Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Neon Exodus Evangelion
Exodus 3: Revelations in Real Time
Welcome to the Machine
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
and 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
Excerpt from A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
"Welcome to the Machine" by Roger Waters
Written by Benjamin D. Hutchins, Larry Mann,
MegaZone, and John Trussell
Special mojo consultant, Anne Cross
Aided and abetted by the Eyrie Productions, Unlimited crew
and special-guest-for-life Phil Moyer
© 1999 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
HTML remastering © 2016 EPU
Shinji Ikari had no idea where he was. For some unknown but rather long time—long enough to eat a meal and sleep a bit—he'd been aboard an airliner with blacked-out windows. He was the only person aboard not wearing a uniform and carrying a gun. He wasn't being told where he was being taken for "security reasons". He didn't protest; Shinji wasn't much for protestation. It never seemed to do much good, and anyway, he had volunteered to be here, wherever here was. The men and women with guns and uniforms were there to protect him, not hold him prisoner—though just what they were supposed to protect him from, he wasn't certain.
He'd just awakened from a very strange dream by a change in the pitch of the aircraft's jet engines, and a sensation of descent and of banking. They were changing course, maybe coming in to land, he realized as he straightened his seat and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. He looked to the window at his left before he remembered that it was blacked out, then shrugged and waited. Shinji was good at waiting. Sometimes he felt like he'd spent his whole life waiting, but he wasn't sure what for.
Presently there came the thud of the jetliner touching down, and the muted roar of its engines reversing thrust. They taxied for a while, then rolled to a stop, and there was a thump of something against the side of the fuselage.
The soldiers unbuckled their seat belts and stood up. Not knowing quite what to do, Shinji followed suit; one of them, a burly black fellow in sergeant's stripes, motioned him up the aisle.
The door was standing open, and a collapsible-walled corridor led twenty feet to a double door of smooth gray metal. The SEELE soldiers formed up in a diamond around Shinji, and they walked together to the doors. Shinji mused aimlessly that only dignitaries and prisoners were ever escorted that way, and the thought didn't give him much cheer.
The double doors swished open with a soft hiss of oiled metal, revealing a smallish room—an elevator car. Shinji entered it; his escorts did not. He started to ask where he was supposed to go, but the doors closed before he could get the question out, and then the car began moving on its own.
Presently, it stopped, the doors hissing open again, and Shinji stepped out, looking curiously around. He was at one end of a long, featureless gray corridor, studded with doors similar to the one from which he was emerging. Only one other person was in evidence, and she—he thought it was a "she"—was standing with her back to him a dozen feet or so up the corridor.
"Uh... excuse me," said Shinji diffidently.
The girl turned around, and Shinji gasped, dropping his duffel bag on the floor.
"Ayanami!" he said incredulously, then almost immediately realized that she was not. She was a bit older than Rei, a couple of years older than Shinji himself, taller and more mature than the girl he remembered from his one visit to Central Dogma months before. This girl's skin was noticeably less pale, her hair was jet-black, and her eyes were the most vibrant shade of green Shinji had ever seen—but her features were almost identical to Rei's.
The girl looked puzzled and nodded. "Yes, that's right," she said. "Who are you? I've never seen you before."
"I—I'm Shinji Ikari," he said. "But you're not Ayanami—at least, not the Ayanami I thought you were." He scowled at himself mentally. What was that supposed to mean?
Comprehension sparked in the black-haired girl's eyes. "Oh! You mean my sister, Rei."
"Sister?" Shinji replied, aware that he sounded like an idiot. Still—his father had never mentioned anything about the red-eyed girl having a family.
She was about to reply to that, but just then one of the doors further up the corridor opened and Jacqueline Natla emerged, momentarily engrossed in a clipboard. Then she looked up, saw Shinji, and smiled. Shinji didn't like her smile, and wished she wouldn't smile at him. There was something unnervingly predatory about it, as though she were pleased by the sight of a particularly appetizing dish at the buffet.
"Ah, good, you're here," she said. "I see you've met Ichi."
"Y-yes," Shinji stammered, swallowing hard and trying not to break a sweat under Natla's cool, vaguely sardonic gaze. "I never knew Ayanami had a sister."
"Well, your father would hardly be likely to share her biography with you, would he?" said Natla dismissively. "You'll have plenty of time to get to know Shinji later, Ichi," she said to the girl. "Right now, we have to get started aligning Unit 04's neurosystems for him."
"All right," said Ichi, nodding. "I'll see you later, Shinji," she told the boy with an impish smile and an emerald wink. Then she turned and trotted down the corridor and through another door.
Shinji watched her go, mystified and slightly out of sorts. Meeting her had given him a powerful sense of déjà vu.
"Shinji, this is Rei Ayanami, the First Child. Rei, this is my son, Shinji Ikari, the Third Child."
Rei's cool red eyes met Shinji's, and he had to catch his breath as something crossed the space between them with an electric snap that lit up all his synapses at once.
She apparently hadn't noticed it; she looked away almost immediately and said tonelessly to Commander Ikari, "Yes?"
"He will be observing your synchronization test with Unit 00 today," said the Commander. Then he cracked a small smile and added, "With luck, he'll be able to help you with Unit 01 when the time comes."
Rei looked Shinji over again, then said, "I don't need help." It was said without apparent rancor. She wasn't rejecting Shinji because she'd taken a dislike to him, particularly; she simply didn't believe she needed his, or anyone else's, help.
"That's no way to be, Rei," Gendō chided her gently. "We do need Shinji's help. You won't be able to stop the coming crisis alone. I have every confidence in you, of course I do—but you're only one person."
Rei nodded, apparently not deeming this worth a third look at Shinji. "Fine," she said flatly.
"Run along and get ready for your test now," said Gendō. Without a word, Rei turned and left the room.
Shinji looked at his father. "What's wrong with her?" he asked.
"Nothing's 'wrong' with her," Gendō Ikari snapped. "I don't want to hear that kind of talk out of you again."
Shinji might have protested—something had to be wrong with the girl, normal people didn't act that way!—but he didn't feel like having yet another fight with his father so early in the running, and subsided. As they left the meeting area for the control room to observe the test, Shinji found himself preoccupied by thoughts of the girl. She was so strange. So beautiful, and yet, so cold. Emotionless, maybe even soulless... and perhaps a little bit sad?
What had passed between them when she first looked at him? Had she not felt it, or refused to acknowledge it?
Shinji came out of his reverie to find himself being herded into a changing room, where an EVA plug suit awaited him on a hook by the door. He felt a lump of trepidation forming in his throat at the thought of going into one of those great monsters, after what he had seen them do to Rei Ayanami and to the Langley girl.
But he had to—for exactly their sakes.
He had to rescue Rei from his father and find out what he had done to her to make her so cold and sad.
He had to.
He set his jaw and began to remove his clothes.
Jon was running late again. Big surprise. And of course he had only minimal clue of why he was here or what he was supposed to be doing. Again, big surprise. At least the environment they'd chosen for this particular round of testing wasn't unpleasant: a nice forested area dotted with cabins. He was trying to get his cabin fixed, or buy it or something. Probably wasn't all that great that he couldn't remember, his memory normally being rather good, but somewhere along the line he'd stopped caring overmuch.
The interview was coming up, that's right. The last exam was an interview and he was supposed to have prepared for that, which he hadn't. He'd been way too busy dealing with what he felt were far more important things, like taking care of the problems with the cabin, and spending more time getting to know that lovely girl he'd been sitting next to in most of the classes. The ones he could remember, anyway. It should have bothered him that all he could think about was that girl, but it didn't. He just failed to care about much of anything else.
Even now he was far more interested in stealing glances at her than he was in making the last minute preparations for the interview he ought to be making. Everyone around him was preparing, speaking to each other in long, rapid strings of words from his own language and others which he did not recognize. It was gibberish, and yet at the same time it made perfect sense. Almost like music.
Right at the last second he'd had to run out and confirm that yes, he really did want to make the down payment on the cabin, so in addition to being ill-prepared he was late on top of that. Not a good way of doing things; everybody had to have an interview with the leader before they went off to do whatever, and at this rate he wasn't going to make a very good impression at all. Still, somehow, he couldn't quite bring himself to care.
"Her Excellency will see you now," the pleasant gray-haired old man with spectacles and a clipboard said to him as he shambled back into the waiting area. All the others had gone on ahead already. 'Her Excellency'... why didn't that ring true for some reason? He seemed to recall that the leadership in his country was not only generally male, but democratically elected. Never mind. He had an appointment to keep, even if he didn't have the faintest idea what he was going to talk about. Somebody would explain it to him or he would figure it out eventually.
He headed in the direction the old man pointed him in, and promptly found himself wandering around the innards of the building—was it a tower? when did that happen?—which seemed to be dominated by mirrors or windows, all oddly angled, misshapen and none of them showing his reflection, but some other place and time, some pleasant, some dark and forbidding. Every time he looked into one of the mirrors he got the impression that someone was staring back at him, and he caught himself repeatedly searching for a pair of red—or were they green?—eyes gazing down on him. He never found them, but couldn't shake the feeling he was being watched. Something was simply not right with this whole situation. Unnerved, he turned and headed for what he hoped was the way out. Maybe they'd realized there was some mistake and would fix everything.
Well they must have realized that something was wrong, because now everybody had disappeared. He supposed they'd all gone to investigate the matter further, but now as dusk began to rapidly fall he couldn't shake the feeling that he was suddenly completely alone. Everything seemed to have changed, the simplistic but orderly and pleasant interior of a maintained cabin replaced by the dark and derelict form of a wooden building long since abandoned and rotting in the elements. Nor was the landscape the temperate forested hills he remembered, but a flat, desolate desert plain.
How long had he been wandering those halls? How long had he been gone?
Vultures were prancing around outside the window he stood at. One noticed him and immediately moved to attack, but was held at bay by a large chicken-wire fence as the other birds looked on with bemusement. It made a few more valiant tries to peck at him before the others advised him to give up and get back to work on their original quarry. He could see the vultures picking at the carcass of a lamb which, he realized a moment later, was actually not a carcass but still alive despite the gaping hole in its side and the removal of several vital organs. The lamb bleated in painful protest as the vultures went about their vivisection, utterly ignoring the animal's cries for mercy. He thought he could even hear the birds telling the poor creature to shut the hell up. He couldn't bear to look at, or hear it, and turned to get away, but at that moment a wave of blackness overcame him and everything was gone...
Darkness. Silence. Hard to tell what was real and what wasn't. No, not total darkness, or total silence. Dim light filtering in from the window, probably close to morning. Sound of a refrigerator in another room... He was awake, he knew now. Bizarre dream. Hadn't had many dreams in the early days, at Alcatraz. There'd been more once he'd come here, gone into battle with the Angels...
"Your genes are mainly human, with a touch—well, more than a touch, actually—of the celestial grafted in."
He sat upright, his eyes flying open, and panted, shivering in terror as it all came tumbling back into his mind, the pace of recollection even with the hammering of his heart inside his ribs.
The Angels... Kevin—Tabris... he was one of them... and Rei... Rei was... And he...
"We are like them."
The angry, evil voice, crying out for death... but he was here in his own bed, and what could that mean but—
He looked down at his hands, expecting them to be blackened, bloodied claws, and saw only human hands.
He looked to his left, expecting to see Rei torn and cold, and saw her instead alive and whole and looking quietly back at him.
The song—then he remembered the song, as his eyes met hers, his head spun and his heart pounded. He fell back to the pillow and gasped aloud as the flow of memory assaulted him again.
"Good and evil, that's a choice."
"Jon," said Rei softly. "Are you all right?"
Jon turned to her, looked into her eyes for a few moments, then collapsed against her shoulder, gripped by a fit of agonized sobbing. Silently, she put her arms around him and held him, wishing she could take his pain away, bury it away within herself. Heaven knew, after the last fifteen years, she had nothing if not a great capacity for pain...
"Oh, God, Rei," Jon groaned. "What am I?"
By way of answer, Rei began softly to sing, an altered, plain-voice version of the song she and Tabris had sung the night before. Hearing it, he relaxed a bit, but still, his mind whirled with questions. Should I be here, should this be happening, is this right or wrong? What does it mean, and what does it matter? Angel or demon? Dream or nightmare? Everything is a reflection of everything else, so does it matter what side of the mirror you're on?
Presently Rei's song ended, and Jon, if not at peace then at least not panicking, found the strength to sit back and look her in the eyes again.
"Forgive me?" he asked softly.
"You've done nothing wrong," replied Rei.
"But... but you're... and I'm..." He trailed off, unwilling to put into words the basic difference that terrified him.
Rei shook her head.
"Wherever we have come from, we are the same people we were yesterday," she said. "And yesterday, Jon, I loved you."
Flooded with relief, Jon fell back into her arms again.
His world still felt like it had been turned upside down, but least that hadn't changed.
After both had spent some time in quiet reflection, Rei pointed out softly, "We have to tell the others what we've learned. It changes everything..."
Jon turned on his back and sighed deeply, looking with troubled eyes up at the ceiling. "I tried to kill DJ, too."
