Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Neon Exodus Evangelion
Exodus 1: The Gathering Storm
Inspired by Neon Genesis Evangelion
created by Hideaki Anno, Gainax, et al.
Most characters designed by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto
Additional material and inspiration cadged from Tomb Raider by Core Design, Ltd.
X-COM: UFO Defense and sequels from MPS Labs
(whoever owns them nowadays)
and The X-Files created by Chris Carter
Written by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Aided and abetted by the Eyrie Productions, Unlimited crew
and special-guest-for-life Phil Moyer
© 1997 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
HTML remastering © 2016 EPU
"Well," said DJ to himself as he stood at the guard rail and looked down the hill on which the Worcester Airport was situated, "this is a happening city, I can tell from here."
Sprawled out in the valley below, the city of Worcester lay gray and squat in the afternoon sunlight, muted by an iron overcast that DJ's arriving flight had descended through no more than half an hour ago. There were no sounds of urban bustle coming up from the gray network of streets, no cars moving, no trains running... only the unnatural quiet of an abandoned city. Everyone had been evacuated to shelters; DJ's flight had just barely squeaked by, and now everybody in the airport had gone underground, too.
Except DJ. He spent quite enough time underground while exploring ancient ruins with his mother, a renowned explorer-adventurer, and felt no need to do so while in the lap of civilization. So, when the passengers were hustled off the plane, he'd used some of the skills that had been honed by and served him so well on those countless adventures, and taken the first opportunity to slip away. Besides, he was supposed to be meeting someone.
He reached into the front pocket of his shirt and pulled out the photo that had accompanied his acceptance letter. It was a snapshot, and depicted a remarkably attractive woman somewhere in her twenties, dark-haired and cheerful, grinning and waving next to a blue car of a sort DJ couldn't determine from what little of it was visible. And even so, he wasn't motorhead enough to be overly distracted from the woman, comfortably clad in t-shirt and cutoff jeans, by ruminations about what kind of car it was.
Across the top of the photo, in a felt-tip scrawl, were the words, "DEREK—I'LL PICK YOU UP AT THE AIRPORT," and a completely unintelligible signature that might have started with a K, and on the other hand, might not have. At the bottom, that same scrawl added, "PS—LOOK AT THIS."
DJ wondered, not for the first time, if "look at these" might not be a little more appropriate; then he pocketed the photo and resumed surveying the city. From his vantage point, he could see no particular reason for the state of emergency; just a sleepy little podunk city, not unlike the one nearest the town he'd grown up in, back in England.
If such a statement was indeed accurate. After all, he hadn't spent all, or even most, of that time actually in England. Moreover, at 14, Derek J. Croft had a lot of growing yet to do, and he'd be the first to admit it. He was a bit short for his age, and not heavily built, though he was wiry, stronger and faster than he looked. From the time he could walk, he had joined his mother in her workouts as well as her adventures; he could crawl through spaces no bigger than an air duct, lift his own admittedly-modest body weight, and run, at a moderate pace, more or less all day.
He was also more alert than his usual expression indicated; the blue eyes he habitually kept half-hooded took in everything, and behind the indifferent expression which was the default for his darkly handsome face—the face his mother said looked so much like his father's—worked the processes of a mind wiser and quicker than its years. Alertness was a good quality to have in the tomb-raiding business, for many reasons. DJ had learned to trust his instincts when they identified a threat.
They were identifying one right now. He half-turned to see a long black car slide up to the curb behind him; the front doors opened and a pair of men in black suits and sunglasses got out. DJ was very familiar with this species of suit-wearer: Spookus americanus domesticus, the common G-man. One with salt-and-pepper hair, he'd be the senior. One with short-cropped ginger hair, the junior partner, stuck with driving the car. Even from here he could see their little earplug radios. Beautiful animal, the G-man, though DJ to himself. Lovely plumage.
"Derek Croft?" Ginger-hair asked.
"DJ," DJ automatically corrected him.
"Come with us, please."
"Sorry, I'm meeting someone," DJ replied offhandedly, showing nothing but indifference for their intimidating dress and air of authority.
"Mr. Croft," said Salt-and-Pepper. Extra suckup points for that, thought DJ, as the agent continued, "I'm afraid we have to insist. There's a state of emergency on right now; we have orders to escort you to Headquarters."
"Can't do, I'm afraid. Like I said, I'm meeting someone." DJ took out the picture and regarded it momentarily. "Someone I don't want to sod up my first encounter with," he added with a smile, tucking the photo back into his pocket.
Ginger repressed a sigh that might have humanized him a bit had he let it escape. "We have orders—" he started to repeat.
"Sod your orders," said DJ.
"Mr. Croft, given your status as a minor—"
"And a subject of the British crown," added DJ.
"—and a subject of the British crown, yes," Salt-and-Pepper continued, "we really do not want to be put in a situation where we have to use force."
"Then don't," DJ told him with a shrug, leaning back against the guard rail. G-men don't know how to take it when you fail to be impressed with their authority. It always throws them off-balance.
