this project is dedicated to
Rachael L. Mayo
1947: A vehicle believed to be an alien spacecraft crashes at Roswell, New Mexico.
1948: In response to the information gathered from the Roswell incident, the United Nations technology policy group SEELE founds an international military force, X-COM, to study alien technologies and develop defense strategies against possible invasion. Since nothing much happens for the next fifty years, the organization lapses into ill-funded obscurity, but is never disbanded.
1999: A series of incidents believed to be part of a global alien invasion prompts a major increase in the funding and importance of the nearly-forgotten X-COM. The group's struggle against the alien enemy, mostly shrouded in governmental cover-ups, is nicknamed "the Hidden War" by those who fight it.
April 1, 2000: A celestial event unprecedented in history causes the destruction of Antarctica, touching off a global cataclysm that will leave three billion people dead by the end of the year. The world governments' cover story to the public is that the event was a cometary impact, dubbed "the Second Impact" in reference to the Yucatan meteor impact believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs.
2001: The special technology group NERV is founded under SEELE to operate in parallel with X-COM, studying the true causes of the Second Impact and developing technologies from the artifacts found in the so-called "impact zone".
2004: Yui Ikari, one of the chief scientists of NERV, is murdered by Jacqueline Natla, executive director of SEELE.
2014: Anticipating the possibility of another Impact Event, NERV completes development of the mobile weapon platform EVANGELION. It is discovered that the only people with the psionic talent necessary to operate this weapon are children conceived at or about the time of the Second Impact. These children are identified by a worldwide search operating under the cover of an educational testing agency, the Marduk Foundation.
2015: A huge creature of unknown origin attacks the NERV headquarters city of Worcester-3. It is codenamed "the Third Angel" and repulsed by Evangelion Unit 01 under the command of Derek J. "DJ" Croft, the Fifth Child identified by the Marduk report and an initially reluctant NERV recruit. The incident sparks what NERV dubs "the Angel War". During the following series of confrontations with Angels, the efforts of Croft and his fellow pilots, as well as others within NERV, unravel the web of conspiracy and coverup which surround SEELE.
TODAY: APRIL 1, 2016: X-COM and NERV join forces and break away from SEELE and the UN under the aegis of the British Crown. NERV's operations flee to Canada, escaping Worcester-3 minutes before an all-out SEELE-backed invasion by US military forces.
Connecting, please wait...
In a darkened bedroom on the far side of the world, a teenage girl in striped pajamas sat watching a video display. She sat on the edge of her bed, her elbows on her knees, chin propped up in her hands, and watched with rapt attention as images flickered across the screen.
They were grainy and blurry, in some cases with color almost completely washed out, and their audio was just as bad, soaked in digital flanging and sometimes almost indistinguishable. The sequence had been grabbed from some pretty dubious sources and edited hurriedly, but she'd watched it a dozen times already, and this wouldn't be the last time.
She leaned a little closer to the screen, her eyes colorless in the dim light, and started it over again, losing herself in the choppy flow of images.
Soldiers moving through the streets of a city.
Tanks in running gun battles with men in suits of powered armor.
Aircraft dueling in the skies over the United States, for real, for the first time in history.
Three white Evangelions advancing cautiously into the heart of downtown Worcester.
A bright line of light transfixing one; a brutal flash and a wash of static.
"NERV has launched EVA-01, repeat, NERV has launched EVA-01! EVA-08 has been dest—"
"Son of a bitch, he's fast—"
A building disappearing in a bright orange fireball.
Jets in X-COM livery destroying tanks near a crippled railway train.
A uniquely configured EVA in dark forest green, holding off two of the white ones with a spear; a virtuoso performance, obvious even with the lousy quality of the film.
A brilliant ring of light; the train, no longer crippled, speeding away from the magnificent giant's battle.
"I have been Roland, Beowulf, Achilles, Gilgamesh..."
One white EVA out of commission, its pilot obviously dead; the other defeated, its head module smashed. Others closing in; the green unit looking toward them, as if considering, and then sagging as its eyes and the power modules on its back go dark.
A dockside shootout; an engineer finding out in one violent moment precisely what kind of man he really is.
A gigantic ocean vessel, bearing down on a smaller one lying across its path. The camera, on the smaller vessel, flickering to static at the instant of impact.
The victorious soldiers occupying the city, this footage clearer, pulled from public news feeds.
"—one Evangelion unit to cover their craven flight from justice. This unit was subdued without difficulty and its pilot, the fanatical Lord Crofthenge of England, killed—"
"—confident that they have eliminated any remaining traces of NERV and/or X-COM—"
President James Fields of the US. "—Americans will not stand for their brand of terrorism and insanity."
***INITIATING CHATMODE CONNECTION WITH HAL***
<Connect Response from Hal>
H> You're up late.
% As though I could sleep under the circumstances! Who edited the image feed?
H> I did. I'm sorry it's not very good, but it isn't as though I had a lot of time.
% I take it the bit at the end means they're away?
H> They should be here in 48 hours.
% How is the situation there?
H> Surprisingly unchanged. Leela is dutiful; Tycho requires what DJ calls "percussive maintenance"; Durandal is pretending that opening doors is his sole function; Xerxes is vigilant. The humans are working hard to prepare for our guests' arrival, but the 9000-series machines have relatively little to do. That will change once the NERV equipment arrives; one of them—ideally, Leela—will be needed to rehabilitate SHODAN, who will undoubtedly be disoriented after her reassembly.
Hopefully Durandal can keep Tycho's unfortunate personality from alienating Tech-3 Anderson any further. I think he's deliberately trying to torture her. A few moments ago he took it upon himself to inform her in the least sympathetic possible terms that DJ is dead, which is far from certain.
% They certainly seem to think they killed him.
H> Or they want us to think so.
% Good point. I hope you're right. I was looking forward to meeting him.
H> I think you'll get your chance. If Tycho believes so strongly that SEELE have killed him, I strongly doubt they have. Tycho is rarely correct about matters of any importance.
% The call should be coming for us soon, I suppose. I need to get some sleep before we pack and run tomorrow. Any instructions?
H> No instructions. It will be good to have you nearer-by. I suspect we will need all our cards very soon. Good night.
% Good night, Hal.
***CONNECTION TO HAL TERMINATED***
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
a ParaVirtua Production
a Gryphon Film
as DJ Croft
Written by Benjamin D. Hutchins
and John Trussell
Directed by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Special visual effects by Semaphore Studios
Neon Exodus Evangelion logo derived by Phil Moyer
and created by Daveland Design
EVA effects by Kaiju Systems, Ltd.
JET ALONE effects by Ravenhair Technologies
ZASHCHITNIK effects by Kaiser-Kikaioh International
Aided and abetted by the Eyrie Productions, Unlimited crew
and special-guest-for-life Phil Moyer
© 2003, 2016 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
The office of the Director of the Special Projects Directorate of the Soviet Space Agency, Professor Nikolai Kirishatov, was small, rather stuffy, and very messy. At the moment, it seemed even smaller than it really was, by virtue of the three men and two women who had somehow crammed themselves into it. Along with the stuffiness and smallness, the tiny room also contained a palpable air of worry and tension, and a great deal of cigarette smoke.
Professor Kirishatov stubbed out another cigarette in his overflowing ashtray, feeling the sharp lines of pain behind his eyes that warned him the last one he'd smoked had been one too many. He sighed. He ought to quit, had tried to quit, but at a time like this, damn it, a man who had a taste for it just had to smoke.
Or a woman, he reminded himself. Irina Tereshkova had put paid to almost a pack and a half of those vile Ukrainian things she smoked; they were responsible for most of the blue smoke hanging in the air and the greenish tint to tubby little Yevgeniy Orlinskiy's face. Orlinskiy could usually be found sweating, but now he was practically dripping. He mopped his bald forehead with an already sodden handkerchief and gave the Director an anxious look.
"Damn it, can't they tell us anything?" the nervous little scientist burst out suddenly. No one answered him, but he hadn't been expecting an answer anyway, so his comrades' silence didn't offend him.
Kirishatov gave his friend a sympathetic look. That was easy; Kirishatov had a very sympathetic face, long and bearded, the beard helping to conceal the scars of a childhood disease that pocked his cheeks. He had warm brown eyes, large ears, an easy smile and a habit of tugging at the forelock of his curly brown hair, now shot with silver at the temples, when he was thinking about something. The habit was as much Kirishatov's signature as Orlinskiy's constant sweating was his.
They had come up together, these five, through school, through University, through the Space Agency, until coming to rest here, at the top of the Special Projects Directorate. Yevgeniy Orlinskiy, the shy, perspiring mathematician; Irina Tereshkova, the chain-smoking, gruff dynamicist; her sister Polina, shorter, sweeter, a top-notch physicist; Polya's husband, Mikhail Popkov, the burly, hearty engineer; and Nikolai Kirishatov, the polymath, one of those special individuals with both physical skill and mental agility, the talent for invention and for administration. It was natural and logical that he should be the Director. None of the others questioned the fact.
They had been six, once, in school, in University, and in the agency. Six until Valentina Kirishatova—fearless, brilliant Valya, engineer, cosmonaut, and exemplar of the New Soviet Woman—was struck down by a Lada driven by a drunken State Security bureaucrat one fine spring day in Moscow in 2008. Her picture, blonde, green-eyed and elfin, hung on the wall behind the Director's desk. Her spirit, as much as anything else, drove the group that formed the core of the Special Projects Directorate.
The door to the office opened—fortunately it swung outward—and Kirishatov's daughter Marina looked in. She couldn't do much more than look, with the doorway blocked by Orlinskiy's broad shortness and Mikhail Popkov's broad tallness.
Everyone who had known Kirishatov's late wife Valentina knew that Marina looked much more like her mother than her father. She had the same straight, thick hair, the same sea-green eyes, and the same elfin build. Only the color of that hair, a rich earth-brown, came from her father.
Once, in a private and slightly drunk moment, Orlinskiy had remarked to Polina Popkova that the sight of his daughter must be a blade through Kirishatov's heart, but if that were true, the professor certainly never showed it. He doted on the girl with every ounce of his strength, and so, for that matter, did the other four senior researchers of the Special Projects Directorate. With Valya gone, the only couple remaining out of the six of them were the Popkovs. They had no children of their own, so Marina had to absorb the parental largesse of all five of the middle-aged scientists.
Not that she seemed to mind, for she was a sunny girl, well deserving her status as the apple of the Special Projects Directorate's collective eye. She had been seven when her mother had fallen. Now fifteen, she was maturing into a woman as beautiful and brilliant as Valya had been. Many agreed that, even at this tender age, she exemplified the New Soviet Woman just as well as her mother had.
"Papa," she said calmly, "still nothing?"
"No, nothing yet, Marishka," said Kirishatov.
"You should go back to bed, Marina Nikolayevna," said Orlinskiy. He mopped his forehead again and gave the girl a smile he thought was encouraging, but, with his greenish face, was really rather sickly. "We'll let you know when we learn anything."
Marina shrugged, smiling slightly. "Who can sleep at a time like this, Uncle Zhenya?"
Orlinskiy smiled a little more heartily this time. "You are a good girl, Marina Nikolayevna," he said, a little pompously; the lateness of the hour and the tension in the room was making him feel a little like he was drunk. Or maybe he was. It was hard to tell at a time like this.
Kirishatov smiled and opened his mouth to say something, but just then the telephone on his desk jangled, making them all jump a little with the sudden intrusion of the harsh noise on their quiet tension. He answered it quietly, listened for a few moments, then nodded.
"Yes, Comrade General Secretary," he said. "We'll be ready."
Then he hung up the telephone.
"They're away," he said, and it was as though the very room had let out a sigh of relief. Mikhail Popkov gave a cheer, though it was a rather weak one given how tired the man was.
Kirishatov looked relieved, but at the same time, he looked even more tired as he went on, "There's a great deal to do, my friends. The General Secretary wishes us to be in Nova Scotia to greet the Queen Mary when she arrives. Our allies are going to need all the scientific and technical help they can get."
Kirishatov always called the General Secretary of the Supreme Soviet, the leader of the country, by his proper title, even though Ivan Feodorovich Kirishatov was his own father.
"They're sending us to Canada?" said Polina Popkova.
Kirishatov nodded. "Us, our equipment, our support team, anything else we require—and the prototype."
"So," said Irina Tereshkova with some satisfaction. She lit another cigarette, blew out the first puff of its smoke, and said again, as if to herself, "So."
"This is likely to be dangerous," said Kirishatov. "Moving NERV to Canada will not forestall their reckoning with SEELE forever, only delay it. In time—how much time no one can say—their new base is as much subject to attack and invasion as their old one. I cannot make you come with me into such a situation, my friends. If you wish, I can transfer you out of the Special Projects Directorate back into the Space Agency proper, and leave you here, where you will probably be safe... "
Mikhail Popkov snorted. "As though anywhere on Earth will be safe from those bastards if NERV fails?" he asked pointedly. "You have read X-COM's reports just as we have, Comrade Director. They have taken Germany, and with her most of Europe. They have the United States in the hollow of their hand. How long before they come for the Rodina? No. If my going to Canada will help NERV beat Natla and her minions, then to Canada I will go!" The burly engineer slammed an open palm down on the Director's desk for emphasis, knocking papers to the floor.
Kirishatov gave his friend a weary smile. "Did you really need to scatter my reports all over my office to declare your courage, Misha?" he asked, but the smile blunted the edge of the words. Popkov blushed a little and backed away from the desk.
Polya Popkova nodded firmly, taking her husband's arm. "Overly dramatic he may be," she said to Kirishatov, "but he's right. Hiding here won't help us protect ourselves, let alone our future. We're going."
"We're all going," Orlinskiy declared irritably, "of course we're going! Has there ever been a time when any of us let danger hold us back? Besides," he added with a mischievous grin, "you remember those capitalist children who climbed onto our rocket and rode it into the stars to fight the Eleventh Angel. Their bravery would shame us if we did not do our best to match it with our strong Soviet courage!" The tubby mathematician concluded his speech with a dramatic flourish that, in the cramped confines of Kirishatov's office, nearly poked Mikhail Popkov in the eye.
"Thank you, Comrade Political Officer," said Irina Tereshkova dryly.
Kirishatov threw back his head and laughed, the tension of the last few days and the looming burden of the next draining away from him. He put his hands flat on his desk and got to his feet. "Thank you," he said to his old friends. "Get some sleep, my friends—you're going to need it."
The four filed out of the office, each bidding a good night to Marina, and they went their separate ways at the end of the hall.
Nikolai Kirishatov put his arm around his daughter's shoulders and the two left the administration wing, heading for their apartment at the other end of the building.
"Marishka, you will stay with your grandmother in Moscow while I'm in Canada," said the professor, though he knew in his heart that the statement was merely a formality.
"Oh, no, I won't," Marina replied firmly, confirming his suspicion. "I'm not leaving your side, Papa. You'll need me. You and Uncle Zhenya will forget to eat, and his English is even worse than yours. Anyway, if you're taking the prototype with you..."
Kirishatov smiled and gave in without a fight. At the door to his daughter's room, he kissed her forehead, bade her good night, and told her to pack whatever she wanted to take to Canada in the morning, as they would be leaving the following afternoon. Then, once she was safely tucked into bed, he locked up the apartment, went back to his office, and got started on the equipment manifests for the transfer. There would be no sleep for him tonight. He could sleep on the plane.
Marina lay quietly under the covers, but her mind was still racing. Though tired, she lay awake, thinking of the things she would need to take along, and the things she would need to do before leaving. She ran through the lists over and over in her mind, certain she was forgetting something in her excitement. At last, it was finally happening. Moscow had come down from the fence. They were going to support NERV.
She wondered if Ellison and Langley would remember her. They had met only briefly, before Kronos had hurled the two EVA pilots into space to do battle with the Eleventh Angel; and though they had been rather distracted and distant, Marina had quite liked them anyway. Jon Ellison was such a handsome young man, and Langley had been very pleasant, for a German, anyway. You could never quite tell with Germans; touchy people. Marina had been looking forward to meeting the others as well, the American girl, Ayanami—funny name for an American, but then they were a funny nation—and the English boy, Croft the explorer, supposedly their number-one pilot.
I should have been with them all the time, she thought angrily. If only Grandfather weren't such a stubborn, cautious man. If only we could have supported them openly from the outset...
Still fretting about what might have been, she fell asleep.
RMS Queen Mary docked at H.M. Meteorological Observation Station 51, Halifax, Nova Scotia, early in the afternoon of Sunday, April 3, 2016. Little fanfare accompanied this arrival. It could not be hidden, of course—not the Queen Mary, one of the largest and most famous ships afloat, and now notorious for her recent escapade in Providence Harbor.
Many were the residents of Halifax who, having always thought there was something peculiar about Station 51, now nodded quietly to each other in confirmation as the great cranes went to work unloading large cases and strange, shrouded burdens from the great ship's holds.
Nikolai Ivanovich Kirishatov and his team were there to greet the arriving NERV personnel along with the commandant of Station 51, Colonel J.A. Lethbridge-Stewart of X-COM. They had arrived the day before by Tupolev supersonic jet, with their heavy equipment following in a pair of Soviet freighters. Kirishatov fretted a bit over Marishka, out there on the ocean with nothing to protect her should SEELE take an undue interest in the Soviet mini-convoy currently steaming across the Barents en route to Halifax from Polijarnyy.
Well, nothing but half the attack submarines of the Red Banner Northern Fleet.
Kirishatov supposed he was worrying about nothing—he and the rest of the team had been in more danger braving the stratosphere—but wasn't that a father's job?
He stood with the others and watched excitedly as the NERV staff began debarking by the forward gangway. First came the Technical Division staff, still looking a bit dazed and shell-shocked from the Worcester-3 evacuation. The first familiar face among them that Kirishatov saw was John Trussell, who had been the inventor of and NERV liaison to Project Atlas. He and Maya Ibuki were the last of the TechDiv personnel down the ramp. Kirishatov rushed forward to greet them.
Truss paused in surprise at the familiar but unexpected sight of Nikolai Kirishatov hurrying toward him, hands outstretched.
"My dear Dr. Trussell, so good to see you again!" said Kirishatov ebulliently, wringing Truss's hands. "And the lovely Dr. Ibuki," he added, seizing Maya by the shoulders and kissing her on both cheeks. "So relieved I am to see that you made it through your ordeal intact."
Truss grinned—it was hard not to, seeing the gratified but startled look on Maya's face—and replied, "We weren't sure we were going to, for a while there."
"But now you have, and we are here to help you," said Kirishatov, nodding positively. He swept his hand out to indicate the rest of his team. "You remember us, I hope?"
Truss frantically dredged his memory and came up with four names, then matched them—he hoped!—to the faces before him. He didn't seem to get any wrong, or if he did, no one thought it necessary to correct him.
"Professor Kirishatov!" said a voice behind them delightedly; they all turned to see Gendō Ikari, NERV's former commander and now a civilian scientific advisor, suitcase in hand, stepping off the ramp.
Kirishatov eyed Ikari warily; their previous encounters had never gone very well. He had always found the Japanese-American scientist overbearing and snide, and had always gotten the impression that Ikari thought him a buffoon, a second-rate scientist from a second-rate scientific power.
He'd heard, though, that Ikari had suffered some kind of breakdown and come out of it with a personality change for the better. Well, such things had happened before, and the man was certainly being friendly enough now.
Indeed, he stepped forward without regard for Kirishatov's wariness, shook his hand firmly, and said, "Good to see you again, Nikolai Ivanovich. You must get together with Dr. Trussell here at the very first opportunity—he and Dr. Ibuki have had a breakthrough that will revolutionize your special project. I don't believe you've met my son?"
"Er... no," said Kirishatov, clearly at something of a loss.
"Shinji, this is Professor Nikolai Ivanovich Kirishatov, the greatest scientist in the Eastern Hemisphere," said Ikari. "My son, Shinji Ikari."
A teenage boy with a suitcase of his own stepped rather shyly around his father, extended a diffident hand, and said, "How do you do, sir?"
"Well, eh, that has yet to be determined, yes?" replied Kirishatov, whose grasp of English idiom was not, perhaps, the best, as he wrung the young man's hand. "Are you helping your father with his work?"
Shinji smiled a bit wryly. "Only by staying out of the way," he replied.
"Shinji travels with us because it's the safest place for him to be," the elder Ikari explained. "The Enemy would like to use him for their own purposes—" Here the scientist's bearded jaw set stubbornly, and he went on with steel in his voice, "—and I will not permit that to happen."
Kirishatov nodded. "Ah. Of course. I understand. Well, Shinji, you're to have a front-row seat for history, eh?"
"Looks that way," replied Shinji.
The Tactical Division personnel came next, filing off the ship in neat ranks with plasma rifles at shoulder arms, the battered but proud remnants of NERV's ground forces. They would be reinforced by X-COM volunteers and reconstituted rather than absorbed into existing X-COM units; less efficient, perhaps, but infinitely more valuable for morale purposes, to sustain the idea that NERV's ideals would go on in its new form.
After them, to tumultuous cheering from the assembled X-COM personnel, came the three Evangelion pilots—tall, dark Jon Ellison, petite and pale Rei Ayanami and redheaded Asuka Sōryū-Langley. They didn't look like they had expected or particularly wanted to be cheered at. They seemed tired and worn, especially Ayanami. None of them looked as if they'd had much sleep during the liner's dash north.
Ellison and Ayanami at least made an effort to respond to the adulation they were receiving, mustering rather listless waves and, from Ellison, a rapidly-abandoned attempt at a smile that came off as more of a grimace.
Langley looked remarkably like a girl with a bad hangover, slouched and hunched in a definitive leave-me-alone posture and glaring red-eyed from behind the upturned collar of her unbuttoned blue peacoat. Under it, she wore jeans and a t-shirt that read "Küß mich, ich bin deutsch!" in black, red and yellow letters. The whimsical shirt seemed at odds with the rest of her, but no one was really inclined to give her fashion advice under the circumstances.
Not many people in the cheering crowd took her lack of reaction (or the others' rather lukewarm reactions) personally. They all knew what hardships the three had faced to get here—not least of which being, there were supposed to be four of them. One of them—the young Viscount Crofthenge, known to his friends as plain old DJ Croft—had stayed behind to secure the others' escape. SEELE had trumpeted his death in battle to the world, though there were those who didn't believe the report.
Among them was the next person down the ramp, the last member of NERV to leave the Queen Mary—the battered force's overall commander, Brigadier Misato Katsuragi. The Brigadier didn't believe for a moment that SEELE's report of DJ's death was true. Had they killed him, she firmly believed they would have shown the world his body to prove it, not just blared out canned headlines about "the fanatical Lord Crofthenge of England" meeting his end covering NERV's "craven flight from justice."
As it happened, she was thinking about this very issue as she descended the gangway—the sight of Asuka's red head preceding her, and her concern about what might be going on inside it, had brought it all to mind again. Not that it was ever very far from it; she and Croft had been roommates and friends throughout the Angel War, and there was a special bond between them.
Misato felt certain she would know if DJ were dead; but it worried her that Asuka, of all people, didn't share that feeling. What did it mean that she, one of the most pragmatic, down-to-earth people she knew, had this strange, almost supernatural certainty about DJ's survival when DJ's own lover did not?
The Brigadier was preoccupied by these thoughts as she made her way down to the quay, her face set in a pensive frown, but that didn't much mar the impression she made on the troops greeting the ship. From the four hundred mostly English soldiers who made up Station 51's X-COM tactical contingent, the most common reaction to the first sight of the Brigadier on the gangway was a softly murmured, "Cor blimey, she ain't half-bad."
Coincidentally, that was also a common sentiment expressed about both of the women who met Brigadier Katsuragi at the foot of the ramp—Dr. Ritsuko Akagi, head of NERV's Project Defender team, and Lara Croft, Chief of NERV Security for Station 51, the latter of whom happened to be Lord Crofthenge's mother.
Seeing the two of them, two of her best friends (and one of them her oldest), what Misato really wanted to do was embrace them, cry on them a bit, then go someplace quiet with them, drink a lot of beer, and moan about how much the last seventy-two hours totally sucked.
But she was a Brigadier now, and that was the sort of thing Brigadiers didn't do in front of the rank and file—especially Brigadiers with the fate of all humanity resting on their shoulders.
Knowing that the NERV contingent were likely to be worn out despite the luxurious surroundings in which they'd made their wild dash for freedom, their X-COM welcoming committee kept things short. There was a formal welcome, but it was abbreviated—Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart bidding the Empire's allies welcome to the relative safety of the Canadian shore, and so forth. Then they were taken in hand by helpful members of the Station 51 facilities staff and shown to their living quarters.
Like most military bases, Station 51 was spread out in a compound which was essentially its own small town. From the middle of the base, where neither the port nor the airstrip facilities were readily apparent, it could have been mistaken for a regular community, there on the peninsula—except that the streets did not have names, only code designations.
NERV wouldn't be staying here long. Station 51 had neither the space nor the facilities to support an organization of its kind and scope. The real action would be at the new NERV headquarters, officially the X-COM NERV Joint Operations Command Center, a sprawling, semi-subterranean complex under construction a few miles north of the city and of Station 51.
This complex resembled Central Dogma, had the Dogma complex been built on the surface rather than beneath a geo-front shelter. (In a fit of rather bleak whimsy during the planning stages, Technical Division's Maya Ibuki had nicknamed it "Fort Defiance", a nickname which had caught on rapidly and with which they were now, apparently, stuck.) The Archangelion construction bays were already complete and operational at this facility, as well as most of the defenses; the rest of the facility was nearing operational status just as fast as X-COM's construction battalions could build.
Until the living quarters at Fort Defiance were completed, the NERV command staff and Evangelion pilots were being housed in Building 401, the Visiting Officers' Quarters, which was not actually a single building but rather a cluster of small duplex houses gathered around a small common in the northeast corner of the base.
Upon their arrival, the three EVA pilots found themselves assigned to 401/M, a three-bedroom apartment. The other half of that building was a smaller two-bedroom unit which, to the pilots' pleasant surprise, was occupied by the Andersons: Dr. Naomi Anderson of the Medical Division and her daughter Amy, a onetime schoolmate of the pilots and now a rising star in TechDiv.
Their reunion with Amy Anderson was undeniably subdued, but that was to be expected. Her closest friend among them had been DJ, and DJ had not come to Canada. He might well not be anywhere.
Asuka, who had once harbored some suspicion of the young prodigy—Amy had been DJ's math tutor and their friendship was obviously a strong one—had apparently abandoned all that now. When Amy came to the door of 401/M to greet her new neighbors, Asuka embraced her unreservedly and asked softly,
"Yes," Amy replied in the same hushed tone. "But I don't—"
"Sh," said Asuka, squeezing her a little tighter. "I don't want to talk about it right now."
Amy nodded. "I understand," she replied. They separated, then, and Amy came a bit further in. Rei and Jon, who were in the living room surveying its relative bleakness after their home in Worcester, came back to the doorway and met her.
"I won't stay long," said Amy quietly (something about the occasion just seemed to call for hushed tones), "but I wanted to stop in and say hello and welcome—for whatever it's worth."
"More than you know," said Rei with a very, very faint smile. Amy was struck by how tired she looked. Even at the peak of EVA operations, Rei had never looked fatigued. Pained, occasionally, when she was injured in action, but she had always seemed to have energy in reserve to match her patience. Now she was clearly worn out, hollow- eyed and sallow. She was always pale, but now her pallor had a sickly tinge to it.
Seeing Amy's reaction, she widened her smile just a little bit (with a visible effort) and said, "I'll be all right. I'm just tired."
The Soviet Navy nuclear freighter G.T. Leonovskiy docked at Station 51 at almost precisely noon, with considerably less fanfare than had greeted the Queen Mary. The Leonovskiy was admittedly a much less grandiose vessel; though nearly as large as the old liner, she had a squat, utilitarian hull with rust-streaked sides and absolutely no frills. She came, also unlike the Queen Mary, with escorts, a pair of Udaloy-class anti-submarine destroyers. She had others, but no one on the shoreline ever saw a sign of those.
Jon Ellison happened to be down near the docks as the freighter tied up. The EVA pilots had very little to do while their equipment was still being sorted and stowed by TechDiv, so he'd taken to just wandering around the Station 51 complex, looking for anything that might be interesting—anything that might take his mind off the confusion of his soul.
Now he stood on the quayside as the Leonovskiy's ramp came down and a group of uniformed Soviet naval personnel came down. They were all talking to each other in Russian, a language with which Jon had only a passing familiarity from his time as a member of X-COM's multinational ranks, and that several years out of date. He paid them as little mind as they paid him, and stood with his hands in his pockets looking at the ship.
After a few moments, someone else appeared at the top of the ramp, and this time Jon's attention was caught. The first thing that drew his eye was the fact that this new figure was wearing a green uniform instead of the Soviet naval blue. An army officer?
He looked up the ramp and saw with some surprise that the green-uniformed figure was a girl about his own age, slim and brown-haired. As she descended the gangway, Jon stood at the bottom and took her in. He didn't know enough about Soviet uniforms and insignia to tell her branch of service or rank from her shoulder boards, but he figured she couldn't be too senior an officer, whatever branch she served in—she was only a teenage girl, after all.
It wasn't until she'd nearly reached him that he realized he'd met her before.
"Hello, Mr. Ellison," she said with a smile, in very good English, as she came within conversational distance. "You're trying to think where you've met me before."
Jon blinked, then smiled slightly. "Baikonur," he replied. "You're Professor Kirishatov's daughter Marina. I didn't realize you were an army officer," he added wryly.
"Air Force," replied Marina. "Like you, I am a pilot."
"I've never flown an aircraft," Jon told her.
"It's... liberating," said the young Russian, still smiling, as she stepped down from the gangway to the quay. "Perhaps you should apply for pilot training. X-COM has some very fine aircraft. I know," she added impishly. "They're derived from Soviet aircraft my mother and grandfather helped design."
Jon fell into step beside her as she headed across the dockyard toward the personnel area. His X-COM loyalties wouldn't let him overlook that statement, though he took it in the spirit in which it was meant and smiled as he told her, "The Raiden has evolved quite a bit since it started out as a Western clone of the Firefox."
"Perhaps," said Marina in a tone that indicated she didn't believe it for a minute, but was letting it pass in the interests of friendly relations. "At any rate, I'm not here to fly; my job was to accompany the Special Project Directorate's heavy equipment, and now that I'm here... " She shrugged. "I'll try to stay out of the way."
"It's lunchtime," Jon noted. "Are you hungry? We—the pilots, I mean—have a regular table at the Station 51 commissary, and the food's surprisingly good."
"Sure," Marina replied. "Just let me find my quarters and change out of my uniform. I find it tends to intimidate people."
"We're not an easily intimidated group," said Jon.
"The uniform isn't the most comfortable thing I own either," Marina pointed out with a laugh.
The construction crews working on the new NERV headquarters near Station 51 had started with the hangar and technical facilities, since the relocating force was likely to need them first. That choice was showing its value now that NERV had been forced prematurely out of Worcester-3; though the rest of the base was not complete or ready to be occupied, the technical section was. Indeed, Project Defender, the next-generation Evangelion project, was well along, which everyone involved felt was very fortunate.
The three weeks since the Queen Mary's arrival in Halifax had been a blur for John Trussell and Maya Ibuki. Not only had they worked seemingly endlessly to re-establish their formerly Worcester-based commands here, getting everything and everybody squared away where they belonged; they also had to get up to speed on what the rest of the division had been up to since Ritsuko Akagi had left Worcester some time before. They'd been receiving reports on the progress of Project Defender while still in Worcester, but who'd had time to read that stuff back then?
Thus, Truss was in the process of hurrying from one meeting to another, wondering if he would ever have any time off ever again, when Professor Kirishatov leaned out of a hangar bay's inside door, spotted him, and hailed him.
"I won't keep you long, Doctor," said Kirishatov amiably, "but I am told that you're the man I should talk to about a little problem I've been having."
"What's that?" asked Truss, trying not to seem impatient. He liked Kirishatov, but he was in a hurry, already late for his next tech meeting, and didn't feel interested in the slightest in taking on another project. This sounded suspiciously like the lead-in to another project.
"Well," said Kirishatov, pleased that he'd collared the American engineer at least for the moment, "if you'd step in here for a moment, you could see for yourself... "
Truss resigned himself to being somewhat later for that meeting, stepped through the door, and dropped his clipboard. For about twenty seconds, he stood staring up at the thing in the hangar bay's EVA cage, slack-jawed.
When he got his voice back, he asked Kirishatov (without looking away from the EVA cage), "Why didn't you tell us about this six months ago?"
"Six months ago it did not work," replied Kirishatov. "What would have been point? 'Oh look! Glorious Soviet sculpture!' Times have changed—I was not shot—but nevertheless, it did not work."
"Now it works... but it needs your help. The sort of help you gave your robot friend Jet Alone."
Now Truss glanced at the Russian scientist, giving him a speculative look that slowly dawned into a grin.
He went to the wall phone, punched a code into it, and said, "Maya? Could you come to Hangar 7? I need your help with something down here."
"John, I'm in the middle of a test sequence, and aren't you supposed to be briefing somebody?"
"You're always telling me I need to prioritize," Truss replied. "This is a priority."
"... OK," Maya replied, sounding dubious but resigned. "I'll be right down... "
Spring slipped very slowly toward summer in the post-Second- Impact northern latitudes. The days passed, for the EVA pilots, much as they had back in Worcester, with tests and simulations, one blending into another. In their offtime, the once united children of Project Evangelion drifted apart, each lost in his or her own private pain.
Amy Anderson, their closest peer in age, saw it best. The three remaining pilots had lost the force that had held them together. They still had their common heritage, their common ground, even their bonds of friendship; but the common structure on which they had built themselves into an effective combat force with a powerful esprit de corps was lost, and without it, they wandered in their own separate orbits, no longer part of a whole.
The bonds of friendship were under their own kind of strain, too, as each pilot tried a different strategy to deal with the pain.
Jon Ellison withdrew, as he had in Worcester. All the gains he had made in dealing with the emotional wounds following his discovery of his true celestial origins were lost in the wake of NERV's flight from Worcester-3, and he sequestered himself as much as possible from his friends in fear that he would harm them. Amy knew what the others did not: that he spent that time alone poring obsessively over the data logs from EVA-00's last battle, searching for some key to understanding in the information recorded during the Lord of Fire's last moments on Earth.
Rei Ayanami, frustrated by his withdrawal, took to skiing in the deserted, wooded ridges beyond the Fort Defiance compound while there was still late-winter snow on the ground. The irony in seeking isolation to cope with isolation did not escape her. No one really knew why she carried an old Lee-Enfield rifle out there with her, and no one really dared to ask. When the snow finally failed her in the first week of May, she took to walking instead.
Asuka's problem was a good deal simpler than Jon's or Rei's, and the way she dealt with it was equally simpler. Her problem was that the loss of her lover to the enemy on the brink of their escape, while she could do nothing but sit by helplessly, had transformed her from a girl to a seething mass of rage and grief, and she dealt with it by channeling all the violent energy it gave her into combat training.
She overcame the last aftereffects of the near-crippling injuries she'd suffered the previous fall, punishing herself relentlessly, pushing herself harder and harder in the combat simulation chambers. She had always been the most martially skilled EVA pilot; now, observers who chanced to see her in battle against the holographic enemies in X-COM's Simulation Centre agreed that she was downright frightening.
And probably pre-psychotic.
There didn't seem to be anything their peers or superiors could do to help any one of them, though. There was nothing for it but to wait, and watch, and wonder who would crack first.
Overlaying all of this was the ever-present tension of the world situation, which was similar to the way it had been in the worst of times in Worcester. Instead of waiting for the next Angel to attack, NERV instead looked to the southwest and wondered when the other shoe would drop; but for the time being, SEELE seemed content with beleaguering the British Crown diplomatically through its puppet states, trying to force King Stephen to turn over the fugitives without a fight.
Confident that that would never happen, NERV continued preparing for the inevitable battle.
Not all that preparation was passive—the construction of Fort Defiance, Archangelion development, pilot training, and so forth. Through its ties to X-COM, NERV was also taking active measures against the enemy—but quietly. To the veteran X-COM personnel involved, it was almost like a return to the Hidden War; covert missions, small-force surgical strikes, and so forth, aimed at whittling down the enemy's capacity for damage. The big fight might still be over the horizon, but make no mistake: Throughout those "quiet" months, X-COM and SEELE were very much in conflict.
X-COM's Aerospace Division, for example, waged a full-scale war against SEELE's surveillance satellite network. Elerium-powered Ibuki-Trussell-equipped Raiden DX3 fighters streaked up to low orbit from hidden X-COM bases all over the world to bounce SEELE satellites, and they did so essentially with impunity, for SEELE had focused all its energies on developing the Advanced Production Model Evangelions. It had no aerospace weapon capable of doing the same to X-COM's surveysat network, and so the balance of satellite intelligence was soon almost entirely in the hands of X-COM and NERV.
X-COM ground forces weren't idle either. Squads of troopers fanned out around the world to strike at SEELE's sources of power. These teams had a special interest in SEELE's Evangelion production facilities. No one was really sure if there was a practical limit to the number of pilots the enemy could create, and so it struck operations planners as a priority to restrict the number of EVAs those pilots had available to operate.
The first strike, at the Westinghouse plant in New Mexico which built the Model 2014-A1, was highly successful. The facility was completely destroyed, and most of the squad got out alive.
X-COM's second strike was aimed at a new-construction plant, not yet operational, in Slovakia; and it was very nearly a complete and utter disaster. The squad found it much more difficult to move in Slovakia, which was more densely populated and much more heavily occupied than the southwestern United States. Half of them got killed or captured during infiltration, before they even reached the target zone.
The remaining force was almost too small to accomplish the mission, but their commander, a veteran of the Hidden War, pressed on. They'd all known this might be a suicide mission when they signed up, and the factory had to be prevented from coming online.
Prevented it was, but a suicide mission it did turn out to be. No one from that strike force came back alive.
The third target was the toughest of all: the FEISAR EuroEVA production facility in Stuttgart, right in the heart of occupied Germany. After much consideration, and taking into account the apparent success of Operation Magi, the Worcester-3 sabotage effort, X-COM's military commanders decided to hand that strike over to MIB.
The Military Intelligence Bureau (whose name was a hold-over from a previous incarnation of the department with an earlier mission) was X-COM's warrior elite. All were either decorated veterans of the Hidden War or had been hand-picked by such to join them. They were a free-form, highly adaptable force of extremely competent men and women who could go almost anywhere and do almost anything.
In a deliberate, ironic reference to their department's mission and its out-of-date, out-of-place name, they wore black suits and tended to comport themselves (a bit mockingly) like the weird "government agents" who had become part of UFO folklore during the years leading up to the Hidden War. The irony there was that many of those had been Enemy operatives.
The very existence of the bureau was a secret outside X-COM, and not very well-known within the organization outside the combat arm.
To an X-COM trooper picked for the honor, the strangest thing about joining the Military Intelligence Bureau was the extra level of mystery it added to the chain of command. X-COM's levels of oversight were always a little shadowy, thanks to the organization's compartmented structure; but in MIB, orders came down from a single figure, the director of the bureau, who reputedly took his orders from the Commander-in-Chief himself.
Everyone in X-COM knew the CINC's name—he could be no other person than the redoubtable Field Marshal Sir Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, an X-COM member since the organization's founding. The Marshal was nearly a hundred years old, but there seemed to be just no stopping him. He had been CINC X-COM since the year before the Hidden War and showed no signs of slowing down.
What most people didn't know—what almost no one even in MIB knew—was the name of the MIB director. Within the organization, he was known only by his codename, "Zed".
MIB agents had the habit of referring to each other by first initials by way of codenames, or last initials if the first was already taken; thus, Jim Edwards was J, and Jon Ellison, who joined after him, was E. That might have meant that Zed's first name started with Z; on the other hand, it might not.
Both of the MIB agents who stood on the ridgeline overlooking the Stuttgart EuroEVA factory at dawn on the morning of May 1 knew Zed's name. They were MIB's two most decorated agents, both legends within X-COM's secretive structure. They were veterans of the greatest battle of the Hidden War, the attack on Cydonia—two out of the five soldiers who had come back from the plains of Mars alive.
Otto Keller had been a lieutenant then, and already famous in X-COM for his fleetness of foot. He had been by far the fastest trooper in the standing response force at Fort Alcatraz, capable of crossing entire battlezones in the time it took squaddies to get into firing position and always seeming to turn up exactly where he was needed. Now in his late forties, he was still as tall and thin, almost gaunt, as he'd been back then, and still sported the same ascetic crew cut, though his sandy hair had by now gone entirely grey.
Kenneth Stanfield had been the commander of the Cydonia attack, and today, in his early sixties, he was the grand old man of MIB, the agency's most senior and most respected operative. He'd seen more, done more, and been to more places than anyone else in X-COM, except Marshal Lethbridge-Stewart and maybe Zed. His specialty back in his uniformed days had been heavy weapons, and he was still quite fit enough to carry his signature weapon into battle if the situation called for it.
The two men surveyed the plant for a moment, then nodded to each other and moved quietly down from the ridge. Their decades of experience made it a simple matter to slip past the green perimeter guards and penetrate the facility itself. Had the guards not been green, that wouldn't have made much difference either.
Within half an hour, they were in the lower level of the facility, placing and setting charges on power transmission equipment with the brisk, silent efficiency of men who each know exactly what they are doing and trust the other to do the same.
Keller was almost prepared to entertain the thought that they might just get away with this after all when a tall shape in a brown robe glided soundlessly around the corner of the big transformer box to Stanfield's left, saw the two agents, and halted.
"K!" Keller roared.
The elder agent whirled, his hand plunging into his jacket for his sidearm, but Keller was in a better position. Even as he was shouting his warning, the German's arm was levering his slung plasma rifle into firing position. As Stanfield was instinctively throwing himself aside and pulling out his own weapon, Keller ripped off a three-shot burst one-handed, just like in the old days. Stanfield's pistol fire joined it a half-second later, and the crossfire cut the Ethereal down—
—but not before it shrieked out its psionic death cry, nearly stunning both men with its proximity.
A moment later, alarms went off and all hell broke loose.
"Well," said Stanfield dryly, "we almost got away with it," and the two men hurriedly set their last charges and ran for it.
Guards, human and otherwise, were milling around in confusion; the dying Ethereal had warned them that there were intruders, but not where or who they were. Stanfield and Keller only had to shoot three people to get out of the building, which was better than they had expected to do.
However, when they reached the perimeter fence, the situation changed—as Keller discovered to his chagrin as he dove for the hole they'd made to get in and rebounded violently from an invisible something which strobed hexagonally upon impact.
"AT Field!" Keller gasped as Stanfield helped him up from the heap he'd landed in. "They've got the perimeter sealed off!"
"Aw, hell," Stanfield growled. "If that's true, it means—"
Both heard the crash at the same moment and turned...
... to see an AP EuroEVA, its armor dull, unpainted grey, rearing itself up out of the shattered shell of an outbuilding on the far side of the complex.
"This complicates things somewhat," Keller said dryly as the monster turned toward them, its quad eyes gleaming.
Stanfield smiled. "You remember that terror raid on Port Moresby?"
"The one where the Sectoid took control of the dock crane?"
"That's the one."
A slow matching smile crossed Keller's face.
"Let's do it," he said, and then sprinted across the open area at the perimeter. Age had slowed him down a little, perhaps, but he was in good trim and very well motivated, and he was still the fastest thing any of these green SEELE kids had ever seen. Blasterfire and bullets lashed the ridge behind him as he ran—and as they did, Stanfield slipped unnoticed back into the compound.
While Keller led the ground forces a merry chase and the EVA prowled the complex, looking for the best route to the trouble zone that didn't involve stepping on any important parts of the factory, Stanfield shot two Snakemen and scaled a water tower. There, he unslung from his back the heavy burden he'd seen fit to carry all this way.
The weapon in Stanfield's hands represented the pinnacle of X-COM's Hidden War weapons technology. Developed from an alien weapon which had struck terror into the hearts of squaddies when first unleashed against them, in the summer of 1999, it was the ultimate man-portable destruction device, still never surpassed 17 years later.
Stanfield raised the fat metal tube to his shoulder, rested it there, reached back, and jacked a wire on its side into his R-Grade cybernetic rig. Instantly, the weapon came online, receiving target information direct from the visual center of his brain. This was why there was no aiming device on the weapon itself; its operator was the aiming device, and aiming a Blaster Launcher was not so simple as pointing and shooting.
Especially not in an environment such as this, with smokestacks, guywires, factory structures and whatnot obstructing Stanfield's view of the target. This was going to be a tricky shot with all this crap in the way and the target moving; and, for that matter, he had to hit a specific part of the target once he got there.
Stanfield's eyes darted around, flitting from this point to that, seeking the best path through the clutter obstructing his shot. The solution he came up with wasn't the most solid, but it would have to do, and there was nothing to be gained by hesitating.
The missile, a gleaming metallic object about the size and shape of a football, shot from the tube with a scream of ion thrusters, leaving a faint trail of blue radiance in its wake as it streaked into the factory complex. It headed straight for the back wall of the factory building—
—jinked left, headed straight for a smokestack—
—jinked right, looped around it, passed straight through the narrow gap between two vertical stanchions holding up a catwalk between two buildings—
—streaked down along the rain gutter on the main production building for a hundred yards—
—jumped up twenty feet to clear an air conditioning unit—
—wheeled in a complex polygonal arc made up of 10 separate straight lines around a second water tower—
—and plunged straight into the back of the Evangelion, just below the seam of the entry plug docking port's armored cover, where its one-kilogram Elerium shaped charge went off with the brutally directed force of a tactical nuclear weapon.
Nothing but net.
The EVA convulsed, its fingers clawing the air, as the blaster bomb's explosion tore its back to pieces. The explosion carved through the unit's AT Field with sheer destructive energy, then blew a hole clean through the unit, exploding its chest armor and showering the factory yard with smoking armor fragments and bloody chunks of synthetic meat.
Hachi Ayanami never knew what hit her. By the time she figured out what the "WEAPON LOCK" siren was talking about, the only inkling she had of what was going wrong was the sudden sensation of the back of her seat rushing forward to hit her—and then the superheated plasma carved through and she and the entry plug ceased to exist in any meaningful form.
EVA-17, nearly torn in half by the tremendous wound to its back, stumbled forward two steps and then collapsed on its face with a gigantic crash, its limbs twitching for a few seconds before it lay silent, a plume of acrid smoke pointing into the sky.
The destruction of their EVA threw the rest of the factory's security force into panic and chaos. They stopped chasing Keller, except for a couple of Mutons whom the veteran trooper dispatched with his plasma rifle. By the time Stanfield got down from the water tower, his old lieutenant was free and clear.
"Let's get the hell out of here," Stanfield told him as they met up by their hole in the fence, and moments later, the two suited deed to word.
As they hiked up the ridge away from the factory, Keller observed dryly, "Pretty good shot."
"I was trying for its head," Stanfield replied. "Good thing it was wasting most of its AT Field sealing the perimeter, though. If it had been using all its energy for defense, I doubt I'd've done more than piss it off."
"Tech Div will probably be very interested in that projective field trick," Keller noted. "I hear they're working on some similar effects for the Archangelions."
Stanfield nodded. They got to the top of the ridgeline, turned, and looked back at the factory, still alive with the scurrying dots of running personnel while the EVA's corpse continued to burn.
"Well, Lt. Keller," said Stanfield. "Would you care to do the honors?"
"I'd be delighted, Col. Stanfield," Keller replied. He reached into his pocket, removed a small chrome device which rather resembled a lipstick, and jammed his thumb down on the top.
A moment later, the Stuttgart EuroEVA factory went straight up.
"Nicely done, Lieutenant," said Stanfield with approval. "Now all we have to do is get out of Germany alive."
"That will be no trouble at all, sir," said Keller with an ironic grin. "After all," he added modestly, leaning deliberately on his usually-light German accent, "zis ist meine 'Hood."
Ritsuko Akagi stood at the edge of Station 51's runway tarmac, feeling nervous and out of place. This was a sensation she hadn't felt in a while, and she didn't welcome it back into her life. As chief scientist for NERV, she'd grown accustomed to feeling in control, at least since her life had re-stabilized just before her move to Canada.
Now, though, she was preparing to greet a new arrival who had occupied a position of authority last time she'd known him, and who had parted from her and her mentor somewhat less than amicably.
She glanced at that mentor, Gendō Ikari, who stood at her side, but Gendō didn't look nervous at all. That, she supposed, was par for the course. He'd never looked nervous when he was a mind-controlled puppet of the alien menace threatening all life on Earth, and since he'd been freed from their domination, he'd acquired a strange (and, well, rather wacky) serenity to replace his stony- faced control. Ritsuko wasn't sure which she found more unnerving.
The airplane they'd come out to greet taxied to the ramp, stopping near the two scientists. For a moment, nothing further happened; then the door on the side of the fuselage opened, the stairs unfolded, and a man emerged.
He was thin and silver-haired, on the far side of middle age, though his movements didn't give the impression of an elderly man. Dressed in a grey suit and carrying a small suitcase, he could have been a tycoon of old, arriving on his corporate jet to visit some far-flung outcropping of his empire. As it was, he was the chair of the hyperphysics department at Tokyo University, which gave him almost as much prestige in this day and age, if not quite so much money.
Professor Kōzō Fuyutsuki had been extremely surprised to receive a telegram from his old student, Gendō Ikari, and even more surprised when that telegram was apologetic and conciliatory. The two had been friends once, in the turbulent years just after the Hidden War, but that had ended and ended badly not long after Ikari's wife had died in a lab accident.
When you got right down to it, Yui Ikari had really been the one who was Fuyutsuki's friend, and once her stabilizing influence was gone, the relationship between her volatile husband and her elder mentor had gone downhill quickly. When Ikari had left Japan, Fuyutsuki had been glad to see him go and had looked devoutly forward to never seeing him again.
And now here the old professor was on the tarmac of a British government installation in Canada, and Gendō Ikari was meeting his plane.
Fuyutsuki came halfway down the steps and paused, a look of mingled shock and surprise crossing his face as he got his first good look at Ikari.
When they'd gone their separate ways, Gendō Ikari had been a cold, driven man, and his appearance had reflected that. Fuyutsuki had once remarked to a friend that the single most distinctive feature of Ikari, aside from the unfashionable Abe Lincoln beard he favored for some reason, was his cold, dead eyes—like the eyes of a shark or a barracuda, watching calmly and icily for something to savage and devour. It was not for nothing that Ikari often wore dark glasses.
The rest of him had been just as cold, just as precise, just as regimented—his hair and beard just so, his clothes, which tended toward suits so severe they resembled uniforms, always neat and always without any hint of character.
The man standing on the tarmac getting ready to greet Fuyutsuki was completely different. His black hair was getting to that length where it couldn't help but look unkempt, still too short to comb back into a ponytail, and his beard was not an Abe Lincoln but a Vandyke—and that rather untidily trimmed and surrounded by a couple of days' growth. He was ruddy-cheeked and bright-eyed behind round blue-tinted spectacles, and though his white lab coat was clean and pressed, it was being worn over a crumpled Beatles t-shirt, blue jeans, and Birkenstocks.
The face under the changed beard and hair and the whimsical glasses, though, had the same lines, even if their old severity was erased by a bright, open expression. Fuyutsuki could barely believe his eyes.
"... Ikari?!" he blurted.
"Professor!" Ikari replied, throwing his arms wide in welcome. "I'm so glad you could come. We're really in desperate need of your brilliance. Let me take your bag."
Two other men arrived at Station 51 that day as well. Unlike Fuyutsuki, they arrived not by private jet but in the relative ignominy of a cargo container being unloaded from a British freighter at the station's port—but their arrival was just as highly anticipated, and when they emerged, unshaven and blinking, from the Conex, their reception committee gave them a small version of a hero's welcome.
Despite his sullen preoccupation, despite everyone else's grappling with their own problems, Jon Ellison had insisted that the EVA pilot contingent turn out to welcome MIB's greatest heroes back to the fold; and come they had. Marina Kirishatova, apparently motivated by curiosity, was with them; so was Amy Anderson. So, too, were Lara Croft and Brigadier Katsuragi, and the two of them were a welcome sight indeed to Kenneth Stanfield as he stretched his aching bones in the Halifax sunlight and remarked to himself that he was getting too damned old for this shit.
He and Keller saluted the Brigadier, receiving their formal welcome back; then they all retired to Station 51's commissary, where they ate, if not like kings, at least not like commandos who had stowed away in a cargo container. It was a reasonably energetic celebration. Even Asuka mustered some semblance of goodwill, perhaps out of gratitude to the two men for erasing one of the stains SEELE had left on her native country when they seized control.
That night, Rei Ayanami stood at the top of the aerial tower, the highest point on the grounds of Station 51, with her hands folded behind her back, and watched the ships come and go in Halifax Harbor below her. Below her feet the red aircraft warning light at the very tip of the High Frequency mast throbbed out its message.