"He understands—not the details, but that the enemy did something to your mind."
"I wonder..." Jon paused, a thoughtful frown on his face. "I wonder why Kevin didn't stay. He never stays around long. It's almost as if... he's hiding something."
"The Elohim move in their own ways," said Rei quietly, though she had other thoughts on the subject.
DJ and Ritsuko sat at the breakfast nook in Ritsuko's apartment. DJ still wore her pink bathrobe; Ritsuko had put on sweats and a T-shirt. They were slowly working their way through the breakfast feast DJ had prepared, and talking. DJ took a sip of his tea as he listened to Ritsuko.
"What am I going to do when she gets here?" Ritsuko seemed to be growing increasingly nervous as Misato's arrival drew nigh.
"Don't worry about it, love," said DJ. "Just be yourself. Look, you know it's going to be awkward; no way to avoid it, I'm afraid—but you've been friends for years. Things will work out, you'll see."
"I just hope you're right."
So do I, DJ thought to himself. "Don't worry. I'm sure things will work themselves out, just as long as the two of you don't try to be stubborn about things. You both made mistakes, that's what caused the situation to begin with. If you're willing to admit that and fix it, then it will work out."
"Um... What about last night?"
"What about it?"
"What are we going to tell her about it?"
"Well, I'm going to have to explain how this happened," DJ said, holding up his arms. "And that is going to mean telling her what nearly happened with you. I rather think that's for the best. The rest is frankly none of her business. What happened between us is between us. I won't betray your trust. If it comes up I can tell her I slept on the couch if you'd like."
Ritsuko smiled. "No, that's OK. There have been enough lies around here lately. No need to tell her, but if she asks we tell her the truth. I'm sick of all the lies and deceit that have been filling our lives. It is time to start being honest."
"Amen to that!" DJ said cheerfully. Then in a softer tone he added, "You don't have any regrets about last night, do you?"
Ritsuko paused for a moment before answering. "No... No, I don't. In fact I'm happy, for the first time in a long time I really don't feel alone. And I want to thank you."
"Yes. I mean aside from saving my life—that should go without saying. For your insight and self-control. You were right, it wouldn't have been a good idea."
"Oh, that... er, well... yes." DJ stammered, blushing, quite unsure how to reply.
Ritsuko laughed. "You're cute when you're befuddled."
DJ could only grin self-conciously. After a few moments he rescued himself. "Well, won't be long now. We'd best finish our breakfast so we can have a bit of a talk when she gets here."
"Yes, you're right." Not long now, Ritsuko thought to herself. I just hope it goes well. Can she forgive me what I've done?
DJ and Ritsuko had just begun clearing away the debris of breakfast when the doorbell rang. Ritsuko froze and looked toward the door nervously. DJ laid a hand on her arm and said softly, "Don't worry, I'll get it. Try to relax."
When DJ opened the door Misato's eyes bugged out slightly; then she chuckled. "That's a new look for you. Pink is definitely your color," she commented sarcastically. Then, taking in DJ's arms and looking from them to the remains of the window in the door, she added, "What happened here?"
"All will be explained in due time, in due time." Gesturing to the bag she was carrying, he asked, "Are those my clothes?"
"Huh? Oh, yes."
"Well, splendid. Let me take that, won't you come in?"
DJ led Misato in the house. "Misato, Ritsuko, I believe you two know each other. Why don't we all sit in the living room and get comfortable?" On the way DJ tossed the bag of clothes into the bedroom.
Once they were all seated, DJ decided he'd better break the ice before they were all stuck there 'til spring. "I suppose you're wondering why I've called you all here."
Both women looked at him quizzically.
"... Right. More serious. I think the first thing we need to do is fill Misato in on what happened." Ritsuko nodded slightly at that. "Then we can all start on the same page. Misato, we've a lot of slides to get through, so please hold your questions 'til the end. It is a bit... bizarre, so best if you just hear it out. Agreed?"
"Well, let's start with me arriving home yesterday..."
DJ recapped the events of the previous evening, through to the present. Ritsuko interjected occasionally, and Misato looked occasionally alarmed. She looked at Ritsuko, DJ, the broken window, DJ's arms, as DJ reached the respective points of the tale. But she kept her word and didn't interrupt. By the time DJ was finished she was hunched over, sitting on the edge of her chair, chin on her hands, listening intently to what he was saying.
DJ reached the end of the narrative before he realized he was nearing it, and seemed momentarily at a loss; then he shrugged and said, "And, well, that's basically it, and here we are."
Misato look back and forth between DJ and Ritsuko. "Well, that certainly is an incredible story. I don't know what to say... Are you all right, DJ?"
"People will insist on asking me that. No, I'm not all right, but I'm doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances. Ritsuko patched me up well enough, I'll be all right. Right now you shouldn't worry about me—worry about the two of you." DJ gestured to both Misato and Ritsuko. "You," he said to Misato, "have been miserable. Picking up the phone and starting to dial Ritsuko's number, but hanging up before you finish. You know you've been missing her." Misato started to interject but DJ held up a hand to stop her. "This is no time for pride or image, this is the time to be open and honest." DJ turned and addressed Ritsuko, "And you have to learn to talk to your friends. You've been carrying everything yourself, and you don't need to do that. Misato is your best friend, and of all the people around you, you should be able to talk to her. So get to it."
DJ leaned back in his chair. "Now, both of you, you have a lot of work to do. Before you do anything else, repair this friendship before it's too late. You can both be prideful and stubborn, just like me. It makes us all devastatingly attractive to the opposite sex, but it also buggers up our lives with alarming frequency. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go put on some clothes." With that DJ left the room, closing the bedroom door behind him, leaving the two women in an awkward, nervous silence in the living room.
I hope to Christ they can work this out, he thought to himself.
While DJ was changing, Misato and Ritsuko fidgeted nervously. Finally, after both women spent several minutes acting as if they were strangers in an elevator together, Ritsuko spoke.
"Sorry? For what?"
"For everything. For being a bitch. For causing so much trouble. For being so blind. For hurting so many people." Ritsuko was beginning to cry. "For being so wrong... so mean... so cold... I've been so terrible, I understand if you no longer want to be my friend." Ritsuko turned her face away from Misato, and wiped her eyes.
Misato sat up straight, shocked by her final statment. She leaned forward and rested her hand on Ritsuko's knee. "'Ko, you'll always be my friend."
Ritsuko looked up, her eyes wide with pleased surprise. "'Ko... You haven't called me that in years. It's always been Ritsuko, or Dr. Akagi."
"That's the problem. Somewhere along the way you stopped being 'Ko, and I stopped being Misa... We got too serious and forgot to take time out for ourselves. But you're still my friend, even if I haven't shown it. I have to take some of the blame as well. I've been nasty, and stubborn about things. I didn't call you because I was angry and I wouldn't let that go—I wanted to make you take the first step. I was right, and you were wrong, and I wasn't going to wound my pride by going to you first. Stupid. If DJ hadn't stopped you, if I'd lost you, never having made up..." Misato began to cry.
Ritsuko turned to face her, the two women wiped away each other's tears and embraced.
"Friends?" Misato asked.
"Friends," Ritsuko replied.
The bedroom door opened and DJ emerged, fully dressed and carrying his riding gear. He observed the scene and smiled. Hugging, good sign. Things appeared to be going well. Quietly he approached.
"Well!" His words startled the women and they separated. "This is good to see. I'm off then, let you two have some time to yourselves. I think you both have a few things to get off of your chests, and you don't need me around to get in the way. I'll be at home if you need me."
The two women stood to say their goodbyes to DJ.
"Will you be OK to drive?" Misato asked.
"Well, it won't be a party, but I should manage. I won't be in a hurry like I was getting over here. I can take it easy and nurse my throttle arm along."
Misato just nodded in reply.
"DJ," Ritsuko said softly, as he turned toward her. "Thanks for everything." With that she pulled DJ into an embrace and kissed him, gently but for rather a long time.
Over her shoulder DJ could see the look of incredulity on Misato's face. He raised an eyebrow as if to say, Later. Misato's narrowed eyes let him know that she'd definitely want to hear about it.
When Ritsuko released him DJ was blushing slightly. "Ahem, er, well. You two get back to it then. I'll just see myself out."
As he closed the door behind himself and felt the morning sun on his face, he smiled. Today was the day things were going to change for the better.
Inside, Ritsuko and Misato returned to their conversation. They did, indeed, have much to get off their chests, and old ties to renew.
DJ entered his room, sat down carefully on the edge of his bed, then let out a deep sigh and let himself flop down on his back. For a couple of minutes, he lay still, felt around mentally, and tried to find a place on his body that didn't hurt. There were jagged-edged holes in his right thigh and left forearm, a bone-deep scalpel cut in his right forearm, and claw-marks crisscrossing his arms and chest. His torso was moderately bruised from the beating he'd taken from the SEELE security officers who'd taken him to see Ikari. The black eye, fat lip and cut cheek could be attributed to the lead officer's pistol blow. Each individual wound throbbed in different time. He wondered how could that be—after all, he had only one pulse.
On top of that, despite his jaunty show for Ritsuko, he was flat-out, damned well exhausted. He'd been running on fumes way back when he charged into that stupid fight with Jon, let alone everything that came after that. His memories of parts of the previous evening were an absolute muddle and probably always would be, but at least the morning's evidence seemed to show he'd done everything right for once.
"Lo," he murmured wryly, mocking himself, "for I am the great and powerful Croft, savior of women and mender of broken hearts."
He would have smiled, except that, as far as he knew, Jon was still missing.
Instead, he sighed again, then gathered up his will, resisted the urge to turn on his side and sleep for a very long time, and got up instead.
Asuka, awakened by the sounds of his arrival, met him in the hallway. She seemed about to speak, and then she saw the bandages on his forearms and the dark circles around his eyes, and gathered him silently into her embrace instead.
"You look like you had a busy day yesterday," she murmured after a few moments.
"You have no idea," said DJ heavily, combing his fingers through her red-gold hair. He still hadn't got used to the way she looked with her hair short. They'd shorn it all off when she'd been wounded, and though the regeneratives they'd given her had had the side effect of making it grow out faster, it still only came barely to her shoulders. It made her look even younger. From a distance, it even gave her a startling resemblance to Rei.
"Did they find Jon yet?" he asked.
"Rei brought him home last night," she replied. "They didn't say much—just went to bed. Dead on their feet, like the rest of us." She took a half-step back and looked him in the eye. "Where were you? I was worried. And a little jealous..." She smiled, a small smile for a small joke, and added, "Though it's obvious now that you didn't have any fun without me."
DJ chuckled, but the sound was hollow, and Asuka felt a flash of regret for the joke.
"I'll tell you in a minute," he said. Then he went into the kitchen. There he looked around for a moment, then started the coffeemaker working before stepping into the bathroom to splash water on his face and brush his teeth.
"I thought you didn't like coffee," said Asuka from the kitchen doorway as DJ emerged from the bathroom and poured himself a cup.
DJ turned to her, looked at her with a small grin over the top of the mug, then took a drink and winced.
"I don't," he replied, and took the mug into the living room. Asuka gave him a perplexed look from the hallway, then smiled, got a mug of her own, and curled up next to him with it on the couch.
"Me neither," she said.
DJ looked down at the surface of his coffee for a moment, engrossed in the way that tired people get by the distorted reflection of his face. Then, softly, as if he were talking to himself, he said,
"Ritsuko Akagi tried to kill herself last night."
Asuka almost dropped her coffee. "What?!"
"When I got home," DJ continued in that same small voice, "I found a message on the voice machine from her. She'd called... to say goodbye. I recognized the tone in her voice. I dropped everything and raced over there. Cut my arm up punching my way through the window in her front door. If I'd been twenty seconds later she'd have been bleeding to death in her bath, and there wouldn't have been much of anything I could have done about it."
Asuka put her hand on his forearm. "Oh my God... what did you do?"
DJ shook his head. "I'm not sure. Everything's kind of a blur. I was half-bloody-frozen, exhausted, losing blood. I took the knife away from her, somehow. She cut my other arm in the process, but I think it was an accident. Then... I don't know, I don't really remember. I must have talked her out of it. Then I passed out. She cleaned me up and patched me up—which is how I lost my clothes, by the way—and I stayed with her, partly because I could hardly move and partly to make sure she was really all right... " He took another drink of the coffee, winced again. Asuka drank with him.
She coughed at the bitter, unaccustomed taste. "Do you know... why she did it?"
"She'd decided that, since her mentor Professor Ikari was working for the Enemy, her life's work in his service had been a lie. She thought we hated her for her part in all this chaos. She could handle that as long as it was for a good cause. Learning that it wasn't—that tore her apart. Ironic, really... all that cold detachment, hiding a woman who desperately needs to be approved of and wanted..." He looked at his coffee again. "I guess we all have our defense mechanisms." He looked up, back at Asuka. "I suppose the impulse for self-destruction might run in her family, too. Her mother killed herself."
