The restless drag and catch of a fountain pen over coarse, unbleached paper was unbearably loud in the loft room after curfew. Jamie Lam bit his lip and said nothing, staring out of the scratched, fogged windows over a quiescent Hong Kong. The streets below, heaving and pulsing with life during the day, were empty except for the occasional Patrol; lumbering one-person suits just over ten feet tall that swept a constant AFR beam ahead of them.

“I’ll get the message to Troy,” said Esther, head still bent over the paper. “You just need to…” she stopped. The sirens has started, winding up to full intensity from speaker-posts at ground level. Drifting high on the still air, just over a decade ago they told the population one thing – the Kaiju were coming. Run. Hide. Wait for the Jaegers, wait for salvation. Now? With the Kaiju long gone, there were new terrors in the night. Ones which, had they given it any thought at the time, everyone should have seen coming.

A light shone into the room from across the bay. Esther saw her husband silhouetted against the gritted rectangle of the window, heard herself yelling at him to get out of sight. AFR was effective from that distance, with the amplified tech, and they had his face on file. They knew what he was working to achieve.

Faces now masked, they looked cautiously from the window to the giant machine standing sentinel over the city. The pattern of lights was unmistakable: Jackdaw Tyrant. Of course it was. The Dvorak Twins had declared themselves rulers of Hong Kong after tearing Ruby Apostate apart and tipping her pilots into the ocean. The Apostate was the last defender of Hong Kong, the last Jaeger to uphold the honour of the PPDC, the last destroyer of monsters that was not a monster itself.

When the Jaeger programme was renewed, it wasn’t long before the PPDC realised it was more powerful than any government. It took the world under its wing, as the Secretary General put it. Global protection, it trumpeted, was now in the very best hands – and in the commercials here they would show the giant, outspread mechanical hand of an unspecified Jaeger. What it didn’t show was the hand coiling into a fist, and squeezing the world till it bled. The PPDC fell apart in a swift and destructive civil war. Various factions declared “Protectorates” theirs; vast areas of land, delineated not by the old borders of countries but simply by the reach of the various Shatterdomes, of which some were the established bases from the Kaiju War, some were hastily thrown up by factions consolidating their power, wherever they needed to now the urgency of coastal bases was lost.

Now humanity lived a haunted life. As normal as it could manage, by day, cowering in fear at night. At any time the Patrols might burst into your apartment and carry you away as a seditious element. There was no appeal, no system; the Shatterdome groups were the law. And if that wasn’t worrying enough, there was a constant nagging fear that a raid might occur, that a rival Dome would make a grab for some further territory. You were collateral damage in these cacophonous bouts for supremacy. If you were lucky, you would witness your neighbourhood swept away with a careless swipe of a hundred-foot sword. If you were unlucky, you were in it at the time.

Tonight the citizens of Hong Kong sat restlessly in their homes, not knowing whether to flee into the arms of the Patrols or sit tight, hoping destruction did not come. The siren was a warning, but it didn’t mean the raid would happen. Few would challenge the Jackdaw, a hulking, scarred monstrosity of chrome and afterburners. If there was an attack – most likely from the Mongolian Dome, who had been quiet all summer as if plotting – Jamie and Esther knew this was an opportunity to courier their message out to Troy. To slip away in the chaos and flame. They knew what they would be leaving behind. It was less and less with every move. Family. Friends. Stability. All gone, now. A few contacts here, now. Good people, working for common cause, but if they never saw the Lams again, they would not weep, and the feelings were mutual.

The siren wailed on. Esther picked up the pen and, spilling ink, making mistakes, lines curling to the base of the page, tried hastily to finish the note. It was the only way to communicate safely now. Nothing electronic could not be intercepted, and no code sent could not be cracked so they were using pen ink and one-time pads. Just like the old days.

“Come on, I can hear something,” said Jamie, urgency straining to crack his voice. But he kept himself down, kept himself back. There was no profit in losing control. He had to keep himself kind, they all did. It felt like resistance of the spirit. “There!” and there was a distant boom, a thud that shook the bulbs in their sockets.

Esther blotted the paper, blew on it helplessly, then rolled it up and stuffed it into her jacket. “Come, come,” she held out her hand and Jamie grabbed it as he shrugged on his coat. They both ran to the door, stumbling slightly as another tremor shivered the floor beneath their feet.

On the streets, it became clear that they had waited to long. Lights flooded the Northern horizon, and the hulking form of the Elektra Dismal heaved itself into view. Embracing the inevitable, the Elektra looked more like a Kaiju than anything, hunched, spiked, mis-shapen. If the first waves of Jaegers had been designed as paragons, this was a fallen star, a demonic twisting of the high ideals it once would have represented. Esther and Jamie were now caught in a direct line between the Elektra and the Jackdaw. That they had left their building was perhaps the only advantage they had.