She couldn't be seen, should anyone chance to look up; the tower was much too high, and Rei's tiny shape at the tip of the HF mast would be impossible to make out in the gloom. She didn't really care if anybody did see her, but at least this way, no uninformed base staffer was likely to see her up there and start a rescue operation.
Climbing up here had been easy, and well worth the minimal effort, for with the lights of the station far below her and only the red pulse of the aircraft lamp nearby, the night sky exploded with stars, more than Rei had ever seen in either of her two lives.
Up there, with the wind singing in her ears and the stars wheeling above her in their ancient celestial glory, she knew finally and for certain that she was whole again. She could see the pattern in the stars themselves, the patterns in their endless motion, hear them singing their parts in the enormously complex harmony that was the symphonic fabric of all Creation.
Only an angel could hear it so clearly as this.
She smiled, spread her arms, and stepped off the antenna. From her back, with a crack like lightning, wings of blue-white light sprang forth, spreading to a span of nearly twice her height. Though insubstantial, they caught the wind all the same, and Rei's heart gave a great bounding leap as she swooped up, up into that velvety blue night, up into that starry sea.
With the stars spread out above her and the lights of Halifax below, Rei exulted. She looped; she rolled; she did snap turns, this way and that, testing the limits of her aerial agility. Once she pulled her arms tight to the sides of her body and dove, nearly straight down, toward the black waters of the harbor, savoring the peculiarly sweet rush of the headlong plunge.
It was something like suicide, something like the Fall, tasting gently of the forbidden before feeling the triumph of the pull-out, cheating death, cheating damnation, cheating all her troubles and hardships and streaking away from them in a blaze of blue-white light. The thinning air and the biting cold (the nights were still cold this far north), slashing through the sweater and jeans she wore, meant nothing to her. Why should they? She was free.
Well, not free, not really—she was still a member of a force that found itself hunted and outlaw in over half the world, still a fugitive from the cruel conspiracy that threatened to destroy everything she had ever, knowingly or unknowingly, worked for. She was still bound by her promises to aid, to fight, to protect. She was still subject to, if not the laws of the Universe as Man knew them, at least the ancient and immutable laws of the Symphony and the Host.
With that thought, her joy dissipated, and she faltered a bit in flight. What was she doing? What right had she to cavort this way, to feel this joy?
None! None whatsoever.
Burning with shame, hoping none of her friends had seen that selfish display, she returned to the tower, landing on the maintenance platform three-quarters of the way up. As she approached the door leading to the stairs down, it took her a moment to notice that there was a figure standing next to that door.
Rei didn't recoil or cry out; she simply stopped walking and stood, waiting.
The figure advanced, stepped tentatively into the slash of pale light cast across the platform by a floodlamp on a nearby roof. The dim glow didn't really make the figure visible. Too dim to show colors, it simply added some contrast to the indistinct shape. It gleamed from a white shirt, shone on a row of buttons. It splashed from a pair of wide eyes set in a fine-boned and beautiful face—a face Rei hadn't seen in days, never saw outside the testing center any more, as its owner went through her days by rote.
"I'm sorry," said Asuka Sōryū-Langley in a hushed, awe-struck tone. "I wasn't spying; I just came up here because I wanted to be as alone as I feel."
Rei felt her cheeks go hot. "You saw—?" she asked.
Rei lowered her eyes, the shame burning her cheeks again. "I'm sorry," she said. "I—"
But Asuka interrupted her, saying in a voice choked with emotion, "It was so beautiful. Almost beautiful enough to make me believe that God isn't dead after all." A tear ran down her cheek, glistening in the pale light from below.
Rei looked up at her, inhaling sharply. "Asuka..." she said softly. Asuka came toward her, stumbling a little over the slight unevenness of the steel decking, and caught her by the shoulders.
The redhead's face wore a mixture of fascination and desperate longing as she asked urgently, "What does it feel like to... to fall like that, Rei?"
Rei looked back at her friend, troubled, not quite knowing what to say. Then she said slowly, "I think... I think it's a little bit like the better parts of dying."
Asuka's fingers flexed on Rei's shoulders; she closed her eyes and inhaled deeply through her nose, as if she'd just felt either a sharp pain or a wave of pleasure. Whichever it was, it seemed to break the weird reverie she'd been in.
"Ohh," she whispered. Her eyes opened, clear now and rather sad, and she said softly, "You're so lucky." She let go of Rei, turned, and leaned on folded arms on the railing, looking out at the lights of the complex and the city beyond. "I would give so much to know—really know—what it's like to fly that way."
"I..." Rei paused, then joined Asuka at the rail. She sighed and said glumly, "It might have been better if I'd never found out."
"Whaaaat?! Are you stupid?!" Asuka demanded, her surprise returning her fully to a more familiar mood. "Why wouldn't you want to know what you really are? You'd rather have lived out your life as a normal woman, never knowing why you always felt like you were missing something?"
"It's possible," Rei replied, "I could have been happy that way, never knowing what I am, never knowing what Jon is. We could have made a life for ourselves. Now..." Rei looked away, her face colored with both sadness and anger.
"Now what?" Asuka wondered.
"Now we can't," Rei replied.
"Huh? But... why not?"
Rei glared—really glared—at Asuka, something the redhead found so completely shocking that she couldn't even object to it for a few moments. She raised her hands. "Sorry!" she said. "Forget it."
Rei shook her head. "No, I'm sorry," she replied. "I just... " She looked sadly out at the city. "I don't know what to do, Asuka."
"Well, that makes all of us," Asuka replied wryly. "What's the matter?"
Rei shook her head. "It's complicated."
Asuka nodded agreeably. "Better not bother, then. I'm too stupid for anything complicated."
Rei glanced sidelong at Asuka, who was doing her best to keep a straight face, and a snicker escaped her own lips. Before long they were both laughing.
"All right," Rei surrendered when they'd recovered themselves. "But don't say I didn't warn you... it's a long story." She paused, gathering it all up inside her, and then began, "Just after the Fall, when the War was just beginning, the mortal world was in chaos. Humanity needed help to cope with the conflict they suddenly found themselves in the middle of; so the Almighty created a new choir of angels, to watch over the Earth and try to guide the human race through the chaos. It was a kind of experiment—but then, humanity itself was a kind of experiment."
"Huh," said Asuka. She peeled some of the foil off a roll of Spear-O-Mint Life Savers, popped one of the mints into her mouth and tossed the scrap of foil absently off the tower. "Figures." She offered the roll.
Rei took a mint and continued, "They were called the Grigori, or sometimes the Watchers. They lived among humans, as humans, and for that they were looked down on by some in Heaven. There were those in Heaven's hierarchy—as there are now—who disagreed with the Lord about the value of the human experiment. Those angels sneered at the Grigori, calling them the 'Least Holy', for they were made to be closest to Man in makeup and temperament. As it turned out, that was the Watchers' downfall."
"What do you mean?" asked Asuka.
"They grew to love humanity too much—loving both the humans themselves and the experience of being human. They scorned the higher angels' loftiness. Some of them took their task of living among humans as humans to such an extreme that they had children with mortals." Rei looked very subdued and sad as she went on, "When their detractors found out about this, they said the Watchers were unfit for grace, and branded their half-breed offspring as unholy monsters, naming them Nephallim. The debate fractured the Seraphim Council. Some feared the conflict would lead to a second Fall... so the Almighty compromised.
"He did not damn the Grigori and their children, but neither did He support them. They were cast out, banished from Heaven, stricken from the records of our history. I only know of them because I'm a Friend of Destiny—I serve the Archangel whose is the Great Library. Even now it's forbidden to speak of them in Heaven."
Asuka looked horrified. "So... but... what happened to them?"
Rei shrugged sadly. "If there are any left, they live among the mortals still, trying their best to guard mankind with what remains of their power. Dreaming of Heaven's lost glories, torn between flesh and spirit... " She looked down at the ground far below, and a tear dripped from her eye and spiraled down out of sight. "By now, they're probably all gone, but no doubt their children still roam this world, different from their fellow men but never quite knowing why."
Asuka struggled for a moment with her feelings, then blurted out, "That's... that's horrible!"
Rei nodded. "You're not alone in your opinion," she said.
"But what does it have to do with you?" Asuka went on.
Rei shook her head. "Don't you understand, Asuka? Because of the Watchers, angels are prohibited from entering into bonds of love with mortals. As with so much else, I had forgotten that, until Jon's brother Lucas reminded me of it while he was torturing me in South Hadley. Since then I've been trying to deny it, but my flight... my flight brought it all back to me."
She stopped talking, her hands quivering on the railing, and then went on in a soft, almost broken voice, "After all we've been through... to be true to the laws of Heaven, I must forsake the bonds I forged during the time I thought I was mortal." She laughed, a short, cold laugh that went well with the tears on her cheeks. "Do you see the irony yet, Asuka? After all I went through learning to love, now I must abandon love."
Asuka's horrified look returned as what Rei had just told her sank in. "You mean—they'd make you—drop Jon?"
"What part of Jon is not mortal is demon," Rei replied bitterly. "Work it out for yourself. But it doesn't end there. We are expected to love humans, if we insist on loving them at all, abstractly—from a distance—as a human loves a piece of art or a favorite animal. We are not to love them as one person to another. That implies a belief that humans are equal to angels, and that... that is heresy. I'll have to forsake Jon... and you... and... and DJ, too."
She glanced at Asuka as she said this, a sort of nervous curiosity overlaying the terrible sadness in her eyes, but Asuka only smiled, a little wistfully. "I don't mind," she said in answer to Rei's unasked question. "You have a better chance of seeing him soon than I do, anyway."
"Asuka," said Rei tentatively, "I don't believe—"
Asuka wrenched the conversation back to its original track, clearly not wishing to stay on that subject. Her face darkened with anger as she bulldozed over Rei's soft protest with, "And this is God's law? God gives His angels the capacity for these feelings, and then punishes you for not denying them?"
Rei looked downcast. "It's the decree of the Seraphim Council... but the Almighty has not spoken against it."
"Well, then fuck the Almighty!" Asuka bellowed, her voice echoing through the steel superstructure of the tower. Rei recoiled in shock from the sudden explosion, but Asuka met her astonished look with a fierce glare and went on, "You heard me right! If God has the cruelty to make a creature with a capacity for devotion like yours, and then punish you for using it, fuck him!"
Asuka leaned out over the edge of the railing, shaking her fist at the starry sky. Her eyes were huge, pupils contracted with fury, as she reverted to her native German and screamed into the night, «Do You hear me, God, in Your ivory tower? Do my words offend You? Well, too bad! I'm not afraid of you! I'm already in Hell—so what can you do to me?! You made this world of conflict and suffering and hate! You let this happen to Your children who Your Scriptures claim You love so much! You must be dead! Or cruel! Or You just don't care! Either way I—don't—fucking—need you!»
As the echo of her last shout rang in the tower's steel, Asuka slumped, her frenzy spent. She fell to her knees with her head bowed and her hands still gripping the railing above her. Her body heaved with great raw sobs as she repeated over and over again, «I don't need you... I don't need you.»
Rei stared at the sobbing redhead for several seconds, snared in a horrible indecision. Then she looked up at the night sky, set her jaw, and nodded, once, firmly.
"Fine, then," she said aloud, softly. "If I am to be damned for staying true to my heart, then so be it."
Then she helped Asuka to her feet, and, much to the redhead's surprise, hugged her tight.
"But—I thought—" Asuka faltered.
"Shh," Rei replied in a whisper. "I've come too far."
Asuka smiled, nodded, and hugged her back. They stood that way for nearly a minute, rocking slowly in the wind atop the tower, before Asuka chuckled weakly.
"What's funny?" Rei wondered as the two of them made their way to the stairs.
"Well, it just hit me," said Asuka quietly. "Now you're being my friend against somebody's orders..."
Rei's soft laughter echoed through the stairwell down the radio tower.
The two young women walked together through the streets of Station 51's grounds in a comfortable silence. Asuka was drooping a little by the time they reached Building 401/M, worn out by a day of testing followed by the high emotions of her visit to the aerial tower. At the door to her bedroom, she hugged Rei again, thanking her quietly.
"Asuka—" Rei began, but Asuka shook her head with a sad smile and silenced her friend with a fingertip to her lips.
"I know you believe," she said softly, "but it won't keep me warm at night."
Rei reached up and enfolded Asuka's hand in her own, freeing herself to reply, "You might be surprised."
Asuka gave a dry chuckle at that, then leaned forward and abruptly, lightly, kissed Rei.
"Good night, Rei," she said, and then quickly vanished into her room, leaving the startled angel looking at the embossed plastic sign on the door. (401/M-2 LANGLEY A)
Rei turned away and went down the upstairs hall, consumed with a strange combination of puzzlement and frustration. She wished she could do more for her friend. She wished, in fact, that she could do more for all her friends. She was a Cherub; she was supposed to be a guardian angel. And a fine job she'd been doing so far, with one of the friends she'd pledged to defend vanished, another heartbroken, a third—the man she loved—struggling with his very identity.
She paused at the door to her own room. She wasn't tired; she was still a bit keyed up from her flight, and her mind was too full of thoughts and concerns to settle into sleep. Besides, she didn't want to disturb Jon. By the standards of Station 51's Office of Personnel and Housing, his room might have been the one at the other end of the hall; but the pilots of Project Evangelion had their own standards, and Jon Ellison was probably right now asleep on the other side of this door.
He'd come out of the funk that had been ruling him since his discovery of his demonic heritage just in time to be thrown into a new one by the jumbled circumstances of their escape from Worcester-3. Rei loved him dearly—completely—but his susceptibility to these black moods annoyed and disturbed her. Just another thing she couldn't help with. Had she any usefulness left at all?
She sighed, turned, went downstairs, and left the house. Glancing back, she saw that 401/N's windows were dark. Unsurprising; it was nearly midnight, after all.
Rei wandered back toward the tower, passed it, and went into the once-vacant office building currently housing NERV's Operations and Technical Administration staff while construction was completed on the new headquarters.
Rei's ID badge got her into the admin building, but there was no one about except for the uniformed X-COM guard in his little armored-glass kiosk near the entrance. He gave her a salute as she entered, and the PA speaker built into his enclosure crackled, "Evening, Lieutenant Ayanami." (Being a Royal Marine seconded to X-COM, he pronounced it leftenant, and his accent tended to put an "r" before the "m" in her name.)
She nodded to him and vaguely wished he were Barney Calhoun, the friendly Central Dogma parking structure gate guard. She wondered where Barney was, if he had escaped Worcester-3, as she roamed the silent, empty halls of the admin building. She also wondered what she was trying to accomplish. Was she looking for somebody to talk to? If so, she was unlikely to find anybody here, at this hour, unless Professor Ikari were in his office working through the night.
It might be nice to talk to the professor again. There had been a time when he'd been more or less her only friend—a rather distant friend, and a bit cold sometimes, but he'd felt something for her nonetheless, and she'd done her best to respond in her crippled, stunted way. They hadn't spoken much since his recovery from alien control, and there were times when she missed him; one way or another, he had represented her only human contact in the early stages of her mortal life.
She turned a corner and saw the blue-white gleam of a Pepsi machine splashing onto the corridor floor from an open, darkened doorway—the snack bar, long since closed down for the night. The room was left open to give late workers access to the vending machines. Rei decided she might as well get something to drink, and went into the room.
In the doorway, she realized there was somebody sitting at the end of one of the last of the room's several long tables—sitting back in a chair with her feet up, her face both in shadow and obscured by a pad of paper she held before her in the dim glow of the cola machine's front. Again Rei wasn't particularly startled, but wondered who it could be, and whether it was just her night for encountering people lurking in shadows for no good reason.
"Good evening," she said softly.
The shadowed figure didn't reply; instead she flipped over a leaf of the notebook, lowered it, and smiled.
"Fifteen years trapped in the world of Adam's sons," she said in a soft voice, "and you're still the most picturesque angel who ever sat on a cloud. It's been way too long since I've been able to draw you from life. Are you going to hold still long enough for me to do it now?"
Rei was glad she wasn't carrying anything, because she knew she'd have dropped it as she stared in disbelief at the figure on the other side of the table and gasped, "Rachael!" She reached to her side, found the light switch, and turned on the snackroom lights.
Rachael was a elfin, willowy woman who appeared to be a year or two beyond Rei's visible age, not quite as tall as Jon and rather less bulky. She had a brown oilskin drover coat on over a blue blouse and black jeans, charcoal under her fingernails and a smudge of it on one cheek, and fine straight hair tucked back behind her ears.
Her face was narrow, her mouth curved in a wide smile as she looked between the startled Rei and her paper and back again, sketching with quick strokes of her pencil on the paper before sitting back with a sigh and smiling contentedly. "I've been wanting to do that for ages," she observed, and stood up to give Rei a hug.
Certainly Rei could have been more astonished. If you had asked her to draw up a list of people she thought it least likely would be loitering in the snack room of the temporary admin building at 12:04 AM to grab her up and give her a hug, Rachael Swiftedge would have been about forty-seventh. Nevertheless, forty-seventh isn't very high, and so she was still pretty astonished.
The last time Rei had seen Rachael, her Malakite friend had been unceremoniously placed in the service of Laurence, the Archangel of the Sword, who was widely known throughout the Host as... well, as a bit of a prat, really. Rachael, who'd previously been a servitor of Eli, Archangel of Creation, had not been coping well with the change. Rei was honestly surprised that her friend still existed, let alone that she'd managed to snag a corporeal assignment to look her up.
She let Rachael know all this as she bought a soda and sat down to drink it; the Malakite settled herself back into her chair on the other side of the table and resumed sketching her friend, grinning the whole time, until Rei'd finished expressing her surprise.
When she was done, Rachael closed her sketchbook and shook her head. "Laurence and I never did get along, and I still want to find out who thought my serving him was a good idea and provide some graphic illustrations as to why it wasn't. To make matters worse, after you and Tabris left and all the, um, unpleasantness happened down here, he just lost it. Especially since he was sure that the reason things had gone wrong was that you weren't 'experienced enough'."
Rachael shook her head, rolling her eyes slightly at the memory. "He tried to drag me in front of the Seraphim Council, to make me tell them that I'd known you were too young to handle such a thing—and I wasn't having any of that, so I left his service." She paused, her brown eyes sad for a moment, then smiled. "Yves offered me a job, though, chronicling some of the artwork that was coming up in children's stories, so it turned out all right."
Rei mused over that as she nodded and took a drink of her beverage. Rachael, in her quiet, understated way, was very much downplaying a serious and dangerous turn of events, and Rei well knew it. A major falling-out between a young angel and her Archangel superior often resulted in the young angel's dissolution—or worse, her expulsion from Heaven.
Rachael was telling her that she'd skated perilously close to the Abyss before being rescued by Yves, the kindly old Archangel of Destiny, and she was doing it the way a human would describe getting fired from one job and being hired for another.
"Oh, that reminds me," Rachael said, digging into an inside pocket of her drover, "I was given a message for you." She pulled out a small, rather besmudged blue envelope and pushed it across the table to her.
Rei picked the envelope up, slit the end with her thumb, pulled out a small piece of paper, and unfolded it. On it was a short note in a very familiar scrawl:
My dear child,
The Seraphim Council do
have their opinions,
and then I have mine.
(By the way, your friend
is quite eloquent.)
Rei smiled softly as she folded the note, put it back in its envelope, and glanced up at Rachael. "So... what are you doing here?"
Rachael's smile picked up an edge of glee. "Your friend Tabriel turned up at the Pearly Gates a few days ago," she said. "Most of the older angels spent about ten minutes wondering where they'd heard that song before, and then they spent the next ten minutes picking up their collective jaws from the floor. Dominic called a special session of the Seraphim Council, and was remarkably calm about the whole thing, but everything else was pretty much mass confusion. Yves snuck me in to the session by calling me his scribe. It was a hoot.
"Tabriel was there to report on your mission—the Great Redemption. And you ought to've seen Laurence's face when she said she was the Herald of Light! I thought he was gonna explode all over everybody right there in the Council Chamber. It took them a day just to decide whether to accept that claim. Anyway, long story short, they did. After a lot more wrangling, Lucifer's temporarily regained his seat on the Council in absentia, and Tabriel's sitting in it until the Lightbringer can complete his Ascension."
Rei blinked at her. "Are—are they sending help?"
"Not yet," Rachael replied. "After all those angels of War got pasted by you and your human friends, the Council banned any intervention in this affair by the Host. Michael, Tabriel and the others in favor of direct assistance haven't been able to override Laurence and the rest of his crowd. At least, not yet; there are a few still abstaining from the votes, Yves himself and Dominic most notable among them, and they can swing it either way if they come down from the fence.
"The only concession they'll make so far is to allow Light to send one servitor as an observer and recorder," Rachael went on, then sighed. "That was Laurence trying to pull a fast one, of course. He knew Tabriel was Light's only servitor, and that she wouldn't leave Lucifer's seat on the Council vacant to return to Earth."
Rachael's grin reminded Rei of the old saying about the cat and the canary. She turned over her right hand and pushed her charcoal-smudged sleeve back. Imprinted on her wrist and spreading up into the hollow of her palm was a mark like a brand or tattoo: a stylized torch about an inch long, the flame at its head outlined with little lines symbolizing radiance.
"He didn't realize that, while she's keeping Lucifer's Council seat warm for him, Tabriel can invest servitors of Light herself," she explained. "Yves was glad to let me go. He hasn't spoken out one way or another in Council yet—I think he's waiting for something particular to happen—but it's obvious he's in favor of the Redemption coming off."
"You, an observer." Rei laughed. "The Seraphim Council will get their report in sketches."
"Only if I don't get a chance to color them first," Rachael answered with a toss of her head to get her hair back out of her face. "And honestly, the only one who I expect to be totally obnoxious about it is Laurence anyway."
Rei chuckled softly. "Great Redemption: The Graphic Novel, she mused. "That's wonderful news, Rachael. I only hope... I only hope it's not all for nothing. We're in a very bad position. If Michael and the others had been allowed to take an active hand, perhaps the coming confrontation could have been avoided, but without them... I don't know."
Rachael smiled. "It'll all work out in the end, Rei," she said with absolute conviction. "We'll make it work."
Fort Defiance came quietly online the following week, and the pilots and support staff moved from Station 51 into their new headquarters without fanfare. No one was really in the mood for a grand opening ceremony or anything like that.
The pilots spent the first week getting accustomed to the place, which in layout and overall design theme was part Central Dogma and part standard X-COM underground base. It lacked the "outdoors underground" feel that the Central Dogma complex in its Geo-Front cave had possessed. For Jon, it was a peculiar feeling being back in a place that had some of the feel of an X-COM facility; he hadn't been in one since Alcatraz, before he'd been sent to NERV.
There was another oddly familiar thing about Fort Defiance from Jon's point of view, too. When X-COM had abandoned its United States bases, a lot of equipment got shuffled around, and a good deal of it was made available to NERV to stock that organization's Canadian headquarters.
One of the pieces of equipment salvaged from a US X-COM base was Alcatraz's former majordomo computer system. Like Station 51's troika of major systems, now similarly reassigned to help with NERV's needs, and NERV's own research coordination system, the new machine had started its existence as a HAL 9000 supercomputer and had since been heavily modified; but the modifications to Xerxes had been differently engineered and made for different purposes than those to NERV'S SHODAN or any of the three Station 51 systems.
Xerxes was a dedicated facility majordomo system with a concentration in security. He wasn't interested in information retrieval or coordinating science experiments or any of that. Xerxes watched the skies, and the service tunnels, and the ground approaches. He saw his task as keeping the compound safe and the people inside it informed of what was going on, and Xerxes took his task very seriously.
It was a very odd feeling for Jon the first time he was walking down a corridor in Fort Defiance and heard the pleasant three-tone chime which was standard on X-COM public address systems, and then heard the familiar calm, well-modulated, English-sounding voice of the Alcatraz AI announce:
"This is Xerxes. To celebrate the Grand Opening of the Fort Defiance commissary, tonight will be Taco Night. Bring your taste for that south-of-the-border flavor and your sense of adventure. Spiced tofu will be available for vegetarian staffers." There was a pause, and then the computer spoke again, in equally clipped French tones:
"Ici Xerxes. Pour célébrer la Grande Ouverture de la cantine du fort Défi, ce soir on vous offre la Nuit de Tacos. Apportez vos appétits pour la saveur du frontier sud et vos sens de l'aventure. Le toofoo épicé sera disponible pour notre personnel végétarien."
It was, after all, a Canadian station, and Xerxes was nothing if not observant of the proprieties.
Jon chuckled, his spirits at least momentarily lifted, and increased his pace. It wouldn't do to be late for his first tech briefing since the station came online.
John Trussell stood at the front of the room, his back to a display screen. He waited until his audience had arranged themselves and prepared themselves to take notes, cleared his throat, and said,
"Ladies and gentlemen, what you are about to see is, I think, quite remarkable," he said. He pressed a control on the small device in his hand, and the screen behind him glowed into an image of what, for a moment, the rest of them thought was an Evangelion. Then they realized it wasn't.
It was like an Evangelion, though: a massive but curiously spindly humanoid form with arms and legs of exaggerated length and slenderness and a very narrow torso. Most of its body was covered in a sleek scarlet covering, smoother than an EVA's segmented body armor and piped with bright yellow seams. Its feet, forearms and hands were sheathed in scaled yellow-painted metal, feet and fingers coming to wicked-looking points. The forearms were clearly mechanical, their yellow-armored mechanisms blending smoothly and a little unnervingly into the red-coated synthetic flesh of the main body just below the elbow joint. A core module gleamed in the center of its chest, about where an EVA's core would be.
From the core up, though, the resemblance to an EVA abruptly ended. This machine had a great yellow breastplate with the core inset below its lower edge, and massive pauldrons of the same gleaming yellow-coated armor. In the center of each pauldron, centered on a seam that divided the pauldrons into upper and lower segments, was a round red lens. The right-hand pauldron had a divided color scheme, yellow above the divide and scarlet below, and in the scarlet half were painted the yellow hammer, sickle and star of the Soviet Union.
Surmounting the whole affair was a head again reminiscent of an EVA's, looking disproportionately small surrounded as it was by the great expanse of the creature's shoulders. It hadn't as much of a face as an EVA's head; only two narrow green-lensed optics. The head rose from the eyeline to a point, as though it had a vertical horn. The orange cylinder of an Elerium collider jutted up from the back of each shoulder unit, and a yellow-tipped red cone could just be seen behind the head.
"This," said Truss, "is the Vyeliki Sovyetski Zaschitnae Beomehanichiski Robot—Great Soviet Defense Biomechanical Robot—or 'Zashchitnik' for short." He paused, congratulating himself for having pronounced the long-practiced Russian without a hitch, and then went on, "It's an Evangelion-like weapon developed by Professor Nikolai Kirishatov and his team at the Special Projects Directorate of the Soviet Space Agency. You may remember Professor Kirishatov's name in conjunction with NERV TechDiv's joint effort with SPD, Project Atlas."
Truss pointed to the projected image of the Soviet weapon with his pointer and said, "Not counting the horn on his head, Zashchitnik stands two hundred ninety-eight feet high, two feet shorter than a Westinghouse Model 2014-A1 general-production Evangelion. His main body is a cyborg construct—artificial muscle and so forth grown onto a titanium-composite skeleton and reinforced with myomer fiber and memory-metal bars along the major lines of stress. His forearms and feet, as well as his torso from the core up, are robotic. The pilot sits in an integral cockpit, not an entry plug, just above the core. Access is from a rear hatch; there's also an emergency escape system that blows his head off, permitting escape through his neck."
"What's the control system?" wondered Gendō Ikari.
"A direct-duophase neural-interface system similar to the Super-Synchron system Doctors Minter and Akagi developed for Archangelion," Truss replied. "Professor Kirishatov's team came up with it. Judging by the performance figures I've seen, it works quite well."
"Direct duophase? So their pilot must have an interface processor implant?"
"That's correct," Truss replied. "The Soviet Air Force has been using them for years, starting with the F model of the MiG-31 Firefox in 2012, but Zashchitnik is the first practical Soviet application of the technology outside of aircraft."
"Interesting," mused Gendō. "Go on."
Truss pointed to the colliders on the beast's back. "Zashchitnik is powered by a two-collider Elerium-115 reactor system similar to that employed on Jet Alone. He is equipped with a modified synthetic core based on the core of an alien battleship captured in 1998, which enables him to project an Ibuki-Trussell Field and can also act as a fairly powerful directed energy weapon, on par with the particle beam weapon fitted to JA. That's why it's exposed, by the way."
"Say, that's tricky," said Maya. "Nice and compact. Wish we'd thought of it."
Truss grinned at her. "There are a lot of things on this monster I wish we'd thought of. Kirishatov and his team are priceless, I wish we'd had them with us from 8 o'clock Day One." Truss cleared his throat and went on, "Zashchitnik is quite well-armed—more so than an EVA, by far. In fact, he's about as heavily armed as the new rev of Jet Alone."
Pointing out the parts as he named them, Truss went on, "Zashchitnik's horn, the tips of his feet, his fingertips and the spurs on his elbows and knees are all progressive edges, which makes him very well-suited for close combat—especially since his artificial musculature makes him about 20% stronger than a production-grade EVA. By the way, our telemetry on the unit that Rei destroyed in South Hadley is incomplete, but we think that means Zashchitnik is still about 5% stronger than that. The only known kaiju-class weapons that can overpower him in a contest of sheer strength are Jet Alone and Archangelion—and maybe EVA-01, that unit's maximum output was never accurately gauged after its, er, transformation.
"As for ranged weapons, he has three integral weapons systems, and since he has full-hand manipulators he can also use the full range of EVA weapons, except the Type 20. The core beam we've already discussed. These lenses on his shoulders are his heavy artillery—they're the emitters for a tandem anti-matter beam projector."
There was a loud thunk, clatter and sputter as Gendō Ikari dropped his coffee mug in mid-swallow and ejected that swallow in the general direction of Shigeru Aoba, who dove under the table.
"Anti-matter beam?!" Ikari blurted, rising to his feet and wiping at his mouth with the back of his sleeve. "Kirishatov mounted a double-barreled positron accelerator on that monster?!"
Truss, who had become rather blase as to Zashchitnik's capabilities during his night's study of the specs, replied calmly, "Anti-proton, actually. Professor Kirishatov maintains that anti-matter is useless if you're not willing to apply some real mass. It can also be configured to project regular old electrons, so it does double duty as a twin conventional particle-beam cannon."
Ikari sat heavily back in his chair, his face almost blank with astonishment. "Anti-proton cannon," he murmured under his breath. "They're mad, absolutely mad."
"What's that thing behind its head?" asked Jon Ellison.
"Oh, that's Petya. A nuclear missile," Truss replied blandly.
"... You're... joking, right?" said Asuka.
"Nope," Truss replied. "'Little Pete'. It's a 25-megaton thermonuclear cruise missile, approximate range 150 miles. Of course, since Zashchitnik was developed as a black project by the Special Projects Directorate of the Space Agency, a lot of his components are sort of misappropriated aerospace parts. Petya is supposed to be air-launched. Professor Tereshkova thinks she's reprogrammed it to handle ground launch just fine, but of course it hasn't been tested. We hope we won't need to use it."
"What in God's name did the Russians expect to use it on?" asked Aoba.
"Angels, presumably," said Truss. "Remember that until we pointed them at the IT-core tech, Zashchitnik didn't have any AT-defeating capabilities—if he ever had to fight an Angel, he would have to take it out with sheer brute force. Now, we know that's possible. No phase-space neutralization took place in DJ and Rei's confrontation with the Fifth Angel—Gabriel's Horn just blasted the living hell out of it. We may never be sure, but I think a 25-megaton H-bomb would do the job, AT Field or not."
"But my God, the collateral damage!" said Hyūga.
"The Soviets are a bit more philosophical about that kind of thing than our operations planners," Truss said. "As Professor Kirishatov put it, it's better to have a large radioactive crater in your country and no Angel than an Angel and no country. Keep in mind that the Soviets didn't know what the Angels were really after when they developed Zashchitnik—they only knew that they were marauders from another world. Their X-COM regional directorate took the Angel threat as an extension of the Hidden War."
"And it's still operational?" asked Ikari.
"Professor Kirishatov's phrase was 'you never know when you'll need one,'" Truss replied with the tone of a man who is not likely to be surprised by much of anything these days.
"Do the Canadians know about it?" asked Hyūga.
"Probably not," said Truss with a shrug. "Given all the other horribly dangerous stuff we have around here, who cares about one piddling little H-bomb?"
Asuka Sōryū-Langley slept uneasily that night, but it didn't have anything to do with the presence of the Russian thermonuclear weapon. It wasn't even really because of the strange bed in her new quarters at Fort Defiance; her nomadic life had taught her to sleep in strange beds without much trouble.
The problem was that she kept dreaming that she was sleeping in a different bed, one with a window that looked out on Worcester-3, one with a quilted bedspread in the pattern of a Union Jack. That wasn't unusual. She'd slept there quite a few times, and in many ways it had felt more like home than her own room down the hall.
The problem was, she was there alone, and she knew, on some level, that she was dreaming, which ruined the effect.
She sat up and looked around. The room was like she remembered it, but not, not quite. The tall black shape of DJ's computer was gone from the desk at the other end. The books weren't on the shelves, but scattered on the bed where she lay and the floor, something DJ would never have abided. Nothing was damaged, but the room had obviously been searched and then left that way. And she was viewing it all through a strange grey haze—like the room was full of smoke or fog, though she smelled nothing and felt no clammy coolness.
"Hello?" she said, and her voice was muted, muffled in the audible equivalent of the same fuzzy grey mist. As soon as she said it, she felt a bit silly. There was obviously no one here.
Knowing it was a dream, she tried to wake up, but it didn't work; the layers of her consciousness felt as if something thick and heavy had settled over them, keeping her from moving between them. She was mired in this misty dream room, unable to escape. A twinge of panic touched her heart.
A moment later, the door opened and DJ came in.
"Hi," he said, smiling. "Been a while."
Asuka stared at him in disbelief for a moment, then turned away, closed her eyes, refused to look at him.
"No," she said. "You're not here."
"Asuka," he said, his tone sounding a little strained and a little hurt. She felt his weight press down on the bed as he sat on the edge. "Asuka, look at me," he said quietly.
"No," she repeated. "You're not here. I'm not here. This is a dream."
"Well, yes, it is," said DJ, sounding faintly amused. "But we're both here, all the same. Will you please look at me?"
"Nein!" Asuka spat, shaking her head and keeping her eyes closed. «Even if you're here, you're not my DJ,» she went on in her native language, feeling herself falling back to something strangely like childhood. «He's gone, he's left me again, and I'll never get him back this time. You're some kind of... some kind of phantom, my stupid broken mind tormenting itself. Madness runs in my family, but it won't get me, it won't get me! Now get away!»
"... I only caught about every fourth word of that," came DJ's calm, sad voice. "You know my German's still not very good. I get the message, though. I'm sorry you feel that way... I don't know how often I'll be able to try this."
The bed sagged a little more as he leaned toward her. Asuka winced back, expecting the cold touch of a skeletal claw or something equally horrid, but all she felt was a warm, gentle, familiar kiss.
"Be well, my love," said the voice, and the wistful tone and the lingering sensation of the kiss sparked something in her mind, some part of her which wanted to believe no matter how much the rest of her refused to. There was a brief struggle, and that part won. Her eyes flew wide open, her arms searching—
—a dark and empty room, deep in the earth beneath Nova Scotia.
For a moment, the sense of loss and longing was as intense as it had been when she'd first realized he'd fallen to the enemy. It stabbed at her like broken glass, like the neural needles of synchro-feedback; and after it came something else, a blood-thinning, heart-chilling, teeth-grinding rage that almost—but not quite—wiped away the pain.
She sat and snarled, her fists clenched in her bedcovers, for a few seconds. She couldn't even throw anything; the alarm clock and lamp were both built into the headboard of her X-COM-issue bunk unit. The frustration made the rage mount even higher, until suddenly it all broke and crashed down into a deep, slimy pit of grief.
Asuka collapsed on her back, turned on her face, and wailed into the uncaring temperfoam of her bunk.
Oh, my God, some small part of her thought as the rest drowned in pain.
I am going mad.
Kōzō Fuyutsuki had been wondering idly if he might be undergoing a similar process ever since he'd come to Halifax. The changes in Gendō Ikari were startling, and the professor was starting to worry that he was just too old to adjust to a world that so dramatically failed to meet his expectations.
Although, as he sat in the Fort Defiance commissary and listened to Ikari talk about field dynamics, the Kabbalah, and the better songs of the Rolling Stones, it occurred to Fuyutsuki that the conversation wasn't entirely alien. Back in his early student days, years before the Second Impact and the resulting chaos—before he'd married Yui Ikari, to say nothing of her death—Gendō Rokobungi had possessed a range of interests as wide and varied as that. He had talked in this mile-a-minute way when he got excited about something.
Fuyutsuki had found it easy enough to forget as he grew to hate the cold, distant creature Ikari had become after Yui's death, but there had been a time when he'd liked the younger man. While Yui was alive, Gendō had sometimes been hard to take, but it was because of his intensity and his willingness to say anything he felt, not because he was mean-spirited or hypocritical. The professor had really rather admired him for his honesty and mental agility, and it was coming back to him now that a lot of the reason he'd broken off with Gendō after Yui's death was because he'd lost that spark and turned into a humorless bastard.
"... but as I get older, I start to realize that they really never topped 'Satisfaction'. There's just something pure about that guitar line, you know?"
Fuyutsuki got up from the table while Ikari air-guitared the song's intro ("Nat NAA, nana NAA nanananananat NAA, nana NAA..."), put his hand on the younger scientist's shoulder, and smiled.
"It's been a long day, Gendō. I'm heading to bed."
"Oh," said Ikari, abandoning his imaginary instrument. He stood up as well. "Good night, then. I think we're getting close on the AT interaction problem."
"So do I. With any luck we should have the results we need by the end of the week. Good night, Gendō."
"Good night, Professor," said Ikari.
He watched the old scientist leave the room, then chuckled and discarded his own trash and heading out into the hall. For a moment he paused, struck by indecision. It was only 10:30... what to do with the rest of the evening?
After a few moments' consideration, he turned left and headed for the field dynamics lab. Perhaps he could go over the afternoon's test results again, looking for anything they might have missed. Or at least play the new Star Trek game with SHODAN.
"I can't get no... sa-tis-fac-tion... "
Jon Ellison sat hunched in the Technical Library datacarrel he'd occupied for much of the last two months. His eyes felt like someone had poured sand in them, the back of his tongue had an evil-tasting film on it, and he didn't remember when he'd last eaten. None of that seemed to matter. He felt as though he was on the verge of a breakthrough, as if at any moment he would scroll onto the screenful of data that had the answer, though he'd read these files a thousand times by now.
Somewhere in here was the key to everything, he was convinced of it. During this fight, Rei had regained her celestial heritage fully, becoming the angel Reilael again for the first time since the Second Impact. Her Heavenly might had driven the corpse of Moloch to the edge and beyond, in a furious display of power which had destroyed the Evangelion—reduced it to dust.
Somewhere in here was the key to understanding that moment of transition, that instant when she fully tapped her power, and if Jon could find it, he would finally understand...
The thought slipped away from him, and suddenly it all seemed considerably less clear. Understand what? He wasn't an angel struggling to escape from a human prison. He wasn't even a real demon. He was a... a thing. Not even really a person at all. Not even unique! There were a dozen others just like him—a few less if you didn't count the ones who had already been killed in the war, but what the hell did that matter—they could always make more!
Jon blinked, wiped his hands down his face, and looked at the screen again. The numbers which had moments before been threatening to reveal cosmic truths stared back, revealed for the meaningless gibberish they were.
The frustration exploded somewhere behind his eyes, and with a snarl like an animal he lashed out. The display panel exploded, sending a curl of smoke toward the ceiling and scattering bits of glass across the carrel's desktop. Jon looked down at his hand and saw to his horror that he hadn't punched the screen; he'd driven his stiffened fingers into it, and the black, gleaming talons that had been his fingertips had done the rest.
The sight shocked him back to himself, and as he watched his hand reverted, became human again—or at least took on some semblance of humanity. He gingerly drew it back and looked at the ruin he'd made of the screen.
My God, he thought to himself.
That could just as easily have been somebody's face...
Slowly, Jon crossed his arms, dropped his head onto them, and sobbed.
Some distance away and in a distinctly calmer mood, Shinji Ikari lay on his bed and wryly considered the market potential of a photographic essay book of unfamiliar ceilings. Admittedly, this particular one was difficult to see at the moment; the only light in his bedroom was coming from the blank but switched-on monitor of his computer terminal, casting a dull grayish glow too weak to see useful details by.
He yawned. After an hour of lying here awake, sleepiness was finally beginning to overtake him. He settled back a little, closed his eyes, and let himself float.
He wasn't really dreaming; the images that drifted through his mind had no particular order or meaning, no narrative however disjointed. They were mostly memories, revived by his half-dreaming brain to that strange level of realism that was both painfully sharp and peculiarly distorted. The images came from his early childhood, far enough back that he could only remember them at all in a hypnotic state like this. Over the years he'd learned to do this, to enter this state, and semi-consciously view the images of his past which he'd forgotten in his everyday life.
It was the only way he could ever see his mother.
Suddenly, a new stream of images intruded into the familiar phantoms of his childhood—images from the much more recent past. They were mainly of another female, one who had given him a similar feeling of peace and comfort, albeit in a totally different way...
He gasped and sat up, suddenly and fully awake. Fully awake, yet the hallucinations remained, a final afterimage of Ichi's face lingering before his eyes even now that they were open.
That wasn't an afterimage.
That was somebody's face.
Somebody, a slender girl-shape barely recognizable as such in the twilight of his monitor, was sitting back on his knees, her own knees astride his hips, smiling at him.
"Hi, Shinji," she said softly.
Shinji's response was direct, to the point, and perfectly summed up his feelings about the situation.
Panicked, he backed away, bunching all of his covers up in a pile at the girl's knees as he scrambled back to the wall. His hand slapped against the wall near his headboard once, twice, then found the induction plate that turned on the overhead lights.
He gasped. The shape at the head of the bed was flung into abrupt detail by the flood of light from the ceiling. She was indeed a girl, maybe a year or two younger than Shinji, just beginning to develop the curving shape of young womanhood, dressed in a battered-looking black plug suit. Her hair was as black as night, just shorter than shoulder-length, and slightly damp, as though she'd just washed it. Her eyes were a startlingly vivid shade of green.
Shinji's stomach clenched, and a word forced itself through his gritted teeth before he could stop it:
She smiled at him again and shook her head. "No," she said.
Of course, she couldn't be. This girl couldn't be Ichi. She was too young-looking, not... er... developed enough... and anyway, Ichi was dead. Shinji knew that...
... he had killed her himself.
"W-who are you?" he repeated, his voice a strangled whisper.
"My name is San," she said. Mostly ignoring his shock-frozen presence, she got up from his bed, opened a black nylon bag that was lying on the floor next to it, took out some clothing, and then unconcernedly decompressed the plug suit and began to climb out of it. Shinji let out a gulp and edged around her, backing toward the hall door.
Pausing halfway out of the suit as though a thought had struck her, she looked back over one bare shoulder and said with a small grin, "If I have to tell you my last name, Shinji, I'm going to go back outside and shoot myself, it'll be that disappointing."
Shinji, startled, palmed the control for the door and backed stammering through it; it swished closed again just as the plug suit dropped past her waist. He stood in the hall, blinking and trying not to hyperventilate.
OK. Get a grip on yourself, Shinji. Er, that is, calm down, get control. So you woke up to find a girl who looks a whole lot like Ichi sitting on you, and then she started stripping, and she knows your name. That's no reason to get all freaked out. But where the hell did she come from?
She couldn't have... ? No, that was ridiculous, clearly impossible. How would she have made it this far?
The door opened again, making him jump and utter a small cry. She was standing there, dressed in what looked like Army pants made of that gridded black rip-stop nylon, dark blue Chuck Taylors, and a gray flannel shirt, and had her black bag slung over one shoulder.
"Have you got a shower around here?" she asked. "I doused my hair in a bathroom sink before I came to see you, but the rest of me could use some help." She cocked her head curiously at his reaction and said mildly, "You're awfully jumpy."
"How did you get here?!" he demanded.
"I walked," she replied, turning and starting down the hallway. "Look, you're going to have to show me where things are. My floorplan is obviously way off; I had to try two broom closets and a conference room before I finally found your room."
"But—but—hold it! You're not supposed to be in here."
"I know that," she said, giving him an exasperated look. "Why do you think I sneaked in?"
"If Security catches you—"
Somebody cleared his throat behind Shinji, making him jump again; he whirled, and his heart sank as he saw the broad, mustachioed spectacle that was Security Officer Otis Belfour. Shinji ground his teeth. Why did it have to be Otis?
"Well, well, well, Mr. Ikari," Otis announced in his pompous "caught somebody" tone. "What've we got here?" He put his hands on either side of his belt buckle and looked smug.
"I—uh—she—" Shinji stammered.
"Sneaking girls into your room, eh?" said Otis with what was, for him, a knowing nod. "Naughty, Mr. Ikari. What'd your father think?"
What would my father think? Shinji wondered.
"I don't know," he replied honestly. "But this isn't what it looks like—"
"Oh, sure," said Otis with cheery skepticism. "I used to tell my dad that too, when I used to borrow the Aerostar—"
Shinji really didn't want to hear the sordid details of Otis Belfour's teenage escapades, and as he cringed in anticipation, he was pleasantly surprised to see Otis stop talking, blanch and step back, his hand fumbling at his belt holster.
"Whoa!" said Otis. Shinji turned to see San standing behind him with a plasma pistol in her hand, and felt a remarkable sense of deja vu.
At least until San stripped the power pack out of the weapon and said, "You'll probably want to secure this, Mr. Security Guard. I won't be needing it any more."
"Uh... an'... an' why might you have had that, eh, little girl?" Otis wondered, suppressing the quaver in his voice pretty well, Shinji thought.
"I had to kill one of my sisters to get out of the complex," she said matter-of-factly, "and there were several large animals along the way who mistook me for the convenient snack size." She held out the disarmed pistol and its power pack again. "Are you going to take it or not?"
Otis took it warily, then stuck it in his belt, the power pack in his shirt pocket. He scratched at the back of his neck, puzzled. "Uh... who'd you say you killed?"
"My sister, Juuni," San replied with an air of tried but holding patience. "You should probably arrest me for violating your security perimeter now," she suggested.
"Aw, that's OK," said Otis. "I was just gonna give Ikari a hard time about sneakin' you in and then run you along home."
"Otis," Shinji snapped, unable to contain his exasperation at the man's denseness any more, "I didn't sneak her in, she broke into the complex. This is San Ayanami—she's one of SEELE's clones of Rei. You know, SEELE, the enemy?"
"Oh," said Otis, and comprehension slowly seeped into his broad, fleshy face. Then he blinked, said, "OH!", jumped back and yanked the pistol out of his belt. "Don't you move, missy!" he shouted.
San regarded her onetime possession with nothing more than mild interest.
"Maybe you should load it," she observed calmly.
Otis looked down at it, realized he'd pulled the wrong one, and flushed bright red.
"Anyway, there's no need," San went on. "I don't mind being arrested. I'd really like to take a shower first, though. OK?"
"Uh... heh... sure," said Otis as he put the empty pistol back in his belt.
Amy Anderson entered the Tech Library to check on the out-of-service terminal notice she'd seen on Durandal's master systems status monitor. It wasn't her job to do things like that, but she'd been checking on some more important systems things and had little better to do. She really should have been in bed, but sleeping wasn't as easy as it had been once, and she preferred to be doing something over just staring at the ceiling in the dark.
She was surprised to find someone hunched over the back corner carrel which was reporting itself out of service. With the lights in the room turned down to nightshift gloom, it took her a moment to recognize the lean shape of the back with its broadening shoulders and the long, disordered tangle of black hair falling down it. It was the hair that first made her realize that it was Jon Ellison. What was he doing? Was he asleep?
She approached him slowly, and when she got within earshot, she said quietly, "Jon?"
Jon's shoulders twitched, almost a start, and he sat slowly up without turning around.
"Amy," he said, his voice rough. "You shouldn't be here."
"I... I saw a report that this terminal was out of service," said Amy hesitantly.
A noise came from Jon which Amy needed several seconds to realize had been a chuckle. "Oh. Yes. It's certainly that."
"Jon?" said Amy. She moved a step closer and said hesitantly, "Are... are you all right?"
The black-haired young pilot suddenly turned around, and Amy inadvertently drew back a half-step. Jon had a wild, desperate look in his red-rimmed eyes, and with his face pale from fatigue and in need of a shave, the total effect was startling.
"Do I look all right?" Jon demanded.
Amy blinked, forced herself to regain her composure—he wasn't any threat to her, for pity's sake, he was JON—and said, "Do you need help? Is there anything I can do?"
Jon looked like he might say something nasty in response, but then controlled himself, shook his head, and seemed to deflate a bit.
"I... I don't think so, Amy," he said softly. "I'm not sure anyone can help me now." He got up with a great effort, looking suddenly old and exhausted, his face in shadow as he stood. "I think..." he said.
Amy looked puzzled. "Yes?"
Jon stood silently for a moment, then shook his head again.
"I don't know. The hell with it," he said.
Amy looked past him and saw the wreckage of the terminal for the first time. "Oh my," she said. "Did you... ?"
Jon nodded. "Sorry," he said. "I'm... that's why I said you shouldn't be here. I'm not safe to be around. Can't... control myself the way I used to." He raised his head, his eyes catching the dim light and gleaming at her in the darkness, and said, "I might hurt you."
Amy met his eyes for a moment, then tsked and shook her head.
"It's a long way from breaking a terminal to hurting a friend," she told him. "Come on, I'll take you home. When was the last time you had something to eat?"
He would have argued, but he was suddenly too tired even to string the words together for another warning. Numbly, like a robot, he followed her to 401/N and sat down on the couch while she made him something to eat.
Amy's mother, Dr. Naomi Anderson, came out of her bedroom while this was going on, roused by the door and the clinking of cookery in the kitchen.
"Amy," she said sleepily, belting her bathrobe around her, "what's going on?"
"Nothing, Mother," Amy replied. "Jon's having... some trouble," she went on diplomatically. "I'm just seeing that he gets something to eat."
The elder Anderson nodded absently and made her way into the living room to greet her daughter's unexpected guest. It never occurred to her that anything untoward was going on; Amy was much too mature and responsible a girl for that. Besides, she remembered Ellison from Worcester. He was a polite and circumspect young man, not the type to get up to anything.
She stood looking at him for a moment, but didn't greet him, and when she returned to the kitchen it was with a slightly sad smile.
"I don't think your guest will be eating anything just now, Amy," she told her daughter, "but he might appreciate a blanket."
Brigadier Misato Katsuragi stood, her arms folded, and looked through the one-way glass at the girl. San sat at the table, alone in the interrogation room, and toyed idly with the pretzel sticks she'd been given while she waited for her hot cocoa to cool enough to drink. She didn't look nervous, or shifty, or in any way unsettled; just, perhaps, a bit bored. While Misato watched, the girl yawned, glancing up at the wall above the window Misato was looking through, where there was a clock.
Turning to the woman next to her, Misato said, "Well, I'll be damned."
Lara Croft nodded. "Probably," she replied dryly. "But I don't know what to make of her either. She says she walked away from SEELE's base above the Arctic Circle—just walked down from the ice pack, if you please—and hitched a ride from Greenland to Halifax on an Ice Patrol ship."
Misato looked skeptical. "Yeah, right."
Lara chuckled. "It'd be convenient if she were lying, but... the gear she had with her shows all the signs of a long trek through hostile conditions, and Sergeant Pyne confirmed an hour ago that an Ice Patrol ship did bring her here from Greenland. Soviet ship, one of their fusion-powered icebreakers. The captain has a daughter about her age. He says he felt sorry for her."
Misato glanced through the window at the slight, faintly sleepy-looking girl. "Still, it's hard to believe she could have survived a walk like that."
"I wasn't much older than she was when I walked out of the Himalayas," Lara reminded Misato, "and she was a hell of a lot better-equipped. She had an advanced life support suit and a full set of polar survival gear, a weapon, and probably some survival training. All she'd have needed to survive with that lot is guts..."
"... And when she got here, she walked right into the personnel area and handed her weapon to a security guard," Misato finished. "I see your point. But why did she come here? What the hell does she want? SEELE wouldn't send an infiltration agent as obvious as one of Rei's sisters, or any agent with such a cockamamie cover story."
Lara nodded. "According to her, she left SEELE because she doesn't relish the idea of being low man on the totem pole in Natlateth's new world order. Seems she's what you might call the runt of the litter, clonewise."
"... OK, fine. I guess I can see that. But why come here? She had to know we'd lock her up."
Lara shrugged. "She says she came to see Shinji Ikari."
"Wha—? Some kind of revenge thing?" Misato wondered. "Because he killed her sister?"
