Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Neon Exodus Evangelion
Exodus 3: Revelations in Real Time
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)
The X-Files created by Chris Carter
A Night to Remember by Walter Lord
and 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
Written by Benjamin D. Hutchins, Larry Mann, and MegaZone
Aided and abetted by the Eyrie Productions, Unlimited crew
and special-guest-for-life Phil Moyer
© 1998 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
HTML remastering © 2016 EPU
As the great ship surges away from the Old Head of Kinsale and into the open Atlantic, I stand at the forward rail, at the very point of her bow, one hand on the rail at either side of the point. Far below me the black peak of metal slashes through the blue-green water; there is a chill in the sea air, but I am bundled in a new woolen overcoat and never mind it. What do I care if it's a little cold? I am free.
Free of my grandfather's endless pontification about proper behaviour, free of any constraints but those I choose to bear, I'm on my way back to America aboard the mightiest ship afloat: the White Star Line's gleaming new flagship Titanic, on her maiden voyage. The passenger list calls me Viscount Crofthenge, etc., etc.—my steward calls me "My Lord"—but the people I'm on my way back to, they all call me DJ.
It's the eleventh of April, 1912, and I'm on my way home.
Jubilant, I throw my arms up and whoop to the twenty-knot wind in a manner my grandfather would not approve of. For that matter, he would not approve of my standing here at the very peak of the bow. Because he might be stupid enough to fall overboard from here, he assumes I must be as well. Fortunately, he remained behind in England, and I will never have the burden of traveling with him again.
Not that some of my travelling companions aren't somewhat trying in their own right. The drawback of travelling first class is that you have to put up with all the other people who travel first class. Generally, the more interesting people are in steerage. Mind you, he fact that I know that doesn't mean that I indulge in the loathsome habit of slumming, as some of my First Class fellows do. Barging into the steerage spaces in full evening dress, chuckling in a superior way at the antics of the lower classes, is entirely not my way. If I go below decks, I dress to suit, then join in the fun. Steerage may be cramped and a bit squalid, but there always seems to be a party going on, especially if there are a lot of Irish aboard. I love the Irish—sometimes I even manage to convince them of that. They're so much fun, much more fun than most English; even more fun than most Americans.
So good is my mood as I head aft across the forward well deck that the thought of the evening's impending dinner amuses me, rather than filling me with dread. I'm feeling my most puckish today. No doubt that will bother some of the less flexible high-society types who will be dining with me in the first-class dining saloon tonight.
I'm looking forward to it.
Maya Ibuki entered Asuka's room quietly, not wanting to disturb her if she were trying to rest; but she wasn't. She lay in the midst of her web of traction cables and casts like some kind of absurd pinata, staring at the ceiling with bleak, furious eyes. Her face was painful to look at—dreadfully bruised and with a nasty line of stitches running from under her chin to partway up her right cheek—but she'd been assured that there would be no permanent scarring. The full extent of her internal injuries had yet to be determined, but for the moment she was out of danger, stable and allowed to remain conscious and see visitors—not that there were many to see.
"Asuka?" Maya asked quietly.
Asuka's eyes slid toward Maya. "Yes?" she inquired, her voice a trifle thick owing to the stiffness of her face.
"I came to see if you need anything."
"Is it true what they say about DJ?" asked Asuka. "That he's... gone?"
Maya nodded, fighting back another wave of sadness. "Yes, it's true."
Asuka's bruised lips pressed into a tight line. "Good."
"Asuka—" Maya began, but Asuka cut her off.
"He tried to kill me," she hissed angrily. "For no reason! I begged him to stop until my throat was raw and he just kept on... he..." She ran out of steam, and her face crumpled miserably, tears welling up as she sobbed, "... I loved him and he tried to kill me... why, why would he do that?"
Maya sat down next to the bed and put her hand on the back of Asuka's. "He didn't have control, Asuka," she said softly. "He tried to stop EVA-01, but he couldn't."
"It went berserk again? I thought he had better control than that."
"No... it didn't go berserk." Maya sighed. "Look, I could get into a lot of trouble for showing you this, but what the hell. I'm already on Ikari's shit list for standing up for DJ to him, anyway." She went to the wall viewer, keyed in a sequence of commands, and indicated the screen to Asuka. "Watch. These are the cockpit sensor logs from EVA-01."
The screen shifted to show DJ, as seen from the small recording camera mounted on the entry plug's instrument panel, slightly distorted by the mini-fisheye lens.
"I can't raise Unit 02 on EVA-to-EVA, Control," he reported calmly. White subtitles captioned his words.
"Roger, EVA-01," came Maya's voice, captioned in yellow. "No luck from this end either."
Asuka watched, silent, her eyes growing ever wider, as the full story of her near-destruction played out, until, at last, the recording ended with a black screen and a time/date stamp, just after DJ's final, horrified "No!"
Asuka stared in mute horror at Maya as the engineer cleared the screen and went to the door.
"He couldn't hear me..." she whispered. "And Ikari..."
Maya understood anyway, and nodded. "Dr. Ikari discharged him from NERV for his insubordination. In front of three witnesses, DJ promised to kill him. Later that day, another Angel attacked, disabling EVA-00 and EVA-03; DJ came back to fight it off, and in the battle, EVA-01... absorbed him."
Asuka let her head drop back against the pillow and stared bleakly at the ceiling.
"Oh, God," she moaned. "And ever since I woke up I've been lying here hating him... oh, God, poor DJ... I can't even apologize to him for thinking he would do such a terrible thing."
Maya returned to the side of the bed and patted Asuka's hand again. "Some of us haven't given up hope yet. We think there's a way to get him back."
"Seriously? Or are you just trying to cheer me up?"
"Seriously," said Maya. "He's special to a lot of us... and we're not ready to say goodbye yet."
"About a month, according to SHODAN."
"A month..." Asuka pondered. "In a month they tell me I might be ready to start learning to walk again." Her face darkened. "It seems I have something to thank Dr. Ikari for, too."
"Try not to make too much noise about it now," Maya advised her. "Without you and DJ to take some of the heat, Jon and Rei are under terrible pressure from Ikari and Ritsuko. Any problems you cause will just end up on their shoulders too."
Asuka thought that over, then nodded slightly. "I understand."
"Good." Maya turned to go. "I'll check back now and then, and let you know how we're doing. Try not to worry... there are people on this project who'd move Heaven and Earth for DJ Croft." She took a step toward the door, paused, and murmured softly, "I'm one of them," before leaving.
Asuka whispered, "So am I," before starting to cry softly. She couldn't remember ever having felt so terribly small and alone, not even as a child. She'd grown accustomed to it, before DJ came into her life. He had replaced her defenses, and now both were gone.
"Damn you, DJ Croft," she sobbed, unable to wipe at the tears that ran from her eyes. "Why did you do this to me?"
Dining first-class can be a pain. There's too much flatware, and you're obligated by social custom to wear the clothes on which you least want to get food. Mother was right: I'm a workingman at heart. I'd usually rather sit in my favorite pub in shirtsleeves and eat a sandwich than deal with haute cuisine. The conversation is probably better down the pub, too.
"I say, Captain—it's a truly remarkable ship you have here," says Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon. What a stunningly boring fellow Sir Cosmo is! Now he's gone and given that irksome man from the White Star Line another excuse to hold forth on the majesty of the ship.
Sure enough, before the captain can say a word, Ikari has pushed his glasses up his nose and is intoning in his overly sombre voice, "Thank you. We have spared no expense or effort to make Titanic the most luxurious vessel afloat, Sir Cosmo."
Deep within me, there is a demon, a small, diabolical being who cannot resist tweaking men like Ikari. I generally let it have free reign; it's easier than fighting.
So it is that I say, "All that luxury makes her heavy and slow, though. She's a pretty ship, but she'll never take the Blue Riband away from Cunard."
Sir Cosmo and JJ Astor frown at me; a decorous man would have avoided that subject. So too does Ikari, before he recovers his aplomb and replies, "That is of no importance. Titanic's luxury is such that no one will ever complain that it took them a few extra hours to reach New York or Southampton. The first-class accommodations aboard the Mauretania are not even equal in luxury to Titanic's second-class berths." He pushes his eyeglasses up his nose, a habit of his that is both deeply ingrained and annoying, and says coldly, "There really can be no comparison."
"Hear, hear," says Duff Gordon, shooting me a look. He's trying to steer the conversation away, but my demon isn't through with Ikari yet.
"Will you use that in future advertising for the ship?" Holding my hands up as if framing a poster, I speculate on slogans: "'RMS Titanic: So Comfortable, You Won't Care That She's Slow'."
Ikari's face is colouring rapidly by now, and so are some of the others at the table. Captain Katsuragi coughs decorously; she hides a smile discreetly behind her napkin, but I can tell it from her eyes. I find myself wondering how old she is. She must have quite a bit of sea experience to hold a position of such importance in the White Star fleet, yet she seems quite young to my eyes, and a very handsome woman too. She must have terrific force of will to have risen so high in an industry as heavily male-dominated as this. I wish I knew her better.
John Trussell, the great ship's builder, isn't at the table tonight. He has come along on the maiden voyage with the intent of noting down improvements to be made in the ship (and in her under-construction third sister, which I'm told is to be called Gigantic), and tonight he's probably in his stateroom, hard at work with his blueprints and drawings. Trussell understands ships the way some people understand horses.
The crew of the ship unanimously speak of Trussell with an admiration bordering on hero worship. He takes the time to speak with them, from the navigation officers to the engine room crew to the stewards, soliciting their opinions and the benefit of their experience living and working in the spaces he designs, and they love him for it. To his face they're always proper and call him Mr. Trussell, but among themselves he's always "Truss". I suspect he would approve if he knew; he's a charmingly unpretentious man, one of the few such in First Class.
I wish he were here tonight; I want to get to know him better. Perhaps tomorrow I'll seek him out and see if I can get him to give me a better tour of the ship than the fivepence twirl round the Boat Deck passengers normally get. (If not, I shall be forced to invade the engineering spaces of my own devices.)
As it is, the only even vaguely engaging person at the table is Captain Katsuragi herself. Everyone else is an insufferable bore with far too much money and time on their hands. Duff Gordon and his wife, the cream of England's relentlessly dull gentility. Benjamin Guggenheim and his mistress, how discreet. John Jacob Jingleheimer, er, Astor and his wife, who's barely older than me. Arthur Langley, a pompous, overbearing boor of a German banker; his wife, a charming Japanese lady who might be interesting if her idiot husband would ever let her speak; and their daughter, who reminds me why it was not necessarily a bad thing that redheads used to be burned at birth as witches. Gendō Ikari, Managing Director of the White Star Line, who at one turn claims to be a passenger and at the next is overriding Captain Katsuragi on some point of operation, and whose habit of pushing his glasses up and then staring intensely at whomever he is speaking to may drive me utterly mad before the evening is out.
