacon still works fine, even if it does make an ungodly noise while proving it. Save for the incessant beeping of our last link to civilization, we’re finally alone again.
“She did good,” I say to the sky.
“We did good,” Dash corrects, but after a moment she looks up at the sky too. “But yeah… I’m gonna miss her.”
With the last of my strength, I raise my fist and think of homes—a suburban two-bedroom, a cot in a military barrack, and most of all a two-hundred-seventy-six-foot nuclear-powered war machine that gave me more than I could ever give back.
“Rest in peace, Chroma,” I say. “Thanks for…”
My hand bounces off my chest, and my eyelids flutter and drift closed. Fuck it, she knows what I meant. Just pretend it was something poetic.
On our third day in the med bay, we’re finally allowed a visitor. Apparently, standard quarantine wasn’t enough for the brass this time, not only because we encountered three alien life forms instead of one and suffered acute cerebral exhaustion, but also because Rainbow and Dash, unkillable Jaeger pilots extraordinaire, are allegedly—I'm told I have to say—the biggest celebrities in the entire known universe right now.
Well, us plus Apple, Jack, Sweetie, and Belle—the former pair of whom are great to fight with but just the absolute worst roommates. I mean, the Home and Garden Network? Seriously, Jack? There’s only one TV in the room, you’ve gotta let us watch some of the news coverage following the "Battle of the Millennium.” Hell, The Shawflank Redemption is on at least four hundred channels at any given time of day, at least flip to that once in a while.
Anyway, obviously we weren’t allowed to talk to the media, even though they basically set up camp outside the base’s front gate and—allegedly—I’m very good in front of a camera. Based on snatches of conversation from passers-by in the hallway, though, I know that our fight alone bumped the Jaeger program’s approval rating by twenty points, and that a high-definition cut of our three video feeds—first Chroma’s, then Titan’s, and finally Frostbite’s for the killer finale—was the fastest a HayTube video has ever hit a hundred million views.
Not that I’m trying to humblebrag or anything. As a matter of principle, I always brag non-humbly.
When the door to our room opens, it actually takes a moment for me to even notice, engrossed as I am watching Dash fight the good fight for control of the TV channel. Hysterically, she’s even more pissed than me about the choice of entertainment—television's still kind of a novelty to most ponies, and she’ll be damned if she spends a nanosecond longer than she has to watching some mind-numbing house-hunting crap.
“Who cares which one they pick?” she moans in Apple’s direction. “They all look stupid, and his wife hates all three anyway!”
“It’s about the potential, Dash,” Jack says for like the eighth time. “You gotta get a house with good bones so ya can make it your own!”
“What… bones? It’s a house! Houses don’t have skeletons!”
A gentle knock from somewhere in front of me draws my attention away from my fellow pilots’ bickering. Of the six beds in the room, mine is closest to the door, so I’m the first to see the labcoat-clad woman with thick black specs and a tablet tucked under her arm, flanked by her similarly dressed purple pony pal.
“Hope we’re not interrupting anything important,” Twilight says, her cheeks darkening a bit as she puts on a familiar thin smile. Even after founding the Jaeger program as it exists today and claiming five kaiju kills from the cockpit of the first one she ever designed, nerdy little Sci-Twi still gets nervous when more than three people look at her at once. It’s probably my favorite thing about her. Out of all of us, she’s probably the one closest to still being human.
“Noooope, please interrupt,” Dash says, screwing up her eyes behind her IV-laden hoof. “Please, whatever gods still listen to us, talk about something other than resale value.”
I give a wave from my bed as Apple and Jack doff imaginary hats in perfect sync. At the far end of the room, Sweetie and Belle are uncharacteristically quiet, but the relief on both their faces isn’t hard to read. Unsurprisingly, Sparkle clues in quickly, sidling around her human counterpart to approach the youngest team in the room first.
“How are you two feeling?” she asks softly, ever the Princess of Friendship even though her kingdom is long gone. “Pretty exhausted, I bet.”
“Not really,” Sweetie answers, fingers drumming against the sheets covering her thighs. “Kind of stir-crazy, honestly. Have these guys always fought like this?”
“Pretty much since the day they met, yeah,” Twilight answers. I can’t complain. She’s not wrong. “Anything we can do to help while you’re here?”