Asuka put her coffee mug down on the endtable and nodded. "I know." Unexpectedly, she felt her eyes growing hot. She closed them, pushing out the first tears, and without realizing she was going to, she added, "So did mine."
"Oh, Christ," said DJ, his voice almost a moan as he put down his own coffee and covered her hand with his. "Asuka, I'm sorry, I didn't..."
"I'm surprised, actually," she said, her eyes opening to accuse him. "I thought your curiosity would have made you read my personnel file by now. Well, there it is. Want to know why I'm so screwed up? It's because the self-destructive impulse runs in my family, too."
"Asuka, please," said DJ. "I don't want to fight. Don't blame yourself."
"Why shouldn't I?" she demanded. "Why shouldn't I? I was in the same position as you. I was there. Only I—couldn't—do—anything!" She slammed the heels of her hands against his chest and drove herself to the other end of the couch. "I couldn't do anything..."
"Go away!" she ordered him, hiding her face, curled up and sobbing at the end of the couch. "For God's sake go away!"
DJ got up, slowly, and took a step away; then he paused, frowning, and sat himself down in the middle of the couch.
"No," he said.
She turned, her face puffy and red from grief, and looked about to lash out; then the anger shattered and left her hollow, and she crumpled against his chest, beating at it fitfully with her fists. He put his arms around her and waited it out, wondering if this was the first time she had ever cried for this tragedy in her life. It explained so much...
Presently she looked up at him, miserable instead of angry, and tried to say, "I'm sorry. It's not your fault," around the racking sobs that still came.
DJ said nothing; just tightened his embrace a little. He didn't want to prompt her. If she wanted to tell him, she would.
"It was... oh... almost ten years ago, now," she said. "Mama was part of the FEISAR group working on EuroEVA."
DJ nodded. The European industrial consortium was the primary contractor for the Old World segment of Project Evangelion, one of the top five research and development companies in the world.
"She tried to interface with one of the early EVA control system prototypes, before they knew that you had to have a special talent to synchronize with an EVA. They knew that the first United States test had failed, but they were confident that they could make it work. Stupid. They didn't even have an EVA built yet—just the control system... but they tried it anyway."
Asuka looked at DJ again, horror in her eyes. "Do you know what a full sync attempt does to someone without the talent? If they don't admit it's not going to work at the threshold stop and increase power instead of shutting it down?"
DJ didn't, and wasn't sure he wanted to. Silent, he shook his head.
"It destroys them," Asuka said simply. "They thought she was just disoriented. Took her home and put her to bed to sleep it off. I was right there, right there, when she... she..."
Asuka didn't get any further. She didn't have to.
When she recovered enough to talk again, she said, "I guess... after that, I decided that I would... get even. Prove that EVA couldn't destroy my family by becoming its master. Prove that I wasn't as weak as my mother by having the talent. I knew I would have it, when I got old enough to try, because... because if I hadn't it would have proven that there isn't any justice in the universe. That doesn't make any sense at all, does it? But it's what I thought. I worked myself to my limit to be the best EVA pilot there could possibly be, in order to... to... I don't know, to beat the EVA project at its own game.
"And then you came along, without any training or experience, without any motivation except your damned curiosity, and you were just as good as me! You made it look easy. God! I wanted to hate you so much for that... but... well... you know the rest..." She trailed off into silence for a moment.
"God. I'm such a mess," she interrupted him. "You'll hate me for this, if you don't already—but when... when you told me that you couldn't save your father, that you'd failed him... for a second, just for a second, I was glad. It was hateful and petty of me, but for just a second I thought, 'Well, there, you smug bastard, now you know what I live with every day of my life,' except... how could you? Then I hated myself for even thinking it. How could I wish that kind of pain on someone else? Especially someone I think I'm in love with?"
She looked at the expression of shock on his face, then turned away and put her face in her hands. "There, you see? Now you hate me. If you didn't already—after I pushed you around and took you for granted and called you names and started that stupid fight that almost got you killed and for a second I was glad about your father dying... Oh, God... I'm not my mother... I'm not losing my mind... I'm not..."
DJ turned her to face him; she tried to turn away again, but he held her chin firmly in his hand.
"No, don't look at me, my God, I—"
Her eyes flew wide open as he silenced her with his kiss. For a moment she struggled; then she simply sat and accepted the contact. Long seconds passed, and then, with a small, throaty sound, she closed her eyes and collapsed against him, returning the kiss, the sweetest, tenderest kiss she could ever remember them sharing.
When they parted some moments later, he smiled and softly said, "I don't hate you, Asuka."
She looked at him for a moment, and then the ghost of a smile played at the corners of her mouth, and she grabbed the back of his neck and kissed him fiercely.
When this one broke, they sat looking at each other for a moment, and then dissolved in laughter. He fell to his back on the couch, helplessly guffawing, and she lay on her elbows on his chest.
"By God, we do deserve each other, you know it?" he said when he got control of his lungs again. "Asuka, I don't hate you for any of that. If anything, I understand now why you did it." He put his arm over her shoulders again.
Her smile slipped momentarily as she said hesitantly, "But... your father..."
"We all have stupid thoughts like that now and again," he said. "Some ancient, evil, selfish part of our mind chiming in with its two pence worth, saying something we regret any part of us said. It's part of being human, I think."
Asuka frowned. "I used to hate my mother so much. I used to think she was such a coward, to do it and to do it in front of me, at that. If she had to do it, why couldn't she just disappear and let me have some romantic delusion that she'd run off to Tibet to find herself or something? Why did she have to make such a fucking display out of her own selfish destruction? But... now... I don't know. She wasn't in her right mind, any more than Ritsuko's mother was. Now all I feel for her is pity. That, and I wonder sometimes why, not why she did it the way she did, but why she did it at all."
DJ took a deep breath, let it out slowly. "Perhaps it wasn't that she was a coward... perhaps it was that she was too brave."
"What do you mean?"
"Hemingway," DJ said, then quoted, "'If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break, it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially.'"
Asuka smiled a little. "If that's true, then why aren't you dead?"
"Because I've broken."
"There have been... times in my life... when I've felt the way that I think your mother must have felt."
"You've wanted to kill yourself?"
"Not exactly... but I know what it's like to give up all hope of living, and resign yourself to death. I suspect it's much the same."
"You? Give up hope?"
"Twice in my life. This... this isn't something that I ever speak of, but... once when I was quite small, Mum and I were separated by a cave-in. I was trapped, alone, basically buried alive, for four days. I had no water, I had no light. I lost track of time quickly. A dark and silent cave is basically sensory deprivation. After a while you lose track of what's real and what you're dreaming to keep yourself occupied. I convinced myself that weeks were passing, decided that Mum must have been killed, that there was no way out. I screamed myself hoarse, clawed my fingers bloody on the rocks, and then finally I gave myself up for dead, lay down and waited to die."
"And I woke up in my bed at home, two days later. I passed out from hunger and thirst while waiting to die, and Mum dug me out while I was unconscious. Later on I hated myself for losing faith in her like that. To this day I'm terrified of being alone in small, dark spaces where I can't see an escape."
"What was the other time?"
"When I was trapped in the Dirac Ocean and my LCL was going foul. That time, my rescue came from Rei."
"There's not much Rei doesn't know."
"And are you strong in the broken places now?"
DJ considered this, then smiled. "I think I am, yes."
"Do you love Rei?"
"Yes, of course. And you. Especially you."
"Me? But... DJ, I don't... I'm not..."
DJ blinked at her in confusion; behind that confusion, a growing dread was forming in his eyes. Seeing it, she knew he was misunderstanding her, and forced herself to stop babbling.
"I just mean—well, we never did really talk about what we are to each other. Not since I got... hurt."
"No... I suppose we didn't, did we? I've been... " He sighed. "Well, I've been afraid to bring it up. You've been busy with your recovery, and I've been such a screwed-up, moping son of a bitch since I got back from... wherever the hell I went... I thought perhaps you'd decided I wasn't such a joy after all."
"And I'd half-convinced myself that you'd gotten fed up with me, or that you were repelled because I'm... damaged."
"What?" DJ looked up at her in abject puzzlement.
"Well... " Asuka blushed. "You've hardly touched me, since I got out of the hospital... "
"Wha—Asuka, you were almost pulverized! I've been terrified of hurting you. I thought... I thought you didn't think you were ready yet, or maybe you'd lost interest in me..."
Again they broke up in laughter.
This time the laughter ended, rather than beginning, with a kiss.
Then a second.
They were in the middle of that one when the divider door opened and Rei and Jon came in.
"Are we... disturbing you?"
DJ would have made some smart response, but Jon was there and looking sallow and stunned, and Rei looked even more serious than usual—so he and Asuka said no, and sat up to make room for them on the couch.
Shinji had expected many things when he put on the plug suit and let them seal him into the entry plug for the first day's tests. He had seen one of these giants go insane during such a test, wreck an armored room, and nearly kill its pilot. He'd wound his nerve tight and gone in with his eyes open, expecting all manner of horrors.
He hadn't expected to be bored out of his skull. Yawning in an LCL atmosphere was a unique experience, but he didn't think his ears had appreciated it.
It seemed that for this run of tests, whatever their purpose, the people in the control room didn't actually need him to do anything. He just sat there, a brain in a jar, and waited for something interesting to happen. Other than some strange color shifts and patterns on the holographic displays of the EVA's cockpit, nothing did. He didn't even feel anything. The whole thing left him faintly disappointed. Shinji sat back and let his thoughts drift, lulled by the almost hypnotic cadence of Kaori Yamashita's voice as the Tech Director chanted sequence figures and tolerance levels.
After an hour and a half of that, he was startled back to full lucidity by the Director's voice suddenly switching to a normal tone and saying, "Mr. Ikari, are we boring you?"
"Huh?" Shinji said, sitting up straighter. "N-no, why?"
"You started generating an alpha pattern," Yamashita's amused voice replied.
"Oh," said Shinji, having no idea what that meant. "Uh, sorry..."
"Well, admittedly, there isn't much for you to do in this run of tests," Yamashita went on. "We're just getting the baseline figures; we're not even powering up the active systems until tomorrow afternoon. But in order to get accurate figures, we need you to stay awake."
Shinji's cheeks burned. "Sorry," he repeated.
"You might familiarize yourself with the EVA's instruments and controls. There's a tutorial mode on the onboard computer; just follow the menus. Your first simulator run is tomorrow morning."
Shinji nodded sheepishly, switched up the Multi-Function Display, and got started.
When Jon and Rei finished telling their stories from the previous day (and Rei's from fifteen years before), there followed a crisp and rather startled silence.
If anyone else had told DJ what he had just heard, he would have scoffed, loudly and repeatedly. As it was, he was having a hard time wrapping his head around it, and it came to him suddenly that he wouldn't be bothering to try if he didn't, on some level, believe them.
He turned to Asuka, who gave him the same look—the look of someone struggling to comprehend something much bigger than they had anticipated anything would ever be, not that of a person filled with disbelief.
"Well," he said at length. "That certainly puts a new perspective on the Hidden War."
"Yes," said Asuka, his comment spurring her to wonder about something. "If SEELE is controlled by a... a demon princess—then what are the aliens?"
A voice from the doorway answered the question before Jon or Rei could, making the assembled Children jump with momentary fright:
"They aren't aliens, not in the sense that X-COM has always believed. They haven't come here from outer space. They're minor celestials, low-level servants of the ones with names."
All four pilots turned to see Kevin Nelson, back in his dark-haired human disguise, standing in the doorway.
"Tabris," said Rei softly.
Kevin winced slightly. "Please, Rei," he said. "Call me Kevin when I'm... like this. When in Rome, and all that."
Rei looked a bit puzzled, but nodded.
"You could have told us all about this months ago," said Asuka, accusation in her tone.
"I could," Kevin replied affably.
"Then why didn't you?"
"You weren't ready."
"What the hell kind of answer is that?!" she demanded. "Six months ago we could have done something, ended this before everything went bad! We could have kept hundreds of people from getting hurt, or worse—Lt. Ibuki, Commander Ikari—"
"You," said Kevin with a trace of amusement.
"—Yes, damn you, me," Asuka carried on without hesitation. She folded her arms and glared at him bitterly. "I suppose now you'll tell us that all the hell we've been through was necessary."
"In a sense," said Kevin, nodding. "As I said, you weren't ready. What could you have done with this knowledge six months ago? The enormity of the situation had not sunk into you yet—my guess is, you wouldn't even have believed it. Even if you had, this installation was still fully infiltrated and controlled by agents of SEELE. They would have crushed whatever resistance you might have considered raising before it began. I had to wait until their plan had advanced to the point where they began abandoning NERV before I could act."
"If you'll calm down, I'll tell you." Asuka scowled, but made no reply. "Thank you," said Kevin with a trace of gentle sarcasm. "Now. Let's start from where I came in. The Enemy—the creatures you think of as aliens—are not from another world."
"But their technology—" began DJ.
"A disguise," said Kevin. "In the twentieth century, humanity turned away from religion and immersed itself in science. They stopped expecting the Apocalypse and started expecting invasion from the stars instead."