And, at the head of the table, in ostensible charge of this entire operation, Captain Misato Katsuragi. Immaculate in her blue uniform with its profusion of gold braid and gleaming buttons, she surveys the table with perfect confidence despite the constant butting-in of Mr. Ikari, her dark hair bundled under her cap. Again I wonder how old she is. Normally she commands the Olympic, but as commodore of White Star's fleet, it's her prerogative to take each new ship on its maiden voyage.
Something seems profoundly odd about this assemblage, but I can't think of what it can be. At face value, it seems a perfectly ordinary gathering of astoundingly boring rich people, of the sort one usually finds at the Captain's table on the first night out from land. I don't know where this feeling of wrongness comes from, but it's starting to make me very uneasy as I butter a roll and exchange what passes for witty conversation with Guggenheim.
Lara Croft hadn't been at her home in Northamptonshire for a few days, but she hadn't been far abroad this time. No, just a trip to London, to look around, do a bit of shopping, and have a wary dinner with her father, Sir Henshingly Croft.
The occasion was inevitably awkward. Sir Henshingly and his daughter hadn't spoken except through solicitors in almost twenty-five years, after all. The old man made no secret of his disappointment in the sort of woman Lara had turned out to be. He'd spared no expense in the matter of her education, sent her to the best finishing school on the Continent. She'd grown into a tall, fine-looking young woman, and with her poise and charm polished by that schooling, she was certain to have no difficulty finding a husband. She'd never given any indication of unhappiness with this prospect; she'd been a perfectly normal young lady.
Just before graduation, her class had taken a trip to Japan. Sir Henshingly had seen her off at Heathrow, had spoken to her on the phone just before the return flight left Tokyo. She'd been happy, pleased by the trip, looking forward to coming home.
Then the 747 went down in the Tibetan Himalayas, and everyone aboard died—everyone but Lara, who found herself, somehow, unharmed save for a few scratches and bruises. In that one endless moment of sliding, smashing, sparking, smoke-filled, screaming, galvanized, mindless terror, everything that had ever seemed important to Lara revealed itself to be meaningless. In a sense, as she would tell her son in later years, Lara Croft the society flower died with her classmates. It was a different person, a grown woman, fiercely independent and possessed of a bottomless reserve of determination, who emerged from the wrecked airliner into the shocking cold of the mountain air.
Three weeks later, that woman walked into a village on the Chinese border, found a telephone, and called home; but home wasn't ready for the changed Lara. Without any common frame of reference at all, she couldn't explain to her father the revelation on the point of oblivion that had made her angrily intolerant of the stifling, mindless atmosphere of high society. Unwilling to fit herself back into the pattern of her old life, unable to make Sir Henshingly understand that she had become, all at once, an adult, Lara discovered that she and her father really didn't like one another very much, and moved out on her own. Wounded and wrathful, Sir Henshingly promptly disowned her, and so it had been.
While the Second Impact was wracking the world, Lara was in the western United States, one of the hardest-hit parts of the world. She came within a hairsbreadth of dying in the Great San Andreas Earthquake. then spent the next few months searching for her lover, an American FBI agent, and his partner, who both had gone missing in the quake. Eventually the Bureau reported them both deceased, and Lara returned to England.
While the dazed surviving half of the human race slowly pieced itself back together, drawing closer, stepping back from their frantic pre-Impact pace of life, absorbing the inevitable huge changes brought on by such a cataclysm, Lara's life was touched by the bittersweet birth of her son, a boy who would never know his father. Sir Henshingly made a few harrumphing overtures of peace at this time, but Lara was in no mood. Rebuffed, the old man's anger was rekindled. The ensuing years saw court battles and the occasional outright plot as Sir Henshingly sought to show his daughter unfit to raise the boy.
DJ's recent successful bid for emancipation, rendering the entire custody question moot, stunned Sir Henshingly. Only after it was lost did he suddenly realize that the cause he had devoted all his energies to for years hadn't been about the boy at all. Only then did he realize that all he was really trying to do was cause his wayward daughter the same pain, the same loss, he himself had felt when she turned away from him.
The shock caused Sir Henshingly, in his sixties and not in the best of health, to suffer a heart attack. Only the quick action (and expert driving) of Dennis Franklin, Sir Henshingly's loyal chauffeur, got him to a hospital in time for the doctors to save his life. On the ER table at London Mercy, as doctors fought to bring him back from a total cardiac arrest, Sir Henshingly Croft had his own revelation on the point of oblivion. Now, after several months of struggling and soul-searching, he'd made his first attempt at making peace: a short, handwritten note, without posturing, simply asking her if she would lunch with him in London some day soon.
Lara knew of her father's recent affliction, for Sir Henshingly's solicitor had informed hers. In a gesture which she irritably informed Mildram was mere decency (certainly no act of residual filial devotion!), she'd sent an aloe plant to his hospital room. Not flowers; the old man was terribly allergic to flowers, something Lara remembered more out of reflex than through any conscious impulse. Still, after years of enmity, she received his note with more than a little wariness. What was he up to now?
In the end, after seeking the counsel of Mildram, of her son, and of Misato Katsuragi (all of whom had responded, guardedly, "Well, what could it hurt?"), Lara sent back a similarly cordial note telling Sir Henshingly she would be pleased to dine with him the next time she was in London.
Lara reflected on the meeting as she entered Crofthenge's main hall, stamping snow from her boots and shrugging out of her coat. Her father had looked well—the doctors told him he was recovering remarkably well from his attack, and as he was following the regimen they prescribed to the letter, he was healthier now than he'd been in years. She had some idea how hard it was for him to extend an olive branch after so many years of implacability; they both had the streak of stubborn pride that marked the Croft line.
And after so many years, it surprised Lara how easily she accepted that branch, and how happy it made her to embrace her father for the first time in twenty-five years.
She hummed happily as she entered her study, hanging her coat on the well-worn brass hook by the door and then leafing through the pile of mail on her desk. It was Mildram's day off, so she got herself a tonic water from the miniature refrigerator under the desk rather than ring for him to bring in some wine. Amid the bills and letters from various museums and private collectors (all no doubt asking to commission her to look for some forgotten thing or another) was a yellow envelope, a Western Union telegram. She peeled it apart, wondering if it might be a message from DJ, who sometimes cabled rather than wrote.
Her brown eyes widened in disbelief as they saw that it was not.
FROM NERV CENTRAL COMMAND WORCESTER-3 MA US TO LARA CROFT CROFTHENGE-IN-NORTHANTS NORTHAMPTONSHIRE ENGLAND UK WE REGRET TO INFORM YOU THAT YOUR SON EP1C DEREK J CROFT IS LISTED MISSING IN ACTION A/O 00:07 TUE 11/24/2015 SIGNED CDR G IKARI CMDG NERV CENTRAL COMMAND
For the third time, everything in Lara Croft's life abruptly stopped, then slowly moved on again. Slowly, she put the telegram down on her desk. For a long few minutes, she gazed out the window behind her desk at the falling snow. Then she picked up the telephone and called Southampton.
The first-class stewardess who looks after my section is a pretty, extremely soft-spoken and sweet girl named Rei, who I would guess is little or no older than myself. Unfortunately for her, my section also contains the loathsome Herr Langley and his equally unpleasant daughter. It's too bad that money is the only criterion for a berth in First Class... but I suppose if it weren't, the other criteria would be stupid ones too, and nice people like the Strauses wouldn't be among us. It's a mean and petty world under all this gilt and scrollwork—a fact I learned, indirectly, from my grandfather.
Anyway, Rei—who has perfect ash-white skin and hair a remarkable shade of silvery blue (cut in a simple pageboy that frames her lovely face with its wide, deep-red eyes that seem to look right through you)—is a wonderful but rather sad girl, and if I could convince her to come away with me and leave the sea behind I'd take her back to the States with me and... Well, I don't know, try to make her happy. Damned if Mum isn't right about that silly, romantic streak in me, but damned if she doesn't have it herself, too, however she tries to pretend she hasn't. Anyway, I'm so damned impulsive I can't say for certain I wouldn't actually do it, if not for the section steward.
The section's steward is one Jon Ellison, one of those tall, lanky fellows who could be anywhere from an old-looking fourteen to a boyish twenty. As all stewards must, he has the patience of a saint, the endurance of a steam engine and the quiet, dutiful politeness of a chaplain. It's his first cruise on so grand a ship; he was, he told me yesterday, recruited from the crew of the Cunard single-stacker Carpathia. He has little time or attention to spare on admiring the appointments of the ship, though, and any he manages to hoard is spent not on that, but on quietly mooning over Rei. I know the signs; I've done it myself. (It occurs to me that I may yet be doing it myself.) Anyway, I try to bother him as little as possible; God knows he has enough to do with the Langleys in his section, poor lad, and I wish him all the luck.
As if thinking of their name is enough to summon the hellspawn from their den, the door to their suit across the alleyway crashes open and the girl (Asuka, I think her name is) emerges.
"Honestly!" she declares, in a voice carefully calculated to carry to as many nearby staterooms as possible. "One would think that for the maiden voyage of their finest ship, White Star could have hired stewards who can handle at least the simplest tasks. I'm going up to the Boat Deck. You'd best have this cleaned up by the time I get back."
And away she swoops, in a great rustling dress that must have cost about as much as the Renault one of my fellow passengers has down in the hold. A pretty dress, indeed, though I should think it rather unsuitable for promenading round the Boat Deck on a chilly April afternoon. On the other hand, perhaps she'll catch pneumonia. I step across the alleyway and look into the still-open suite sitting room, to find Rei kneeling amid the scattered remains of what was once a tea-set tray, picking up broken cups and trying to mop up the tea with her apron. As I drop down to help her, I can see that she's fighting back tears, but when she sees me, she tries to protest.
"Sir, you don't need—"
"Tch, it's all right," I replied, gathering up some of the broken china and piling it on the tray. "Beastly girl. Her parents don't beat her enough."
At this Rei bites back a chuckle; if only for a moment, her face threatens to smile. I very much would like to see what that looks like, but in this I seem destined for disappointment. The moment passes quickly, and she sets to picking up the remainder of the china, looking resolutely down.