Both Sweetie and Belle shake their heads and glance at each other. “Just… wanna get moving,” Belle replies. “Want to check on Frostbite and just…”
She doesn’t finish her sentence, nor does she need to. The look on her face, not to mention the pang in my chest, reminds me all too clearly of my first kaiju kill: the rush of confidence, the ecstasy of victory—and the nausea rolling through me over the next dozen nights, the memory of how a kaiju’s guts felt itching in my sweat-soaked fingers. Honestly, I’m kind of impressed how well they’re handling it. If they’d locked us up like this after our first fight, Dash and I probably would’ve chewed through the walls to get out.
“Well, on that note, I have good news and better news,” Twilight announces, once again wilting a bit as everyone’s eyes turn back to her. Really, though, I only notice it because I’ve known her for so long—she's gotten more confident by degrees over the past few years, and it shines through in every word she says next.
“First, the good news: although we’ll have to do a full core replacement in the former, Titan Sequoia and Frostbite Archangel are on pace for expedited repairs and should be combat-ready in three or four weeks. As for Chroma Vortex, her OS and black box were relatively intact barring some short-term data loss, so we should be able to incorporate them into the Mark V frame Sparkle and I are putting the finishing touches on. Within two months, all of you should be fully operational again.”
In the small pause that follows, Jack and I share a glance. Normally, it takes two months for the engineers to even acknowledge a dented shin guard around here. I can understand the brass being desperate to get at least one Jaeger fixed up quick in case another incursion breaks the usual pattern, but all three? Something’s different this time—and when I look at Twilight again, I get the impression she’s about to tell us what.
“And now, for the better news… well, actually, this requires a bit of explanation.”
I bite my lip and keep my sigh as quiet as possible. Of course it does, Twilight. But hey, not like I’m going anywhere anytime soon.
“So, as I’m sure you’re all aware,” Twilight continues as she sits on a stool between Dash’s bed and mine and props her tablet up on her legs, “your last encounter was… an anomaly, to say the least. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say they were predictable, previous kaiju attacks followed something of a noticeable pattern, increasing somewhat regularly in frequency and only occasionally involving more than one monster. A triple event like the one you all experienced is unheard of… or was, anyway.”
“They were trying to target us,” I tell her. I’m sure she knows already—I must have told a dozen different doctors, psychologists, and military analysts what Dash and I figured out before we killed the Serpent—but it bears repeating just in case. “Every attack before was aimed at civilians, but with this one, they wanted to take out the Jaegers themselves.”
Twilight nods, and her glasses slip down her nose. “Precisely,” she agrees as she pushes them back up with a finger. “This was a deliberate offensive maneuver. Whether it means whatever’s sending these things is annoyed or scared or hopefully desperate, we’re not sure yet. But what we do know is that this time, they were sloppy.”
Now Twilight unlocks the tablet and turns it around so we can see, a mess of animated data points spreading across the screen from left to right. “Every kaiju intrusion gives off outbound signals—mostly electromagnetic, some radioactive, some magical, all traceable if you know what to look for. At this point, we can predict an intrusion with about half an hour’s notice, but one thing we could never do before is get a signal of our own into the portal. Radar, sonar, unmanned probes—everything hit a wall before it could get in. Like a containment shield around the rift itself, only letting kaiju out and letting nothing else in.”
She swipes her thumb from right to left across the bottom of the screen. Now it shows a cartoonish image of what looks like the Grand Canyon with a dome covering its bed. “This time, though, three kaiju came through in rapid succession, meaning we got enough data to prove something I’ve suspected for a while: the barrier around the rift is much simpler than we thought it was. There’s no spellwork or advanced technology behind it—basically, it’s just a biometric scanner for kaiju DNA. A rather crude one, actually—effectively no different than a metal detector at an airport.”
A tap on the screen animates the canyon again: a tiny kaiju sprite rises towards the dome, pauses while a halo of light passes over it, and then keeps ascending straight through the dome and out of the canyon. “Anything the barrier thinks is a living kaiju, it lets through—and theoretically, if a kaiju were to survive a fight and retreat, it would work both ways. Except it’s not theoretical because, well… we tested it while you all were recovering.”
Apple gives voice to the obvious question. “With what?”
Twilight blinks. “With a kaiju. Well, part of a kaiju.” Now she turns to me, an oddly sheepish twist to her lips. “Hope you didn’t want Nerodia’s head as a trophy. We didn’t have time to ask.”
