Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Neon Exodus Evangelion
Exodus 2: Symphony of Terror
Inspired by Neon Genesis Evangelion
created by Hideaki Anno, Gainax, et al.
Most characters created by Hideaki Anno and Yoshiyuki Sadamoto
DJ Croft created by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Jon Ellison created by Larry Mann
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, Larry Mann,
MegaZone, and John Trussell
Aided and abetted by the Eyrie Productions, Unlimited crew
and special-guest-for-life Phil Moyer
© 1997 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
HTML remastering © 2016 EPU
The booster standing on Pad #44-C at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan was one of the largest artificial structures on Earth, a tower of metal and high-strength composite materials almost a quarter again taller than the World Trade Center in New York. It followed the basic design standard evolved by the Soviet rocket technicians more than sixty years before, with a central tower surrounded by sloping disposable boosters, attached with explosive bolts—but on such a gargantuan scale that even the mighty Energia paled next to its grandeur.
The Kronos, as it was known, was the most powerful transport engine ever created by Man. Developed by the Sovcosmos State Corporation for Space Activities in cooperation with the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the early 2000s, it was originally developed to serve as a super-heavy disposable launch vehicle for prefabricated sections of International Space Station Babylon 2 (the original Space Station Babylon having been destroyed during the Second Impact), which would then rendezvous with assembly crews launched via National AeroSpace Plane from NASA's Johnson Space Flight Center in Texas. In 2012, some enterprising engineer with NERV's Technology Division had calculated Kronos's ability to loft something else into Earth orbit:
A pair of Evangelions.
At the time, the plan was derided by the engineer's superiors, but as standing procedure required, it was written up and submitted anyway. For weeks, most TechDiv personnel snickered behind their hands and waited for the wrath of higher-ups to descend on the author of such an absurd proposal. In due time, Professor Gendō Ikari, Supreme Commander of NERV, reviewed the project proposal, along with Colonel Otto Keller (Deputy Commander and Chief of NERV Operations) and Doctor Ritsuko Akagi (Director of Technical Services).
Project Atlas was immediately approved, budget was allocated, a team was selected and sent to Baikonur, and the proposal's author, John Trussell, was promoted to Deputy Supervisor of Technical Operations. You could hear the jaws drop all the way around TechDiv, and no one ever failed to take Truss seriously again.
Still, Atlas was never considered a dream assignment. Baikonur was and is a relentlessly dreary place, nobody from NERV US spoke Russian, and the possibility of Atlas ever actually being put to use was considered remote in the extreme. It was confidently expected that, once the engineering was worked out, the project would be filed away and forgotten by everyone, as it already had been forgotten by most of the NERV US Operations staff.
It was, then, to the renewed surprise of everyone on the Project Atlas team that two of NERV's precious Evangelions and their pilots were immediately assigned to assist the Baikonur team in operational testing when they reported their readiness for same.
Kronos-E prototype #001-1 stood fueled and ready on the pad. In the control room, Ritsuko Akagi gazed thoughtfully at the image of the colossal rocket on the master monitor screen—towering and gray, its sides decorated by the occasional streamer of outgassed excess propellant. Two-thirds of the way up, the grey thermocoat abruptly ended at a wide black band; above, the rocket's massive nose cone was white, and tapered gradually before canting in to a blunt, rounded point. Another monitor showed steadily cycling views from several status cameras mounted within that white blow-away shell, showing the platform on which the shape of an S-armored red Evangelion waited, locked to a platform gantry not unlike the launch gantries used in Worcester-3. A counterweight took the place of the second EVA for this test.
Asuka Sōryū-Langley fidgeted in her entry plug, uncomfortable and unwilling to admit her nervousness. She hated the idea of her beloved EVA-02 sealed into that hideous hostile-environment armor, and even though the revised Type S was much sleeker and less restrictive of movement than the Type D she had suffered within once before, she was still bothered by the concept.
She was also uneasy about the lack of the Type S plug suits. She'd seen their design sheets: they looked comfortable, and not horrific like the Type D had been. Rather than making her look like an enormous cherry, the Type S would be an exoplated vacsuit with a wide-view helmet, similar in appearance to the armored spacesuits worn by the Babylon 2 construction crews, with built-in maneuver thrusters and a three-hour atmosphere supply in case she should find herself inadvertently "going E.V.A." as astronauts put it. (She had to mentally add the periods to the initials; otherwise she always found herself wanting to pronounce it straight, like the identically-spelled abbreviation for the Evangelions.) Its presence would have been comforting, but they were not ready for operational use yet and had to be foregone, and the lack made her profoundly uneasy.
The whole concept was crazy, anyway. Strap an EVA or two onto a rocket and launch them into orbit? Why, for God's sake? What was up there of any interest to an Evangelion combat unit?
She sighed and fiddled with the monitor controls. Not too long ago she would have voiced her reservations about the idea at length, in no uncertain terms, but she had come to realize of late that doing so didn't accomplish anything, and more to the point, that it didn't make her feel any better to do it. Instead she roamed the comm channels until she found the band that opened a connection to the cockpit of EVA-03, which remained on standby.
"I hope to Christ this works," she said to her battle partner, Jon Ellison, as his image rezzed ghostlike into holographic being, suspended in her entry plug's LCL a few feet from her head.
Jon looked glum. "The simulation tests didn't go real well, did they?" he said with a commiserative tone.
"No, I wouldn't say one survival out of four launch attempts is 'real well'," Asuka replied. Jon noted her tone: where once it would have been acidic, cutting at his stupidity for saying such an obvious thing, now it sounded merely resigned. Could it be, he wondered, that Asuka has finally grasped some rudimentary conception of tact?
"Well, look at it this way," said Jon. "Each of those failed tests gave the mission controllers a lot of data to work with..."
"... So each successive test has a higher chance of success," Asuka finished for him. "I know, it's the same principle as the endless harmonics tests they put us through. That doesn't mean I have to feel comfortable with it. Would you?"
"No," Jon admitted. "In fact... I'd expected you to have a lot bigger problem with it than you seem to be."
Asuka smiled. "No sense in being unprofessional about it," she said. Then, yawning and stretching, she added, "I would like to get out of this entry plug sometime today, though."
Ritsuko's face appeared in another holographic 'window'; businesslike, she said, "You'll get your chance after this. We're at T minus 300; you'll have to clear the comm channels now."
"Good luck, Asuka," said Jon.
"Thanks, partner," said Asuka. "Grendel out." As Jon's face vanished, Asuka noted with satisfaction that he looked faintly surprised. Well, good. She enjoyed knowing that she'd be taking Jon consistently off-guard with her newly-resolved attempt at civility.
"Ready when you are, Dr. Akagi," said Asuka, straightening slightly in her seat as a countdown clock popped into being on her virtual instrument cluster.
The EVA pilot had little to do in the course of a Kronos-E launch—less, even, than the original Mercury astronauts had to do in the course of their Redstone and Atlas launches. All telemetry and vehicle control was handled from without. The only thing Asuka had to do was keep her eyes on the status displays; if anything went seriously wrong, she could elect to twist the Abort handle that had been installed on her right armrest, which would fire the EVA eject charge early, and take her chances—in a freefalling Evangelion with only a Type S armored suit and an experimental portable heat shield for protection, but away from the huge fulminating mass of the potentially malfunctioning rocket and its multi-megaton-equivalency fuel supply.
Not a very comforting choice, Asuka reflected as the count marched into the last minute, but the only one she had.
She tried to relax and listened to the reassuringly familiar voice of John Trussell reading off the count.
"T minus fifteen seconds, guidance is internal."
The rocket body shivered a little. Perfectly normal. Just like all the sims.
"Eight. Ignition sequence start."
The enormous Kronos-E reverberated with the whine and judder of its seventy-six wide-throated fuel pumps.
"Four. All engines running."
The mighty booster strained against the clamps chaining it to Earth as its huge engines roared.
"Three. Launch commit.
Explosive bolts burst, freeing the rocket, and it immediately leapt for the sky, its great mass no match at all for the vast gulf of power pouring from its exhausts. Even then anyone watching the launch would have been struck by the apparent ponderous progress the rocket made. Nothing that massive was going to accelerate like a Porsche.
Asuka watched the gauges, all apprehension and fear banished by the task at hand now that showtime had come. Sure, she might die at any moment, but nobody would ever say she went out like a coward or a baby.
"LCL circulation pressure is nominal," she reported, keeping her voice tight and even. "Cabin temperature is steady at 294."
"Commencing throttle back for inclination roll," said Truss. He wasn't really doing it himself—the entire process was automated through Baikonur's AG-4540 computer—but he had manual overrides for everything and had been drilled intensively on how to use them.
"Roll complete... looks good," Asuka reported, noting the attitude indicators.
"Roger, Grendel—proceeding with throttle up."
Asuka had been thoroughly briefed on all the sounds and motions that the rocket might possibly exhibit during a normal launch. Nowhere in any of that briefing had a mighty BANG and a sudden, sickening lurch been advertised. For a moment she nearly lost her composure and cursed, but she squashed the feeling quickly and began running status checks.
"Control, are you tracking that?" she inquired calmly.