"She turned round as I was bringing the tea," she said, "and knocked it out of my hands... then blamed me, naturally."
"It's all right," I said, making my own futile attempt at mopping up the mess with my handkerchief. "I'm on your side. First-class passengers are the worst kind of pain, aren't we? We always want everything right away, and haven't a clue how anything works. Plus, most of us are in dire need of a sound beating from somebody bigger than ourselves." I considered for a moment. "Perhaps the captain should just have the lads from the stokehold come up and thrash each of us individually, just to show us what's what."
"What happened here?" I hear a voice behind me. Turning, I can see it's Ellison, the other cabin steward. He doesn't know whether to look indignant or deferential, and so ends up being a bit of both.
"Bit of an upset with a tea-set, it appears," I reply. "Would you be a good lad and fetch us a towel? The tea's rather gotten ahead of my cleanup attempt."
As I set to helping Rei mop up the rest of the mess, my mind turns to thoughts of revenge. Yes, I know, it's rather uncivilised and petty of me; on the other hand, I think we've covered my level of civilisation already.
My God! It's full of stars!
My God! It's full of stars!
Those words had been looping through the audio playback for a good long time now. The volume was set low, but Jon heard it anyway. Finally he couldn't take it anymore and got up, quietly padding out of his room and toward the source of the noise.
It was, as he expected, coming from DJ's bedroom: Rei sat on the edge of the bed, facing away from the door and toward Hal. Anubis sat next to her, looking up with concerned eyes as Rei repeatedly hit the REVIEW key, making the last thing DJ had said play again and again.
My God! It's full of stars!
My God! It's full of stars!
My God! It's full of stars!
Anubis glanced back at Jon and whimpered quietly as Jon climbed onto the opposite side of the bed and made his way across. Rei did not react at all, merely kept clicking the button, making the sound loop through again. It wasn't until Jon was right behind her and had rested his hands on her shoulders that she stopped.
"You've been playing that for hours now," Jon said quietly.
"Yes," she answered, even quieter.
"Maybe if I listen to it enough I'll figure it out."
"Figure what out?"
"That's just it..." Rei replied, with more than a little frustration. "...I don't know yet."
Jon began to gently massage her shoulders. "You should get some sleep."
"I don't want to," she mumbled.
"The sound file will be there tomorrow," Jon persisted.
"I know that," Rei sighed, and leaned back into his embrace. "But I don't want to sleep, because if I do... I'll just dream about death."
"Then I'll dream about life," Jon said quietly, holding her a little tighter and trying to banish the unpleasant thoughts. "They'll cancel each other out."
For a while the only sound was that of Hal's cooling fan. Then Rei tilted her head back a little farther, so she could speak softly into Jon's ear.
"Dr. Ikari was right about DJ... and you."
"What do you mean?" he asked just as softly.
"You're a bad influence on me. Before, I didn't care about death, but now... now I'll be less effective in combat, because..." Her voice dropped to the barest whisper. "... I don't want to die."
"Nobody wants to die," Jon whispered back. "I don't, DJ doesn't... it didn't stop us from doing our jobs." He paused for a moment. "I didn't care about death either, when I first came here. But... that was before I found someone worth living for."
"... yes," she whispered, and Jon thought he heard a sniffle. She hadn't wanted to admit it any more than he had, but now that their eyes were opening and they knew right more clearly from wrong, the situation was fast becoming unbearable.
"But you don't have to worry," he said. "You won't die."
"Because... because we will protect you."
This time a small sob did escape. For all either of them knew, that "we" might be figurative. Out of instinct Jon held her a little more firmly, planting a small kiss on her neck, doing his best to banish the lurking pain that waited for any opportunity to overwhelm them.
After a time, Rei tilted her head back even further, looking into his eyes. He looked right back, letting the synchrony happen, letting the feelings flow.
"Protect me tonight," she whispered, leaning in close so he could feel her breath against his lips and guiding his arms down from her shoulders to a softer, more comfortable position.
"Until the end of the universe," he whispered back, closing the remaining millimeter of distance between them. Softly, tenderly, they kissed. "...and beyond."
After an hour or so, they fell asleep in each other's arms.
And dreamed of life.
"How do I look?" I ask, tugging at the hem of my (borrowed) starched white waistcoat and brushing some imaginary lint from the sleeve.
"Not bad," replies the long-faced chief of B Deck's first-class cabin stewards. "You've even the right accent for it, more or less, if you'd only clip your vowels a bit more."
"Ah. Right." I make a mental note to do just that. "How's this?"
"Better," concedes the steward with a nod. "I could get into a lot o' trouble fer this," he said, "but your lordship's correct—that girl's no good. See here, though—if you get caught, I don't know you."
I smile. "Don't worry about that."
The worst part of the job is the tedium; garbed as a steward, I wait for almost an hour at the service station before the light indicating a summons from the Langley suite goes off. A thrill of anticipation goes through me as I straighten my cap and march down the corridor with the brisk stride of a steward answering an important passenger's summons. It's 6:30 in the evening, ship's time; I've missed dinner, which will no doubt be the subject of some discussion among the men in the smoking room. More to the point, Herr Langley will now be sitting down to an evening of smoking, drinking brandy and talking horses with the gentlemen, while Frau Langley will be shamelessly gossiping with all the other ladies in the Writing Room. Young Fräulein Langley is most likely alone in the suite,
As I open the door to the suite's sitting room, I see that it is the girl who has summoned me, just as I hoped. I watch her face for a sign of recognition, but, as expected, she ignores me except to deliver a demand for a bucket of fresh ice. Having seen the hat and the white coat, she pays no attention to the face in between. I might as well be a Turk, or an ottoman, for that matter.
"Very good, miss," I reply, and, pivoting on my heel, back I go to the service station. So it's ice you want, eh, Fräulein? I'll give you ice.
Seventy-six seconds later I am on my way back into the sitting room, a silver ice-bucket full of shaved ice and water in my hands. Fräulein Langley is sitting in a straight-backed chair at the room's small table, her back to me, writing. Hearing me enter, she says without looking round, "Just put it on the table and go, will you?"
"Very good, miss," I repeat; then, without hesitation, I step up behind her and pour the ice water over her head.
Her shriek of shock and outrage is magnificent—a single animal sound embodying shock, fright, outrage, anger, all overlapping and blended. She stands up fast enough to knock over the chair, whirling to face me. Her auburn hair hangs straight down, now, plastered wetly to her head and shoulders, and her dress is wet almost to the waist. From this it's clear she wears no corset; I wonder idly if it's a Westernism her mother has protected her from, or if the woman merely feels her daughter is too young yet. Either way, I'm pleased for her. She's a beastly girl, but corsets are dreadful things, painful and unhealthy. There's a difference between wanting someone to suffer a bit, and wishing a life of torment and short breath on her.
For a moment, she sputters impotently, too enraged to put words together; then, with a visible effort of will, she gathers her wits and screams, "You—miserable—filthy—bastard! I should have the Sergeant-at-Arms throw you overboard! I hope you've enjoyed your little joke, because I'm certain your employ with this line just ended. What's your name, cretin?"
I give her my frostiest look, then reach up and remove the steward's cap from my head. Now she pays attention to the face, and I see the recognition and consternation fill her eyes.
"My name, as I believe you know, is Crofthenge—Derek, Lord Corfthenge. I'll thank you to curb your language when you speak to me."
For a moment she's too startled from recognizing me to reply; then the anger sweeps over her again, and she bellows, "What the devil's the meaning of this? How dare you barge in here under false pretenses and douse me with ice water! I shall have Father speak to your guardian, who will no doubt properly tan your miserable hide for this outrage."
"My guardian?" I laugh, although she has no way of knowing why what she's just said is so funny. "That'll be the day. I wouldn't make too big a deal of this affair, Fräulein—you wouldn't wish your father to know of the language you've used, would you?"
She scowls, knowing I have a point; her fingers stiffen into a claw-like position, and for a moment I'm almost afraid she'll try to gouge my eyes out. Then she relaxes, her scowl becoming a sly smile, and she says,
"You're a very clever young man, my lord, but if you think that, simply because you've covered yourself from public revenge, I shan't seek satisfaction for this outrage, you're quite mistaken."
It dawns on me that, after all, I rather like this girl.
And so I smile, and bow, and say, "I look forward to it, Fräulein Langley." Then I show myself out.
Misato Katsuragi sat at the kitchen table, glumly surveying the piles of unopened mail. Her motivation for dealing with bills and circulars, never the greatest, had slipped to new depths of late. None of it seemed in any way important now. In a hundred years, who would care? Who would even be alive to care, come to that?
She was about to summarily consign all of it to the circular file when the corner of a long letter envelope, edged in red and blue striping, peeked out from the pile and caught her attention. Drawing the envelope out, she noticed that it was addressed to her, formally ("MAJ. MISATO KATSURAGI") in a strong, somewhat squared-off, masculine hand. There was no return address; the stamps were English. Curious, she slit the envelope, then removed and read the letter within. It read:
I learned of you through my correspondence with DJ Croft. He has had many positive things to say of you, and has indicated that you, alone among the hierarchy of NERV's Operations Division, are both worthy of trust and possessed of discretion. I write to extend my condolences on the double near-tragedy which has struck your organisation of late, and to express my wishes for a speedy recovery for the injured pilot and a happy resolution to the question of DJ's fate. The details escape me—I am only an amateur historian, and not much of a scientist!—but I am given to understand that there is hope.
For his sake as much as our own, we must not abandon that hope.
Before his disappearance, DJ confided to me certain details regarding a crisis of leadership at NERV (specifically, the increasingly erratic behavior of Commander Ikari). He was loath to come to any conclusions on the information he had, but it was clear he suspected a reckoning, and a possible schism between NERV and SEELE, might be in the offing. I, like DJ, believe that in such an event, NERV's best course of action lies in an alliance with X-COM, an organization whose integrity, unlike SEELE's, I believe is beyond reproach.
I wish to assure you that I am in full support of NERV. Should matters come to an open confrontation, I offer you and your personnel royal protection and support anywhere within the Commonwealth and the Empire. I urge you to contact Colonel J.A. Lethbridge-Stewart, commandant of the X-COM facility in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, regarding an evacuation plan to this, the nearest X-COM base within Imperial territory. I cannot send British troops into the United States, but neither will SEELE dare use its pawns, the U.S. military, within the Dominion of Canada.
If you doubt any part of this message, please telephone me at the number enclosed, at any time.