"Why disguise something like that, though?" wondered Asuka. "If Natlateth and her faction want to destroy humanity..."
"They don't," said Jon softly.
"They don't," he repeated. "Natlateth and her followers want control, not annihilation."
Kevin nodded, smiling. "You're beginning to get the picture."
"Could have fooled me," DJ observed. "They wiped out half the world."
"That was an accident," Kevin pointed out. "Although, as it turned out, one that Natlateth used to her advantage. She's an expert at that. Look. Natlateth is a Habbalite. They've got a mania for punishing the weak. She believes that God Himself is weak—her logic being that if He were not, He would have been able to prevent the Fall and all the trouble its aftermath has caused Him. Since humans were created in God's image—which they were, although the Book of Genesis is rather an oversimplification—then that means all humanity is weak, too."
"Why not wipe us out, then?" Asuka persisted.
"Because, a while back, she realized a way that they could be useful, even if they are weak. If they could be improved, through struggle and pain—which is the only way a Habbalite believes anything can be improved—and used by her as agents for the overthrow of Heaven, then she would be proving to God His weakness. Proving that she, and by association Hell itself, are stronger than He is, by perfecting His flawed creations and using them to destroy Him."
"And the alien invasion was where the struggle and pain was to come into it?" asked DJ.
"Correct," said Kevin. "Natlateth realized that, if attack seemed to come from a source that seemed 'mystic' or 'demonic', humanity wouldn't take it seriously. By the late twentieth century, humanity had abandoned too much of mysticism to be able to improve themselves to combat the invasion through its use. The invasion would 'succeed' and humanity would be destroyed—not in line with Natlateth's plans."
"But by dressing the invaders up as saucer men, she played on the human world's current fears," said DJ slowly, awareness dawning on his face. "She knew our governments would pull out the stops to fight an invasion from space. We'd select our best people, adapt their weaponry for our own use, become more like them to beat them... improve ourselves."
"And by taking control of the agencies we set up to do that," Asuka added, her own face taking on the same look, "she'd be in the perfect position to take control and turn us against her enemies when the time came."
Kevin nodded. "A simple matter to present the journey to Heaven as a counter-invasion of the 'alien homeworld', and the Host as a higher rank of the alien attackers," he said.
"But the Second Impact wasn't part of the plan, was it?" said DJ.
"Not at all," said Kevin. "Natlateth never dreamed Lucifer would repent. His ascension would strengthen Heaven's position and weaken Hell's immeasurably. Her army of unwitting human servants would stand no chance against the Host with the Lightbringer and the Archangel Michael working together to defend it."
"She found out about it somehow and put together a strike force to wreck the switch," said Asuka. "But Rei—you said there were angels in that attacking force. What would make an angel side with a demonic plot?"
"Not all of us would welcome Lucifer," Rei replied.
"They didn't know that there was more going on than just Lucifer's turning," DJ murmured.
"I suspect so," said Kevin. "Of course, I haven't had the opportunity to ask any of them. At any rate, the Second Impact was an accident—Natlateth didn't truly understand the power of the weapon some traitor in Heaven had handed her—but she survived, and turned the disaster to her advantage. Humanity took the explosion at the South Pole to be the climax of the Hidden War against the 'aliens'. Natlateth lost her chance to seize control of X-COM, but she did gain a powerful tool when SEELE was created, independent of X-COM, to study the leavings of the disaster. And the Impact itself did do a good job of paring down the population of 'weak' humanity."
"Delightful," said Asuka, her voice dripping disdain.
"'Good' by Natlateth's standards, Asuka, not mine," said Kevin. "You must understand the Habbalite point of view—a kind of warped, extremist Darwinism rooted in violence and pain. Nazism was much like it."
"Did our friend have a claw in that, too?" DJ wondered.
"No," said Kevin sadly. "Humanity can be proud to claim sole responsibility for that. In fact, quite the opposite—Natlateth's enchantment with it, and disappointment when it failed, may have led her to come up with the 'invasion' plan in the first place."
No one had anything to say to that, until Asuka asked, "What about the creatures that we call 'Angels'?"
"Ah, yes, the crowning irony," said Kevin. "I'm sure Natlateth has taken great glee in your war with the Angels. The giant creatures descending from the skies and wreaking havoc—did you ever wonder why they choose to attack here, now?"
"... Well... why?"
"I'll tell you why—because Rei is here, and the Lightbringer, too. They are, in effect, a search and rescue mission. Heaven never found out what went wrong with Luficer's extraction to cause the Second Impact—those angels who participated in it either didn't survive or didn't return, or were on the side with something to lose by revealing it and kept quiet. The 'monsters' who have attacked your city are soldiers of the army of Michael, trying to rescue the celestials lost in the disaster. I'm sure it has amused Natlateth immensely to use the very creatures they seek to repulse their attempts—in the process continuing her efforts to select and strengthen the human race, and teach them to hate the forces of Heaven."
"But that doesn't make sense," Asuka protested. "Why wouldn't they just take them away? They've been in plain sight, they've come out to do battle with the Angels who are looking for them! Why haven't they ever tried to communicate?"
"They couldn't recognize them. Until recently there was very little remaining about Rei or Lucifer that was recognizable. Even I couldn't be sure, from as near as I have been, until now. You must understand this—there are very few named angels who have any experience with or inclination for dealing with humanity. Most of them think on levels and in abstracts that you cannot begin to imagine. They... well, they really are rather simpleminded. The closer one gets to grace, the less subtle one's mind becomes. There are exceptions to this, of course, and those exceptions are the ones who are charged with watching over the mortal world. The angels who came here had never been to Earth before. They didn't know how to... relate."
"You're an exception," said DJ.
"I, and Rei, and Lucifer, too," said Kevin. "And Michael, come to that, although if we're lucky he won't try to get personally involved."
"Wait," said Asuka, holding up a hand. "You're an angel, too. You were at the Second Impact. You obviously remembered what happened all along, unlike Rei or Lucifer. Why didn't YOU go back to Heaven and tell them what happened? You could have prevented all this destruction."
"No," said Kevin, his eyes suddenly cold, "I couldn't. And that's all you need to know about it."
"I don't think it is," said Asuka, standing. "You've been hanging around, dropping cryptic hints, giving out morsels of information one at a time like some kind of oracle, and when we ask you why you haven't leveled with us, you put on the holy inscrutable act? Do you expect us to just defer to you because you're an angel?" She stepped up to Kevin, grabbed the front of his shirt, and gave the surprised celestial a shake. "Well, this is one lapsed Lutheran who's not impressed. Now be straight with us, all the way straight, or just get out of our lives and stay out!"
Kevin stared at her, trying to gather the cold, haughty dismissal back into his eyes... and he failed. His hair silvered, his eyes turned red, and he slumped, sagging so that only her fist in his shirtfront kept him from falling to his knees. Rei made a soft, frightened noise and rushed to his side as DJ and Jon crowded round as well. Asuka, startled, released him, and he fell to his hands and knees, head bowed, shivering.
"Tabris, what's wrong?" asked Rei softly.
The stricken angel reared his head back, fixing Rei with suddenly furious eyes set in his pale, tear-tracked face, and snarled, "I told you not to call me that!"
Then he rose to his feet and, with a sudden, furious energy, forced his way through the group, lurching through the connecting door into Apartment 3-F. Jon darted after him, catching at his sleeve, but Tabris wrenched himself free and stumbled to the window.
As he swung a leg over the windowsill, he turned back and met Rei's eyes for another instant. Jon gasped as he saw what had happened to the other youth's face: one of Kevin's eyes was red, but the other had changed to a brilliant emerald green.
"Forgive me, Reilael," he said softly, and jumped. When the EVA pilots crowded to the window's edge, he was nowhere to be seen.
Two hours after Dr. Yamashita had asked if she and her crew were boring Shinji, they finally let him go. He took a quick shower, put on his clothes, and went to the control room for debriefing.
He was relieved to find that Natla wasn't there. Shinji knew she was doing her best to make him feel welcome, but something about the Commander unnerved him. He was much less uneasy without her around.
Dr. Yamashita, on the other hand, put him almost automatically at ease. Fiftyish and stout, with iron-gray hair pulled back in a matronly bun, Kaori Yamashita looked like somebody's grandmother, though she acted more like a good-natured but rough-edged cabdriver Shinji had once met on a school trip to Tokyo. Shinji, who had never known his grandparents, had immediately liked her.
Yamashita turned from her perusal of a screenful of random-looking numbers and smiled. "Good work, Mr. Ikari," she said. "I hope we didn't bore you too much."
"Oh, uh... no," said Shinji diffidently, feeling his cheeks blush again.
"Your first simulator run will be at 0900," she said briskly. "If you don't make a complete ass of yourself, then we'll try an activation test after lunch. In the meantime, familiarize yourself with the field operations manual and get some sleep—you're going to need it."
"Yes, ma'am," said Shinji. He turned to go, then turned back hesitantly. "Uh, Yamashita-sensei... where should I sleep?"
Dr. Yamashita gave him a quizzical look, then laughed. "They didn't tell you where your room is?" Shinji shook his head. "Typical," she said, a look of disgust crossing her face. "These people don't know the first thing about administration. If what they were doing wasn't so damned important, I'd go back to Westinghouse." She turned around and barked at the computer console, "Lilith!"
"Yes, Dr. Yamashita," the computer replied. Shinji's flesh crawled and he felt a spurt of panic creep up his spine. The rational part of his mind wondered why on Earth he should be alarmed by the voice of a computer. It wasn't even a particularly strange voice; a woman's voice, smooth and pleasant but not very interested-sounding. Something in it touched some crumb of fear buried deep in Shinji's mind, though, and he found himself very much wanting to get away from it.
"Where in the hell is Ikari supposed to flop?" Yamashita asked the computer irritably.
"Level nine, section D, room forty-six," Lilith replied.
"Well, there you go," Yamashita said with a satisfied nod, turning back to Ikari. "Think you can find it?"
Shinji remembered the markings at the intersections of the corridors and next to every door, and nodded. "I think so."
"Good. Get some chow, RTFM, and then put your head down for a few hours. Wake-up call's at 0800."
Shinji nodded, thanked Dr. Yamashita again, and left the control room. He paused outside the door, looking left and right, but before he could get his bearings, somebody had grabbed his arm. He yelped and whirled on his attacker.
Ichi Ayanami yelped in return and took a quick hop away, spreading her hands. "Whoa! Peace!"
Shinji relaxed and tried to catch his breath. "Ayanami! You startled me."
"Obviously," Ichi replied wryly. "Sorry, Ikari-san. I wanted to surprise you, but not that much."
Being called 'Ikari-san' felt so extremely bizarre to Shinji, especially since the rest of the conversation, like all the conversations he'd had with SEELE personnel, was in English, that for a moment he didn't realize she was talking to him.
"You don't have to be so formal," he said when it dawned on him. "Just 'Shinji' is OK."
"Well, then why don't you call me 'Ichi'?"
"Oh, uh... all right."
"Listen, did they feed you yet?"
"No," he replied. "That's supposed to be what I do next. After that, Dr. Yamashita said I should RTFM... whatever that means... and get some sleep."
"Come on, then. I haven't eaten yet either. I'll show you our five-star, black-tie cafeteria. We can sit together and talk about stuff."
Technically, Shinji didn't say yes, he just failed to say no... but that was enough for Ichi, who cheerily wrapped her arm around his, and dragged the blushing EVA-cadet to the mess hall, a sufficiently industrial-looking affair with automated vending devices and no human staff in sight.
Shinji sat in silence for most of the meal, as he tried and failed to overcome his shyness. Finally, though, curiosity (barely) won out over panic, and he asked her why she was at the Training Center to begin with.
He got the whole story... starting with the NERV "recruiters" coming to her house and taking Rei, followed by her family's attempts to track her down and spread the word about what had happened, and concluding with the mysterious disappearance of her mother (her only parent, since her father had died when she was 8 years old). SEELE found her soon after that—about nine months ago, Ichi said—and took her in to ensure that she wouldn't meet the same fate as her mother.
"I'm so grateful that you agreed to help," she told Shinji, tears welling up in her eyes.
"I haven't actualy done anything yet," Shinji replied. "I'm not even convinced that I'll make a good pilot. I'm scared all of the time," he added, as he dropped his head down and broke eye contact.
Ichi reached across the table, and took Shinji's hands in hers. "No," she said, shaking her head emphatically, "you will. You're braver than you think you are. I believe in you."
"Uh—" said Shinji.
"I wish I could do it myself," Ichi went on, "but I don't have the talent. The NERV people tested us both, but they told me that I was useless to them. Rei, on the other hand..." she paused to steel herself, then went on. "Rei had 'great potential.'" Her voice was filled with disgust and deep-rooted anger as she spoke the final words. Then she stopped herself with an apparent effort and went on softly, "So I think it's wonderful of you to use the talent you have to help her, even though it means defying your own father."
Shinji had no idea what to say next. The sight of Ichi's emerald eyes burning into him only made him more tongue-tied. He might have sat there, stunned and wide-eyed, for an hour—if Ichi hadn't leaned across the table and kissed him.
