Forged in Fire, Chapter 31

High above Northern California

The pilot whipped her head around, seeking her quarry as she banked her F-22 Raptor to the right. A sudden flicker of movement caught her attention, and a gentle flick of her right wrist caused the massive fighter to snap around to face the target. Gotcha!

Tearing the air asunder with nearly 35 tons of thrust, the 5th Generation jet fighter closed on the target… which suddenly bolted for the mountainous terrain below.

The Raptor accelerated like the bird of prey it was named for and stooped towards the ground, hell-bent on catching the intruder. Finally, the jet got close enough to see the target: Another F-22 Raptor, currently disappearing around a bend in the canyon ahead.

The two fighters wove through the Shasta County forests at just under the speed of sound for several minutes, the lead plane never escaping, the trailing one never getting a missile lock, leading to a truly ear-melting string of obscenities from both pilots.

Suddenly, the lead plane pitched skyward, riding on a pillar of fire as the afterburners kicked in full-blast, hurling the fighter upwards like a rocket.

The trailing pilot smiled at her good fortune and armed an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile and waited for the growl that indicated a lock.

"Vrrrrrrrrr….."

The lethal missile flashed off the rail and raced towards its target…

Only to have the world go black right before the missile could impact.

-.-.-

Aerospace Museum of California

Hardie Seltzer Pavilion

June 21, 2025

1145

Mako slammed her fist against the padding of the simulator chair. "I almost had him!" She pulled the Oculus Rift III headset off and sighed as the full-motion simulator returned to the "parked" position.

The red-vested docent opened the cockpit. "How was it?"

"Frustrating. I almost had him. The Sidewinder was a second away!"

Not far away, Raleigh's smug face stared back at her. "Nicely done, Mako. You almost had me."

"Yeah, if the timer hadn't run out, I would have shot you down."

Herc chuckled. "Now now, children, play nice. We're in public, remember?"

The two Rangers hopped out of the cockpits and walked out into the air park.

Mako was instantly drawn to one plane in particular: The F-14D Tomcat that lived near the back fence. "It's so powerful, but sleek. Just like Gipsy."

Herc chuckled. "I'm more fond of the Pig, over here." He patted his hand against the fuselage of the next plane over, a hulking F-111 Aardvark. "Wanted to fly one of these when I was younger. Still do, as a matter of fact. But they were retired before the Kaiju War, and I wound up being sent to helicopters. Faster than anything else out there at sea level, and had a huge bomb load that it could put down on a target with pinpoint accuracy." He looked around. "Where's Raleigh?"

Mako looked around and spotter her copilot over at the far side of the park, looking over an A-10A Warthog. "Herc, this way."

Raleigh walked around the plane, admiring the deceptively brilliant design. He spotted Mako approaching, a curious look on her face. "Come look at this thing, Mako. It's brilliant."

Mako came over to look, and found herself staring at the business end of the A-10's primary weapon: The GAU-8 Avenger 30mm rotary cannon. "Don't we use these for anti-missile defense at the Shatterdomes?"

Raleigh nodded. "Yeah, but this is what it was designed for: shredding enemy tanks." He looked wistfully at the massive gun assembly. "I wonder if we can use these on mechs against small Kaiju… should they emerge."

Mako's lack of verbal response was more than made up for by the feeling Raleigh had come to associate with Mako's brain going into overdrive as she worked on a problem. He'd also learned that if he was quiet and just sat there, not thinking about much at all… she seemed to be able to work the problem faster. Whether that was due to fewer distractions, or if she somehow tapped into his brain's spare processing power, he wasn't sure. All he knew was that she wouldn't come out of her trance-like state until she'd put a big dent in the problem.

Herc looked at the Rangers as Raleigh sat down next to Mako on the ground beneath the wing of the Warthog. Mako's distant gaze told Herc all he needed to know. Her mind was elsewhere, working on something. So Herc walked around the airpark taking in all the sights before heading inside to look at the rocket engines again. He stared at the LR-87-11 engines hanging from the ceiling and whistled as the sheer power they packed sank in.

"Can I answer any questions, sir?"

Herc turned to look at the docent. "Nah, not for this. The Warthog, however…"

"By all means. What do you want to know?"

Herc walked outside and pointed at the gun. "I've always wondered, ever since K Day, why these things weren't used more often against the Kaiju."

"Well, they didn't do much more than piss off the Kaiju. It was like being hit with a bunch of splinters, I guess. Besides, once the Jaegers came online, we didn't really need to have much air support. The Jaegers usually got to the Kaiju fast enough to avoid demolishing a whole city."

"I know. I took out 15 in two Jaegers."

The docent's eyes bugged out as he recognized Herc.

"I was just wondering if the USAF had any left in service. They… might be due for some upgrades."

"Yes, Marshall. They're based in Tuscon, Arizona."

"Hmm." Herc noticed Mako gently shake her head and stand up, Raleigh right beside her. "Thanks for the information."

Mako and Raleigh began to head into the building once again, catching the docent's gaze. "That's Gipsy's crew, isn't it."

Herc nodded.

"Tell them I said thanks."

"Count on it."

-.-.-

Mako and Raleigh's bedroom

June 22, 2025

0600

Raleigh woke up moments before his alarm and shut it off, then slipped out of bed. Mako murmured in her sleep before falling silent again. Good… Raleigh was getting dressed when he realized what day it was. More importantly, what day of the month it was tomorrow. Crud… I need to get that set up today. He scrapped his plans for a morning workout and opted for a jog instead. Got to find a place now!