Misato stared at the letter for a good ten minutes, idly turning the accompanying calling card over in her fingers, before she realized that Stephen Fiske-Windsor was better known to Americans as Stephen II, King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Upon that realization, she stared for a few minutes more; and then, slowly, as if in a dream, she picked up the telephone on the counter and began to dial.
I suppose there's really no reason for me to be in the forward cargo hold, other than my innate fondness for lurking about in dark, quiet places where I have no business being. For some reason, when I'm poking round in warehouses, cargo holds, buried temples, and the like—that's when I really feel alive. Sometimes I think I only appreciate my life when I'm risking it.
Not that there's much risk involved in having a look round a cargo hold. I don't think it's even strictly against the rules for me to be here.
Cargo holds have a particular smell, and it occurs to me as I explore this one that it must be the smell of the cargo itself. The hold is, after all, brand new. This is its very first load, yet it smells exactly the same as every other cargo hold, warehouse, junk shop and such-like establishment I've ever been in.
Except... there's something different, something wrong, about it. It's nagging at me, just outside my conscious reach. I stop just past the front fender of the hold's lone automobile and try to put my finger on what it is...
... And then it dawns on me. It's cold. Even for April in the North Atlantic, it's cold down here. My breath is puffing out in front of me in a cloud, and the tip of my nose is numbing. It shouldn't be that cold. Only a refrigerator ship is that cold. We're not hauling sides of meat in here, so why should the hold be below freezing?
My curiosity's up now. I lick a fingertip and hold it up. There's no wind to speak of down here, but the cooling effect is moving some air, as I'd hoped. I follow the current to the far corner of the hold. Whatever's refrigerating the place must be over here, behind this frost-rimed stack of steamer trunks. I edge around the stack and look.
It's here, all right. The most intense cold is radiating out from under a blue tarpaulin laid across a group of long, narrow objects which are laid out in a row on the floor against the hold's aft bulkhead. From their size and shape, they could almost be coffins. Transporting corpses by luxury steamer? Seems a bit extravagant even for the Edwardian rich.
I take a corner of the tarp and bend it back; it's stiff with ice and cracks more than it bends. The object underneath isn't a coffin, at least, not one I've ever seen. It's a steel cylinder, perhaps seven feet in length and three in diameter, its bottom side flattened slightly so it won't roll. There are twelve of them laid out in this row. But what the devil are they?
There's a dark, oblong patch on the surface of this cylinder. Bending down, I almost touch it before I realize how stupid that would be; then I get out my handkerchief to keep my hand from freezing to the metal and brush away the frost that obscures that patch. It turns out to be a White Star Line luggage label.
It appears that, whatever this metal cylinder is, it belongs to Mr. G. Ikari.
A metallic clatter sounds from the other end of the hold. Someone else has come down! Thinking I'd better scarper before they think I'm trying to steal Ikari's freezer or something, I put the tarp back and duck behind the nearest pile of trunks—I can't run back to the companionway and leave the hold without passing whoever's come down. I'll just have to hide and hope they leave soon.
The footsteps come toward me. From the sound of them, whoever it is isn't worried about being detected. He's walking as if he owned the place.
As I peer out through a gap between two trunks, he comes into my view, and I realize that I'm not far off. The new arrival is Mr. Ikari.
He bends down and flips back the same tarp I was just looking under. Then his brow furrows as he notices the spot where I've wiped away the frost. Pushing up his glasses, he leans over and touches his gloved fingertips to the luggage label, and stays there for an agonizing few minutes, lost in thought.
Then he straightens, replaces the tarp, turns, and leaves the hold.
I can breathe again.
But what in God's name is going on?
Worcester-3 was fading away. The population continued to decline at a rapid rate, and no area of the city was immune to the effects. People were moving out, and a lot of the business was moving out with them. The people that remained were either very hardy, very poor, or somehow still had faith that NERV and their superweapons would carry them through this whole mess.
As he leaned against the school fence and looked out at the city with Rei, Jon wished he could be more certain of NERV's ability to do that. There were a lot of things he wished he could be more certain of.
The school was almost totally empty. After talking with numerous teachers whose classes had dwindled to near nonexistence (never mind the teachers who had resigned and bailed), the administration had agreed that keeping the place open was more trouble than it was worth, and so the few remaining students had been recruited to help move everything into storage and lock the place up. This had taken the better part of the day, but by early afternoon all that was left was for the superintendent to officially release everyone and lock the gates.
Jon had mixed feelings about it. This, of all places, had been a welcome diversion from the purgatory which NERV had turned into not long ago. Sure, this whole school thing had basically been a NERV public relations effort, and a lot of the kids had given him and the other pilots a wide berth, but there was a lot to be said for associating with people who weren't attached to the program and thus didn't have the resultant emotional baggage.
And one by one, his links to that mundane world were disappearing. If this kept up, before long the program would be the sum total of his life again. Were it not for Rei, he imagined his sanity would be nosediving along with everyone else's.
Tommy Sullivan had a very eloquent phrase for describing situations like this: 'Man, this sucks.'
Speaking of whom... Jon turned around—though Rei did not—to see Tommy and Ken approaching. Ken looked fairly pleased with himself, giving a friendly wave, while Tommy seemed a little distracted.
"Man, I didn't think we were ever gonna finish!" Ken observed, referring to all the moving that had been going on.
"What's left to do?" Jon asked, doing his best to scrape together some interest.
"Zip. We're done," Tommy replied. "They're going through and locking everything now."
"Yep, s'all over but the shouting," Ken grinned.
"Great," Jon replied halfheartedly.
"Contain your enthusiasm," Tommy remarked.
"Take it easy, Tommy," said another voice, and everyone — again, except for Rei, who still stared blankly out at the city — turned to see Kevin Nelson approaching. "It's been a rough week."
The boys' smiles slipped. It had indeed been a rough week, and now that he actually had time to think about it, Ken realized that it had to be even worse for the two EVA pilots in front of him. Ayanami had always been distant before, but now she seemed positively withdrawn, and Ellison looked as if he really was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders...
... and Croft and Langley were notable in their absence. It didn't take much brainpower to guess what had happened.
"Are they... gonna be okay?" Ken ventured cautiously. "DJ and Asuka, I mean..."
Jon was silent for a moment, glancing sidelong at Rei, who returned his glance with a barely perceptible nod. "Asuka will recover. DJ..." he sighed heavily. "Well, we don't know yet."
"Damn..." Tommy replied, glancing downward. There was silence for a moment, then he leveled his gaze at Jon once more. "Listen, um... could you do me a favor?"
"Like what?" Jon asked.
"Well, I, uh, wanted to tell DJ I was sorry for that fight a while back. It was a stupid thing to do. I was gonna tell him myself but my folks are leaving tonight, so, um, I was wondering..."
"...I'll tell him," Jon replied quietly.
"Thanks," Tommy said, looking relieved. "You're all right, Ellison." He scratched at the back of his neck, grinning nervously. "Well, heh... I guess I'd better go see if Hilary needs any help with her stuff. Uh... see you around."
"I don't know whether to admire Hilary or pity her," Ken mused, shaking his head, as Sullivan passed out of earshot.
"I'm sure they'll work it out," Kevin replied, sounding faintly amused.
"I've gotta go too," Ken sighed. "Trying to convince my folks to hang on a little longer, but I guess they don't wanna get up close and personal with all the military hardware." He managed a wry grin, and Jon had to chuckle a little. "Anyway, could you, uh, say goodbye for me too?"
"Sure," Jon nodded.
"Thanks. Hey, you take care, okay?" We need somebody to save the world, he didn't add.
"We will. Same to you."
Ken left then, heading off in the same direction Tommy had gone. Kevin remained where he was, watching Ken go. For a time, there was silence.
"I guess things aren't going too well, are they?" he finally said.
"... No," Rei mumbled.
A pained look passed over Kevin's face. After a moment he spoke again: "Will they be all right? Really?"
"I wish I knew," Jon answered, sighing heavily and leaning against the fence. "There's a lot of things I wish I knew."
A faint smile returned to Kevin's face. "You'll do what's right, I'm sure."
Jon didn't know how to reply to that, instead changing the subject: "You leaving too?"
"Not just yet. I've got some things I need to do first." He didn't elaborate, and Jon didn't ask. "Take care."
"Yeah, you too." Not for the first time, Jon wondered if he would ever figure that kid out.
It's Sunday afternoon, and I'm avoiding the madding crowd—well, all right, the stuffy crowd—taking dinner in my stateroom. I still feel chilled—in more ways than one—by my descent into the hold earlier, so I'm wrapped up in a blanket and sipping hot tea while I catch up on some correspondence. At the moment the knock sounds at the door, I'm reading a letter from a fellow of the Royal Society who claims to have found some absolutely fascinating items in Egypt's Valley of the Kings. Perhaps I'll stop by and see if I can be of help to him once I've taken care of business in America.
But as I'm thinking about that, the knock comes.
"Enter!" I call, putting the letter down, and the door opens, revealing not, as I'd expected, Ellison with my dinner, but rather Captain Katsuragi. I spring to my feet, only slightly hampered by the blanket. "Ah, hello, Captain! What brings you by? Come to chide me for my rude absence from the dining hall?"
She smiles. "No, no. Just stopping by to see that you're all right. I thought perhaps your tour of the engine room might have worn you out."
"Not at all. Chief Engineer Ibuki was most kind, especially considering the fact that I had no real reason for intruding on her domain."
"She must have taken a liking to you," says the Captain with a twinkle in her eye. "I've never seen her let anybody give her a suggestion before."
I shrug, a bit embarrassed. "It was a small thing. I commented before I could think better of it."
"Well, Maya didn't take offense." She pauses, looking concerned. "You are all right, then?"
I nod. "Fine, fine... I just didn't feel up to facing the dinner table tonight." I look round as if making sure no one is listening, then continue confidentially, "I keep wanting to tug on Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon's moustache and see if it's real."
Captain Katsuragi laughs despite herself. "You too? I've been wondering about that for days." She straightens her uniform tunic and smiles again. "I, however, can't escape my dinnertime responsibilities as easily, so I'm afraid I must bid you good evening. If you care to stop by the bridge later on, though, and see how we're getting on, feel free."
I chuckle, picturing the scowl that crossed First Officer Akagi's face when I visited the bridge the previous afternoon. "I doubt the First Officer would appreciate it much."
"Ritsuko's a traditionalist," replies the Captain. "Just stay out of the way and she'll leave you be, though. Anyway, I really must go."