DJ knew all about G-men. His father had been one, in the years before Second Impact. DJ's mother had told him the story hundreds of times. They'd had one night together, coincidentally the night of Second Impact itself, and then he'd disappeared. Later, the government said he'd been killed with his partner in the Great San Andreas Earthquake, but DJ believed otherwise.
When it comes to the United States Government, DJ's father had told Lara Croft that night, trust no one. She had taken his advice to heart, and so had the son he'd never met.
"We don't have time for this," growled Ginger. DJ had figured him for the one who would crack first. He ducked easily under the hand the G-man had meant to clamp on his shoulder, then slipped around the man's outside and faded back behind the corner of the black sedan.
"I'm not in your bloody country ten minutes and you're already manhandling me. The British consulate is definitely going to hear about this," DJ observed.
"Come back here, you little—"
"And now I'm to be subjected to foul language as well? Your mother must be very proud of you," DJ chided. He knew he was baiting the man, and that it probably wasn't a wise thing to do, but the hell of it was, sometimes, he just couldn't help it. Another trait his mother always said he got from his father, although DJ had seen her do it more than her fair share of times.
Nevertheless, Ginger was starting to look downright ticked off. DJ decided it was time to get moving.
"Well, it's been fun, gentlemen," he said, dashing back to the airport terminal building. "Ta!" he called after him as he sprinted through the doors into the deserted baggage concourse.
That the airport was evacuated was both good and bad: good in that there were no crowds to get in the way and airport security officers to help the G-men, bad in that there were no crowds to hide in and airport security officers to misdirect into hindering the G-men. Still, one makes do. DJ hopped a Smarte Carte, using it as an impromptu skateboard to pick up some extra speed across the baggage area, then ditching it and banging through a fire door.
This was more like it. The modest-sized airport was built, as DJ would find out most things in Worcester-3 are, into the side of a hill (actually, a sizable plateau, big enough for the runways), and below the hilltop terminal building was a two-level parking garage which had entrances and exits from the two-switchbacked access road running up the hillface from the city. Assuming the two G-men didn't have backup, they couldn't chase him and cover all the exits; it was only a matter of avoiding them in the garage, and a little bit of luck in picking the right exit, and he could elude them and get into the city proper.
What he was going to do then, he had no idea, but what the hell... it beat being dragged away to who knows where by the Men in Black.
Bursting out of the stairwell on the first garage level, DJ immediately ducked between two parked cars and crouchwalked along between them, not letting his head show above the top lines of the cars if he could help it. Flattening himself against the cool concrete of the corner wall, he stole a look out into the mostly-empty garage. The coast looked clear on the far exit, and the sounds coming from the stairwell he had just exited meant at least one agent was not far from catching up to him.
Nothing for it, then. He took a couple of deep breaths, getting as much oxygen as possible into his blood, and then dashed flat-out for the exit. Behind him, the stairwell door banged open and the voice of Ginger bellowed, "STOP!"
DJ prudently ignored that instruction and charged out of the garage at full speed, flashing past a startled Salt-and-Pepper and the black sedan before vaulting the guardrail and proceeding to sprint down the grassy hillside. The effort here was actually in not going too fast and tumbling out of control; if he did that he would fetch up painfully against the guard rail down below where the airport access road switched back and be an easy pickup. He stole a glance over his shoulder; neither G-man had decided to pursue him directly. Instead they were piling into their car and trying to beat him to the switchback.
DJ smiled. They weren't going to make it. He hopped the rail, pelted across the pavement, hopped the opposite rail and plunged down the hill again, hearing the screech of tires a good five seconds behind him. That was silly of them; there was one more switchback to go, and if they had kept the pedal down they might have beaten him to it.
It was about then that the other black car cut him off. DJ was going way too fast to stop, so he trusted the reflexes he'd honed in countless workouts and adventures at his mother's side and vaulted it, sliding across the hood and coming down in a neat tumble before continuing toward the guard rail.
One of the men in the second car was too fast for him, though; just as he jumped for the rail, a hand caught his collar and brought him up short. Fine, then, if they wanted to be that way about it. DJ whirled, his left hand tearing something from under his jacket, and the startled G-man who had DJ by the collar and his sidearm in his other hand covering the boy suddenly found himself looking down the barrel of another pistol—smaller, but no less deadly for that.
They remained there, frozen, for several seconds, held at arm's length, locked in each other's sights—your classic John Woo standoff (cf. The Killer).
Then the G-man found his voice: "Where the hell'd you get that, kid?"
"Brought it with me."
"A guy's got to have some secrets."
G-man and erstwhile mini-fugitive shared a quiet grin of mutual understanding.
The sound of another car pulling up broke the tableau. Looking past the man who still held down on him, DJ saw the new car. It was the blue one from the photo, and the woman getting out was the woman who belonged to it, though she was differently dressed; she had on a brown dress that might have been a uniform and a jacket that was at least part of one.
"Well," said the woman, smiling. "Nobody told me you came with such interesting accessories. I'm Misato Katsuragi."