"Roger, Grendel," came Truss's voice in reply. "We lost a fuel pump in Number Two engine. Failovers are taking care of it—"
A second bang, this one much louder, and a second stomach-turning lurch.
"—damn! There goes Number Four. Flight, we've got a cascade failure in the booster's fuel system—"
Another bang, another lurch, this one even worse.
A look at the extensive status indicators she had available on her holodisplay made Asuka quite certain that her launch vehicle was dying, and if she didn't do something quick, it would take her and her EVA with it.
"Control from Grendel—abort! Abort! Abort!" she declared, seizing and twisting the abort handle.
"Control, abort system failure! Going to manual escape." A thumb-press and a thought brought Grendel's sleeping systems online, and the cockpit lit completely up around Asuka, complete with the all-important battery-life indicator, boosted to a nigh-eternal fifteen minutes by the Type-S armor's integral battery cells. Asuka frowned with concentration as she began to energize her EVA's Absolute Terror Field, the only thing that had a hope of saving it and its mistress now.
Before she could do anything, the master fuel pump for Quadrant Four of the mighty, out-of-control rocket failed, spewing liquid oxygen across an area of the booster's outer skin which was beginning to fracture and leak.
Kronos-E 001-1 became a flaming comet in the Kazakh night, and all telemetry flatlined.
John Trussell stared at the video snow dancing across what had been his view of EVA-02's cockpit for a moment before saying in a flat voice,
"Evangelion Unit 02 destroyed."
"Goddammit!" Asuka Sōryū-Langley shouted, slamming her fists against her entry plug's dark instrument panel. As the LCL drained away, she coughed the residue out with an ease born of long practice, hurled the plug's canopy hatch up, and clambered out. Techs flanked her as she stalked across the catwalk separating the motion-control platform with the entry plug mounted on it to the test chamber exit; she ignored them, turned left and entered the control room—not the raging thunderstorm she might once have been, but clearly very angry.
"What the hell happened, John?" she asked as she entered. Ritsuko might have been in charge of the test, but Truss had been CAPCOM and console jockey; he had the best chance of knowing what had just doomed the first test launch.
Truss shrugged. "The rocket blew up."
Asuka glared at him for a few seconds, causing him to spread his hands and add, "OK, we lost a fuel pump. The extra strain on the fuel system blew another. And another. It went off-course, aerodynamic stress cracked the shell. Then the rocket blew up."
"Goddamned cheap Russian micropumps," Asuka grumbled. "Why didn't they go with the Bosch units? They're throwing away billions of dollars on this stupid project anyway."
"I thought you were trying to be civil," Truss observed with a smile.
"I find it hard to be civil when my EVA and I have just been scattered across half of the Russian steppes by your verdammt rocket!" Asuka replied. "It's a bloody good job we decided to tele-run the first live launch with a dummy EVA aboard or I'd be dead in Russia instead of alive in Worcester-3."
"'A bloody good job'?" Truss mused. "You're starting to sound like DJ."
Asuka's dark mood disintegrated as she laughed aloud at Truss's statement.
"Did I say something funny?" he wondered.
She ruffled his dark hair. "When you're older, Truss," she replied. Then, straightening, she turned to Ritsuko. "Sorry about that," she said. "I always did react poorly to being killed. Where do we go from here?"
Ritsuko regarded the young pilot for a moment, then shrugged. "We turn the telemetry data on the failure over to the engineering team and they do what they have to do to make sure it doesn't happen again. The next flight test will also be a dummy launch, of course."
"Of course," said Asuka.
"For now, you're dismissed," Ritsuko told the girl. "We'll have a project meeting tomorrow morning at 0900—make sure Jon attends as well."
"Right," Asuka replied. "Don't look so glum, Dr. Akagi, I'm sure they'll figure it out. I do think they should be using German microcomponents, though. After all, we invented rocketry."
Ritsuko tried not to smile too broadly as she replied, "I'll consider it as a TechDiv proposal."
Asuka arrived in the Lower Wedge to find DJ playing Toshinden and no one else around. Not feeling like playing a game just now, she instead sat in the empty T5K observers' gallery, pulled a magazine out of her duffel bag, and started reading.
From time to time, over the sounds of the game, she could hear DJ laughing to himself, for no reason she could readily determine. His usual repertoire of sounds when playing Toshinden consisted of grunts, hisses, and the occasional muffled curse; he rarely found the game funny while playing. Some of the sounds effects struck her as different, too. Presently her curiosity overcame her, and she went to look.
At first she didn't notice anything different. It was still a rather-cheesy-looking, extremely dated pseudo-3D fighting game, with characters made of texture-mapped polygons duking it out in motion-captured style with various weapons (mostly swords). As she watched, though, it began to dawn on her that it looked better than it had—the characters looked smoother and moved in a more lifelike way, and the backgrounds parallaxed properly. Then, and only then, did she notice that the character designs themselves had changed.
The young man on the left side of the screen, dressed in jeans and a black leather jacket and wielding a European sword with a distinctively Japanese style, was a fair rendering of DJ...
... and the blonde woman in the lab coat with the bullwhip...
Thinking back on it later, Asuka couldn't remember the last time she'd laughed that hard—hard enough to distract DJ from his gameplay (not that he was concentrating all that hard on it anyway), hard enough to draw Jon and Rei in as they passed through the Upper Wedge. They watched with perplexity that became amusement as DJ, wracked with sympathetic laughter, tried in vain to finish his match respectably and Asuka leaned against a nearby wall, helpless with mirth.
"Now see what you've done," DJ managed between aftershock chuckles as he and Asuka recovered. "I've lost."
"Where... where did—?" Asuka tried to ask, gesturing vaguely at the machine and giggling.
"Hal did it," DJ replied, entering his initials. "He claims YaK's visit 'inspired' him to try his luck at enhancing the old game image."
"How did he cut new ROMs?" Asuka wondered.
"No need," DJ replied. "This isn't an original-hardware machine, I checked for him at the start of the project. It's really just an old M2 in a fancy cabinet." Going behind the machine, DJ fiddled for a moment; the screen went blank, and then he emerged, holding up a gleaming golden disc. "The miracle of Hal's DVD-R burner did the rest," he added with a grin.
"When Dr. Akagi finds out about this, she's going to skin you," Asuka warned.
"Why me?" DJ protested with a look of great mock innocence. "I didn't write the code."
"Somebody had to put that disk in there," Jon pointed out.
"You think I get a choice in these things?" DJ asked, going behind the machine to replace the disk. As the eyecatch animation started back up on the screen, he locked the cabinet and emerged, continuing, "I'm merely Hal's hapless servant."
"I doubt she'll see it that way," said Jon dryly.
Asuka stepped up to the machine, hit the one-player start button, and scrolled through the selections in the character menu. "Hey, we're all in here!"
"Most of the animations for the characters are the same as they were," DJ explained. "Hal just cleaned up the engine a bit, boosted the frame rate and poly count for the characters, fiddled with the control and changed the textures around... the characters look different but the gameplay's pretty much the same."
"Why does Truss have a huge club?"
"Hal seemed to think he would fit best with Rungo's animations."
"Er," said Rei.
Surveying the bullwhip-wielding version of Ritsuko, Asuka shook her head. "She's definitely going to kill you for this."
"Oh yes? Select her with one of the kick buttons."
Asuka did so, and blinked as the 'alternate costume' for that character came up.
"If she ever finds out about THIS, she'll have you stripped, flayed, and staked to an African anthill at high noon."
"She could try," DJ replied with a shrug and a grin, "but she'd only get as far as 'stripped'."
"Oh, get OVER yourself," said Asuka, rolling her eyes, resetting the game and continuing through the character selection. "Hmm, mine's not a bad likeness... what's with the big spear?"
"Oh, that's Mondo's," said DJ. "I guess Hal figured, you're pretty good with the EVA version..."
Asuka shrugged. "I guess. I could have gotten worse... anyone up for a game?"
"Not me, I've had enough for right now," said DJ. "Think I'll try my hand at Super Rush again," he added, heading for the row of linked car and motorcycle race stations along the back wall.
"Sounds like a good idea," said Jon, following.
"I'll play," said Rei.
Asuka blinked. "No kidding?"
"No kidding." Rei stepped up and hit her start button, selecting herself; "she" rezzed up in school uniform, a nasty-looking dagger in each hand.
"I should've guessed," said Asuka, selecting her spear-wielding "self".
DJ made a mental note to ask Hal to change Asuka's 'alternate' costume. The situation had changed somewhat of late and it'd be a shame to cause a setback.
The anomaly was first spotted, ironically enough, by a US spy satellite—if "spotted" is really the right word for the way it brought the anomaly to the attention of the world below. As it orbited, watching the ground below, the satellite suddenly noted that it was drifting out of its assigned orbit. This was not quite correct; it was not drifting so much as being pushed, but its internal monitoring systems had no way of drawing that distinction. With some alarm, its internal systems next registered that the stresses on its outer casing were rapidly increasing. As it began to tumble out of control, its camera lens turned upward, out from Earth, and a few seconds before the mysterious force crushed it into random debris, it chanced to send back a few photos of its destroyer.
These pictures were duly received and processed by the CIA groundstation in Virginia, where, due to their anomalous nature, they were immediately flagged for manual analysis. The analyst assigned to the case quickly realized, after spending a few minutes enhancing the images, that what he was dealing with was entirely outside the CIA's purview. He promptly passed the case file to his supervisor with his recommendation.