As she turns to go, my eye is caught by a yellow something poking out of one of her pockets. "Er—Captain?"
She pauses. "Yes?"
"You've something sticking out of your pocket."
She checks, then pulls out a yellow telegraph form. "Oh! Thank you. Forgot I had this."
"What is it?"
"Oh—an ice warning from some ship or another. Nothing for us to be concerned about."
"Ice?" A warning bell is ringing at the back of my mind, as it did yesterday morning in the cargo hold, and now as then I don't quite know why. "Oughtn't you to slow the ship a bit if we're getting those?"
Captain Katsuragi greets this suggestion with a shake of the head. "Mr. Ikari wants to be in New York by Tuesday night."
"Mr. Ikari is unlikely to reach New York at all if we go charging full-steam into an icefield," I point out.
"Don't be such a pessimist," says the Captain. "That's why we have lookouts."
"All the same, I for one would feel more comfortable with at least a slight reduction in speed." This sounds odd to me even as I say it—I, the well-known daredevil, adventurer and bon vivant, asking for caution? It sounds odd to the Captain, too, I can see by the way she cocks her head at me.
"Well," she muses, "Mr. Ikari is technically only a passenger. He has no direct authority over the way the voyage is run. On the other hand, he could make life quite difficult for me if he knew I was going against his wishes."
"He doesn't strike me as much of a mariner," I opine. "I doubt he'd even notice until New York, and even then, you can always claim unfavourable currents or some such. He'll never know the difference."
Why am I trying to tell this woman how to run her ship? More to the point, why is she listening to me?
"I'll see what I can do," she says.
I nod. "I appreciate it."
"Now I really have to go."
"It was a pleasure seeing you again."
She goes, leaving me with a strange feeling of misgiving.
"Thank you for coming, Agent Stanfield," said Jon Ellison, stepping out from behind his Avenger. Stanfield turned, wary. The pilot was wearing one of his former school uniforms with the school patch removed from the jacket, and black Predator sunglasses covered his eyes—a look Stanfield found extremely familiar. He didn't know why Ellison had called for this clandestine rendezvous, under the Interstate ramp that passes over the far edge of the Greendale Mall parking lot, but he felt secure in the knowledge that Edwards had him covered from two rows down.
"Let's not waste time," he said. "What do you want?"
Jon smiled and reached into his jacket. Stanfield didn't visibly tense, keeping his cool intact, and didn't even blink when Jon produced only a card from his inside pocket, which he presented to the agent.
JONATHAN R. ELLISON
MILITARY INTELLIGENCE BUREAU
X - C O M
Stanfield flipped it over and pressed it with his thumb, and was rewarded by a strobing holographic pattern. The card, it seemed, was authentic.
He looked up at Jon, a question in his eyes, but said nothing.
"Croft left me a message that I should talk to you," said Jon dispassionately. "I'd like to know why you broke cover to him."
"Broke cover to him?" Stanfield smiled, just a little, and tossed Jon's card back to him. "Hell, I recruited him. For a few minutes there, 'til he went and got himself discorporated, he was one of us."
Jon considered this for a moment, then nodded. "OK. Come with me—it's time we brought you into the loop."
Stanfield looked over Jon's shoulder and nodded slightly; Edwards, pocketing his weapon, slipped out from behind an overpass piling and made his way over.
Jon returned Stanfield's tiny smile as Misato stepped around from the far side of Stanfield's black sedan, tucking away her own sidearm. Stanfield noticed her, looked at Jon, and then summoned up a slightly wider smile than before.
"You were giving me a hard time for breaking cover?"
It's bitterly cold out tonight, but other than the ship's slipstream there's no wind. It's the glassiest calm I've ever seen, and the officers have remarked of this to each other on and off throughout the evening. It was even the subject of a brief conversation between myself and First Officer Akagi a few minutes ago. I'm sure Akagi disapproves of my hanging about on the bridge; no doubt she thinks such considerations for a mere passenger improper, however friendly that passenger might have become with Mr. Trussell and the Captain.
Even dour Ritsuko has to admit, though, that I'm not in her way. We stand together in fairly companionable silence on the right wing of the bridge, listening to the sound of the ship slicing through the glass ocean, both of us satisfied that all is well.
It strikes me as strange, then, that a moment later I'm seized by a powerful, inexplicable feeling of dread. Dread mixed with deja vu, as though I've been here before and something terrible has happened, washes over me, and I stagger against the bridge rail. Akagi glances over to see if I'm all right, but I've already recovered my balance. Still full of dread and puzzled by it, I peer forward into the moonless night, as if searching for the cause of the feeling somewhere out there in the dark.
Inside the bridge, the telephone from the crows' nest starts ringing. Still looking at me with a puzzled frown, Akagi walks past me and picks it up, and as she does so, a horrible certainty settles on my mind like a coating of tar.
"Iceberg," I mutter unconsciously, still staring into the darkness. I can see nothing, but the dread and certainty is like a stone in my gut. "Iceberg right ahead."
"What did you see?" Akagi says into the telephone, and even from my position ten feet away, just outside the bridge door, I can hear the lookout's shouted response:
"Iceberg, right ahead!"
I shake myself out of my reverie and run into the bridge, even as Akagi shouts to the wheelhouse, "Iceberg, right ahead! Hard a-starboard, reverse all engines!"
Through the bridge windows, now that I know it's there, I can see the berg, a mountain of ice perhaps a hundred yards away, its exposed portion large enough that it looms higher than the forecastle deck. We're heading right for it, and in a flash I understand what Akagi means to do—by putting the rudder hard a-starboard she hopes to turn the ship to port, and then she plans to hard a-port to complete a C-turn around the berg.
But the ship is so huge and heavy, with so much inertia—she was cruising at twenty-two knots before she reversed engines—and her rudder is so small compared to that vast bulk...
"No!" I hear myself cry. "No, keep the engines ahead, if you lose speed she won't turn in time."
If I were speaking to Captain Katsuragi I might be heard; Second Officer Lightoller, too, might find some pause for thought in my words. But Akagi, bless her, is a stolid seafarer, who believes in channels. She has no ear for the suggestions of passengers, least of all mere boys. For that matter, I couldn't say myself why I'm so certain, of what I just said or of what I'm about to say.
"Ritsuko, look. She can't turn in time with the engines reversed—you'll sideswipe the berg, maybe open her side. If you won't give her back power, then for God's sake lay the rudder amidships!"
That gets her attention, but not the way I wanted; her brows collide as she fixes me with a cold, incredulous stare.
"Rudder amidships? Are you suggesting I deliberately ram an iceberg, Lord Crofthenge?"
I'm committed now, I might as well explain the picture that leaped into my mind, as clear as an illustration from a book. "That will crush the first two watertight compartments, perhaps three," I reply, jumbling the words together in my haste, for time is running out. "She can float with that damage, we can get a tow to Halifax."
"Perhaps she could—but people would be killed by the crash!" Akagi retorts. "This way we shall avoid it altogether."
"Ritsuko, listen to me—!"
"If you don't mind," she replies flatly, "I am the Officer of the Deck at the moment."
Damn the woman! Trying to persuade her is like talking to a brick wall. Frustrated, I turn back to the window, watching the berg draw closer. Ten seconds pass, then twenty. Our conversation after Akagi ordered the quartermaster to hard a-starboard must have taken fifteen. Thirty-five seconds, precious speed bleeds away as the screws reverse, and still the ship doesn't turn. Perhaps we'll ram the berg anyway.
But no. No, as the berg draws near and I begin to brace myself for the crash, the bow begins to swing ponderously to port. Unconsciously, I hold my breath as I watch. Maybe Ritsuko is right. Maybe we'll miss it.
There's a faint tremor in the deck below my feet and a drawn-out but quiet shuddering noise as the berg slips by the forepeak to starboard, gliding down the side of the ship.
My heart turns to ice in my chest. How I can be so certain I don't know, but in that instant, I know Titanic is doomed as surely as I know my own name.
I turn to Ritsuko, who regards me bleakly for a few long seconds. She knows, too. I can see it in her eyes.
"Perhaps you were right," she says softly, then raises her voice back to a commanding tone to call, "All engines stop, rudder amidships!"
Captain Katsuragi hurries onto the bridge, still rubbing sleep from her eyes, her uniform jacket unbuttoned. "What's happened?" she asks.
"We've struck an iceberg," Akagi replies. "I reversed engines and put the wheel hard a-starboard... I intended to hard a-port around it, but we were too close. She sideswiped it on the starboard bow."
Misato considers this for a moment, then nods to him and turns to look out the window. The night is still calm and glassy, with a faint haze on the horizon; no moon, but the sky ablaze with more stars than I have ever seen. We go out onto the wing bridge again; the breeze is dying down as the ship, her engines stopped, glides to a halt. The berg is gone, somewhere behind us. All seems well, but I still have that sinking feeling of doom in my stomach... and, meeting her eyes, it seems clear that Captain Katsuragi has the same feeling.
Turning to Akagi and Fifth Officer Kaji, who have followed us outside, she says, "Go and find the Carpenter, and get him to sound the ship."
As Ryoji turns to obey, I notice Ritsuko regarding me, her eyes containing a mixture of shared dread and lingering curiosity. How, she wonders, did I know what was about to happen?
I wish I knew the answer to that myself. As it is, I can only shrug in response to her unasked question.
It's not long before Chief Engineer Ibuki makes her report. Water in the forward hold. Water in the mail room. Water in the #6 boiler room. In the captain's chartroom on the bridge, Captain Katsuragi, First Officer Akagi, Mr. Trussell and I receive this report, and as we do, my heart sinks at a pace with the deepening frown on John Trussell's face.
As Maya finishes her report, Truss unrolls a side-elevation diagram of Titanic on the chart table, pins it down with a pair of paperweights, muses for a moment, then draws on it a thick red line, below the waterline, from just aft of the forepeak to just aft of bulkhead number four.
Then he puts down the pencil, stares at the diagram for a long minute, and looks up at us, his eyes full of dread.
"This ship is doomed," he says, his voice hollow.
They met as a sort of council of war, around the dinner table in a suite at the Worcester Crowne Plaza Hotel: Misato Katsuragi, Lara Croft, Ken Stanfield, Jim Edwards, Jon Ellison, Rei Ayanami, John Trussell and Maya Ibuki. Hal was linked in from Misato's HALcomm unit. Also present, if only in spirit, was Asuka, still in traction but mending fast and determined to be a part of things. They had considered linking her into the discussion via HALcomm relay, but she herself decided that would be too dangerous—the transmission, or her end of the conversation, could too easily be monitored from where she was now.