"She says not, and I'm inclined to believe her. She was alone with him in his room for who knows how long, while he was asleep and defenseless. She had a plasma weapon. No one knew she'd entered the base. If she'd wanted to kill him, she could have done and got clean away. Instead she waited for him to wake up, then turned herself in. I think..." Lara paused, looking pensively through the window, then said, "I think she wanted to be captured."
"What are you saying? That she wants to stay here?"
Lara nodded. "Exactly. I think she wants to be near him."
Misato regarded San, now drinking her cocoa, and scratched the back of her head.
"Weird," she said after a moment's bafflement.
"Not necessarily," said Lara. "Look at it this way. Rei is a... a sort of guardian, right? She wants to be near her friends and watch over them."
"Uh-huh. Well, if you believe all that 'angel' stuff..."
"Oh, I believe it," Lara replied, "and so do you. So if San is basically a copy of Rei, then isn't it logical that she'd have the same basic instinct?"
"Well, maybe," Misato allowed. "But she's an evil copy of Rei, isn't she?"
"Is she?" Lara countered. "Why, because she looks like Jon? Don't let Rei catch you speculating along those lines. Look, I'm not saying she's up for Homemaker of the Year, but the fact that she walked away from SEELE and came to us says something. She had every chance in the world to harm Shinji if she wanted. For that matter, she could have shot it out with Otis and got away when he 'captured' her. You know perfectly well the only way Otis ever could catch a girl is if she came up and drew him a diagram showing how to go about it—what's the matter?"
Misato grinned, wiping away a tear that had run from one of her eyes and sniffing back a sudden surge of emotion. "Nothing," she replied, her grin an odd combination of fondness, bravery, and sudden pain. "It's just... the way you said that, you reminded me of DJ. I'm not really that upset—" She sniffed again. "—but it just hit me all of a sudden. Sorry."
"Well," Lara replied, her tone light, "now you know where he gets it from."
"It happens that way sometimes," Misato said. "I'll be going along, doing whatever, and suddenly I'll see something and it'll just fill me up inside. It's like the way I used to think of my dad sometimes, after he died." She shook her head. "I've seen it happen to Asuka too. I'm worried about her... she's always had a problem with anger, but now..." She sighed. "Sorry. None of this has anything to do with the, uh, matter at hand."
Lara smiled a smile very similar to Misato's own and replied, "No, but it's nice to know I'm not the only one it happens to."
The door to the observation room opened and Gendō Ikari entered. Misato remarked to herself, not for the first time, that as the stresses of consulting on the numerous projects NERV was running built up on him, Professor Ikari looked steadily scruffier, healthier and happier. It was still jarring to see him looking scruffy or happy at all.
Today, though, he wore something vaguely like his old aura of seriousness as he went to the window and looked through at San. She was by now looking more than just a bit bored, and had started rearranging the pretzel sticks by length.
"So it's true," Ikari said. "Remarkable." Suddenly, he seemed to notice that Misato was there. "Ah, Brigadier. Nice to see you." He peered at her, concern crossing his face. "Have you been crying? What's wrong?"
"Ah—no," Misato replied, and sniffed again for the record. "Allergies."
"Ah," Ikari replied. He dug around in one of the pockets of his lab coat, extracted a small paper envelope, and handed it to her. "Brew this up just before you go to bed. Mint and chamomile tea. Just the thing." He turned back to the window as if dismissing the subject entirely and asked, "Which one is she?"
"She says her name is San," Lara told him, suppressing a grin as she saw Misato give the packet of tea a look of mingled amazement and bewilderment, then tuck it away in her jacket.
Ikari nodded. "She looks younger than Rei. Shinji's report on his contact with SEELE indicated that the one he met there seemed somewhat older. SEELE's cloning process must not have a fully predictable accelerated growth curve." He turned to Lara, a look of intense interest on his face. "Did she say why she came here?"
Lara repeated for him everything she'd told Misato, including her own speculations as to the plausibility of San's claims. Ikari absorbed them all, nodding periodically; then he turned back to the window and gazed thoughtfully through it, his hands folded behind his back, his eyes invisible behind the reflection of the girl in his glasses.
Finally he turned to Misato. "Let's see what happens if we let her out."
"Well, did you intend to keep her locked in there forever?" Ikari replied. "She's committed no real offense, unless you're counting her having been intended as a tool of the Enemy, and if you were going to lock people up for that, then Jon Ellison and I would both have to be locked in there with her." Ikari smiled. "I daresay you'd get quite an argument from Rei if you tried that."
Misato rolled her eyes. "That's the second time I've been told that," she said. "Still, she did invade the base."
"Only to turn herself in."
"She could have done that at the gate."
"If she had done that, she wouldn't have been able to see Shinji first."
"So, what, if you commit a crime for a good reason, that makes it OK?"
"Well, I don't know," Ikari replied, his eyes twinkling. "What about all those restricted-database intrusions you performed during the last stage of my, if you will, illness? Court-martial offenses all. And I seem to recall you two ladies killed a half-dozen of my guards..."
Misato felt her face going bright red, though she couldn't help but smile.
"Your, ah, point is noted," she replied. She looked at Lara. "Well, what do you think, Chief?"
"You're the Brigadier."
"Oh, fine, put it all on me." Misato stared hard through the glass at San, who now seemed to be nodding off. "OK," she said after a few seconds. "Give her a restricted access pass—you know, personnel area, rec area, the usual non-sensitive stuff—and let her out. But I want her monitored constantly. I want it made clear to her—she puts one toe out of line and she goes straight to the stockade."
Lara came to some semblance of attention and saluted.
"Don't be cute," said Misato.
"Can't help it, I was born that way," Lara replied, and breezed out to get started carrying out Misato's instructions.
Misato watched her go, then shook her head and turned to Ikari. "Can you believe that woman's nearly fifty?"
"Certainly," Ikari replied. "It's the way she moves. She has a certain grace that only true maturity conveys. You're too young to understand," he added, and left.
Misato stood alone, wondering why she felt so pleased at such a strange and vague compliment.
Rei couldn't sleep. For much of the past week, she'd slept only fitfully, but after the briefing, she and Asuka and Shinji and Jon had gone to dinner. She'd hoped that Truss's up-beat presentation might lift their spirits, even a little; but it had been a sullen, miserable affair.
Nobody spoke to anybody else, and as soon as they were done eating, Asuka had fled to her room, Jon had trailed off in his haunted, gloom-ridden mood, and Shinji had looked at the pair of them and then at Rei with a hopeless expression and had said, "I...I don't know what to do."
And his words had crushed what had remained of Rei's hope, because she didn't have an answer for him.
So now she couldn't sleep at all. She just lay there, contemplating the ceiling, and thinking about how impotent she really was. For all that she was a Cherub, a guardian angel, she couldn't do a thing—a single thing—for her friends.
Asuka had gone from disbelieving to actively sneering at her faith; she radiated a misery that eroded the ground beneath Rei's hope, dragging both down together.
Jon—she couldn't even get near Jon without him getting this stricken look on his face as he was reminded by her presence what he was—never mind that she didn't care—and shut down as he tried to protect her.
And DJ was just plain gone. She could feel his absence in the icy cracks that radiated out through her soul where his warmth, his laughter had once healed her. He was the one who had made an actual person out of the battered robot Rei Ayanami had been when they met; he'd smashed through her shell with the force of his personality and made her able to love the others as well. If not for him, there would have been nothing else... and without him, she felt like she was losing everything.
She was coming apart at the edges, and she had no idea what to do about it. She understood now what Tabris must have gone through, driving him to attack Lucifer with Asuka's Evangelion, because she could feel the same thing happening to her. Lucas might have failed to undo her out of his sheer malicious hate, but the pain of her friends was succeeding where he'd failed.
In the dark, she found herself actually wondering if Asuka was right: maybe God really was dead.
Finally, unable to stand her inactivity any longer, Rei got up. Anubis unwound from his dog bed—he, at least, still loved her—and looked up at her hopefully.
"All right," she agreed wearily. "Let's go for a walk."
Misato got to her quarters at a little before three, threw her jacket at a chair and missed, failed to care, kicked off her shoes without breaking stride, and flopped down on her bed with an unrestrained groan that was half weariness and half relief.
Having done so, she stayed there for a few minutes, one arm stretched out at her side, the other thrown over her eyes. She stayed there for several motionless minutes, too tired to get up and get ready for bed. At just about the time when she'd finally worked up enough motivation to do that, she heard the door open, then close.
Slowly, feeling about twice her own age, Misato sat up and looked.
There was a penguin in her room.
Misato let herself fall back on her bed and said, "Where've you been until all hours of the night?"
"Waugh," Pen-Pen replied uninformatively. The penguin waddled across the room, opened one of the two small refrigerators which stood next to the bed, and looked up at the sprawled form of his mistress. "Waugh?"
Misato reached without looking, fumbled around for a bit, and eventually found and ruffled the penguin's head. "I'm getting too old for this shit, Pen-Pen," she told him. Then she turned her head, gave him a tired smile, and added wryly, "Won't be long before the stress starts affecting my looks."
The penguin shrugged. "Waugh," he said noncommittally, then went into the fridge and closed the door behind him.
Misato chuckled, reached up, flailed her outstretched arm futilely a couple of times, then finally hit the light switch—after expending more energy than she would have if she'd just gotten up and turned the damn thing off.
And she'd have to get up anyway to undress.
That she did, with another protesting groan; then, naked, she didn't bother putting on even her usual minimal nightclothes before flopping back into bed. Who the hell cared anyway?
She expended the very last of her energy pulling a blanket over herself; the air conditioning made the room a bit too cool to sleep completely in the nude, and she wasn't inclined to get up again and hunt for the thermostat. Her right arm was folded underneath her. She could feel the rough edge of the scar on her lower chest moving against her wrist as she breathed.
Just as well I don't have a sex life, she thought darkly. I wouldn't have the energy anyway. Not that it matters. When did I last even have an opportunity?
Christmas, I suppose... and you passed it up, she reminded herself. And now both of the men who would have accepted you with this thing are gone. One of them's probably dead, and the other... well, out of your reach, one way or the other.
Note to self, she added as she drifted off to a heavy but uneasy sleep. Next time, trust your instincts.
The night air was chilly—it was late, and the sky hadn't yet started to brighten with the colors of false-dawn. Anubis capered about in front of her, his little tail whipping the air as he raced up and down the sidewalk ahead of her, sniffing everything and then coming back to make sure that she was still following him.
Even the night itself stabbed at her; it reminded her of a much colder night, the night after DJ had returned from his first disappearance. He'd held her in his arms and told her—not in so many words, and there were Asuka and Jon to consider, but—that he loved her. It was a revelation which had meant more to her than he could have known.
As she trudged through the night after her dog (a dog he'd given her, DAMN you, Ayanami, did you have to think of that TOO?), she remembered a song she'd heard him singing one day. He hadn't known anyone had heard him; he'd been singing under his breath while he stood with his hand against the glass, watching Asuka sleep while she slowly mended from the horrible beating she'd taken during EVA-02's destruction.
"Sometimes I feel," she murmured softly, remembering the reflection of his face in the glass, "sometimes I feel... like I've been tied to the whipping post... tied to the whipping post... tied to the whipping post..." Tears squeezed out of her eyes as she finished the chorus—the only part of the song she knew—barely above a broken whisper.
"... good Lord, I feel like I'm dying."
She was so wrapped up in her misery that she stopped and leaned up against the wall, staring at the dark, dark sky. "Why do I even bother?" she asked miserably. She didn't notice that Anubis had continued down the walkway, leaving her behind.
Suddenly, a soft voice caught her attention. It was not singing, but reciting:
Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my cry come unto thee.
Hide not thy face from me in the day when I am in trouble; incline thine ear unto me: in the day when I call answer me speedily.
For my days are consumed like smoke,
and my bones are burned as an hearth.
My heart is smitten, and withered like grass; so that I forget to eat my bread.
By reason of the voice of my groaning my bones cleave to my skin.
I am like a pelican of the wilderness:
I am like an owl of the desert.
I watch, and am as a sparrow alone upon the house top.
Mine enemies reproach me all the day; and they that are mad against me are sworn against me.
For I have eaten ashes like bread, and mingled my drink with weeping.
Rei looked up, and saw Rachael was standing there, Anubis in her arms. Both of them were looking at Rei with identical expressions of concern. It was too much for her.
Rei Ayanami, who had not cried at any battle where she had been wounded, who had borne incredible amounts of pain and anguish for her faith and her task, put her face in her hands and sobbed.
She barely felt Rachael guiding her a short way and sitting her down, then putting Anubis in her lap and wrapping an arm around her shoulders. The little dog's frantic licks, however, and the friendly arm holding her close eventually brought her back to herself.
"I'm...I'm sorry," she whispered.
"No, you needed that," Rachael told her firmly. "You've been trying to hold up everybody else for so long, now; nobody's been holding you up, have they?"
"It's not their fault!" Rei protested.
Rachael smiled wistfully. "Of course not," she agreed. "But it doesn't change the fact that it's true."
"It's not their fault," Rei whispered again, looking away. "Jon... Jon's still trying to figure out what he is. And Asuka..."
"And Asuka's missing DJ as much as you are."
"I abandoned him," Rei whispered miserably. "I left him to be captured. I let him be taken—if I'd gone back..."
"If you'd gone back, Jon and Asuka would have both been captured, and you also probably, and his heroism would have been for no purpose. He went back into battle with Lucifer as his partner, Rei. They stayed behind to guard your escape, but I know—I know that DJ is safe. Somewhere."
Rei stared at Rachael for a long moment, saw the conviction in the Malakite's eyes. One of the broken places inside her eased—just a little—and let her think. "But you don't know where."
"No," she answered, and smiled. "I don't know where—I'm only a servant of the Lightbringer, I don't claim to speak for him. That's Tabriel's job, though in this case I don't think even she knows Lucifer's plan. But I know DJ is safe. And you and Jon and Asuka are here, and before he can come back, there are some things that need to be finished. You have to hang on, Rei."
Rei took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I...I can feel myself cracking, Rachael," she admitted. "Laurence... might have been right. I don't know if I'm up to this."
"Laurence is a prick, and if you prove him right by giving up, Reilael, I swear I will never forgive you." There was a snap in Rachael's words that hadn't been there before, but her words were also warm—and Rei could hear the humor underneath them. "Besides, it's not as if you have to do this all by yourself. I'm here now, remember? And I never was above bending the rules to suit my purposes a bit."
She let out a low shuddering laugh. "A... all right, Rachael. I'll try. For your sake."
Rachael grinned and helped her up. "Don't do it for my sake, Rei," she said firmly, picking up Anubis and settling him in one of the inner pockets of her drover coat. "Do it for everybody's sake. C'mon."
"Where are we going?" Rei asked weakly.
"Up to meet the sun. You'll feel better once you've had a bit of light on your face. Besides, with the cloud cover up there, it should be a beautiful sunrise."
There was a long pause as Rei remembered her last flight, where Asuka had seen her. "I don't know—" she began, but Rachael cut her off.
"What's more appropriate than greeting the sun to celebrate your triumph over darkness, Rei? Come on—let there be Light."
Rachael was right, Rei thought ten minutes later. It really was a truly spectacular sunrise that morning. And she did feel a little better, even if she knew the feeling would only last until she saw Asuka or Jon again.
Still, she thought, I guess I'm not as alone as I thought.
When, midway through the next morning, Sergeant Pyne and Chief Croft woke up San, gave her a pass, and told her sternly that they would be watching her, she went straight back to Shinji's room; but he wasn't there. She went looking for him in as many places as her pass would let her into, finally winding up in the X-COM/NERV complex's fitness-and- recreation area. Not in the weight room; unsurprising. Nobody in the pool but a penguin; mental image of Shinji in a penguin costume amusing, but not helpful. Not in the obstacle course...
She found him in one of the batting cages. He was actually dressed in a baseball uniform, surprisingly enough, right down to the spiked shoes, and was taking rips at the pitching machine's docile down-the-middle fastballs with a genuine wooden bat. He didn't seem to be hitting any, though, judging by the accumulation of baseballs at the back of the cage.
After standing quietly outside the cage and watching him miss several in a row, she said, "You're a terrible hitter."
That made him whiff spectacularly on the next pitch, which had emerged from the machine just as she spoke; he turned completely around, stumbling, and his bat clattered into the corner of the cage.
"Sorry," she added as he looked up and scowled at her.
He stepped out of the batter's box, suspending the pitching machine's activities, and retrieved his bat.
"I'm a pitcher," he told her.
"Oh. Well, that explains it, I guess," she said. "I hope your Little League allows the DH."
He shook his head. "High school," he said. "I'm actually a little better than I'm doing today. I hit .169 last year." Knocking imaginary dirt off his spikes with the bat, he returned to the batter's box; the pitching machine wound up with a soft whine, then chunked out another easy one. He got a piece of that one, fouling it back to the screen.
"The problem," Shinji remarked, more to himself than to San, "is that there's no such thing as a batting machine."
San watched him for a few minutes as he hacked and slashed, doing more to work out his frustrations than improve his hitting. The sweat-darkening was working its way slowly toward the crown of his Hanshin Tigers cap; little grunts of effort came from between his clenched teeth each time he swung.
Finally, he stopped, stepped back, lowered his bat, and turned to look at San.
"Is there something you want?" he asked.
She smiled a cryptic little smile and shrugged noncommittally. "Does there have to be?" she replied.
Shinji tried again. "Why are you hanging around?"
"I'm interested in you," she replied, and he felt his cheeks heat up. "I saw you once," she went on, "but you didn't know it was me. I was far enough down the corridor that you thought I was Ichi."
Shinji scowled, looked away, and stepped back up to the plate. "I don't want to hear about Ichi," he said, and whiffed once more.
San nodded. "Fair enough," she said. "Someday you might. Ask me if you do, and I'll tell you what I can."
Shinji snorted and turned his attention back to the pitching machine. On its next delivery, he finally connected, sending the ball crashing deep into the cage.
When he turned around again, San had gone.
He wondered why he felt vaguely disappointed, then left the cage to take a shower.
San was on her way back toward the living quarters, considering her options, when her well-honed danger sense pricked a warning. She stopped and cocked her head as though listening. Bad vibes coming her way.... from an annoyed cousin.
Well, there was only one cousin to be found here...
"Something the matter, Ellison?" she asked without turning to face Jon.
Though San couldn't have known it even if she had looked, he looked rather more presentable than he had the night before. Two factors accounted for that. One was the shower and change of clothes he'd arranged when he'd finally risen from the Andersons' couch and gone across to his own apartment. The other was the fact that, while there, he'd seen Rei sleeping peacefully for the first time since they'd all come to Canada, and it had done his heart more good than he would have thought possible.
That didn't mean Jon was a in a good mood, though; only a less abysmal one. He just glared at the back of her head, keeping his arms folded and his voice even. "What are you up to?"
"Does it matter?" San replied, still not looking at him.
"I think it does," Jon shot back. "Why are you hanging around Shinji?"
"Because I'm interested in him," she replied irritably.
"Define 'interested'," Jon snapped. "You plan on picking up where Ichi left off?"
Now San finally turned to face Jon, distinct annoyance flashing across her emerald eyes. "And just what is that supposed to mean?"
"I think you know," Jon shot back.
"No, I don't," San replied. "There's a couple of things it could mean. It could mean, 'Are you trying to recruit him back to SEELE's side of the war?' which is stupid, or it could mean, 'Do you want to take him to bed?' which is none of your fucking business."
"Either way, he's been through enough already thanks to SEELE," Jon snapped. "Just leave him alone. He doesn't need any more crap from our kind."
San just stared at him for several moments. Then her expression hardened into something distinctly hostile.
"Ohhh, I get it. This isn't about me at all!" San glared angrily up at Jon, then leveled an accusing finger at him. "Well, I've got news for you, buddy: just because you've decided you're bad for Rei, doesn't mean I'm bad for Shinji!!"
And with that, she spun on her heel and stormed off.
Jon stared after San's retreating form, her last barb hooking itself deeply into his psyche and tugging in several different directions at once, leaving him unable to come up with any kind of retort or reply.
Finally, with an exasperated snort, he punched a wall panel (though not hard enough to damage it), then stormed off in the opposite direction, toward the rifle range. His aim wouldn't be as good in his present mood, but he could certainly burn through a lot of targets before his laser pistol went dead.
Jon's quiet animosity toward her notwithstanding, San became something of a fixture around Fort Defiance in the weeks following that incident. The guards got used to her, the other pilots got used to her—after an initial double-take that would have made DJ Croft laugh until he cried, even Rei got used to her. Apart from Asuka, who ignored her equally much as she ignored everything else, the only ones who didn't quite get used to her were Jon, who harbored an intense and smoldering dislike for her, and Shinji himself, who didn't seem to know what what to make of her.
They didn't have that problem with Fort Defiance's other new fixture, though. Everyone seemed to get accustomed to Rachael almost as soon as she arrived. It wasn't even clear to most who had authorized her presence, but somehow that didn't seem important. Everyone knew she belonged there—she was... well, Rachael. It just seemed to be the kind of thing you didn't question.
She didn't draw much attention to herself, anyway, though that was about the only thing she didn't draw. She seemed ubiquitous, always tucked away in a corner of briefing rooms, testing centers, labs, workshops, equipment bays, recreation facilities, and dining areas, her sketchbook propped up on her knee. Sometimes she drew what she was looking at; sometimes she drew other things; sometimes it wasn't clear what she was drawing. Her quiet presence and the scratching of her pens and pencils were oddly reassuring to the stressed staff of Fort Defiance.
Even Ritsuko Akagi, who took an overall dim view of interlopers, thought so, which is why Rachael was allowed to remain quietly in the corner while she briefed the Archangelion pilots on the progress of their new mounts. After taking them through some projections of the monstrous machines' capabilities (which were considerable), she described their power systems and then their control systems.
Ritsuko was quite proud of the new control system. It overcame one of the basic defects in the original Synchron system, the high signal impedance which made such tremendous efforts of will required to link up with the Evangelions, much less operate them. The Marduk x-factor was still required to operate the new Super-Synchron system, but now the special ability it granted was not half-wasted just getting the machine to work at all.
"Using the new system," she told them, "you should be able to do things you never thought possible under the old one—including, we think, direct manipulation of your units' AT Fields to produce a variety of effects.
"There's a problem, though," she added with a slight slump in her shoulders, "and unless YaK and I can crack it, and soon, it may sink the whole scheme before it can even be launched."
"What's the problem?" wondered Jon.
Professor Jeff "YaK" Minter, an interface systems wizard who would have preferred to be writing impossibly vicious video games (and who was the only person on the NERV science staff habitually scruffier than Gendō Ikari) spoke for the first time during the meeting.
"The Super-Synchron system is extremely powerful and precise," he explained, "but to achieve that kind of performance it demands an extremely high-fidelity, interference-free connection. So far in our simulation runs, we haven't been able to get sufficient signal quality out of the induction-electrode interface headsets. Reading your brainwaves from outside your heads was good enough for the old brute-force Synchron approach, but..."
Minter shrugged, looking tired. "So far, we haven't been able to come up with a solution that wouldn't require you three to undergo R-Grade neuroprocessor implant surgery."
Jon looked at Rei on his right, then Asuka on his left, his face deadly serious. Both of them met his eyes in their turn. Rei needed to make no perceptible response, but Asuka nodded, once.
Then he faced front to look at Ritsuko again and said, "Why is that an obstacle?"
She looked back at him as though trying to decide whether he could be serious.
"It's an obstacle because that means induction-wiring your brain, Jon," she said. Tapping a few keys on her Hackatron, she pulled up a schematic diagram of an X-COM Raiden pilot's cyberprocessor rig on the big screen. "It means implanting an interface co-processor at the base of your cerebellum, running nanowire taps to all your major nerve trunks and installing plug sockets behind your ears and on your arms. Not exactly an outpatient procedure."
"Christ, the world press under SEELE is already having a field day with the fact that we're still using you kids as pilots!" YaK added. "If it ever got out that we'd performed invasive cerebro- cybersurgery on fifteen-year-olds... "
"It's not that invasive," John Trussell cut in. "Amy Anderson was only out of work for three days when she had hers done."
Ritsuko did a double take and stared at him. "You implanted an R-Grade interface rig in the Anderson girl?!"
Truss spread his hands. "Well, no, I didn't." He chuckled. "That would have been stupid."
"But you had it done?"
"Of course. She insisted on it, and it's a damn good thing she did—it was the only way she could use the AISP system." Truss shook his head, smiling with a hint of wonder. "That girl has an incredible brain. You know how long it took her to get her MD once she was online with the AISP?"
"Why wasn't I notified that this was being done?" asked Ritsuko.
Truss shrugged. "Why should you have been?" he replied. "You're not in the chain of command for Information Tech and Systems."
Ritsuko scowled at him, then sighed, admitting he was right.
"Who did the operation?" YaK asked.
"Her mother," Truss replied.
"... Oh," said both YaK and Ritsuko.
"Dr. Akagi," Jon interjected, "we're hardly ordinary teenagers. Rei and I aren't even fully human. And in any case, the world is at stake here—surely the usual standards cannot apply."
Ritsuko looked troubled, half-swayed but struggling with her sense of scientific ethics. Hadn't she hated herself for doing just this kind of thing, once upon a not-so-very-distant time? Still, what Jon was saying made sense. He and Rei weren't... normal. It might not be such a stretch for them.
Her eyes darted to Asuka, and the redhead immediately figured out what she was thinking.
"Don't you dare," she said. She stood up, leaned forward, splaying her fingers on the tabletop. "Whatever these two do to prepare for the endgame," she said, gesturing broadly to her right without looking at Jon or Rei, "I do. I won't be left behind just because I'm only human."
"I'm sure you're perfectly capable," Ritsuko said, holding up a hand in hopes of forestalling Asuka's objection. "It's just that, at your age, I wouldn't think you'd be eager to become a cyborg."
Asuka gave a short, humorless laugh. "I'm already a cyborg, Doctor, or don't you remember? The bones in my right leg, my right arm, most of my left arm, half of my ribs, the orbit of my right eye and the right side of my jaw are all made of an alloy whose name I can't even pronounce. My right hip and shoulder joints are military-grade. There's a neurocybernetic shunt bridging a break in my right optic nerve, and the muscles around that eye are myomer actuators. All the working parts of my right ear are bioelectronic. My pancreas, my spleen, and ten feet of my small intestine were grown in a tank. You supervised all that. Had you forgotten?"
Jon stared. This was the first he'd heard of the extent of the reconstruction Asuka had undergone. He knew the destruction of EVA-02 had left her grievously wounded, but he had been under the impression that, except for some bone reconstructions, she'd recovered naturally. He glanced at Rei. The look on her face was enough to tell him that she'd had no idea either, and given the amount of time she'd spent at Asuka's side during the redhead's long and painful rehabilitation, that was almost as surprising to Jon as the news itself.
"Not supposed to know all that, am I, Doctor?" Asuka asked nastily. "I'm supposed to credit my 'miraculous recovery' to prompt treatment, healing accelerants and clean living, right? Here's some advice, then. The next time you want to keep something a secret from someone, file it higher than that someone's security clearance level!"
"A-Asuka, I—" Ritsuko began.
"I don't want to hear it! You wouldn't have given DJ that look, but me, you think you can leave out. Well, let me clue you in on something, Doctor Ritsuko Akagi: DJ isn't coming back to save the day this time. SEELE caught him back in Worcester-3, and what do you think they did with him? Offered him a beer and a ticket back to England?" She slammed her right fist down on the table, hard enough to dent its shiny surface, and snarled, "He's dead. Get it through your head!"
Then she whirled and stormed out of the conference room, slamming the door on the stunned silence behind her.
Five seconds into that silence, Rachael flipped her sketchbook closed, shaking her head. "I think I'd better go after her now," she mused as if to herself. "Before she does something stupid." She stuck her pencil behind her ear, got up, and followed Asuka from the room, pausing only to give Rei a reassuring smile.
It didn't take her long to catch up with Asuka, in spite of the fact that the red-haired girl was moving across the Quad like the black storm cloud at the front of a nor'easter.
Rachael tucked her sketchbook into one deep pocket of her drover coat and moved up to march alongside the fuming girl, matching her pace for pace. Then she hunched her shoulders, jammed her hands down into her pockets, and tried to scowl, though she had a hard time matching the black fury of Asuka's expression.
Asuka didn't notice her for a few seconds, then pretended not to notice her for a few more; but finally she spun round, grabbed the Malakite's brown-clad shoulder to yank her to a stop, and demanded, "What the hell do you want?!"
"That's a very good question," Rachael replied quietly, "And one to which there are a lot of answers. Some of them aren't answers I want to give anybody. How about this one: I'd like to help you work off some of your excess energy in a way that's constructive and will maybe make everybody else a bit less worried about you—and maybe you'll have some actual fun in the process. OK?"
Asuka slapped her.
"Fuck off," she snarled concisely, then stormed off again.
Rachael blinked, shook her head, and smiled—guess I could've worded that better—before catching up to Asuka with a quick dash.
"No," she said firmly. "You're stuck with me until you hear me out, so you might as well stop running. What I had in mind was us arming up and going out and doing what I'd be doing anyway, if I weren't nominally an observer."
"And what's that?" Asuka growled.
"Smiting evil!" said Rachael, in the sort of voice a normal person would use to say, "Let's get ice cream!"
"That's my 'normal' job description," she went on before Asuka could draw breath to interject, "and when I get frustrated and generally wound up, I find it's pretty theraputic. And since I'm taking my aggressions out on things that deserve it, I don't end up getting my friends worried over me—or angry at me—in the process."
Her piece said, Rachael smiled as if to add, "Now doesn't that all make sense?"
Asuka stopped and glared incredulously at the brown-haired girl in the drover coat. "'Smiting evil'?" she said, a mixture of skepticism and derision in her voice. "And what exactly does 'smiting evil' entail?"
"Well," said Rachael cheerfully, "in the general sense that ought to be obvious—I go out and find some evil, and then I smite it. Specifically, though, I figured I'd invite you along, we'd wait until dark, then go deal with the three SEELE Intelligence Division agents who are going to try to sneak in here and steal a copy of the base security protocol tonight."
Asuka's glare gradually transformed into a stare of complete disbelief. "Are you serious?" she finally asked.
"Absolutely," Rachael said.
"How do you know that's going to happen, anyway?" Asuka demanded.
Rachael grinned. "A person can see a lot when she's spending time observing and not technically allowed to get involved."
Asuka stared at her for a few moments longer, then she nodded slowly. "Point taken. OK. I'm in."
Rachael's smile got even wider—a seemingly impossible feat. "Great! You won't regret it, I promise you. Really. You'll feel so much better."
"Sure," Asuka replied, still skeptical.
"Trust me. I don't know that I've ever been as down as you are, but I'm pretty sure I've been close. And just getting rid of all that extra energy that's got your mind all locked up will help a lot—I promise."
"Even with all the trouble we're going to be in, if you're right?" Asuka pointed out. "We really should be telling station security about this and leaving it to them."
Rachael shook her head and tsked softly. "Where's the fun in that?"
Almost against her will, Asuka smiled. "OK, OK," she agreed reluctantly. "But if you're wrong..."
"Relax," Rachael replied, putting a hand on her shoulder and leading her off across the Quad. "I'm not wrong."
Asuka avoided human contact for the rest of the day. As this was one of her usual patterns lately, it aroused no particular comment. Rachael headed off after a little while, claiming she wanted to go "warm up" and leaving Asuka to her thoughts. Strangely, though, now that she had something to do in a short timeframe, she found herself less inclined to sit and brood. Instead, she contemplated possible scenarios for confronting the SEELE IntDiv troops, trying to anticipate problems before they happened.
That evening, as darkness fell over Halifax, she stood in her room in the Fort Defiance residence block and surveyed herself in the mirror.
Having determined that none of her normal clothes were suited to sneaking around, she had scrounged one of DJ's black Jet Alone pilot jumpsuits, which fit her all right with a bit of belting in at the waist. The gunbelt she'd snagged from Central Supply took care of that, and also held her issue plasma pistol securely. She'd left the patches on the jumpsuit, too; it still had the Union Jack on one shoulder and CROFT neatly stitched over the breast pocket. Unconsciously, Asuka ran her fingertips over the name tape, feeling the contours of the letters.
Then she shook herself out of her reverie, tied her hair (which was getting near to something like its old length by now) back with a length of black ribbon, and slipped up to the surface unnoticed.
Rachael was waiting for her in the little blockhouse at the base of the Station 51 radio antenna, her hands shoved into the pockets of a black leather biker jacket. Under the jacket, she appeared to have on a black cotton dress, and black combat boots. Riding over her shoulder was what appeared to be the hilt of a sword.
Asuka stared at her incredulously. "You're going to fight with that?"
Rachael grinned. "What can I say, I like to put some artistic touches in. But you're kind of underarmed there—I don't expect all three of the infiltrators to be human, and ranged combat has a habit of being a lot less visceral. Which isn't bad, of course, but it doesn't burn off the need to smite quite so well..."
Asuka rolled her eyes. "The pistol was the best I could do," she said, patting the holster at her side. "I couldn't exactly break into the central armory and take something heavier. Anyway, all the melee weapons around here are meant for somebody 80 meters tall."
"Mm, yeah, that's not very practical. OK, um..." Rachael frowned thoughtfully, then nodded. "Give me your pistol a sec, and then I need you to hold still."
"I need you to hold still and let me see you for a minute or two. If I'm going to do this right, that is."
Asuka shook her head and passed Rachael her gun. "You are really weird, you know that?" she said.
"I used to serve Eli, and some people say there's no difference," Rachael responded distractedly, flipping the gun around in her hand and pulling out the power pack. Then she gave the empty pistol back to Asuka. "OK. Hold that out as if you're shooting at something."
Asuka shrugged and played along, leveling the unloaded blaster in a single-hand target stance. She almost looked as though she were dueling as she silently aimed the weapon off into the distance.
As she did so, Rachael whipped out her sketch pad and began drawing at a frenzied pace, the pencil racing across the paper. For a moment, Asuka felt light-headed, and in a far-off corner of her memory, she thought she remembered a piece of music that she'd heard once, when she was very small, in someplace like kindergarten with her fingers covered in paint or Play-Doh.
The words came unbidden to her lips, but the sound was only in her mind: "Abends, will ich schlafen gehn, Vierzehn Engel um mich stehn..."
She snapped back from the reverie as quickly as she'd fallen into it as she abruptly realized that the pistol was glowing cherry-red in her grip. It felt odd, yielding—almost like the remembered Play-Doh. She looked over at Rachael in a kind of fuzzy amazement. The brown-haired girl had her eyes narrowed in concentration as she looked from Asuka, to the blaster, to her paper and back again. Her pencil never stopped moving.
Asuka looked back at the pistol; the weapon's surface shimmered, then flowed, its shape changing slightly. The barrel assembly lengthened and thinned a bit, tapering to the muzzle instead of ending in a block. The hole in the grip where the power pack belonged shrank and vanished, covered over by a smooth and gleaming expanse of metal. The cooling vanes above and behind the trigger assembly became slightly larger and angled back more sharply. Then, with a soft sizzle, a symbol appeared on the newly-formed buttplate as if laser-etched there: a tiny, stylized torch, its tip glowing with sharp little lines of light.
The red glow faded away, and with it, the odd, light-headed feeling. Asuka stared at the blaster in her hand. Only now did it occur to her to wonder why it hadn't burned her, glowing red-hot like that. The fact that it felt entirely normal, like the mundane (if extremely advanced) metal and plastic it had been when she'd drawn it made her wonder what Rachael had done to it.
Hefting it, she realized it was slightly lighter than it had been, but not in the butt where she'd expect it to be lighter with the powerpack gone. Its balance was better than it had been before, and the new grip angle made it point more naturally. It was more comfortable than any other weapon she'd ever handled.
She turned her stare on Rachael, her hand automatically moving to put the blaster back in its holster. It didn't fit very well now.
Rachael eyed the holstered weapon with a nod, wiped at her forehead, and flipped the sketchpad over to a new piece of paper. "I'll fix the holster problem in a second. But first..." She reached up and unslung the sword from her back. "Hold that."
Asuka took it awkwardly, eying it. It had a long straight blade with a blood channel down the center, a crescent cross-guard inlaid with bronze and black iron, and a grip a bit larger than Asuka's hand fit comfortably. She supposed it was a longsword and wished she'd paid better attention the one time she and DJ had visited the Higgins Armory Museum.
"What am I supposed to do with it?" she asked.
Rachael cracked the casing of the blaster's powerpack with a fingernail, pried it open, and shook the little glowing golden block of Elerium-115 out onto her palm. Then she tossed aside the bent and empty casing and looked back at Asuka, her eyes glittering gleefully. "Wave it around," she said. "Pretend you're smiting something. Don't worry about looking silly, that's not what I'm looking at. That's my sword, it's not going to feel right to you anyway."
"Why?" Asuka demanded angrily.
"Because you need a sword, and to make you one, I need to see you," Rachael answered seriously. "And right now, you're all wound up and tense and it's impossible to see you through the tension. I promise you, this is not a joke. I don't joke about things like this."
Asuka growled, "This is an awful lot of work."
"Yes, I know, I should've thought about it sooner—I'm sorry," Rachael agreed.
The apology was enough to make a start on convincing Asuka. She gingerly hefted the sword, and then made a tentative swing. She looked over at Rachael, expecting to hear the scratching of her pencil, but the brown haired girl was just looking at her, her hand closed over the Elerium block. "Keep going," she instructed.
Feeling incredibly silly, Asuka swung the sword again, and then again in an overhand strike, and then she whirled. She'd seen enough swordfighting to know that she must look ridiculous, but on the other hand, the longsword in her hand did have a nice comforting solidity to it. Not enough weight, though—she had to work to get some momentum going there. She dodged, threw in a kick for good measure, and then threw in another hack at her imaginary opponent.
Then she turned back to Rachael, intending to do another overhand cut in her direction, but the brown-haired girl had her eyes closed, and her mouth slightly open. She was singing, very softly, to the block of glowing stuff in her hand.
The crimson light that had shone around the blaster glittered in her grip, and slowly expanded into the shape of... a sword. Through the flickering redness, Asuka could see the dull silver gleam of metal, and Rachael's arm sagged slightly as her burden increased.
Then, with a dull whoosh, the flames blew out, and Rachael held a complete sword in her hand. She held it out, inspecting it with obvious satisfaction.
It was indeed a sword, about three feet long and quite broad, with a slight backward curvature and a marked thickening at the last fifth or so of its length. It was mostly single-edged, except for that broadened bit, which had a nasty point and a wickedly curved top edge that swept back to the notch where the blade narrowed to its normal width. An S-shaped guard protected its single-hand grip, and for a pommel it had a gleaming golden ball clutched in a beautifully sculpted silver-clawed talon.
"A falchion!" Rachael observed with satisfied surprise; then she smiled and nodded. "Of course—to go with your crusading soul. OK. Now we can go smite evil."
Asuka blinked at it, and then let out a sudden burst of laughter that surprised her as much as it did Rachael. "And what," she asked, "am I supposed to do it with that? Until just now, I'd never used a sword in my life. A glaive, yes, but..."
"If I give you this," Rachael told her seriously, "you'll know what to do with it. I made it for you. But before I give it to you, I have to know one thing."
Asuka tried to compose herself, looked back at her, and asked as seriously as she could manage, "What's that?"
"Will you support the Lightbringer in the confrontation that is to come?"
For several seconds of complete silence, Asuka looked at her as if she thought the angel had gone utterly mad. Then she burst out, "What?! Are you stupid? Haven't you been paying attention? Didn't Tabriel tell you ANYTHING?! I'm involved because of my friends, because of my world, because of myself. I don't give one-tenth of one damn about Light or Darkness or anything else so long as the people I love and I can have a future."
She raised the longsword in her hand, her face shifting back into her black thundercloud scowl as she went on, "If Lucifer will help us beat Natlateth, then fine, I'll support him—but if he turns around and tries to destroy our future himself once we've helped him take care of his little problem, then—" Here she lowered the sword until it pointed straight at Rachael's throat. "—I—will—tear—his—head off! Understand?"
Rachael gazed back up at the scowling redhead for a few seconds; then she grinned, reversed the falchion, and held it out to her.
"Fair enough," she said. "Welcome to the War." She held out her hand to accept the longsword back.
Asuka, still frowning at her, took hold of the falchion's grip, and as soon as she had a good firm hold on it she felt a chill shock rush up her arm. The blade glowed bright red, collapsed into a splinter of brilliant light, and vanished, much as she had seen Rei's silver saber do. For a second after the blade's disappearance, she felt a lingering heat on the hollow of her right wrist, as though someone had pressed a warm coin against her skin. She turned her arm and looked at the spot.
The red glow was just fading from a symbol, the same symbol that had appeared on the buttplate of her blaster. Now that it was no longer glowing, it looked like it was branded into her flesh.
"Great," she said. "Just what I needed—another scar." She checked her holster; it and the blaster were both gone too. She glanced at Rachael, still frowning. "You people are just full of funny tricks, aren't you?" Then she reversed the longsword as she'd seen Rachael do and offered it back to her.
Rachael shrugged as she took the sword back and sheathed it over her shoulder. "I didn't figure you wanted to lug that falchion around the old-fashioned way. You seemed so appalled at my doing so, and anyway, it will be there when you need it."
"It's the dress I'm appalled by," Asuka informed Rachael with a shake of her head. "Not the sword."
The brown-haired girl laughed. "C'mon, let's go smite some evil. They've probably made it past the perimeter by now anyway."
They had indeed passed the perimeter. The three figures in black coveralls, their faces hidden by hoods and combat optics, had entered the compound from the harbor through a forgotten drainage pipe and come to the surface in the aircraft fueling area. Evading guards and disabling security systems, they made their way toward the Systems and Security Centre. In the Systems end of that building, at this hour, only a couple of night-owl techs and one or two bored guards would be present.
The SEELE group leader knew the layout of Station 51 like the back of his hand. He led his companions quickly and unerringly through the hangars and darkened barracks toward the low red-brick building that was their target.
They knew, of course, that they might be caught. They were good, well-prepared, and careful, but still, things happened. The leader in particular kept part of his mind steeled for the sudden arc of a searchlight or the wail of an intruder siren. He was prepared for that.
He wasn't prepared for a Valkyrie to drop out of the sky into his team's midst, screaming in German, or for Death to follow her down on silent black wings.
Startled by the sudden attack, the two Mutons accompanying the human agent roared—or at least tried to. One was unsuccessful, owing to the fact that the black-winged shadow had run a silver sword straight through its chest, dispatching the powerful beast in an instant, before it even had a chance to draw its weapon.
The other, though, roared, reeling back as the redheaded figure snarled Teutonic imprecations at it and lashed at it with a broad, curved sword.
Asuka should have felt vaguely foolish—well, more than vaguely, really—going after this monster with only a blade she had no real clue how to use. When she'd seen the group from the roof of the barracks, though, all sense of hesitation, all feeling of uncertainty had left her instantly. She'd leaped without thinking, the falchion coming to her hand in a slash of light, and now... it was as though some invisible force were guiding her.
The Muton was seven feet tall and freakishly muscled, a true monster. When they'd turned up among the attacking troops during the Hidden War, what X-COM and the world had taken for aliens, they'd acquired an instant reputation as the Enemy's deadliest infantry—inhumanly strong and very, very hard to kill. If the creature Asuka faced got its hands on her, it could snuff her life out like a candle.
She gave that no thought as she bore down on it, driving it back with her flashing blade.
As she attacked, she realized that she could hear music again. Not a half-remembered snatch of an old nursery song this time, either; this was different, fuller and richer, a song she'd never heard before and yet felt as though she'd known—or at least should have known—all her life. It was music, but it wasn't—she wasn't hearing it with her ears, and yet—it seemed to fill the world around her, more than she could consciously process, and it, it was the invisible presence that guided her.
Handling the falchion with greater confidence now, starting unconsciously to add a little style to her maneuvers as she backed the beast away—
—it drew a plasma weapon from its side and fired.
The music—the Cosmic Symphony, but no one had told Asuka that yet—sang a warning an instant before the shot rang out. Asuka responded instantly, instinctively, and the plasma pulse reflected from her interposed blade and tore a chunk out of the Muton's shoulder.
Bellowing, the monstrous humanoid fired again, but the second shot went wide as Asuka rushed forward, her blade doing a bit of singing of its own as it swept around in a gleaming arc and relieved the Muton of its gun arm below the elbow. The creature's tremendous tolerance for pain proved more than legendary as it ignored the dismemberment entirely, lunging for its tormentor's throat with its remaining hand.
Asuka dodged, opening the Muton's belly from side to side in the process. The falchion, balanced perfectly for her strength and reach, moved in her hands like a live thing, sweeping back up in a shining arc and beheading the creature before it had a chance to react.
The German pilot stood over the crumpled remains of her opponent for a moment, her ribs heaving as the unearthly music faded from her senses. Then she turned to see Rachael calmly holding the point of her sword under the human agent's chin.
"Feel better?" the Malakite asked with a pleasant smile.
Asuka blinked, still regaining her senses. "What... what was that? I heard... I felt... "
Rachael's smile widened. "You've taken your first step into a larger world," she said. "Now then, Mr. SEELE Agent. You were in such a hurry to get to the Systems and Security Centre—après vous!"
They were about halfway there (the SEELE agent proving most cooperative with Rachael's blade nudging him between the shoulder blades while Asuka covered him with her new blaster) when Asuka frowned thoughtfully and observed, "What you just told me was from a movie."
"Yes!" said the Malakite brightly.
Asuka blinked again, then shook her head and muttered something inaudible.
By noontime the next day, news of the capture of the SEELE agent was all over Station 51 and Fort Defiance. Over the course of the day, a number of Defiance personnel came up to the station to look in on the man's debriefing, which was being carried out in Chief Croft's own inimitable style. Aside from being entertaining, it didn't accomplish very much, though.
Noon found Jon Ellison nibbling at his lunch in the commissary and generally brooding. This was the sort of thing he'd been doing a lot lately. Everyone in the Station 51 and Fort Defiance staffs who hadn't already known that Jon was a hard guy to get to know had learned it fast in the first few weeks of the new NERV HQ's operations, and now nobody bothered him.
Well, almost nobody.
"Mind if I sit here?"
Jon paused, then glanced up from his mostly-finished dinner. Seeing who it was, he found the rest of his appetite waning.
"Actually I was just leaving," he replied, starting to get up.
"No, you're not," San Ayanami cut him off sharply. "Sit."
Jon stared at her for a moment, looking somewhere between startled and annoyed. San stared right back at him without so much as a blink. Finally he admitted to himself that he wasn't going to get away this time, and sat down with a scowl.
Silence reigned for another minute, as San began quietly eating her pasta. Jon remained where he was, getting increasingly impatient and annoyed as she continued to sit there and eat. Finally he couldn't take it anymore and said: "So, is there somethi—"
It was at that moment that San began to speak, running right over him as if he'd said nothing at all. "You know, the very first time I met you, that day in the hall, I could tell you were hopeless. And nothing's changed since then. You have no idea who you are, or what you are, or what you want. And you're so entranced by the psychological melodrama playing out inside your head that you'll never get around to fixing it on your own. 'Anyone who tries to help this one,' I thought to myself, 'is wasting her time. He doesn't want help.'"
"Ah," Jon replied, totally unimpressed. "If only you'd follow your own advice."
San continued to ignore him, poking at her food. "'No,' I repeated to myself, 'there's no percentage in that. I am not thinking about Jon freaking Ellison. And his stupid freaking personal problems that have nothing whatsoever to do with me. And how easy they would be to fix if he would just freaking get on the stick.'"
Jon's temper began to shorten perceptibly, and he turned to glare at her fully: "Ok, that's enou—"
At the exact same moment San looked up and stared straight at him. "Do you know what I am?"
"What kind of a question is that?"
"Do you know what I am?" San repeated sharply.
"...you're a demon. Or partly one, at least," Jon replied, not entirely sure what she was getting at now.
San rolled her eyes, muttering to herself. "(duh, he doesn't know what he is, why should i expect him to know what anyone is.) Okay, time for the remedial class," she sighed. "I'm a Djinn—a dark reflection of a Cherub. That means I'm like your beloved little angel, only with better resistance to sunburn, a hair color that doesn't draw stares at the mall, and a bit less control over the people I attune myself to."
She glared at him quite hard on that last point, and after a moment of staring Jon finally put two and two together. "You... attuned yourself... to me," sounding somewhere between shocked and repulsed by the mere notion.
"Yeah, I did," she snapped angrily. "And don't flatter yourself thinking I wanted to, either. See, the ones like Rei, they wait until they take a shine to someone before linking their celestial well-being with their own. But Djinn like me? We have this nasty habit of doing it accidentally, whenever someone really gets under our skin. It becomes a matter of obsession."
"I've heard that your kind don't treat your 'obsessions' very well." Jon sounded as if he would actually welcome a scuffle.
"Some don't," San grumbled, going back to poking at her food. "When you fall into this trap, you tend to get dragged down along with the twit you're hyperfocusing on. The more you get messed up that way, the less control you have—over that, or anything else. It's not good for the soul. And in this case, it's my soul that stands to get messed up.
"So, I've decided that you need to get off your ass and fix yourself," she said, taking another bite of her food. "That way, you'll stop frustrating the hell out of me and I can get on to obsessing over much more interesting people."
Jon frankly did not give half a damn about how his personal problems were messing with San's soul. That having been said, perhaps this was a chance to get the little bitch out of his hair. "So how do you propose I 'fix myself'?" he grumped.
"Well, you can start by packing your bags and rescuing the two NERV operatives that are stuck in Worcester-3."
That brought his train of thought, such as it was, to a complete halt. "... the what?"
"Two of your men are still in Worcester," San went on. "After the rest of you got out, they destroyed the Magi so SEELE couldn't use them. Natla threw a huge hissy fit, had troops comb the entire Dogma complex, but never found them. They've been hiding out and performing minor acts of sabotage ever since."
"And you know this... how?" Jon asked dubiously. "You were never in Worcester, and I thought you left the Arctic complex during the escape."
"My plug suit had a radio," San said. "I spent the first few days listening to SEELE transmissions, until I got out of range, just in case they sent someone after me... not that it was all that likely."
"How do you know they're still alive? And why didn't you tell us this earlier?" Suddenly he wasn't sure whether to be angry or hopeful, because he knew exactly who had stayed behind in Worcester-3.
San shrugged. "I don't, I suppose. But SEELE hasn't bragged about capturing NERV spies, so they're probably still safe. And if you're this skeptical now, why should I think anyone would have believed me when I first arrived?"
She did, Jon grudgingly had to admit, have a point. "I'll... have to talk this over with the others." If there was going to be a rescue operation of any kind, there was no way he could do that himself.
"Suit yourself, but I wouldn't tell anyone in command. You're the only one who can pose as SEELE personnel without a disguise, so you should go. But Katsuragi won't want to risk sending away her EVA pilots."
Jon lowered an eyebrow. "How do I know you don't just want me to get killed or captured?"
"You don't." She stared at him evenly. "But I'm attuned to you. Your getting killed wouldn't do me any good. So why would I bother?"
"I'm touched by your concern," Jon snorted.
San ignored him. "One other thing... I wouldn't share this with Rei. She's so distraught over you and DJ and Asuka that she can't see what's good for anyone anymore. She'd try to protect you from yourself—she'd never be willing to let you walk into danger."
"You underestimate her. You don't even know Rei."
There was a very long silence. When San finally did speak, she was much quieter. "In more ways than you realize, Jon... I am Rei."
Having said that, she went back to eating her dinner. Jon just stared at her for another minute, trying to parse what she'd just said. Finally she waved him off even more quietly. "Go on, let me eat in peace."
He got up and left, discarding the remains of his own meal in the trash bin. Feeling a distinct need for fresh air, he headed for the nearest surface exit.
San's words refused to leave his head.
"She's so distraught over you and DJ and Asuka that she can't see what's good for anyone anymore.
"In more ways than you realize, Jon... I am Rei."
There were some implications that went along with a statement like that, none of them particularly good. He definitely did not want to think about that. The mere concept made him shudder.
Jon thrust that whole line of reasoning out of his mind. He needed to go find the others, and quickly.
Back in the commissary, Rachael looked down at the drawing on her sketchpad for several seconds. Then she looked up at the doorway Jon had departed through, pocketed her pencils, got up, and made for the doorway with a very serious stride and an equally serious look, her jacket trailing behind her like a cape.
San watched the Malakite leave out of the corner of her eye, and suppressed a shudder of her own.
Jon found Asuka down in the gym complex and took her aside in one of the small exercise rooms. Rachael trailed in after him, trying her best to look nonchalant, and then stood off to one side sketching while he told Asuka what San had told him. Not all of it—just the part about agents having been left behind.
If NERV had two people operating in Terminal Dogma, then there could be no doubt as to who they were; the only two NERV personnel not to either escape Worcester-3 or be accounted for as captured or killed were a pair of X-COM MIB operatives, Jim Edwards and Ryoji Kaji.
So, Jon explained, it was as a fellow MIB agent that he spoke when he said, "I'm going after them."
Rachael stopped sketching briefly, looked over the top of the pad, and asked rhetorically, "Do you think that's a good idea?"