"Ah, is that your name," replied DJ, not looking away from the G-man. "I couldn't read your signature at all. DJ Croft. Mind telling me what the hell's going on here?"
"Hop in," said Misato, indicating her car. "I'll explain on the way. Let him go, Stanfield."
"On the way where?" asked DJ as the G-man released him, but kept him covered.
"I'll explain that on the way too."
DJ sighed. "I s'pose if I don't you'll have these fellows make me."
"No," said Misato cheerfully. "I'll make you myself."
DJ smiled. "You're making me feel at home already." Putting his gun away and sketching a salute to a somewhat amused-looking Stanfield, he walked over to the blue car, tossed his backpack into the back seat, and plopped down in the driver's seat before realizing his mistake and sliding over. "Sorry. Forgot it wouldn't be a proper car."
"What the hell's wrong with my car?" Misato demanded, irked.
"Nothing, nothing," DJ replied. "It's just I forgot you Americans drive on the other side."
"Oh." She seemed mollified by that, and took her place behind the wheel. "I just got it fixed."
"It's lovely," DJ said.
As they drove, Misato seemed lost in thought for a moment, then turned to DJ and asked, "Do you have your acceptance letter?"
At a loss as to just why she would want that, since it was obvious to him now that she didn't work for any school for gifted youth, DJ nevertheless retrieved the appropriate document and handed it over. Misato studied it, hmm'd thoughtfully, then stuck it into the pocket on the cover of a binder and handed the whole thing to DJ.
NERV, said the cover, in large, not-particularly-friendly letters, and PERSONNEL HANDBOOK below.
"NERV!" DJ declared, turning the binder over in his hand. "Are you putting me on? NERV, the special military arm of SEELE? That NERV?"
"You've heard of SEELE?"
"'Course I've heard of SEELE," he said, in the kind of tone most teenage boys would say, "'Course I've heard of the Thrashing Gnoberts."
"That's interesting, considering it's a secret organization."
"Sure, as secret as Majestic 12," replied DJ. The reference went clear over Misato's head, but she decided not to question it. DJ leafed through the manual. "They made NERV public but thought they could keep its parent organization a secret? Idiots. Why'd you give me this?"
"You'll need it. You see, you'll be working for us."
"I will. Gee, and here I haven't even interviewed yet."
"Sure you have. Remember the tests you took last year?"
"I knew it!" DJ said, slapping the armrest built into his side's door. "The whole thing's a scam. But what the hell d'you need me for?" he asked, running a hand over his thick black thatch of hair. "I mean, granted, I am the world's most handsome and sophisticated fourteen-year-old boy, but what good is that to NERV?"
Misato suppressed a snicker. "You'll see," she replied.
"Oh, joy," replied DJ. "A surprise. I love surprises."
They topped the next hill, and the city spread itself out before them again; as it did, DJ noticed something that hadn't been there before.
"What the hell is that?!"
On the hills on the other side of the city, perhaps four or five miles distant, a group of combat aerodynes were being torn to bits by...
... well, to DJ, it looked most like Hedorah, the Smog Monster, from Godzilla vs. same—a vaguely humanoid black shape two or three hundred feet high, with a definite form and yet strangely amorphous, gangly and entirely otherworldly.
"It's an Angel," Misato replied, all but standing on the car's accelerator.
"Well, bugger all," said DJ. "They're back. I knew they would be, sooner or later."
Misato would have liked to have asked DJ what the hell he meant by that, but she was too busy driving the car at ridiculous speeds into a tunnel.
DJ had seen a lot of surprising things already that day, but if he had to look back on it and pick the most surprising one, he figured the car coming out of that tunnel into an underground cavern the size of a small state was probably the biggest one, just edging out the sight of Hedorah the Smog Monster destroying a platoon of aerodynes. They were on a massively elevated freeway, soaring down from the lofty heights of the cavern ceiling toward a city sprawled along the shores of a massive lake almost a mile below. Above, the city of Worcester-3 hung suspended from the ceiling, looking absurdly inverted. DJ counted himself fortunate that he was not acrophobic.
"This's a funny place for a Geo-Front," he observed.
"This is Worcester-3," replied Misato. "Our fortress against the Angels."
"Slick," replied DJ. They fell silent as Misato drove and DJ admired the view.
The NERV manual went completely unread as DJ marveled at everything around him. He didn't even care that Misato had gotten them both completely lost in the maze of escalators, elevators, corridors and passageways that made up the labyrinthian pyramidal building with the rather baroque name "Central Dogma"; he was much too busy being impressed with the architecture.
In one of the elevators, though, he was distracted from the architecture as they were joined by another woman. This one was about Misato's height and age, with shorter blonde hair and a small mole under one blue eye. Like Misato, she was a very attractive woman, though they accomplished that end in completely different ways. The new arrival (Dr. Ritsuko Akagi, according to the name tag clipped to her lab coat) had a rather more arctic sort of beauty, and dressed to match it. She had on dark stockings, a black leather miniskirt and a tight blue zip-up top with a ring on the throat-high zip tab that DJ found almost irresistibly enticing, topped off incongruously with a white lab coat.