Misato had just finished reading them her letter from King Stephen and giving them the broad strokes of the follow-up telephone conversation she'd had with him.
"Well." Stanfield sat back in his chair and looked contemplative. "Nice to know we've got an out if we need it."
"Won't do us much good," observed Edwards, "if we have to bail before we can figure out what's really going on. All we've got right now is a big pile of nothing."
Jon nodded. "J's right," he said. "We have suspicions, and we have proof that Commander Ikari's acting strangely, but nothing to go on regarding why he's acting that way. Unless we can crack that, we don't have enough to go to X-COM."
"And without X-COM we haven't a chance," said Lara.
Stanfield sighed. "Yeah... that's about the size of it."
"So for now we hold the line," said Maya.
"Keep our heads down and keep digging," Misato concurred. "I have an appointment to speak with Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart next Monday. He and I, with help from one of Dr. Croft's contacts back in the UK, will set up an evacuation plan that's ready to go at a moment's notice—the instant this thing breaks, we go."
"I've been thinking," said Truss suddenly, then stopped, realizing he'd all but interrupted.
"Go on," said Misato.
"Well... It just occurred to me that, if we need another inside recruit, I think I know where we can find one."
"Who?" asked Jon.
"Colonel Keller," said Truss. "He's former X-COM, and a straightforward military type. I could be wrong, though... and in any event, he's so close to Commander Ikari that he'd need to be approached very carefully."
Stanfield nodded thoughtfully. "I can see that. I knew Otto in the Hidden War, he was my squadleader when we hit their base in the Congo. He's probably got suspicions of his own. Might be worth looking into."
"Can you and J handle that?" asked Misato.
"We'll feel him out, see if it looks worth pursuing," Stanfield replied with a nod.
"All right... well... I guess we're done for now. Stay safe, everyone."
"Well, look," I say, trying to get over the feeling that I'm beating my head against a wall. I point to Mr. Trussell's diagram of the ship. "If you open these doors, here, here, and here, then—"
"The ship will still sink," says Ritsuko.
"I know the ship will still sink," I reply, struggling to hold my temper, "but she'll sink more evenly rather than listing and going down at the head. If we can keep the forward cargo hatches out of the water longer she'll sink slowly, give us more time."
"Time for what?" she inquires, her voice cold and resigned.
"For the Olympic and the Carpathia to get here. You know... the ships that are steaming to our rescue? The ships that will be hours too late if we let things go as they are?"
"Opening the watertight doors will make the ship sink more slowly. You have the most remarkable concept of physics, my lord," she says sardonically.
Beyond my threshold, I slam my hand down on the chart table. "Where's the Captain, then? If you won't listen to me, perhaps she will."
"Who knows? Probably in her quarters getting drunk," says Akagi scornfully. "That's her usual response to failure."
Gritting my teeth, I hold back my rejoinder and leave the bridge. Time is too short for this kind of foolishness.
Fortunately, First Officer Akagi is only half right. Captain Katsuragi is in her quarters, but she's not drinking; she's just staring out the porthole at the water, her uniform's tunic unbuttoned, shirt rumpled, cap discarded. The ship is stopped and blowing off steam with a deafening roar, but there's no real evidence yet that anything is seriously wrong.
"Captain?" I inquire softly from the doorway.
"Yes?" she replies, not turning to look at me.
"I've had an idea that I think may help."
"Yes, I know," she says. "Don't steam full-speed into an icefield. Well, I should've taken your advice, but I didn't." She puts a hand to the glass of the porthole. "And pretty soon we'll all pay for it."
I can't believe my ears. Here's the Commodore of the White Star Line, one of the most distinguished officers on the sea, and there's a tone of complete hopelessness in her voice. Her spirit's broken. She's given up.
The thought makes me angry and sad at the same time, but I fight down my feelings and press on with the reason I've come.
"No, not that. What's done is done. Look... I have an idea that may help the ship stay afloat long enough for rescue ships to arrive, but the officers won't go along with it."
"Hm. That's too bad," says Captain Katsuragi conversationally.
"They'll listen to you, though."
"Hm?" She half-turns, a look of mild interest on her face, but it quickly fades. "Oh. Yeah, well... maybe."
"What's the matter with you?" I burst out, unable to contain my indignation any longer.
That puts a spark of life back in her. Unfortunately, it's aimed at me. "Don't take that tone with me!" she barks. "Don't forget, whatever indulgences I may have shown you, you're still only a passenger!"
"Like Mr. Ikari?" I reply hotly. "You let him dictate policy. And have you seen what he's transporting down in the forward hold? There's something extremely strange about our friend the Managing Director."
"You don't like it, do you?" she asks me suddenly.
"What?" I reply, completely thrown off-track.
"You don't like not having control of the situation," says the Captain. "This is a situation completely beyond your control and it's driving you crazy."
"Of course I bloody don't like it!" I cry. "But at least I'm not curling up into a ball and pretending it isn't happening—at least I'm bloody well trying to do something!"
"You have no right, no right at all to come in here and shout at me!" the Captain cries.
"And you, Madame Captain, have no right to simply give up!" I fling the words back in her face, and before she can recover from the surprise it causes and bluster some more, I roll onward: "The sixteen hundred souls on this ship are your responsibility. You're in command. You've had a bad break, your ship is sinking, most likely it's the end of your career. Fine! But the people aboard are still your responsbility. Without strong leadership the evacuation efforts won't be effective—might not happen at all. You can't save your command, but you can save lives." That's all I can say; I've run out of steam, can't sustain the pace any longer.
Captain Katsuragi is struck speechless anyway, and stares mutely at me, her eyes wide and almost pleading.
Gathering my dignity, I adjust my jacket.
"With that in mind," I tell her in a more restrained tone, "I suggest you save the self-pity until your job is done. Good evening, Captain."
And with that, I turn and leave, furious—with her for showing such disappointing weakness, and with myself for losing my composure.
On my way back toward my own stateroom, I pause and look down over the railing to the starboard Boat Deck. The deck is littered with ice knocked from the berg as it scraped past; some passengers are playfully kicking chunks of it around, playing a kind of ice soccer. They don't know the terrible fate that's hanging over them. I consider trying to tell them, but discard the idea. They wouldn't believe me—is Titanic not unsinkable? Man's technology is equal to any challenge mere Nature can throw at it. The very idea of a modern passenger liner being accidentally shipwrecked is absurd.
Sighing, I return to my stateroom, driven by some esoteric desire to change clothes. As I do so, changing from evening dress to a set of warm, comfortable tweeds wholly inappropriate for First Class but much more appropriate for being shipwrecked, I reflect on those I've left on shore. Part of me wishes Mother were here, but the greater part of me is glad she's at home. As for my grandfather, well... at least I've had the satisfaction of besting him...
Action. What I need is to take some kind of action. If I'm left to do nothing but think, I'll dwell on the bleakness of the situation and drive myself up a wall. Certainly I'm deceiving myself if I think I have more than the slimmest chance of escaping, but, as I said to the Captain, at least I must try.
Knotting my tie and squaring my shoulders, I return to the bridge—
To find Captain Katsuragi, her uniform reassembled and immaculate, the mistress of the situation, all her officers assembled before her as she gives them commands.
"Maya, we'll need you to send the big lads up from the stokehold to man davits, pull oars and work crowd control," she's saying to the Chief Engineer as I arrive. "Mr. Boxhall, you, First Officer Akagi and Mr. Kaji will work with the stewards and stokers and get all the starboard-side passengers from First, Second and Third Class, respectively, up on the Boat Deck. Chief Officer Wilde, Mr. Pitman and Mr. Moody, you're to do the same portside. Mr. Lightoller, once some more strong backs get here, you and I will see to the collapsibles. Jack, Harold—" she calls, raising her voice to be heard by the wireless operator in the radio shack behind the bridge, "—keep working the Carpathia and the Olympic." She turns to me, the faintest hint of a smile on her face. "Lord Crofthenge, would you be so kind as to assist Mr. Lightoller and me?"
"Captain," I reply, "I would be delighted."
"Sōryū-Langley's rehabilitation is proceeding well," said Otto Keller to Gendō Ikari's back. Keller didn't take offense; he was used to Ikari's habit of staring out the windows of his office while others reported things to his back. "Medical estimates she'll be out of traction and ready for PT by next Thursday."
"Good," said Ikari. "When she's well enough to travel, I want her on the first ship back to Germany."
"There's no place for her here," said Ikari. "She was allowed to develop too much of an emotional attachment to Croft. I won't be able to control her now." Ikari folded his hands behind his back and said thoughtfully, "It would have been better for everybody concerned if she had died."
Keller, his face utterly expressionless, said nothing at all. Several seconds went by.
"Is that all?" Ikari inquired.
"Sir," said Keller.
"Then you're dismissed."
Silently, Keller about-faced and marched from the office, leaving Ikari gazing out the window.
In the infirmary, Asuka Sōryū-Langley reflected, for approximately the 4,249,589,182nd time, that traction was one of the most boring ways to spend a month. There were times when the forced inactivity transmuted all of the unused energy in her brain directly into blank, unreasoning rage, which was only deepened by the fact that she couldn't do anything about it—couldn't throw things, or kick something, or even yell about it all that loud. Being grievously injured and unable to move was remarkably tiring, all things considered. That was probably the only factor that kept her from going straight off the deep end.
That, and the periodic visits from her remaining fellow pilots. Right now, the armchair by her bed was occupied by Rei Ayanami. Rei was reading, but Asuka knew that didn't mean the red-eyed girl was ignoring her. If anybody knew what it was like to be battered and bedridden, it was Rei. Once, driven by a bout of morbid curiosity, Asuka had asked SHODAN to pull the files on all other serious Evangelion-related injuries, and had been treated to a playback of Rei's disastrous testing accident. In its way, that had been as appalling as the incident that caused Asuka's own injuries—appalling enough that it drove one of the witnesses to leave Worcester-3, vowing never to return.
Asuka closed her eyes and drew strength from Rei's silent presence. She'd never noticed before how Rei's presence seemed to fill the room with a curious warmth and lassitude, but since her injury, it'd recently dawned on her: she'd always felt stronger with Rei around. Stronger, and calmer, too...
Rei waited until Asuka was asleep before closing her book and slipping quietly out of the room.