The supervisor, no fool, proceeded to act on that recommendation, and the images were encoded with the analyst's report as FLASH traffic to NERV Supreme Headquarters Worcester-3.
Within ten minutes of their arrival, Gendō Ikari and his senior operations staff had completed an emergency planning meeting. The full observational resources of NERV were bent toward the goal of obtaining better images of the satellite-destroying anomaly. Once conclusive proof of Ikari and his officers' suspicions could be established, operational action could be undertaken against it; not before.
In the meantime, DJ Croft sat in an uncomfortable chair in a small, unfriendly conference room and endured the third in a series of annoying psychological evaluations.
In the first session, he and Gendō Ikari had covered such luminary subjects as his childhood ("... was that before or after we recovered the Cross of Coronado? I can't remember now") and his relationship with his mother ("That's a bit bloody personal, don't you think?"). In the second, they had moved on to his attitude toward his first Evangelion combat ("I made it pretty clear how I felt at the time, I thought") and his homelife ("We get along well enough").
If he had allowed himself to, Gendō Ikari would have been dreading today's session, because the tick sheet he had demanded that he get into the really hard topics, things he knew full well DJ would never discuss willingly with him, of all people. The enmity between Ikari and Croft was almost a thing of legend among the staff of NERV, albeit one discussed only in whispers.
"How are you today, DJ?" Ikari asked, perhaps trying to start the interview on a vaguely comfortable note. DJ noted that the professor was being as informal as he ever got; he wasn't wearing his usual, rather martial white gloves.
"Well enough," DJ replied. "Let's just get on with, shall we? I don't imagine either of us really wants to be here."
"Fine, then," he replied, referring to the clipboard with his required-questions tick list on it. Hmm... how appropriate. "Let's start with your attitude toward your co-workers."
"You'll find it's pretty good when they aren't wasting my time," he replied. "Unfortunately, certain of them seem bent on doing more and more of that, of late."
Gendō regarded the boy levelly through his tinted glasses and remarked dryly, "Insubordination becomes you."
"So I've been told," replied DJ. "Look, don't let's avoid the main issue here. You don't like me and I don't like you. We know it, we can work with it."
"Why is that, do you suppose?" Ikari asked in that same dry tone.
"I've wondered that myself," DJ replied. "Near as I can figure, you don't like me because I'm a pain in the arse, and I can't say that I blame you. I know I'm difficult to deal with. Comes from my irksome tendency to stand up against things I think are wrong."
Ikari nodded. "Gracious of you to admit it."
"As for you, well... I don't like you because I can't trust you. You're a high-handed, ruthless, unscrupulous megalomaniac, and there's no way of knowing if you can really be counted on to do what's right when the chips are down."
Gendō Ikari smiled, just a little bit, and pushed his glasses up his nose, replying, "Come now, Mr. Croft, don't pull your punches... how do you really feel? You know there are those in the program who would say much the same thing about you."
DJ chuckled. "I imagine there are. Anyway, we're not here to talk about our personality conflict, are we?"
"No," admitted Ikari almost reluctantly. "That's a matter for another time. Today we're going to discuss your fellow pilots."
"Alphabetically, chronologically, or by height?"
"Let's start with Ellison."
"Height, then. What about him? He's solid. Reliable. Maybe a bit boring, though."
"Do you trust him?"
"What's that supposed to mean? I've trusted him with my life in combat, him and the others too."
"Do you think they trust you?"
"What makes you so sure?"
DJ smiled. "I'm a good judge of character."
"You're also overconfident."
DJ shrugged. "In this line of work, the only other option is 'permanently terrified'."
Commissaries, Asuka reflected, were the same the world over. Or maybe NERV just used the same architect for all their facilities. Either way, the one in the middle levels of Central Dogma was just as cheerless and institutional as the one at the Munich Proving Grounds: gray and green, with tables and chairs in the 1939 Soviet Provincial style and vending machines containing a wide array of unappealingly stale "food". The cork bulletin board contained only a variety of first-aid procedures illustrated with International Olympic-Event Icon People and various bulletins from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts proclaiming the equal rights of all employees. The only bright spot in the whole place was the grill, which served a half-decent burger and fries and which Asuka had managed to miss by six minutes, putting the perfect cap on the tenor of her day.
So it was that Truss found her sitting at a corner table, staring glumly at something grey and pinkish which claimed to be a B-B-Q Pork RibWich™, and might actually have been one, during the Perot administration. He gave a cursory glance to the contents of the carousel vendors, but his heart wasn't really in it, and then sat down at her table without bothering to buy anything.
"They let you out for lunch?" Asuka chuckled. "After that last test, I figured they'd lock you and Ritsuko in the control room until the sun came up tomorrow. The look on Ikari's face after you detonated that rocket was not a pretty sight."
Truss dismissed the comment with a wave of his hand. "It went into an unrecoverable oscillation—we still don't quite know what caused the fuel pump problem, and we've got other things to worry about now. An Angel's been detected. In orbit."
Asuka's eyes darted up from her ersatz meal. "In orbit?"
"I see. Now, this is the part where you reassure me by explaining that Ikari realizes it's stupid to base an operation on technology which has never passed the thirty-seven second mark in a live test. Right?"
Grimacing slightly, Truss replied, "I haven't been consulted. There's a briefing at 1500 hours—that's all I know."
"Terrific," Asuka grumbled.
"But before that, I need to talk to you." After glancing around the crowded lunchroom, Truss quietly added, "Somewhere else."
Asuka looked down at her half-finished B-B-Q Pork RibWich™ and shrugged. "I think I just lost my appetite, anyway." She dumped her leftovers in the trash, and the pair wandered the hallways in search of a less-traveled area.
"Have you read Hal's report on the Jet Alone incident?" Truss asked, once he was convinced that no one was within earshot.
"Not very encouraging, is it?"
The expression on Asuka's face as she turned to Truss screamed "Are you stupid?" so emphatically that she didn't have to say a word.
"Yeah... that's what I thought," Truss replied.
They walked a hundred feet without saying another word before Asuka finally broke the silence. "Truss, you dragged me out here to talk, but you've spent the last five minutes just sighing and looking worried. Stop staring at your shoes and say something, already!"
Jolted out of his trance, Truss pulled up his stride and leaned back against the nearest wall. "I know," he agreed. "Sorry."
"And stop apologizing."
Truss took a deep breath, and finally spoke the sentence he'd tried in vain to rephrase. "I think Ryoji Kaji may be involved in all of this."
"I thought that might be it."
"You did? Why didn't you just say so?"
Asuka sat down across from Truss. "I didn't want to admit it."
Truss nodded. "Look, Asuka, I know he's your friend and all, but..."
"Ryoji was my friend. Back in Germany, after my parents died, he was the only friend I had." She sighed. "That was a long time ago, though, and today I'm not sure what he is. While I was in Bremen at university, something changed. He's not like I remember him anymore."
"Er?" wondered Truss. "I don't know him all that well. He doesn't have much contact with TechDiv... in fact, I'm not sure what it is he does here."
"Well... " Asuka looked thoughtful. "He's always been a pain in the ass, but in a harmless kind of way. Sort of like..." She paused, looked faintly troubled, and then added in a quieter tone, "... Sort of like DJ. But he was... he was kind like DJ, too. He never meant anybody any harm." Her expression darkened as she added, "Now I can't be sure of that."
"Why? What happened?" Truss inquired, not entirely certain he actually wanted to know.
Asuka looked around for a moment, saw no one in the vicinity, and said softly, "Remember a few weeks ago, when that old friend of Major Katsuragi's got married and they all went to the reception?"
Truss nodded. "It's not often Dr. Akagi goes away and lets Maya and I work in peace."
"After the party, a few of them went out for drinks and such... and Ryoji, he..." Asuka paused, gathering her thoughts, and then blurted, "He got Misato drunk and tried to take advantage of her."
Truss winced. "I'd think the Major would slap the hell out of anybody who tried that."
"She probably would have," said Asuka, "but she was really drunk. I've seen a vid. She didn't know what planet she was on."
"You said 'tried to'. What happened?"
"DJ happened, thank God. You should see the vid. I don't think Ryoji's been stared down like that in his life. But... "
"Had he been drinking too? People do stupid things when they're drunk."
"He knew what he was doing," Asuka replied flatly. "On the vid Hal made, when DJ's staring him down, you can see the hate in his eyes. It... it scared me. I've never known Ryoji Kaji to have that look in his eyes."
"Hmm... do you think he might be our intruder, given that?"
She considered it, then shrugged. "I'm not sure. It's not really his style... he's changed, but if anything I'd expect he'd be less subtle now. No... I mean, he might have, but I'd still bet it was Ikari."
"What have you told DJ about this?" Truss wondered.
"He knows that JA was sabotaged. I don't think he's been told about the attacks on Hal's own security. I've been trying to figure out the best way to tell him about that part."
"I'm not sure it's a good idea to tell him about it at all, at this point," said Truss reluctantly.
Asuka considered that for a moment, then nodded thoughtfully. "I guess you're right. I mean, can you imagine the scene once he decided Commander Ikari was responsible?"