"For good luck," she said softly. Then she got up, wiping at her eyes, and left him there alone.
Shinji looked down at his hands, wondering why they still tingled where she'd touched them.
The man in Room 11 drifted in and out of a state of semiconsciousness, floating in a sea of darkness and dreams. The only thoughts in his mind were his own, and after a decade of living with the soft, chittering voice of the Other, the silence was so profound and deafening it stunned him into a kind of fugue state, neither awake nor asleep. He cast about in his jumbled subconscious for some clue to his identity, if he even had one without the Other.
I should have known you wouldn't actually want to see me. You've gotten along without a son for ten years, why stop now?
(he winces, the memory of his son's angry words like a knife in his heart)
Keller, wake up Rei.
You're sending her?
She isn't dead.
(tears spattering the white sheets in the dark)
You've got no right to do this, whoever the hell you are.
(i know i know but don't you see i have no choice)
Yes, well, you'd know a thing or two about the fine art of taking advantage, wouldn't you, Gendō?
(rage as a mask for pain because the words bite so deep)
Mr. Trussell, where do you think—
(he had never guessed that trussell had such inner steel)
I don't know you any more.
(even rei, they let me care for rei but in the end they even made me drive her away)
(said the angry voice of the man in Room 11 to himself)
It's easy to blame the Enemy for all your problems, but face up to your own failure. Shinji always loathed you, and Yui was lost to you months before she died. You were already a ruthless, manipulative bastard before the Other entered your mind. They only changed your final destination—you had already abandoned the path to your original goal.
How much of what they made you do would you have done anyway? How much of what they made you say would you have said anyway? How much of your humanity had you already lost when they took away what was left?
You can never know now, can you?
There is nothing you can do now that will bring Yui back to you, make your son love you, or erase the evil you have done.
The only thing you can do now
(the man in Room 11 told himself)
is make amends.
The man in Room 11 came to after forty-six hours of semiconsciousness to find himself alone for the first time in ten years. He opened his eyes, slowly and carefully, then sat up to take stock of his situation. The only lights were some green and red LEDs on the pieces of diagnostic equipment surrounding him. The only sounds were the whirring of the air conditioning vent in the corner and the periodic, muted bleating of an EKG; he could feel its electrodes glued to his skin. The only smell was the antiseptic tang of an infirmary, overlaid on processed air that lay vaguely metallic on his tongue.
The voice of the Other was still silent.
Who am I? he asked himself.
And the reply came back:
You are Gendō Ikari.
Remember what you've done.
Ikari got up, ripping off electrode leads and searching for his clothes. This caused the MIB guard outside the door to step in and flick on the light. Momentarily startled and blinded by the light, Ikari gave a shout and flung an arm up to shade his eyes.
"Professor Ikari?" asked the guard warily, his hand hovering near the lapel of his jacket.
"Who did you think it might be?" Ikari grumbled, turning his back on the guard and opening the closet. "Where are my clothes? How long have I been unconscious? I have to talk to Colonel Keller immediately."
"Colonel Keller's away, Professor," said the guard. "You've been out for about forty-eight hours."
Ikari cursed. He found his pants and climbed into them. "Major Katsuragi, then."
"Professor, you've been relieved of duty and your security clearance revoked," said the MIB stolidly.
"Yes, yes, I expected as much," said Ikari impatiently, fastening his trousers and pulling his undershirt over his head.
"That being the case, I'm afraid I can't allow you to see the Brigadier without auth—"
Ikari leveled his familiar icy glare at the guard. "I must speak with whoever has assumed command. It's vital."
Misato Katsuragi sat slumped at her desk, her arms folded to form a makeshift pillow for her head. A long-since-congealed cup of coffee sat abandoned nearby, and on the screen in front of her, the cursor on a half-completed evacuation manifest blinked glumly and vainly for her attention. Four hours of bad sleep, a long, exhausting conversation with Ritsuko, a day's work, and there was so much more to be done before the announcement to the troops in the morning...
Then the door to her office was opened, and she jerked upright with a startled "Wha?!", scattering papers and knocking the coffee mug to the floor. Then she recoiled again in surprise, her right hand instinctively dropping to the holster at her hip. In the doorway of her office stood Gendō Ikari. He wore only an undershirt and trousers, wrinkled from two days in a haphazard pile in the closet of his infirmary room. His glasses were missing and his hair was spiky in places and matted in others, but what really struck Misato about him were his eyes. They were alive with an energy Misato had never seen in Ikari before, and they made her both wary and curious.
"Christ!" Misato blurted. "You nearly gave me a heart attack."
"I'm sorry, Brigadier," said the MIB from behind Ikari. "The Professor is quite insistent that—"
"I need to talk to you," Ikari interrupted him.
"I was planning to get Stanfield to debrief you tomorrow..."
"No. It can't wait, I can't wait. I have to talk to you now." Ikari paused as if struggling with an unfamiliar word, and then added in a quieter tone, "Please."
Misato held Ikari's gaze with her dark, thoughtful eyes for a full five seconds; then she sat up, smoothed her uniform, and nodded toward the straight-backed chair at the corner of her desk. "Have a seat. Swindell, you're dismissed."
"Ma'am," said the MIB as he saluted. He discreetly closed the office door as he left.
"Thank you," said Ikari, sitting. "I've been unconscious for two days. What have you done?"
"I'm not sure you're in a position where you need to know that any more, Professor," said Misato. "You've been relieved of your command responsibilities... barring any actual regulation about alien mind control, you've been flagged 'mentally unfit'."
A look of horror stole onto Ikari's face. "You're not thinking of evacuating me?"
"Well..." Misato shrugged. "Not to put too fine a point on it, why shouldn't I? You've been stripped of rank and command. You're effectively a civilian, and to say you're a security risk now would be the understatement of the year."
"No," said Ikari softly. Then, a little louder, "No! You can't cut me out of this now. Not now. I have to... "
"You have to what?" said Misato. "Look, Professor Ikari, until forty-eight hours ago, a few of us were building a strong case for procedurally removing you from command based on your growing indifference to the lives and safety of your personnel, not to mention several instances of gross misconduct and abuse of authority. Now, the fact that there was a psionic alien intelligence manipulating your actions is an extenuating circumstance, there's no denying that, but with it dead, how can we know for certain how extenuating? How many of the things you've done over the last six months have been Gendō Ikari and how many have been the alien? The last year? Two years? There's no way for me to know, and without any way of knowing, I can't trust you. It's that simple. And if I can't trust you I don't want you in this city."
Ikari jumped to his feet and slammed his hands down on Misato's desk, leaning over it to glower at her. "No! Do anything else you like to me—imprison me for life when this is over, kill me for all I care!—but I must stay here! I must see this through! Don't you understand?! Those creatures have perverted my life's work—turned it and me into a cruel joke on myself. If you turn me away now their victory is complete. I have nothing left to live for but the struggle against them."
Ikari turned away, pacing across the office, as he struggled to regain his composure. When he turned back to the still-speechless Misato, the look of rage had passed, but his eyes were still alight with the same fervor.
"NERV began as an effort to make humanity's lot in life better through learning as much as possible about the creatures involved in the Second Impact. That was my late wife's dream, and when we were young and my heart still held love, it was my dream, too. Through their use of me, the Enemy has twisted that dream into a weapon that now stands aimed at the heart of human civilization."
Misato gaped at Ikari. She'd worked alongside the man for eight years and never, ever seen him this way. She'd never even heard him mention his wife since her death. Now he was fighting back tears, clearly struggling to control his own emotions. There was a time when Misato had wondered if he had any.
"I agree with you that I'm clearly unfit for command," Ikari went on. "I don't want to return to command. I don't care what you ask of me, I don't care if I'm here as an advisor or just to sweep the floor, but... please... let me play some part. I owe it... to everyone here, to my wife's memory, to myself."
"Pr... Professor, I... I'm not sure I..."
"I'll get on my knees and beg if you want. That would make a good story to tell, wouldn't it? The day the great Gendō Ikari abased himself before one of the people he once treated with contempt! Well, I'll do it. I'll do anything. Kick me, beat me, spit on me—only let me stay and help. Let me do what I can to hurt the Enemy."
With that, Professor Gendō Ikari, the former Supreme Commander of NERV, got down on his knees.
Misato stood up, walked across the room, and put her hand on his shoulder. "No," she said softly, "that's not necessary. Get up, Professor, please."
Ikari got back to his feet and looked at her, jumbled emotions fighting for space on a face which had once been as blank as a slate.
Misato sighed, then patted his shoulder. "All right," she said, "you've convinced me. You can stay. I'll wangle some kind of 'special scientific advisor' credential or something for you."
Relief flooded Ikari's once-closed face. Bowing his head, he said, "Thank you. Thank you, Misato. I won't fail you."
Misato stretched, feeling a couple of vertebrae in her back pop, and yawned. "Look... we're having an assembly meeting with the Ops and TechDiv staff tomorrow to explain to them what the hell's happened over the last few weeks and what it all means. You'll have to come to the meeting and try to explain your part of it. You don't have to say you were under alien control—we can call it an illness or a breakdown from overwork or something like that—but the staff don't have much confidence in you any more. If you're going to stay they need to hear something reassuring."
Ikari nodded. "I understand."
"OK, well... for now, go home and try to get some rest, all right?"
"I... I'll try." Ikari went to the door, then stopped and turned back. "Misato... thank you."
Misato nodded. "Thank me by living up to your promise."
Ikari drew himself up to attention, looked as if he might be about to salute, then changed his mind and bowed deeply instead. "I will," he said. "My honor is all that I have left."
Misato returned his bow (awkwardly; it was clear his upbringing had been more old-fashioned than hers, bowing hadn't been a common practice in her household growing up), and then he was gone.
She let out a deep sigh, then punched a key on her comset.
"Security, Watch Commander Corsi," came the response.
"This is Brigadier Katsuragi. Professor Ikari's status is to be reclassified as A-2."
A pause. "Say again, Brigadier?"
"Reclassify Professor Ikari as A-2. No reinstatement of rank, just his security clearance. He'll be working with TechDiv as a civilian advisor. It'll be explained at tomorrow's meeting."
"Uh, ma'am, are you—"
"Jim, what I am is tired. Too tired to argue with you."
"Yes, ma'am," replied Agent Corsi. "Sorry. I'll get right on it."
"Thank you. Katsuragi out."
Misato closed the connection, then sighed again.
"I hope to Christ I just did the right thing," she muttered as she turned off the light and left the office.
That night found the Apartment 3-D crew relaxing in the living room. The stories had all been told and retold, and as they each turned over the revelation of whichever piece they hadn't been present for in their minds, they tried to push from their minds the uncertainty they all felt about the future. The cat wasn't just out of the bag, the bag was on fire. They all knew they were working against the clock, they just hoped they could make it before time ran out. No one was really paying any attention to the sitcom playing on the television; each was lost in their own thoughts, tired but not willing yet to sleep. Hence, the sound of the doorbell startled everyone.
"Who could that be?" Asuka asked.
"Beats me," was DJ's helpful response as he headed to over to open the door. "Ritsuko!" he said, surprised. "Is everything all right?"
"Yes, everything is fine. I just came over to say goodbye to everyone."
"Goodbye?! Um, come in, come in..."
Once she was seated with the group, Ritsuko had everyone's attention by default. "So, I guess you all know about last night."
A round of nods confirmed as much.
"Well, don't worry about me. Everything is OK now." She smiled at Misato, who smiled back at her. "I feel better than I have in a long time. Not perfect, but a lot better. Out of danger. I wanted to come by and say goodbye to everyone."
This comment was greeted with shocked expressions by everyone except for Misato, and a chorus of "Leaving?" "Where are you going?" "Are you quitting?" "WAUGH?!"
"Misato?" Ritsuko prompted.
Misato cleared her throat, and all eyes turned towards her. "This morning Ritsuko and I decided that she should go to Halifax to prepare the new facility." This drew a round of confused looks. "You'll all get the details tomorrow at the big meeting, but suffice to say for now that we can't expect to stay here much longer. We'll be relocating operations to Halifax, and we need someone to prepare the facilities. No one is better qualified to do that than Ritsuko. Besides, she has some other business she can best attend to there." Misato looked at Ritsuko, and everyone else followed suit.
"Yes. For some time now YaK, I mean Dr. Minter, and I have been cooperating on the development of a next generation EVA system, codenamed Archangelion. We developed the theory based on the modifications he made to the Tempest 5000 machine during his visit. We think we can achieve performace levels far above those of the current EVAs. We're close to having a working system for test, and things will go faster if I'm there."
"Besides, 'Ko, you could use some quality time with YaK." Misato interjected.
Ritsuko blushed in response, then regained her train of thought. "So, in any case, I'll be working with the scientific team and Otto Keller will be working with the security and physical plant teams. We're flying out later tonight. No one else has been told yet. We haven't weeded out all of the Enemy's plants, so we don't want to take any risks. Everyone will find out at the big meeting tomorrow. I just couldn't leave without saying goodbye to my friends." She looked around as if just realizing something. "Which reminds me, where are Jon and Rei?"