Keller got all the way to his office with his face devoid of any expression. Only once he was inside and the door closed behind him did he permit himself a thoughtful frown. Stanfield was right. Ikari was rapidly losing what humanity he'd retained over the years of his quest. But that, in and of itself, didn't justify mutiny. Otto Keller had spent his entire adult life as a professional soldier, and obedience to the chain of command was deeply ingrained in his personality. Being cold and unsympathetic did not make Gendō Ikari a bad commander, only an unpersonable one. In order to justify breaking that chain, Keller would need hard evidence.
When he sat down at his desk and keyed on his terminal, he found that evidence waiting.
Date: Mon Dec 14 15:03:32 EST 2015
To: email@example.com (Otto Keller O6)
Subject: TO BE READ ALONE
We think you will find the attached information interesting. Remember to delete it when you're done reading it.
Keller blinked at his screen. They're certainly being cavalier about the whole thing, he remarked to himself. Then he considered for a moment. Delivery data suppressed, all the names scrubbed... there's nothing here to sustain a report...
The X-AuthWord header grabbed his attention and held it for five seconds.
The attached data held it for a solid hour.
At the end of that hour, Colonel Otto Keller leaned back in his chair, let out a gusty sigh, and deleted the copy of the Jet Alone command computer logs he'd just read.
Then he picked up the phone, dialed, and waited. Presently, there came a click, then four tones, then another click, at which point he spoke a single word:
Four more tones answered.
Keller hung up.
Perhaps an hour has gone by since we learned that Titanic is doomed. At the Captain's prompting, Chief Engineer Ibuki and her staff tried my watertight-doors suggestion, and for a time, it seemed to be working; but then something gave way with a crash in #6 boiler room, and even with the after pumps working and the ship going down rather more evenly, we haven't much time left. Not enough for the nearest ships to reach us before she goes down, anyway.
The Captain, Mr. Lightoller and I, with a few stokers come up from below decks, have broken out the Engelhardt collapsibles and set up their canvas sides, placing them near the davits they will use when the conventional boats now occupying them have gone. The stewards are working to get all the passengers on deck. There is an air of general confusion and some indignation—it's a cold night, and not many people particularly want to be up on deck in the wee hours—but for the moment, the passengers haven't been told the full enormity of their fate. Not necessarily because the officers wish to deceive them, but because there were so many other, more important things to do that no one has had time to make an announcement.
Captain Katsuragi is in the chartroom, preparing the announcement that will be made. Since the ship has no public address system, she cannot tell everyone aboard the news at once, so copies of the message will be distributed to the section stewards. As unofficial first-class busybody, I've been deputised to carry the copies bound for the first-class stewards as soon as she's written them out.
Anxiously, she tears five copies from the copybook—she's written haphazardly over a full page of telegraph copies without regard for the printed forms on them, and five copies deep the printing is a bit faded, but it will serve. There's no time for anything more elaborate.
"Give these to the first-class staff," she tells me. "They'll do the rest."
Nodding, I go below, shouldering my way as politely as I can through the masses of indignant passengers and looking for the familiar white coats. As it happens, the first one I find is being worn by Rei. At the sight of her, all the carefully rehearsed summations of the situation I've been running through my head disappear, and I end up mutely handing her the copies of Captain Katsuragi's announcement to read for herself. Her eyes widen a little, her face taking on a tiny flicker of anxiety, and then she looks me in the eye, all professionalism again.
"I understand," she says quietly. "I'll distribute these to the others."
I still can't speak, I only nod. She turns to go, and as she does I suddenly break free of my paralysis, grabbing her hand, which makes her look at me questioningly.
"I'll tell First Officer Akagi to save you a seat on Collapsible D."
Her expression is a mixture of gratitude and regret as she says softly, "Neither you nor Jon will be able to go."
She knows, then, what I've been coming to the slow and dreadful realization of since I helped Misato and Lights break out the boats: There aren't enough of them for everyone.
"No, that's true," I reply, shaking my head. "Women and children only."
"Then I'm staying," says Rei.
"What? Don't be a fool! You must—"
"You've been kind to me," she says, "and Jon... " A faint flush comes to her cheeks as she continues, "Jon loves me. I won't leave you to face your fate while I run away from it."
"We would never fault you—"
"No," she says, "but I would fault myself." She pulls her hand from mine, then puts it briefly on my shoulder. "Thank you for offering... but I won't go."
Then she excuses herself to see to the duty of distributing the announcement. As I make my way topside, I reflect that she's quite the bravest girl I've ever known.
Colonel John Alexander Lethbridge-Stewart stood at his office window, which overlooked Halifax Harbor, his hands folded behind his back. He allowed a slight smile to mar his otherwise perfect military bearing as he observed the preparations going on harborside, then erased it and turned as there came a knock at his door.
"Come in!" he barked, and in came a dark-haired younger man in the uniform of a non-commissioned officer. Like his Colonel, the sergeant wore the double insignia of the Royal Army and X-COM; both had been seconded to the latter organization from the former. Just inside the door, the sergeant came to attention and saluted.
"Ah, Sergeant Benton," said Lethbridge-Stewart, returning the salute. "Stand at ease."
"Sir," said Benton, slipping into the no-more-relaxed at-ease posture. "Harborside preparations are well underway. Foreman expects they'll be serviceable in ten days, complete in twenty-four."
"Good, good," said Lethbridge-Stewart. "I doubt our friends will be needing them before the completion date, anyway. Any word on their missing man?"
"Major Katsuragi tells me it'll be another nine days before they know one way or the other, sir."
"Mm." The Colonel turned and looked out the window. "Anything else?"
"Yes sir." Benton's voice dropped out of its normal military register. "Er, unofficial only."
Lethbridge-Stewart turned, cocking one thin eyebrow.
"Just heard from Groom," Benton went on. "Otto Keller's reactivated MIB Special Services." He pronounced each letter in the acronym individually.
Lethbridge-Stewart's eyebrow rose a notch higher as he pondered this in silence.
Then, turning back to the window, he said briskly, "Very well, Sergeant. Keep me informed."
Benton came back to attention, and his voice was back to its normal level as he replied, "Sir!" Then, saluting again, he pivoted and left the office.
Well, well, mused Lethbridge-Stewart. Keller's come back home, and switched on the Special Services division to boot. This is the kind of thing the Old Man would like to know about.
He sat down at his desk and picked up the telephone.
Loading the boats has gone more smoothly than I dared hope. In part, that's because Captain Katsuragi seems to be everywhere, bawling out a laggard here, reassuring a frightened passenger there, keeping the evacuation operation running with the smoothness of a Swiss clock. Another part, though, is the simple fact that most of the passengers who remain, docile and patient, on the Boat Deck don't know that there will be no boats left for them. Titanic carries boats for a bit over a thousand people, and, save one, they've gone. That leaves four or five hundred left—mostly men, thanks to the crew's careful screening out of the women and children.
When they realize that there will be no rescue for them...
"Ridiculous! Of course my father will be allowed to go. Who will look after Mother and me?"
My reverie shattered, I look toward the rail where loading of Collapsible D is taking place. Yes, as I thought, it's Asuka Langley, arguing with First Officer Akagi.
"The Captain's orders are quite clear on the subject, Miss Langley," says Akagi stiffly. "Excepting those crewmen specifically assigned to the boat crews, women and children only at this time."
"Asuka, don't be a fool," says Herr Langley sharply. "Go and look after your mother. I'll catch up to you when we are rescued."
"Father, don't treat me like a child!" shouts the girl. "If you stay here you aren't going to be rescued. This is the last boat!"
From the periphery of the crowd nearby, I can hear the murmurings. Soon they'll spread throughout the rest. Things are about to get quite ugly.
Just as I'm having that thought, I'm shoved aside.
"You stupid child!" bellows a red-faced Gendō Ikari. He's been lurking around the edges of the boat-loading operation all night, his clothes and hair disarrayed and his manner much more agitated than his usual cool, calculating self. Now he's gone so far as to take the wretched girl by the shoulders and shake her.
"Here, now, I—" says Herr Langley.
"Be silent, sir!" snarls Ikari, still shaking the man's daughter. Addressing her again, he hisses through his teeth, "Why couldn't you keep quiet and get on the boat? Now there will be panic, disorder, unpleasantness!"
Enough of this.
He draws back a hand to hit her, and I slip between them, blocking his swing with an upraised arm. His look of shock is almost comical as it's him that gets slapped across the face.
"Get hold of yourself, man!" I tell him. "You won't help anyone by getting hysterical."
I'd hoped that the slap would bring him back to himself, but I can see that's not the case. Instead his face darkens and he lunges, his hands grabbing at my shoulders. I hadn't expected him to do that; struck off-guard, I teeter backward, crashing into Fräulein Langley, sending us both off-balance. I slam against the rail with a sudden shock of pain that runs up and down my spine and reduces my limbs momentarily to jelly.
With a sharp, stark cry, she goes over.
Forcing my shocked body back into action, I turn around. She's caught hold of one of the two ropes that ring the gap between the rail and the gunwale, but only with one hand, and the rope is thin. It's in no danger of breaking, but it's biting into her hand, and her grip isn't its best anyway thanks to the satin gloves she's wearing.
"Ritsuko! Hold me!" I cry, throwing myself doubled over the rail. Akagi grabs hold of my belt and braces one foot against a railpost as I reach down. "Take my hand!" I cry to Asuka.
With her free hand, she reaches up. Catching hold of the rope must have wrenched her shoulder; she's an athletic girl, she should be able to pull herself up, but she can't. Her face is patchy, partly red with effort and partly white with pain and fear, and her right hand shakes as she tries to extend it toward mine.
There. Our fingertips touch, and I push myself harder, feeling the muscles in my own shoulder cry out as I throw all my will at making my arm that little bit longer. Her left hand is starting to lose its grip on the rope, and neither yet has a firm enough grip on the other's hand to replace it.
She's made of stern stuff, this girl. She doesn't cry out or make useless pronouncements about her inability to reach or how much longer she can hang on; she just grits her teeth and reaches, determination burning in her eyes, which she keeps locked with mine. Our hands slide together. My shoulder screams. Even if we do manage to hold on, how will I ever pull her up?
Her left hand slips from the rope.
Her right hand slides through mine.
All I can see is her eyes as she falls away without a sound.
She closes them just before she vanishes into the black ice water.