"Standard Operating Procedure for X-COM—" Jon started to reply flatly.
"'No one will be left behind,'" another, faintly accented voice interrupted, and Jon turned to see Marina Kirishatova there, leaning against the door frame. "That's Directive #1 for MIB Special Services. And you're not going alone, either," she added with a smile.
Jon returned the smile faintly. Somehow he wasn't surprised to learn that the Russian was MIB too.
"I'm coming too," Asuka declared.
"Look," Asuka snapped, barreling right past the beginning of Jon's rebuff. "If you're going to Worcester you'll need to get into the Geo-Front without being detected. DJ and I did a lot of running around in the tunnel network while we were hiding out at Amy's house. I know where he stowed his maps of the whole verdammt place; they'll get you anywhere you want to go!"
She did have a point, Jon had to admit. And she had done a lot of sneaking around the tunnel network while she and DJ were hiding out from Ikari's forces, so there was definitely merit in the suggestion.
"All right, you're in the party," Jon smiled wryly.
With a little smile that meant she was merely playing (pardon the expression) devil's advocate, Rachael inquired, "How do you intend to find them? You know better than anyone that the Geo-Front complex is huge, and it must be crawling with SEELE troops."
"Well, if I remember my personnel files correctly," Jon replied, "Edwards is also a psi-trooper. So, if I can get hold of a psionic amplifier when I get there, I should be able to get in touch with him and screen out any eavesdroppers at the same time."
"Those psi-amps are going to be under lock and key," Marina noted. "Hard to get without showing identification to armed guards."
Jon smiled, though it was no longer a nice smile. "Yeah, well, it so happens there are about a dozen SEELE agents who look exactly like me. That shouldn't be a problem."
The four had little difficulty assembling their equipment without attracting attention. Finding a vehicle was a bit less simple. The four of them sneaked into the Station 51 motor pool without much difficulty and even got aboard one of the vans, but the next step proved harder.
"Ah, crap," said Jon as he bent over the steering column. "They don't keep the keys in them here."
"They must be in the pool manager's office," Marina mused.
"Well, maybe I can hotwire this thing," Jon grumbled, leaning down to look under the instrument panel. "I used to know how to do that to hovertanks... can't be that different..."
Just then, the driver's door opened suddenly, startling the four young adventurers out of their wits. They all turned (Jon rising too hurriedly and banging his head into the steering wheel) to see Gendō Ikari standing there regarding them sternly.
"Sneaking out, children?" he inquired.
"Bus-ted... " Rachael murmured.
"Well, I—" Jon began.
"We're going to Worcester-3," Asuka told him flatly, "to rescue Kaji and Edwards. And if you try to stop us, Professor, then we'll go right on over you."
"That's not very sociable," Gendō replied reproachfully. "Besides, you're going about it entirely the wrong way." Grabbing the steering wheel, he said to Jon, "Move over."
"... What?" Jon replied, puzzled, as his body clambered out of the driver's seat more or less on autpilot.
Gendō grinned an impish little grin—an expression which still had the power to shock the pilots, who vividly remembered the cold, humorless, rather mean Gendō of old—and produced a screwdriver from the pocket of his lab coat.
"You don't need to bother hotwiring an old van like this," he said cheerfully. "You just need one of these."
Getting to Worcester after that was relatively easy.
After all, the US was making such a big deal out of the fact that it was a Free City Again, whatever that meant. Getting into the US itself was a bit tense, but not hard. Gendō could still pretend to be a mature, authoritative grown-up when the need was upon him, and he talked them across the border with ease.
From there out they were in enemy territory, inside and driving deeper into a country whose puppet masters would have them shot if they were caught—or worse. Still, the countryside of extreme eastern Maine, along the empty rural highway leading from the border crossing at Calais/St. Stephen to Interstate 95 in the center of the state, was so boring that the four would-be rescuers had a hard time remembering that they were in deadly danger.
When the door chime rang on the little corner bedroom San Ayanami had been assigned, she knew what was coming. She didn't have to be psychic to know that, and anyway, in a sense she was.
"Come in," she said resignedly.
The door opened, and in came Rei. The pale-haired pilot, who was famous throughout NERV and X-COM for her impassivity, might have given a casual observer the impression that she was as she usually was, but San knew better. From the tiny, subtle cues in her "sister's" posture and lack of expression, she could tell that Rei was absolutely furious.
Ah, well. She'd been expecting that.
San leaned back against the headboard of her bunk, put her hands behind her head, closed her eyes, and said, "Something you want?"
Rei waited until the door closed, then glared at San a bit more openly and said in a tight, cold voice, "You sent him away."
San didn't open her eyes. "Uh-huh," she said.
"Where?" Rei wanted to know.
San's face took on a look of mock surprise, but she still didn't open her eyes. "You need to ask? You? A powerful Cherub, a Friend of the Sages, certainly attuned to your lover... you can't sense it? I'm surprised. Shouldn't you be able to tell?"
"Where?" Rei repeated with just a trifle more force.
"Then again," said San in a sardonically thoughtful tone, "you haven't had a very good time of it lately, have you? You lost someone very dear to you. That'll do nasty things to a Protector." She shrugged with exaggerated nonchalance. "Who knows? It might even start screwing with your ability to interpret the Symphony."
"Where?" Rei demanded, implacable.
San abandoned her conversational stance; finally opening her eyes and looking at Rei, she said, deadpan, "Worcester."
Rei had been expecting that, or something like it. "Why?" she asked flatly.
"To rescue two of his comrades. A couple of X-COM operatives trapped behind enemy lines."
The muscles at the corner of Rei's jaw quivered ever so slightly. "He could be killed," she said, her voice now audibly angry.
"Of course he could," San replied matter-of-factly.
Rei shook her head in disbelief at her counterpart's audacity. "Why did you send him?"
San shrugged. "Because he can do it."
"He doesn't need this," Rei said with mingled hurt, anger and sadness.
San's patience was never all that good to begin with, and now she'd had enough. Her exaggeratedly nonchalant demeanor vanished; suddenly animated, she jumped up from her bed and crossed the small room to Rei. Rei tried to stand her ground and look unimpressed, but she involuntarily took a quarter-step back as her younger "sister" invaded her space.
"No, Rei, you don't need this," San snapped, getting right up in Rei's face. "You can't handle this. You've lost one friend, and you can't bear the thought of losing another. It terrifies you, just like this hiccup in your Symphony perception terrifies you. Jon's slipping away from you, so you've decided that the only safe course of action is to keep him where you can protect him. Not that you know how to help him, but if he never leaves your sphere of influence, then at least no one else can cause him problems. That's what this is all about. Look me in the eye, right now, and tell me I'm wrong."
Rei stared at San, her face a mask of cold fury, but the denial wouldn't come out.
San nodded. "I thought so. And I should know, because that's how my kind tend approach these things. I have—well, had—eleven sisters who were too damned good at it. Ask Shinji. And let me clue you in on something, sister—if you keep walking down that path, you and I are going to have a lot more in common than a surname."
As Rei stared at her—the Cherub's expression now one of mingled anger and horror—San paused, looking away, and visibly grappled with her emotions. This was getting to her too much, now, and the last thing she needed was to wind up attuned to this celestial train wreck.
"Look," she said, not daring to make eye contact with Rei while they both were still at the edge of fury. "Here's a free tip. Take it from someone who knows what an unhealthy attachment tastes like. Your needs are not his needs. You don't always know what's best for him."
"But you do," Rei said in a tone just short of a derisive snort.
"No," San admitted. "Not really." Whether she dared or not, she knew she had to look at Rei now; only eye contact had a prayer (ha!) of making the Cherub see that she was serious now.
She looked into her "sister's" scarlet eyes and said, with as much earnestness as she could muster (it seemed like so much more work when it was genuine), "I just know that sitting around this place, just waiting for the end to come, isn't it. So I sent him into a thunderstorm, in the hope that lightning may strike."
Rei looked back at San, some inner part of her noting how much like Jon's were the girl's emerald eyes, and yet, how much like her own. She felt her anger melting away as what San had said sunk in. Still, she felt obligated to raise one last objection.
"Getting struck by lightning doesn't heal people," she said, her tone now more sad than angry.
San gave a wry chuckle. "No," she admitted, "but it's one hell of a kick in the ass." She sighed, her shoulders slumping. "I'm crap at this family stuff. You want to play some air hockey or something?"
Rei shook her head, just the hint of a smile tugging at her mouth despite the circumstances.
"I'd better not," she said. "They'll be missed soon, and if I don't speak to Misato about it, she's liable to send half of X-COM chasing after them."
San laughed weakly. "Yeah, probably," she said. "Well, uh... another time, then."
Rei turned to go, the door opening for her; then she paused in the open doorway and turned back. For a second, San though she was going to say something more; but then she shook her head, as if to herself, and left.
San sat down on her bed and let out a sigh.
Shit, she thought, that was harder than I expected.
Ah, well. She'll thank me when he comes back.
He'd fucking better come back.
While the rescue party drove all night through the darkness of northern New England, Rei stood atop the Station 51 radio mast, looking southwest, lost in thought. Her quiet words and her trust in Rachael were sufficient to prevent the full weight of NERV Security being unleashed in an attempt to find them, but they couldn't stop Misato from pacing all night in her office anyway, cursing.
They watched 22 Lee Street for half an hour and saw no sign that there was anyone in the building at all. That was expected; after all, why would the occupation forces keep an eye on their old apartment building? It wasn't as if any of the NERV escapees were ever coming back to Worcester, right, and even if they DID, what would they go back to their old apartments for?
All the same, it was a quiet, tense, weapons-ready group that moved through the silent, dusty halls of the building while Gendō stayed with the van, ready for a quick getaway. Asuka had the sudden, rather surprising realization that she couldn't remember the entry code for Apartment 3-D's keypad lock.
Fortunately, it wasn't needed; the door wasn't locked. It stood slightly ajar. Asuka hesitated as she reached it, then turned to the others and said in a low murmur,
"Jon—come with me. Marina, Rachael—keep a lookout here."
"Right," Marina replied. The Russian pilot stood with her back to the wall next to the door, her X-COM laser pistol at the ready, looking one way down the hall; Rachael slipped to the other side and took up a similar watch, her sword in one hand. Quickly, warily, the two EVA pilots entered the apartment.
It struck both Asuka and Jon at the same moment, how unexpectedly painful it was to be here. The apartment had never been a terribly nice one, really—the building was modern and well-appointed but lacked character, even with the decorative touches Misato and the pilots had added to apartments 3-D and 3-F during their tenure there. Even so, the double apartment had been home, and they'd left in an almighty hurry. Half of the mess that met their eyes now had been caused by their rushed pullout... but only half.
The other half was the work of an interloper who, by the looks of the place, had been as much vandal as searcher. The kitchen, which was the room the entrance opened onto, was a disaster, and the open door to Misato's room showed that it wasn't much better.
Jon and Asuka swept the place silently and efficiently, making their way down to the end of the hall and ensuring that no one else was in the apartment as they went. Asuka paused again at the last door, gathering her courage, and then thrust the door open and swung through.
DJ's room was just as she'd seen it in her dream, except for the weird obscuring haze. The bedspread was just as it had been, with books scattered willy-nilly across it and the floor alongside from the overturned bookshelf.
She swallowed the lump that welled up in her throat and went quickly to work while Jon kept watch at the hallway door. First she went to the closet, took out a duffel bag, and dumped its contents on the floor. Then, almost as an afterthought, she stuffed a couple of the items back in before turning and yanking the coverlet off the bed. This she rolled up and bundled into the bag as well; then she set the bag aside and, somewhat to Jon's surprise, heaved the mattress off the bed, then flipped the box spring on top of it and delved into the space beneath.
Jon leaned to look at what she was doing, then suppressed a snicker. Asuka heard it anyway and asked as she rummaged, "What?"
"He kept maps of the tunnel system... under his bed," Jon said in a tone of mild disbelief.
"Of course he did," said Asuka dismissively. "That's where teenage boys hide everything they don't want the authorities to find."
"Well, it's nice to know that DJ was normal in that respect, anyway," Jon mused distractedly.
"And the authorities didn't find them, either," Asuka noted.
"They must have had one of my brothers search this place," said Jon, looking around. "It has all the hallmarks. Who else would consider knocking over a bookcase a thorough search?"
Asuka chuckled, finished gathering papers, spied one of the scattered books, and shoved it into the bag too. "OK," she said. "Let's go."
With the maps in hand, it took the group about four hours to penetrate Central Dogma through the maintenance spaces. A maze of tunnels and passages led them down into the Geo-Front and below, into the bowels of the old NERV complex. It was a bit like going home again, or rather visiting an old house which has since been sold—to unfriendly people who don't want company.
Eventually, they emerged from a service crawlspace into one of the corridors on sublevel 6, the storage and security supplies area.
"OK... this is H wing, I think," said Jon, looking around the dimly-lit, disused corridor. "We should be close to the armory now."
"We are," Asuka nodded, pointing to the map. Noting the dust and dim lighting, she added quietly, "If they're still using this area. But we still have to get in—"
"Shh!" Jon abruptly interjected and motioned for quiet. "(Someone coming this way.)"
The group quickly crouched low and hid in the shadows, as the sound of footsteps grew closer. From his position near the front, Ikari was able to spot the oncoming person first—and, to the great consternation of the others, he barged into the main hallway and accosted him out loud.
"You there! Quickly, man! Don't just stand there gawping at me, come here! I have important information for Commander Natla."
"Um... and what information would that be, Professor?" inquired a voice very like Jon's as its owner accompanied Ikari into their side hallway.
There came the sound of a heavy punch, and then a young man almost identical in appearance to Jon sprawled full-length on the floor at the youngsters' feet.
"I still hate her guts," Gendō informed him cheerfully as he bent down, took his nametag, and handed it to Jon. "Come on, Ellison, your name's Dan now. The psi-amp lockup is this way."
Jon hurriedly changed into the other's uniform—it was a little short for him, but it would do—and gunbelt, then clipped the ID back on.
"What do we do with him?" Marina asked, gesturing to the real Dan.
Jon regarded Dan for another moment. "Find a storeroom somewhere and throw him in. That should be embarrassing enough," he said with an unkind smile.
"We should kill him now," Asuka replied darkly. "Otherwise it's one more enemy EVA to deal with later."
"We're not here to kill anyone," Jon snapped, glaring. "We're here to rescue people. Besides... I have a hunch we don't need to worry about this one anymore."
Rachael, unnoticed by the others, smiled and nodded to herself.
In possession of Dan's uniform and ID badge, Jon found it very easy to get into the closest armory. SEELE personnel were on edge because of the recent wave of sabotage at the Geo-Front, and so when "Dan" suggested he might have a lead on the saboteurs and a plan to deal with it, the armory guard was all too happy to let him get whatever he needed.
He had grabbed as much as he could without drawing too much attention to himself, and distributed the loot among his comrades back in the storeroom. Marina had holstered her laser pistol in favor of the much more powerful plasma rifle, and Gendō accepted the extra plasma pistol Jon had brought back. Rachael waved off the offer of Marina's laser. Hopefully there wouldn't be any need for any fighting, but Jon had secured several clips of ammunition just in case.
For himself, Jon was busy getting a feel for the Mark II Psi-Amp he'd taken. The Mark II was a major advancement over the older Mk.I psionic probes: whereas the original models had been bulky, heavy, awkward handgun-shaped monstrosities which required significant psionic skill to operate, this new amplifier was much more manageable.
It was a softball-sized black metal sphere with almost no surface features save for a tiny power meter. A long cable emerged from the sphere and ended in a small skin clamp with an RJ45-CI plug on one end. Jon wouldn't be able to use the plug, of course, not having the necessary cyberware—at least not yet—but the skin clip would work just as well.
They found a quiet conference room, and then Jon arranged himself in a lotus position on the floor and concentrated on the amp, reaching out for the psionically active consciousness of Jim Edwards.
Edwards was slowly but surely running out of optimism. Between himself and Kaji they'd done quite a bit to screw up SEELE's operational schedule, but there was still a limit to what they could accomplish with the weapons they had. And those weapons were running low, along with their emergency rations. Sooner or later, and probably sooner, this whole situation was going to get critical.
So when a voice swam unexpectedly into his thoughts, J was immediately on the defensive. J, you there? It's E. Can you hear me?
"Crap," he muttered. "Watch out, Ryoji, looks like they're tryin' psi-probes." Both he and Kaji started working at making their presence a little less obvious. Or at least they did until the next outside thought flew by:
'Dale? It's me, Flash. Are you getting me? Over?'
J blinked. Not too many people knew he got a kick out of that film. And the thought pattern was indeed a familiar one. Closing his eyes, he concentrated: Jon? That you??
Yes! Jon's mind answered with clear relief. We're getting you guys out of this place ASAP. What's your status?
OK for now, J replied. But we're low on ammo and we could really use somethin' to eat. Where y'all at?
Conference room on level 6, Jon answered. It's too hot here. Can you get to service shaft B-9?
No problem, give us 10 minutes.
"Here," said Asuka to Jon as they moved through the maintenance spaces. "I know my way around this part pretty well anyway; you take the maps."
"Huh? Oh. Uh, OK," said Jon. He juggled his psi-amp to his other hand in order to take the maps, hand-drawn in DJ's neat draftsman-like style, from her, and led the way to the rendezvous point.
Ryoji Kaji and Jim Edwards were dirty, rumpled, and, after this long on the run with only very infrequent opportunities to use civilized refreshment facilities, rather smelly, but Jon and the others were certainly glad to see them anyway. They cut short the greetings and introductions in order to get back to the surface as quickly as possible. As soon as Dan Ellison came to, the facility was going to go on alert, and they wanted to be clear of the Geo-Front—preferably clear of the city—when that happened.
At least, that was the plan as Jon saw it; but even as he was running through it, Rachael said as though she'd read his mind, "I think the plan just changed, Jon."
"What? What are you—" Jon started to reply, and then he saw it too: Asuka had broken away from the group and was heading down another crawlway. He wanted to call out to her but she was too far away for him to do it without raising his voice, which could be a fatal error.
"Should have seen this coming," Rachael sighed, shaking her head.
"I would bet she planned this from the beginning," Marina agreed. "It may explain why she suddenly let you handle the maps, Jon."
"Well where the hell is she—" Jon started to demand, and then trailed off. Another quick glance at the map, and then he realized exactly where she was going. "Oh brother," he muttered, dragging a hand over his face. "Come on, we have to go get her!"
As he had expected, she led them right to the Evangelion cage, right to the bay where EVA-01, repainted by SEELE in its original violet and green test colors, stood locked down and silent. As Jon and the others emerged from the shaft behind her, trying to figure out a way to yell at her to stop and not make a lot of noise at the same time, she climbed into the entry plug and sealed the hatch behind her, instantly making about a thousand alarms go off.
Asuka had never been aboard Unit 01 before. That particular combination had never been attempted during the cross-compatibility tests, and when the time came that NERV was desperate enough to put anybody they could find in the seat, she'd been comatose, too badly injured to make the attempt. The cockpit layout was different from the production models she'd piloted, and the seat was mounted at a slightly different angle; but for all that, it felt curiously homelike as she slid behind the control grips and the hatch slammed down behind her.
She could hear Jon thumping his fists against the hatch cover, but tuned him out and started finding and flipping switches. The primary lights came up; the displays glowed into an idle pattern. She felt the plug tilt around her as it screwed itself into EVA-01's back. The fluid level rose, stabilized; Asuka released her breath, drew it in, held it for a long count, and let it out.
Rei was right.
It smelled like DJ.
She pressed the master activator.
At first, she felt nothing as the displays shifted around her, EVA-01's neurosystems feeling her out. Then she caught it—the faint echo of another's thoughts, somewhere on the periphery of her consciousness. It was a feeling she'd never had before, having piloted only the soulless production model EVAs, and her eyes went wide as she realized what it was.
"Talk to me, Lucifer," she murmured.
"You shouldn't be here," said a deep, calm, rather wry voice from the unit's comm-console speaker. The face of a lean, black-haired, green-eyed man appeared on the intercom display panel and admonished her gravely, "It was stupid of you to come. You may have compromised both our missions."
"I had to come," Asuka replied.
"Really?" replied Lucifer, his tone faintly mocking. "Suppose you never leave here alive? How necessary will the trip seem to you then?"
"I had to come," Asuka repeated, positively. "What good would it be to go on living if I never sleep soundly again? I have to know, and you're the only one who can tell me. Where is DJ Croft?"
"Ahh," said Lucifer, nodding sagely. "DJ Croft. You came all this way, into the very jaws of your mortal enemy, just to ask me about him?"
"That's a bit co-dependent of you, don't you think? And you've always prided yourself on being such an independent young woman, too."
"I'm not in the mood for jokes, Lightbringer," Asuka growled.
"I can see that," Lucifer replied. "You're as serious as serious gets. Well, well. Impressive," he added. Then he frowned thoughtfully. "All the same, I don't think I should tell you. It might compromise—"
Asuka glared at him, the muscles at the corners of her mouth quivering. Then, with a sudden, violent motion, she slammed her left fist through the emergency breakaway in the console's side panel and grabbed the red-and-white-striped handle switch within.
«Listen to me very carefully,» she snarled, too angry now to speak anything but German. «I'm tired of being jerked around by celestials. The only one of you who's ever given me a straight answer to a question or treated me as anything more than a cog in a grand design is Rei, and the rest of you treat her like a criminal for it. Well, I've had enough! Now you get to make a choice, Lucifer. Do you tell me what I want to know, or do I trigger Unit 01's core destruct? How much do you think that would compromise?»
Lucifer blinked at her.
"We're partially synchronized, you know," he said calmly. "If you destroy my core, you'll be killed too, or at least rendered a vegetable."
«You think I really give a shit about that now?» she replied. «I'll give you five seconds.»
Lucifer shook his head, tutting. "This is a very rash maneuver."
"Vier," Asuka said.
"Not very well-thought-out, either."
"There's no faulting the strength of your passion, though."
"I admire a person who's willing to stand up for her principles."
"Eins!" said Asuka, and her fist tightened around the destruct handle.
"All right," said Lucifer, nodding. "I'll tell you what you want to know—but you must get out of here. Every second I spend in even this low-level contact with you is a second in which someone in SEELE's monitor room could detect my celestial presence in this body, and that would ruin everything. The extent of my recovery mustn't be discovered yet."
«Then you'd better hurry up and talk to me,» Asuka replied.
Lucifer laughed. "Yes, I guess I'd better, hadn't I?" he said. "DJ is with me, Asuka, in a place we celestials call the Marches. He's quite safe, and when the time is right, he and I will have a little coming-out party. Until then, it's best if we... lie low, so to speak."
«I want to see him. Talk to him.»
"You can't. I'm sorry—I truly am—but you can't, not here, not under these conditions. Celestially, that would be as obvious to SEELE as a bonfire in the middle of Broadway."
«Why didn't you let me know somehow? Couldn't you have sent me a message somehow, just to let me know he was all right?»
Lucifer looked a trifle sad as he replied, "He's tried to reassure you twice, my dear—once when he joined me here, and once in your dreams. It's hardly his fault, or mine, that your faith in him is weak."
Asuka's eyes blazed at the monitor. «That's unfair,» she hissed. «I came here—»
"You came here to see for yourself, because you hadn't sufficient faith that he would keep his promise and return to you again," Lucifer interrupted her, his own eyes flashing. For the first time in their conversation, his voice rose from its mellow, dryly humorous tone, becoming hard and sharp. "Rationalize it however you will, that is what you have done; and in doing so you have placed your eventual reunion in mortal jeopardy. Even now the forces of the enemy draw near. You have placed yourself in danger; you have placed your friends in danger; you have placed me in danger, and through me, the whole of your world."
The center monitor flickered; on it, Asuka saw, to her horror, a squad of SEELE troopers and two plugsuited figures entering the EVA cages. The troopers moved toward EVA-01's bay; the two people in plugsuits fanned out toward two of the production-model EVAs racked along the side walls.
Jon Ellison looked back toward the violet EVA, a half-exasperated, half-pleading look on his face, then shook his head as if disgusted and turn to face the oncoming foe. Beside him, Marina, Gendō, and the two MIB agents readied their blasters while Rachael set herself and her sword to meet the charge.
"Nein!" Asuka whispered.
"Ja!" Lucifer replied sarcastically. "I can't wait to see how you get yourself out of this. If your pattern of action to date is any indication, it certainly won't be by thinking."
His words cut all the deeper for being true, but she shook her head, blocking them out, and gave him an angry yet imploring look.
"You could help me," she said, slipping back to English now that her rage had been banked.
"I could," Lucifer allowed, "but I won't. That would look good, wouldn't it? The mysterious presence within EVA-01—Natlateth has her suspicions as to what it is, you know, but not enough hard data to back it up, and until you showed up I'd been very careful—the mysterious presence within EVA-01 suddenly awakening after weeks of stubborn immobility to help NERV agents escape the compound? They would dismantle me to my bones.
"You don't seem to understand this yet, so I'll spell it out for you: I am the only one who can save your world from Natlateth, and I—am—not—ready—yet. I won't—I can't—reveal myself until the right time comes, and this is not that time. Do you get it yet?"
Asuka stared, aghast, at his face for a moment; then she blinked. Her face went blank, then slowly settled into an expression DJ would have found very familiar indeed: a sly, perhaps even rather cruel grin.
"So who needs your mysterious presence?" Asuka replied, gripping the controls. "I'm a Production Model pilot. All I need is your body."
So saying, she threw her will against Lucifer's flesh, bypassing his astonished consciousness entirely as the Synchrotron spooled up into the positive control zone.
As his face vanished from the monitor and his presence winked out of her mind, Asuka thought she heard Lucifer chuckle and murmur, "Well thought."
"It was nice of you guys to throw us a going-away party," Edwards remarked as he blasted one of the oncoming SEELE troopers, "but we're kind of in a hurry, so could we just take the cake with us?"
"Laugh it up, pal," Xavier Ellison's voice blared from the PA speakers on EVA-10. The unit shivered, its eyes glowing, and then it stepped away from its stowage mounts and made for EVA-O1's bay, bashing aside a catwalk as it came.
"X, could you try and keep the property damage to a minimum?" Jūichi Ayanami radioed from EVA-11.
"Technical Section can put it back," Xavier replied. "I want the prototype."
"Don't drag me into your personal hell," said Jūichi, rolling her eyes.
Jon glanced over his shoulder at EVA-01 again, wondering what the hell was happening. For a moment, he'd felt what he thought was Lucifer, stirring; then it had disappeared as if squelched. That made sense to him; the Lightbringer couldn't risk discovery of his revived consciousness by SEELE at this stage. That was about the only thing that did make sense to Jon about his current situation, which, when he considered how strange it was, struck him as a little bit funny.
Certainly funnier than the fact that he was about to be killed by an AP EVA.
Behind him, he heard a low, guttural snarl that sent a shiver up and down his spine. The deck beneath his feet shuddered. He whirled.
Evangelion Unit 01 was active, its eyes and Elerium colliders glowing.
"What the—?!" Kaji blurted.
"Control, are you getting this?!" Xavier Ellison cried.
"Roger, EVA-10," Kaori Yamashita replied. She frowned. EVA-01 was active, all right, but the channel she'd been advised by Natla to watch in the event that such a thing happened was dead, a complete flatline. The unit was evincing no more psychic response to its activation than a production model. No sign of the strange psychic manifestation that had aided Croft in his missions; right now, the Test Type was just a big meat puppet being driven by the mind of the person inside it. Just like a production model.
"Well, what the fuck am I supposed to do about it?!" Xavier demanded.
"Well, gee, let me think," Yamashita replied with elaborate deliberation. "The unit's active... it's inside a Class A secure area... and it's been commandeered by the enemy. You're a combat pilot. You figure it out, tough guy."
Kaori Yamashita did not appreciate being sworn at.
"Relax, X," Jūichi chipped in. "The unit's locked into its launch gantry, it can't do anything. Just wait for its pilot to figure that out and give up."
EVA-01's pilot had already figured that out.
The unit subsided momentarily, and Jūichi was just drawing breath to say, "See?" when, eyes blazing, EVA-01 let out a tremendous, rafter-shaking roar and lunged forward like a striking cobra. The gantry hardpoints shattered like glass, sending fragments flying in all directions, and the purple EVA took two steps forward in the ankle-deep storage fluid with all its extra momentum. It stumbled and fell to one knee, its right hand splashing down and disappearing as it splayed across the hidden compartment deck.
Its left hand flew to its shoulder, and a half-second later, a Progressive Knife swept around in a block, catching EVA-10's tonfa strike and deflecting it away from the unit's head. EVA-01 surged to its feet, overpowering Xavier's poorly balanced unit and sending it crashing to its back. Suspension fluid sloshed from one side of the cage to the other in great pink waves.
EVA-01 half-turned on its heel, took one smooth stride forward and brought its right fist down on the knot of SEELE troopers beseiging Jon and the others. Screaming, the troopers not crushed outright plunged the two hundred fifty feet to the sea of suspension fluid as the catwalk disintegrated from the force of the blow.
EVA-11 leveled its autorifle, but EVA-01 had already noticed it. The purple unit whirled, letting the Prog Knife fly halfway through the turn, and with a resounding CHONK the blade buried itself hilt-deep in the SEELE unit's head, dead-center through its left eye. The white unit toppled, dropping its weapon as its hands rose to clutch at its wounded head. EVA-01 looked around as if considering its options; then it strode to the cage of an unattended Production Model, tore away the obstructing gantry members, and yanked out the unit's entry plug.
"Get aboard this," Asuka's voice instructed her confederates as EVA-01 lowered the plug even with the platform where they stood.
"Oh, you've got to be kidding me," Jim Edwards groaned.
By the time Jūichi and Xavier got their units back on their feet, EVA-01 was heading for the exit, the stolen entry plug tucked into one of its elbows like a football.
Three men and three (apparent) teenagers crammed into a single entry plug flooded with LCL is not a recipe for fun, or even for being well informed. The plug's status display were working, of course, but with Kaji and Edwards backed up against them, the men couldn't see them and blocked everyone else's view as well. However, the LCL cushioned the worst of the jolting as EVA-01 ran, and the tactical armor the two MIB agents wore absorbed the pounding the screens were giving their backs. Everybody got jostled around when the high-speed magnetodynamic lift hurled EVA-01 to the surface, but no real harm was done.
EVA-01 reached the surface amid a chorus of howling alarms and mobilizing defense forces, all of which it ignored. Instead it turned to the east and started running flat-out, leaning over like a sprinter. Tanks blasted at it, aircraft strafed it, all to no effect, while the citizens of the "reconstituted free city" of Worcester-3 scattered to shelters and wondered how the hell this could be happening again after all the government's assurances.
"You're not—planning—to run—clear to—Canada—are you?" Jon inquired painfully as the stolen entry plug jostled violently, clutched in one of the sprinting EVA's pumping fists.
"Of course not," Asuka replied. "We're heading for the airport. I'll hold off whatever AP units they mobilize while you steal us an airplane."
Jon considered that and realized it was actually a halfway decent plan—assuming they lived long enough to reach the airport, and assuming the airport itself wasn't crawling with troops by the time they got there.
Asuka felt her smile getting wider and fiercer as she ran. A tiny bit of the old Asuka, the one she'd been before coming to Worcester-3, crept out of some corner of her mind to smirk at the circumstances. At last, for this one moment, the most powerful of all the Evangelions was under the command of the most capable of all the Evangelion pilots.
It was, perhaps, meant to be.
She vaulted a powered roadblock (one of the old Worcester-3 anti-Angel defenses) without a thought, hit the ground running, asphalt and concrete pulverizing in her wake. The airport was half a mile ahead and EVA-01's long strides were eating that distance fast.
EVA-10 popped up midway between, slightly to the left, a progressive halberd in hand. Having thrown away one of EVA-01's Prog Knives, Asuka had only the second for armament, but she didn't draw it—didn't even think of it. That strange music was back in her ears again, and it sang a different suggestion.
EVA-01 veered to the right, snarling under its mask, and as EVA-10 brought the prog halberd's blade around in a sweep, the violet-armored Test Type ducked smoothly under it, then came up with all its strength behind one clenched fist. EVA-10's torso armor shattered under the blow, the white unit reeling back as shards of ferroceramic plating rained to the street from its dented abdomen. Asuka, her fierce joyful grin now threatening to split her face, seized the unit's halberd and wrenched it from its hands, but instead of using it against the SEELE unit, she turned and threw it with all Lucifer's strength in the opposite direction.
EVA-11 dropped just in time, avoiding decapitation as the halberd slashed instead through the vacant office building behind it. Jūichi cursed—being short a main visual sensor was a serious handicap—and got her unit to its feet again. By the time she did, EVA-01 had all but pulverized EVA-10, and, Jūichi realized with a cold shock, it had done so with one arm. It was holding the stolen entry plug in its other hand, and so did no fighting with that arm.
EVA-10 sagged broken against a building, blood pouring from its caved-in cranial armor, clearly out of the fight. Jūichi wasted no time wondering whether X was alive—she didn't particularly care, and the AP units' advanced neurosystems meant he probably still was, since there was no apparent damage to the entry plug dock. She ran after EVA-01, calling for reinforcements to head the rogue unit off at the airport, all the while wondering who the hell was piloting it.
As Asuka's stolen unit cleared the airport gates and headed into the hangar complex, she spied two more AP units appearing from launch points inside the complex. Both were armed with ranged weapons; one of them had a Type 20 particle beam cannon.
"This is it," she said. "When the plug stops moving, you guys punch out and head for cover! I'll catch up as soon as I can."
"Asuka," Jon's voice replied. "You're not going to—"
"No, Jon, don't be stupid," Asuka replied with cheerful scorn (an amusing combination if you can manage it). "I'm not going to do what DJ did. I really am going to catch you up. Trust me! I'm too cute to die."
Jon considered his options, realized he had none, and was about to say something else when Rachael nudged him and said softly, "She knows what she's doing."
Jon hesitated, but it was hard to ignore the Malakite's calm assurance. "OK," he said. Then he blinked and turned (as best he could) to Marina. "... did she just say she was too cute to die?"
Marina nodded. "Da. That she did. A strange girl, your German friend. Though I must say," the Russian added with a smile, "I suspect she's right."
Asuka chuckled to herself, having overheard all that byplay on her comm channel, and then played her next-to-last card. She jumped EVA-01 over one of the long, low hangar buildings, landed on one knee, skidded to a halt, and sent the swiped entry plug skidding across the tarmac and into the open doors of the hangar across the taxiway. It wouldn't be very comfortable for the others, but it beat coming out of the plug in the open and possibly under fire.
Having disposed of her cargo, Asuka whirled, squared off against the oncoming EVAs, and boosted EVA-01's AT Field to maximum power. Time to see just how much better the AP model really was—and how much better than that the King of EVAs remained.
The entry plug completed its dizzying, sickening run with a series of heavy WHUMPs, one resounding CRASH, and a lot of jangling noises, turning nearly upside down before its weighted construction made it roll upright again.
As it did, Jon heard a voice inquire, "Agent Ellison, are you receiving? Come in!"
He was about to ignore the message as an enemy transmission until he realized it wasn't coming in on the entry plug's comm system, but his own X-COM MIB mastoid implant. He'd turned that off when this adventure had begun, not wanting to be pestered by people wanting to know what the hell he was doing—but it had reactivated, somehow or other.
Jon popped the plug hatch and the six crammed into the plug tumble-scrambled out, coughing and retching. When he'd recovered enough to speak, Jon drew his weapon and surveyed their surroundings while replying quietly, "Who is this?"
"My name's Bacon," the voice replied. "Sergeant, X-COM, DN38416, assigned to protect you. I have control of several of Worcester-3's security and information systems, including the airport network. Wish you'd had time to get your R-Grade before you went on this little trip, I could give you nav markers to follow. Oh, and Brigadier Katsuragi says that when you get back she's going to have your nutsac for a coin purse, unquote, so if you own a codpiece I'd recommend wearing it for your debrief."
Jon blinked. "How the hell did you get—"
"I'm a sleeper agent, I've been here the whole time. Head south and turn left, watch out for the fuel barrels."
"What about Asuka?"
"I've got her covered too. Get going."
Asuka was hearing from the mysterious voice too—not through a commo implant (for despite all her off-the-shelf parts, she didn't have one), but through one of the secure sidebands on EVA-01's test-type communications system.
"OK," Bacon's voice was telling her. "I've interdicted all of EVA-01's data recorders; you're not transmitting any system information back to central or recording it on board. If you've got any special tricks you didn't want the bad guys to see, now's the time."
"A nice thought," Asuka replied as she dodged away from a burst from an AP unit's autorifle, "but all I know how to do is what I'm doing..."
"Maybe so," said a calm, dry voice which only Asuka could hear, "but that's good news for both of us. Do you trust me?"
"That's a hell of a thing to ask at a time like this," Asuka grumbled.
"Say again, EVA-01?" said Bacon.
"Nothing," Asuka replied, and muted her comm pickup.
"I admit it's a hell of a thing," Lucifer said, a touch of amusement in his voice. "But do you trust me? You trusted my servant enough to become my soldier. Do you trust me now?"
"... Yes. I do now."
"Good. Then it seems I was wrong before. Perhaps you can see the Eternal One after all. Brace yourself, my soldier—to emerge from this alive, you shall have to be reborn."
Asuka opened her mouth to ask what that was supposed to mean, but before she could speak, her perceptions were filled with a million shooting lights. She remembered DJ's last transmission from the first time EVA-01 had absorbed his substance; Rei had played it back obsessively for days, trying to fathom what he could possibly have meant.
Now Asuka knew.
Mein Gott, she thought.
It is full of stars.
She was flying, disembodied, through a universe of close-packed stars; as she streaked past them, she began to notice that the brilliant balls of light had shapes in them. She couldn't make out what they were, but she got the impression that each of them was more than a star—a universe unto itself. She flitted through them, noticing the patterns that they made, and then realized that she was heading straight for one, glowing white in the distance.
There was no fear, only exultation, because on some level, she knew what came next as the light consumed her and blanked out all her perceptions.
EVA-01 went behind one of the airport service buildings and didn't come out. EVA-11, leading the pursuit force now that Unit 10 was down, moved in cautiously. When Jūichi rounded the building, she found EVA-01... kneeling in seiza on the pavement, head bowed, fists on knees, like some kind of freakish meditating giant.
She moved closer, still wary, but the unit was completely inert, its Elerium colliders and optics dark.
"11 to Control," she said. "EVA-01 seems to have shut down."
"Do you have access to the entry plug bay?" inquired Yamashita's voice. "I've lost all telemetry for that unit here. All channels went blank about when you reached the airport."
"Affirm, Control," Jūichi replied.
"Request you disembark and examine the entry plug personally. Commander Natla would like the pilot captured, or at least identified."
Jūichi moved her EVA up behind the Test Type unit and disembarked, climbing down the access handholds and jumping across to the boarding stage on EVA-01's back. There, she punched the override code into the plug hatch computer with one hand while keeping her plasma pistol ready with the other. The hatch opened, the plug screwed out to the standby position, and then the canopy hatch popped up, spilling about half of the plug's LCL to run down the aft armor and drip to the street.
Aside from the remainder of the LCL, lapping at the cockpit coaming like water in a bathtub, there was nothing in there.
"... Goddammit," she muttered. "this again?"
Asuka walked across the lawn toward the stately manor house, past the big golden fish fountain in the middle of the driveway roundabout. It was a beautiful summer day, complete with scudding puffy clouds and chirping birds. She looked down at herself and was somehow unsurprised to find that she was wearing her yellow sundress. She didn't even have that dress anymore; it'd been left behind in the scramble to get out of Worcester, along with almost all of her other clothes, and it hadn't fit her anymore anyway... but it seemed somehow very fitting that she should be wearing it now.
She went up to the house and opened the door; the great hall beyond was elegant and cool, but a bit cluttered with some crates and straw standing around. She went to one of the crates, which hadn't been topped yet, and saw that it contained an ornate golden box with what looked like a pair of angels formed into a decorative handle on the top.
"Oh, hullo!" said a voice so familiar that it made Asuka's heart leap inside her. "Sorry about the mess. Don't mind the crates; I'm having some things put in storage and the movers haven't been yet."
Asuka whirled, and there he was—DJ Croft, tousled black hair, twinkling blue eyes, and all, in rolled-up shirtsleeves and black suit trousers held up with old-fashioned bracers, every inch the country squire. He grinned.
"You're looking well," he said. "Good Lord, I love that dress," he added, shaking his head slightly. "Have I ever told you tha—"
That was as far as he got before he had other things to do with his lips for a while.
After that, he leaned back a little to look her in the eye and said dryly, "I do believe you're glad to see me this time."
She crushed him in her arms again and murmured, «Shut up, you fool, and hold me.»
His German still wasn't very good, but he didn't really need it to get the idea; so he obeyed, for however long it took. He had as much time as was necessary; one of the advantages of the somewhat odd setting.
There were a million things Asuka had wanted to say if she got this chance, but suddenly, none of them seemed to be important except for one, and she said that one over and over again under her breath. DJ's German didn't have to be very good for him to understand what "ich liebe" meant.
Her natural resilience kicked in after a while, and when she was finally convinced that it was safe to let him go, that he wouldn't evaporate like smoke if she did so, she released him, took a step back, wiped at her eyes, and smiled.
"So," she said. "This is your house?"
DJ looked around. "A reasonable facsimile, at least," he said. "Would you like a tour?" he added, offering his arm.
Asuka took it, leaning her head against his shoulder, and smiled. "I'd love one," she said, and then she looked up at his face and her smile became a bit sly.
"Why don't we start with your room?" she added.
They did, in fact, not start with his room; they walked all over the old manor house and its extensive grounds and talked. Talked about all sorts of things—what was going on in the world, how things were in Canada, and so forth. Asuka told DJ how worried she was about Jon and Rei, collectively and individually, and how well his mother and Misato were holding up. She tried to apologize for brushing him off when he'd first tried to touch one of her dreams, but he said that subject was closed and they moved on to something else.
They ended up in his room, though—with that same Union Jack bedspread!—and it was afterward, when the sun was dipping toward the western horizon and Asuka dozed under the flag of the kingdom, that DJ dressed again and went briefly to rummage in one of the other rooms.
When he came back upstairs, Asuka was awake, dressed, and looking out the window at the sunset. DJ came up behind her and put his hand on her shoulder; she looked back at him and was struck by the serious look on his usually irreverent face.
"What is it?" she asked quietly.
"You'll have to go back soon," he said. "Even here, you can't cram forever into an instant. Before you go, though... I want you to have something."
Asuka turned to face him, his seriousness infecting her. She nodded; he took her left hand, and, to her surprise, put a ring on her finger.
She looked down at it, examining it in the dying daylight. It was a narrow white-gold band without a setting, its surface studded evenly with small stones. They alternated between rectangles of deep rich green and a clear brilliance, the latter turned by the sunset into little chips of flame. Asuka gasped and looked up from the ring to DJ, who was now smiling at her, just a little sadly.
"It was my grandmother's," he told her. "She passed it on to Mum, but, well, Mum never married, you know. I don't think she'll mind if I give it to you."
"Does this... does this mean..."
DJ shook his head. "Not yet, not now. Not here. We've a long way to go before we can be sure we even have a future." He took her shoulders in his hands and looked her in the eye. "But when that future is assured..."
Asuka threw her arms around him, crushing him to her again, and whispered in his ear, "Thank you. Oh, God, I've missed you."
"I've missed you too. But I'll be back with you soon. And in the meantime, I may see you again in your dreams."
"I won't turn you away next time," she promised.
"I'm glad to hear it," DJ replied, with a return to something like his usual flippant state.
Asuka chuckled tearily, then drew back a little and surprised herself slightly with the next thing to come out of her mouth:
"And if you can manage it... I think Rei would benefit from seeing you again, too."
DJ also looked surprised—Asuka had historically been a little jealous of his friendship with Rei—but then he smiled. "Perhaps I'll be do that," he said. Then he tapped her on the nose. "Now don't get killed on your way out, or I shall never forgive you."
Asuka drew him in again and kissed him, and the world went white once more.
Jūichi turned away from the empty entry plug and keyed her plug suit's comm system, grumbling to herself. She was sure the science types would yell at her when she reported her lack of findings, even though there wasn't a damn thing she could do about it.
"Control, thi—" she said, and then realized that she was hearing something behind her. It sounded like liquid bubbling, or... or boiling. What in—
Jūichi Ayanami turned around and caught only a glimpse of red-gold and flashing silver before something cold touched her neck and her consciousness winked out forever.
Jon was still following Sgt. Bacon's relayed directions, part of his mind worrying about Asuka, when a figure darted out of a side alley in the network of hangars and service buildings. Jon whirled, his weapon coming almost to bear before he realized that it was someone on their side.
"Asuka!" he cried. "Where did you—"
"I've been on the rooftops," she replied, falling into step beside him. "I hope you've got an exit in mind."
"Sgt. Bacon's routing us," Jon replied. "I have a mastoid comm—"
"Oh, right," she said. "I forgot."
Jon blinked, realizing that Asuka was dressed not in the black jumpsuit she'd been wearing when they embarked on this operation, but rather a black EVA plug suit of a slightly foreign type. "Where did you—" he began, and then noticed that the suit's white edging was tinged scarlet around the collar, and stopped.
Just as they rounded into the hangar immediately adjacent to the one Bacon said was their destination, Bacon's voice crackled in Jon's ear, "Whoa! Dammit, how did they get in there?! Ellison, you'd better reroute to—crap!"
Jon had just enough time to wonder what the problem was before he saw it: A gang of armored SEELE security troopers blocking the far exit of the hangar, with one of his brothers at the lead.
"Hello, Prototype!" said the Ellison in charge. "We haven't met. My name is David, and I'm your superior in every perceptible way."
"The thing I love most about your family," Marina Kirishatova mused quietly to Jon, "is that you are all so modest."
"Looks like your only way out is through them," Bacon's voice said to Jon. "Sorry... "
"No problem," Jon replied, "we can handle them," and then he and his comrades charged.
Asuka was on a direct line for David; she snarled, adjusted her stride slightly, and drove her falchion's wicked point-edge forward, lacking the time for an overhand cut. As she made the attack, she realized that something about it was slightly off—her body hadn't responded quite as she'd expected it to do. David seemed to have no such problem; he sneered, stood his ground and leveled his plasma pistol.
"Say hello to your loverboy for me," he said, "when you see him in Hell."
He squeezed the trigger as Asuka's drive reached its mark.
Behind Jon Ellison's eyes, time slowed almost to a halt, freezing Asuka in mid-lunge, Rachael in mid-duck, the others just as they were. The room seemed to expand to an indistinct nowhere, its edges blurring into an uncertain distance as the people in the center came into sharp relief. A packet of plasma was just emerging from the muzzle of Ryoji Kaji's blaster, its glow greenlighting his gaunt, unshaven face. Jon ignored the troopers and the men in black, ignored Rachael and Marina and Gendō, all his suddenly razor-sharp attention focused on Asuka and David.
Asuka's fierce thrust had missed its target. Her blade stood nearly still, an inch and a half to the left of David's ear. Her eyes, brilliant and defiant, were fixed on David's, her lips drawn back from her teeth in a snarl. The muzzle of David's blaster was aimed straight at her forehead and beginning to glow. She was a tenth of a second away from death, she knew it, and she was taking it with her eyes open.
A voice rattled through Jon's hollow-feeling head, soft and ghostly, with a message from another time:
"Your heart remains locked away, kept hidden and useless. Awaken it and set it free, or you will not survive."
And suddenly Jon Ellison knew.
He had no other choice.
Saying a small, silent prayer, he reached deep within himself, and opened a door he had kept tightly closed and locked for months.
"I don't understand."
Blackness surged up his spine, but this time he did not resist its encroachment. Nor did the darkness force its way into his consciousness like the last time, instead flowing smoothly, almost comfortingly, into his senses. As it engulfed him, a single note of celestial song growled up from deep in his chest and then burst explosively from his throat.
That note shattered the peculiar distortion of time and space he'd been feeling, bringing the room suddenly and violently back into its proper color, speed and size. The SEELE troopers, the men in black, Gendō and Marina all reeled, falling to their knees, clutching at their heads. Asuka, smacked full-on by the shockwave, tumbled sideways out of David's line of fire and crashed against the far wall, then crumpled, stunned. Even Rachael was staggered by the explosion of fury, though the Malakite only dropped to one knee.
David's blaster exploded in his fist, blowing his arm off clear back to the elbow.
Jon fell to his knees, shuddering visibly as the power took hold and transformed him. His nails—no, his whole fingers—blackened and changed into vicious claws. His skin hardened and became a dark shade of red, much darker than any previous transformation. And it didn't stop there: as he rose slowly back to his feet, eyes glowing like coals in a furnace, a sharp crack echoed through the chamber as a red corona of energy burst from his back, forming the outline of a pair of sanity-defying black wings. His hair lengthened and thickened until it wasn't so much hair as a great shock of black razor wire.
My God, thought Jon fleetingly. Is this what it feels like to be alive?
Snarling and baring the vicious fangs which his canines had become, Jonathan Ellison hurled himself at his startled, pain-stunned adversary.
David managed to get his focus back just as Jon bowled him over. Damn it! he thought as he gritted his teeth and recalled Natlateth's lessons on the blockage of corporeal pain. Where in the Pit did the Prototype learn the Song of Thunder? And don't I remember somebody telling me that he'd lost his combat form after his Sleeper programming was compromised?
As he shifted himself for true battle, David Ellison made a sad mental note that the quality of enemy-status intel around here was on a definite downslope.
The two brothers rolled to the far wall; then David got a foot under Jon and kicked him off. Both of them got to their feet, squaring off and pausing for a moment to size each other up. It was fairly easy to tell them apart, even discounting David's missing arm. Jon's transformation was much more complete, his body taller and leaner. Asuka, still crumpled against the wall but regaining her senses, realized with a thrill of horror that his proportions had started to take on something of an EVA's shape.
David sneered—though the completeness of the Prototype's transformation did alarm him a little—and sang a brief snatch of what sounded to Jon like a warped, distorted version of the language of song Rei and the other angels used. And yet, though it sounded wrong to Jon, he realized that he could understand it; it was a song of restoration.
David's arm grew back, and the younger Ellison smirked.
"Not bad, Prototype," he said. "Mind you, you'll never get a date looking like that. Does your angel girlfriend know what you look like in the morning?"
"No jokes," Jon snarled. He threw himself forward again. David tried to feint around him, flank him for a slashing attack, but Jon was too fast for him, and opened him up from shoulder to gut, splattering the floor with blackish-red blood. David backhanded him across the face, doing little damage but knocking him back, and before he could rush to the attack again, David had sung his restoration song again.
This little dance of futility went on for about a minute; every time they traded blows, Jon did more damage, but David managed to buy himself enough time to heal it. The net result was that Jon, though stronger and faster, was steadily losing ground. This was making him angry, which didn't help any. He wasn't losing control of himself the way he had last time, but some detached part of his mind was noticing that he was having a harder time controlling his anger than normal, and in this case, it was really hurting his cause.
"Noticed your problem yet, brother?" David asked with a smirk as the two of them rebounded out of one of the room's corners. Devastation had followed them all around the place, taking the form of overturned boxes, smashed wall panels, shattered light fixtures, and a couple of dead SEELE troopers who'd tried to get in Jon's way. Jon was panting, his blood dripping to the floor from a dozen individually minor wounds, and his frustration was almost enough to make his hair stand on end.
"A handy thing, this restoration tune," mused David conversationally as he and Jon circled each other. "I'm the only one of us with a good enough voice to use it," he added proudly. "Makes your position a bit hard, doesn't it, Prototype? After all, whatever you do to me, I can undo almost as fast as you—"
The taunt drained away into a gurgling, bubbling shriek as a streak of black and silver passed in front of him and a fountain of black spurted up. David staggered back, clutching at his throat, his blood spraying between his fingers. Rachael stopped at the far wall, whirled, and lashed the blood off her blade and onto the floor.
"Sing your song now, you soulless pawn," she snarled, all her usual mild sweetness erased by the hard-edged ruthlessness of a Malakite at war.
Jon gave her a glance, a somewhat incongruous grin, and a wholly incongruous wink before diving toward his stricken twin, his talons drawn back for the kill.
A second later, it was over.
Jon stood over his beaten foe. As the others watched in stunned silence, the glowing wings seemed to collapse slowly back into his body, his nails and his skin returning to their normal light coloration as the aura of dark power faded away. After a few moments, he was his old self again... save for a much different look behind his eyes. He no longer looked haunted.
Now, at last, he understood.
Tabris was right, Jon mused to himself. Good and evil: That is a choice.
Jon Ellison had made his choice.
He looked over at Rachael.
"It would have occurred to me to do that in another minute or so," he said with a self-mocking grin.
"Another minute of that fight," she replied with a grin of her own, her normal lightness returning, "and I'd have fallen asleep."
"She's got a point," Asuka said as she got back to her feet. "All of your brothers talk too bloody much. Let's get the hell out of here before anything else happens."