The first blow was struck by the Elektra Dismal. A volley of cannon fire – huge, solid shells fired from a mis-shapen wrist – thundered across the night, most falling short of their target, one clipping the building the Lams had just vacated, swerving it off-course and bringing it down noisily in the bay. Rubble from the stricken apartment block showered the streets below, but the couple were running hard for the boat that awaited them at the dock. The Jackdaw Tyrant brushed the cannon shells off like paintball capsules, burst ineffectually on its arm, and moved to engage the Elektra at close range. With its ungainly stooping posture and underpowered limbs this was known as its greatest weakness. The Jackdaw had no such problems, light on its feet as a prizefighter.

This brought the two machines within the city limits, feet crushing lower buildings and taunting poses bringing upper floors tumbling down through high buildings like funfair rides gone horribly wrong. It was a scene imagined first by the Ancient Greeks, their Gods brought down from Olympus tossing mountain ranges at bellowing Titans. The Elektra sent out another long-range attack, a rain of white phosphor that lit the night daylight bright and scarred lines across the Jackdaw’s paint, burning a white-hot crucifix over its left eye. But it did not slow down. It did not even hear the cries of the people of Hong Kong, caught burning beneath this deadly shower, and even if it had it would not have thought to protect them.

“Protectorate” was a cruel joke, thought Esther as she ran, hand in hand with her husband, through the quaking roadways to the docks. It was a fiefdom, a place of plunder and enslavement. What she was doing with Jamie, through her contact with Troy, through the network, was unthinkable but it was also the only way out that anyone could see. She was shaking her head to clear her eyes from the glare of the distant phosphor when she ran into Jamie’s back. He was standing with his arms out, warning her to stay where she was. At first it wasn’t clear what the problem was.

Then the tail of the Elektra Dismal swooped in strange silence past their position, the air somehow undisturbed by its passage. This peculiar moment was broken when it crashed full-speed into a building, a warehouse blooming in a flower of dust and brick, broken glass sending sparks of reflected light deep into the night sky. They ran, as Jackdaw Tyrant reached a range close enough to engage and swung a wild fist hard enough to punch a dent into the side armour of the Elektra. Metal howled in the dark, and the raiding Jaeger staggered back.

The docks were not far now, the lights of the boats visible on the higher points of the road, bobbing and swaying wildly as the two giant robots slammed into each other again. Esther called out to her husband and pointed to the small vessel they knew was waiting for them, keys tucked in a coil of rope on the deck. Jamie nodded, unable to reply as a cloud of dust coated his face and choked his breath. He pulled his face mask off to shake the dust from it. Behind them a roar, as the Elektra Dismal played its hidden card.

The Dvorak Twins in the Jackdaw Tyrant were not expecting the newest modification, planned in frustrating secret under the Mongolian Dome. The plated skin of the Elektra began to glow red, tiny heated vessels running beneath it pushing it beyond the tolerance of the Jackdaw’s capacitors. With both Jaegers locked in a grotesque bearhug, the Jackdaw began simply to melt under the onslaught from its opponent. The Elektra roared again, a giant bellowing siren mimicking calls of the now-vanquished Kaiju that it aped in appearance. It surged forward, grappling Hong Kong’s mocking protector, pushing it to its suddenly-weak knees, fusing its dripping metal body with the lurid entertainment complex they had clashed beside.

The heat could be felt at the waterside, and the thrashing of the Jackdaw as it tried desperately to fight back caused tremors that almost threw the Lams into the water. But they held their nerve, located the boat and found, thank God, the key to the ignition. Jamie turned to his wife, smiling in nervous relief, and at that moment a Patrol caught his face, still maskless, in its AFR beam.

Even in the chaos of the battle behind them, the Patrol was still heavy enough for its steps to send tiny tremors through the network of jettys, pontoons and platforms that formed the dock. It headed at full speed to where Jamie stood, arms rigid by his side, awaiting apprehension. He shivered in the warm air. The mech suit’s PA was already declaring him under arrest. It did not read him his rights; he did not have any.

He was to be taken to the internment camp, he knew. So many of his friends, his family, were already there. Perhaps some of them were even still alive. His hope now was that Esther would, in the time he had bought for her with his freedom, be able to get the message to Troy. It was a foolish hope, the desperate hope of the outlaw, but it was all he or anyone else had.

They were going to summon the Kaiju. They were going to fight back.

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