I can gather that Nerodia is what the brass have posthumously named the Serpent, but that doesn’t stop a cold twinge from poking at my gut. “But we killed it,” I say, half to Twilight and half to myself. “Right?”
“Oh, absolutely!” Twilight says, seeming to suddenly catch what she implied. “Nerodia was very dead by the time we found its head. But not all of its cells were, and we got enough of them into a probe to bypass the rift’s barrier.” Giddily, she giggles to herself before continuing. “Honestly, I still can’t believe it worked, but we did it. We actually got a probe inside the rift. And best of all, we confirmed that we don’t even need a living kaiju to do it, just a convincing enough simulation of one’s genetic code.”
Suddenly, the pieces start to fit together in my mind. Rapidly accelerating Jaeger repairs, giving Twilight the go-ahead on a half-baked theory like this… the brass don’t want to just bask in this narrow victory. They want to strike back. They want to end this entire thing. For once in my life, I actually agree with them.
“We’re going inside the rift,” I guess aloud. “We’re taking the fight to them.”
Twilight nods, chewing on her lip in barely contained excitement. “Not just you. Everyone. The whole gang.”
“The whole…” Jack trails off. She can’t believe what she’s hearing any more than I can.
“Romeo Amethyst is shipping out from Brisbane at month’s end, and Dynamite Papa’s already arrived from Antofagasta. Once Foxtail Hornet is done with refurbishment in Tokyo, Flutter and Shy are in too.” A furtive smile flashes through Twilight’s cheeks. “And this is technically a state secret, so I can’t confirm anything on the record… but off the record, I heard a rumor that Nightfall Aurora might have one last sortie left in her.”
I flop back against my pillows, mind racing with possibilities. A half-dozen Jaegers on one mission isn’t an attack force—it's a whole goddamn army. If we pull this off, the war could be over by summer. We could end the kaiju threat forever—close the rift, take out the maniacs who made it, make them pay for every single life they’ve robbed us of with interest.
“What’s the gameplan?” I ask. “When do we make this happen?”
“Still to be determined,” Twilight says. “There’s more data to collect and more variables to account for in the meantime, but for now, all I need to know is: are you in?”
I start to reply, but Sparkle cuts me off. “Rainbow, think before you say anything. We might have a way in, but we have no idea whether we have a way out. This could end the war… and it could also be a one-way trip.”
Well, duh. I expected to hear that, and it does nothing to change my answer. What I don’t expect is for someone else to beat me to the punch.
“We’re in,” Belle says, Sweetie every bit her equal in determination and sheer intensity. “For Scootaloo.”
Apple meets their eyes, then Dash’s, then Sparkle’s. “For Big Mac.”
“For Apple Bloom,” Jack follows.
Dash looks at me, and even without the Drift I know exactly what she’s feeling—what's glinting in her eyes and radiating through her frame. “For Equestria.”
My answer’s simple too. “For Earth.”
Sparkle smiles, her answer quiet as if she only needs herself to hear it. “For Shiny.”
One by one, we all face Twilight once more—who for the first time today actually looks fully flustered. “Okay, really thought you guys were just gonna say yes or no…” she mumbles. “Um… for science?”
The silence swells in all our throats, and then explodes in gasping, uncontrollable laughter. “For science!” I shout, pumping a fist as Twilight goes beet-red. “And come on, for the Seattle fuckin’ Seven, baby!”
The last callout gets the biggest reception of all—enough that a nurse rushes in to remind us that we need our rest and to please shut the hell up while getting it. Don’t know what she was expecting to happen with eight Jaeger pilots—soon to be fourteen—all in one base together. But even once we pipe down and Sparkle leads Twilight away to practice motivational calls-and-responses, I still feel like I’m walking on water, three hundred feet above the waves with the power of a modern-day god coursing through my magic and metal form.
The kaiju took a lot from us—our childhoods, our families, almost our survival as species. But they also brought us together—as guardians of those who couldn’t defend themselves, as partners from different shattered worlds, and as living, breathing beings that specialize in fulfilling death wishes. We made monsters of our own, but we put humans and ponies inside them. And with all of us together, we’re gonna hand—and hoof—these kaiju the greatest unified ass-kicking the multiverse will ever see.
And most importantly of all: while Jack was whooping like a prize-winning rodeo star, I got my hands on the TV remote. Small victories, man. That’s what being alive is all about.