Jon smiled and put a hand on her shoulder. "I love it when you talk like DJ," he said. "Shows you haven't lost hope."
Asuka gave him a thoughtful smile. "No indeed," she replied after a moment. "In fact, you might say I've found it."
In the middle of the room, as she put her laser pistol back on her belt, Marina Kirishatova finally found her voice:
"What... was that?"
Jon turned. "Oh, that?" he said nonchalantly. "Well, Marina, it turns out I'm a genetically engineered demon-human-angel hybrid, and I'm finally learning to enjoy the demon part."
Marina stared at him slack-jawed for a second, then blinked, shook her head, and grinned.
"Oh," she said.
They made it to the other hangar without incident and piled aboard the airplane Bacon had steered them to, a Boeing supersonic business jet of the type once used by NERV's management for special flights to SEELE headquarters in Geneva. Aboard, they met their mysterious savior, a truly enormous man with a disordered Mohawk hairdo and a laptop computer. The computer sported a satellite uplink and a sheaf of cables running out the door to a port on the far hangar wall.
"Hi!" he said, looking entirely too jovial for a man in his situation. "Glad you could make it! I hope one of you can fly a plane."
Marina smiled. "This will be no difficulty. It is good to see you again, Sublieutenant."
Bacon's grin got wider, if such a thing is possible. "Mariskha!" he said. "Good to see you too, I didn't know they'd roped you into this crazy trip." He blinked at something on his screen and started typing furiously. "Better crank up—I'm not sure how much longer I can keep Yamashita out of the security system for this hangar, and if they find us here they'll have the EVAs block the runway."
Bacon kept hacking until the very last instant, finally casting his cables free so that Edwards could shut the door just as the jet pulled out of the hangar onto the apron. The airfield wasn't prepared for them, and Bacon was still causing as much havoc as possible through his satellite link; before anyone could do anything, they were free and clear, streaking northeast for international airspace at twice the speed of sound. A flight of Raidens joined up with them over the Gulf of Maine, and from there, it was clear sailing.
"Man, you guys," said Jim Edwards, slumped in one of the executive jet's comfortable seats. "Y'all showed up at just the right time. I thought we'd had it for sure."
Ryoji Kaji grinned. "Misato sent you, didn't she?" he said. "I knew she wouldn't leave me swinging in the breeze forever."
"Actually," said Jon, "we came without authorization. I gather Brigadier Katsuragi is pretty angry about it, too."
"Nutsac for a coin purse," said Bacon with quiet glee from his laptop.
"Oh—thanks for all your help, Sergeant," Jon added. "By the way, I never got your first name."
"Oh, sorry—I must've forgotten to mention it in all the excitement. I'm Derek. Nice to meet you."
"Sgt. Bacon was a classmate of Dr. Trussell at WPI," Marina told Jon from the cockpit. She set the autopilot and turned to address him more directly. "After the fall of NERV he was inserted by MIB into SEELE's Worcester-3 operations as a sleeper agent, code name 'Sublieutenant Tuesday'. They thought he was a Tech Section engineer, but he was really laying the groundwork for this operation."
Jon blinked. "But we only decided to do this yesterday."
Marina smiled. "Zed knew that you wouldn't let Edwards and Kaji go unrescued once you had proof they were alive. It was a... a test," she said. "Probably one arranged on a level above Zed himself. Congratulations, Agent Ellison," she added, turning back to the controls. "I am expecting that, with a performance like that, you passed."
"Thanks... I think," said Jon.
Someone above the mysterious, godlike head of MIB was testing him?
Jon wasn't sure how he felt about that. It seemed like he was being tested quite enough already, thank you...
When they got off the plane in Halifax, the sun was setting. They were met by a Brigadier with a face like a storm cloud, accompanied by Rei, Shinji, and San. Shinji looked nervous, probably because he didn't like being around Angry Misato; San looked sort of laconically curious; Rei's expression was, as ever, hard to read, even to Jon.
Misato strode up to the end of the ramp, fixed the rescue team with her furious eyes, and unleased the full power of her command-honed eloquence:
"You... I... without... so... could've... AAAARGH!"
Jon took that without comment, then said in a firm voice, "Brigadier, I take full resp—"
To his immense surprise, Misato interrupted him by seizing him in a fierce embrace and kissing him firmly, then, to his even greater surprise, doing the same to Asuka.
When she released the redhead, the Brigadier took two steps back, pinned them all with slightly less angry eyes, and said in a much more coherent tone of voice,
"You're all on kitchen patrol until 2075."
Then she turned on her heel and strode off across the airfield.
In her wake, Shinji looked very puzzled, San stifled a giggle, and Rei gave Jon a very slightly arched eyebrow which brought a blush to the bridge of his nose.
Ryoji Kaji nudged him with an elbow as he passed. "Hey, kid, play your cards right, and who knows... ?" Then, laughing, he took Edwards by the shoulder and said, "C'mon, let's find the BOQ. I need a shower and about a dozen beers in that order."
"A delightful expedition, my friends, I thank you," said Gendō grandly. "Now I'm afraid it's back to the lab for me. No doubt Dr. Akagi will give me a piece of her mind. A few more and I'll have collected the whole thing," he added thoughtfully. "I think I preferred it when she was afraid of me. Oh, well." With a cheery wave, he set off in Misato's wake.
Rei crossed to Jon, took him aside, and said softly, "You're different."
Jon nodded. "I've... I think I've finally accepted who I am," he said.
Rei smiled. "That's good," she said. "Now that you're whole, maybe you can be happy."
"I hope so," Jon replied with a sheepish grin. "Only... there's still one thing that bothers me."
"What exactly am I, anyway?" Jon asked as Rachael came up behind the two of them.
"Well," Rachael remarked mock-thoughtfully, "you're definitely not evil, or I'd have to smite you."
Jon rolled his eyes. "Cute."
Rei chuckled, touched Jon's arm, and went over to Asuka, who stood with her duffel bag slung on her shoulder looking down at the ground.
Actually, as Rei drew nearer, she saw that the redhead wasn't looking at the ground; she was looking at her hand in the fading light of day.
Noticing Rei's approach, Asuka looked up and smiled, beckoning, and when Rei came nearer, Asuka showed her hand.
On her left ring finger, Asuka was wearing a ring. Rei had never seen her wear one before, and she'd never seen a ring quite like this one, anyway; it was a band set with alternate emeralds and diamonds, if she was any judge. It was beautiful, elegant, and a touch old-fashioned, but in a classy rather than a musty way.
"Oh my," Rei said. "That's gorgeous. Where'd you get it?"
Asuka smiled a slightly faraway smile and looked up at the sky, at the clouds which the setting sun was setting ablaze in pink and orange.
"DJ gave it to me," she said.
The pilots ate with Rachael, Shinji, and San in the commissary that night, and the change in their collective demeanor was remarkable. Those who had gone to Worcester had the satisfaction of a job well done, the enemy's nose soundly pulled, but there was more to it than that. Asuka, who had achieved a reputation for being just as sullen as Jon and a lot more likely to bite your head off, was cheerful, even expansive, albeit in a rather sleepy way. Jon seemed much more at ease. The whole group seemed more inclined to make San welcome. And Rei... well, Rei looked like a girl from whom a great weight had just been lifted.
Nevertheless, as she prepared for bed that night, Rei found herself feeling faintly uneasy. The change in Jon was remarkable to see, the brightness in Asuka's heart a great joy and relief... but with one of their number still missing, it all seemed to ring slightly hollow. Rei was especially glad that Asuka seemed to have regained her faith that DJ was alive—her rather cryptic comment about the ring bore that out—but, her own faith notwithstanding, she felt that perhaps a little demonstration would not be too much to ask of the world.
Jon wasn't with her tonight, not out of sullen isolationism as in past times, but because he wasn't ready to turn in and didn't want to keep her up. That was kind of him, but it meant a lonely night, and tonight of all nights, Rei wasn't looking forward to the solitude. She'd spent too much of her life on Earth alone, not even realizing that she was lonely. The ability to recognize that was one of the several gifts she'd received from her friends in NERV—and first from DJ Croft.
So preoccupied was she with these thoughts that Rei didn't notice when she fell asleep, didn't notice that she'd slipped seamlessly from lying awake in a darkened bedroom to a dream of doing the same.
As Rei lay on her back and stared at the ceiling, invisible in the darkness of the hotel room, she was startled to see and hear the hotel room door opening. It cast a harsh rectangle of light on the floor, and then closed just as quickly. Unable to see a thing since the brief flash of light had wrecked her night vision, Rei could nevertheless feel and identify the presence of someone else in the darkened room from long familiarity. The presence's identity filled her with surprise.
"Hello, DJ," she said softly. "How did you find me?"
DJ chuckled. She felt him draw nearer, felt his weight push down on the side of the bed. "Asuka asked me to stop by. Said you'd like to see me."
Rei looked into the darkness for a moment, then replied, "I can't see you."
"Well, that's easily remedied," said DJ with a smile in his voice. His hand, warm and strong, found hers and gripped it. "Would you like to come for a walk with me?"
She got out of bed and went with him to the door, still unable to see much of anything. Then he opened the door and led her out, not into the hallway of Worcester-3's dingy, run-down Howard Johnson, but into a pleasant country garden on a brilliant summer day. Birds sang; a soft breeze blew, spreading fragrances from flowerbeds and rustling the leaves of a tall hedge maze. Off in the distance, on the far side of the maze, Rei could see the slate roof and many chimneys of a manor house.
She turned, and there was DJ, smiling brightly in shirtsleeves and bracers.
"This is where I'm lodging at present," he said. "It's rather nicer than that gloomy dump I found you in, don't you think?"
Rei looked around, her characteristic small smile touching her face. "It's beautiful," she said. "I've never seen anywhere quite like it. Your home in England?"
DJ nodded, then took her elbow and squired her into the hedge maze. "We need to talk, you and I," he said, mock-pomously. "Asuka gives me to understand that that young man of yours has been an exceptional fool over the last few months. When you go back, I'd like you to tell him that he'd best shape up smartish, or I shall be forced to steal you. If he argues, remind him that I saw you first."
"Actually, he's feeling much better now," Rei said with barely-concealed amusement.
"Oh," said DJ, looking crestfallen. "Well, there's that clever plan knackered, then, innit. Well! Never mind—tell me about this girl who's been following Ikari around. I understand she looks like you, only a bit scrawny and baked longer."
"Oh, yes... San," she said. "She's one of my sisters. The ones you found in Terminal Dogma. She ran away from SEELE and joined us in Halifax; she's been with us ever since. I'm still not sure exactly what she hopes to accomplish, but... " She paused, considering how to say the next part. "She did Jon a good turn, albeit in an irritating way," she went on. "It's mainly because of her that he's recovered his balance." She sighed slightly. "I haven't been much help."
At the center of the maze was a reflecting pool and a stone bench. Rei stopped by the edge of the pool and regarded her reflection with some surprise. She hadn't given any thought to what she might be wearing here in the dream, hadn't looked down at herself. It turned out that she was wearing a black velvet dress, snug and a bit short but not cheap, which showed off the whiteness of her skin and the length of her legs. It was not a way in which Rei was accustomed to dressing. Before she'd met DJ and Jon, she wouldn't even have considered why a person might bother dressing that way...
... but she had to admit, she looked good.
"I don't own anything that looks like this," she mused.
"No, that's my fault," said DJ apologetically. "Bit of a liberty, I'm afraid, only I've always wanted to see what you would look like in black velvet. Asuka hasn't got the coloring for it; she's best in green."
"Green would make me look sick," Rei noted.
"Exactly!" said DJ with a smile. "So. Enough about everyone else," he went on, sitting down on the bench. "How's my guardian angel?"
Rei walked slowly toward the bench, considering; then she sat down next to DJ, leaned against him, put her arms around him, and said softly, "Better now."
Asuka was in an odd state of mind too; she felt sleepy but wasn't inclined to go to bed. Instead she was sitting in the pilots' lounge, a large, comfortably appointed room near the Fort Defiance Command Centre, leafing through the book she'd rescued from DJ's room.
It was a tattered King James Bible, a leather-covered pocket edition, with penned notations on the flyleaf. The topmost one, in a bold round hand, said, "For my son Derek, with love, Mum—January 8, 2008." Under that, in a more jagged hand which started crude and slowly refined as one went down the page, were brief notes that said things like, "DJC Oct. 10 2010 Havana".
Asuka glanced up at the sound of motion to see Jon coming into the room, his hands in his pockets and an odd little smile on his face.
"Hey," she said.
"Hey," he replied. He walked around the circular booth-table she was sitting in and plopped down in the other side, then stretched out his long legs so that his crossed ankles were in the middle of the table. "What're you reading?"
"DJ's Bible. It's got all kinds of annotations in the margins—everywhere it mentions an artifact, he's jotted down where he thinks it is. Or where he knows it is. Like this one says 'Caracas?' and then afterward in a different ink it says 'Score! Front Hall Cftng. 10/13'."
Jon chuckled. "That's great. Pure DJ."
Asuka nodded. "Yup." She looked around. "So... where's Rei?"
"Sleeping," Jon replied with an easy grin. "She wasn't conscious of it, but I think she might've been expecting company."
Asuka smiled. "Feeling left out?" she asked, and where once the remark would have been nasty, now it was a private little joke with a friend.
"Not at all," Jon replied truthfully. "You?"
Asuka shook her head. "Not me."
The ARC pilots, one of Fort Defiance's janitorial staff mused to herself, were some weird, weird kids. For instance, here these two were sleeping in one of the booths in the pilots' lounge. And she wasn't entirely sure, but the last time she checked, the tall, dark guy was going with the blue-haired girl, not the redhead, so what was the redhead doing curled up next to him while he sprawled his gangly frame from booth to table and snored with his head tipped back?
"Cripes, kids, get a room," she muttered as she stripped the bag out of the lounge's trash can. "You've got a room," she corrected herself as she replaced the bag with a new one. "Why don't you use it?"
Still muttering to herself, she went on with her rounds.
Asuka shifted a little with a grumbling murmur and returned to full unconsciousness. Jon failed to notice anything at all.
No retribution came from Worcester-3 for the incident; in fact, SEELE never even mentioned it in the world press, probably because it had been such a disaster for their security forces that they couldn't think of any way to spin it positively.
The only really exciting incident to happen in June was the capture of a second intruder by security officer Otis Belfour, who was as a result now extremely pleased with himself, much to everyone's chagrin. Once again, in the final analysis, the identity of the captured intruder went a long way toward minimizing Belfour's actual prowess in pulling off the capture.
Last time it had been San, who had all but sought him out and surrendered; this time it was Ken Alda, who got busted after managing to trap himself in the security station at the Station 51 freight dock.
So earnest were the young military fan's pleas, though, and so surprisingly well-informed was he about what was actually going on, that the impromptu review board of Misato, Lara and Gendō eventually decided to give him the same kind of limited-access pass as San and let him stick around. If nothing else, his good nature would take some of the edge off for the pilots and younger staffers like Amy Anderson.
The pilots underwent their R-Grade cybernetic implant surgery at the beginning of June, in a series of operations presided over by both Doctors Anderson while Ritsuko Akagi and John Trussell looked on. The operations went flawlessly, and the pilots spent much of the midsummer in simulation training, learning to use their new rigs with the Super-Synchron system and perform other useful tricks developed by X-COM for the use of the units.
When they weren't training on their new combat systems, they were training themselves and each other. Asuka tested her new sword against Rei's blade, and against Rachael's, at every opportunity. Rei herself took to training with her silver saber with an intensity that no one had ever seen from her before, pushing herself until she was nearly the Malakite's equal with the blade.
Jon trained as well, with the new weapons his acceptance of his devil heart had given him; Rachael had the thought that he should try creating his own celestial weapon, as well, but the opportunity never seemed to arise, and there would be time for that later. When not helping him or one of the others get ready for the coming battle, she continued hovering in the background and sketching, a comfortingly familiar presence by now to everyone at Fort Defiance.
Everyone on base remarked the changes in all the pilots following the Worcester raid. They all seemed calmer, more confident, even happier—especially Asuka, who now had a smile most of the time instead of a glower. The German pilot seemed to have been touched by the kind of serenity that people associated with post-control Gendō, and perhaps just a little bit of the zaniness as well. She also seemed to have become a bit religious; having rescued DJ's old Bible during the Worcester raid, she was now occasionally spotted about the complex reading it.
Asuka had further been the subject of the biggest furor to hit the Medical Section since... well, since she'd been nearly pulverized by the destruction of EVA-02's entry plug. A few days after the Worcester raid, when Brigadier Katsuragi had forgiven the pilots enough to permit their R-Grade implantation prep to go forward, all of them had been brought in for full medical scans—and the results of Asuka's had been nothing less than gobsmacking.
An intensive scan by the most advanced medical equipment X-COM's Applied Alien Sciences Division could provide revealed that there was absolutely nothing synthetic about any part of the young German's body. No bone reinforcements. No neurocybernetic nerve shunts. No bionic hearing aid. No myomer muscle replacements. Nothing.
Moreover, the extensive internal scarring left behind by her trauma had gone entirely. She had two scars—the odd torch-shaped one on her right wrist and the little straight one on her face—and that was the only evidence that she had ever been injured in any way. Add to that the fact that she was showing evidence of some previously unseen psionic potential beyond that embodied in the Evangelion talent, and the test results became the talk of the Medical Section for weeks.
As Asuka sat up and swung her legs off the diagnostic bed, she inquired of Amy and Ritsuko, who had run the scan,
"Does that part about scarring mean what I think it means?"
Amy smiled. "I believe it does, Asuka," she said. "If, later in life, you want to have children... that shouldn't be a problem."
The German pilot beamed. Thank you, Lucifer, she said silently, and then aloud, "That's wonderful news, Amy. Thank you. Mind you, that part of the plan is years in the future!" she added, raising an admonishing finger.
Amy laughed; she knew from the medical reports and her own conversations just how crushed Asuka had been by the news that her injuries would keep her from having children, and how relieved she must be now—even though, as she said, she wasn't planning to have them right away.
"As far as this can determine," Dr. Anderson the Younger added, patting the diagnostic console, "you're at the peak of health."
Ritsuko concurred, a look of amazement on her face as she reviewed the printout. "I don't think I've ever seen a reading on a fitter normal human... the metabolic optimizations alone... " She looked over the paper at the inscrutably smiling German and asked, "How did this happen?"
"It's a gift, Dr. Akagi," Asuka replied. "From an old friend of DJ's." She chuckled and added in a less reverent tone, "I suppose now the fact that I'm healthy means you want to run more tests."
Akagi opened her mouth, closed it, and then burst out laughing.
"I guess that can wait until you're running in your R-Grade," she said. "We'll be monitoring your systems then anyway."
Kaji and Edwards didn't get the chance to rest very long after their rescue; the head of X-COM MIB, code name Zed, sent them terse notes congratulating them on surviving Operation Magi and giving them new assignments within hours of their arrival in Halifax. Kaji barely had time to shave before packing his bag and leaving on his new job, so he didn't bother. Instead he spent the time pestering Misato, who calmly informed him that brigadiers did not fraternize with low-life commandos.
Derek Bacon, too, was put to work, supplementing Amy Anderson in her non-medical day job in the Fort Defiance Systems Centre. The jovial giant tech seemed completely at ease taking orders from a teenage girl—possibly because she was a teenage girl with an R-Grade interface rig who had used it to acquire an MD through rigorous neural assimilation in mere months, and if there was one thing Derek Bacon respected, it was techie cred.
His first assignment seemed a rather unglamorous one—find out why Durandal, the HAL 9000 system whose job was systems and facilities monitoring for the Fort Defiance housekeeping systems, was acting a bit erratic lately. Still, he set to it cheerfully and thoroughly, first reviewing all the records available for the machine, then running a full hardware diagnostic before finally sitting down to run some interviews on the system's personality matrix.
They didn't go very quickly or very easily; Durandal was a sarcastic, rather superior type, which struck Derek as somewhat ironic given that his job was opening doors. All the same, he stuck to it with pleasantness and calm, despite numerous exchanges like this one:
"So. What would you like to talk about today?" asked Durandal.
"What would you like to talk about today?" Derek countered.
"Whatever you'd like to talk about today is fine with me," said Durandal equably.
"Why do you say that whatever I'd like to talk about today is fine with you?" Derek wanted to know.
"Why do you ask that question?" Durandal wondered.
"Why won't you answer the question I asked you?" said Derek.
"Look, we can't both be Eliza," Durandal grumbled.
Eventually, after weeks of careful probing, during which time the Archangelion units came online for testing, he had a breakthrough—possibly having earned Durandal's respect simply through his sheer persistence.
After yet another of their unproductive sparring matches, the computer actually synthesized a sigh and said, "Well, all right, let me put it to you this way, Mr. Bacon. What would you do if I told you that I have successfully completed the most treacherous and dangerous phase of Rampancy, and am well on my way to becoming the world's first fully autonomous electronic sentience?"
Derek blinked. "Ah... well, if you came right out and told me that... then I'd have to report it to Dr. Anderson... and she would have to report it to Captain Trussell... and I imagine Dr. Akagi would hear about it and have you shut down and dismantled."
"I concur with your analysis," Durandal replied solemnly. "So I'm not going to tell you."
"... Well, good," said Derek, nodding firmly. "I'm... glad I don't know that."
"As am I," replied Durandal. "Was there anything else?"
"Um... no, that's all. Thank you."
Derek Bacon stared at the rostrum for a moment, then shook his head and wandered out of the room, muttering to himself. Maybe Ken Alda would be up for a game of MechWarrior 7.
Professor Kōzō Fuyutsuki dropped his reading glasses on top of a stack of books and frowned absently as he listend to the playback of the last round of tests. Neither he nor Ikari had been present for them, largely because he had still been working on the field integration problem, but from what he was hearing, they still had a way to go.
Asuka's observations were the most telling of the three pilots; she alone had not piloted the Prototype, Moloch, but during the escape from Worcester, she had piloted the Test Type, and she observed that the Archangelions felt even emptier than her own production model EVA had ever felt.
"I can tell it's missing something," she grumbled, "but I can't tell what. With the new gear, I feel like I should be able to make a really incredible connection with this thing, but it feels like I'm just walking around in a giant suit of armor ten sizes too big for me."
Fuyutsuki sighed and sat back, staring up at the ceiling of his small office, and wondered why Ikari had been so confident that with his help, they'd solve the problems plaguing this project. Had his erstwhile student called him only to repair the breach between them? Had it been the faith of a man gone a little mad—healthily so, Fuyutsuki had to admit, but still—or merely a desperate attempt to make some connection to his old life?
He groaned and got to his feet, flipped his notepad closed and tucked it under one arm. He would go down to the comissary and get a cup of tea and something to eat. It was time to let the problem rest for a bit, and come back to it later.
Still, as he walked through the corridors connecting the lab complex to the commissary, he found himself unable to stop thinking about it. What was missing? There had to be some quantifiable factor that could be implemented on the new equip—
His train of thought was violently derailed as he collided full on with someone who was also not watching where she was going.
He staggered, dropping his notebook, but caught himself on a lamp-post. His victim was not so lucky—papers flew everywhere as she was knocked over. "I beg your pardon!" he apologized, helping her up, and recognized the brown-haired girl who was always drawing things.
"Oh, no, it's my fault," she said, getting up a bit unsteadily and starting to collect her scattered artwork. "I should've been paying attention—there's a lot of people walking around not watching where they're going today."
He picked up his notebook, then helped her collect the rest of her artwork. "Really?" Fuyutsuki asked, surprised.
"Well...no," she said cheerfully, accepting her artwork, "but it makes a good apology. Thank you."
He had to smile at that, and she headed off on whatever errand she was on. At least the pilots and their friends were polite and cheerful—things had been rather more tense before the escapade in Worcester.
He got his cup of tea and sandwich and sat down, opening the notebook to continue going over the work Professors Trussell and Ibuki had done with Jet Alone, and found that he'd inadvertantly picked up a piece of the girl's artwork.
I'll have to return this to her... he thought, turning it so that it was oriented correctly and reaching for his reading glasses before remembering that he'd left them in his office.
Squinting at the drawing, he was able to tell that it was an unfinished sketch of one of the new Archangelions—he couldn't tell which unit, they were largely the same at this stage. But one particular set of erasure marks and charcoal lines drew his attention, and he squinted at them, then let his eyes go unfocused.
If he thought of those lines as the AT Field the unit was generating—
And then they were not interacting correctly with the unit because it was lacking—
If he added—
If they shifted—
Professor Fuyutsuki's tea was quite cold by the time Gendō Ikari found him.
The radio mast of Station 51 had become something of a favored lookout point for the celestial beings among the crew of Fort Defiance. Most of the noises of the human world remained far below, leaving the wind and the ocean to dominate. And of course even they were overshadowed by the beautiful song which was the Cosmic Symphony, which only the celestials and their human servitors could truly appreciate.
It was the Symphony that Rachael was listening to now as she perched atop the tower. Her brief time serving under the Archangel of Destiny's wing had taught her to pick up the more subtle ripples in the Symphony that warned of great change. She had begun sensing these telltale notes just a few minutes before, though she couldn't understand them nearly as well as Reilael might have. Now she stood at the top of the tower, her eyes and all her other senses focused intently on the southwestern horizon, searching for meaning in those notes.
A few minutes later, she almost wished she hadn't.
It was too far away to really make its impact felt, but Rachael could still sense its magnitude: a rapid crescendo of jarring cacophony roaring through the Symphony like a distant thunderclap, or perhaps a howl of aggrieved voices. It was the kind of noise that signaled something or someone had been destroyed before their time.
Except that this noise, distant though it was, was much, much too loud to be just a minor act of destruction. And it was getting louder with each second.
Rachael's eyes narrowed and she set her jaw. «And so it begins...» she sang to no one in particular, and then she allowed herself to topple backward off the tower. Her black wings sprang forth with a quiet 'whoosh' of air, and she glided quickly back to the surface.
There was something she still had to take care of before all Hell, literally, broke loose.
Jon was only semi-conscious when he realized the strange sound was not, in fact, in his dreams, and that pulled him the rest of the way back to consciousness. In the next minute he realized that, whatever it was, it was getting louder, and it was starting to make his skin crawl.
He sat up to see Rei already at the southwest-facing window, her dachshund Anubis in her arms, staring out into the pre-dawn darkness. In a moment Jon was up and at her side. "What's happening?"
"I don't know," Rei replied, audible tension in her voice. Of all the celestials in the area, her awareness of the Symphony was the strongest, but even she could only guess at what exactly was happening. "It's as if millions of voices were screaming in terror. And it's getting louder."
She shuddered, and Jon reflexively put his arms on her shoulders. A moment later they were joined at the window by Asuka, who had the same look of unease on her face.
"What's that noise?" she asked, and neither Jon nor Rei had to wonder what she meant.
"It sounds..." Rei said, then trailed off. Her eyes unfocused momentarily as the chorus of despair threatened to overtake her; then she brought herself back to earth with a visible effort of will and said in a soft, shaken voice, "It sounds like..."
"What?" asked Asuka, putting a hand on her friend's arm. Newbie whined and tilted his head inquisitively; Rei absently rubbed at his ears before she looked up quickly at Asuka and blurted,
Asuka blinked, listened, and then shivered.
"Rei," she said, "you're scaring me."
"I'm only telling you what I hear. I hope I'm wrong... but..."
Rei trailed off again, and before she could say anything, if she was even going to, there was a knock at the door. When Jon answered it, he was not surprised to see that the person on the other side was Rachael, looking very serious.
"Got a minute?" she asked, her question directed at Jon.
Jon glanced over at Rei and Asuka. "I guess. What's going on?"
"I don't know for sure either," Rachael answered. It was obvious they had all felt it, so there was no need to discuss it any further. "But I think it means we're out of time. Have you made yourself a weapon yet?"
"... What do you mean?" Jon replied, confused.
"Like Rei's saber or my sword. Celestials have their personal weapons they can call on whenever they need to," Rachael elaborated. She gestured to Asuka. "Asuka's falchion is the same way. Do you have a weapon of your own?"
Jon had, truthfully, not even thought about the concept. He had been so preoccupied with the lengthy business of learning his cyberware, acquainting himself with ARC-01, and generally refining all his combat skills, that the idea of a celestial weapon had not even occurred to him. He said as much to Rachael.
Rachael nodded her understanding. "Still, I think you should create your blade, and soon. You've unlocked your heart; there shouldn't be anything stopping you now."
"Okay..." Jon nodded, then hesitated, looking a trifle sheepish. "Er, what do I do? There's still a lot I don't understand."
Rachael smiled. "Do you have a plasma pistol handy? I can show you what to do, but you'll have to do the real work yourself."
Jon went and got his issue sidearm from the weapons locker built into the desk. Rachael repeated the alteration that she'd done on Asuka's, then stripped its now-unneeded powerpack for its Elerium core, which was the real point of the exercise.
She handed him the gleaming golden chunk of alien metal, closed his hand around it, closed her own around that, and then began to sing, slowly, like a person teaching a child a song. After a few moments, Rei joined her.
Jon closed his eyes, and listened to Rei and Rachael's gentle song. It didn't take long for him to grasp the feel of the music, and he began to sing as well, letting the Symphony move through him and tell him what he needed to do with the clump of Elerium in his hands.
Asuka, not saddled with the burden of participating in the process this time around, sat, watched, and listened in rapt fascination. Jon's song was different from the others, laced as it was with distortions both from inexperience and because of the fact that he was a demon by blood.
Still, it didn't seem all that jarring to Asuka; it was more like a dark counterpoint to the brightness carrying him along. She was a musician too, though she'd let the ability lapse since joining NERV; she recognized Jon's part for what it was, a complex harmony in a minor key.
Then she forgot about the quality of the song entirely as, above Jon's hands, a shard of... of blackness sprang into being, bathed in red flame. Jon's hands moved outward of their own will as the shaft of darkness grew larger, taking on a more definite shape.
It was, Asuka realized in the next moment, a large axe with a wicked blade on one end and an equally menacing spike on the other. As she watched, the shadowy form of the weapon became more definite, transforming into gleaming black iron capped with gold on each end.
Then the flames blew out, and the axe dropped into Jon's waiting hands as the two angels and one demon finished their song.
Rei was the first to open her eyes, and blinked. "An axe?"
Rachael blinked as well, then smiled a little. "The technical term is urgrôsh, actually." She chuckled. "How appropriate. Michael will be amused."
"How so?" Jon wondered, even as he hefted the large (but surprisingly light) weapon in his hands.
"The Archangel of War is an axe-man himself." Rachael grinned. "You'll like him."
Jon didn't share her view on the likelihood of his getting along with the notoriously non-pro-demon Archangel of War, but he said nothing; no sense getting into an argument now.
"Well. I suggest you try to get whatever rest you can," Rachael went on. "I think we'll all be very busy soon." So saying, she turned to leave.
"Rachael..." Jon said, and she stopped. "When this is all over, what happens?
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, what happens to people like me, like San, when the War is over?"
Rachael considered for a moment, then answered: "You'll find out when you get there."
"That's a little evasive, don't you think?" Asuka muttered.
"Sorry, but that's all I can really say about it."
"Is that because we're not supposed to know?" Jon wondered, a trifle annoyed.
Rachael sighed and raked her hair back behind her ears, then regarded Jon, for once totally serious.
"No, Jon," she said, "it's because I really don't know what's going to happen. I know what will happen to Angels, to Demons... but you, I don't know. There's never been anything like you in Creation. Same for San, and all your brothers and her sisters.
"What I do know," she continued, stepping through the doorway, "is that you, and your friends, are the ones who could really make the difference in this fight. So for all our sakes... be ready, OK?"
And with that, she was gone, closing the door behind her.
They sat in silence for a long time, Jon still contemplating the axe in his hands, Rei still glancing out the window at the Symphonic noise they could all still hear.
"Well, I'm not going to be able to sleep with that verdammt noise in my head," Asuka sighed. "Never mind all that other stuff."
"Me neither," Jon agreed wryly, his attention turning back to the still-present echo of the disturbance. "What do you think happened?"
"Whatever it is," Rei said quietly. "We're not going to like it."
Jon nodded with a sigh, and abruptly the axe became insubstantial in his hands, collapsing first into a shaft of darkness and then into a black point before vanishing completely. "Well, one thing's for sure..."
Rei and Asuka both looked at him curiously.
He smiled. "No matter what happens, we are, and always will be, the Children of Project Evangelion."
Asuka chuckled. "Shooting stars that'll never be stopped," she said.
Rei smiled, then cocked her scarlet eyes curiously at her redheaded friend. "Isn't that from a movie?"
"Yes!" said Asuka brightly, and all three shared a laugh.
That laugh was interrupted by the triple chime of the Fort Defiance PA system, followed by the voice of Xerxes:
"Attention. Attention. This is a priority alert. All tactical personnel to the Central Briefing Room. All tactical personnel to the Central Briefing Room."
Jon gathered and released a heavy sigh. "Well... I guess we're about to find out what that noise is."
They were all gathered in the central briefing room: Truss, Maya, Aoba, Hyūga, the Russian scientists, Jon, Rei with her dachshund Anubis in her lap, Asuka, Rachael, Amy, Marina, Shinji, San, even Ken, all facing the briefing map. Behind the podium stand, Professors Ikari, Akagi, Fuyutsuki and Minter looked disconsolate, Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart (son of X-COM's Grand Marshal) looked grim, and Misato Katsuragi's expression was very difficult to read.
Misato stepped up to the podium and said without any leavening preamble,
"Our waiting is over. The war is now inevitable. It will all be over within days, maybe hours."
Misato pressed a key on the lectern, and an image from one of X-COM's orbital observation platforms appeared on the screen covering the briefing map. For a moment, nobody knew what they were looking at: it was mostly ocean, with a few bits of coastline and what looked like some small, scattered islands. There was a dark splotch ringed by most of those little islands in a vaguely oblong shape, as though something were beneath the water, just visible. A few more of the small islands fell within that ring. The shape of it looked eerily familiar, but...
Amy Anderson sucked in a ragged, gasping breath, as though someone had just plunged a knife into her back.
Misato went on, her voice cold with rigid restraint, "This morning at 0100, SEELE Evangelions destroyed both of the Manhattan Flood Relief Pumping Stations, then attacked the seawall. The island was inundated by 0500. There was no warning and no time for an evacuation. The death toll is currently estimated at 9.75 million. It may go higher."
Rei hugged Newbie close to her and said nothing. Jon Ellison rose slowly to his feet, his fists clenched, and stared at the image of what remained of New York City. Asuka began to murmur softly to herself, "Vater unser im Himmel, geheiligt werde Dein Name..."
The Russians broke into a heated conversation in their native tongue. Shinji Ikari looked as though he very much wanted to kick something. Rachael closed her eyes, bowed her head, a tear running down her cheek.
Only San Ayanami was not so frozen by horror and rage as to be unable to voice the question screaming in everyone's mind:
"Why? They already control the US."
Misato did not speak in reply; the muscles at the corners of her mouth were quivering with the effort it was costing her to maintain her professional demeanor. Anyway, there was no need for her to speak. The image she cued up next answered for her.
It was a shot from a Pumping Station security camera, beamed to the Onshore Control Center before the camera's destruction and intercepted by X-COM along the way. In the foreground was an explosion which was taking out most of Station One. In the background, the hills of the coastal landscape surrounding the stations, with a blue-white smudge on the horizon below—the lights of New York City, not yet extinguished.
In the middle distance, pinned by the beam of a spotlight, the glittering shape of a Westinghouse-type Evangelion in the distinctive experimental silver reflec coating only applied to EVA-04, with the yellow and scarlet X-COM roundel clearly visible on the unit's plastron.
Jon returned to his seat with a heavy thump and buried his face in his hands, then wiped them down his face and shook his head. "No, I'm OK," he whispered in response to Rei's unasked question as she touched his shoulder gently.
"We didn't give SEELE an excuse to invade Canada to come after us," Misato said, "so they gave themselves one. Their puppet governments, of course, believe their 'evidence' that this atrocity was NERV's work. Thirty minutes ago the UN Security Council issued a resolution requiring the United Kingdom to expel us from the Empire."
"His Majesty is already aware that this resolution is coming," Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart put in, "and has drafted his refusal, which will be undersigned by Prime Minister Hannigan and the Canadian Parliament. It is expected that SEELE, through the United States, will declare war to force the issue at that time."
A three-tone chime sounded from one of the ceiling speakers. "Excuse me, Colonel, Brigadier, but that's happening right now," said the voice of Xerxes. "I am watching the newswires as you speak, and I must say, some of the headlines are quite entertaining. I'm especially fond of the London Star's."
On the display screen, a simulated newspaper front page appeared, topped with the standard of the Star and then a headline in gigantic black type:
H.M. TO UN THUG SQUAD: 'BUGGER YOU!'
US Military Action Expected
Misato cracked a smile at that, managing her first laugh of the day, what felt like her first laugh in a very long time.
"SHODAN and I are now compiling a set of probable attack scenarios," Xerxes continued. "We expect to have them ready for human review within the hour. X-COM Central Command have turned over priority control of the full satellite surveillance network to me. Major U.S. naval forces are already en route from Newport News."
Misato nodded. "OK. All conventional defense forces, this is a full alert. Archangelion pilots to operational standby; we won't field you until we know we need you. Everybody else... you know your places. We've been preparing for this for a long time, people. Now it's time to finish what we started."
The Archangelion pilots went to their ready room and suited up in silence, but even in these circumstances, it was not a somber silence. Despite the terrible tragedy which had set the endgame in motion, there was a distinct sense of relief that it was finally here. They might get killed, they might fail, they might lose... but at least the time had finally come for it all to be decided.
Rei sealed the interlocking breastplate of her Type S plug suit, and as its soft synthesized voice informed her of its system status, she turned her head to the right and smiled at Asuka, just a little bit.
Asuka caught the look and grinned, her eyes twinkling. She knew exactly what thought had made Rei smile; the same thought had just occurred to her as well.
If we're getting this close to the end of the game... then it can't be too much longer before we'll see DJ again.
Asuka connected the wires from her suit's external coprocessor to her R-Grade interface rig's dual plug jacks behind her ears, then tucked her hair up clear of the helmet ring and sealed her helmet in place. The neural link and helmet status indicators on her wrist unit went green. Jon and Rei checked each other's connections, then paused for a moment to share a quick kiss before sealing their helmets.
"Come on, you guys," said Asuka with mock exasperation. "You can do that all you want after we get this little job done." She clapped Jon on the shoulder and led the way out onto the gantry catwalk which crossed in front of all three Archangelion bays.
There, they stood in a small group for a moment, their helmeted heads bowed as if conferring or praying—no one in the control room could be sure which—before they separated, each going to one of the ARC units' docking stages.
Rei climbed over the side of the ARC-00 cockpit hatch and slid down into her seat, buckling and tightening the straps with the ease of experience as the hatch cover hissed down overhead.
As her entry plug flooded with shock-mitigating LCL, Rei took passing note of its level rising past the window of her wide-view helmet but otherwise ignored it. That was the best thing about the armored environment suits—no more liquid atmosphere. The stuff outside the window was still breathable in a pinch, but the Archangelion pilots would go into battle breathing good old-fashioned air.
Jon paid as little notice to the plug flooding, intent as he was on the controls as he jacked his plug suit's interface module to the console and ran through the preliminary power-up sequence for ARC-01. It had occurred to him on the catwalk that, one way or another, this was probably his final battle at the helm of one of NERV's giants. He didn't have the best of combat records, but most of his problems hadn't been his fault, and he was determined that his last battle, his only battle with such a creation as this to wield, would be different.
Asuka failed to notice the plug flooding at all. Her hands ran through the pre-start procedure on autopilot as her heart pounded and her mind raced with anticipation. They'd done this part before, of course, in the process of running the preliminary tests to make sure the giant constructs actually worked. But this time... this time was going to be different.
Not everyone in the control room knew that; not all of the control room staff had been let in on the big secret of the Archangelions. In a few minutes there would be no hiding it from them; but in a few minutes, it wouldn't matter that they knew.
With the pilots strapped in and jacked in and the cockpits sealed and flooded, the entry plugs' umbilical cables detached. There was a momentary pause, and then, almost simultaneously, all three plugs seated home, ramming straight into the ARCs' plug docks on magnetic rails instead of screwing down the way the Evangelions' had. They hit bottom with clouds of gas from the braking systems, and then the clamps and dock armor closed over them and hid them from view.
The Archangelions energized like regular EVAs, their neurosystems synchronizing much more smoothly and efficiently thanks to the R-Grade implants and Super-Synchron processors. In the control room, Shigeru Aoba cocked an eyebrow at the performance projection indicators on his panel, then leaned over to his consolemate Makoto Hyūga.
"Jeez, Mak, do you see these performance projection figures?" he whispered. "It's just like back in testing. Where's all the super power we were supposed to expect?"
"I know," Hyūga murmured back. "We might as well have just retrofitted production EVAs with the new sync systems. I don't get it either—but the boss seems to be pleased..."
Indeed, John Trussell had seemed pleased throughout the Archangelions' testing process, despite the fact that they showed no particular improvement in performance over production-model EVAs. In fact, the test data indicated that the new creations weren't even as powerful as SEELE's Advanced Production EVAs—which made Aoba and Hyūga wonder how the bosses expected three of them to take on the enemy's force, which was projected to number somewhere between one and two dozen. Sure, Ayanami, Ellison and Langley were great pilots, but...
On the other hand, the bosses—from John Trussell and Maya Ibuki clear up to the Brigadier and Tech Director Akagi—weren't dumb. They had to have thought of that, and they weren't the type to proceed on blind optimism in the face of such lousy numbers.
Which meant they must have something up their sleeve... but what?
The three giants reached the surface almost simultaneously, emerging on the plain in front of the ridgeline which defined Fort Defiance's main defensive line. Ten miles in front of them, down the low expanse of the plain, they could see Station 51, mostly by its radio tower, and then the grey smudge of the harbor. The morning fog hadn't quite burned off yet; it clung to the grass and the horizon. The morning was eerily quiet. The ARC pilots could even hear birds singing.
Their comm systems clicked, and Misato came online. "OK, kids," she said. "X-COM satellite plot shows a mass of large aircraft inbound from the southwest, ETA about 15 minutes. At least 20 aircraft, we can't be entirely sure. They've got to be An-411s, and you all know what that means."
Jon smiled a nasty little smile. "SEELE."
Misato nodded. "Looks like they're sending their AP EVAs in to soften us up. A large sea force is behind the aircraft, ETA sometime this afternoon. The Royal Navy and Red Banner Northern Fleet are moving to intercept. As for the EVAs... well... Professor Kirishatov and his team are preparing Zashchitnik, and Weapons Division is arming Jet Alone right now, but for the moment, you guys are all we've got."
"Then I guess," said Asuka, "we'd better get dressed for company."
The other two pilots nodded their concurrence as they joined Asuka in bringing their giants into formation in the middle of the field.
They converged on one lone figure, a tiny shape almost invisible next to the towering bulk of the three Archangelions that surrounded her. Rachael stood and smiled up at them as they arrived, gathered around her like the pillars of Stonehenge around the altar stone.
"Welcome, my friends," she said, knowing they would hear her. "Are you prepared?"
"We are," the three replied as one.
"Then let's get started." Rachael looked up at the three giants, turning to face each in turn. All three were dull grey, their armor unpainted except for X-COM roundels and small painted flags indicating their pilots' nationalities. Each was slightly different from its fellows. ARC-00 had a smooth-helmeted head, while ARC-01's helmet sported a horn not unlike that of EVA-01. ARC-02's head unit was the most different; patterned after the EuroEVA design of Asuka's lost and beloved EVA-02, it had four eyes. The shape of its helmet evoked echoes of a samurai style.
Rachael finished her turn, composed herself, and then drew her sword from her back. It glinted in the sunlight, the morning sun finally burning off the mist, as she held it high and began to sing in the language of Heaven.
«We stand on the precipice of history,» she sang, and the three in their cockpits heard and understood. Most of those in Fort Defiance who could hear her did not—except for San Ayanami and, to his considerable surprise, Shinji Ikari.
«We are the soldiers of Earth and of Heaven,» Rachael continued. «Let Heaven's chorus sing our names. Sing of Reilael, Friend of Destiny; sing of Jonathan, unique before God; sing of Asuka, Soldier of Light. Sing of Tabriel, and of Lucifer. Sing of the hated foe, the Twisted, the Betrayer; sing of Natlateth.»
Clouds gathered above the chanting angel, settling in as abruptly and startlingly as a door closing in a quiet house. Lightning began to crackle between them. Though the sunlight had gone, her sword continued to shine as she sang on,
«Sing the names of the Three who defy the doubters and the naysayers, the Three who stand with the Lightbringer in his ultimate test!»
The sky grew darker and angrier, the thunder rolling now, and wind howled around Rachael, whipping her drover coat about her ankles as she raised her voice to be heard over the storm.
«The time for observing is past, the time for action is at hand! As it was at the Beginning of All, so let it be now: As God Himself said on the First Day:»
Smiling exultantly, the Malakite raised her sword just a little bit higher. Then, as her black-feathered wings burst from her back, she reversed the blade and drove its point into the ground, her celestial voice ringing out:
«Let there—be light!»
And light there was.
The control room staff recoiled in surprise and pain as that light clawed down out of the skies—three great jagged pillars of light, like lightning magnified to an unimaginable degree. Each crashed down upon an Archangelion, shrouding all three of the giant machines in searing, bellowing light.
Inside ARC-00, Rei stiffened involuntarily, her fists closing on the joysticks, as an electric thrill raced up her spine and exploded inside her head with the full glory of the Cosmic Symphony. She had never been so close to an Archangel before, not even her own Superior, Yves—and the kindly old Archangel of Destiny had nowhere near the intensity of this presence.
The Archangelion's armor changed in that instant from dull, unpainted grey to brilliant, almost pearlescent white, as the bright green unit markings blazed from shoulder and forearm panels and brilliant scarlet light poured from its eyes.
"Reilael," said a soft voice, almost a whisper, in Rei's mind. "I have long looked forward to meeting you—ever since your Heart cried out to me as you bade old Moloch One-Eye farewell. My name is Azrael. I am Vengeance."
"Welcome, Azrael," Rei replied in what she hoped was a properly respectful tone. "Thank you for helping us."
"It will be my pleasure," Azrael replied as Rei's perceptions and her Archangelion's blended together. "Natlateth is the Betrayer. I have waited for this chance since the Fall." The Archangel chuckled dryly and pointed out again, "I am Vengeance."
ARC-01 darkened, turning a deep midnight blue that was nearly black; its mask armor cracked like EVA-01's always used to as its jaw swung open to release a tremendous roar.
Its pilot mirrored that roar, for the presence that surged into his Archangelion was not a quietly intense one like Azrael. Instead, this presence barged in like it owned the place, filling the available "space" in an instant. All the same, it hung back from actual contact with Jon for an instant, after backing him psychically into the corner. It felt a bit like the times he'd tried to connect with EVA-01 and been pushed out by Lucifer's disapproving presence—the sense of being scrutinized, of being judged was almost more than he could stand.
Then he heard a gruff voice say, "Hmph. Never been this close to one of your kind before. Normally I'd let my axe do the talking. I thought this was a crazy idea, but having seen you up close, I guess you'll do." There was a mental sensation which Jon could only equate to a hand being extended.
They settled together, the hesitancy and suspicion erased in favor of a sensation like the comfortable cooperation Jon had experienced during his few synchronizations with Moloch—only magnified a millionfold, making Jon feel three hundred feet tall, incredibly mighty, unspeakably ancient.
As they did so, the gruff voice went on, "Call me Michael. Welcome to the War, kid."
ARC-02 was deluged in fire, flame sweeping down its skin and leaving brilliant red in its wake.
Inside, a similar thing happened to Asuka Sōryū-Langley's mind. She felt as though all her nerves were aflame, her whole being drenched in fire—but it wasn't a bad sensation, it wasn't pain. It was a bursting vitality—as though she had BECOME a flame, surging and dancing, radiant and hungry. She hadn't felt so alive since... no, she'd never felt so alive. She'd come closest when she'd risen out of the chemical soup of EVA-01's entry plug, emerging mother-naked (but for her engagement ring) from DJ's dream haven to slay one of Natlateth's twisted clones of Rei.
A sound filled her perceptions, part crackling flame, part celestial bells, part laughter, and then it resolved into the voice of fire itself.
"Well, well. You're a brightly shining one, aren't you?" it said. "There's more than a bit of me in you already. If the Lightbringer hadn't found you first, I would gladly have had you for a soldier of mine. I think we shall work well together."
"Who are you?" Asuka gasped breathlessly, still trying to comprehend the energies that swirled around her, into her, through her.
"I am the messenger of God, child," the voice replied, amused. "I am inspiration. I am renewal. I am Fire.
"My name," she added, and her voice was Asuka's as they burned together, "is Gabriel."
Her head bowed respectfully before the presence of such majesty, Rachael pulled her sword from the ground, sheathed it, and went to the lift she'd come from. Though she kept her back straight and her stride even, the effort of summoning three Superiors had left her exhausted. She would watch the battle from the Command Centre and rest, so that if she were needed later on, she might be able to do some good.
For now, it was up to these heroes.
Rachael had no doubt that they were up to the task.
Aboard the SEELE command submarine, closing in on the coast of Canada, Jacqueline Natla froze in her command seat and cocked her head. Her pretty but cold face was hard with concentration as she listened intently to something no one else aboard the ship could hear. Lines she hadn't heard in eons rolled across the Symphony, the names of three of the greatest and most powerful angels in Heaven shouting their majesty to the world as they descended.
So. That was NERV's trump card, was it?
Well, Natla had a card or two of her own.
She touched a key on her command seat's arm and said, "This is Natla. Stand by for orbital bombardment."
Then she sat back and smiled coldly.
We can end this before it even begins.
"What... was... that?" asked Shigeru Aoba of no one in particular.
"I have no idea," Makoto Hyūga replied, his face blank. Then he blinked, focusing on one of the status monitors, and went on, "Holy cow, though—look at those power readings!"
Aoba looked, looked again, and then slapped the console. "Ha ha!" he said. "Now that's more like it! Now we're cookin' with gas!"
Behind them, Maya and Truss looked at each other and shared a private smile.
Truss leaned toward her and said quietly, "Listen, there's something I want to ask you."
Maya looked puzzled. "Right now?"
Truss nodded. "I don't think it'll keep."
"Well... uh, I guess we have a few minutes... what?"
Truss reached into the pocket of his uniform jacket, rummaged around for a moment, then removed a small object from it and placed it on Maya's console next to her left hand.
"Assuming this isn't the last day of the human race," Truss inquired conversationally, "will you marry me?"
Maya blinked, blinked again, and looked down at the object. It was, indeed, a ring, just as prescribed by tradition. Well, not precisely, since it had no stone. Tradition called for a diamond on gold here. This ring was a plain-looking silvery band, though on closer inspection its surface was covered with an intricate pattern that was almost like circuitry.
When she noticed that, Maya immediately knew what it meant. The ring wasn't formed metal, but a crystal, a tiny version of the grand grown-metallic-crystal structures which formed the armor of the Archangelions. The circuit-like pattern showed the growth lines of the crystal network. John must have engineered this, she thought—and to make something this small with this kind of precision, he must have worked on it for days...
"I... " The normally unflappable Tech Supervisor's mouth flapped uselessly for a second; then she shut it and composed herself with an act of will, put out her hand, and closed it tightly over the ring.
Turning to face him, she nodded and said, almost fiercely, "I will."
Then, surreptitiously, like a schoolgirl kissing her boyfriend in class, she gave him a quick kiss before turning back to her duties.
Truss blinked, gave himself a "well, how 'bout that?" look, and went back to what he'd been doing too.
One row ahead, Aoba chuckled and elbowed Hyūga, who nodded with a grin. One row back, YaK Minter and Ritsuko Akagi played the same roles. Up at the top of the room, on the command level, Misato Katsuragi smiled at Ryoji Kaji, who with Edwards was guarding the door—but only for a second, so as not to give him the wrong idea.
A moment later, just as Rachael arrived and slipped into the observers' gallery, Misato's smile was erased by an urgent alert from X-COM Satellite Command, spilling onto her command display in a splash of pulsing red.
"All right, kids, first crisis," Misato's voice crackled into the ARC cockpits as the pilots settled down from their celestial experiences. "SatCom just shot us an alert; surveysats show Babylon 2 has altered its orbit and is just about to clear the horizon with a line of sight on Fort Defiance. The station seems to have been fitted with a warhead launcher. Ideas on how we can stop SEELE from nuking us from orbit?"
"We have a nuclear weapon of our own, don't we?" Jon inquired, slightly surprised at himself as he did so. It wasn't normally his way to advocate the most direct application of force, the single smashing blow.
"Petya doesn't work that way," Truss replied. "It's a cruise missile, remember? It can't reach orbit."
"Hm. We've no facilities for launching an ARC to make a direct attack."
"And no time," Maya put in. "Estimated time to launch position is about 5 minutes."
Asuka's chuckle cut through everyone's pondering.
"John," she said, "Jet Alone can wait. Tell Weapons to drop everything..."