He hit the pavement and started jogging towards the nearest major shopping center, remembering the storefront he'd seen a few days prior. As he jogged, he spotted something he hadn't seen before that made him rethink some other plans he had for later that week. Finally, someone to help me with that project of mine. He pressed on and found the dojo open, even so early on a Sunday. Once he saw who ran the classes, though, it instantly made sense.

Raleigh stepped through the door, causing a small bell to jingle overhead. A small Japanese man arrived and looked at Raleigh, shock evident on his face. "Becket-san?"

Raleigh bowed to his former fightmaster from the Ranger Academy. "Sensei."

"What brings you to Sacramento?"

"Many things."

"Well, make sure to bring Mori-san along next time."

"That's… kinda why I'm here this morning. Do you remember if Mako's fighting became more… aggressive… towards the last week of the month?"

The older man nodded. "It did. Often with frightening results for anyone on the receiving end of it. Why do you ask?"

"We need a spot for Mako to safely blow off some steam, and I'm the only person we know of that she can spar with safely."

"I know. The video of you two sparring in Hong Kong has finally surpassed the Gage twins doing the Macarena in Romeo Blue."

Raleigh stumbled for a moment in shock. "What? That was the most viewed video on all time for years!"

"Well, now you two hold the top two spots. 'Boatswording a Kaiju' has become the most viewed, and your sparring session is hot in pursuit. We've had a lot of people coming in wanting to learn how to spar with hanbos."

Raleigh shook his head in awe. "I didn't realize that it was that popular."

"It is now. Now, when did you want to come by with Mori-san?"

"Uhm…" Raleigh did some quick math in his head. "Lunchtime tomorrow."

"Then I shall see you then."

Raleigh once again bowed in respect, then headed to the farmer's market, hoping to find some strawberries.

-.-.-

PPI R&D Offices

June 23, 2025

1107

Mako had been trying to design a new Conn Pod component for three hours when she finally decided to just scrap the idea. She "grabbed" the holographic part, slammed it to the desk to flatten it out, then wadded it up like a sheet of paper and threw it at the wall, where it bounced and fell into a holographic garbage can before promptly dissolving.

Raleigh poked his head into her office. "Hey, everything okay?"

"No… I can't focus." Mako rubbed her temples, trying to get back on track.

"I've got an idea. Come on, let's go take a lunch break."

Curious, Mako followed Raleigh out to the parking lot where their new self-driving car awaited. "What's your idea?"

Raleigh grinned as he got into the car. "You'll see."

Mako scowled at him.

"Relax, Mako. You'll enjoy it, I promise."

-.-.-

10 minutes later

Mako got out of the car and looked at Raleigh. "Really?"

Raleigh laughed. "No, next one down." He pointed.

Mako followed the gesture… and smiled. "Okay, that's better."

Raleigh put his hand on Mako's shoulder. "Come on, there's someone inside I want you to meet."

The small bell over the door chimed, and Mako gasped as she spotted her fightmaster from the Academy. She bowed in respect. "Sensei."

"Mori-san, it is good to see you again."

"Likewise."

Raleigh and Mako headed onto the mat and accepted their hanbos from the fightmaster, then bowed to each other.

Then, the fight was on, and the Rangers fell into their adrenaline-boosted Ghost Drift, ignoring everything except each other as they danced across the mat. Their skilled and lightning-fast blows attracted the attention of others in the dojo, and they once again drew a large crowd as they sparred for nearly 10 minutes.

Mako felt the frustration and anger leave her as she hammered away at Raleigh, who simply blocked or redirected every strike without counterattacking. Finally she backed off and the Rangers fell into their more typical give-and-take style, the same fighting style that had been filmed four weeks earlier and had skyrocketed to the top of the YouTube most-viewed list.

Finally, Mako and Raleigh stopped with hanbos crossed, breathing in unison, hearts pounding as one, as cheers and applause came from all around them. The Rangers just stood there for a moment, enjoying the moment, before Mako's stomach grumbled, reminding them that it was lunchtime, after all.

Raleigh smiled. "Want to go back to the apartment and get some lunch?"

Mako smiled, feeling much better. "Yes, but only if I get the shower first."

"Deal."

-.-.-

30 minutes later

Raleigh stepped out of the bathroom to the smell of something… well, he wasn't quite sure what was going on, but it seemed to be originating from the kitchen. "Mako? Everything okay?"

No response.

Raleigh rushed into the kitchen to find Mako staring at the rice cooker that Jaz had left for them. "Mako? What's going on?"

Mako just gestured at the rice cooker, her embarrassment too great to even speak.

Raleigh lifted the lid off and stared at the burnt mess inside. "Mako… it's a rice cooker."

"So?"

Raleigh closed the lid, fighting back laughter. "How the hell do you burn rice in a rice cooker?!"

"I don't know." Mako was clearly mortified by her failed experiment at cooking. "Obviously, I have a lot to learn about cooking."

Raleigh just shook his head in amusement as he headed back to their bedroom to get dressed. "Alright, we'll go out for lunch. You pick this time, though."

Mako just stared at the culinary disaster she had made. I just need to set aside some time with the girls to learn how to cook. And soon.

-.-.-

Author's notes: Thanks to Jocelyn's outstanding story "Aurora Borealis" for the idea of the Jaegers dancing. (sorry, forgot to put thanks in the first time round.)

The scene with Mako burning the rice is based off one that reportedly happened to a coworker of mine.

The scene with the simulators was inspired by Legendary's announcement that they would be bringing a Jaeger Simulator to San Diego Comic Con this year.