"They turned in some time ago," said DJ. "After what happened to Jon, they've even more to think about than the rest of us."
Ritsuko looked puzzled, at which point DJ realized she'd completely missed that particular corner of the previous day's drama, and recounted it for her.
"Good lord, that's where you got all those scratches and bruises?" she asked.
"Most of them."
"Is he going to be all right?"
"I think so. The influence was purged from him. The guilt will take care of itself, in time."
"It never rains but it pours," Ritsuko mused gloomily. She glanced at her watch and sighed. "Anyway, I'd better get going. I want to see Truss and Maya and let them know as well, if that's OK..." She looked to Misato.
"Sure, I have no problem with that."
"And then I have to meet Otto and get to the airport. So I guess this is it."
She stood, as did everyone else. She hugged each person in turn, getting to Asuka last. As she hugged the redhead, Ritsuko whispered in her ear, "You have a wonderful man there. Don't let him get away." As they separated, Asuka's face broke into a grin.
"Well, goodbye all. Tell Rei and Jon I'm sorry I missed them, and I hope they're doing well. I hope I'll be seeing all of you again soon, in Halifax."
She was followed by a round of goodbyes as she showed herself out the door.
The main assembly hall in Central Dogma was packed to capacity with a restless audience. Techs, Operations personnel, security officers, the Facilities department, grunt laborers from the Damage Management department, the Medical staff—everybody who was left after the purge of SEELE-controlled operatives was jammed into the big room.
The big clock on the wall above the stage clicked to 11 AM Eastern Standard Time.
Ten people came out of the wings to stage left. Nine of them sat down in nine of the ten chairs arrayed behind the lectern. A buzz of conversation rippled through the assembled staff as they saw who two of the ten were. Why wasn't Commander Ikari wearing his uniform? And wasn't Ryoji Kaji dead?
The tenth, Misato Katsuragi, went up the two steps to the podium. The microphone in front of her whined briefly, then settled into a subliminal hum. She looked tired, but together. Where the oak leaves on her epaulets had been, she had stars now.
"Ladies and gentlemen," she said. "A great many things have happened over the course of the weekend. As will happen in a fast-changing situation where information from above is sparse, a great many rumors have spread, most of them wrong, all of them incomplete. We're here this morning to set the record straight and let you know where we're going from here, because the situation has changed gravely.
"Over the past several weeks, NERV Security and the Operations Division have been gathering evidence indicating that our parent organization, the SEELE special directorate of the United Nations, is controlled by an alien faction with an agenda of terror and destruction toward humanity."
This would have been met with a great deal more skepticism had not everyone in the room been cleared for and briefed on the Hidden War of 1999 as part of their indoctrination into NERV. Instead, it was greeted with a chorus of gasps, not quite synchronized enough to be one great sound but rather a sibilant chorus of mistimed breaths.
"Early Saturday morning," Misato went on, "NERV Security, assisted by the Military Intelligence Bureau of X-COM, performed a full-scale security sweep of the Central and Terminal Dogma complexes. The results confirmed those suspicions. A full company of alien Muton soldiers and their Ethereal command group were exterminated. A number of co-opted Security operatives were killed or apprehended as well. All indications are that these personnel were placed by SEELE as a contingency mechanism should their alien connections be discovered.
"All of you were screened for the well-known signs of alien control on your way in here today. You will notice that those of your fellows who were co-opted have been removed."
This cold, hard statement caused another murmur of consternation. The assembly found this news quite disturbing—as well, Misato thought, they should. She plunged on:
"With that screening completed, we must take action to distance ourselves from our corrupted parent organization. As many of you will remember, NERV began as a division of X-COM, and was only detached and made part of SEELE when X-COM declared itself exempt from United Nations control in 2004. In consultation with Colonel Keller and the rest of the Operations staff, I have decided that, effective immediately, NERV will seek to renew its relationship with X-COM and sever all remaining ties to SEELE."
She could read the unspoken question on all the faces close enough for her to read: You have decided? What about Commander Ikari?
"You're no doubt wondering by now why Commander Ikari isn't addressing you. I'm sure you'll all agree, as much stress as we've all been under for the past several months, Professor Ikari has been subject to that much again, or more. His health has not been good for some time. Sick, preoccupied with the burdens of command, and frustrated by the Angel problem, he failed to notice the signs that others in Operations saw—the signs that led to the investigation which, in turn, led to Saturday morning's sweep. When the results of that sweep were reported to him, Professor Ikari suffered a breakdown and was deemed unfit for command."
There came that shocked sound again.
"Professor Ikari spent the weekend under sedation and only regained consciousness yesterday night," Misato went on. "He's going to be all right—but he's resigned his position as Commander. Under the command reorganization accompanying our realignment with X-COM, I've been named Brigadier, Commanding. An org chart will be sent to you as soon as it's all finalized.
"Professor Ikari's contributions to this organization are well-known. Without Gendō Ikari, it's fair to say there would be no NERV, and so, possibly, no life left on Earth. He has been the guiding light of Project Evangelion and the inspiration behind everything the Technical Division has done. His dedication to NERV and to humanity is irreproachable. I'm pleased, therefore, to announce that he will be staying with us in a scientific advisory capacity."
She paused to let a round of applause make its way around the room.
"These are very difficult and dangerous times," Misato said. "SEELE, as a branch of the UN, has considerably more international and public support than does X-COM. Additionally, we have no way of knowing how thorough the alien influence is; it may extend above SEELE into the UN itself. Worse, we have evidence that SEELE has a controlling influence over the United States military. We will very soon find ourselves unwelcome in this country, perhaps even subject to attack from the local authorities.
"Fortunately, we are not without allies. X-COM is not what it was at the height of the Hidden War, but it is still a powerful international organization. We're also lucky in that X-COM's headquarters are within the boundaries of the British Empire, and that King Stephen II of the United Kingdom has offered us his full support."
Misato paused, took a breath, and laid down the real point of the meeting.
"Preparations will begin immediately for the transfer of all NERV operations from Worcester-3 to a new facility being prepared for us by X-COM, adjacent to their base in Halifax, Nova Scotia. We have tentatively planned a three-month timetable for this evacuation with X-COM Halifax's command staff. Dr. Ritsuko Akagi and Colonel Keller have already left for Halifax to help the personnel on that end get ready to receive us.
"This relocation is obviously a huge job. It will require total commitment and total effort on the part of everyone in NERV, especially since we must maintain a state of operational readiness until the very last minute—we do not believe that the Angel crisis is itself over. The next few months will be hard. They may be dangerous. They will certainly be frightening at times."
She relaxed a little bit from her military bearing and said in a slightly more normal tone,
"I gathered you here today to tell you all this up front. I won't lie to you—NERV has taken a hell of a beating over the past couple of months. We're in bad trouble. But we've been in bad trouble for quite a while now, when you get right down to it, and we're still hanging in there. I have confidence that if we keep our heads, we can keep hanging in there.
"I have confidence in all of us—in all of you."
The room was silent.
"That's all I have for you," Misato said. "Professor Ikari would like to say a few words."
Applause swelled in the room again as she took her seat and Ikari replaced her at the podium. He didn't look sick; tired, yes, they all looked tired, but there was a light in his eyes that only those who had been with NERV for years could remember seeing before. In a strange way, with his uniform replaced by a dark, well-pressed suit and his hair combed back, he looked better than most of them had ever seen him before.
"Thank you, Brigadier Katsuragi," he said, his voice husky and warmer than most of his audience had ever heard it. "I won't take up much of your time," he told the audience. "I know we all have a lot of work today. I wanted to come before you today and apologize."
Consternation in the room. Gendō Ikari, apologizing?
"Yes," he said, nodding. "I feel I've let you all down. I mismanaged situations and acted callously toward personnel. I have no doubt offended each of you at one time or another with my over-focused brusqueness. Worst, I became so obsessed with the most obvious part of our mission—the Angel problem—that I was blind to the signs of corruption above me, and nearly led us all to ruin." He bowed his head. "For all of that, I can only say I'm sorry, and thank you for standing by me and my ideals despite my failings.
"NERV was founded largely through the efforts of my late wife, Dr. Yui Ikari," he went on, raising his face to his audience. "She was a warm, caring human being who saw the possibilities of extracting good from anything—even the disaster that wiped out half of humanity. The organization's focus was to better the human condition through study of the creatures and phenomena of the Second Impact, and, since we thought the connection between the two events implicit, the Hidden War. Only after her death was it co-opted by SEELE and the United Nations and changed into a hatchery for weapons of mass destruction. I did my best to mitigate the change, pushing back and changing Evangelion from a weapon of war to one of defense, but recently I seem to have lost track of my wife's goals myself.
"I take this opportunity," said Ikari, his voice rising as he warmed to his subject, "to re-dedicate myself to her ideals, even as SEELE's alien overlords position themselves to destroy those ideals. I will fight to my last breath to keep them from winning! Human survival must be paramount! Human beauty must be our rallying cry! The human race is worth saving from the apocalypse SEELE has planned for it!" he bellowed, raising a defiant fist.
The assembled company of NERV cheered, whistled and stomped, raising many fists in reply. They were swept up in the moment. They had never realized Commander Ikari could be so charismatic.
Composing himself with a clear effort, Ikari said in a more normal tone, "We have much to do, my friends. We are all that stands between the human race and total obliteration, and it will come to feel as if the whole world is against us. We must remember that those who scorn us do not understand and cannot be made to understand the trap they are in. We must always bear in mind that it is for their sake we struggle, we fight, and, if necessary, we die." He bowed his head again.
"History will vindicate us even if our fellow man does not," said Gendō Ikari. "With this, we must be content. Thank you all in advance for your efforts."
He retired to his seat amid thunderous applause; only after nearly a full minute did the room quiet enough for Misato to dismiss them.
"That was quite a speech," Misato said to Ikari. "Do you really think we can do it?"
Ikari thought about it a moment, then replied, "If we try hard, and God is with us."
"Given the way our luck has been running lately," Misato said wryly, "we'd better try really hard."
Asuka Sōryū-Langley stood naked in the small changing room off to the side of the main pilots' locker room, looking contemplatively at the mirror. Outwardly, her body showed few signs of the ordeal she was lately coming to the last stages of. The bruises had all gone, and advanced anti-scarring treatments had erased the lines where the surgeons had opened her up to work on the mangled parts within. For that, Asuka was grateful. She'd seen a few pictures of herself under the knife, before her revulsion had overcome her curiosity. Without the anti-scarring treatments, she'd look like a girl who had somehow managed to survive her own autopsy.
One scar had persisted, inexplicably, despite the treatments: the small mark on her face, a two-inch vertical line crossing under the corner of her jaw midway between her right ear and the point of her chin. She'd been told that cosmetic surgery could probably remove it, but after some thought, she'd decided to leave it. It was small, and straight, not puckered or twisted—just a discoloration, very faintly noticeable by touch—and Asuka had decided that it didn't mar her looks enough to warrant more surgery.
Aside from that one small mark, Asuka was outwardly healed. She knew she was lucky; injuries like the ones she'd suffered could easily have killed her if NERV's trauma care facilities and personnel hadn't been the absolute best in the world, and she'd come out of them with the capacity for total recovery, still alive, still mobile, and still beautiful. She still hurt, and some of her movements were still clumsy and weak, but her diligent work with Rei was turning that around, and there was no reason to believe that she wouldn't be totally recovered, physically, very soon.
Now it was time to see if her mental and emotional capabilities were holding up as well.
She turned away from the mirror and took stock of the specialized garment hanging on a hook in a locker beside her. The Type S plugsuits, adapted by TechDiv from the HEV series of hazardous-environment suits developed by SEELE's Black Mesa Research Facility, had come too late to help her and Jon in their mission to outer space, but Misato had decided Asuka was to wear hers for the initial test phase—it was more durable than a normal suit, with enhanced life-support capabilities, hard armor, and a helmet, and it provided more extensive medical monitoring than the standard suit, too, all of which suited the diagnostic role of the early tests.
Deactivated, it resembled a conventional plug suit with a number of metallic plates attached to it and a wider collar opening with a metal ring around it, the ring attached on either side to the suit's broad metal pauldrons. Asuka took it down from the wall and set its integral boots on the floor, holding it up by the collar ring so that it faced away from her. She stepped into the boots, ducked her head through the ring, and then worked her arms through the sleeves and into the gauntlets. It took a bit of fidgeting to get the armored vambraces arranged properly, and her shoulders fitted correctly. The garment hung loosely, weighed down into an awkward sagging mass by the armor plates.
She reached down to the left vambrace, which had a small computerized status and control module built into it, and pressed the primary activation key. With a soft hiss just like the previous model's, the suit's soft parts contracted to a precise fit, drawing the armored bits into their correct positions as it shrank, and the long entry opening in the back autosealed from the bottom up, giving Asuka the rather amusing sensation that someone had just drawn a finger up the middle of her back.
Oh ho, thought Asuka with a private smile as the sculpted metal plastron pressed snugly into position across the modest contours of her chest. If Rei or I start really blooming before this thing is over with, this particular design feature could get very uncomfortable.