It was at about that moment that DJ burst out of the conference room at the T-intersection a dozen or so yards down the corridor, his face a mask of fury, an angry Ikari hot on his heels.
"I'm appalled at your conduct, Croft!" Ikari declared as he pursued the furious pilot into the corridor. "Appalled and outraged!"
DJ stopped in mid-stride, very deliberately about-faced, and marched back to Ikari, getting into the scientist's face as best he could given the disparity in their height.
"Outraged? You have no right to be outraged!" DJ shouted. "We aren't children any longer, Gendō—you made certain of that. How hypocritical, how supremely fucking hypocritical of you! You put the weight of the world on our shoulders and then you have the gall to be dismayed when we seek refuge? You force upon us responsibility for the safety of humanity, and you have the arrogance to be shocked when we take responsibility for ourselves? Grow up, my dear Gendō. Grow up and face the consequences of your actions, just like we have."
"You have taken advantage—" Ikari began, but DJ was not to be interrupted now.
"Yes, well, you'd know a thing or two about the fine art of taking advantage, wouldn't you, Gendō?" he replied. "You've given the four of us more responsibilities than anyone deserves and we've kept up our end—now I demand you give us the respect that goes along with it."
Ikari stood his ground. "I will not be spoken to in such a fashion in front of subordinates by anyone, Mr. Croft, especially you."
"It's Lord Crofthenge to you, mate," DJ replied. "I'm under no legal obligation to stay here and work for you, Gendō. I do it because it suits me. Let me remind you of something very important that you seem to have forgotten! You need us. We do not need you. I suggest you keep that in mind the next time you get to feeling as though you had some weight to throw around!"
With that, DJ pivoted on his heel and stormed down the corridor, leaving Gendō Ikari standing, the questionnaire papers crumpled in one hand, totally at a loss.
Then, without a word, he turned and walked away in the other direction.
"I think it would look something like that," said Truss.
"Something like that," Asuka agreed. "But louder." Then she turned and ran after DJ. Truss waffled for a moment, realized that there was nothing at all to be gained by hanging around with a pissed-off Gendō Ikari, and headed after her.
"What do you suppose that was all about?" Truss asked Asuka as he caught up with her.
"Oh, I think I have a pretty good idea," she replied; then, as they caught up with DJ, she reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. "DJ, wait... slow down."
DJ stopped, turning to them, and seemed on the verge of saying something heated before he caught himself and took a moment to steady out a bit.
"Sorry you had to see that," he said. "It's just... God, that man gets under my skin! His high-handed attitude, it just infuriates me."
"I know, I know," said Asuka. "I think I can guess what that was about."
"Mm." DJ nodded.
"You told him?"
"He asked, point-blank," replied DJ.
"You told him?!" Asuka repeated, her tone more incredulous.
"Well, damn it all," DJ replied, his tone frustrated. "I won't be reduced to lying to Gendō bloody Ikari. I'm not ashamed. Why—are you?"
Asuka blinked, then slowly replied, "... No, of course not. I was... just a little surprised, that's all..."
Truss looked mystified. "Um..."
DJ and Asuka looked at Truss, then at each other; each trying to decide what to say."
"Hey, you three!" Maya's voice called from the corridor intersection. "Get a move on, the briefing's started."
"Saved by the yell," DJ muttered, then louder, "Let's go."
Dr. Akagi surveyed the room from the corner. The four pilots, four children, along with Maya and Truss, quietly talking amongst themselves. There was an air of professional tension in the room. She doubted that any other group of four fourteen-year-old children would be as subdued as this one, with as much quiet confidence. Not for the first time she wondered if they would ever really be able to repay the children for the loss of their youth, for the responsibility thrust on them. She suspected that the world would never really appreciate what was done by these four; doubted even they would ever truly understand. She cast her eyes sidelong towards Dr. Ikari, as stolid as ever. She wondered if he ever had doubts—about anything.
With a small sigh Ritsuko gathered herself, squared her shoulders, and strode to the dais at the front of the room. Immediately the pilots quieted and turned their attention to her.
"As you all know by now another Angel has been spotted. This one is in low earth orbit. We have been monitoring the Angel since it was first spotted. It has yet to make an aggressive move." She paused for a moment. "However, we feel that is just a matter of time. Dr. Ikari will continue this briefing."
Turning her attention to the back corner of the room, she gestured. "Dr. Ikari?"
DJ had to hand it to Gendō; he'd gotten his composure back in a hurry. Maybe it was the gloves—he'd put them back on at some point and had slipped back into his Icy Commander persona.
Without preamble, he introduced the Angel; new photos from satellites in better vantage points showed it in relative clarity, a strange orange shape resembling nothing so much as a vast protozoan, complete with groups of finger-like cilia at either end of its oblong shape. Dominating the center of its "upper" surface was a structure that resembled nothing so much as a single, giant, glaring red eye.
"Tactical analysis has provided no purpose for this Angel's remaining in orbit," Ikari announced. "Only one thing is certain at this point: its orbital track is irregular." A diagram of the orbit, wrapping around and around the planet in an ever-widening band of coverage like tape around a tennis ball, appeared on the monitor behind him. "If it maintains this path—and there is no reason to believe it won't—it will overfly Worcester-3 in seventeen hours.
"We've been asked by the International Spaceflight Coordination Agency to intervene before that time, however. It appears that, shortly before its orbital track brings it into overflight of Worcester-3, it intersects something else: Space Station Babylon 2. ISCA has requested that we attempt an interception, since they have neither the time nor the resources to evacuate Babylon 2's crew of 500. Operations planners concur with this request."
"You mean—" Maya began, but Ikari continued, cutting her off as though she had not spoken, his expression stony and his voice flat:
"Evangelion Combat Team #2 will be dispatched to Baikonur Cosmodrome as soon as this briefing is concluded. Upon their arrival, Units 02 and 03 will be fitted to a Kronos-E booster and readied for an immediate interception launch."
Truss glanced at Asuka, who shook her head with an expression somewhere between amusement and exasperation.
In the back of the room Ritsuko bit her lip, her right hand working nervousing in the cup of her left.
"Combat Team #1 will remain here in Worcester-3. Tomorrow at 0600, during the orbital interception, they will be on standby alert, ready to intervene should action on the ground become necessary."
Ikari fell silent for a moment, his gaze raking over the assembled pilots, operations staff and engineers. Then he pushed his glasses up his nose and said,
"I know this operation is unprecedented. I know it will involve the use of technologies still in the early experimental stage, and considerable risk will result from this. I hope you all can understand Command's reasons; the lives of the crew of Babylon 2 exactly represent the values for whose preservation NERV stands." He paused, then continued, "I know I can count on all of you to do your duty."
Ikari let that statement sink in for a few silent moments; then he resumed his usual peremptory tone as he said, "Ellison and Sōryū-Langley, report with Tech Team 3 for debarkation immediately. The rest of you are at liberty until 0500. That is all."
So saying, Gendō Ikari turned and left the conference room.
The moment he was out of the room, Ritsuko spoke up, silencing the murmurs that had just begun.
"OK. You all heard Dr. Ikari. I just wanted to say a few things.
"This is going to be a very dangerous mission, as I'm sure you know. We've never successfully launched, and we're all painfully aware of that. We've done everything we can to ensure this launch goes as planned, and we're doing it all again to be doubly sure.
"I want to personally wish you all good luck."
Such a personal statement from Dr. Akagi was rare indeed, and the assembled group was silent. Ritsuko nodded slightly and turned to leave, pausing at the door only to add, "Oh, Asuka, we've switched to the Bosch micropumps." With that she was out the door, and the group dispersed with few words between them.
DJ's compatriots at NERV, if asked, could have come up with many ways of describing him; but none of them would opine that he was particularly religious. They had, from time to time, seen him wear a small, jeweled silver cross pendant, but put it down as a relic of one of his exploits into the forgotten corners of the world. It would have surprised most of them (though not all) to find him using part of his evening of liberty visiting the All Saints' Episcopal Church on Pleasant Street.
It wasn't his church of choice, quite, but an Episcopal church was as close as he was going to get to an Anglican one in the United States. Within its dark, cool stone confines, with the gleaming stained glass windows arching to the shadowed ceiling above, he felt almost at home, almost at peace.
He knelt momentarily in one of the pews, paid his respects, and then slipped into one of the small, dark booths off to the side. Presently the small sliding portal opened, and a friendly voice said,
"How may I help you, my son?"
"Hullo, Father," said DJ softly. "I'm afraid I've not come to confess my sins, in so many words."
"As you like," replied Father Thomas Sprague mildly. "Lord knows I've never been one to stand on ceremony. What troubles you, then?"
"Conflicting emotions," replied DJ. "I know the work I do is important, but the man in charge is someone I ordinarily wouldn't waste the time of day on. Soon people I love will be placed in grave danger by him, but for a good cause. I..." He chuckled ruefully. "I suppose I'm just looking for some reassurance that it'll all be worth it in the end."
Father Sprague was quiet for a moment, thinking; then he said, "Some say your enemies are the judgment of God upon a world grown intolerably self-indulgent and wicked, finishing the job that the Second Impact began. Even among the hierarchies of the churches of London and Rome some are saying that the second deluge is at hand, and this time there will be no Noah—and that you and your friends are committing the ultimate heresy in trying to forestall the Final Judgment."