At that moment, something inside me snaps. My vision goes red. My hearing is drowned by the roar of blood in my ears. With an animal sound, I slip back off the rail and turn, wrenching away from Akagi's grip, and then drive my fist into Gendō Ikari's gut with all the force of my rage behind it. He stumbles, face sheet-white, and I take a step and give it to him again, with the other hand this time, planting my foot and turning a bit to get my shoulder and back into it. I'm not consciously thinking about the boxing techniques I've learned—I just burn with the need to hit him, as hard as I can, to hurt him as much as possible, and the rest is instinctive. In moments I've backed him against the rail, raining blows on him; dimly in the background I can hear First Officer Akagi pleading with me to stop.
I back off half a step, then launch my left fist against Ikari's face, driving it up with all my strength. There's a sweet, sharp crack as it hits the point of his jaw, and then he's swinging out, out, over.
By the time he makes a splash I've crumpled to my knees on the deck, my right shoulder and left hand twin throbbing masses of pain. My head pounds, my lungs heave. The rage drains out of me in an instant and leaves nothing in its wake, nothing but cold, bleak emptiness.
I didn't even like the girl.
But, damn it all! She never got a chance to get even with me.
Dimly, in the background, I hear a strange buzzing sound. At first I pass it off as an aftereffect of the fugue I've just come out of, but as I breathe deeply and shake my head, I realize it's not going away, it's getting louder. Wearily, I drag myself to my feet and turn, to see the horrified face of Ritsuko Akagi... but she's not looking at me, she's looking past me.
Five hundred angry men are bearing down on us.
The panic has started.
John Trussell wondered if it wasn't somehow wrong for him to be enjoying life so much when all around him was descending into madness. Surrounded by conspiracies he'd have been happier not knowing about, involved without his full understanding in counter-machinations on an epic scale, and deeply worried for his friends (all of whom were having hard lives of late), he was nevertheless relishing a mundane action that reminded him that normalcy was where you made it.
He and Maya Ibuki were Christmas shopping. Maya had been raised in the Shinto faith and kept more or less to it, so her enjoyment of the Christmas holiday was mainly secular, but that didn't dampen her enthusiasm. Her resilience in the face of all that they'd gone through amazed him—no less so because she didn't get it by being hard. She cared, she hurt whenever anybody close to her was dealt another blow by fate, but she bounced back and kept right on going. Even when the horror had singled her out, she hadn't let it keep her down.
One of the things most of his co-workers did not know about John Trussell was that, underneath the diffident, somewhat indecisive and slightly overcautious mannerisms he'd become famous for within NERV, he was occasionally wildly impulsive. Occasionally. When the stars were right. At the rarest and most precarious of times.
Now, as he and Maya walked arm in arm along the upper level of the Worcester Galleria, was one of those times.
"Hey, Maya..." he said.
"Hm?" she replied.
Carpe diem, John.
"After the Christmas rush is over, would you consider moving in with me?"
For a moment Maya almost stopped walking.
"Me? Move in with you?" she asked.
"Well," said Truss with a nervous smile, "my apartment's the bigger one... "
"Not 'bigger' enough, though, I would think," said Maya, shaking her head.
Crestfallen, Truss slumped a little. The look on his face—disappointment combined with embarrassment—almost broke Maya's heart, and she chided herself for being mean.
"So once the rush is over we'll have to go look for a bigger place," she continued cheerily.
Now it was Truss's turn, and he actually did stop walking, causing Maya to take an extra step and almost pull him over.
"Oof!" she said, relinquishing his arm. "Careful..."
The wave of angry humanity is bearing down on Boat D in its davit, and there's not much I can do about it. My initial estimate was a tad high—of course the mob isn't composed of everyone still aboard, since the engineering staff are almost all still down in the engine room, several of the officers have returned to the bridge, and about half of the remaining passengers are on the wrong side of the ship. There are still more than a hundred of them, though, and the meager four or five of us trying to guard this boat aren't going to be able to do much against them. In their unreasoning panic they'll probably all try to crowd onto the boat. People will be trampled, the boat will be destroyed, and fifty people who might have been saved will die needlessly.
Against the inevitable toll of this disaster, made that way by the ship's shortage of boats, that doesn't seem like much of a difference, but having just watched one life slip away and then dispatched another myself, I feel the weight of each one of them.
The rush comes, and I steel myself to be smashed against the rail, brushed aside into the same waters that just took both of those lives I mentioned, or just beaten to death by the press of the crowd...
Gunshots, two of them, ring out, and the mob freezes as one, its collective throat giving voice to that universal human sound of bewilderment. At the rail, First Officer Akagi has just fired those two shots along the side of the ship from the Webley revolver in her hand—the revolver she is now pointing at the crowd.
"That's enough!" she barks. "If any of you come any closer to this boat, I'll kill every last one of you!"
That's a ridiculous claim, of course—at best, she could only kill four of them—but the mob's unreasonability works both ways, and this thought gives them pause, if only for a moment. Then a well-dressed man at the front, his eyes glazed with panic, lunges forward.
To my infinite surprise, Ritsuko Akagi follows up on the spirit, if not the letter of her promise, and shoots him dead.
That takes the rest of the fight out of them; the shock shatters the patina of fear that bound them together. Stunned, they go from an enraged, rushing mob to a large group of individually frightened people who happen to be standing around in a group.
Ritsuko's hand shakes a little as she tucks the revolver into the belt of her uniform tunic; then, raking a glare across the mob one last time, she turns and begins instructing the men at the davits to lower the boat.
In a detached way, I have to admire the courage of Asuka Langley's mother. She has just seen her daughter lost before her eyes, and her husband stands, stunned, on the deck of the doomed ship she is being lowered away from. But there are no hysterics from this woman: just a quiet sense of acknowledgement toward her fate.
"Ritsuko," I murmur, sliding closer to the officer, "can't we let Herr Langley go? The poor man's just watched his daughter drown. His wife will have nothing left without him."
"Women and children only," replies Ritsuko mechanically. Her eyes are dull and her voice has no life in it, even when she raises it to a shout to command the men on the davits.
"Are you all right?" Having just killed somebody myself, I feel I'm in a position to empathize with her, but she wants none of it.
"I'm fine," she replies in that same dead voice.
Helpless, I turn back to the boat.
Frau Langley nods, once, to me, as if to say, "Thank you for trying." There's no blame in her eyes, but the keen sting of failure I've been feeling on and off all night comes back to me full force.
Then the boat is lowered past the gunwale and she's gone. Herr Langley drifts away and disappears into the crowd.
As Collapsible D reaches the water and the oarsmen start pulling it away, Ritsuko Akagi steps to the rail, her hands on it, and looks down into the water. Her eyes aren't dull any more, but I don't think I like the look in them.
"Are you sure you're all right?" I ask her.
"Perfectly fine," she replies. Then, to my absolute horror, she climbs up and stands on the rail before I can reach her. She turns around to face the ship, an unnaturally calm look on her face. I daren't try to reach her—in trying to grab her I might just knock her overboard, and I couldn't take doing that twice.
Behind me, I hear someone cry out her name—it's Captain Katsuragi, elbowing her way through the stunned, silent crowd. She bursts free just beside me, but stops, wary as I am of knocking Ritsuko off her precarious perch on the rail.
"As Officer of the Deck at the time of the collision, I take full responsibility for this wreck and all the lives that will be lost," says Ritsuko calmly, her voice raised to be heard by all.
Then, slowly, she removes the Webley from her belt and raises it.
I take some small comfort in the fact that she's dead long before her body hits the frigid water.
My God! It's full of stars!
Jon looked glumly down the hall toward DJ's bedroom and sighed. How long was she going to keep this up? It was all well and good trying to reach some understanding of what DJ had seen and felt when he was absorbed by his EVA, but this obsession with his last words (Jon winced; his last so far, he mentally corrected himself) was getting entirely out of hand. Jon was about to go and try again to dissuade, or, failing that, distract Rei, when suddenly, the monotonous playback stopped.
Moments later the living room door opened, and Rei entered, her face beatific, with just a touch of triumph. Jon's look was a question mark.
"I understand," said Rei. Then she smiled a little. "I know; it's about time."
Jon looked a little sheepish.
Rei turned and looked out the window. Snow sparkled on the WPI football field. The sun was sinking toward Institute Hill, painting all the white surfaces orange.
"Let's go up to Bancroft Tower," she said.
Up at the Tower, bundled in their warmest clothes, Jon and Rei stood next to each other and watched the sun set.
They felt the presence at their backs, and turned to face it, at the same time. Before he did, Jon had a theory as to what it would be, and he was unsurprised to learn that he was right—it was Kevin Nelson. Their former classmate was dressed rather lightly for the chill, snowy weather, in dark trousers, a black sweater, and a black, unbuttoned trench coat, but he didn't look cold. He just stood there with his hands in his pockets and that inscrutable little smile on his face.
"I thought I might find you two here," he said.
"I thought you'd have left town by now," Jon replied.
"Oh, not yet," said Kevin, then repeated the sentiment he'd expressed at the school: "I have a few things yet to do." His smile became something akin to an actual grin, and he removed his hands from his pockets, revealing a pair of small boxes, one in each. "For one thing, I have to give you two your Christmas presents."
Rei blinked, completely taken aback. "Christmas presents?"
"Of course." Kevin held out the boxes, one to each. "This is yours," he said, giving one to Rei, "and this is yours," he added, giving the other to Jon.
Brows furrowed in rather comical dual concentration, both parties opened theirs, each discovering inside a small medallion on a chain. Rei examined hers: it was the head of an old-fashioned dollar coin, its date stamp a century ago. It felt rather light and thin to be an old-fashioned silver dollar, though, and turning it over, she discovered that this was because it was only half the coin; the tail was missing, and that side was engraved in a complex, beautiful pattern.
Jon examined his and discovered that it was the other half, the tail side, of the same once-thick coin, its head side similarly engraved.
Both looked at Kevin, puzzlement in their eyes.
"Well," said Kevin with his private amusement in place, "you are the sides of a coin." He smiled. "Merry Christmas, you two. Keep warm." With that, he turned and disappeared into the gathering night.
"He is so strange," Jon murmured, holding his medallion in his hand.
Rei nodded, her eyes thoughtful, as she passed the chain of hers over her head and then dropped the coin down the front of her coat. "And he knows more than he lets on."
"I wonder," mused Jon, "just which side he's on..."
"... If he's on one at all," Rei finished.
They looked at each other.
"Home?" wondered Jon.
"Home," said Rei.
Arm in arm, they set off down the hill.
There were three days until Christmas.
Christmas in Worcester-3.
Neon Exodus Evangelion 3:2
The Gift of the Magi
"On Christmas Eve, Mum always lets me open one of my gifts early."