Neither woman, it occurred to DJ, looked even vaguely Japanese, but if he had been the sort of person who worried about that kind of thing, he would have lost his mind long ago; so he ignored it.
She arrived in a somewhat disconcerting fashion; the elevator stopped, the doors opened, and there she was, standing right in front of them. She stepped inside expressionlessly, in the process pushing back a surprised and sheepish-looking Misato, who stammered, "Uh, hi, um, Ritsuko."
"Why are you wasting my time, Captain Katsuragi?" Ritsuko inquired coolly. "Don't you realize we're short of both time and manpower?"
"Sorry," replied Misato sheepishly. "I got lost again."
Ritsuko turned and regarded DJ dispassionately. "This is the boy?"
"Yes," replied Misato. "According to the Marduk Report, he's the Fifth Child."
DJ grinned. "DJ Croft. I really must compliment your Human Resources people sometime soon."
Ritsuko's look became quizzical for a moment; then she directed it at Misato, who shrugged.
As they left the elevator and rode up another ridiculously long escalator, DJ tuned out the conversation between the two women (it was incomprehensible anyway, something about a test unit failing some kind of synchronization with some absurdly small success rate, sounded to DJ like they were talking about a faulty piece of network routing equipment or some such) and admired the vastness and weirdness of the space around them. He followed them absently, looking into the manual's index for this or that, and only noticed that something was odd when a door closed behind them and abruptly shut off all the light. Startled, he looked up from the book, as though that would somehow help, and bumped into one of the women, although he would never be sure which one.
In retrospect, he would decide that it was more or less the high point of his day, right there.
"Hey, what the—" DJ began, but then the overhead lights snapped on, and he skidded to a mental halt.
He was standing on a catwalk across a large, vault-ceilinged metal room, not unlike the service gantry across a submarine pen. The resemblance was heightened by the fact that the room was filled up to the catwalk level with a pinkish liquid. High on the far wall, near the ceiling, was a row of thick windows. But the thing in front of DJ, protruding above the surface of the liquid and bracketed by the catwalk, was no submarine conning tower.
It took DJ a few moments to realize that what he was looking at were the head and shoulders of a gigantic robot—if his sense of scale was still intact, it might just be a rival in scale for the monster that he'd seen attacking the aerodynes earlier. It was covered in a dull purple armor plate, and the head had a curious horn-like construct on it, jutting high above DJ's head from between the slit-like yellow eyes that seemed, uncomfortably, to be watching him.
"What're you when you're at home?" he murmured.
"This is the Test Type model of the artificial lifeform Evangelion," said Ritsuko. "Unit 01."
"Well, that's all very nice, but what the hell's it mean?"
"It's Mankind's last line of defense against the Angels," said Misato.
"And you will pilot it," came a man's voice, distorted slightly as if by a loudspeaker. DJ looked up and saw a man, dark-haired and intense-eyed, staring down at him from the booth windows.
"Excuse me?" DJ inquired.
"I am Professor Gendō Ikari. I am the Director of NERV and Project Evangelion."
"How nice for you," replied DJ conversationally.
"Your mother is Lara Croft, the archaeologist," said Ikari. It was not a question.
"I know who my mother is, thanks," said DJ.
"She disappeared three months ago while investigating a Mayan ruin in the Yucatán."
"Difficult to find Mayan ruins elsewhere, isn't it? Your point?"
"Since then you have been a minor living alone, with neither supervision nor guidance. That has now changed. You will work for us."
"Will I indeed? Suppose I don't want to."
"That is not an option," said Ikari flatly.
"There're always options."
"I gave the last person in your position options, and he disappointed me. I have decided to avoid this in future by no longer presenting a choice. You will pilot Unit 01; you will defeat the attacking Angel."
"Go to hell! You've got no right to do this, whoever the hell you are. I'm a British subject—I can't be pressed into service by an American agency, I'm pretty bloody sure that's an act of war!"
"NERV is above the law," Ikari replied coldly.
"For God's sake, this is childish!" Ritsuko burst out, overcome with a wave of exasperation. "Stop arguing international law and get into the damned EVA."
"Childish?!" DJ rounded on her, thrusting a finger fiercely into her face. "Look here, my love, you people drag me halfway round the world on the pretense of giving me an advanced-study scholarship, you fly me into a war zone, you send a press gang to meet me at the airport, you plop me down in front of a giant bleeding robot and order me to risk my life to save you and then you have the gall to call me childish because I happen to be a little outraged about the whole thing? Well, I've got news for you, Dr. Pullring—you and your spook brigade don't control the entire bleeding world. Now I want somebody to take me back to the airport right bloody now and maybe—just maybe—I won't give a full report to the British consulate about what you've just tried to do to me."
Having expected neither such focused anger nor such eloquence from her small antagonist, Risuko had no particular reply to make; instead she stared into DJ's angry blue eyes for a moment, shocked into silence by the force of his indignation.