DJ nodded. "You know who I am, then."
"Oh yes," replied Father Sprague. "I know your voice too well by now to mistake you for another."
"What do you think, Father? Are they right? Are we trying to defy the will of the Almighty?"
"I don't pretend to understand the mind of God," said Father Sprague, "but I cannot help but think that, if He wished to destroy us with the Second Impact, He would have done it right the first time. Clearly it is a battle for our survival, but I cannot believe that our extinction is part of God's plan."
DJ frowned thoughtfully, then replied, "I wish I could be so sure."
"We can never be sure of anything," replied Father Sprague philosophically. "That's what faith is all about."
Months of interminable low-activity testing had honed in all the Evangelion pilots one common skill: the ability to rest comfortably, even sleep, in the command seats of EVA entry plugs for hours on end. Even faced with the knowledge that they were about to do the unprecedented, with little or no testing, incomplete training and equipment that could charitably be described as "dodgy", Asuka and Jon, strapped into their EVAs, hanging from the bottoms of their Antonov An-411 transports, slept most of the way to Russia. They were still yawning away the cobwebs as they moved their units into position. In typical Russian style, the pad crews had completed an ingenious jury-rig in the time it took the EVAs to arrive. Using gigantic cranes normally used for gantry maintenance to hoist the EVAs into place atop their Kronos-E booster already on the pad, then assembling the nose enclosure around them.
From there, it was just a matter of waiting—waiting and knowing that, halfway around the world, their teammates waited too.
"Nervous, Jon?" asked Asuka as the count reached 30 seconds.
"Why should I be nervous?" Jon replied calmly. "After all, statistically speaking, I have a 17% chance of surviving the launch... and nobody's ever even tested the re-entry equipment."
"That's the spirit."
"You're awfully cheerful."
"I enjoy being counted on."
Jon would have replied, but the count hit seven, and the roar of the rockets filled the EVAs, making conversation impossible.
The rocket shuddered and screamed on the pad, flames shrieking from its exhausts, still chained to Earth by the straining bolts on the pad flanges.
"Four," said Truss. "All engines running."
Jon heard a low murmuring sound in his earphones. Puzzled, he adjusted his audio gain, and then realized what it was: Asuka was, under her breath, reciting what sounded like the Lord's Prayer in German.
Then the pad unleashed the rocket, and the acceleration crashed down. The roar and vibration drowned out everything but itself and the sound of Jon's blood pounding in his ears. He struggled to maintain his eyes' focus on the instruments. Dimly, he was aware of Asuka shouting the status reports into the commline at the top of her lungs, with that peculiar crushed-sounding tone one adopts when one is trying to shout under an acceleration load of nearly four G. The vibration reached a fever pitch, Jon's internal equilibrium had long since fallen away, and he knew from the mission clock that they had just about reached the point where the last Kronos launch had become a fireball.
And then, as if by magic, they were through the peak of aerodynamic stress, through the barrier of Max-Q and sailing smooth and quiet into the unknown.
"Max-Q passed," came the somewhat relieved voice of Asuka. "My status board is still green."
"Roger, K-1, stand by for staging," Truss's voice intoned. "Booster modules jettisoned."
The force pressing against them reduced its violence and the vibrations subsided a bit. "Main stage engines running smooth," Truss reported.
Asuka began to breath a sigh of relief, only to have it catch in her throat when the ship shuddered, a low bang transmitted through the structure. Clamping down on her instant terror, she managed to steady her voice to ask, "Truss, what was that?"
"Uh, stand by... We have micropump failure in engine eight of main stage. Failovers have increased power on remaining nine engines. eight shutdown successful. We're still GO."
GO or not, Asuka's hand moved closer to the abort handle. This time she wouldn't have a chance to be angry if things went bad. She glanced up to see Jon's face unnaturally white and drawn. "Aw, relax, Jon," she said with forced cheer. "Sure, we're riding a rocket that has never been successfully launched, and which has just lost an engine, but we've still got our health."
Jon gave a nervous little laugh. "Right... what good would it do to panic?"
Down in the control room, Truss turned to Dr. Akagi. "Well... looks like we just had our glitch for this mission."
"Coming up on main stage jettison." John's voice was back, controlled as ever. "On my mark. Three... Two... One... Main jet!" The insistent pressure at Jon's back eased slightly. Then, WHUMP, it was back, like a fist, then easing off into a steady pressure. "Stage two ignition. Looking good."
They went on like this for some time; then the second stage burned out and was discarded, and only the small sustainer motor and the snub-conical aeroshield surrounding the two EVAs remained. The sustainer nudged the cone into its proper orbital path, then died, and with a curious settling sensation, Evangelion Combat Team Two came to a "halt".
"How's our insertion look, Control?" asked Asuka.
"Right on target, K-1," Truss replied. "When you debark you'll find Babylon 2 about five kilometers ahead... debark when ready."
"... Ready," Jon replied, shaking his head. He felt strange, but couldn't put his finger on what was wrong. Maybe his ears were still ringing from the roar of the launch.
"Let's see what's out there, then," said Asuka, punching the debark key.
The aeroshield separated at the top and peeled apart into four petal-like sections; an explosive charge at the base released the two EVAs and propelled the shell into a decaying orbit that would burn it away before it could fall to Earth. Another small charge broke the shackle that held the two EVAs locked together back-to-back, and they drifted apart, EVA-03 automatically pivoting on its maneuver jets to match EVA-02's orientation.
"Oh... my... God," Asuka whispered as Grendel's monitors came alive and surrounded her with a wraparound projection of the vista outside.
Before her, rotating serenely, was the great gray-and-green, semi-spherical bulk of International Space Station Bablyon Two, its marker lights blinking in the eternal night. Beyond was the endless velvet black of space, so much darker and deeper than the mundane night sky, and filled with so very many more stars. And beneath her feet, as though she were standing on a glass floor, the gleaming blue-white Earth.
She hadn't known what to expect from this experience. Though her seat straps and the LCL environment kept her from noticing any personal sensation of weightlessness, she was neurally linked to an Evangelion which was itself in freefall—no one had been able to predict precisely what that would feel like. She had been warned she might be nauseated, afflicted with vertigo, completely disoriented.
Instead, she felt marvelous. Ethereal. Free... as though she were immersed not in hard vacuum but in the warm waters of the Caribbean, and what lay below her was Creation's most fertile coral reef.
"EVA-02, this is Control," said Truss. "How's it feel?"
"Incredible," said Asuka. "Like diving, except without the water resistance." Taking hold of the joysticks, she gave an experimental tap on a couple of the maneuvering thrusters, then tried a more complicated tumble-and-correct. The fly-by-wire system in the Type S exosuit worked as advertised, translating her control inputs into the complex series of fire and counterfire for the maneuver jets without making her worry about it.
"Flight control systems are working perfectly," she reported. Next she unslung the vac-sealed assault rifle (given a somewhat comical resemblance to a giant Super Soaker by the canister of compressed air attached to its receiver assembly), checked the integrity of its seals and patched it into Grendel's targeting system. "Weapons check out OK."
"EVA-03, how're you doing?" Truss asked next.
Jon failed to answer.
"EVA-03, can you hear me?"
"Jon, wake up!" said Asuka, patching a monitor channel through. She paused, though, at the sight of the thoughtful frown on Jon's face. "What is it, what's wrong?"
Just as she asked, the answer came to Jon in a sickening flash of realization.
Below, in the dark and cold of the last hour before sunrise, a channel opened between EVA-00 and EVA-01 as well, across the width of Worcester that separated the two units.
"DJ," said Rei as she appeared in a window on DJ's tactical display.
"Yes?" he replied.
"I've lost Jon."
"I've lost Rei," Jon murmured.
"What?!" Asuka replied, mystified.
"I can't feel her," Jon continued, his voice small. His face was pale and slack on the monitor—the face of a man who is fighting off panic.
Cutting off the groundside comm signal with a terse, "Stand by, Control," Asuka jetted her EVA toward Jon's. "What do you mean you can't feel her?"
"You know our synchrony," Jon said. Asuka nodded. "I've noticed... since the recent round of tests, since the Tempest 5000 experiment, that I can always feel the touch of her mind in the back of mine. But now... now I can't feel her. It's like... like I was listening to music, and suddenly I've gone deaf in one ear."
"... And now I can't feel him there," said Rei. "I... I'm afraid something might have happened to him."
DJ reached for the key that would hail Control, but before he could reach it, Asuka broke into that band: "Control, can we have a reverse-numeric group comm check please?"
Bless you, Asuka, thought DJ to himself.
"Roger, stand by," replied Maya. "All units, cross-band comm check. Report reverse numeric."
"Unit 03, copy," said Jon.
On DJ's monitor, Rei visibly relaxed.
"Unit 02, copy," Asuka added.
For the spaceborne pilots, a beat, the tiny transmission lag, passed.
"Unit 01, copy," came DJ's voice.
"Unit 00, copy," said Rei calmly.
"Thank you, Control. Stand by; we've got a little more coordination to do up here." Releasing her push-to-talk, Asuka said, "See? She's fine."