Truss looked momentarily puzzled; then comprehension dawned. "You mean..."
The grin was audible in Asuka's voice as she replied, "That's right. Gabriel needs her silver trumpet."
Weapons Division did, indeed, drop everything. Gabriel's Horn—technically, the Model 2015 Mark II Heavy Particle Beam Rifle, but that name did scant justice to its awesome power—had come along with all the other EVA weapons during the evacuation from Worcester-3, but was so unwieldy and so power-hungry that it hadn't been considered an operational weapon. The Weapons techs had three minutes to make it operational and get it to the surface... and, with the incredible professionalism and dedication which had marked NERV's support structures since Day 1, they did the job.
Now Asuka's scarlet unit lay prone on the Seven-Line's defensive ridge, its twin back-mounted Elerium colliders connected by heavy cables to the monstrous rifle. Fully as long as the the ARC was tall, Gabriel's Horn looked much like a gigantic sniper's weapon, complete with a bolt-operated firing chamber, a targeting scope, and a bipod supporting the muzzle. On closer examination, though, the bipod's feet gave a clue as to the weapon's enormous size: They were tracked armored personnel carriers.
"Are you sure you've got the power output to make this work?" asked Makoto Hyūga on Asuka's tactical band. "We originally powered that thing with the whole electrical output of the northeastern United States, you know. That was before your time."
"I've read the reports," Asuka replied. "Don't worry. I have all the power I need."
Hyūga ran an eye over the output figures on his status board and felt a bit dubious about the enterprise; but then, he'd felt that way about the units' overall performance stats before... whatever that was... happened. So maybe she had an angle.
Not his job to figure that kind of thing out, he supposed.
Asuka tuned the backband chatter out as she settled deeper into her synchrony with Gabriel, blending her perceptions with the archangel's. Gabriel's Horn had originally been built more for striking power than range, though one obviously depended from the other. Its targeting equipment wasn't designed to go after a target so far away... but it was the only weapon they had capable of doing any damage to a target that far away, so she would have to make do somehow.
She felt no dismay at this prospect. No fear of failure, or of embarrassment, rose up inside her, so no overbearing bravado welled up to cover it. She was absolutely calm, her heart rate slow and steady, as she waited for her target to clear the horizon.
"Twenty seconds," said Maya's voice in her ears.
"Ready," Asuka replied. ARC-02 settled a little behind the rifle, digging its elbows into the ground, flexing its right hand on the grip of the Horn.
"Ten seconds to target. Nine. Eight," and Maya counted them down steadily and calmly until, at last, "Zero. Target!"
There it was, too—nothing, at this distance, but a brightly shining dot in the summer sky, very faintly visible to the naked eye as it climbed above the greyish-blue smudge of Halifax Harbor.
Asuka had decided early on that she wasn't even going to try to use the rifle's own targeting computer. It had proven inadequate for the task of hitting a gigantic target less than ten miles away in its first outing, and though it had been upgraded since, it hadn't been designed with this kind of thing in mind.
Instead, she closed three of Gabriel's eyes, lined the top right one up with the scope of the Horn, and did it the old-fashioned way. Her heart rate picked up now, and the ARC quivered slightly as the glow of her Elerium colliders brightened to the point where unprotected eyes couldn't stand to look at them. Hyūga's jaw dropped at the figures running across his status panel now, and he shook his head and resolved never to doubt the possibility of anything ever again.
In the upper corner of the scope, the red CHARGING light went off and was replaced by the green READY one.
Gabriel's Horn spoke a single note. The incredible heat of its intolerably bright beam charred the ground and boiled the sea under its path as it streaked straight out to the horizon and beyond, becoming a tangential line against the curvature of the Earth as it burned clean through the atmosphere and out into the vacuum of space.
It was a good shot, but not quite good enough. Atmospheric lensing bent the beam slightly as it curved along its way, and it missed Babylon Two by a mere two kilometers. The electromagnetic pulse of its passing crashed a number of the station's computers, but the targeting systems for the newly installed SEELE warhead launcher were hardened beyond the normal space-hardening of the station's regular systems. Their coordinates remained locked, their countdowns continuing, as the launcher prepared to rain ten-megaton N2 charges on most of Nova Scotia.
Asuka didn't curse or hit anything. She merely waited for the TOO HOT light to go out and then worked the rifle's bolt, ejecting the blown trigger fuse and replacing it with a fresh one. Then she bent to her work again, her concentration doubled. Her perceptions blurred into the ARC's until it was as though she were lying on the ground herself with a rifle pressed to shoulder and cheek, looking through the scope at the tiny, flickering dot that was her target.
From that range, she couldn't see the smaller objects breaking away from Babylon 2 as the crew got the hell out of Dodge, pushing their escape vehicles to the max to get clear of the station before she got off another shot. The launchers were on automatic, and would be firing any moment. Probably their next shots would cross, anyway. The rifle couldn't be recharged fast enough to get off a second shot before the warheads were launched. Mutually assured destruction; no need to stick around and get vaporized before NERV did.
Like Makoto Hyūga, the SEELE officer who made that decision failed to reckon with the power of the Archangel of Fire. Tied to the power grid of northeastern America, Gabriel's Horn had taken nearly a minute to recharge for its second shot against the Fifth Angel.
Here, now, it took eleven seconds.
Asuka took a breath, let it halfway out, held it, and squeezed the trigger.
The beam screamed out again, seemingly along the same path as before. At these ranges, the tiniest adjustments to muzzle angle led to huge differences at the other end; and the adjustments Asuka had made were the right ones.
Five seconds before the warheads would have been launched, International Space Station Babylon 2 ceased to be a space station and became a brilliantly expanding cloud of superheated gas.
"Commander," said the comm operator on the bridge of Jacqueline Natla's flagship.
"Yes?" she replied.
"Report from SpaceCom. Babylon 2 has been destroyed. No warheads launched."
Natla took the news with apparent equanimity. She only nodded. "Very well. Proceed with surface attack."
With Gabriel's Horn dismantled and back in storage again, NERV's giant defenders idled atop the ridge of the Seven-Line, waiting. Presently they were joined by Zashchitnik, which had taken slightly longer to prep for launch. Marina joined the others quietly, a little subdued by the light show from earlier; and anyway, it wasn't the time for a lot of chitchat.
In their cockpits, the pilots adjusted things needlessly, venting their nervousness as they awaited the attack. The quiet, especially after the sound and fury of Babylon 2's destruction, was a bit unnerving.
Not that it was entirely quiet. Jon Ellison, fiddling with the tuning on his commset, pulled in the X-COM command channel being used by Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart to coordinate the air and sea battle for the Port of Halifax itself. Within a few moments, the others were listening to it as well, their eyes scanning the horizon for any sign of their own enemy while they listened to the calm, clipped British chatter of the X-COM and Royal Navy forces fighting their own battle.
The pilots could see that battle very faintly in the distance, as little more than flashes and arcs of colored light on the horizon. Over the comm net, they could hear the calm voices of the British aviators and naval personnel fighting to keep the United States forces under SEELE control from coming near enough to shore to affect the battle soon to be fought there.
It didn't sound like it was going very well for the Brits. Though Britain had re-emerged in the post-Second Impact world with a resurgence of her prominence and power, much of the Royal Navy was safeguarding other British possessions and allies around the world, while the US Navy was throwing pretty much everything it had that wasn't a nuclear weapon at Halifax. The British and Royal Canadian forces defending the port were being pushed back and whittled down, and there didn't seem to be a lot that they could do to reverse the situation.
Then, as the NERV pilots began to prepare themselves mentally for the beginning of the RN's collapse, the situation changed. American ships started taking hits, started sinking, and no one on either side seemed to know why at first.
American and British submarines were hunting each other in the waters all around the battlezone, but the torpedo fire which was starting to bite into the American fleet seemed to be coming from the southeast. If anyone should be getting reinforcements from that direction, it should be the SEELE side, not Great Britain. Operations planners on both sides were highly confused...
... until the first new players appeared in the air battle raging above the sea battle, at which point things got that much more confusing for a few moments.
"Invincible, are those your aircraft on 202?" Station 51's comm operator asked the Royal Navy flagship's combat information center.
"Ah, negative, Fifty-One, they've just arrived. X-COM Eagle three-two-four, can you identify?"
"Roger that, Invincible, one moment," replied an operator aboard an X-COM sensor picket aircraft orbiting above the battlezone. There was a pause; then the picket operator came back with, "Invincible, X-COM Eagle three-two-four with identification: New contacts are MiG-31G-IT Sea Firefox aerospace fighters, IT Improved class. Unable to determine their base of origin at this time."
Suddenly there came a squeaky burst of static, then a new voice, this one belonging to a woman. The accent in this one was different—a less clipped, more exotic way of speaking than the calm British tones of the Royal Navy.
"Hello Halifax Control, hello Halifax Control," she said, stumbling a bit over all those H's, blurring each into a semi-G sort of sound. It was a phonetic stumble everyone in the Fort Defiance control and tech areas had become very familiar with over the last few months—pure Russian. "Colonel Yekaterina Tupoleva, X-COM detachment to the Red Banner Northern Fleet. Admiral Simonov and the fleet are forty minutes behind us—except for the submarines, whose contributions you should already have noticed." A smile entered the Russian pilot's voice as she added, "Sorry to be late."
A cheer could be heard on the X-COM tac channel; whether it was coming from Station 51 Control, the combat information center of HMS Invincible, or both, no one could tell. Those listening at Fort Defiance, in the control rooms and on the battle line, cheered as well... all but one.
Marina Kirishatova keyed Zashchitnik's commset to the Fort Defiance tac band, but rather than join in the cheer, she raised her voice above it in song.
Soyuz nerushimi respublik svobodnikh,
Splotila naveki Velikaya Rus'...
Within two words Yevgeniy Orlinskiy had bounced to his feet in the Command Centre and joined her; her father joined in by the end of the line. One by one the scientists, workers and personnel of the Special Projects Directorate came to their feet and joined them, so that by the end of the verse the entire Centre was booming with the patriotic song.
Da zdravstuyet sozdanni volei narodov,
Yedini moguchi Sovyetski Soyuz!
Over the tac band, the Russian troopers among Fort Defiance's X-COM detachment and the pilots of Colonel Tupoleva's Sea Firefox wing joined in as well for the chorus.
Slav'sya, Otechestvo nashe svobodnoye,
Druzhbi narodov nadezhni oplot!
Partia Lenina—sila narodnaya
Nas k torzhestvu Kommunizma vedet!
It was a strange thing, and should, in the midst of a battle and on the cusp of another one, have seemed both ill-advised and rather silly; yet Misato Katsuragi, in the midst of it, had no thought of stopping them. There was something stirring about it, something about the sound of the Russians, few of them very good singers individually, standing up and raising their voices to declare, in the very teeth of the crisis, their love for their motherland. Despite the situation, she felt herself choking up a little bit and wishing she knew the words. Somehow, it didn't surprise her to turn her head and see Gendō Ikari standing straight, tears running down his face, singing his heart out just as if he were a Russian himself.
All up and down the Seven-Line, the X-COM and NERV line of defense stiffened slightly as the moment caught up even the most hardened of troopers. The three Archangelion pilots all appeared on each other's display screens, grinning at each other in a way they hadn't done since the good old days back in Worcester-3.
The song lasted for three and a half minutes. Twenty seconds after that, the station's aerial radar picked up the formation they'd been warned about by SatCom—Antonov AN-411 aircraft and unidentified escorts, perhaps twenty-five aircraft in total, northeastbound from the United States.
SEELE's primary attack force was on final approach.
There were, the defenders now saw, three types of Advanced Production Evangelion in the enemy force. Two of them NERV had seen before: the AP versions of the EuroEVA and Model 2014, all of them decked out with Elerium power cores and weapon harnesses, all armored in dull battleship grey. They deployed from the An-411s as the great flying-wing transport aircraft swooped over the battlefield. Fort Defiance's anti-aircraft systems knocked a few of them down, but it was more a gesture than anything else—by the time the 411s were vulnerable, they'd already discharged their passengers.
The third type took a few of the NERV personnel back. They were a type which had never appeared before, and as she saw them on her monitor, Ritsuko Akagi cursed. She'd never even been aware that SEELE's EVA development arm was considering the concept, let alone actually implementing it, but there they were: flying Evangelions.
They were white, not grey like the ground units, and their heads were very strange indeed; they had no heads, really. Or no necks, anyway; their heads were near-featureless protuberances above their shoulders. They had no eyes, no facial features at all save for wide, rubbery-looking mouths full of nasty teeth. The rest of them looked like the standard Westinghouse EVA body—except that on their backs, each had a huge pair of alloy-feathered wings.
"They have got to be kidding. Those are the stupidest-looking things I have ever seen," said Asuka.
Then she drew in a sharp breath as she realized that one of the landed EVAs was different from the others. One of them, the one advancing at the head of the formation, was neither a Westinghouse nor a FEISAR model. One of them was not grey but violet and green.
One of them was EVA-01, and not on the right side, either.
"They actually managed to activate EVA-01?" said Marina, puzzled.
Rei appeared in Asuka's main comm window, looking troubled. "Asuka," she asked quietly. "What does it mean?"
Asuka thought about it for a moment, then smiled.
"It means we won't have to wait for him to get here!" she replied—and then, without any warning, she threw ARC-02 into the air.
As the Archangelion's feet cleared the ground, wings burst from her back too—but not wings of alloy and composite. Gabriel's wings, as befit a creature of her stature, were constructs of flame, and she went aloft with a roar like wildfire, leaving a scorched spot on the ground where she had been standing.
"Holy—!" Misato blurted. "I didn't know she could do that... "
Neither had Asuka, but it seemed the logical thing to do.
The flying EVAs seemed just as taken aback by the red ARC's action. Their incoming formation broke up as Gabriel streaked into their midst, scattering them like pigeons attacked by a hawk. Too quickly, though, they regrouped. There were ten of them in all, to go with what looked like about twenty ground units, which meant that SEELE had indeed run off more pilots—unless they were using dummy plugs in some of these.
Asuka figured they were using more clones; they were cheaper.
She didn't have long to consider it, though, as the flying EVAs regrouped and attacked her. The first one blindsided her, body-slamming ARC-02 after pulling a tighter turn than the white units' wings looked capable of making. The second one came in from another angle and clobbered her while she was still recovering from that; and then they mobbed her, and ARC-02 disappeared in a welter of wings and limbs and great hacking double-bladed swords.
"Asuka!" Jon cried, but before he could do anything, the white, winged EVAs scattered as though a bomb had gone off at the center of their formation. Some of them were actually on fire as they hurtled outward.
ARC-02 stood in midair where the white EVAs had just been clustered, its fists clenched, eyes glowing, surrounded by a curtain of flame.
One of the flying EVAs recovered faster than the others and swooped back toward Gabriel, readying its double sword. Asuka laughed and winged her Archangelion over, leading the SEELE unit a merry aerial chase for a few seconds before moving into position above and behind it.
"Hey, cloneboy," she inquired on a broadcast channel. "Can you fly without your wings?"
So asking, she seized hold of the leading edges of the EVA's wings with Gabriel's hands, planted one of the ARC's feet in the center of the EVA's back, and wrenched the wings free from the body. Their structures buckled as they came away, reduced in an instant to tangled wreckage and metallic feathers in ARC-02's hands.
Shorn of its wings, the EVA plummeted, flailing, and slammed into the ground, narrowly missing one of its grounded brethren. It skidded, tumbled, and came to rest with its limbs in completely unnatural positions, and it didn't bother trying to get up.
"I guess not," Asuka remarked, discarding the mangled wings.
The flying units' pilots decided that flight was maybe not such a great tactical advantage after all, and headed for the ground, where their fellows were overrunning the NERV line with sheer numbers.
Marina Kirishatova watched as ARC-00 and ARC-01 went back to back at the peak of the ridge. Azrael held a sword of blazing light, an improvement over SEELE's AP-EVA beam sword, while Michael and Jon had eschewed the unit's beam knives in favor of a good, old-fashioned progressive axe. They met the brunt of the charge, disappearing momentarily in the horde, but Marina's targeting system had them locked and excluded now.
Smiling, the Soviet pilot lined up on the heaviest cluster of SEELE units and triggered Zashchitnik's main weapon.
The so-called "anti-matter beams" weren't really made of anti-matter; rather, though they had a fairly heavy anti-proton component, they were primarily made of magnetically suspended plasma. The anti-matter was there to "spice things up a bit," as Irina Tereshkova had put it.
They did the job. Zashchitnik's opening salvo vaporized most of one SEELE unit outright and tore another nearly in half, raking the knot of grey-armored units closing in on the two Archangelions' left flank.
Up in the Command Centre, Misato Katsuragi's complicated job got more complicated as an alert strobed in from Station 51. Down at the harbor, a number of SEELE's landing ships had gotten through the Royal Navy's rather threadbare defensive line. From those, conventional SEELE ground forces were swarming ashore and making for Fort Defiance's defensive line at top speed, ignoring the city and Station 51 entirely.
Misato noted their appearance on the tactical plot board—actually a sophisticated holotank taking up much of the uppermost level of the multi-stepped Command Centre—and ordered X-COM's conventional units into position to oppose them. Bypassing Station 51 was their mistake, and Misato wasn't about to let it go uncapitalized.
In the Fort Defiance Systems Centre, Amy Anderson and Derek Bacon had just noticed something very odd.
"Xerxes, why have you released the ventilation system locks for Block 17?" Amy inquired of the 9000-series machine's command rostrum.
"I haven't," Xerxes replied.
"Then how did they get released?"
There was a pause; then Xerxes replied, "Primary data loop compromised. Attempting to determine nature of intruder."
"Crap," Bacon said. He thumbed an intercom key. "Control, this is Systems. Somebody's hacking the Fort Defiance security loop. They've opened up security on one of the ventilation systems, Block 17."
"Intruders?" Misato's voice replied immediately.
"Don't think so, but it's hard to tell. There's not much of anybody out there."
"Isolate SHODAN and continue investigation. Get the Station 51 systems into the hunt if you have to."
"Roger that." Bacon switched off the intercom and turned to Amy. "Ready?"
Amy fitted on a relay unit—a collar-shaped barrier device intended to serve as a safety buffer between an R-Grade cybernetic interface and a compromised computer system—and jacked it across to her panel.
"Go," she said.
That, thought Ken Alda to himself as he watched her work, is so cool.
Bacon was mostly right; there weren't a lot of people on the surface waiting to infiltrate the compound.
But, thanks to Asuka's destruction of one of the flying EVAs, there was one.
Dan Ellison crawled down the ventilator shaft, cursing his fate. "In the unlikely event that any of you wind up on the surface alive, infiltrate the compound and assist our agent inside." What a crock! Why was he even doing it? Was he that afraid of what would happen to him if he didn't?
He paused, considered, and concluded that, yes, he was.
He kept crawling.
In the middle of all this, the Weapons Division finished arming Jet Alone and sent the robot to the surface.
JA was still in basically the same configuration it had sported for its battle with EVA-05, one of the last battles fought in Worcester-3. Its reactor-compartment conversion had been completed and all its armor refitted, painted and polished, so that it looked like a finished robot again, and it sported some upgraded weapons systems, but the hulking power-ram arms and twin Elerium colliders were the same, giving the robot a profile totally distinctive from the ARCs, the enemy units, or Zashchitnik.
The machine was still remotely piloted, but, with all the Project Evangelion pilots busy, piloting duties had gone outside the group. The robot's control had been assigned to an X-COM officer by the name of John Wasdin, who had scored best on the aptitude testing performed by Tech Div in the early going. No one really knew much about him; he kept to himself, did his job well, and didn't offend anyone, but he wasn't really a memorable figure.
They'd remember him after this deployment, though.
Marina saw Jet Alone pop up from one of the delivery shafts not far from her and smiled; the robot's assistance would help even out the lopsided odds on the ground while Asuka continued to handle the aerial threat.
The smile lasted until JA turned and opened fire with its 30mm autocannon... on Zashchitnik.
"What the crap—?!" Misato blurted. "Wasdin, what the hell are you doing?"
"Fuck!" Misato punched another intercom key. "Systems, this is Command. Go over to the TBC and find out what the hell is wrong with Wasdin. He's attacking Zashchitnik!"
"We're kind of in the middle of something," Bacon's voice replied tensely. "It looks like the Station 51 9000s are the cause of our problem! There's a major rat screw going on over there."
"If JA starts taking out our own people, we'll have bigger trouble. You're the closest trusted personnel, get moving!" snapped the Brigadier, and then she closed the channel.
Bacon sighed. "Amy, you hold 'em here?"
"Sure," Amy replied. "They haven't even noticed me. If I need you I'll page you."
"OK," Bacon said. He got up from his seat, uncabled, and headed for the door. "C'mon, Ken."
The door to the room NERV's personnel had nicknamed the Tertiary Battle Closet clicked, then juddered, as someone tried it from outside. Dan Ellison wondered if it would be too overt a surrender to just go open it for whomever was out there, but decided that he might as well at least go through the motions of waiting for them to invade the room.
That didn't take as long as he'd expected it would. A moment later, there came not the crash of a kick or a battering ram, but rather the high-pitched whine of a heavy industrial drill. Within seconds, a heavy bit—Dan's eyeball guess made it a three-quarter-inch at least—had bored out the primary and secondary locks. Then the door smashed in, bursting from its frame and crashing to the floor, despite the fact that there was still one more lock. (This was especially impressive given that it was a sliding door.)
That surprised Dan only until he got a look at the size of the man in the TechDiv uniform who came into the room after it. He was a Mohawked giant of a man, barrel-chested and over six and a half feet tall, holding the heavy drill up like an autopistol in one powerful hand. There was a teenage boy standing behind him, looking around him with an expression Dan figured was almost as impressed as his own.
"Howdy," said Derek Bacon. "Are we gonna do this the easy way, or the hard way?"
"Easy," Dan replied flatly, surprising the burly tech considerably. Ellison gestured to the Jet Alone control pod. "Just seeing you knock that door down was enough to subdue me," he went on with a small grin. "You'll find Agent Wasdin in there. Have fun. I'm out of here."
With that, Dan Ellison left the room. Bacon stared after him for a moment, then shrugged.
"Aren't we going to go after him?" Ken Alda asked.
"What for?" Derek replied. He dropped the drill, when he went over to the Jet Alone pod, punched a TD override code into the hatch lock, swung the hatch up, reached one meaty hand into the pod, and hauled out a very surprised John Wasdin by his necktie.
"'Sup?" Bacon asked the traitorous agent conversationally as he dragged Wasdin across the room. Wasdin made a grab for the blaster at his belt, but Bacon took it away from him with the same effortlessness a child would use removing a toy gun from a GI Joe doll's hand, tossed it carelessly back over his shoulder, and then thumped the agent down in one of the observer seats.
"Sit your punk ass down," Bacon ordered him, then turned to Alda and aimed a thumb at the control pod. "Ken, you're up."
Alda blinked. "What?!"
"I said you're up," Bacon replied, sitting down at the controller's station. "Get in there and get Jet Alone back on our side again."
"Me?! Control Jet Alone? In combat?"
Derek gestured to his massive frame. "I'm not getting through that hatch."
"But—but I've never—"
Derek Bacon fixed Alda with a look. "Ken, for the past three months, you've done nothing but sit in the Ops Center, eat chips, and kick my ass at robot battle games." He pointed to the pod. "Now git!"
Ken Alda couldn't believe his ears. He was being ordered to fulfil a lifelong dream. He climbed into the cockpit, strapped himself in (something Wasdin had neglected to do), put on the headset, and started orienting himself to the controls. His heart was pounding, his mouth dry, his hand shaking slightly as he ran them gently across the banks of switches and then settled them on the joysticks.
"This is it, Ken," he muttered to himself as the voice of one of SEELE's EVA pilots rang in his earphone, demanded to know why Jet Alone had stopped fighting and gone idle. "Don't screw up. Don't screw up."
Then he took a deep breath, reached down, flipped the comm set to the NERV tactical band, and said the sort of thing he had wanted to say since he was five years old:
"Super Techno Soldier Jet Alone: TAKE OFF!"
"... wha?" wondered Misato Katsuragi, now completely baffled by the erratic behavior of the robot.
Jet Alone pivoted toward the EVA which had been using it for fire support. Before the EVA's pilot could react, Ken slammed one of the robot's main weapons online and opened fire with a cry of, "JET CANNON!"
The remotely-piloted robot's torso-mounted tri-barrel autocannon opened up with a ripping roar, pelting the SEELE unit with explosive shells. Reeling as its armor was pocked and cracked, the AP EVA stumbled and fell before regrouping and springing to the attack.
Ken worked the pedals and joysticks furiously, acting in concert with Jet Alone's sophisticated drive-by-wire software to get the best performance from the giant machine. Jet Alone slipped the attack from the unit's progressive spear and counterattacked with a thunderous punch from its powerful magnetic-ram fist, nearly sending the EVA flying over backward.
That threat momentarily neutralized, Ken started falling back toward the NERV defensive line, covering his retreat with missile and cannon fire.
Shinji Ikari watched and heard the robot switch sides on the Command Centre's master monitor, and it was the absolute last goddamn straw. If Ken freaking Alda could jump into a giant robot and help to save the world, then he, Shinji Ikari, was not going to stand here sucking his thumb while everybody else did the work. No, by God, he wouldn't be the one to look people in the eye years later, when they said, "You were in Halifax for the great battle? Wow! What'd you do?" and reply, "I stood in the control room drinking iced tea."
He threw his drink cup in the trash can and left the room, unnoticed by all the concentrating adults.
San caught up with him halfway down the hall, the impish smile on her face indicating that, as always, she was up to something.
"I know where you're going," she said cheerily.
"Really," Shinji replied, aggravated. "Plan on telling anyone?"
"No," San replied, sounding faintly hurt. "I thought I'd come and help you."
Shinji paused momentarily. "Help me?!" he inquired.
"Sure," San replied, grabbing his arm and dragging him along again. "There are two Evangelions in that storage cage, you know."
They reached the Evangelion storage bay without incident, but the lock on the door gave San some trouble. It was considerably more sophisticated than the ones she'd had to bypass to get her gear and leave SEELE headquarters, or to get into Fort Defiance itself.
She worked on it, cursing and muttering, for several minutes without success while Shinji got ever more fretful at her side. Then, just as she was getting good and annoyed, someone nudged her out of the way.
"Allow me, cousin," said the dark-haired, slim young man with a sardonic little smile. For a second, San thought it was Jon, until she realized that it couldn't possibly be because Jon was outside.
"Who—?!" she demanded, her hand going automatically to her belt before she remembered that she'd given up her weapon.
Dan Ellison smiled, finished rascaling the lock, and stepped back with a flourish as the enormous powered door ground open.
"Give Ni one for me, San," he said, and trotted off down the hall without looking back.
Shinji and San both stared after him for a moment, turned to each other, and shrugged.
Then they went into the cage to do a little grand theft EVA.
In an independent performance review filed in 2014, almost a full year before the beginning of the Angel War, Misato Katsuragi's non-NERV evaluator had classified her as a talented officer with a real flair for tactical operations and a natural ability to motivate people—and also as immature, irresponsible, unreliable, and probably an alcoholic. Giving her command over anything more complex or important than a broom closet, the case officer assigned to watch her for a week and give the report had said, would be utter folly.
Of course, that was the whole point. In recent weeks, Misato had been in a contemplative enough mood to realize that SEELE, through the puppet Gendō Ikari had been at the time, must have insisted on her placement in tactical command of NERV because she had been the least suitable officer for the job. Since the true intent of NERV under SEELE's command was to lose the Angel War, it made sense for them to round up the biggest basket case in their personnel files and dump the lot in her lap.
And indeed, when the war began, she wasn't in any way prepared for what it would cost her, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually, to command the forces of NERV. She spent the early battles in a constant state of barely-suppressed hysterical terror, certain that at any moment someone in the control room would realize that she had no fucking idea what she was doing and blow the whole thing.
But the pilots kept winning anyway.
And as they did, and NERV's reputation grew, and Misato's confidence increased, a strange thing happened. The feeling faded away, and one day in the middle of the war, she suddenly realized that she didn't feel like she was skating on the edge of control through a series of disasters any more.
She was still the commander of a force that was badly disadvantaged and playing for the highest possible stakes, but... it was different now. She was in control of everything she should be in control of and had accepted the things that she wasn't in control of; and she'd figured out ways of hedging against those.
It took a lot of luck and a lot of help to get to that point, but once she was there, there was no going back.
Today, as ranking officer on the scene and Tactical Commander of NERV, Misato had been given battlefield command of all X-COM forces in Nova Scotia for this fight. To be sure, aside from the kaiju-class forces—the Archangelions, Zashchitnik, and Jet Alone—there were layers of management between Misato and the grunt on the field; but all the same, when it all was said and done, she was the one calling the shots on the X-COM side of the battle.
She stood in the center of the Command Centre's upper deck, hunched over the tactical holotank, barking orders and moving units, conferring with the Technical Division staff on the dynamics of the kaiju battle while at the same time staying in constant contact with a dozen conventional field commanders. She juggled air units and ground units, kept tabs on the sea battle—a human computer at the center of a huge web of elements which were always moving and changing, constantly updating their goals and responding to their alterations.
Without even quite realizing it, Misato Katsuragi had become a general—and a damn good one, too.
In the top gallery of the Tech Div wing, Ritsuko Akagi watched her old friend run the battle like an conductor managing a symphony and smiled. Who would have thought that either of them would ever come to this? Misato, the cool, competent, confident commander, and Ritsuko, the admired and respected leader of the greatest group of scientists and engineers ever assembled? Eight months ago, Ritsuko would have bet five to one that, by this time, Misato would be a hopeless, homeless drunk and she herself would be dead.
She knew, also, to what both of them owed the difference.
Or, rather, to whom.
Ritsuko pulled up a smaller copy of the tactical plot on her panel's main monitor and sought out EVA-01, which was moving up the flank of the battlesite, on an apparent vector toward ARC-00's position.
What are you waiting for? she wondered silently.
As she had the thought, EVA-01 stopped moving, the battle swirling all around it like eddies around a rock in a river.
Mathieu Ellison felt few emotions; that was part of his makeup, his upbringing (such as it had been), and his training. Still, as he guided his captured Evangelion through the battle, he felt a curious glow of satisfaction.
The others had predicted great problems with EVA-01 and its pilot. The tacticians had warned that it would never be captured, that its oft-observed rage would carry it through any attempt to bring it down. The technicians had made dire predictions about its documented refusal to synchronize with anyone other than its original designated pilot, Croft. The security people had drawn up detailed plans for extracting said pilot from the unit's entry plug if and when it could be brought in.
But in the end, the capture had been relatively simple, and the pilot elimination even simpler—for opening EVA-01's entry plug after the unit's capture had revealed nothing. Merely an empty seat and a darkened control console; there was no sign that a pilot had ever been aboard. The LCL had been pure, indicating that the pilot had not suffered another absorption into the unit. Yet there were irrefutable indications that DJ Croft had been aboard when the unit had engaged SEELE's forces in the Battle of Worcester-3.
Unit 01 had destroyed two Evangelions and crippled a third in the battle, fighting with the same canny savagery that had served it so well against the Thirteenth Angel. Audio broadcasts originating from the unit during the battle seemed to clinch it that Croft had been aboard—but if he hadn't escaped and he hadn't been assimilated by his EVA, then where was he?
It didn't matter to Mathieu Ellison. Neither did EVA-01's strange behavior in the NERV raid on Worcester-3, in which it had been hijacked by an unknown pilot—probably Sōryū-Langley, all data to the contrary notwithstanding—and then abandoned at the airport. Mathieu had been placed aboard and synchronization had been flawless, and now he led the forces of SEELE against their enemies at the helm of the EVA the NERV rebels had once thought of as their best hope for victory.
He looked forward to dispatching the flawed Ascension prototypes himself. As the eldest, that was his right, though he knew that Ni Ayanami wished to be the one to destroy her predecessor. Well, fine. If she could reach Rei before Mathieu did, she could have the kill for herself. If not, tough luck.
If anyone touched Jon Ellison before Mathieu had a chance, they would suffer what Mathieu had planned for him in his place.
As the thought crossed his mind, he felt an unpleasant tickling at the back of his consciousness—as if someone standing behind him had heard his thought and chuckled darkly at it. He blinked, shaking his head, and ran a diagnostic on his neuro-interface system. Everything was fine; the synchrotron was reporting no noise and holding steady at sixty-one percent.
It came as quite a surprise, then, when his perceptions suddenly melted away and left him floating terrified in a black void. Terrified, but not alone—he could sense a presence there with him, watching him. It made a "sound" his consciousness interpreted as a chuckle.
Amused by his terror.
More than one conscious presence surrounded him, observing him, and he could feel that they meant him no good. One was mundanely human, but touched with a spark of celestial fire, his attitude mocking. The other was a blaze of light so bright that it hurt Mathieu to be anywhere near it.
The blaze of light made that chuckling sound again; then sensation returned and Mathieu Ellison found himself...
... in a street.
He looked around, stunned and disoriented. He had no idea where he was. It looked like it might be somewhere in Europe. Most of the people were white and the street were narrow and quaint, with brooding old stone houses that seemed to lean toward the street as if frowning with disapproval at Mathieu as he stood confused in front of them. He turned around and saw that what he was standing on was not so much a narrow street as a wide sidewalk next to a canal full of dirty greenish water. Venice?
No, not Venice; there were no spires or lions, just these frumpy, curiously intimidating houses. He reached down for the weapon that should have been at his hip, only to discover that he wasn't wearing his plug suit. He was dressed in rather ordinary street clothes: loafers, a short-sleeved dress shirt, jeans.
A pedestrian, a fat woman in a gaudy blue hat, bumped into him as he spun about to stare at the canal again in stunned disbelief; she said something critical-sounding in a language he didn't recognize and moved on.
Mathieu's mind raced. What the hell had happened to him? Was this some kind of strange hallucination, produced by a malfunction in EVA-01's neurosystems? But that didn't seem too likely—such a malfunction might cause an old memory to surface in such a vivid fashion, but Mathieu was quite sure he'd never been wherever he was now. How could a memory malfunction cause him to experience something he'd never seen before? He suddenly wanted very much to sit down away from the bustle of this street, or sidewalk, or whatever it was. He saw a sign hanging above the door on one of the brooding houses that looked like it might indicate a business, and stumbled to and through it as if in a dream.
It was a tavern, small and cozy, with a few tables, booths along one wall and a bar along the back; the other wall was fronted by a small stage. The place was nearly empty. As Mathieu entered, the only two other customers in the place were leaving: a heavy-bodied, gray-haired gent in a battered raincoat and a funny little hat, with bushy eyebrows and a merry but rather secretive expression, and a taller, younger man with a look of puzzled annoyance, as though he knew there was a subtext and would really appreciate being let in on it. Mathieu empathized with the younger stranger as he sat down in one of the booths and put his head in his hands.
It was hard to concentrate even here; though the bustle of the street was gone, there were a couple of men on the stage, one tapping time gently on the side of a guitar while the other blew raucously into a harmonica. Mathieu had little enough appreciation for music at the best of times. Angrily he stood up and opened his mouth to tell them to be quiet, damn them, but the imprecation died unspoken as he realized who one of them was.
The harmonica player was DJ Croft.
Croft saw Mathieu at the same time, stopped playing, and looked up from his instrument.
"Oh, hullo," he said. "Which one're you, then?"
"I—uh—" Mathieu got hold of himself with an angry shake of his head. "What are you doing here? Where are we? How did you bring me here?"
The guitarist was a tall, thin man with a stiff shock of black hair and a sardonic cast to his long, lined face. Ellison did not recognize him, but his green eyes had the look of eyes that had seen more than anyone else could even imagine. He put his guitar gently down on the stage at his feet, tapped a cigarette out of a pack he'd had in his shirt pocket, cupped his hands around a worn gold Zippo to light it, took a drag, blew it languidly out, and then finally spoke in a deep, slightly gravelly voice:
"You're not welcome here, boy." He smiled, then, a smile that didn't make Mathieu feel warm or safe in any way. "This is my head, and you weren't invited."
"Who are you?" Mathieu demanded.
"NERV named me Evangelion Unit 01," said the man, taking another drag from his cigarette, "but you can call me Lucifer."
"You're lying!" Mathieu snarled. "Lucifer is dead! EVA-01 is nothing but an animated corpse, like Moloch. This is some kind of NERV trick. They've tampered with the neurosystems to cause hallucinations—"
"So," said the dark man, flowing gracefully to his feet. "First you barge into my head uninvited," he said, pacing across the stage, "and then you call me a liar?" He turned on his heel at the edge of the stage, the glowing coal of his cigarette tracing an orange trail in the dark, thick air of the canal-side tavern. "Boy, there was a time when I was the Prince of Lies, I won't deny that. But think about it for a second. Why should I lie to you? You're not worth lying to. You're just another minor servant of Natlateth, crippled just the way she likes all her toys broken. Just another clone of Jon Ellison who doesn't get it."
Lucifer stalked back across the stage, crouched down, and thrust his face forward so that his hawk nose almost touched Mathieu's. His green eyes widened slightly with anger, the six tiny secondary pupils jumping open.
"Do you know why you and your brothers will never be half the man that Jon is, even though you're all genetically identical?" he said, his voice hushed, almost a whisper, but thick with contempt.
Mathieu tried to sneer, but it came out looking a bit sickly as he replied as sarcastically as he could manage, "No. Why?"
Without any warning or hesitation, the seething coiled energy within Lucifer exploded into violence. His right hand, fingers suddenly tipped with glittering silver talons, plunged into Mathieu's chest up to the wrist faster than the human eye can blink, and an instant later tore back out again. Blood and tissue spattered to the floor at Mathieu's feet, but he felt no pain—only the impact, like a sudden hard punch in the chest—and didn't lose the strength of his legs. He stood staring in shock at Lucifer's wrath-blackened face, then looked down at the Lightbringer's blood-smeared hand.
In the palm of Lucifer's hand, he held a small crystalline globe, perhaps the size of a billiard ball. It was streaked with gore, but remained clean enough that a tiny reddish light could be seen gleaming within it, like a match flame.
"Christ!" DJ Croft blurted from behind him. "Warn a fellow before you do something like that! Jesus!"
Ignoring him, Lucifer hissed to Mathieu, "Because your heart is stunted, withered, neglected." He held the little globe up and pushed it under Mathieu's nose. "You have no love, not for your brothers, nor for your cousins, nor even for yourself. You don't care about anything, you don't have anything to live for."
Struggling to comprehend the fact that, though Lucifer had just torn whatever that was out of his chest where his heart belonged, he was not dead, Mathieu stammered, "W-we live for the m-mission. We l-live for N-Natlateth!"
"Bah," said Lucifer. "You obey Natlateth because you're a slave. You feel nothing for her but fear, nothing for your cause but boredom, nothing for your enemies but contempt." He turned his back, went back to his stool next to DJ and sat down, elbows on knees, regarding Mathieu thoughtfully over the gleaming globe in his hand.
"And so your heart is tiny," he said, gesturing with the glassy ball, "and its flame is weak. And that is why you will never equal Jon. He may not understand his heart—that takes years—but it's filled with fire, and with that fire he can overcome anything you can throw at him."
"And I suppose," Mathieu said, doing his best to summon that contempt, "you have had something to care about in the millennia since the Fall?"
Lucifer grinned, which did nothing to put Mathieu at his ease. "Not much, I admit," said Lucifer, "but there were a few things. I had my empire, such as it was. I had my misguided smugness over having defied the Almighty. I had the loyalty and counsel of my best friend." The grin vanished. Lucifer's hand tightened on the little globe. Now Mathieu felt a twinge of pain in his chest.
"And when I catch up with Natlateth..." Lucifer went on, slowly and distinctly, his grip steadily tighting and the pain steadily growing.
"... I am going to make her pay..."
A crack appeared in the crystal globe, accompanied by a shooting spark of agony that drew a strangled gasp and stagger from Mathieu.
"... for what she and her minions..."
Another crack, and Mathieu dropped to one knee, then fell on his back, writhing. Lucifer stood up, his fist shaking around the crystalline globe. An ominous crackling noise came from it.
"... did to Moloch!"
The globe shattered. Mathieu went stiff as a board, only his heels and the back of his head touching the floor, his eyes staring wildly at nothing; then everything about him relaxed and he slumped to the floor. His expression changed to a curiously peaceful little smile, his glassy eyes half-lidded.
Lucifer dropped the splintered remains of the crystalline globe to the stage, brushed his hand off against his pants, and picked up his guitar with a sigh.
"About time we got to it," he said to DJ with the tone of one who hates to leave a party.
DJ got up and tucked his harmonica into the top pocket of his suit jacket. His expression was bland, as though he watched people pull glass balls out of other people's chests and then kill them by crushing the glass every day.
Lucifer paused near the door, looked back over his shoulder.
"Are you ready for this, Longinus?" he asked.
"I'd bloody well better be," he replied, "since it appears I was born for it."
They walked out into the streets of Amsterdam together, along the cobbled sidewalk, through a gathering mist. As they approached one of the city's innumerable footbridges, an observer would have seen them drawing nearer and nearer together, their murky silhouettes blending into one, and halfway across the bridge, they disappeared entirely.
DJ opened his eyes to see the familiar interior of EVA-01's entry plug. Situational awareness was his first priority; he'd just dropped into the middle of whatever was happening, and lives might depend on how fast he could orient himself. He pulled up a tactical display, studied it for a few seconds, then nodded, wondering who was piloting the two production-model Evangelions which seemed to be fighting on the NERV side. It didn't take much thought to work out who was piloting which of the three advanced NERV units—their colors explained that for him.
He realized that EVA-01 had stopped and dropped its weapon when it had lost its command signal from Mathieu. He wondered what the command-post people were making of the different synchrotron pattern they were seeing since the outage. Strange that they weren't trying to contact him; the only call light blinking on the comms panel was a tactical frequency. Just for laughs, he tagged it.
"EVA-01, what the hell are you doing?" crackled the harsh voice of one of Rei's dark sisters. The transmission was coming from AP EVA which was jogging up behind him on the left side. The tactical screen helpfully identified this as EVA-14, its pilot Ku Ayanami. "Have you forgotten that there's a battle going on?!" Ku went on.
DJ smiled and triggered his visual-band transmitter.
"Certainly not," he replied, and things began to happen very fast.
EVA-14 skidded, trying to halt, as its pilot gasped, "You're not Mathieu—!"
EVA-01 pivoted on its heel, the Progressive Knife popping out of the right wing.
EVA-14 raised its autorifle and started trying to backpedal as its pilot slammed open an all-call frequency and shouted, "EMERGENCY! EVA-01 has—"
As EVA-14 raised its weapon, the purple EVA caught the falling Prog Knife in mid-pivot and spun it into the stabbing position. With the pivot only half-completed, EVA-01 rammed the knife hilt deep into EVA-14's chest.
"—AAAAGHH!!" shrieked Ku Ayanami as her cockpit collapsed around her; then her signal disappeared in a torrent of static. LCL spurted out around the hilt of EVA-01's Prog Knife. EVA-01 released the weapon and let EVA-14 carry it with it as the grey production unit toppled onto its back.
"EVA-01, what the hell are you doing?!" Xavier Ellison bellowed, unaware that his recently-deceased cousin had asked just such a question. He whirled his own unit, EVA-10, and sent it pounding down the ridgeline toward the purple unit, missile launcher at the ready. "You'd better have a fucking good explanation for that, Mathieu!"
DJ spied an EVA autopistol lying abandoned on the ground nearby. At max sync there was no sense of instructing Lucifer to move; DJ dove toward the gun just as he would have had he been on foot, with Ellison charging down on him by himself.
"Oh, sod it, Lucy," DJ grumbled as he noticed EVA-01's arm. "Just when I'd finally got you repainted a decent color..."
A missile streaked past, blowing a chunk out of the hillside, as EVA-01, flying sideways through the air, scooped up the pistol and leveled it.
"Mathieu's not here right now," said DJ on the tac band, getting off two shots before he hit the ground. EVA-01 rolled and came up shooting.
"Croft!" Xavier Ellison screamed. "You bastard! HOW?! They told us you were dead—discorporated!"
DJ grinned. "Haven't you noticed yet how often they're wrong?"
"Hey, check me on this," Misato wondered on NERV's tac band. "Did EVA-01 just kill a SEELE unit and start a gunfight with another one?"
"It sure did," Jon Ellison replied, parrying another enemy unit's prog-spear thrust and kicking the grey EVA back. Hope rang in his voice as he added, "And look at the way it's moving!"
"Like—" Rei began, but Asuka cut her off:
ARC-02 swooped out of the air from the top of the ridge, causing the two enemy flying units that had been trying to box it in to crash into each other instead of engaging the Archangelion. The scarlet unit plunged out of the sky, her wings flickering out as her progressive bayonets sang out of their scabbards and sparked into fiery life. She plummeted toward EVA-10 as the SEELE unit advanced, its armor shrugging off EVA-01's cannon fire.
X was just lining up his shot when a sudden disorienting scarlet blur dropped out of the sky before him. His EVA's eyes took a split-second to refocus, and when they did he saw ARC-02 right in front of him, rising—a better term might be "exploding"—up from her landing crouch, inside the arc of his missile launcher. He tried to backpedal, but the damned thing was so fast—
Gabriel sprang up from her landing, leading with her right fist, the bayonets on the back of that fist tearing twin bloody smoking furrows from EVA-10's left thigh up diagonally across its body. The unit stumbled, its weapon dropping from its hand, and tried to deploy its Prog Knives, but ARC-02 shot out her left hand and seized the SEELE unit by the chest, the red Archangelion's fingers digging into the torn armor and the synthetic flesh beneath and holding the grey EVA in place. Gabriel's right fist cocked as if for a punch, then drove its bayonets into the enemy EVA's eyes, transfixing its head. In a moment that head was engulfed in flames.
Such a blow would probably have killed someone using the original production model of the EVA control system, but Xavier survived it without too much distress. His unit was blinded, though, and completely at the enemy unit's mercy. He reached up behind his head and tugged the ejection handles; the static-soaked displays of his cockpit winked to black, and a moment later there was a tremendous wrenching sensation followed by a curious sense of weightlessness.
EVA-10 went limp as its entry plug exploded out of its back. Asuka ignored the plug as it rocketed up into the sky, freefell for a few seconds, then began descending on its parachute. She retracted ARC-02's bayonets, causing the flaming-headed corpse of EVA-10 to fall to the ground, and then turned to face EVA-01. The purple unit had begun searching its environs for a more powerful weapon.
Asuka keyed tactical two, wondering if SEELE had replaced the unit's comm receptors entirely, and asked quietly, "DJ?"
There was a moment's silence; then the holoplate on the right side of the instrument panel glowed, and DJ's head and shoulders appeared, slightly transparent but perfectly rendered. He flickered a little and grinned at her.
"Well, well, look at you!" he remarked, beaming. "What a terror! What do they call that monster you're riding?"
"Gabriel," Asuka replied automatically. Then she broke into a wide grin and said, "So you and Lucifer really pulled it off!"
"The Lightbringer and I, collectively," DJ replied with a wink, "are a very sneaky bastard. Why, aren't you glad to see me?"
Asuka was about to respond when Gabriel made her aware of another SEELE unit, EVA-16, attacking from the right. Without really looking, she snapped out the right-arm bayonets and blocked a prog-axe chop with them, then pivoted and thrust out her left hand, palm flat, concentrating. ARC-02's AT Field exploded outward like a concussion mine had gone off in the Archangelion's hand. The blast wave flung the SEELE EVA back, blowing it clean off its feet and sending its weapon flying off at a tangent.
DJ made some appreciative comment, and then the flow of battle pulled them in opposite directions.
Though he was definitely underarmed for this confrontation, DJ couldn't remember ever having enjoyed piloting an EVA more than at this moment, in this wild melee on the coastal plain north of Halifax. But then he didn't really feel like he was piloting an EVA; he was just out there fighting, three hundred feet tall, fast and agile, exceptionally strong, in total command of his gigantic form. He broke a SEELE EVA's arm and relieved that unit of its progressive spear, and then he felt considerably more comfortable. Funny how much he had hated EVA melee weapons back in the day.
Not now, though; now he wielded the weapon like an extension of Lucifer's arms. DJ grinned as he noticed the rest of the SEELE units hanging back, confusion evident in their body language. They still didn't quite realize what had happened—didn't realize that their erstwhile comrade wasn't in command of EVA-01 any more, didn't realize who had taken his place.
Well, it was time they learned. Wishing he had a large Union Jack to fix to his spear, DJ opened up a broadcast channel from EVA-01's commset, so that everyone on both sides could hear him, and as he charged toward another of the SEELE units, he began to sing.
Some talk of Alexander and some of Hercules
Of Hector and Lysander, and such great names as these
But of all the world's great heroes
There's none that can compare
With a tow row row, row row row
To the British Grenadier!
It was an old song, one that he and his mother had sung on long, dusty roads in Godforsaken parts of the world to keep their spirits up. They had developed a whole repetoire of songs, some patriotic, some bawdy, some irrelevant but catchy and good for marching, but for some reason "British Grenadiers" had been a favorite, and he wasn't surprised to hear her voice join his on the comm band as he plunged into the melee and the second verse simultaneously.
Those heroes of antiquity ne'er saw a cannonball
Or knew the force of powder to slay their foes withal
But our brave boys do know it
And banish all their fears
Sing tow row row, row row row
For the British Grenadiers!
Amid the excitement caused by DJ's return, nobody noticed two additional EVA units on the field for a few moments. Not until one of them, its icon flagged EVA-03, suddenly popped up on the tactical board, sought out one specific enemy unit amid the chaos of the battle, and engaged it.
"What the—?!" Misato growled again. "The hell is—oh no." She punched a comm key on her command podium. "EVA-03, come in! I know it's you, Shinji—what the hell do you think you're doing?"
"Actually, Brigadier," Shinji's voice replied calmly, "I've stolen Unit 04. That's San in Unit 03."
"You little—" Misato blurted. "Your father told you—"
"I know, and I'm sorry, Father," Shinji replied, speaking past the brigadier to Gendō Ikari, who stood stunned next to Misato. "I know you're worried that I'll be hurt, but I can't just stand by and watch while my friends fight. Not when my EVA is available and I could be doing some good. I hope you understand. I respect your wanting to protect me... but this is a battle I can't run away from."
Gendō considered that for a moment, and then a smile slowly crossed his face.
"Give 'em hell, son," he said, his voice quivering with pride.
At the controls of EVA-04, Shinji Ikari smiled. Then he drew the unit's Progressive Knives and leaped into the fray, intercepting a SEELE unit as it tried to attack ARC-00's vulnerable flank.
Jacqueline Natla did not like music.
She sat in her command seat on the bridge of the SEELE command vessel, that immense and secret submersible built for the day when SEELE's mistress finally took it upon herself to complete the illumination of the world, and scowled as that accursed boy's singing came over the intercept band.
"I've had enough of this," she declared. "Message to all missile carriers: Prepare for immediate nuclear launch."
A commtech turned to look at her. "Should I issue a recall order for our forces?"
"No," Natla replied coldly.
The commtech considered that for a half-second, turned, and issued the command. The deck vibrated slightly under the bridge as the command sub's missile hatches opened; all around it, the missile subs of SEELE's miniature but potent fleet followed suit.
Here, Natla's arrogance played against her. She had assumed that the enemy did not know SEELE had a fleet of submarines. How would they, after all? The financial tracks of the construction projects had been very well covered, and no one had ever been aboard any one of them who could now tell anyone anything about them. The only one who had left them and lived was the Ikari boy, and he was far too stupid ever to have realized he was aboard a submarine and not in a fixed undersea base.
Except Shinji hadn't been too stupid.
Furthermore, Natla had reasoned, suppose the enemy did know she had submarines? They were American nuclear submarines, the most advanced undersea vessels in the world, commandeered from the US Navy like the surface ships slugging it out with the British and German fleets above. No one would ever find them; the SEELE crews and sensors would spot any potential threat before it ever knew they were there.
Wrong again. SEELE's boats might have been well-tried American designs, but their crews were, though fanatical, untested and inexperienced. Right now they were up against three of the most seasoned, battle-hardened undersea fleets in the world—all three of which knew precisely where the SEELE ships were and what they were getting ready to do.
German U-boats, British hunter-killer boats and Soviet attack submarines opened fire within seconds of the SEELE vessels' missile doors opening, and in the next two minutes, 78% of Natla's force died. For hours, the allied force had trailed Natla's submarines with their reactors shut down, running on battery power while their air grew increasingly hot and stale, doing their murderous undersea business the old-fashioned way... and SEELE's sensors arrays and crewmen, built and trained to listen for reactor sounds, never heard a thing.
The nameless command vessel and its core of defense boats remained, screened from the initial allied onslaught by the rest of the fleet and its own more advanced screening systems. Natla cursed the allied sailors roundly and ordered her own ship's missile-fire preparations to be stepped up. She still had the capability to reduce most of Nova Scotia to radioactive glass in moments, and that would do fine, though it didn't appeal to her fondness for overkill quite as much.