The moment was broken by the sound of Dr. Ikari saying, "Fine. Captain Katsuragi, see that the boy gets back to his home after the operation is complete." He tabbed a control on the panel next to him. "Keller, wake up Rei."
"You're sending her?" Otto Keller replied, shocked.
"She isn't dead," said Ikari flatly.
Keller seemed to wrestle with his thoughts for a moment, then nodded, his shoulders slumping as if he'd just lost the battle. "Understood." His image winked out.
A moment later, there came the chime of another intercom channel opening, and Ikari announced without preamble, "Rei, the replacement is useless. You will do it instead."
"I understand," came a female voice, flat, emotionless, like a strange mirror of Ikari's own tones.
DJ began to feel as if he had accidentally dropped through a wormhole in time and space and into an Ingmar Bergman movie. A few moments later, the feeling was intensified as a door at the far end of the catwalk opened and three men in medical greens wheeled in a gurney. On the gurney was a girl, DJ guessed more or less his own age, and looking rather the worse for wear. Her legs were swathed in bandages, one forearm wore a cast, and there was a loop of gauze around her head securing a pad over her right eye. An IV in her unencasted left arm dripped a clear solution from a bag held above her by a bracket on the side of the gurney. She had disheveled pale hair that actually looked rather blue under the lights of the bay, and her skin was ash-white, the palest DJ had ever seen.
As she passed, she looked up at DJ with her good eye, and for just an instant, their gazes—his blue, wavering between residual anger and mounting bemusement, hers a deep red and unreadable—met. As that instant stretched glassy thin, DJ felt curiously calm and focused, as if the preternatural calm with which she was taking these events had seeped into him through the momentary eye contact. He felt an unspeakable kinship with her, an undefinable longing for more and deeper contact... as if here was someone he could happily tell all his secrets to, here was someone who could confide implicitly in him.
Then the moment shattered, time resumed its normal pace, the gurney was past and the feeling was swept away, and for a moment, DJ felt quite cheated. He turned, all blank of mind, and watched as the medtechs removed the IV and the girl struggled to a sitting position, beads of sweat breaking out on her forehead from the exertion or the pain. She breathed sharply through clenched teeth, her hands clenched into fists, one visible eye narrowed in obvious anguish.
DJ looked up to the booth, and the message in Ikari's expressionless eyes was clear: do what I want, or I'll send this girl to die in your place. For there was no doubt in DJ's mind that if she went out there in her current condition, she would not survive.
Before he had a chance to say or do anything about it, though, the chamber shook as if in an earthquake, and, as the medtechs scattered in panic, the gurney turned on its side, dumping its occupant to the steel catwalk with a single, sharp cry of pain. Unthinking, DJ sprinted toward her, not even noticing as a tangle of the girders across the vaulted ceiling broke free and tumbled down - directly toward him.
Misato caught her breath, watching helplessly as the girders fell. DJ was running out from under them, but he wouldn't clear them in time—and so intent was he on reaching Rei, he would never know what hit him.
That's what she thought until, with a metallic tearing sound, the right hand of EVA-01 broke free of its restraints, rose out of the suspension liquid, and interposed itself. The girders bounced away with a crash, bashing against the booth window where Dr. Ikari stood unflinching and watched. Misato looked away, bothered slightly by the grin that creased the scientist's usually motionless visage—a grin with no humor or warmth, only an unholy kind of triumph.
It then dawned on her, and on Ritsuko, what had just happened, and they shared an incredulous glance that quickly melted into satisfaction.
DJ, oblivious to it all, skidded to a halt beside the stricken pilot, dropping to his knees and helping her as she struggled to sit up. The fall had reopened wounds; as he supported her back with one hand and her encasted arm with the other, he felt blood seeping sticky and hot through bandages and uniform. She lay against his arm and chest, good eye squeezed shut, taking short, gasping breaths through the haze of pain. Feeling as if he'd been stabbed through the heart with an icicle, DJ raised his right hand and contemplated it, smeared with crimson, for a moment; then he looked down at Rei's pale, drawn face and used his sleeve to wipe away some of the cold sweat standing on her brow, hoping she could at least draw some comfort from his presence and concern.
Looking up at Ritsuko, he said, "All right, damn you, I'll do it."
You know, thought DJ to himself, it's really rather relaxing in here. Except for that funny smell...
With little ceremony and less courtesy, he'd been stripped of his clothes and dressed in a bizarre one-piece garment with all the charm of a wetsuit and not quite as much comfort. It had odd fittings whose purpose he couldn't quite fathom, sensors in less than optimal locations, and was made of a strange material that contracted rather alarmingly when a control on the wrist was pressed, changing it from a rather floppy jumpsuit to an altogether embarrassing spectacle. Then he'd been stuffed into a large white cylinder that looked like nothing so much as a gigantic activated-charcoal cartridge for the world's biggest swimming-pool filter.
So here he sat, sitting semi-upright in a nice padded seat in a space about the size of a telephone booth. The walls around him were covered in flexible display panels, providing a seamless display surface all the way around; at the moment they were offline and displaying a lovely, comforting Mandelbrot set as a result. The control panel before him was remarkably simple, consisting mainly of a pair of butterfly grips on gimbals and a couple of unlabeled buttons.