"Why can't I feel her, then, I wonder," said Jon, his demeanor rapidly changing, Asuka was pleased to see, from panicked to perplexed.
"Who knows? Do you understand why you can most of the time?" To this Jon had to shake his head. "Maybe it's the distance. You've never been this far apart before, after all. Or maybe it's the radiation this high up. Don't worry about it. We've got a job to do, remember?"
Jon nodded. "I'm all right now. Asuka... thank you."
"Don't worry about it," replied Asuka. "Can't have my marksman flaking out on me, after all." She punched the ground line back over to voice-activated. "OK, Control, we're set. Sorry about the delay."
"Roger, EVA-02," said Maya. "EVA-03, are your Type S systems functioning normally?"
"Pressure is good," reported Jon. He performed an experimental maneuver similar to Asuka's, then added, "Maneuver systems OK." Then he flipped the safety lockout cover away from the trigger of his EVA's primary weapon, feeling the faint vibration as its cryo cells came online. The reticule appeared immediately; with his finger well away from the trigger, he acquired locks within a second or so on EVA-02 and Babylon 2. "Type 20 is online; fire control system is OK."
"OK, team 2, check bearing nine zero," came Misato's voice. "You should be able to identify the target at maximum magnification; he's about thirty kilometers out and approaching at a relative speed of about a hundred kph."
Asuka did as instructed, and as she faced away from Babylon 2 and her displays settled into maximum mag, there it was, in all its bizarre orange glory.
"Target acquired," said Asuka. "Hang on... it's doing something."
From one of the Angel's outer 'fingers' a piece of its orange flesh budded off and dropped planetward, quickly catching fire in the atmosphere and becoming a glowing meteor which plowed into the Atlantic Ocean, creating a sizeable impact wave.
"Control, it appears to be using its own mass to bomb the planet," Jon observed from the orbital vantage, relaying information the destroyed spy satellites would have relayed before. The Angel sat for a moment, as if observing where its bomb had fallen, and then it began to change course and speed. A few moments later another pellet budded off and fell planetward. This one also impacted in the Atlantic, but several hundred miles closer to the North American continent.
The pilots observing from a distance in orbit reached their conclusion at the same time the Central Dogma staff reached theirs. The Angel was learning how to attack the planet, and if the bombs followed their present trajectory, one of the next attacks would successfully strike Worcester-3.
"What do we do?"
"That's easy," Asuka declared. "We give it something else to waste its ammunition on!"
So saying, she dropped the crosshairs onto the glowering red 'eye' on the Angel's dorsal surface, and fired a burst from her assault rifle. For a moment, the red-armored EVA drifted backward with the reaction, until the little jets arrayed along its Type-S backpack fired to correct; Jon watched, almost more fascinated with this than the task at hand.
The burst silently carved a glowing furrow across the Angel's upper surface. For a moment, the two EVA pilots wondered if that was the only effect they were going to have; then the eye shifted, refocusing its red glare on them. Bits of the Angel began breaking off and flying toward them now.
"There, that's got his attention!" Asuka declared. "What are you waiting for, Ellison? Let 'im have it!"
"Right," Jon replied, grimly shaking himself out of his reverie. He locked the Type 20 onto the enemy, got his finger back onto the trigger, and fired. Unlike the assault rifle, the particle-beam rifle required no corrective thrust, since it produced no appreciable recoil. Its blue-white beam speared silently into space, burning another furrow across the Angel's mass.
Below, the staff in the control room and Team One in their EVAs watched the tactical-plot display and listened to the voice traffic, mentally assigning identities to the blips labeled 'E-02', 'E-03', 'B-2' and 'A-11'.
Asuka: "Nailed him!"
Misato: "Good shot, Jon."
Jon: "Not good enough... Asuka, watch out; I think the next one's for you."
Asuka: "Christ! It's learning to fire more than one at a time! Switching to point defense. I'll keep its fire off us, Jon, you keep burning it."
Jon: "Roger, 02."
Back and forth for ten tense minutes, as the Angel grew ever nearer its two spaceborne attackers and they whittled away at its defenses, the attacks and counterattacks flew, while, on the ground, Rei and DJ listened, watched each other's faces, and supported each other silently with their eyes.
Jon: "Enemy's attacks are becoming more frequent. It's almost like..."
Asuka: "Like it's getting desperate! Pour it on, Jon, I think we're starting to make a difference."
Misato: "How's your ammo situation?"
Asuka: "No trouble there, Control."
Jon: "74% charge, Control. My compliments to TechDiv on the Type 20."
Asuka: "Scheiße! That one was way too close."
Jon: "It's closing in on us just like it was on Worcester—"
EVA-03's marker disappeared from the tactical display. In the control center, Jon Ellison's lifesign readings flatlined.
"Flight, I've lost Ellison!" Maya cried.
Rei Ayanami's gasp went almost unnoticed on the commnet at large.
Jon almost didn't see the attack coming, the pellet had been so small and so fast-moving. Almost the instant he noticed the orange blur, his displays had all snow-crashed and he'd felt a heavy impact in the EVA's upper right torso. Alarms of all stripe were going off in his cockpit, but he was paying attention only to his attitude indicators. The outside view came back, but his EVA was tumbling and the spiraling view made him nauseous, so he shut them back off again. The glimpse he'd seen of Bablyon 2 during one of those tumbles didn't strike him as particularly promising, though; it had been much, much too large.
"EVA-03's been hit!" Asuka cried. "He's tumbling out of control toward Babylon 2!" Enemy disregarded, Asuka pivoted EVA-02 on its maneuver jets and kicked open the back-mounted main thrusters.
Asuka won't be able to reach me in time, thought Jon, even if she's allowed to. It's just like Sgt. Kay always used to say. "Out there, there's nobody but you and the bugs. You can only count on yourself if you want to survive."
Punching an emergency control, Jon overrode the malfunctioning fly-by-wire system and took direct control of the unit's thruster network. With one eye on the thruster diagram and one on the attitude indicators, he started a by-guess-and-by-God attempt at stabilizing his wildly tumbling EVA...
... and succeeded. EVA-03 skidded to a gentle halt two hundred meters from Babylon 2, its maneuver-system fuel nearly exhausted.
Reactivating his external displays, Jon saw Asuka's red EVA jetting to a stop a short distance away, and something most distressing behind her. He tried to open a channel to her, to no avail, and settled for simply gesturing.
Seeing EVA-03 drift to a stop and then start wildly gesticulating in a manner that she could only interpret as "LOOK OUT BEHIND YOU!!!" Asuka took a moment to report that Jon was alive, then quickly shifted her attention back to check on their quarry. She was greeted with a large corona of red fire descending toward the planet.
"Oh, hell. Control, Angel has entered the atmosphere!"
"Why would it do that?" Truss wondered.
"Check its trajectory," said Misato. "Where will it land?"
"... Right here," she said.
"Well, OK, technically 'over there'," said Maya, gesturing to a monitor with a view of Dead Horse Hill, "but trust me, we won't know the difference."
"There's your answer, then. They depleted its 'ammunition'," Misato observed. "So now it's a kamikaze strike."
"And there's enough left of it to flatten most of Worcester County when it hits," Truss added.
"Guess it's time for Plan B, then," said Misato. "DJ, Rei, up and at 'em, let's see if they whittled enough of this thing away that you two can stop it."
"Roger. Meet you in the middle, Rei," said DJ, and threw his EVA into a run, its power cable trailing merrily behind it.
"Get moving!" Misato's voice cried in his ears. "It's coming down a little off-center, if you only get to Point Alpha you'll be about six hundred meters short.
"Copy," replied DJ, his brow furrowing in concentration as he urged the EVA into a dead sprint, one eye on the cable-length indicator as it rapidly spooled down. "Cable's out," he declared as it passed 100 meters. "Let 'er go!"
"Umbilicus detached!" Maya replied, slapping the emergency release. DJ felt only the faintest of tugs as Lucifer left the cable behind and switched into battery power, pounding up the side of Dead Horse Hill, houses abandoned since the Second Impact splintering under its footfalls. He paid no attention to the reddening of the sky as the Angel streaked toward their fiery rendezvous; it would get there soon enough.
Moloch waited, halberd at the ready, at the peak of the hill, and DJ skidded Lucifer to a halt in the wash of red light, looking up at the glaring, flame-wreathed eye of his enemy.
"OK, Lucy," he muttered. "Let's do magic." Raising his voice, he declared, "EVA-01 Absolute Terror Field—maximum power!"
The EVA reared its head back, tore its jaw open and roared, its eyes glowing through the slits in its helmet, and the AT Field rippled out from it in a visible wave, flattening houses halfway down the hill and almost knocking EVA-00 back a step before its own field could slip through the resistance. The hex-ring effect caused by the Angel's impact on the field was nearly twenty miles wide; the shockwave rippled across at that altitude and blasted a neat row of trees off the side of Mount Wachusett.
DJ screamed as the impact against his EVA's AT Field bludgeoned his mind like a cannon shot, and kept screaming as he marshaled all his strength of will to hold the enemy at bay. EVA-01, howling like its master, staggered, shuddered, fell to one knee as the Angel pressed inexorably down. In the cockpit of EVA-00, Rei Ayanami sat and stared, captivated by the spectacle, her face entirely blank.