For the moment, though, it was not. One green LED glowed on the wrist module. Asuka turned back to the locker and got out the suit's life support module, a compact, angular backpack unit with a pair of locking arms at the top and another pair at the bottom. She lifted it over her head and brought the upper arms down into the slots machined for them in the hard armor of the pauldrons. They locked with a pair of crisp clicks, and then the pack swung down by its own weight to lock its lower arms into their places at her waist. There were faint hissings and clicks as the automatic couplings in the pack joined up with their appropriate receptacles on the back of the suit, providing atmosphere, cooling, and primary power to the suit systems. The second LED on the wrist unit glowed up. Except for the helmet, the suit envelope was now complete and activated.
The overall effect was very comforting. Asuka welcomed it, but also cautioned herself to keep it in mind. It would be much too easy to start feeling invulnerable in this suit, and that kind of thing could lead to very painful mistakes.
She turned and took the suit's wide-view helmet from the shelf behind her, amused to see that somebody had painted jagged teeth around the viewport and a pair of red-rimmed, angry eyes on the upper slope, after the fashion of the Flying Tigers. Well, here's a situation where shorter hair helps, she noted. Asuka lowered the helmet into place, twisted it into the locking rings and noted with satisfaction when the third green LED on the wrist module came to life.
A head-up display glowed into life, bracketing her field of vision with dull orange indicators of suit pressure and temperature and outside conditions. In her ears, a soft voice, not unlike the voice of SHODAN, spoke:
"Welcome to the HEV Mark VII-A protective system, for use in hazardous enviroment conditions. Pressure nominal. Oxygen content nominal. Temperature nominal. Automatic medical monitoring systems active. Armor status 100%. Internal power nominal. All systems fully operational."
Fully suited, she turned to face the mirror again, standing as straight as possible. She liked what she saw. The Type S plug suit's lines were much straighter and harder than her own, but they gave her an aggressive, professional look. Little touches like the status indicators on the wrist module and the stenciled name on the breastplate spoke of NERV's late-in-coming acknowledgement that its Evangelion pilots were people with an interest and a stake in their own status.
Asuka's Type S had been made before the destruction of Unit 02, so it was two shades of red with black trim and still said "02" on the backpack and right shoulder. It didn't fit exactly right, since she'd changed a little in the time since the measurements for the sculpted armor had been taken, but the differences were minor and caused no discomfort.
She left the room and went to the deployment center.
Asuka's test went fine. She felt no fear and experienced no flashbacks as she boarded the entry plug, entered the EVA, and underwent a preliminary sync test. Business as usual. She'd be back in the saddle in no time. She was exultant.
DJ, on the other hand, came in for a nasty shock in his test run with Unit 03: he had completely flatscaled. The unit had evinced no reaction whatsoever to his presence, nor he to its. A perfectly imperfect sync ratio: zero point zero zero to one.
DJ was appalled. Maya was shocked. Truss was extremely puzzled. They mulled it over; they discussed it with SHODAN; they solicited speculation from the Magi; they called Ritsuko via an extremely flangy encrypted voice channel to get her opinion.
They came up with three theories:
1) DJ's experiences aboard EVA-01 during his last operation had destroyed his talent;
2) DJ had a very specialized talent that only worked with the unique and quirky early models, leaving him unable to use a production model unit; or
When they tried to run a test with Unit 01, they got no response at all then too, but in a different way; the unit refused to power up at all. They didn't even test with Unit 00, given what had happened last time; it had worked, after a fashion, but nobody really wanted to see the prototype wreck the testing chamber AGAIN. Neither of these outcomes could really be held to be DJ's fault, but the conclusions didn't make him feel much better. He went into a towering mope and spent most of the afternoon tramping around Worcester, bundled up in a heavy overcoat and scarf, looking unsuccessfully for Kevin Nelson.
When he returned to Central Dogma late that afternoon, he went to the control room and wasted no time:
"Right, what else can I do, then?"
"What else can you do what?" Misato replied, confused.
"Around here," he said. "My EVA's out of action and I can't get one of the others to talk to me, so what else can I do? You can't expect me to leave, not now."
Misato mused on that for a moment. "I don't know, DJ. Raiden pilot training would take too long... same goes for TechDiv training. I guess you could transfer to Security with Stanfield and Edwards."
"I've got something that might be a little more in your line," Truss chimed in.
"Talk to me," DJ said.
"Remember Jet Alone?" asked Truss.
"Oh, no," said DJ.
"Relax," Truss assured him. "It's much better to work with now. Let me show you what we're doing..."
At SEELE's remote training facility, Shinji Ikari read, practiced simulator missions, sat through neurosystem tests, took training on instruments and navigation, and wondered where he was, what day it was, and what was happening in the outside world. He knew what time of day it was, assuming that the time here meant anything relative to the outside world; from that he judged that a week had gone by, then two. The pace of the tests slowly increased, and soon they would pick up even more.
At loose ends for the day, assuming of course that it was day, Shinji lay on his back in his bed, his arms folded behind his head, and gazed up at the unfamiliar ceiling. On his chest, his MD-Walkman whirred softly, piping music to his ears.
Welcome, my son
Welcome to the machine
Where have you been?
It's all right, we know where you've been
You've been in the pipeline filling in time
Provided with toys and Scouting for Boys
You bought a guitar to punish your ma
You didn't like school and you know you're nobody's fool
So welcome—to the machine
Well, actually, though he could play a little guitar, Shinji bought a cello, and it wasn't to punish anybody (though a poorly-played cello certainly could dish out punishment). He wished he'd been able to get it back. Sometimes, he felt as if his cello were his only friend. If he left it alone too long, they would become estranged, and have to get used to each other all over again. Learning a viol-type instrument was almost like a courtship—or so, anyway, he'd heard.
He wondered if any attention would be paid should he request that somebody send for his cello. After all, he was an EVA pilot now, fighting to save the world from the insane machinations of his father. What use did that sort of person have for music?
Shinji was roused from his introspection by a soft knock at his door. Switching off his MD player, he answered it. At the sight of his guest, he smiled.
"Hi, Ichi... Come on in."
Shinji hadn't been expecting a visit from Ichi Ayanami on this night, but her unannounced arrival wasn't all that much of a surprise. She was about the only real friend he had in the dreary SEELE Evangelion Training Center. He saw Natla at least once a day, and the oft-heard voice of Kaori Yamashita had become almost conforting to him, but that was just business. His thoughts quickly drifted away from the workers and techs once he left their company.
Ichi, on the other hand, seemed to find her way into his thoughts whenever he was alone. Since his first day, when she had dragged him unprotesting to dinner after his first battery of tests, the two had talked at least once every other day, and Ichi remained a quiet presence during most of Shinji's tests. The last visit had been two days before, when Ichi surprised him with a chocolate cake that she had convinced someone to let her prepare.
Much to Shinji's surprise, he had actually become fairly comfortable around Ichi. On the increasingly rare occasions when he gave in to panic, she didn't seem to care—she'd just sit there, smiling, and let him regain his composure.
"Did you miss me?" she asked, smiling broadly.
"Yes... when I've had the time," Shinji answered. This day had been a whirlwind of activity, as he concluded Phase One of his training. Up until now, his days consisted of stationary synch tests and simulator sessions. Starting tomorrow, the operations would become notably more intense—his first full-scale Eva test session was scheduled for midweek.
Ichi nodded. "I don't know how you do it, Shin-chan. I think my body would just give out if I tried to put it through the routine you've been living for the past week." She sat down on the end of the bed, and slapped the open space beside her. "Come here, let me give you a backrub. And don't you dare tell me that you don't need it, I know better."
Knowing that this was an argument he couldn't win, he sat—and Ichi's hands went to work. She'd been right, he noted silently, his back muscles were a terrible mess. He leaned into the backrub, closed his eyes, and tried to relax.
As Ichi worked, Shinji realized—not for the first time—just how different this girl was from her sister. Where Rei had seemed quiet and aloof, Ichi seemed to have an endless supply of energy. The way she talked, the way she moved, the way she threw herself headlong into the task at hand, whatever it was... she always seemed full of life, and reveled in every moment, every sensation.
The physical differences make it that much more noticable, Shinji mused. It all makes her seem less frail. The darker skin, the extra height, and the extra-- er, development. He blushed and jolted slightly in embarrassment at the last thought.
"Hmm, did I hit a good spot?" Ichi laughed, misinterpreting Shinji's reaction.
"Yeah," he answered, not wanting to admit what he'd actually been thinking. "Right there."
Ichi adjusted her plan of attack to focus on the alleged problem area. "I have good news for you, kiddo. We're going to see a lot more of each other this week."
"Yep... I talked to Commander Natla today, and they're letting me handle your weapons training."
"Weapons?" Shinji asked abstractedly.
"Yeah. You know... guns and stuff."
"What!?" Shinji shouted, sitting bolt upright. He looked back at her over his shoulder, his face panicked. "They didn't say anything about guns! I couldn't shoot anyone!"
"Whoa, whoa," Ichi interjected, "don't stress out over it... it's important. Not only do you have to be able to handle a firearm before your EVA can be expected to, you need self-defense training. Everyone in SEELE has to know how to handle a weapon in case of an emergency. If NERV ever gets a mole in here, it could be the only thing between you and a pine box. No one's going to make you shoot anybody." She placed her hands on Ikari's shoulders, trying to calm him down. "Look, even I know how to fire a gun... and I'm not exactly soldier material, am I?"
"No... I guess not."
Ichi gently pulled Shinji into an embrace as she continued. "It'll be fun. It's just shooting at targets. No heavy exertion, no neural feedback. And it's time with no one around but us."
Shinji nodded gently, still unsettled by the idea... but willing to take his friend's word, for now. "Ichi?" he asked.
"Does this place scare you?"
Ichi cocked her head to one side and stroked Shinji's hair. "Scare me? No, not at all—it's the safest place I could be. NERV can't hurt me here."
"It scares me," Shinji confessed. "When I stop to think about it. I don't really know anyone here, and when they look at me, all they see is a tool. Someone who can pilot an Evangelion and do a job for them."
Ichi's embrace tightened. "-I- don't see you that way."
"I know... but everyone else does, I think. I don't mind it, really. But I don't really trust anyone. And they don't really trust me, either."
"Not all of, maybe... it's a tense situation, and it takes time to earn trust around here," Ayanami offered, as she kissed Shinji on the cheek.
"I don't even know where here is."
"Don't feel left out, Shin-chan. No one does. It's classified."
"I do have some idea," Shinji added quietly, a tinge of nervousness in his voice. "The Eva has a lot of instrumentation, and some of the readings are hard to miss. We've got to be near the North Pole... or the magnetic North Pole, at least."
A look of surprise flashed across Ichi's face. "Really? Wow... nice observation. I don't think I'd heard that one before."
"That's not all, but I don't know what to make of the rest. The barometric pressure readings are strange... it never seems to change, not at all. Wherever we are, it's really well-insulated from the outside world." He smiled ruefully. "I suppose it would have to be, if it's built on the ice cap. It's not exactly balmy out there."
Ichi didn't reply—she only nodded, lost in thought.
"I'm sorry, this is all boring."
"No, no!" Ichi blurted, returning her attention to the here and now. "I was just running it all through my head. I don't know what to make of it, either." They sat in silence for a bit longer, both pondering the ramifications of Shinji's discoveries.
DJ Croft was on the couch at Apartment 3-D, watching television and feeling mildly sorry for himself. Demoted from Evangelion pilot to plain old robot jockey! And worse, he was actually showing an aptitude for it! Truss's redesign for Jet Alone made the robot only semi-autonomous, putting the lie to its name but making it much more reliable in combat. Instead of running completely on its own initiative, Jet Alone had been converted into a remotely- piloted vehicle, cribbing some of the RPV technology that had been in development for the next model EVA along with the dummy plug module. An operator—that would be DJ—sat in a cannibalized entry plug bolted to a motion-control rig in one of the testing rooms and ran the unit through a combination of voice commands and control inputs. It was programmed with motor skills and the like; all the operator had to do was tell it "go over there," and it would handle all the actual mechanics of walking to the destination itself. The world's first drive-by-wire giant robot.
He supposed he ought to feel grateful that he was showing talent for the manipulation of the great steel beast. He'd even developed a bit of an affection for it as he learned its quirks and tricks. Still, though, the experience had nothing on the pure sweet thrill of commanding EVA-01. Driving Jet Alone was like playing an extremely sophisticated video game, one of the three-quid-a-go sit-down models with the helmets and double joysticks they had at Marrons down in Hampstead. He always got the feeling he was going to be asked to fly the beast down the equatorial trench and plunk a couple of proton torpedoes down the gas vent for the gents' loo, thus blowing the armored battle station sky-high.
Asuka, bless her heart, was being extremely sensitive to his hurt feelings over the loss of his EVA-pilot status, and trying hard not to flaunt her own joy at being back in testing, on the fast track back to operations. She wasn't ribbing him at all about his newfound friend the giant nuclear robot. He rather wished she would; it would irritate him, but it would also prove to him that the world was still spinning anticlockwise.