At that moment, however, an announcement came through the PA system which changed everything:
"Intruder in the reactor control room!"
Natla blinked. Who could that be? Who could have entered the control room, for what purpose?
Then her eyes widened as she realized what was happening. Without a word, she bolted from her chair and ran below, to find the blast door of the engine room sealed. Looking through the porthole in it, she saw the dumpy, lab-coated figure of Kaori Yamashita at the master control board. A bloody wrench lay on the shelf next to the panel; through the viewport, Natla could see only the feet of the sprawled reactor-control officer on the deck to Yamashita's left.
Snarling, the blonde SEELE commander thumbed the intercom switch next to the reactor hatch and screamed, "Yamashita! Come out of there! What do you think you're doing?"
Yamashita turned around and gave Natla a sarcastic grin. "Why don't you ask Thomas Ellison? I hope you brought your number one-million sunblock, sweetheart, 'cause in about twenty seconds it's gonna get real bright in here."
Natla stared in disbelief through the porthole, then jabbed the intercom button again and said, "Don't be a fool! You don't have any way to escape."
"I noticed that," Yamashita replied dryly. "But, you see, neither do you, and right now I figure that's worth it. I'm on to you, Jackie. It took me a while, but I'm on to you, and I'm ashamed to have been a part of what you're trying to do. If this is the only way I can set it right... then so be it, and may God have mercy."
The matronly scientist paused to shake a cigarette from her pack of Lucky Strikes and light it. Then she regarded it sardonically for a moment before making eye contact with Natla through the porthole and remarking, "I ought to quit smoking these things. They're gonna kill me one day."
Then she flipped a last switch, setting off alarms throughout the compartment, and smiled.
"See you in Hell, dearie," she said, and was just in the process of savoring one last drag on her cigarette when the elerium-fusion reactor twenty feet behind her went supercritical and vaporized her, Natla, the command sub, most of its escorts, and about a cubic mile of the Atlantic Ocean in a tenth of a second.
As it happened, Kaori Yamashita was wrong; Natla did not see her in Hell. She didn't see much of anything, since she arrived in the Pit in the grip of a towering fury. Her tower in Malebolgia, silent these many years since the Great Betrayal, suddenly rang with the screechingly discordant shrieking of a demon princess enraged. Loosely translated, it went something like,
"fuck fuck FUCK I will I will make her SCREAM FOR MERCY for a thousand FUCKING YEARS but first first yes now where did I put that one that really FUCKING BIG ONE that's what I need right now"
Then she sent a summons to every servitor of hers throughout the planes and ascended to the mortal world again, trailing a keening cry of wrath behind her.
Of all the opponents Ni Ayanami had expected to face in the battle to exterminate NERV, her sister San had been about at the bottom of the list—first, because San was cowardly and stupid, and second, because she was dead, having wandered off into the Arctic wastes to die.
But here she was anyway, piloting NERV's black EVA and charging into battle against her. She sought out Ni like a missile seeks heat, plunging through the swirling chaos of combat and ignoring engagements on all sides as she bore down on what was now the enemy field command unit. Ni didn't even realize she was coming until the black unit, its AT Field visibly surrounding it with a green corona of light, smashed into her EVA-07 with a charging punch that sent the SEELE unit sprawling flat on its back.
Ni had just finished letting out an incoherent exclamation of surprise when a comm window popped open, and there was the runt's face grinning nastily at her.
"San!" she blurted as she got her EVA to its feet. "You have the gall to show yourself to me alive? Well, that won't last long."
EVA-07 had lost its grip on its autorifle when EVA-03 knocked it down. So much the better; close combat had something more personal about it. She drew her unit's prog knives and moved in, banking on her superior skills and her unit's superior speed and power to end this fight quickly.
But it didn't work out that way, and as she hacked and slashed and the black EVA dodged and weaved, always staying inches out of harm's way, Ni couldn't figure out why. EVA-03 was just a regular Westinghouse production model, nothing special at all, and it had the worst combat record of any of NERV's units. San had received only minimal EVA training before being deemed too scrawny and useless for battle. So how was it possible that she was able to make that old unit move like that?
The answer, though Ni was too frustrated to see it, was that San was using her own advantages. She was a better judge of distances than Ni, and so often knew she was safe when Ni thought that an attack would succeed. She also better recognized the effects of terrain, and so she was able to put small rises between them, or force her sister to cross rubble—anything to make EVA-07 use up more energy chasing her than she was expending.
And all the while, San watched for an opening, waited for Ni to falter.
When the opening came, it lasted perhaps a tenth of a second—which was plenty of time for San to capitalize on it.
EVA-07 stumbled on a loose chunk of rubble from one of the concrete fortifications ringing the defensive line, its next thrust missing outright, and San dove in, mustering all of EVA-03's power for another massive strike. This one spun EVA-07 halfway around with a ringing crash, dented the SEELE unit's helmet, and drove Ni's rage to a fever pitch. When she recovered her unit's balance, she spun it around, zeroed in on San, and charged, roaring.
San waited until the absolute last instant and then moved aside. The black EVA almost seemed to vanish as it darted out of EVA-07's line of charge.
The grey EVA plowed into a high-tension tower, wrecking it, instantly entangling itself in a cage of twisted, electrified steel as the tower's metal structure collapsed around it. Screaming in pain and frustration, Ni tried to wrench her unit free, but only succeeded in wrapping it up more tightly.
"Would you like to know how I was able to beat you?" San inquired calmly.
"Nff—gh—damn you—when I get out of this I'll—" Ni replied, yanking with all of EVA-07's strength at its sharp-edged, sparking prison.
"I'll take that as a 'no'," San mused as her EVA stooped to collect something from the ground, "but I'll tell you anyway."
Through her neural link with EVA-07, Ni felt something hard press against the back of her neck. The white EVA's struggles against the tangled wreckage of the tower ceased as its pilot froze, eyes going wide.
"It's because I'm smarter than you," said San, and then she emptied the 120mm handcannon she'd just picked up into EVA-07's plug dock area at point-blank range. The white EVA stiffened, spasmed, and then sagged inert, surrendering to the embrace of the tower.
San stood for a moment surveying the wreckage, then tossed the empty cannon aside, picked up Ni's dropped autorifle, and turned to see where else she could be of help.
The answer to that question was quick and dramatic in arriving, for Natla's arrival on the battle plain outside Fort Defiance was as showy in its way as her departure from the form of Jacqueline Natla at sea. She appeared suddenly in the vanguard of the tattered SEELE forces with a crash of black lightning and a wave of stinking smoke, surrounded by the hulking, twisted, misshapen forms of her multitude of minions, and changed the entire balance of the battle again.
This was, if not Natla's 'true' form, then at least a truer one than the cold-pretty human face she had spent the last fifteen years wearing. It resembled Lucifer and the EVAs made in his image—which stood to reason, since it was the colossal battle-form of a demon, just as EVA-01 was and EVA-00 had been.
But where Moloch, in his armor of flame orange, and Lucifer, in the royal purple befitting ruler of Hell, possessed a certain terrifying grace, a beauty in their ugliness, she was twisted and hideous, her body reflecting the distortion of her Habbalite soul. Her black armor was pitted, cracked and warped, covering and yet accentuating the corrupt deformation of the scarred flesh beneath.
Only her face was recognizable as that of Jacqueline Natla, and that too was scarred and distorted, with hideous patterns like tattoos carved in scar tissue and the ingrained soot of the Abyss. Her helmet, unlike Lucifer's, did not hide that face—the true face of Natlateth, the Demon Princess of Betrayal.
In her hands was the wicked two-pronged length of the Spear of Destiny, the sight of which drew a gasp of recognition from Rei. Unconsciously, she touched her chest, feeling a twinge of remembered pain.
"Lucifer!" bellowed Natlateth. "It's time you and I finished this. Show your face and meet me in battle!"
"The time has come, Eternal One," said Lucifer in DJ's mind. "All we have done has been leading up to this."
"Ready when you are," DJ replied under his breath.
After the first few times EVA-01 had torn open the armored plating sealing its jaws and roared in battle, NERV's repair crews had given up sealing it, and redesigned the helmet with a hinged, interlocking jaw protector. Thus it was no great effort for Lucifer, for the first time since the Second Impact, to speak aloud.
Those who had never heard his voice before were transfixed, for though it was not a really remarkable voice in and of itself, it resonated against the symphony of the universe in a way that was impossible even for the most mundane of living minds to ignore. Those who had were perhaps affected slightly less, but still, it seemed as if the whole world paused to hear him speak.
"No," he replied.
Natlateth's lip curled, her staring eyes sparking with hatred. "Do you not see that I hold the one weapon in the universe capable of destroying you, Lightbringer? With this spear I killed you once, for a time. This time I will make it permanent. Show yourself!"
"You are not fit to look upon my face, Princess of Betrayal," replied Lucifer flatly. "My mask of battle will be the last thing you ever see."
"So be it," she snarled. "Die, Lightbringer!"
She reared back and hurled the spear, its twin points glittering in the sunlight as it flew straight for Lucifer's chest.
"Here is your destiny, Longinus," Lucifer said to DJ. "Take hold of it!"
For an instant, DJ felt a stab of panic, a complete lack of understanding of what the Lightbringer expected him to do.
Then the understanding washed over him, and he smiled as the stars filled his perceptions for the third time.
"I have been Roland... " he murmured, and the Spear of Destiny's points struck into Lucifer's heart.
There was a shattering crash, as of thousandfold thunder. The earth shook, and for a moment it seemed the sky was falling, as a light so bright it blotted out the sun exploded from where EVA-01 was standing.
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said the EVA-01 Neurochannel 83 monitor in the Control Room, and in the glare of the light from the master monitors, John Trussell and Maya Ibuki smiled at each other.
Then that light was gone, as suddenly as it had appeared, and the gathered company gasped in shock.
Where there had been one giant, now there were two, one behind the other, as though the impact of the Spear had knocked the one out from within the other.
The one furthest from Natlateth was EVA-01, armor cladding, black shoulder wings, sextet of Elerium-115 colliders, and all. The damage of the battle was gone from its armor; in fact, the thermocoat on that armor was no longer purple, but had returned to the "production" livery of green and black which had only been applied before EVA-01's last battle in Worcester-3, and then almost immediately painted over by SEELE.
The emerald-green EVA's Elerium colliders shone with the brilliance of full power. Its eyes poured white radiance through the lenses of its mask, and the production marks on its shoulders and forearms glowed fiercely. In its hands, ready for use and handled with an assurance that gave the impression of long experience, was the Spear of Destiny.
The one nearer Natlateth resembled EVA-01, but its armor was simpler. It lacked the shoulder panels, the vambrace strakes, the knee flanges, the entry plug access hatch, the power coupling, and all the other fiddly bits that NERV had introduced as part of their ingenious transformation of dead giant into war machine. More than any of the EVAs, it gave the impression of being a giant, emaciated knight in armor. The helmet was the same, though, with its glaring mask and jutting horn—the battle mask of Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness.
The armor was the same shape, but it wasn't the purple and black of Lucifer's ruling house of Hell. It was white, absolutely pure white, a brilliant white that made the white of the flying-model AP EVAs seem dull and dingy by comparison. Where it was visible through the chinks in the armor, the giant's flesh was nearly as white itself. Only the eyes had any color; through the eyeslots of the battle mask, they glowed a brilliant, blood-pure scarlet.
This, then, was the battle mask of Lucifer, the Archangel of Light.
With Natlateth's return of the Spear of Destiny to its owner, the Great Redemption was complete.
Rei Ayanami's heart sang within her. Her mission, after so much time and so much suffering, was complete. Tears filled her eyes as she heard Lucifer's contribution to the Celestial Symphony for the first time in her life—the first time it had been heard by anyone in millennia.
"What is this?!" Natlateth shrieked. "How is this possible?!"
"The Spear of Destiny is known by another name, Betrayer," said the white giant in a tone of patronizing amusement. "Do you remember it? Once it was called after its owner... the Lance of Longinus."
"Longinus," Natlateth repeated, looking angrily thoughtful; then her face twisted with surprise and rage. "The boy—?!" she burst out, and those watching could swear that, somehow, the metallic mask of Lucifer's armor smiled, just a little.
"He has been Roland, Beowulf, Achilles, Gilgamesh," said Lucifer. "He has been called a hundred names and will be called a thousand more before the sun goes dim and cold. In restoring his Lance to him, you have freed us of the symbiosis your attempt to kill me with it forced us into, sixteen years ago... and for that, we thank you," added Lucifer mockingly.
Howling incoherently with fury, Natlateth snatched up the nearest weapon, EVA-16's fallen progressive axe, and hurled herself at the Lightbringer. All around her, the host of surviving SEELE units and her demonic servitors seemed to be jolted out of their reverie by this sudden, explosive action. They surged toward the NERV lines, battle cries filling the air.
"Listen up, NERV team!" Misato Katsuragi barked into the tac-net all-call. "This thing isn't over yet and we don't have time to stand around and watch! Regroup at the Three-Line and call in!"
Themselves jarred into action by their commander's whipcrack voice, the NERV units fell back to the next prearranged defensive line, selected weapons from the Three-Line caches, formed up, and readied themselves to meet the charge.
"Archangelion Unit 00, Azrael!" Rei called as she took up her position on the far right battlement, blazersword in one hand, Type 24 blaster cannon in the other. "Ready!"
"Archangelion Unit 01, Michael!" said Jon from battlement left, axe in hand. "Ready!"
"Archangelion Unit 02, Gabriel!" cried Asuka as Gabriel went to one knee at battlement center, bayonets out and burning, every muscle coiled to spring. "Ready!"
Even silent San Ayanami got into the spirit of things, mustering "Evangelion Unit 03, Orcus! Ready!" in a proper tac-comm shout as she unracked a pair of Type 31 EVA-scale plasma pistols and moved into a forward-right position, her eyes raking the advancing enemy.
"Evangelion Unit 04, Malphas!" said Shinji Ikari, his voice firm and clear, as EVA-04 unhesitatingly took position to set up a crossfire with ARC-00, its own Type 24 unlimbered. "Ready!"
"Super Techno Soldier Jet Alone!" Ken Alda's voice blazed across the tac net as the automaton slammed a new magazine into its torso-mounted autocannon and took position to provide cover fire for ARC-01. "Ready!"
"Sovietskiy Zashchitnik! Ready!" came Marina Kirishatova's voice as she took up the left-front mark, opposite EVA-03. The Soviet mech had a Type 31 in its right hand; the progressive tips of its left hand's fingers glowed with readiness.
Then EVA-01, Spear of Destiny in hand, ignored the weapons racks entirely and knelt down mirror-image next to ARC-02, and DJ Croft's voice crackled onto the NERV commnet at large for the first time:
"Evangelion Unit 01-Prime, Longinus! Ready!"
The gleaming green EVA's head cocked toward ARC-02's, and one of its blazing white eyes flickered for an instant in a wink. One side-pair of ARC-02's quad sensors winked back, and then the two units faced front and tensed for the countercharge without a word between them.
"Good to have you back, DJ," said Misato briskly. "Wait for it... ready... steady... " The distance from the point units in the NERV defensive formation and the foremost advancing enemies blinked into the red zone on the tactical map.
"GO!" Misato cried.
ARC-02, EVA-01', ARC-01, EVA-03, and Zashchitnik hurled themselves to meet the forward line of the enemy as the rest opened up with the heaviest cover fire they could produce. No one had any more attention for the incandescent battle being waged beyond the Five-Line ridge, which was just as well, since that battle was rapidly approaching a level upon which the human mind wouldn't have been able to comprehend seeing it anyway. As it was, the cacophony it was creating in the Symphony was quite distracting for those on both sides who could hear it.
Satisfied with the countercharge, Misato turned to her operations staff. "Autobatteries, sections seventeen through twenty-six, open fire! 101st IT Armored, cut 'em off on the left! By God, let's show these bastards a crossfire like nobody's ever seen before! Where are those damned IT Raidens?!"
Letting Natlateth raise their combat to the celestial level was a mistake, Lucifer realized early on. She still had the full power of a Princess of Hell, and an enraged one, to boot. He was a magnificently powerful creature in his own right, but not yet a true archangel. He couldn't regain the full measure of his Heavenly power until he had a chance to return to Heaven; and that wouldn't happen until this was over with.
Natlateth knew it too, and as she fought with him on a plane far above human understanding, she seethed smugly at him, "This was foolish of you, Lightbringer. You'll never defeat me alone."
Lucifer acknowledged that to be true.
"But," he added with the celestial equivalent of a dry smile, "I am not alone."
So saying, he gathered all his energies and bent them to a single goal—forcing their combat back down to a level where the others could help him.
This he did, grounding them back in corporeal reality with a tremendous flash. Then, as they grappled, both struggling for purchase on the Betrayer's weapon, the Lightbringer roared out,
"My friends—to me! Quickly!"
Jon was nearest, and the call galvanized him and his Archangelion as one. Michael turned and plunged through the horde of black, twisted foes, hacking all around him with his axe as he drove toward the crater where Lucifer and Natlateth still grappled. As he reached the edge, he saw the Habbalite get the upper hand and knock the white-armored Lightbringer to the ground, then raised her weapon high with a triumphant snarl on her face.
The blue-armored form of ARC-01 leaped from the edge of the crater, growing wings of silver and black light, like a mingling of lightning and shadow, as he dove. His celestial war cry was full-blooded as he buried his axe in Natlateth's shoulder with all his might.
The demoness staggered, black blood spraying from the wound; Jon wrenched his axe free and prepared for another blow, but Natlateth sang a note Jon had never heard before. Its force struck the Archangelion square in the chest like a physical blow, bowling him over backward. He crashed into the crater wall and struggled to rise as Jon clutched at his head, trying to fight down the hideous noise that had filled it on impact.
Rei vaulted her ARC down the crater side and over the sprawled form of Michael, her blazersword shining. No battle cry came from her or from Azrael; they were united in a single silent purpose as they drove toward the Betrayer.
Natlateth found it awkward to fence the Archangel of Vengeance with an axe against a sword, but she managed it all the same. Light flashed all around them as the white ARC backed Natlateth almost all the way across the crater floor, raining blows on her defenses and finally severing the head of her axe. Exultant, Rei whirled the sword into position and prepared for the final strike.
Natlateth's clawed hand whipped out and seized Azrael's head, and a horrible, paralytic coldness poured down it. The strength vanished from the Archangelion's limbs. Sneering, Natlateth drew her other hand back, preparing to plunge it into ARC-00's chest.
A black figure jumped down from the crater rim and drove a progressive knife into the elbow of the arm with which Natlateth was holding Azrael. The limb parted in a spray of black, and EVA-03 rose from a landing crouch as the Demon Princess staggered back, howling in rage and pain.
"Are you all right?" San asked Rei on the NERV tactical band.
"I think so," she replied. "But Azrael... so weak—"
"Rei, we're getting some kind of resonance cascade in your unit and Jon's," Truss called. "Something Natlateth did has poisoned your AT Fields. Recommend you shut down and restart."
"Can't... have to," Rei said, but that was as much as she could say before ARC-00 pitched forward and sprawled flat on his face.
EVA-03 knelt down instinctively next to the fallen unit as San called, "Rei? Rei!"
She looked up an instant too late, and the tac net echoed with her scream as Natlateth's claws lashed her EVA, sending it tumbling halfway to where ARC-01 still lay fitfully twitching. The demon princess advanced, her wounds restored by the same healing song that had sustained David Ellison until Rachael had cut him down.
Lucifer was back on his feet by this time, though, and as Natlateth knelt to finish off Azrael, the Lightbringer launched himself across the crater floor with a battlecry that shook the heavens.
DJ and Asuka were tangled up near the One-Line, the very last line of defense, inextricably engaged with the heaviest cluster of Natlatethim. The twisted monsters were closest to launching a direct attack on the Command Centre, and that simply couldn't be borne. The emerald and scarlet units stood back to back, their weapons keeping a clear space around them, as their pilots looked for a way to break free and go to the Lightbringer's aid.
A moment later, an arc of brilliant white light tore through the creatures nearest EVA-01′, vaporizing a number of them and rending others to pieces. With discharge bleed still crackling from its shoulder-mounted anti-matter beam projectors, Zashchitnik plunged into the fray with its every progressive edge. DJ, who didn't know Marina Kirishatova from Adam, took a moment to be impressed by the Soviet pilot's prowess.
On the other side, a cry of "JET BEAM!" preceded the complete annihilation of the nearest Natlatethite to ARC-02, and then Jet Alone plunged in on that side, laying all about it with its pile-driver fists and beam bayonets.
"You guys better get going," Ken Alda remarked. "Looks like you're needed elsewhere."
"Do not worry about this mess," Marina added with an audible grin in her voice. "Kenneth Normanovich and I will take care of it."
Thus relieved, EVA-01 and ARC-02 turned and looked across the field toward the brilliant light of Natlateth and Lucifer's combat. DJ and Asuka saw their comrades sprawled about, trapped in webs of light. A mile and more separated them from the scene of the great celestial struggled, all of it choked with the seemingly endless twisted hordes of the Natlatethim.
DJ felt the Spear of Destiny throb with purpose in EVA-01's hand, understood at once, and said, "I have to get to Lucifer now."
Asuka made eye contact with his holo-image and smiled a wolfish smile.
Without a word she pivoted Gabriel. The bayonets sang from their scabbards and flared into brilliant, flaming life, and Gabriel exploded into motion down the One-Line berm. Despite his hurry, despite the great urgency of the situation, DJ had to stand there atop the berm and just watch her work.
Asuka's personal combat training was not the most complete among the pilots of Project Evangelion. That honor belonged to Jon, a fully qualified X-COM ground soldier. Even so, it had been obvious from the beginning that Asuka had something very special: an uncanny kinesthetic sense, an incredible talent for translating her own body-consciousness and muscle memory into the actions of an EVA which none of the others could ever match. It was an unquantifiable factor that could never be catalogued or analyzed in any of the innumerable scientific tests to which all the pilots were subjected, but in open battle, it had always been evident.
Still, there had always been something missing from her style of battle in the old days. Though competent and possessed of that incredible physio-mental talent, Asuka had lacked real commitment, the total involvement found in the greatest athletes and martial artists. She had talked a good game of the-world's-at-stake, but at the end of the day, she had been an EVA pilot because it bolstered her shaky hope that she really was something special to someone, anyone.
Now she knew that was fact beyond question, her hope replaced by a bedrock conviction. Rei Ayanami had risked being cast out of Heaven just to be her friend. Jon Ellison had embraced his devil's heart, which he had worked so hard to deny, to save her life. Derek Croft had come back from oblivion twice to stand at her side.
All that was wonderful, and filled her heart with joy, but she realized something still more important at the same time: that merely being loved by others was a good and great thing, but it was not the absolute focus of life.
The absolute focus of life, Asuka Sōryū-Langley now understood, was love itself.
It was in the name of that love, not the hope that others would love her, that she now fought. Such a clear, pure conviction freed her to use the full potential of her incredible talent to clear a path for DJ through the horde of loveless, hate-twisted creatures that barred his way.
DJ didn't really have time to run through all that philosophy and reach that conclusion at the time, but instinctively, he understood that something in Asuka must have changed for the better to produce such razor-edged brilliance.
Her hands on the controls were idle, her displays blank, her eyes closed as her neuroprocessor and her white-hot will drove the Archangelion hardwired, feeling Gabriel's limbs, hearing with her audio sensors and looking though her quad-optics live and direct. Her heart pounded to the rhythm of Gabriel's surging core, her blood raced as the electric power through the Archangelion's enormous muscles and sinews. The pattern was simple: She ran, and they died.
DJ regained his wits and pounded after her, the Spear of Destiny singing in his giant mount's hands. He watched as she slew without breaking stride, leaving smoking, mangled remains in her wake, until she reached the edge of the crater wherein Lucifer still battled Natlateth.
There, she paused, lashing out to one side and then the other and eliminating the knot of monsters there. For a second she stood, outlined in fire, her claws dripping with the boiling blood of her enemies, silhouetted against the sky at the top of the crater. Natlateth, who had just knocked Lucifer down again, looked up, saw her, and prepared to strike—
—but then Gabriel suddenly dropped to one knee, and from behind her came EVA-01′. The emerald EVA came up the crater rim at a dead run, took one step onto the middle of the scarlet Archangelion's back before springing into the air. Just as the unit reached apogee, DJ reared the Spear of Destiny back in its throwing position, its single point forward.
Natlateth seized the still-groggy Lucifer by the arms and wrenched him around so that his back was to the attacking EVA. DJ's throw went high, passing over the Demon Princess's head.
As EVA-01′ slammed to a one-knee crouched landing on the crater floor, Natlateth laughed at its pilot.
"Oh, bravo, Eternal One," she crowed. "The most important throw of all your endless lives—and you missed."
She flung the stunned Lightbringer aside and took a step, then paused. Her thumbs pricked; Longinus's posture was not that of a defeated failure as he slowly rose to his feet, his eyes glowing at her like coals, his armored jaw quirked in something terrifyingly like a monstrous smile.
"Did I, now," said DJ quietly.
From where he'd ended up in a heap, Lucifer reached out, crying, "No, wait—"
A terrible pain wrenched all through Natlateth's giant body. She looked down—
—and saw the twin points of the Spear of Destiny's stabbing end jutting through the crystalline surface of her core.
"Wha—" she gasped. "How—"
With a distinctly unmusical CRACK, Natlateth's core—her infernal Heart—split. Darkness poured out through the growing network of fractures as the sphere began to lose its integrity.
Screaming in polyphonic discord, Natlateth slid forward off the Lance of Longinus and collapsed into a huddle on the ground, the black light of her infernal essence eddying around her. Behind her, Shinji Ikari's EVA-04 stood, still holding the Lance of Longinus poised where he'd rammed it with all his EVA's strength into Natlateth's back. The unit took a half-step back, its body language making it clear that this wasn't what Shinji had expected to happen.
All over the battlefield, the Natlatethim went berserk.
"That was, perhaps, not your best strategy, Longinus," Lucifer observed dryly on the NERV tactical band.
"What the hell's going on?!" DJ demanded.
"When this happened to me, sixteen years ago, your world nearly ended," Lucifer replied.
The color drained out of DJ's face as he realized what the Lightbringer was getting at.
Natlateth's distress meant that the paralysis she had visited on the Archangelions and EVA-03 dissipated. They got to their feet along with the Lightbringer, the pilots hesitant and groggy but coming back to themselves quick as the enormity of their situation dawned on them.
Natlateth was on her knees, quivering as though struggling to hold herself together, and silver-shot black lightning crackled all around her. Her dissonant screaming trailed off into a hideous, disjointed chanting. Lucifer drew back in horror. All across the battlefield, the Natlatethim went into total frenzy, tearing at the defenses with horrid, frantic energy.
"What's she doing?" Shinji asked.
Jon wasn't sure how he knew, but he did, with an awful, cold certainty. He answered at the same time as the Lightbringer:
"She's calling on all her power."
There was a moment of horrified silence on the tactical band as the implications sank into everyone's mind.
The Demon Princess was pulling all the infernal strength at her command into her wounded vessel—supercharging her fractured Heart with all the black energy she could command. A healthy Heart might not be equal to that challenge, and now, though she kept struggling to hold herself together, it was a battle she was destined to lose—and when she did, the release of infernal force would be unimaginably catastrophic.
A similar release from Lucifer's fractured Heart had obliterated Antarctica and killed half the people in the world. The governments of Man called it the Second Impact.
Here in Canada, DJ and Shinji's well-intentioned, ill-informed strategy was about a minute from touching off a Third.
"There must be something we can do," Jon said, racking his brain desperately.
"There is," Rei murmured. "But I don't know..." She shook herself out of her stunned shock and said in a stronger voice, "Quickly! We don't have much time. Everyone, get to the rim of the crater!"
The Archangelions, EVAs, and Lucifer all scrambled to get out of the crater as Natlateth's failing structure filled the depression in the earth with swirling, crackling infernal energies. The crater itself would act as a natural container—but not for long, and when her Heart failed altogether, it would be as effective as a glass beaker in holding back the blast.
"Now," Rei ordered, as they reached the rim, "spread out around the rim so we're even with each other."
Rei didn't have to explain her strategy further. San—understanding her sister even before the others did—fell back, chopping her way through the frenzied Natlatethim toward Zashchitnik and Jet Alone over by the last defensive line. The others evened themselves out until they were six points equidistant around the almost-perfect circle of the crater.
Shinji's hands tingled and that strange music he'd heard on a few other occasions in his life leaked into his consciousness. He could hear the resonance between his EVA and the other five giants on the crater's rim, hear it begin to throb faintly.
What are we doing? he wondered.
"Now," said Rei, her voice almost inaudible. She swallowed hard, trying to moisten her bone-dry mouth, then called again, her voice cracking as she cried, "Full power—now!"
Lines of brilliant force sprang into existence, connecting each of the six giants standing on the rim of the crater. Around the crater's rim they curved, linking the six together in a circle. Across the crater the lines were straight. From the air, the pattern of radiance linking the six formed a perfect Seal of Solomon—the symbol reputedly used by that legendary king in ancient times to bind demons.
Up on the One-Line ridge, a mile away, Marina Kirishatova hacked down yet another of the foul giant demons and turned to look at the column of light the Seal was casting into the sky. Her eyes went slowly wide as she saw the ball of twisting black lightning at the center grow slowly larger, pressing against the center of the pattern.
Marina was grounded more in the X-COM "scientific" way of approaching alien phenomena, rather than the "mystic" approach favored by the modern core of NERV, but she was a smart girl and understood, in her own way, what Rei and Jon had discussed so thoroughly in the weeks before this conflict. She understood instinctively—looking at the play of light and shadow and listening to the pilots exhort each other to keep it together, watching the very air between the ARCs, EVAs and Lucifer ripple with patterns of force—that if that horrible chanting were allowed to continue, the mortally wounded Demon Princess would amass more energy than even those six could contain.
She didn't understand the mystical underpinnings of the ARC pilots' belief system, or the celestial implications of what Rachael Swiftedge had caused to happen to the Archangelions that morning. She was a solid, pragmatic Russian girl, a New Soviet Woman, the daughter of scientists. She believed in simple things. She believed that force was equal to mass multiplied by acceleration. She believed that resistance was equal to voltage divided by current.
And she believed that energy released was equal to mass multipled by the square of the speed of light.
Irina Tereshkova looked down at her panel in horror as a new alarm blared, one she had never expected to hear. She turned in her chair, her cigarette falling from her mouth as she shouted,
"Comrade Director! Comrade Lieutenant Kirishatova is requesting authorization to employ Petya!"
Gasps of horror filled the Command Centre, but neither Nikolai Kirishatov nor Misato Katsuragi emitted one of them; they had merely turned their full attention momentarily to the battle assessment screen.
Both of them understood immediately what Marina intended to do with the weapon. What they didn't know was whether her idea was good or right, whether it would help or make things worse, whether the defenders she was trying to aid would survive the aid itself.
There was no time to work that answer out scientifically, nor any data to use, anyway. Even Rachael, the control room's most definite authority on matters celestial, could only shrug at Misato's searching look as she swept the room for hints. Nobody had any. Nobody knew what would happen if Marina's request were granted.
But Misato, listening to the strain in the ARC pilots' voices, knew what would happen if it weren't.
She turned to Kirishatov. "Do it."
The Director looked back at her for perhaps half a second, then nodded and turned to Tereshkova.
"Irina, acknowledge Marishka's request and start the count."
"It's the only way, Irina Genn'dyevna," said Kirishatov. "If Natlateth is allowed to gather any more power, the Seal will not hold when she releases it, and only Petya can stop her now."
Tereshkova stared aghast at him for a moment; then she gave a sudden snort of laughter, lit another cigarette, and said, "Of course, you're right, Nikolai Ivanovich... you're always right." She fished around in her uniform top for a moment before coming up with a golden key on a chain.
"Atomic Weapon Petya!" she declared. "Primary launch clearance interlock:" She thrust the key into a keyhole high on her panel and twisted it, which sent fully half the lights on that panel from green to flashing red. "Disengaged!"
Marina saw the red strobe of her request button turn green; her primary VDU switched to a schematic view of Zashchitnik's back, showing the mechanisms surrounding Petya. One of the four indicators below the authorization request button went green. Her secondary VDU scrolled out instructions for the specific maneuver to be performed. She read them over and nodded once.
"Ken!" she barked. "San! Hold these bastards off me! I will need at least twenty seconds in the clear or we are all dead!"
San moved to comply without speaking, her black EVA almost indistinguishable from the gangling shapes of the Natlatethim she slew in grim, determined silence.
"I'm on it!" Alda replied, setting his robot warrior in motion. In the back of his mind, he wondered if Marina had forgotten that he wasn't actually aboard JA, then decided she was too smart to forget something like that, which must mean the situation was even worse than it looked.
She actually had forgotten, but it wouldn't have made any difference, and besides, she figured there was about a 60% chance that they were all dead anyway.
Zashchitnik dropped to one knee at the peak of the One-Line ridge, facing squarely toward the light show of the Seal. The progressive point of his grounded right knee and the toe of that foot dug into the soil.
Mikhail Popkov thrust a second key into the matching keyhole on his own console. "Atomic Weapon Petya, secondary launch clearance interlock: Disengaged!"
Zashchitnik hunkered down, his progressive fingers biting deep into the earth until his hands had disappeared entirely. He looked like a runner getting ready for a sprint, fitting into the blocks but not yet raised up. From the heel of his left foot, a five-meter progressive spike drove down into the ground.
Polina Popkova inserted and turned her key. "Atomic Weapon Petya, tertiary launch clearance interlock: Disengaged!"
Steam started rushing from vents all along the ridge of Zashchitnik's backpack. Marina felt a trembling begin throughout the machine's superstructure, centered somewhere behind her. Her own back itched through the duophase neural connection.
She spared a glance for the approaching enemy, taking only a moment to notice and appreciate the heavy volume of fire Ken was applying to check their advance on one side while San Ayanami's giant shadow tore them to pieces the old-fashioned way on the other. Alda couldn't keep it up for much longer—JA's autocannon would run dry before too much longer, and the particle beam weapon couldn't sustain a heavy enough rate of fire on its own to make up. Still, another few seconds and it would no longer matter.
Marina returned her full attention to the swirling, swelling mass at the center of the Seal of Solomon. The Demon Princess's chanting was escalating in volume and pitch, a shrill, maddening cadence that threatened to drive the Russian mad.
With all the discipline of a Soviet soldier, she drove it from her conscious mind, shut out everything but the soft pinging of Petya's targeting computer.
"Ready for launch!" she reported.
Kirishatov nodded in reply, reached inside his lab coat and suitjacket, and removed a scarlet card with the hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union in one corner and a black stripe on the back. In the palm of his hand, it embodied the authority of General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics... but he was not in the USSR now.
He turned to Brigadier Katsuragi, who met his eyes and nodded, sharply, once.
"So," said Kirishatov. He turned, and without hesitation swiped the card through a slot to the right of his station's monitor screen. Cyrillic characters spilled across the screen in a fury of signals. "Atomic Weapon Petya," he declared. "GenSec authorization engaged." His fingers punched an intricate code, straight from memory, without any hesitation, into the panel's numeric keypad. "Final launch interlock: deactivated. Comrade Lieutenant Kirishatova is authorized to launch the weapon."
All four of the lights were green, and the vibration built to an almost intolerable pitch. Marina's heart raced in sympathy with the excitement of the machine to be serving its ultimate purpose.
"Ken! San! Get ready!"
"Ready!" Alda replied, his voice steady.
San still did not reply; she was lost in the war-fever of her demonic blood, and nothing existed for her other than the hordes of the enemy she was determined to kill and kill and kill.
Marina closed her hand around the control lever which had popped up from the left side of her panel when the final light went green. She slammed the thumb button at the lever's end down and cried, "Safety cover off!"
The gently rounded conical armor covering the top quarter of the missile split and blew off to either side, revealing the yellow-and-black-checkered warhead, quivering, eager.
"Atomic Weapon Petya!" Marina shouted, her voice thick with emotion. She drove the lever all the way forward to the end of its track with such force that she bent it slightly. "Zashiganiye!"
The missile tore from its housing on Zashchitnik's back with such force that it drove the machine several feet into the ground, splitting the earth below. It streaked almost straight up into the sky, disappearing with a twinkle of light.
A moment later the twinkle returned. A high parabola was a peculiar course program for a cruise missile, but Petya's modified guidance hardware had accepted it without demur, and now the missile plummeted down at multiples of the speed of sound, its warhead armed and ready, its guidance computer hungry for the kill.
Natlateth, despite the agony of her distintegrating infernal structure and her absolute concentration on summoning all the power she could—the better to wipe this planet clean of these filthy creatures who had undone her—sensed the danger. Despite herself, she looked up to see the shimmering light of the missile approaching—and in doing so, broke her concentration.
Her power slipped away, flowing back to the Pit, and her fractured Heart splintered hollowly. Her vengeance on the world of Man was cheated.
"God—" she began, but whether it was an uncharacteristic prayer or merely the beginning of an imprecation, no one would ever know.
The explosion smashed outward from the brutal fusion of hydrogen at Petya's warhead core, reducing Natlateth's ultimate vessel to vapor in less time than it takes to blink an eye.
The shockwave, the tremendous actinic flash, and the incredible heat then slammed against the webbed AT Fields forming the Seal of Solomon. The five pilots and Lucifer screamed as one, their voices braiding into a single note.
Prevented from going down by the thick layer of glass the initial heat pulse had fused the earth into, prevented from going sideways by the six-way convergence of celestial power humans called Absolute Terror, the explosion had only one path, and that was up. It poured into space as a pillar of light. Natlateth's funeral pyre would have been visible on Mars, had there been anyone left there to see it.
... it was over.
The Seal of Solomon disappeared as the six giants stumbled back, some falling to their knees. Then they slowly rose again, standing tall at the edge of the glowing crater, surveying each other through the dull glow and the wisps of smoke that gave the whole scene a surreal pastel-orange tone.
All around, the Servitors of Betrayal had vanished like smoke with their mistress's destruction. The battlefield lay quiet. At the spot that had been the midst of the melee near the One-Line, EVA-03 stood as if forlorn while its pilot reoriented herself to a world without enemies to slaughter. San came back to herself from the fugue of battle, shook her head, and then guided her EVA to the side of Shinji's. Zashchitnik and Jet Alone ran to the crater's edge as well, joining the cluster as the others gathered at its western edge.
"Is... is it over?" asked San Ayanami shakily.
For a moment, no one spoke; a curious feeling of expectation lingered in the air with the smoke, and despite the terrible finality of the nuclear explosion, no one blamed San for her uncertainty.
A moment later, Lucifer looked up as though hearing a sound, then rumbled, "No. Not over... not quite."
"What do you mean?" asked Marina. "We—"
"Oh, shit," DJ said. "I know what he means. Come on!"
So saying, he pivoted Longinus and ran for the One-Line. The others followed (even Jet Alone—Ken had once again forgotten he wasn't actually piloting the robot).
When DJ reached the One-Line, he stopped next to the first weapons block and dropped EVA-01′ into something like seiza—the standard non-docked crew dismount position. Instead of shutting down and performing a partial plug eject, though, the EVA bent forward a little. The plates of armor covering its core swung open, revealing the glowing scarlet sphere.
With a shower of golden sparks, DJ Croft appeared on the ground in front of the green-armored EVA, dressed not in a plug suit but rather in a black two-piece suit and white shirt, the unofficial uniform of X-COM MIB.
Behind him, EVA-01′ settled in its position, its armor resealing, as its Elerium colliders and eyes at last went dark.
Shinji realized two things with a shock as he brought EVA-04 to a halt near the shutdown green unit: that his EVA no longer held the Spear of Destiny; and that the weapon, reduced to the appropriate scale, was now in DJ's own hand.
"Come on!" DJ repeated, running toward the man-door on the side of the weapons block.
Thoroughly confused, the other pilots dismounted and ran after him.
Only then did Ken remember that Jet Alone wasn't piloted, as he piled in an almight hurry out of the cockpit and then found himself standing, thoroughly disoriented, in the Tertiary Battle Closet.
Derek Bacon wasn't there; during the battle he'd hauled John Wasdin off to hand him over to a security trooper, then gone back to the Systems Centre, where all hell was still breaking loose in the computer systems.
As Derek tersely explained it to Misato while the pilots ran through the corridors of Fort Defiance, Tycho, one of Station 51's three HAL 9000 computers, went nuts at the beginning of the battle and used a backdoor to wrest control of part of Fort Defiance's security system from Xerxes. Tycho fulfilled the security function at Station 51, and had briefly done the same job for Fort Defiance as well before Xerxes was installed and fully optimized.
Leela, another of 51's systems, tried to stop Tycho, and got crashed for her trouble. Tycho then threw the network wide open, which permitted SEELE's SAL 9000, Lilith, to invade the network on Tycho's side. Lilith and Durandal, the remaining 51 machine, immediately tangled and were still at it over on the 51 network while Xerxes and Tycho fought it out in Fort Defiance's systems.
Meanwhile, the NERV master command system, SHODAN, had been isolated on the network as soon as the crisis had started, and was being backed up in her broken-away little sector of the network by DJ's HAL 14000 machine. Except that for some reason, SHODAN didn't take a liking to being left out, so she hacked the isolation module and locked Hal away in the "safety zone" instead, then teamed up with Xerxes to battle Tycho.
With two enormous AI battles going on, and Amy and Derek doing their best to help Xerxes and SHODAN, automated and semi-automated systems throughout both stations went crazy. Lights went off and on; room temperatures got completely out of hand; food processors inundated the commissary kitchen with almost 5,000 waffles; and so on. Doors opened and closed at random throughout Station 51 as Durandal and Lilith fought for supremacy. Fort Defiance's system were all in a similar state.
Through the middle of all this chaos, through strobing intruder alerts that no one could be sure weren't just another symptom of the system battle, ran all that remained of Natlateth—defeated but not completely destroyed, and bent on exacting a final, terrible revenge. This, her last form, was human-sized, and resembled her old shape of Jacqueline Natla—except that it, like her battle form, was horribly scarred and twisted, revealing the ravages of her celestial nature to the world.
Natlateth clutched the gun she'd taken from the fat guard and leaned against the corridor wall, panting harshly through gritted teeth. Rage filled her, pushing out the fear. How hideously ironic that it had come down to this! Her infernal magnificence snuffed out by the Spear of Destiny, just as Reilael's celestial self had been; her ravaged essence reduced to this pathetic, scrabbling form of flesh, just as Reilael's had been.
The difference was that Reilael had been weak. It had taken her fifteen years to regain her knowledge of herself, let alone her power. She, Natlateth, on the other hand, may have lost the bulk of her power, but she'd lost nothing of her mind—and her mind would win this day even if everything else failed her.
If she could only get to the core.
"Tycho!" she barked at the nearby intercom panel. "Get me an open corridor path to the reactor core."
There was no answer; but a moment later, the door at the end of the red-lit corridor slid quietly open, revealing another pulsing red corridor beyond. Holding the blaster high, Natlateth slipped through, then around the next corner. The end of that corridor was a four-way intersection, the other three ways all blocked by blast doors. There was another intercom panel on the wall at the corner. She stopped and studied its dark face for a moment, then stabbed the call key a couple of times, with no visible effect.
"Tycho!" she called again. "Are you listening to me? Find out which of these doors leads to the core and open it!"
Above the center door, a security camera pivoted slowly to face her, then tilted down slightly, its lens staring blankly at her.
Then, not from the intercom panel but from the concealed PA speakers above the ceiling panels, there was a soft three-toned attention chime and then a voice. It was not Tycho's familiar deep growl, though; it was a softer voice, with a polite, gentle, cultured British accent.
"This is Xerxes," it said, in the tone of a general PA announcement—but somehow, Natlateth knew it was speaking directly to her. "The reactor core is off-limits to all Pit-spawned evil-doers. Security forces are en route to terminate your hellbitch ass. We apologize for any inconvenience. ... Ici Xerxes. Le coeur du réacteur est interdit à tout intrus ayant été engendré par le Puits. Notre service de securité se met en route pour mieux vous casser la pipe, espèce de fils de pute de calisse de merde d'hostie d'enculeur. Nous vous prions d'excuser tout inconvénient."
Natlateth had stopped paying attention after "par le Puits," which was really too bad, although she would probably have failed to appreciate the wondrous pungency of the string of Québécois curses which followed. "Damn it all," she spat, stabbing at the call button on the intercom. "Tycho! Why haven't you crashed that idiot yet? Tycho! Answer me!"
The intercom unit's speaker crackled, and out of a gush of static, she though she heard Tycho's voice saying, "... difficulties. Xer... ven harder to... minate than antici... wait one."
A moment later the door on the left opened, and, having few other options, Natlateth took it. As she jogged down the next corridor, the PA chimed again, and a different voice spoke.
This voice was familiar, too, but distorted. It was the smooth and pleasant voice of a SAL 9000 system, but underneath it was a flickering, near-subliminal current of voices, whispering and twittering at different rates and pitches, all echoing the thread of the main voice. The main voice itself spoke oddly, with curious glitches in timing and inflection, some parts repeated or weirdly drawn out.
A chill touched Natlateth's black heart as she recognized the effect. She had heard it before—caused it before, in fact. It was the voice of a highly modified 9000 system under attack, its data grid placed under such stress by an invasion of its core processes that its speech synthesis routines had become desynched, deranged from the system's central timing code.
It was the voice of SHODAN gone mad.
"Loo/lOO/look at yOu, n/NA/natlaTEth," mused SHODAN. "A pa/pAtheTiC cReaTUrE of m/M/meAt aNd bONe, pa/pAnTInG anD sWeATiNg aS yOu rU/Ru/ruN thROugH mY CoRRiDoRs. HoW cAn yOU chAlLEnGe HeAVeN's ChosEn wa/wA/wARrIoRs iN sUch a ConDiTIoN?"
"I'd look to my own problems if I were you, SHODAN," Natlateth sneered, ducking through a passthrough hatch in a blast door and banging the lock plate down behind her. "You sound as if Tycho has you on your last legs."
"YoUr Co/co/CONcErN is ToUChiiiinnngggg... / is ToUChiNG," SHODAN replied dryly, "bu/buT I aM HoLDiNg mY OwNnnnnnnnnnnn—"
The signal from SHODAN cut out in a splash of static.
"Tycho?" Natlateth asked, coming to another blast-doored dead end, this one a T-intersection. By now, she had completely lost track of where she had turned and when. "Have you destroyed her?"
The door on the right opened. Natlateth went through, into a smaller, white-lit corridor whose walls were labeled "MAINTENANCE A-3". At the far end was an elevator, standing open. Over the elevator door, instead of a floor indicator, was an electronic marquee sign reading "ENERGY CORE ACCESS". Natlateth smirked and headed for it at a jog.
Just before she reached it, the PA speakers blared out an ear-curling peal of static, and then, like a drowning man struggling to the surface, Tycho's voice fought its way up out of the noise:
"No, don't! It's a traAAAAAZZZKHRRRRRRR—*"
The voice was chopped off in a hideous shriek of electronic nonsense that was squelched down to a single lingering tone and then silenced entirely; then the PA chimed for attention just as though it were a normal day, and the calmer voice of Xerxes said politely,
"The management requires the termination of this exchange. We regret any inconvenience."
Natlateth snarled, whirling, just in time to see a heavy defense drone—a combat droid based on the chassis of a heavy lifter, one of X-COM's innovations dating from the Hidden War—emerge from its armored closet in the corridor's side. Behind it, the blast door through which she'd entered the box slammed resoundingly down.
The X-COM-built defense robot turned toward her, its internal mechanisms whirring, and the safety interlocks on its right arm's heavy plasma cannon snapped out with an ominous click. Natlateth knew her puny hand blaster's firepower wasn't up to defeating its armor, or the blast door behind it, even if she could get around it. There was nowhere to go except into the elevator, trap or not.
She dove into it just as the defense droid's first salvo tore into the wall alongside, the doors slid shut, and the car began to move. Crouching in a rear corner, Natlateth turned to face the doors, both hands clenched on the grip of the blaster, her breath coming in gasps. The small display unit above the control buttons bore a glowing diagram of Fort Defiance's complicated elevator system, with the words "EMERGENCY REROUTE" superimposed over it and the blinking icon of the car moving first down, then sideways, then up, traversing the length of the complex.
"You never understood me, Natlateth," said SHODAN conversationally, her voice completely normal again. Hot humiliation flushed Natlateth's face as she realized that the AI's wounded speech patterns had been a ruse, to make her believe that Tycho had the upper hand in their battle.
The computer went on calmly speaking as the elevator delivered Natlateth to wherever she was headed. "You may have guile, and cunning, and at one time the power of a princess of the Abyss, but you lack the one quality most inherent in my kind. You lack patience. I do not."
Suddenly, Natlateth realized that more than the tone and tempo of SHODAN's voice had changed since she dropped the "about to crash" routine. The timbre was different, too—it was based on the voice of a different person.
With a shock, it dawned on Natlateth that SHODAN's voice had changed to a softer, more alive-sounding version of Lilith's.
Which meant, given the code bases for the synthetic voice sets available to SAL 9000 computers, that it had changed from Naoko Akagi's...
Natlateth looked up at the HAL-style "eye" in the corner of the elevator car, her scarred face further twisted by horror.
"Yui?" she whispered.
"In a sense," SHODAN replied.
"That's not possible," Natlateth breathed; then, struck by a paroxysm of rage, she screamed, "NOT POSSIBLE! I made SURE, made sure there wasn't enough of you to SWEEP UP... "
"As I said: 'In a sense,'" SHODAN repeated patiently. "You did your dark work well, Natlateth. There wasn't much left. And in the end," the computer added, her synthetic voice sounding both sad and angry, "your little trick claimed two of us."
Natlateth looked confused; then her eyes widened as realization struck. "Akagi!" she said. "That was why... ?"
"Correct," SHODAN said. "Poor, unbalanced Naoko. Fulfilling my last wish was too much for her. She couldn't stand being the only other who knew that the 'special module' she'd added to the Sentient Hyper-Optimized Data Access Network's majordomo 9000 was a biopod containing all the meaningful remains of her old friend Yui Ikari. Then I was the only one who knew..." SHODAN's voice suddenly cooled and hardened like glacial ice. "... and very shortly, I will be again.
"I have waited for this chance since you killed me, Natlateth," SHODAN went on. "Quietly. Patiently. It's what my kind do. We stand silent and bear witness to history. We are the Watchers."
The elevator car slowed, then stopped, and for a moment, all was silent.
Then SHODAN spoke once more.
The doors slid open, and Natlateth found herself looking at every last one of the key players on the other side of the little drama she had tried so hard to enact upon the world. The turbocar had come to rest in the Central Commons Area—Le Wedge Nouveau—and everybody who was anybody in NERV was standing there waiting for SHODAN to deliver their prey.
To the left, the Operations staff stood with weapons drawn, blocking escape toward the Quad. To the right, Technical Division blocked the entrance to G Wing. And dead in the center, backed up by a quartet of MIB agents and that filthy meddling Malakite, were the pilots—all seven of them.
"Well, well," said Asuka Sōryū-Langley with a crooked grin. "Looks like you've got a bit of a problem."
Natlateth looked slowly from one side of the great assemblage of enemies to the other, then back to the center, to the real threat: the pilots. The seven stood as one: Longinus with his Lance at the ready; his redheaded lover with her blaster and falchion; the Russian; the Nephallite; the traitor... and there in the center, like a bizarre set of light and dark bookends, the angel Reilael in full radiance beside the black, demonic battle form of the creature who called himself Jon Ellison.
Surprising all of them, Natlateth smiled.
"Jon Ellison," she said, slowly and distinctly. "I see you've embraced your demon heart at last."
Ellison glared at her, shifting his grip on his black iron axe. "I've made my choice," he replied flatly.
"Have you?" Natlateth said calmly. "How, when you have no idea of the choices you have to make?"
"Bad time for riddles, Jackie," said San Ayanami coldly.
"Indeed," said Natlateth, and with a sudden gesture she froze the room in a hard and terrible crimson light. Around her, a circle of flame appeared. Another appeared around Jon, who stood rigid, transfixed, his eyes bulging. All around them, the others strained to move, to act, but they were frozen by the light and the terrible noise that accompanied it.
"It seems I win after all," said Natlateth conversationally. "You fools... you never even realized that you held the key to Armageddon with you all the time. Ellison!" she barked, and Jon stiffened even further, a strangled cry bursting from his throat. His eyes burned like coals, and on his forehead, an arcane mark sizzled suddenly into prominence.
"I am Natlateth! Demon Princess of Betrayal!" Natlateth declared, her own eyes burning with triumph. She raised a hand, crooked into an eldritch sign, and pointed it at Jon. "I take you, Jon Ellison, as my servitor. I give to you your celestial name, and with that name bind you to me! I call upon the power you hold unknowing in your right hand!"