Then, on her monitors, EVA-01 and DJ, screaming in unison, light leaking out from their tight-closed eyes, both cried in a polyphonic voice,
"God's sake, Rei—KILL IT!"
Galvanized by the look and the plea, Rei recoiled a half-step, whirled the halberd in Moloch's hands so the pointed spear end was up, and then, with a snarl, drove it into the Angel's eye.
The explosion happened on the plane of the AT Field; Mount Wachusett's beleaguered trees were the only casualties of a blast that could, a hundred meters lower, have decimated downtown Worcester-3.
DJ's image vanished from Rei's monitor as EVA-01, its eyes going dark, collapsed face-down to the ground. Before the recovery teams arrived, Rei had already dismounted from EVA-00 and extricated her stunned partner.
"Are you all right?" she asked him softly as his eyes flickered open and focused on her face.
"Check, please," he replied, weakly, with a wan smile.
"EVA-02, EVA-03, party's over," Misato called. "Time to come home. Can you give us a damage estimate on Unit 03, Asuka? We still can't make direct contact."
"Well, no wonder," said Asuka, surveying the mangled ruin of the upper right quadrant of EVA-03's Type S armor. "Looks like he took a direct hit to the right shoulder. The stabilizer coupling for the Type 20 is wrecked and he's lost his high-gain antenna, so that's why you can't talk to him. The armor plating's cracked almost to mid-chest. Mediating telecom now... Jon, can you hear me?"
"Roger, Asuka, I hear you. Are you relaying?"
"That's affirmative, EVA-02," Maya's voice replied. "Your re-entry window is coming up, Team 2. Deploy re-entry equipment."
"Roger, Control. EVA-02 deploying re-entry equipment," Asuka announced, thumbing a switch on her console. Hatches popped off the shoulders and back of Grendel's Type S armor, and compressed gas charges deployed the heavy composite-foil shell which comprised the heat shield. The balloon-like structure rapidly unfurled, its memory structure stretching and sealing, and in a matter of seconds it had formed a thick metallic hemisphere. The idea was that an EVA would curl up into a fetal position with its knees locked into pawls on the shield's inner curvature and its hands locked onto handles. Curled tightly enough, its entire surface would be behind the shield, which would then be presented to the brunt of the re-entry friction. Only the EVA's back, covered in the thickest layer of the Type S armor, would be exposed, and that would be on 'top', in the cool zone. With a little help from the EVA's AT Field, theoretically, this arrangement would suffice. (Theoretically, the EVA's AT Field could handle it on its own; but no one wanted to bank on a pilot's ability to maintain that concentration level while re-entering.)
"Heat shield deployed," Asuka reported, unslinging the shield from her unit's back and swinging it into position preparatory to locking it down. "No problems."
"EVA-03 deploying re-entry gear," Jon seconded, and tabbed the switch on his control console.
Nothing happened save for a dull clunk from somewhere within the unit. Jon flipped the switch down and up again. Still nothing. "Stand by, Control," he said, fighting back the cold feeling in the pit of his gut. He keyed the external cameras and aimed his vision toward the compartments where the reentry equipment was stored.
There was a sizable crack in the armor there, and temperature sensors indicated that the contents of the compartments had been frozen solid for some time. Useless.
"Control..." he said gravely. "... Negative deployment on heat shield. Negative re-entry gear."
Rei, supporting a somewhat wobbly DJ, arrived in the control room to see the operations personnel deep in a discussion of their options.
"Can we dock the damaged unit with Babylon 2?" Ritsuko Akagi asked.
"No," Truss replied. "We don't have any docking equipment aboard—why would we? It was never considered as a contingency. EVAs weren't designed to be spacecraft."
"The station's got to have airlocks, though."
"Well, yes, but neither the EVA nor the entry plug has a docking collar that can mate with B2's docking systems."
"Ellison's wearing a Type S plug suit. We can just have him go E.V.A. and walk to an airlock."
Truss shook his head. "The Type S suits weren't finished. They're wearing regular plug suits. Didn't you read the tech briefing?"
"It's not my project," replied Ritsuko curtly.
Truss shrugged. "Either way, E.V.A. isn't an option. He's got to stay in that entry plug or he's dead."
"Well, look, we can't get two EVAs down with one heat shield. Even if there were some way of fitting both of them behind it, the extra mass and its distribution would make accurate control almost impossible. If they didn't tumble out of control on the downslope they'd still end up landing God knows where."
Truss nodded. "Unfortunately, that's true. I—"
In orbit, Asuka finished weighing her options, and made a decision. "Control, I have an idea. Jon, get over here."
Jon wasn't certain what she was up to, but at this point he was willing to try anything. He fired his EVA's maneuvering jets and drifted closer to EVA-02.
Jon blinked. "Say again?"
"Turn around!" Asuka replied. "Hurry up or we'll miss our re-entry window."
With what little fuel remained, EVA-03 moved right up to EVA-02, then pivoted on its maneuver thrusters. Asuka stabilized the two with one of her EVA's hands, worked the other into the gap left behind by the damage to Unit 03's right shoulder armor, and bent the back plate of the wrecked Type S armor, then tore it away, exposing EVA-03's own dorsal armor.
"Uh, Asuka," said Jon. "What are you doing?"
"Improvising," Asuka replied. Drawing EVA-02's Progressive Knife, she cut a large swath of the heavy thermofiber insulation out from inside the armor plate, then discarded the armor. "Hopefully, this will keep your LCL from freezing long enough for us to get into some atmosphere."
"Uh... and if it doesn't?"
"Hold your breath," Asuka replied, thumbing the emergency override and opening the entry-plug cover on EVA-03's back.
"I hope you know what you're doing," said Jon as he powered down his systems and prepared for plug ejection.
"Not a clue," Asuka muttered, her thumb well clear of her press-to-talk key. Then she extracted Unit 03's entry plug, wrapped it in the insulation, and pressed it close to EVA-02's chest with her unit's right hand. With her left she maneuvered the shield into position, locked the knee pawls in, and grabbed hold of one handle.
"Asuka, what the hell are you doing?!" came the signal from Ritsuko Akagi. "You weren't instructed to—"
"Nobody had any better ideas, Doctor, and our window is running out. If you want to file an official reprimand, fine, but I'd prefer we're both there to get it," replied Asuka calmly.
Ritsuko seemed about to reply, but Gendō Ikari stopped her—stopped her with a hand on her arm and an uncharacteristically quiet, "Let her."
"Let her. It may be Ellison's only chance for survival."
"But—if she's holding the entry plug in her EVA's hand during splashdown, the impact shock might—"
"It might, yes, but... There's no time to come up with a better plan."
Ritsuko gave Ikari a long, searching look; then she turned back to the console, pressed her com key and said, "Very well, EVA-02. Proceed."
"With only one hand locked down, you won't be as stable," Jon cautioned. "We may both fry."
"Yeah," Asuka answered. "Well, I'd rather fry than explain to Ayanami why I left you up here to die."
Jon had no immediate reply to that. More and more, he found himself possessed of greater respect for Asuka. "... thank you, Asuka," he finally said quietly.
Asuka grinned a rakish grin reminiscent of DJ's. There was no need for further words on the subject. "Ready for re-entry, Control."
Grendel's retrothrusters fired, nudging the EVA out of its stable orbit, and presently it began to fall back toward Earth. As it fell through the upper reaches of the atmosphere, the heat shield began to glow, growing brighter until it became a roaring corona of flame which engulfed the EVA, giving the appearance of a fiery meteor plunging toward the planet.
Jon had been right; they were slightly unstable, but not enough to cause Asuka any real alarm. Maintaining the shield's proper positioning with one hand was taxing, and her real arm was developing a sympathetic cramp, but she dealt with it with gritted teeth and said nothing, knowing that Jon's ordeal was likely to be far worse.
Jon would, if asked, have to admit that yes, he had been more comfortable.
The initial chill-down, even with the layer of insulation helping the entry plug's relatively thin shell ward off the cooling effect of vacuum, had caused his LCL to thicken noticeably, which made it both uncomfortable and alarming to breathe. Worse, now that they were under re-entry the temperature of the LCL was increasing at an alarming rate. Were it to go much higher, the already-stressed liquid would stop carrying oxygen.
On the other hand, were the insulation to fail, the entry plug to crack, or Asuka to lose her grip...
Jon tried not to think about it.
His anxiety was well-mirrored in the control room, where, thanks to the ionization blackout, no one had the faintest clue what was happening to the two stricken pilots. The medical telemetry on both of them was flatlined; Truss tried not to look at it as he waited for something, anything, to tell him that Asuka and Jon had survived what was, in effect, his grand experiment. Behind him, he could hear Otto Keller murmuring to Professor Ikari.
"I don't know, Gendō. We've got the parachute situation, the heat shield, the angle of trajectory and the splashdown question... there are just so many variables, I'm at a bit of a loss... "
"I know what the problems are, Otto," Gendō replied flatly. "This could be the worst disaster NERV has ever experienced."
"With all due respect, sir," said Misato stiffly, "I believe this is going to be our finest hour."
Ikari regarded her silently for a moment, then nodded almost imperceptibly and resumed his pensive stare at the master monitor.