It occurred to DJ that his hands were stinging, as if he'd scalded himself slightly testing too-hot bathwater. He wished momentarily that there was some easy way to look at them—but the gloves on his hands were attached to the arms of the plug suit, so he would have to wait until he was done to investigate. He didn't remember hurting himself—he hoped fervently that he wasn't allergic to the material of the suit. That would quickly become very, very unpleasant...
"DJ, can you hear me?" came Ritsuko's voice from a small speaker on the instrument panel.
"Yes, I hear you," replied DJ, abandoning that train of thought.
"Are you ready?"
"As I'll ever be."
"Begin synchronization procedure. Power up Unit 01's neurosystems and flood the entry plug."
The display panels changed from the Mandelbrot to a muted color-test pattern, then cycled through a few others before settling into a well-laid-out status display which, at the moment, was reporting absolutely nothing. DJ sat back and tried to clear his mind, no mean feat for one as active as his. He registered only brief consternation as the entry plug filled from the bottom up with a cool yellowish liquid; since they clearly didn't intend to drown him, he realized that it must be an oxygenation medium before Ritsuko informed him of same over the speaker. Belching out a great cloud of bubbles, he fought down a brief spurt of nausea.
"What fun," he muttered.
"Quit whining," Misato chided him. "You're a boy, aren't you?"
DJ rolled his eyes, but said nothing.
Up in the control booth, Ritsuko watched with satisfaction as the big board reported an orderly activation, nothing out of place, no strange voltage spikes or stray neural pulses screwing the whole delicate sequence up. In fact, as the nerve blocks connected one by one by one and the green of nominal status spread across the map, it was clear to her that the mind of DJ Croft and whatever passed for the mind of EVA-01 were meshing with almost preternatural compatibility.
"Synchrotron is holding stable at 41.5 percent," reported the room's chief console tech, dark-eyed Maya Ibuki.
"Forty-one point five percent," Ritsuko repeated. "Impressive for his first synchronization... especially considering which EVA he's using."
To DJ, this remarkable event passed more or less unnoticed, except for a peculiar elongation of his senses. His balance swam momentarily, then re-established itself; now he felt precariously tall and curiously braced up. Of course, he thought to himself; the EVA is locked into position by all the gantries and the like. What a fascinating sensation... I could get to like this.
If only the people running the program weren't such jerks...
"You're synchronized. How does it feel?" asked Ritsuko.
"Can't describe it, really. Mostly, I feel... taller."
"You didn't freak out when we flooded the entry plug," she observed. "That's a good sign."
"I've used Hi-Ox Liquid Environment diving suits."
"There's nothing better for exploring shipwrecks. Don't tell me you haven't read Into the Titanic? It's got some of my best work."
"Is there anything you haven't done?"
DJ paused, a slow grin spreading over his face; then he replied, "I'll let you have that one for free, but in time you'll learn not to ask me questions like that, Ritsuko my love."
Ritsuko reddened slightly, but decided not to dignify that obvious bait with an answer. Instead, she turned to Dr. Ikari, who stood at the back of the room, hands folded, observing the big board with the ghost of a smile on his face.
"Can we really do this?" she asked him.
He nodded. "If we don't, humanity has no future."
Ritsuko returned his nod, looked pensive for a moment, then turned to Misato. "He's all yours, Captain Katsuragi."
Misato's smile melted away, replaced with a look of hard professionalism, as she said to the console crew, "Prepare EVA-01 for launch! We'll use Track 14."
Interlocks and more interlocks were released, catwalks were moved, the EVA chamber was drained, and EVA-01, still attached to its backing gantry, moved on a pair of magnetic tracks to one of the sockets in the far wall. Above it, a series of hatches opened, giving it a clear path to the surface almost a mile above.
"Exit path is clear. EVA-01 is ready for launch," Maya reported.
"Lord," DJ muttered, "please don't let me fuck up."
"Say again, EVA-01?" came Maya's reply.
"Er, I said everything's A-OK here."
"That's what I thought, EVA-01. Stand by for launch." Was that a hint of a smile in Maya's voice?
"Launch!" Misato ordered. Magnetic induction on the rails running up the wall catapulted EVA-01's gantry, and the Evangelion along with it, toward the surface.
To DJ, it felt exactly like the time he and his mother had to get to the top of a tall building without going inside; they'd accomplished it by severing an external elevator cable and letting the counterweight pull them to the top. He let out the same whoop he had on that occasion, too.
Twenty seconds later, with much klaxoning and flashing of red lights, a square hatch opened in the middle of a main street, and EVA-01 popped up with a shuddering crash, coming to an abrupt stop that hurled DJ against his seat harness and made him glad of the shock protection afforded by the liquid-filled cockpit. All around him, the display panels showed him a 270° wraparound view of what the EVA was seeing from its head-mounted eyes. He towered over the city; only a few of the nearby buildings were taller.