He clicked away from whatever insipid program had replaced the science show he'd stopped watching when he started moping, and over to Headline News. He intended to keep going, but the headline graphic in the upper right stopped him cold.
It was a map of Germany. Superimposed on it in garish red letters were the words MARTIAL LAW.
"The German government today instituted martial law and a complete communications blackout, citing riots sparked by fears over the growing international tension in Europe and North America. Information out of the sealed-off country has been extremely hard to come by since the blackout was enforced, but the few sketchy reports that have emerged have not been encouraging. There are reports—I must stress that these are unconfirmed reports—that mass rioting and possibly an attempt at a government overthrow are in progress there, and that civilian deaths are mounting rapidly. What forces are in conflict, no one knows. We will continue to monitor this situation and present more news as it arrives."
Otto Keller switched off the television and turned away from it. At his side, his right hand clenched until the knuckles looked like knobs of polished bone.
Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart entered the office, a concerned look on his mustachioed face. "You've heard the news?"
Keller nodded tightly. "How bad is it?" he asked.
"We don't know much more than the news people," Lethbridge-Stewart replied. "We got one report from X-COM Rheinsdorf that they were under attack by unknown forces, then nothing. Whatever they're jamming communications with over there, it's bloody effective." The Englishman scowled. "It's SEELE, of course. They're consolidating their control; in a day or two they'll come back on the air and say that the crisis has been dealt with. Damn!" He shook his head. "Now they control both Evangelion production plants—Westinghouse in the US and FEISAR in Germany."
Keller nodded. "Have we pulled out of the US? It'll be next to go."
"All but Groom Lake," Lethbridge-Stewart replied. "Too much equipment and stored material to pull out of there; they're going to have to lock it all down and abandon it in place, hope the other side doesn't find it."
Keller frowned. "The Kriegsmarine must be at sea," he said. "Pass the word to the Royal Navy, see if they can contact my father. I can't see him taking orders from SEELE's puppet government."
"As you say," Lethbridge-Stewart replied. He left the office to Otto Keller and the black thoughts richocheting around inside his buzz-cut skull.
The tension in the air of the SEELE Evangelion control room was almost palpable. Three weeks of intensive static tests and simulation training had led up to this: the first full activation and live-fire combat exercise for EVA-04.
"OK, Mr. Ikari. Now we're going to find out if we've all been wasting our time for the past twenty days," said Kaori Yamashita in her headset microphone as she took her seat at the director's console and toggled her multifunction displays to their proper modes. "Behold the mission briefing."
In front of Shinji, a holographic representation of several city blocks resolved itself, rotating so that he was viewing it from above.
"We've built a partial replica of your target area. You'll hit the ground about here," said Yamashita's voice as an intersection near the edge of the area blinked red. "Your equipment ought to be somewhere in the general vicinity. Grab it and start breaking things. You should be able to recognize the important locations by their configuration. Remember, we're trying to destroy infrastructure here—power blocks, comm units, weapons caches." Particular important target structures blinked green. "Your pickup area is on the other side, here." An intersection at the other side of the battle area flashed red. "You have two minutes fifteen seconds to wreck as much as you can and get to the recovery area. Any questions?"
"No," Shinji replied, pleased with himself for keeping the quaver out of his voice. Commander Natla was up there—more important, Ichi was up there—and it would not do to seem frightened.
Anyway, Shinji wasn't frightened. In fact, he had been looking forward to this test. The neurosystems calibrations and partial activations had gone so uneventfully that his fear of the EVA itself had faded away, and he'd done well enough in the simulations that he'd found himself anticipating a chance at the real thing. Dr. Yamashita had told him he showed a real aptitude for the business of EVA piloting, and he'd enjoyed the simulation runs. It made him proud to know that he was good at something, good for something. He could make a difference.
And then there was the matter of holding the raw power of an Evangelion in his hands. He couldn't deny the appeal of that sensation either.
"All right, then," said Yamashita. "Neurosystem activation and synchronization in five... four... three... two... activating... now."
The cockpit came alive around Shinji, and the by-now-familiar feeling of the unit's body awareness blending into his own stole over him.
"Systems activation normal," he reported. Then, after only a faint pause, he went on, "Ready for full power."
"Copy, EVA-04. Going to full power on the neurosystems... now."
There was a brief moment of wrenching disorientation, just long and unfamiliar enough to cause a tiny spurt of panic; then it was gone, and in its place was an indescribable feeling of power.
This was what it meant to command an Evangelion.
"Evangelion Unit 04 reporting," he said. At the back of the control room, Ichi Ayanami cocked an eyebrow and smiled at the undeniable air of confidence in his voice. "All systems are green. Malphas is ready for launch."
"Good luck, kid," said Yamashita. "EVA-04: launch!"
To simulate the air-drop deployment it would have to endure in the actual attack, EVA-04 was launched into the air like a missile from a silo, a hatch above its head popping open seemingly just in time to let it clear. It burst free still rising, into a dazzling white snowscape that made its cockpit imaging system kick into glare-reduction mode automatically. Shinji couldn't keep a grin off his face as the unit hit the top of its arc, planed over, and then plunged down out of the sky into the corner of the maze of mock buildings that had been erected on the tundra for him to destroy.
EVA-04 touched down with a smack of armor on ice, took three galloping steps, and stopped within five feet of the big black X painted on the ground for his landing target. Slipping into the routine drilled into him in the simulations, Shinji unslung the unit's autorifle from its back, turned, and made for the armored equipment case that had been dropped ahead of him, its deflated parachutes still draped over it.
This case contained a double bandolier of contact charges which he slung over the unit's shoulders—it had been deemed inadvisable to air-drop the unit itself wearing a dozen high-explosive charges—and a pack of extra ammunition for the autorifle, which was to be strapped to the rifle's stock.
Racing the mission clock just visible in the left side of his peripheral vision, Shinji followed the path programmed into the unit's navigational system, slapping a charge on a comm tower, then sprinting the unit out of its blast radius and raking a utility block with autofire on his way to the next charge-placement point. Behind him, the tower went up in a pillar of flame. The routine had been burned into him very effectively by the simulations. With the extra feedback he was getting from the actual unit, getting from one waypoint to the next and destroying all that had to be destroyed in between was even easier than it had been in the sim trainer.
"He's doing well," Yamashita observed, her microphone off.
"Mm," said Natla, nodding. "Throw him a curve."
Yamashita punched a key that set a group of small red lights flashing on her panel.
Shinji was on his way to a power station with a charge in hand when an alert bipped and a message appeared in his HUD, pointing a bearing to a new target. He turned to look.
One of the nearby buildings was folding down on itself to reveal an EVA gantry, and from that gantry the orange shape of EVA-00 was emerging. It wasn't really another EVA, of course; merely a battery-powered robotic drone. It was fairly convincing in the role, though. Its movements were based on motion-capture loops taken from footage of the real EVA-00, and the weapon it carried, though a harmless laser designator, would trigger painful feedback and simulated damage effects in EVA-04's battle computer.
EVA-00 opened fire; Shinji changed course to put a building between himself and the enemy unit, found time to lob the charge he was holding at its intended target overhand, and then popped around the other side of the building and threw fire at the orange EVA's last location.
The orange unit wasn't there any more. Shinji looked around for a moment in confusion, and then an idea occurred to him; he gathered EVA-04's strength under him and jumped up to the top of the sturdily-built parking garage next to it. From up there, it was easy to see that EVA-00 was trying to outflank him. He gave it a burst of fire to let Ellison know he knew what he was up to, then jumped down straight into EVA-00's path. EVA-00 recoiled as if surprised, raising its autorifle; Shinji smacked it away with the barrel of his own, then reversed the weapon and drove the stock into EVA-00's face. A glance at the clock as EVA-00 stumbled back showed Shinji he was running out of time. Time enough, though. He switched the rifle around in EVA-04's hands again and let the orange prototype have it full in the chest.
EVA-00 tottered backward, then collapsed in a smoking heap. Shinji didn't stick around to gloat; he turned and ran, skipping the targets his diversion to deal with EVA-00 had pulled him away from and using their charges on secondary targets en route back to the prescribed path. He made it to the recovery area with six seconds to spare.
"Not bad," Yamashita's voice announced as the timer ran out. "Not bad at all. You took too much time with EVA-00, but I'd say wrecking it as bad as you did is worth the three primary targets you missed."
"You got away with it because EVA-00 is their weakest unit," Natla's voice cut in. "If that had been EVA-03 you would have been much more evenly matched; except for the power sources it's identical to your unit, and Ayanami is luckier than Ellison. At worst you'd have been taken; at best, you'd have missed your recovery window and compromised the mission timing."
Shinji nodded, remembered they couldn't see him, and replied, "I understand."
"If you had tried that stunt against EVA-01, it would have ripped you to pieces," Natla went on. "Never, ever risk a direct confrontation with Unit 01. Its power is beyond our understanding, and so is Croft's savagery. Remember what he did to Langley."
Shinji remembered, and suppressed a shiver at the thought.
"Still, you did well, especially for your first real trial. Bring the unit back to the staging area and we'll set it up again."
Shinji set the unit in motion and wondered how many repetitions they could fit into a day.
In the debriefing room, watching video footage of EVA-04 wrecking EVA-00, Shinji Ikari felt the exhilaration of earlier in the day ebbing away to be replaced by a bleak emptiness. So he'd been pleased to learn that he was good at something? What he was good at was destroying property and endangering lives. Was being good at that something to be proud of?
He wondered, as he was dismissed from the debriefing and made his way to his room, if what he was doing was right. People lived in Worcester-3, people other than those who served his father's whims. By destroying parts of the city he was destroying their lives. If the evacuation signals didn't get out in time, they would still be in those buildings he was blowing up, those streets he was destroying. Could he carry out his mission with the civilians in his line of fire? He had no qualms about attacking the other EVAs; he knew how sturdy they were, how to disable them without fatally injuring their pilots, and on some unadmitted level he believed that death would be a welcome release to those children trapped on the wrong side of the war. The thought of injuring innocent civilians nagged at him, though.
His door chimed.
"Come in," he said, and it opened to admit Ichi.
"Hi, Shinji," she said. "You did great in your test runs today. You're really going to put a crimp in NERV's—hey, what's wrong?" she asked, stepping quick to his side and sitting down next to him on the edge of the bed. "You look so sad."
Shinji told her what was weighing on his mind. She took it all in, nodding gravely, and thought it over for a few moments before saying seriously,
"I understand how you feel, Shinji—but this is war. People get hurt in war. If your father has his way, all those people are going to be killed anyway. By possibly killing some of them, you're saving the rest."
Shinji shook his head. "Nobody should have to die at all."
"I know, Shinji, I know," she said, putting one cool hand to his cheek. "But the world isn't as perfect as you and I would like it to be. Maybe someday it will be, if you can stop your father, but right now we have to make hard choices. If... " She hesitated, then went on quickly, "If you had to kill me to save someone else, I'd want you to do it."
He turned to her, his eyes wide and horrified. "Ichi! Don't say—"
"No, Shinji, I have to, because it's true. My life isn't worth trading an innocent's future for."
"But—you're an innocent," he said in a very small voice.
"Oh, Shin-chan, that's sweet," she said, kissing his cheek, "but I'm not, not in the sense that I mean. I'm going into this with my eyes open. I know what's at stake. The ordinary people living in Worcester-3, and Tokyo, and everywhere else—they don't know. They can't understand. If you had to trade my life for one of theirs, I'd expect you to trade it."
He shook his head. "I couldn't. I... I think... "
He couldn't say it, either, but she combed her fingers through his hair and made a soft noise that said she knew what he thought, and it pleased her.
"Shinji?" she said after a few silent moments.
"Do you figure they put security cameras in these rooms?"
Nodding, Shinji looked up at the light fixture. "I know they do. There's one in the lamp. I noticed it a few days ago."
Ichi pulled a chair into the center of the room, climbed onto it, and looked more closely at the light. Finding what she was looking for, she shook her head in mock disbelief. "You are observant." She reached into the fixture, gave a sharp tug, and was rewarded with a quiet fizzle.
With an enigmatic smile, She put away the chair, locked the door, and wandered back over toward the bed, where Shinji sat with a quizzical look on his face.
"Are you sure that's the only one?"
Ichi grinned conspiratorially. "Then there's no one to see this but us," she said, playfully tackling Shinji and planting a kiss firmly on his lips.
Ikari's eyes widened to the size of silver dollars, but Ichi didn't let him break the kiss.
"Shhh..." she whispered, as she finally let Shinji come up for air. "It's only me... you know I won't hurt you."
"But, I don't know—"
"Neither do I."
Shortly, it became quite impossible for Shinji Ikari to dwell any further on thoughts of gloom and death, at least for the time being.
The international situation gets worse.
The SEELE-NERV split becomes open confrontation.
Both sides reach toward desperate measures.
The acceleration toward the end has begun.
Neon Exodus Evangelion 3:7
The Third Child
"This ceiling is unfamiliar."