DJ and Rei watched in silence, and no one—least of all DJ—noticed that she had taken his hand in a white-knuckled grip.
As the LCL became noticeably hot and the buffetting effect of re-entry became ever stronger, Jon felt himself verging closer to panic. If he was to die, then so be it; he had few problems with that.
But to die alone, without even the sound of Rei's voice, the cool touch of her mind...
In the short time Jon had been aware of their link, living without it had become difficult. Dying without it was unthinkable.
Rei. Please help me.
And then... something happened. It was a feeling he would be hard-pressed to properly describe; the best adjective he could find for it would be 'musical', a kind of song that resonated with a series of words not so much spoken as implied...
I will protect you.
And then all the torment was gone, replaced by peace.
Evangelion Unit 02 performed a perfect parachute deceleration and splashdown fifty miles off the coast of Rhode Island; the flotation devices deployed perfectly, and when the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan arrived to make pickup, they found the unit reposing on its face like a bather doing a dead-man's float, with two pilots, alive and well, splashing each other copiously with the cold Atlantic water.
The victory celebration was well under way, with cake, video games, and loud music in the Wedge for all, but, as was her wont, Ritsuko Akagi was still in the control room, poring over the data from the day's activities. She turned at a sound to see Gendō Ikari, looking as old and tired as she could remember having seen him in recent days.
"A close call," she observed.
"Too close," replied Ikari. "Did we get any useful data from it, at least?"
"Enough that SHODAN will be a few days collating it," Ritsuko replied. "Recovery teams are disassembling EVA-03's entry plug data recorders now, but the groundside telemetry is complete, and some of it is very impressive." She looked up at Ikari and said, "Do you realize that, for a few seconds, DJ's synchronization ratio with Unit 01 hit 1.0 to 1?"
Ikari nodded. "I suspected it might."
"What are you going to do about EVA-03?" Ritsuko asked.
Ikari sighed, looking out the control room windows at the EVA cage beyond. "Cargo mules from B2 have already reached 03 and are in the process of towing it back to the station. It will be lashed to the docking module to keep it in orbit. The station is already adjusting its orbital path to compensate for the increased mass.
"A TechDiv team will go up with the next supply run to Babylon 2, next Thursday. They'll bring back what's necessary in a Venture Star. In the meantime, NERV Japan reported this morning that EVA-04 is ready for preliminary testing. If Unit 03 proves unsalvageable, we can always have that one transferred here. One production model is much like another."
Ritsuko nodded. "Makes sense." She closed out her log session, stood up, and yawned. "Well, I don't know about you, but I think I'll actually stop by the Wedge and have some cake."
Ikari favored this comment with a raised eyebrow and the hint of a smile; then he said, "I'd join you, but I have reports to file. The SEELE Council is going to want to know why we've lost an EVA, even temporarily."
"I don't envy you that job," Ritsuko admitted.
"The Council and I have grown accustomed to each other," replied Ikari. "It's not as onerous a duty as I might have thought it once."
"As you say," said Ritsuko. "Good night, then."
"Good night, Dr. Akagi," said Gendō.
Alone in the control room, he gazed out at the three remaining ranked EVAs in the cage for a few long moments.
"Why does he have to be the best of them?" he wondered quietly.
Jon pulled himself out of one of the Super Rush console stations, still laughing at the crazed outcome of the last eight-way race (Jon, Rei, DJ, Maya, Misato, Truss, Otto Keller and Security MIB Ken Stanfield on the classic San Francisco course), and made his way to the table with the snacks layout, hunting for another cheese ball. As he did, it struck him that Asuka was nowhere in the Wedge to be seen. Curious, he looked around more closely, and saw through the windows that she was standing out by the edge of the reflecting pool.
She turned to look as he joined her, alerted by the scrape of his shoes on the concrete.
"Am I disturbing you?" he asked softly.
"No," she replied. "I was just looking at the lights and thinking," she added, gesturing to the ceiling of the Geo-Front far above, where the twinkling lights of the suspended city gave the illusion of a night sky full of unfamiliar constellations.
They stood in companionable silence for a few minutes, and Jon thought about the day's events. Both of the young relationships forming between EVA pilots had been tested by the fearful separation of space, and, if Jon was any judge, both had been strengthened. He and Rei had needed no words, just a look, to acknowledge what had passed between them during the harrowing re-entry; and Asuka and DJ had expressed their relief with the directness Jon valued in them both, as he hoped they always would.
But there was more to what had transpired, he thought, than those tests. Jon had to admit there were times when he envied DJ's rapport with Rei, the confidence with which they worked together. He knew enough about both of them not to feel jealousy, exactly, for theirs was a different dynamic, but he had always regretted that he and Asuka never seemed to share anything other than a job.
After today, he felt—he hoped—that was no longer true.
"Asuka," he said softly.
"Mm?" she replied, not taking her eyes from the patterns of light.
"You saved my life today," said Jon. "I wanted... to thank you for that."
Asuka smiled, a kind of smile Jon couldn't remember having seen on her face before. It was uncomplicated, bearing no ulterior motives or mixed messages—a simple smile that told of her pleasure, her pride in the compliment.
"You're welcome," she replied. "I couldn't just let you die. That's one thing I learned early on—no matter what happens, a person should never just give up. If you try and fail, well, at least you can say you tried. A friend of mine once told me: Nothing is inevitable."
Lost in the consideration of that statement, Jon stood with her and silently watched the lights of Worcester-3.
Long after everyone else had dispersed, Ritsuko Akagi sat alone in the Lower Wedge. She'd shared in the festivities, but felt like she wasn't quite accepted—like some outside interloper, a party crasher. She knew that it was nothing intentional on their parts. They'd invited her, after all, and they did treat her well. But she was the next step from Gendō Ikari—and Gendō would never be one of the group. That association felt like a pall that hung over her relationship with the other team members.
She'd turned out the lights and sat now only in the soft glow of the CRTs and the T5K holofield. Her eyes played across the screens as the eyecatch sequences ran. Something familiar caught her eye on the Toshinden machine. She crossed the room and waited for the loop to repeat. It was some minutes before it finally did, but she saw what she thought she had seen the first time.
Dr. Ritsuko Akagi stood on the battle field, a sneer on her face and a bullwhip in her hand.
Ritsuko wasn't angry, as Asuka and DJ had speculated earlier; rather, she was sad in some indescribable way.
"Is this how they see me?" she asked the dumb screen. She knew that she could be hard on the others. But that was because things had to get done, pleasant or not. She had the mission to think of. Someone had to keep things running. She didn't like being rough, but there wasn't another way. Was there?
She was only cold out of necessity. Ritsuko didn't believe that she would be able to do her job if she became overly attached to the others. She took her cues in large part from Dr. Ikari. Fighting against her nature; always calm, assured, and distant. It wasn't really her, and she remembered from her college-age memories of him that it wasn't really Professor Ikari, either. He'd been an exuberant young man not too long ago... before...
<>No, she admonished herself. Don't think about that now.
Ritsuko never thought about the past if she could help it. She put all of her energy into her work, but she put little of herself, her real self, into it.
"Maybe that's the problem," she breathed quietly. She stood in silence as the eyecatch sequence looped again and again. Finally she reached out, and started a game. She held down the kick button as she selected herself from the character menu. He eyes widened and her breath came out in a gasp when she saw her other costume.
"Say, that's a new look for you."
Ristuko spun around to find Ryoji Kaji grinning over her shoulder at the screen. She interposed herself, trying to block the image on the screen. Kaji turned his grin towards the real Ritsuko. "Sorry, didn't mean to startle you. I was on my way by and I figured I'd see if there was anyone left from the party. Looks like you're it."
"Um, yeah, everyone else went home a while ago." From behind Ritsuko came the sound of her alter ego being pummeled by the computer, since she wasn't doing anything to fight back. The game screamed in pain in a passable imitation of Ritsuko's voice, causing her to blush and Kaji to chuckle.
"That's an interesting twist to the game."
"Yes, well, I think DJ is probably behind it."
A cloud passed over Kaji's face, so quickly that Ritsuko wasn't sure she had really seen it. "Yeah, it does seem to be his style, doesn't it," he said coldly. With a quick change in his tone he added, "You know, the bars are still open, and there's no reason for you to sit here all alone in the dark."
Ritsuko considered for a moment, the dark thoughts of the preceeding moments already blending into a grey haze. She cast a glance around the dark room, not finding any answers. Finally, she decided that it couldn't hurt to go out. "Sure, why not?"
"Great. Then it's a date." Kaji led her out into the night.
It wouldn't be long before Ritsuko Akagi discovered she was wrong: wrong about many things.
Behind them in the darkened Wedge, the game intoned,
"Knockout!" "Ritsuko," "Loses!"
For a moment, while it calculated scores, the machine showed the first CPU character's win animation; a grinning Ryoji Kaji, spinning his battle scythe in one hand and declaring, "Ha-hah! Another conquest."
Unconcerned, the machine showed its GAME OVER screen, then returned to the mindless looping.
A cunning trap.
An error of judgment.
A calculated risk.
And the beginnings of a revelation.
Neon Exodus Evangelion 2:6
Ceremony of Innocence, Part One: The Geometry of Shadows
"I have been Roland, Beowulf, Achilles, Gilgamesh."