Ten blocks down the street, the black, white and red hunchbacked shape of the Angel swung toward the new arrival with obvious interest.
"Release final interlock!" Misato ordered; the bolts holding EVA-01 to the gantry snapped back, and the machine lurched forward a little, sagging slightly under its weight. DJ felt a momentary spike of balance-related panic, the sort a person feels when he tips back an unfamiliar swivel chair and thinks, wrongly, that he's about to fall over backward.
"OK, DJ," said Misato. "Concentrate on walking."
DJ did just that, and, with a trifle of hesitation, EVA-01 took one thunderous step forward, the impact of its enormous footfall shattering a nearby telephone kiosk.
He took another step, but misjudged the size of the EVA's feet and caught one toe on the other ankle. His balance destroyed, DJ felt the machine toppling.
"Ahh, bugger!" he declared as it crashed face-first to the ground.
"Get up!" Misato cried.
"A work in progress," DJ replied—but before he could make any significant progress toward that end, he felt the machine being unceremoniously hauled to its feet, then beyond, hoisted up into the air by the Angel.
"EVA-01's AT Field isn't deploying," Maya reported.
"Trace the fault," Ritsuko ordered.
"No fault found—it's just not unfolding!"
"AAARGH!" DJ calmly observed as the Angel seized EVA-01's head in one hand and its left forearm in the other, then started doing its best to pull one, the other, or both appendages off.
"DJ, relax," Ritsuko called. "That's not your arm! It's just feedback from the neural link."
DJ would have found that information a tremendous comfort had he in fact been able to hear it, but the fact was, he was in far too much pain—pain which spiked higher still when, with a splintering crack, the EVA's left forearm snapped, leaving the hand dangling limp and useless.
As the Angel's energy lance began pounding on EVA-01's head, DJ's mind was in chaos, conflicting images of his own sound body and the EVA's battered frame refusing to coexist in his brain, his sense of identity collapsing entirely. He felt as if he wanted to scream, but something was holding his mouth closed.
Then the EVA's armor gave way, and the machine went crashing on its back into the wreckage of a building, sprawling insensate, a fluid that seemed very like blood pouring from the massive wound in the right side of its head, and DJ Croft's mind went totally blank.
"The Synchrotron's going crazy!" Maya cried, back in the booth. "The pulses are flowing backward... all the neural interlocks are coming apart! Unit 01's gone completely offline."
Having dispatched its foe, the Angel totally lost interest in Unit 01. Turning its back, it returned to blasting at the ground, trying to open a hole large enough to permit it to pass through and attack the Geo-Front below.
In the cool and dim cockpit of the fallen EVA, Derek Joshua Croft regained a tiny splinter of consciousness. His head and arm throbbed mercilessly, and the voice of Ritsuko demanding to know his status hammered meaninglessly at his ears. Nothing made sense, everything was chaos, who in God's name was he?
"Carry on, my wayward son."
DJ's eyes snapped open.
She wasn't here, she couldn't be, but for just an instant, he'd heard his mother's voice, telling him what she always told him when giving him permission to go off on some solo expedition or walkabout.
"I know who my mother is, thanks."
And knowing her, I know who I am, too.
Thank you, Mum, wherever you are.
In the control room, the big board suddenly flooded with green, and the Synchrotron spiked up to seventy-four percent.
Its one remaining eye glowing like a beacon, Evangelion Unit 01 hauled itself to its feet. The already-cracked armor over the lower part of its "face" cracked, then shattered, and it swung its jaw open and let out an unearthly howl; then it crouched until its knees nearly touched the ground and kicked off effortlessly.
The Third Angel half-turned, facelessly unable to register surprise, as EVA-01 crashed down on it from above, smashing it face-down to the ground, then sprang away, executed a tidy back somersault (its power cable streaming picturesquely around it, then settling well-behavedly behind) and touched down lightly a block or so away.
"OK," DJ understated cheerfully, "I think I've got motor control down. How do I access the weapons systems?"
"The EVA doesn't have any integral weapons," said Misato.
"No integral weapons? What silly sod designed that?"
Ignoring that outburst, Misato continued, "You have a Progressive Knife available in the left pauldron, and there are weapons caches throughout the city. See the building over to your left about five blocks, with the red light flashing on the roof? That's your nearest weapons block."
"It'll have to do, I suppose," replied DJ. The winglike structure jutting up from the EVA's left shoulder popped open, deploying a handle; reaching up with the unit's good hand, DJ grasped it and drew it out, revealing what looked for all the world like a Bowie knife suitable for transport by heavy rail. "Cute," he remarked as the cutting edge of the blade began vibrating, heating to a white glow.
The Angel had regained its feet, and as EVA-01 sprang forward for the attack, it manifested its Absolute Terror Field. DJ grunted as the EVA slammed into the wall of yellow energy, flinging him against the straps again. "What the hell?!" he demanded, sparing a snarl of consternation as the Progressive Knife bounced away and disappeared between a couple of buildings.
In the back of his mind came a whispery feeling, not a voice but just a certainty: I know how to handle this.