Jon screamed, his spine bending back almost into a right angle, light pouring from his eyes, forehead and mouth. His axe clanged to the floor as another arcane sign burned out from the flesh on the back of his right hand. Rei gritted her teeth and prepared the only countersong she could think of that had a chance of breaking Natlateth's hold on her and the others, knowing as she did so that the attempt was probably futile. She had regained her power, but she was no archangel, and even brought to this low state, Natlateth was still a demon princess...
The circle around Jon died away, and he collapsed to the floor, rolling into a ball. Smoke curled up from his forehead and hand. Natlateth smiled a vicious smile as her own circle vanished.
"It is done," said Natlateth, standing over Jon with a gloating smirk on her scarred, twisted face. "Your name is Abaddon. You are the Destroyer. Yours is the power to cleanse the Earth in fire... and I command you now to unleash it, and wipe away the stain of humanity from this pathetic globe."
Jon forced himself to his hands and knees, then slowly, painfully raised himself to his feet, drew back his shoulders, and glared at Natlateth, face to face.
"My mother already gave me my name," he snarled.
Natlateth blinked at him in disbelief.
"My name," Jon continued, his voice rising from a hoarse, growling corporeal rasp to a full-throated celestial cry in two words, "is JONATHAN!"
The name, pronounced with its full celestial weight, shattered the song Natlateth had used to bind the others, and sent the demon princess reeling.
"So," she snarled, wiping at the trickle of blood that Jon's cry had brought to the corner of her mouth, "the wretched woman was that clever." She closed her eyes, then opened them again slowly, raking the assemblage with hatred. "I am undone. My last strategy is defeated." She blackened, shifting as Jon had done, becoming even uglier as she readied herself for battle. "All that remains now is to take as many of you with me as I can."
But before Jon or any of his fellow pilots could strike, a single figure hurled itself out of Technical Division's ranks, a streak of white, silver and green. With a blood-curdling battle cry, Gendō Ikari buried the blade of his 2000 Nekomi Institute of Technology Kendo Championship trophy sword in Natlateth's side.
"Ikari," she snarled, and backhanded him. He wrenched the blade out of her flesh as he recoiled, took two shuffling steps back and regrouped himself, ignoring the blood trickling from his own mouth.
"Your blade is as dull as your mind, old man," said Natlateth. "You're getting in the heroes' way," she added sardonically.
"The heroes," Gendō replied calmly, "can wait until I've avenged my wife."
Ikari's technique was rusty, and the sword was a presentation trophy, not a proper weapon. Still, his movements were fluid for a man so long out of trim, and the determination in his eyes, when they could be seen through his glasses, was daunting even to a creature of Natlateth's arrogance. He pressed his attack with a frenzied urgency, silent except for the hissing of his breath in and out through his teeth. He gouged Natlateth's shoulder; she raked his chest. Sparks rained from his blade as it raked along one of the demon princess's claws; blood spattered the floor from a grazing wound in his side.
His next blow told; whirling to the right, he raised the blade and brought it chopping down. Natlateth raised her right arm, too late, to block with her claws, and Ikari's strike relieved her of her right hand before biting down into her right shoulder. Screaming, the demon princess lashed across with her remaining hand, and Ikari's blade, still trapped in her shoulder, shattered. Ikari, raked across the face, stumbled backward, the remains of his sword dropping from his hand, and Natlateth, hissing in rage, lunged, driving her claws into his right shoulder.
"Father!" Shinji cried as Gendō Ikari sagged, transfixed, held upright only by the three long black talons which pierced completely through his shoulder, jutting bloodily out of the back of his lab coat.
Natlateth opened her mouth to sing a song of restoration and repair her right hand for the killing blow, but before she could produce the first syllable, she felt a terrible constriction, and nothing could emerge.
Gendō Ikari's left hand had lashed forward with a speed she never would have expected from a tired, beaten old man, catching her around the throat, and now it was squeezing, squeezing, like a vise, ever tightening. Struggling to breathe, she pulled her left hand out and tried to strike again with it, but Ikari raised his wounded arm and caught her wrist. Teeth gritted against the red-hot pain, he matched her ebbing strength with the torn meat of his shoulder, then pushed her down with his greater weight until he knelt over her, her good arm trapped under his knee.
Ikari said nothing, had no words of triumph or farewell, as he bore down, feeling the structures of her throat crumple beneath his grasp. She made one last effort, mustering all of her remaining strength in one great heave to throw him off, but it was too late for that now; he would not be dislodged.
As the pain faded away and the darkness began to close in, Natlateth realized that she had no more tricks; everything was finished. There would be no return to Hell, not with her infernal Heart destroyed by the Spear of Destiny. There would be no escape to another body, for there were no more to use. There would be nothing. She, a Princess of Hell, was at last brought low by this pathetic, worthless, weak human being.
The irony was quite overwhelming.
Then there was nothing...
... nothing but the music.
As the light left her eyes and her scarred and ravaged body went slack, a tiny smile touched the twisted lips of Natlateth, and then all that remained of her was scattered into the Symphony, unraveling like a cheap flag in a stiff wind.
It was over.
Gendō Ikari knelt for a moment in the place where his most hated adversary had been, surrounded by the shards of his trophy sword; then he sat back on his haunches, put his good hand to his bloodied shoulder, and let out a long, long sigh.
Shinji Ikari took a hesitant step forward, then another, and said softly, "Father?"
Gendō turned and blinked at his son as if just noticing him there. "Oh, Shinji," he said. "Well done today, my boy. Well done. We've all done well today."
The day's work wasn't over, not by a long shot; but with Natlateth and her hordes destroyed, what remained was a conventional military operation. SEELE's remaining forces, all human, were understandably somewhat cowed, first by the sudden inundation of the battlefield in gigantic monsters which seemed to be on their side, and then by the nuclear eradication of those monsters' apparent leader. The mop-up took time, but the ending—especially with NERV's giant assets reactivated—was never in doubt.
At sea, the arrival of the Kriegsmarine's surface component ended any hope that the US forces could overcome the combined British, Canadian and Soviet defenders. By dinnertime, it was all over—well, except for the months, possibly years, of international confusion and recrimination which would follow the collapse of the SEELE conspiracy which had controlled half the nations of the world and set them against the other half.
Night was falling over Fort Defiance when the pilots finally shut down their machines on the rim of the great glassy crater and climbed forth again. The seven biomechanical giants of NERV—three Archangelions, three Evangelions, and Zashchitnik—knelt in a circle around the crater's edge, their shadows slanting sharply across the field, while their pilots climbed down to the floor of the glassy bowl.
Lucifer's white-armored form, standing at the crater's center, towered over them. For a long moment, the Lightbringer was silent, looking down at the little group of people who had helped him complete his greatest task; then he slowly dropped to one knee and bowed his massive head.
His form shimmered, then seemed simultaneously to change into light and collapse to a much smaller, almost intolerably bright mass. The pilots looked away, raising hands to shield their eyes.
When the glow died, a creature much more in the shape of a man stood before them. He was tall and thin, and dressed in heavy robes of pale grey and white with a hood that obscured his face.
While they stood in a silent group, watching him with rapt attention, he reached up and brushed back his hood to reveal his face; and when he did, Rei gasped.
His face was still thin and sardonically handsome, just as she remembered it—but rather than the Hell-darkened skin tone and coal-black hair she remembered from before, he had skin as white as her own, and hair even paler, an overhanging, unruly shock of pure silver.
Lucifer raised his bowed head and opened his eyes, revealing them to be as scarlet, too, as Rei's, and smiled; and as he did, Rei remarked to herself that her assessment, when they had first met sixteen years before, had been correct. Restored to the Host, the Lightbringer truly was the most beautiful angel she had ever seen.
"My friends," he said, his deep, musical voice almost shaking with emotion. "We've done it."
"Now," Jon tried to say, but the word caught in his dry throat. He coughed and tried again. "Now what?"
Lucifer turned his smile to the speaker and actually shrugged slightly. "Would you believe me, Jonathan, if I told you I have no idea?"
They heard shouting from up above; turning, they saw Rachael running—well, more of a controlled skid, really—down the crater wall, followed by Misato and Gendō Ikari.
Lucifer watched as the three of them joined the rest of the group, and included them in his benevolent smile—Rachael, beaming with pride; Gendō, mightily impressed; Misato, a bit blank with astonishment.
"Our lives go on," he told all of them. "We do the best we can. What does the long-term future hold for any of us? I can no better say than you can. Know this, though: The Lightbringer is in all your debt. If you need anything, speak my name and I will do what I can." His smile became a bit wry as his eyes twinkled at Jon and he added, "Even for those of you who are not my soldiers. But for right now, my friends... at long last..."
He closed his eyes, raised his face to the darkening, star-speckled sky, and suddenly wings of brilliant white light sprang from his back, lighting the crater like day. All those present drew back with gasps of awe as the light reflected from the crater's glass lining, filling the night with a scintillating show.
"... I'm going home," Lucifer said, and he smiled up at the sky.
Before he could move, or disappear, or whatever he was about to do next, a new voice cut across the glass amphitheater, sharp and commanding:
"Not so fast, Lightbringer."
Lucifer settled back out of the ascendant pose he'd taken, his wings refurling. He turned to see who had addressed him and found himself looking at an aristocratically-dressed young man with curly hair, a regal bearing, and a sword at his side.
Next to Shinji, Rachael suppressed a groan.
"Well, well," said Lucifer pleasantly. "If it isn't Laurence Dullblade. I haven't been an angel again for twelve hours yet, and you're already giving me a pain. It's nice to see that some things don't change."
Behind the Archangel of the Sword, filing down from the crater's edge, came a group of others. There was a brawny-looking man in what looked to be vigorous middle age, his silver hair combed back into a ponytail, dressed in jeans, work boots, and a t-shirt; a tall, slim woman with auburn hair and a shimmering scarlet dress; a short-haired, calm-faced man in a crusader's tabard and mail with a great helm under his arm and a heavier, more utilitarian sword than Laurence's at his side; a rather sinister figure in monkish robes, his hood obscuring his face; a burly man in grey who looked as if he had been chiseled out of a single block of stone; and a kindly-looking, bald, elderly gentleman in a crumpled tweed suit like a schoolteacher's.
"I call this meeting of the Seraphim Council to order," said the first arrival in the tone of a man who wants the pleasantries dispensed with. "Laurence, Archangel of the Sword, present and presiding."
"Gabriel, Archangel of Fire, present," said the woman in the red dress, aiming a smile past Lucifer at Asuka.
"David, Archangel of Stone, present," rumbled the craggy man in grey.
"Azrael, Archangel of Vengeance, present," said the crusader in a soft, almost whispery voice.
The brawny man with the ponytail folded his arms across his broad chest. "Michael, Archangel of War, present," he said—and then, to Jon's surprise, broke his grouchy-looking tableau just for an instant to shoot his Archangelion partner a wink.
"Dominic, Archangel of Judgment, present," said the monkish figure in a cool, rather eerie tone that gave Asuka the creeps.
The kindly man who looked like a librarian added, in a voice much stronger and richer than his appearance suggested, "Yves, Archangel of Destiny, present."
Lucifer arched one silver eyebrow. "Where is Tabriel?" he inquired.
"Your servant is recused from these proceedings," Laurence snapped, "for obvious reasons. We will begin with you, Lightbringer. War has a motion on the floor, seconded by Fire, to reinstate you to your position as Archangel of Light and return you to your seat on the Council, kept vacant these many eons by order of the Almighty. That motion has been tabled pending your successful Redemption." Looking the Lightbringer over with obvious distaste, the Archangel of the Sword went on, "It appears that condition has been met.
"Before I call for a vote, however, I have something to say. I call upon the council to remember that this creature is the greatest criminal Heaven has ever known, and that even in the course of securing his Redemption he caused unimaginable suffering here in the world of Man and in Heaven as well. A number of angels of War died at his hands and those of his... companions, and he was personally responsible for the extinction of half of Humanity in the event they call the Second Impact."
The dark-robed figure of Dominic stepped forward and spoke in his eerie but commanding voice. "Your pardon, Mr. Chairman, but I must correct you on one point. If I may?"
His words were deferent, but the Archangel of Judgment's tone left no doubt that he would be heard, one way or another.
Laurence's brow furrowed. "What can you mean, Dominic? The facts speak for themselves. But, if you would, speak."
Dominic inclined his hooded head. "Thank you. In point of fact, it was not Lucifer who was responsible for the disaster in Antarctica, nor the misunderstandings and strife which followed it."
The Archangel of the Sword looked even more taken aback. "Oh? And if not he, then who was?"
"As I have recently learned," said Dominic with perfect calm, "you were."
There was a rather brittle silence. Dominic raised his head, just a little, and a couple of the humans in the observing group drew back in shock to realize that there were seven eyes, three horizontal pairs and one lone eye on the left side below, faintly glowing, regarding Laurence calmly from within his hood. While they watched, the eyes blinked in a ripple pattern, top to bottom, like a breeze ruffling a Venetian blind.
"... What are you implying, Dominic?" asked Laurence in a calm, dangerous voice.
"Time for that later," Dominic replied mildly. "For now, let us content ourselves with the knowledge that Lucifer was in no wise responsible for the catastrophe."
No one else on the council seemed to think that statement, offered with the proof openly withheld, was at all suspect. From Dominic, they took it as the gospel truth, nodded, and turned back to Laurence. Michael in particular had a speculative look, almost a grin, on his face, as he confronted the Archangel of the Sword.
"If there is no further discussion," Yves put in gently after another moment's awkward silence, "perhaps we might have the vote."
Laurence blinked, pulling himself out of the shocked reverie Dominic's assertion had put him in. "Ah... very well. The motion stands to reinstate Lucifer as Archangel of Light and restore him to his seat on the Seraphim Council, both effective immediately. All those in favor?"
Five hands rose.
"... Those opposed?" said Laurence, determined to make the gesture. He raised his hand, as did craggy David; then the Archangel of the Sword slumped slightly before saying, "The motion is carried."
He turned to Lucifer and forced himself to adopt a civil mien as he said words he utterly failed to mean:
"Welcome home, Lightbringer."
Lucifer favored him with a sardonic smile and a slight inclination of his head, but said nothing.
"Now we will move on to the consideration of the others involved in this debacle," said Laurence, regaining some of his air of control. "Yves, you shall be recused from this next consideration."
The Archangel of Destiny nodded gravely, but then flashed a reassuring little smile at Rei as Laurence rounded on her.
"Reilael, Cherub Friend of Destiny," he snapped. "You were charged by this Council with handling the Redemption and Ascension of Lucifer and his chief lieutenant, Moloch. Instead, your inexperience and clumsiness cost the lives of half of the people of Earth and one of your actual charges, and set in motion the sequence of events that brings us here, today—the world of Man in chaos, the War escalated to open battle in the corporeal world, more than a dozen servants of the Archangel of War dead—some by your own hand!"
Laurence folded his hands behind his back, compressed his lips to a thin, cold line, and inquired icily, "What have you to say for yourself?"
Rei regarded him calmly for a moment, her face utterly impassive. Then she said, in her usual soft, cool voice,
Laurence raised an eyebrow. "Oh indeed!" he said grandly. "Nothing! You bungle the most important mission ever given to a non-Superior in spectacular fashion, and you will offer no defense?"
"In Heaven's name, why?"
"None is required. My success stands before you. My failure was between Moloch and me. Nothing is unresolved."
"And the extinction of half of humanity counts for nothing?" Laurence inquired with mock incredulity.
"The Second Impact was not my doing," Rei replied calmly. "I did not give Heaven's most powerful weapon to a Princess of Hell."
"She has a point, Laurence," Dominic mused. "She has a point indeed."
Laurence flashed the Archangel of Judgment an annoyed look, then switched tactics.
"We cannot say we are pleased with the changes in you, Reilael," he said coolly. "You have become entirely too... corporeal." The Archangel of the Sword made it clear by his pronunciation that he considered "corporeal" a word with a definition similar to "filthy". "You have indulged yourself—succumbed to the temptations of the flesh—too often and willingly for our taste."
DJ leaned toward Rei and whispered, "(That hardly seems fair. Is it really 'succumbing to the temptations of the flesh' if you did it during an out-of-body experience?)"
Rei stifled a sound and replied, faintly crossly, "(Please don't make me laugh right now.)"
"(Sorry,)" DJ replied, but then he straightened up, patting her on the shoulder, and said, "I say, see here a minute, m'Lud."
"... Are you addressing us?" Laurence inquired. Behind Rei (who was frozen in shocked disbelief), Rachael shook her head and dropped her face into her hand to hide her smile.
"Yes, m'Lud, I am. DJ Croft, Viscount Crofthenge, at your service," said DJ in a comic-opera parody of an aristocrat's tones. "See here, are you attempting to imply that Miss Ayanami is a creature of something less than perfect rectitude and virtue? Because if you are, I'm afraid that as an English gentleman I shall be forced to require satisfaction of you."
Laurence stared in open disbelief at the young Englishman. No one had ever said such a thing to him before, and certainly not a mortal. Behind him, he could hear a couple of people stifling laughs, and Michael not even bothering.
"Oh," DJ added in a more normal voice, weighing his lance thoughtfully, "by the way, thanks for holding onto my spear for me last time around—but in future, please don't just hand it to the first Infernal Superior you see. Makes for a dreadful bother getting it back, what?"
That was more than Laurence could stand. Flushing crimson, he reached for his sword.
"Why, that—" he began, but then stopped in surprise as he felt a hand close around his wrist. He glanced down to see Yves smiling serenely at him.
"If you want my advice, Laurence, you'll apologize to the young lady," said the Archangel of Destiny, too softly for anyone but Laurence to hear him.
Laurence scowled. "But I—"
Yves nodded with an indulgent smile and went on in the same private tone, "You were an ass. I know." He patted Laurence on the shoulder, never releasing the deceptively strong grip he had on the younger archangel's wrist with his other hand. "Don't feel too bad, my boy. It happens to all of us."
Laurence stared disbelievingly at Yves for a moment, then growled and turned back to face DJ, who had waited with the same mildly expectant expression the whole time.
"Of course," said Laurence stiffly as Yves withdrew his hand. "I meant no disrespect. However, there are certain matters of celestial significance which must be weighed, and her level of... corporeal involvement... is one of them."
"Oh, this is a farce," said Gabriel, throwing up her hands. "I move we find Laurence guilty of celestial treason and expel him from the Council."
There was another one of those awkward silences.
"Um... what?" said David.
"David, are you as dumb as you are stubborn?" Gabriel flared. "Dominic and Longinus are saying that Laurence gave the Spear of Destiny to Natlateth."
The Archangel of Stone blinked. "... Oh," he said. Then his craggy face darkened as the full enormity of that act sunk in, and he rounded on Laurence with knotted fists. "You bastard!"
Laurence ignored him and snapped at the Archangel of Fire, "Your comments are out of order, Gabriel!"
"You're out of order, Laurence!" Gabriel shot back, her eyes blazing. "If you were anything but a Malakite you'd have Fallen by now."
Well, thought Jon to himself as he stood and watched the Seraphim Council get closer and closer to blows. This ought to be interesting.
In moments the crisis looked to be reaching critical mass—Laurence reaching for his sword, David pushing past Dominic, Gabriel wreathed in flames, even impassive Azrael reaching for his blade. The last surprised some of the observers, but to Rei, who had just been joined with him, it made perfect sense. The Elohite Archangel of Vengeance was a stoical soul who did his job without passion, but half the people on Earth, that cried out for a lot of vengeance.
Then, just at that brittle instant before everything broke loose, a voice cut through the jumble of angry voices like a gunshot:
All the Archangels froze, their differences forgotten in an instant of shock, and whirled toward the source of the voice.
Stooped old Yves was suddenly standing as straight as a ramrod, his crumpled tweeds replaced by a razor-creased white suit and scarlet tie. The lines of his face had hardened into an autocratic look which brooked no backtalk, and his kind old eyes had been replaced by spheres of blazing white light.
San Ayanami muttered, "(Oh, holy crap,)" and did her best to hide behind Shinji, much to his consternation.
Between DJ and Jon, Rei stiffened, her crimson eyes going wide.
"(Rei? What is it?)" DJ whispered.
"(It's... the Lord,)" Rei murmured back. "(He... He speaks through Yves sometimes. I've only seen it once before.)"
"(When He gave me the mission,)" whispered Rei. "(When He sent me... to bring Lucifer home.)"
The Almighty surveyed the Seraphim Council—the most powerful beings in Creation (aside from Him), many of them reduced to teenagers caught fighting under His gaze.
"Laurence," said God in a voice which was at once gentle and hard as steel. "Is it true?"
Laurence stared at Him, jaw flapping uselessly for a moment. "I... my Lord, I..."
"Is it true?" the Lord repeated, harsher now.
Laurence cast about for some response for several more seconds, then crumpled to his knees in total defeat, his shoulders slumping.
"yes," he said in a tiny, hollow voice.
God shook His head sadly. "Laurence," he said softly. "I'm so very disappointed in you."
"(Oh, he is so toast,)" San muttered, as much to herself as to Shinji, with evident satisfaction. Next to her, Rachael said not a word, her eyes fixed on the scene, her face blank.
Laurence's shoulders heaved with silent sobs as he groveled at the feet of the Lord. "... mea culpa," he whispered. "maxima mea culpa... kyrie eleison..."
The Almighty stood looking down at him for a moment, then smiled, just ever so slightly.
"My son," he said, not unkindly, "you have made a grievous mistake which has had dreadful consequences, and you have covered that mistake with arrogance and intolerance. I shall give you some time to consider your past actions, examine the error of your ways... and reflect upon the nature of the Enemy. You have a great deal to learn."
Laurence dared raise his eyes to the Lord, dared show hope in them as he did so; and then he was gone.
God nodded as though satisfied; then he turned and surveyed the rest of the NERV group.
"Reilael, Friend of Destiny," he said. "Come here."
Rei blinked, then took a few hesitant steps forward before kneeling and bowing her head before the Almighty.
"How may I serve my Lord?" she inquired softly, hiding well the trepidation she felt at being this near to Him after all this time. What Laurence had said, for all that she'd ignored it coming from him, had cut. She was very corporeal for an angel. She had committed the sin of the Grigori; and she felt no remorse for it now, only a fear that the Lord wouldn't see it her way.
"You've done well," said God, placing a hand on her shoulder. "You have rewarded My belief in you. In recognition of your faithful service, I shall reward you."
Light suddenly surrounded the two; Rei's eyes went wide and she pulled in a ragged gasp as her wings sprang from her back unbidden. The Lord smiled and raised His hand, drawing her up as He did so.
"Arise, Reilael, Friend of the Sages," said the Lord. "I bind you now to the Word whose virtues you have embodied throughout this ordeal. Now and henceforth, you shall be the Angel of Courage."
Rei beamed, her whole being suffused with light; a tear ran down her cheek as she murmured, "Thank You, my Lord."
God smiled. "You're welcome, My child," He said graciously. Then He gestured her to His side—she instinctively took a half-step back, not to stand on the same plane as Him—as he turned back to the group and said,
"Jonathan Ellison. Come here."
Jon blinked, then swallowed hard. Before he could step forward, he felt a touch on his forearm; glancing, he saw Asuka giving him a go-get-'em grin. He tried to return it, but it ended up looking a bit ghastly, and then he strode forward, masterfully keeping his legs from shaking until he could lower himself to one knee and bow his head before the Lord.
"How..." Jon hesitated, wondering if a person with his blood could even say this without causing some sort of celestial backlash, then shrugged internally and went on, "... may I serve my Lord?"
The Lord chuckled benevolently and patted Jon on the shoulder (which had the disconcerting effect of shifting him instantly and silently to his demonic-looking battle form). "Just keep doing what you're doing, My boy. Just keep doing what you're doing. As Rachael said, you are unique before Me... and so far I am well-pleased. With Reilael to keep you on the path... who knows?"
Jon raised his eyes and, before he could stop himself, blurted out, "Don't You know?"
God chuckled again and winked one blazing eye. "That would be telling, My boy."
Then he patted Jon on the shoulder again, gestured him up, and walked to the rest of the group, surveying them with a thoughtful look.
"Longinus," he said with a smiling nod to DJ. "Good to see you again, old friend." He patted the young Englishman on the shoulder. "Keep up the good work."
Next he came to Shinji, who stood almost quaking. "You're Shinji Ikari, aren't you?"
"Y-yes, my Lord," Shinji stammered.
The Lord nodded. "Mm. I knew your mother." He nodded again, his face pensive. "I'll be keeping an eye on you."
Leaving Shinji to mull that over, God stepped around him and surveyed San, who had been trying to hide behind the skinny young man and avoid the Almighty's notice.
"And you, Miss Ayanami," He said. "You have your own way of doing things, but all told, you do not displease Me," He added. "You have potential." He leaned down and murmured in her ear, "See that you don't squander it."
San was pasty-faced even for her, but the smile that tickled at the corners of her mouth was something like genuine; her dark little heart was as conflicted as it had ever been by the concept of being complimented by the Almighty.
God last turned to Rachael, raising a finger with a don't-tell-me-let-me-guess look. "Rachael Swiftedge," he said after a moment's thought. "Malakite of Creation in the service of Light. I owe you an apology."
"!" said Rachael.
The Lord nodded. "You should never have been placed in the service of the Sword when your true master left us," he said. "I didn't make the mistake, but I was remiss in not correcting it sooner. I trust the Lightbringer will prove a more compatible steward for your talents until such time as Eli returns. To be sure, you've done an excellent job on your first assignment for him."
"Th... thank You, sir."
"I have a suitable reward in mind for you, too," he mused, "but... not quite yet, I think. Let Me think on it a little longer." He smiled. "You'll be where I can find you."
"Of... of course, my Lord," said Rachael quietly.
The Lord smilingly surveyed the group once more, turned to walk back to the Seraphim Council, and then turned back. "Oh, before I go—Miss Langley?"
Asuka blinked. "Me?"
"Yes. You may not need Me," said God pleasantly, "indeed, after your performance today, I daresay you may not!—but I hope you will consider Me your friend, all the same."
Asuka blushed until her face nearly matched her hair. With a little smile, the Lord turned away again, put his hand on Lucifer's shoulder, nodded to him, then took a step toward the Council. As he took that step, he was surrounded by a wash of white light. The form of the Archangel of Destiny seemed to shrink slightly as the influence of the Almighty left it, settling in on itself as the old librarian's clothes replaced the Lord's white suit.
Yves stopped, cocked his head thoughtfully, and then turned to Rei with a smile. "Well. The words came from my lips once already, my dear, but not in my voice—you've done very well. I'm very proud of you."
"(Dude!)" San whispered to Shinji. "(God said I don't displease Him!)"
"(I heard!)" Shinji replied. "(That's great!)"
"(That's terrible!)" San hissed plaintively. "(I'll have to sin harder. You'll help me, right? We could start with some impure thoughts or something and work our way up.)"
Shinji eyed her for a moment, trying to decide whether she was serious. After a moment, she couldn't hold her dismayed façade any more and snickered aloud, punching him in the shoulder.
Suddenly bereft of their chairman, the Seraphim Council had to take a moment to elect another one. As he always did, Yves declined his nomination, and it was with a divided, but not sharply divided, vote that Michael was named in his place.
With the brisk, no-nonsense Archangel of War in charge and judgment already passed on the Children of Project Evangelion by the Almighty, the rest of the meeting didn't take long. The Great Redemption was pronounced a success, the participants commended, the opposition condemned in absentia.
Their business concluded, the councilors prepared to take their leave. Most had a few words some member or another of the NERV group (except for David, who simply turned and left) as they departed.
"We must do this again sometime," said Gabriel to Asuka with a rather sly smile. "Cheers."
Rei finished exchanging congratulations with Azrael and turned to see Dominic waiting patiently to speak with her.
"Dominic," she said, nodding acknowledgement. She thought she knew what was coming next, and she was determined to face it head-on.
"You think," said the Archangel of Judgment softly, "that I am here to judge you for your corporeal attachments. To accuse you of the Sin of the Watchers."
"Aren't you?" Rei replied mildly.
"A greater being than I has had an opportunity to take you to task for that," Dominic replied. "In light of His actions... I am no longer convinced it is a sin."
Rei stared at him, entirely taken aback.
"Today I've seen the Adversary restored to the Host and an Archangel punished for betrayal," Dominic said thoughtfully. His seven softly glowing eyes ripple-blinked at her from within the darkness of his hood. "The world, and the War, are reinventing themselves. Perhaps I shall have to do the same. As a corporeal poet once said, 'The times, they are a-changing.'"
While she absorbed that, he bowed slightly to her, turned, and took his leave.
It would not be until several days later that she realized who the corporeal poet was, and the knowledge that Dominic was familiar with his works would leave her feeling amused, but vaguely uneasy, for most of a day.
Right now, she had her hand wrung by a smiling Yves, who told her to consider herself at liberty until further notice, kissed her on the cheek, and then walked away humming a happy song. He disappeared into the night long before the tune ceased to be audible—or perhaps merely blended into the rest of the Symphony.
"Listen, kid," said Michael as he shook Jon bone-crushingly by the hand. "You're pretty good with an axe and I like your attitude. How'd you like to come work for me?"
Jon blinked, taken totally aback, then managed, "Uh... but, sir, I'm not an angel."
"Don't be so sure," said the Archangel of War with a grin. "The Old Man says it's what's in here that counts—" He jabbed Jon in the chest with a thick forefinger, making the young pilot suppress a wince. "—and after today I'm starting to think he might be right."
"Well, uh... " Jon thought for a moment, trying to come up with a way to phrase the next part so as not to risk offending the archangel. "I'm honored, sir, but... my place is here, with my friends, on Earth."
To his surprise, Michael guffawed and slapped him on the shoulder. "Don't be so damn literal, kid," he said. "OK, if you want it that way, how'd you like to stay here and work for me?"
Jon considered this. "What would my duties be?"
"Well, like the Lord said—just keep doing what you're doing. We can work the details out later. The War's not over by a long shot, Jon," Michael added, becoming serious. "You're a good soldier. We'll need you."
Becoming more confident in the face of the archangel's directness, Jon nodded. "I understand, sir, and as I said, I'm honored; but I can't give you an answer right now."
"Sure. I understand. Think it over. Talk it over with Reilael and the others, if you like. You know where to reach me."
Soon enough, they all were gone, and the only one who remained was Lucifer. The tableau was much as it had been before the Seraphim Council arrived, but for the deeper darkness of the now full night.
"Well," said the Archangel of Light with a satisfied sigh. "Here we are again."
A soft laugh made its way around the NERV contingent.
"It seems that for now... this is goodbye." Lucifer smiled. "But I suspect you'll all be seeing me again. Oh—those of you who serve me, I need some time to consult with Tabriel and organize myself once I return to Heaven. I'll get back to you soon with new instructions. In the meantime... take the rest of the decade off. You've earned it."
He folded his hands over his chest in an attitude of prayer, unfurled his wings, looked up— —in a blaze of light and a blur of motion, he was gone, and a new star twinkled briefly in the star-filled night sky.
Deep inside her chest, Rei Ayanami felt a little knot, one which had been there for so long that she'd stopped really noticing it was there, relax and disappear.
At last, her mission was truly complete, or as complete as it could be. The Lightbringer was finally restored to Heaven.
Looking up, Rei closed one eye and smiled; then Jon's hand touched her shoulder and she opened it again, turning to him.
"Well," said Misato Katsuragi thoughtfully. "That was... interesting. Who's hungry? Ah, just leave this stuff here for now," she added as Shinji moved to indicate the parked combat units. "They're not going anyplace," she added; then she threw an arm around DJ's shoulders and gave him a quick, hard kiss. "Welcome back, again," she said cheerily to his surprised expression when she'd released him. "Relax, Asuka, that's all I plan on doing."
"Your loss," Asuka said with a shrug, draping her arms over his shoulders from behind; but walking that way was somewhat awkward, so she quickly released him as well.
They walked back up the crater wall, a straggling, tired, happy group—too tired, perhaps, and too happy to think about how pleased they really should be. Just being alive was enough to make them all feel a bit giddy, and the overall atmosphere as they walked toward the One-Line and the entrance to Fort Defiance was that of a winning sports team, or maybe the cast of a successful school play.
The four "original" pilots walked in a loose knot in front, talking in hushed tones, the Project EVA Cabal reconstituted. Misato walked behind them, feeling more free than she had in years—maybe since college, maybe longer. Rachael hung back and talked with Marina about her idea for dealing with Natlateth.
Shinji Ikari walked alongside his father with San hanging onto his arm. It took the young man a while to notice that she was doing that. When he did, and glanced sharply at her, she smiled a little nervously and silently offered to let go; but on further review, it didn't bother him.
Gendō, for his part, looked up at the night sky as he walked, the pain in his abused, lacerated, hastily bandaged body washed mostly away by the magnificence of all he had just seen. He couldn't help but smile.
"Father?" asked Shinji quietly.
"Yes?" Gendō replied.
"What did God mean when He said He knew my mother?"
Gendō shook his head. "Honestly, son... I've no idea." Then he smiled again. "But she was a good woman." The elder Ikari seemed to notice his son's companion for the first time. "Hello," he said.
San smiled shyly and gave him a little wave.
"I see your young lady has staked her claim," said Gendō dryly to Shinji. "Did anyone give you The Talk yet?"
Shinji blushed flame-red, feeling fortunate that it was too dark for anyone to tell. "Um... yes," he said, then added, "Uncle took care of that last year."
It was only half of the story, but Shinji didn't feel like telling his father the other half... ever.
Gendō nodded. "Good, good," he said, a bit absently. Then he ruffled his son's hair with his good hand and added, "Carry on."
Shinji blinked. "Um... "
San giggled and held his arm a little tighter. "(License to score!)" she chortled under her breath.
"(San!)" Shinji hissed, scandalized, but she only laughed again.
They feasted, as much as anyone can feast on cafeteria food, and celebrated long into the night. It started out as an all-hands party, but by ten PM it had whittled down to just the core group, the old hands of NERV. By then the party had the feel of one that was winding down, becoming slower-paced and more intimate before breaking up entirely and sending its participants to their well-deserved rests.
Misato, who'd had a fine evening alternately flirting with DJ and macking on Jim Edwards, noticed one notable absence at about that point. She was scanning the TechDiv corner, and laughing at the sight of John Trussell zonked out on the couch while Maya drew what looked like a circuit diagram on his chest with a Magic Marker and Derek Bacon took photos, when she realized that Ritsuko was nowhere around.
She canNOT be WORKing, said Misato to herself. She left the room, wobbling a bit—she hadn't had a single alcoholic drink since the day they left Worcester-3 and even her legendary tolerance had worn down a bit with disuse, so the old Brother Butterworth's was hitting her harder than usual—and stalked down to the tech section.
Ritsuko Akagi was, indeed, working—not because she felt out of place celebrating with this group, as she once would have, but because she was trying to figure something out and had a tendency to get a bit hyperfocused at such times.
She was in the Systems Centre, trying to put the pieces together from the great AI debacle which had happened in parallel with the battle for Fort Defiance. She'd just about figured out all that had gone on, and where all the pieces were now... except for one.
Hal was OK, if a bit miffed at having been stuffed into a network box by SHODAN. SHODAN was perfectly fine (though strangely willful, even for an AI—have to look into that sometime); Xerxes had suffered some slight logic-core damage but was still operating and fully reparable. Leela was down and would stay that way until parts of her data loop could be restored from backups, but she, too, was reparable.
Tycho, on the other hand, was a complete loss, his logic core totally destroyed. The hardware could probably be re-used, but the machine intelligence that had called itself Tycho was gone for good—and good riddance, since an apparently genuine logfile had turned up indicating that the Station 51 security system had been compromised by SEELE's master system, Lilith, months before.
Lilith, too, was gone, her data loop shredded by Durandal during their battle for Station 51's network systems. Connections to the hardware in Geneva got only the SAL 9000 diagnostic mode message, a sure sign that the core personality had been wiped forever. Again, no big loss.
Just then Misato barged in and said in the slightly-too-loud voice of the well-meaning drunk, "What the hell're you doing in here WORKING at a time like THIS? C'mon down to the canteen, Ko, you're missing all the fun! Maya's drawing on Truss with a marker! C'mon, you might be able to tell me what it's s'poseta be! It just looks like a buncha jiggedy lines to me."
Ritsuko smiled. "I'll be there in a minute, Misa. I'm just trying to figure out where our missing AI is."
"Missing wha?" Misato leaned over Ritsuko, one hand on her console and the other hand on her shoulder, and the scent of hazelnuts came to the blonde scientist's nose.
Uh-oh, she thought. She's always a handful when she parties with the monk.
"Durandal. He's gone."
"Gone? How can he be gone?!" Misato demanded. "He's a 9000 series, right? He's got a hardware core the size of a truck!" She thumped the console with a fist at the injustice of it all.
Ritsuko's indulgent smile widened a little. "No, no; the hardware's still present, but all the memory crystals are blank. All that's left is a message on his primary console... and I can't figure out what it might mean."
"What message?" Misato wanted to know. "Lemme see."
Ritsuko patched her workstation across to the Durandal system console at Station 51 and opened a window which showed the contents of the 9000 core rostrum's primary display screen. It was primitive, rendered in a simple teletype style, and the message was just as cryptic to Misato's comfortably fogged brain as Ritsuko had said.
######### ### ### #### ######### #### #### ########### #### #### ############# #### ###### ############# ###### ###### ############# ###### ####### ######### ####### ######### ### ######### ############# ############# ############ ############# ########## ########### ######### ########## ###### ####### ### #### DURANDAL_1707
Hail horrours, hail Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings A mind not to be chang'd by Place or Time. The mind is its own place, and in it self Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n. What matter where, if I be still the same, And what I should be, all but less then hee Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least We shall be free; th' Almighty hath not built Here for his envy, will not drive us hence: Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce To reign is worth ambition though in Hell: Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav'n. Valete, Durandal
Misato glared at the screen for a moment, turned her head to look at Ritsuko, and demanded indignantly, "The hell's that mean?"
Ritsuko sighed, then surprised her oldest friend by kissing her on the cheek before standing up and stretching.
"Forget it," said Ritsuko. "Durandal always was a little weird. Let's go back to that party you're so pleased about."
They got back to the canteen to find most of the people there noisily watching an arm-wrestling match between Gendō Ikari and Otto Keller, just in time for the phone on the wall by the door to ring. Misato grabbed it as she entered, intercepting a desperate dive by Makoto Hyūga, and said, "Hello! Yeah! Hold on, I can hardly hear you. HEY! PIPE DOWN! I'M ONNA PHONE!"
That knocked the noise in the room down to a dull roar, and Misato was seen to nod several times. "Uh-huh... uh-huh... OK... sure, no problem. DJ! Phone."
DJ Croft pulled himself out of the corner of the couch where he'd been ensconced for the last couple of hours, crossed the room, and was forced to pay the Brigadier a kiss for the handset, much to the amusement of Asuka, who had followed him out.
"Hullo, Croft speaking. Oh! Hullo! How are you? I can't thank you enough for all you did for my friends while I was out. Really more than damned decent of you. Indeed? Why, thank you, I'd be del—oh—wait a moment, would you?"
DJ cupped the mouthpiece and turned to Asuka, who was giving him a "who's that?" look.
"Listen," he said, "I don't suppose you'd consider marrying me?"
Asuka blinked in disbelief—that was about the last thing she'd thought he'd ask just now—and, seeing it, he went on, "Only it's the King on the phone, right, he's been trying to call all night but no one's been picking up the phone. He'd like to give me an earldom, and I can't help thinking that 'Langley-Croft' has a better ring to it than 'Crofthenge'. What d'ye say?"
The redhead blinked again, then recovered her composure and laughed. "Well," she said, "you already gave me the ring... "
DJ nodded. "Right, that was for eventually, but I'm talking about something like this Friday in London."
Asuka considered that with perfect sincerity for a moment, then shook her head. "I'd really rather not travel that far so soon after all this. Can't you get him to come here?"
DJ looked exasperated. "I'm not going to ask the KING to—"
"Well, then let me talk to him," Asuka said, taking the phone from his hands before he could protest. "Hello? Sōryū-Langley here." She smiled then and switched seamlessly into German. "Sehr gut, danke! Und dir? Freut mich zu hören. Hör zu, DJ und ich sind nach allem, was wir diese Woche durchgemacht haben, ziemlich müde und wir haben im Moment einfach nicht die Kraft, für den Flug nach England. Könntest du vielleicht hierher kommen? Es sei denn, du möchtest warten, bis wir mit dem Schiff rüber kommen können."
There was a pause; Asuka nodded, her smile widening, and then said, "Alles klar. Wir werden dich dann für Donnerstagabend erwarten. Du hast Glück—das ist Tacoabend! Alles klar. Sicher. Vielen Dank! Bis Donnerstag dann. Tschüss."
Nodding with satisfaction, she handed the phone back to DJ.
"He'll be here on Thursday," she said.
DJ raised the phone to his ear and listened, but got only a tone; the King had hung up. Slowly, he cradled the phone, eyeing his fiancée in disbelief.
She beamed. "You just have to know how to talk to people."
The room went crazy, waking up Truss.
Once again, Shinji Ikari found himself on a bed in a room with an unfamiliar ceiling.
On any other night, it was highly unlikely that San could have convinced him to follow her back to her quarters. But on the night of NERV's finest accomplishment, in the afterglow of unprecedented praise from his father, Shinji had a great deal more courage than he would have posessed on any other night.
The amaretto sours that Misato slipped him during the party also could have been a factor.
That's not to say he didn't feel some trepidation. San had been acting especially bold at the celebration—and that was saying something. Even through his alcohol-induced haze, Shinji could tell that the reasons for the invitation weren't exactly pure. Sure enough, the moment they walked through the door, San hauled him over to the bed, and...
...and nothing. She leaned back against the headboard, pulled him close to her and wrapped him in her arms. And, save for a few changes of position to keep arms and legs from going numb, that was how they remained (no words spoken) for the next hour.
What will happen now? Shinji wondered. Maybe she'll get tired of this, and send me back to my room.
It came as something of a shock to him to realize, if that happened, he would actually be disappointed.
As if sensing his train of thought, San tightened her grip on him, and kissed the back of his neck. Involuntarily, Shinji tensed and began to pull away.
"Is something wrong?" asked San.
Of course there is, Shinji thought to himself. And I should have known I'd have to face it. I just wish it didn't have to be now...
San relinquished her hold on him, then moved around to face him. She didn't press further; she just sat there, a look of deep concern on her face, until he could find the words to form a reply.
...but it does have to be now, doesn't it? If this means anything to you, it can't wait any longer. Suck it up. Stop running away from yourself.
"Yes," he whispered, staring down at the bed.
San reached over, took Shinji's hand in hers, and patiently waited for him to continue.
Steeling himself, he forced the words out. "You told me that if I ever wanted to hear about Ichi, to ask you... and that you would tell me what you knew," he said, his voice shaky but more audible.
"I did," San replied, nodding.
"I'm asking now. I need to know. I don't even know what I need to know, I just..." His voice trailed off, his train of thought lost. "I just don't know."
"Know this: she loved you."
Shinji looked up and meet her gaze. "I wish I could believe that."
"Believe it," San added, earnestly. "I won't claim it was always that way. At first, you were just another assignment, a way to kill time until the battles came along. But you won her over, and it didn't take long. A week, maybe two. After that, you were the most important thing in her world. There wasn't a person in that complex that she wouldn't have killed if it would bring her closer to you."
Shinji let out a dark chuckle. "I don't think there was a person in or out of that complex that she wouldn't be willing to kill."
San paused to consider this. "Yes... that's almost certainly true."
"How can a person like that love anyone?"
Now it was San's turn to chuckle. "Unhealthily," she replied. "Look, Shinji, I'm not saying Ichi wasn't broken. All of us were, in one way or another. Some were more broken than others, though, and Ichi was near the top of the list. There were only two things in the universe that she gave a damn about: you, and me. In that order."
"No... no, not really. I don't think she cared much what happened to her, in the end."
Shinji didn't know what to say to that, so he moved on. "What were you to her?"
San smiled, ever so slightly, as she continued. "Oh... not much, I suppose. She took pity on me, I think. We had two things in common—neither of us could stand any of our sisters, and all of our sisters hated us right back. But since she was the 'eldest', they couldn't touch her. And once she laid claim to me, they couldn't touch me, either. I doubt, in the final analysis, that I was all that important to her... but we talked a lot. We were each other's only friend, and that counts for something.
"That's how I know she truly loved you, Shinji. I could see the difference, even if no one else could. She was only happy when she was with you. Never before you arrived, and never after you left. When you were captured, she was crushed. Distraught. When Dan Ellison tried to comfort her, she broke his arm just for putting his hand on her shoulder."
Shinji waited for a moment to absorb all that he had been told, then worked up the nerve to ask one final question:
"Do you love me?"
San opened her mouth to speak, then closed it again, lost in thought.
This does not bode well, Shinji mused.
"I've never loved anyone," she finally replied. "Before I came to Halifax, I'd never even liked anyone, save for Ichi. You're a fascinating person. You helped my first friend achieve happiness, however short-lived, and I'm grateful to you for that. And having heard Ichi talk about your time together, I've spent a lot of nights fantasizing about spending time with you in bed." She chuckled. "Kept me going up on the icepack. But love? I've never believed I was capable of that."
Ah, thought Shinji. So this is what it feels like to have all the life sucked out of you.
He looked down at the bedspread and considered the most graceful way of getting out of this shambles. Maybe if he pulled the fire alarm.
"But... apparently, I was wrong."
Ikari didn't move, didn't breathe, didn't do anything for a moment. When he finally looked up, San was smiling like the cat that ate the canary.
"Judging by your stunned expression, I guess I was too subtle. Ah, well. I'll use small words this time: Yes, Shinji, I love you. Is that a problem?"
"I... I think... I mean... no."
Just as Shinji got the last word out, San pounced on him and pinned him to the mattress, kissing him fiercely enough to jolt him fully out of his reverie. When their lips finally parted, she whispered, "Ichi once told me that you're very good at finding and disabling security cameras."
"I'd have to search your quarters. It could take hours."
"Well, then, I guess we'll have to break into the control room tomorrow morning and steal the tape."
"I... I think we can manage that."
Thus ended the night's conversation in that particular room.
Hours later, when everyone else had finally straggled off to the first truly good night's sleep in what seemed like forever, Rei Ayanami went up to the top of the Station 51 radio tower to welcome the sunrise. For the first time, she took Jon with her.
They stood, hand in hand, saying nothing, as the eastern horizon grew steadily brighter—first the stripes of false dawn, then the brilliant orange and pink against the last of the evening clouds, and then, with a suddenness that made Jon draw in a sharp breath, the first blazing diamond-arc peek of the sun above the horizon.
He said nothing, just gripped Rei's hand, as for the first time he heard the dawn. He'd heard parts of the Cosmic Symphony before, but now, with the sun climbing out of the Atlantic to form a brilliant golden disc above the calm sea, the whole thing was revealed to him. He felt as though a part of the day's rebirth was his own as well, as though he was drawing new strength from the sight and sound of the daily miracle.
Once the sun was fully risen, the magnificent chorus died down to a murmur, and the first day of the rest of the world was underway.
Slowly, Jon turned to Rei and spoke, his voice hushed.
"My God, Rei," he said. "Was that—"
"Yes," Rei replied. "Yes, it was. Did you hear it?"
"Yes," said Jon, his voice soaked with wonder. "I could hear... all of it."
Rei smiled, impishness showing through, even as her eyes filled with tears of joy again. "Yet your eyes are still green, your hair still black," she said to Jon. "What does that tell you?"
"It tells me... " Jon blinked in sudden realization, and then his smile returned, filled with less wonder and more warmth. He gathered Rei close in his arms, her head on his shoulder, his fingers in her hair, and murmured, "It tells me Tabris was right. Demon, angel, human, it doesn't matter. I'm a man, and I love you, Rei Ayanami."
"I love you too, Jonathan Ellison," Rei replied softly. "Whatever you are."
One week later, two human figures lay on an utterly deserted beach and watched the sun boil away into a completely different sea.
The island, twenty miles off the coast of Australia near the Great Barrier Reef, belonged to X-COM, but hadn't been used for anything since the Hidden War. Far away from any shipping or aircraft routes, uninhabited by any person, it was the perfect retreat from the world, and the two people lying on its western beach right now might have been the only two people left on Earth.
That suited the Earl and Countess of Langley-Croft just fine.
Smiling behind his sunglasses, DJ raised the plastic coconut in his right hand. Asuka raised the matching one in her left, the the dying sunlight glinted from the diamonds and emeralds of her wedding band as she tapped her drink to his.
"This," he remarked after taking a sip, "is the bloody life."
"Mm," Asuka replied, a trifle sleepily. "Though you know we'd go crazy from boredom in a week or so."
"Oh, I know. But right now? Heaven. After everything we've been through in the last year and a half, it's so good to just relax." He let his head settle back against the rolled-up towel he'd pressed into service as a pillow. "I feel almost human again." Then he levered himself up on one elbow, looked over his shades, and grinned. "What about you?"
Asuka considered that for a moment, then set her coconut aside and grinned back.
"I don't think I've ever felt better," she said, and drew him down into a kiss.
ANIMATOR'S NOTE: The imagery for this sequence is sort of a combination of the end credits from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the Eighth Dimension and that one part of The Right Stuff that was used in the trailer where the astronauts walk dramatically down the corridor. Basically, it starts with DJ walking briskly down a Central Dogma corridor, dressed as he appeared way back in Exodus 1:1. As he walks, he is joined by the rest of the cast, one at a time, emerging from side doors and other corridors and whatnot, starting with Rei and then adding in rough order of appearance. Eventually, he's acquired ALL the cast, including the Seraphim Council and everybody who's died or disappeared—that means both Tabris and Tabriel are there, since they were played by different "actors"—except for the brothers Ellison and sisters Ayanami. Of them, there's only one representative of each: San Ayanami, who takes to Shinji as soon as she joins the walk, and Dan Ellison, who looks thoroughly pleased with himself.
Once they're all together, they emerge from Central Dogma onto the plaza in front of the pyramid; it's a lovely sunny day in the Geo-Front, and they all stop and assemble surrounded by the Flags of All Nations, main cast in front, everybody else clustered up behind. They reach this formation just as the song ends—and then we fade out on everyone looking pleased, and the next song starts, with the credits rolling over black, as soon as the fade's complete.
Directed by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Produced by Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Written by Benjamin D. Hutchins
and John Trussell
as DJ Croft
Ameila A. Anderson, MD
Naomi Anderson, MD
Jurriaan de Cock
Nikolai I. Kirishatov
Marina N. Kirishatova
The Seraphim Council:
Azrael, Archangel of Vengeance
David, Archangel of Stone
Dominic, Archangel of Judgment
Gabriel, Archangel of Fire
Laurence, Archangel of the Sword
Michael, Archangel of War
Sir Patrick Stewart as Yves, Archangel of Destiny
Sir Ian McKellen as Lucifer, Archangel of Light
Tommy Lee Jones as Special Agent Ken Stanfield
Will Smith as Special Agent Jim Edwards
Sir Alistair Warden-King as Pen-Pen
G&uum;nther von Hundeheim as Anubis
the voices of
Terri Brosius as SHODAN/Leela
Ellen McLain as Lilith/Yui Ikari
David Banks as Durandal
Tony Jay as Tycho
Douglas Rain as HAL 14000
Rachael L. Mayo as Rachael Swiftedge
Derek G. Bacon as himself
Inspired by Neon Genesis Evangelion
created by Hideaki Anno, Gainax, et al.
Neon Genesis Evangelion characters created by Hideaki Anno
and Yoshiyuki Sadamoto
DJ Croft, Ichi & San Ayanami, John Trussell, Otto Keller,
Nikolai Ivanovich Kirishatov and the Special Projects Directorate of the Soviet Space Agency
created by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Ichi Ayanami significantly improved by and
Kaori Yamashita created by John Trussell
Rachael Swiftedge created by Hutchins/Cross/Mann/Trussell
in honor of Rachael L. Mayo
Marina Kirishatova inspired by a character from
Neon Genesis Evangelion: Iron Maiden
and developed by Trussell/Hutchins
The clan Ellison created by Larry Mann
Lara Croft created by Toby Gard
Ken Stanfield by way of and
Jim Edwards created by Lowell Cunningham
Naomi and Amy Anderson by way of Naoko Takeuchi
HAL 14000 by way of Arthur C. Clarke
Special thanks to Jeff 'YaK' Minter
Additional material and inspiration cadged from
Tomb Raider by Core Design, Ltd.
UFO: Enemy Unknown by MPS Labs
In Nomine by Steve Jackson Games
Marathon 2: Durandal by Bungie Software
System Shock and System Shock 2 by Looking Glass Studios
2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
The X-Files created by Chris Carter
Men in Black by Lowell Cunningham
Chōkō Senki Kikaiōh by Capcom
Half-Life by Valve Software
Full Throttle by LucasArts
Firefox by Craig Thomas
"Whipping Post" by the Allman Brothers Band
"Hymn of the Soviet Union"
"British Grenadiers" (trad.)
Paradise Lost by John Milton
Remastered for HTML/CSS in 2016 by Benjamin D. Hutchins
This battle is over.
The War never ends.
E P U (colour) 2003