Well, I wish you'd get on with it then, was the wordless response.
The EVA raised its left arm, clenched the fist, and DJ felt the sympathetic relief as the damaged area fused back together, leaving it whole and undamaged.
"EVA-01's left forearm has been regenerated," Maya reported.
"IN-credible," Misato muttered.
Thrusting its fingers into the Angel's AT Field, EVA-01 looked for all the world like a man trying to force open a pair of recalcitrant elevator doors, as the machine and the boy within bent their collective will toward defeating the field that kept them from their quarry.
"EVA-01's AT Field has deployed!" called Maya with delight. "It's neutralizing the Angel's phase space."
The yellow field disintegrated; with a wolfish grin, DJ drew EVA-01's left fist back and drove it into the Angel's "face".
The Angel reeled back a couple of steps, twitched back, and then unleashed a blast from the red gem on its chest, sending EVA-01 tumbling back several blocks.
"So that's the way it's gonna be, eh?" asked DJ as he got EVA-01 to its feet again. "All right then." He made the machine leap again, but this time, his target was not the Angel, but rather the building Misato had pointed out earlier.
As he grounded the EVA next to it, the building slid open; within, nestled in sockets and looking for all the world like gigantic versions of regular hand weapons nestled in the foam of an expensive gun case, were a pair of cannons—on the EVA's scale, big handguns, slab-sided auto pistols that looked absurdly Glock-like given their huge size.
DJ smiled. "You shouldn't have," he said, scooping them both up and leaping back to the main drag again.
As soon as he landed, the Angel tried to let him have it with that big beam blaster again, but this time DJ was ready for it; he jumped the EVA back, turning another back somersault in midair, and, as it straightened at the peak of its arc and started to fall, he dropped the sights onto the Angel and opened fire. It felt just like shooting a jungle croc with a pair of .45s, except amplified to EVA-scale like everything else, and for the first time, DJ Croft really started to feel in control of the situation.
"Damn," Misato observed, watching the big screen as EVA-01, almost seeming to hang in mid-air for a second before dropping to a crouching landing in the street, blazed away at the Angel, the shells from its handcannons tearing huge chunks out of the monster's blue-grey flesh. "This kid's a natural fighter."
"He's his mother's son," Ritsuko observed.
The handcannons ran dry just as the Angel, persevering in its dogged plodding, reached EVA-01; DJ dropped the spent weapons just in time to intercept the monster's grasping hands, seizing it by its wrists.
"Let's see how you like it, Sparky," he growled through gritted teeth, hauling its arms out to either side and pulling with all the EVA's considerable strength. Muscles bulged, twisted, tore under the Angel's black skin, and then, with fountains of bluish-grey goo, both arms tore off at the shoulder. DJ tossed them aside and drove EVA-01's fist into the Angel's chest again, sending the monster over on its back; then he pounced on it, pounding again and again at the gleaming red sphere embedded in the Angel's chest.
To his consternation, the thing lunged at him one more time, and this time, its shape changed. Liquid-like, the Angel's blackish flesh poured around EVA-01, solidifying around it. The red sphere began to glow, and DJ got the distinct impression that something very unpleasant was about to happen.
A second later, the Angel self-destructed, exploding in a towering mushroom-cloud blast that flattened most of the adjacent blocks.
As the smoke cleared, though, EVA-01 strode out, standing tall—scuffed, blackened and battered, but mainly unharmed. A cheer went up in the control room even as Misato was ordering a recovery crew to bring the unit in post-haste.
DJ was feeling pretty proud of himself at the moment, and had just worked out a way to switch the view the main display was showing him to an outside camera so he could take stock of his EVA's condition. Right now he was looking at a close-up of its damaged head, trying to guess the extent of the damage.
As he looked, the cracks in the purple armor over its good eye widened, and then the whole left side and front of the EVA's "face" slid away, falling to the ground. Below was a much less ornate structure, a brownish-grey bullet-shaped affair that looked rather more like a proper humanoid head.
Well, said DJ to himself, they did say 'artificial lifeform'. I guess what I thought was its head was really just a helmet.
A slit appeared in the flat brownish-greyness of the inner head, on the left side, and then, before DJ's wondering eyes, an eye—not a sensor head, but a real, honest-to-goodness eyeball—popped open, massive and green. Its pupil widened, then contracted, revealing as it did three smaller pupils spaced equidistantly around the central one. Through the still-synchronized link, DJ had the sudden incredible feeling that he was watching himself watch himself watch himself watch himself watch himself watch
"Check, please," he declared, and passed out.
In the control room, Ritsuko Akagi was saying much the same thing as she observed a readout indicating that, during the combat, DJ Croft and EVA-01 had, for a millisecond, hit a peak synchronization ratio of eighty-seven percent.
For his part, Gendō Ikari merely smiled, and left the room.
Ensuring that Lara Croft didn't return from the Yucatán had been a very expensive endeavor, but it had just paid for itself with interest.
All this and more, in the next pulse-pounding episode of Neon Exodus Evangelion, due for release on 7/9/1997! Don't miss it!