Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Neon Exodus Evangelion
Exodus 3: Revelations in Real Time
The Third Child
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
Written by Benjamin D. Hutchins, Larry Mann,
MegaZone, and John Trussell
Aided and abetted by the Eyrie Productions, Unlimited crew
and special-guest-for-life Phil Moyer
© 1999 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
HTML remastering © 2016 EPU
Gendō Ikari had given up his Director's office gladly. It was inappropriate for his new role at NERV, it was ostentatious, it was the site of many unpleasant memories, and anyway, it was cold and rather dark. Now he worked out of a cramped little room off the main admin corridor. It had been deemed too small for an office when the rooms on this level had been originally assigned, and so had been used for storage, but it had one window, and that window had a pleasing view of Pyramid Pond. Though tiny, the room was big enough to hold a desk, a terminal, a bookshelf and two chairs, if only barely. Ikari, while scouting for a new place to work, had found the place full of toilet tissue and cleaning supplies.
Without hesitation, he'd pitched the lot out into the hallway and was in the process of stealing a desk from the communal junior-TechDiv offices when a young man with thick black hair and glasses had stopped him. This young man, in a curious combination of politeness and indignation, informed Gendō Ikari of two important facts:
1) His (the young man's) name was Makoto Hyūga; and
2) Gendō Ikari was stealing his (Makoto Hyūga's) desk.
Faced with this revelation, Ikari had immediately apologized, and then enlisted the young man's help in scouring the immediate area for a desk no one else was using. It took them an hour to find one, and another to wrestle it into an elevator and bring it up six levels, then wrangle it into the former storage room and get it situated just so. It was a big gray steel affair with seven drawers and a scarred linoleum top, almost as wide as the office; getting it through the door had been a test of Ikari and Hyūga's engineering skills as well as their backs. To get behind it and sit down, Ikari had to climb over one end of it, which he had to clear of papers each time he wanted to leave his office.
The bookcase and the non-swiveling visitor chair had been easier; those, Ikari had pilfered from John Trussell's old office. Truss wouldn't be needing them; he'd moved into Maya Ibuki's office when Maya had, in turn, taken over Ritsuko Akagi's. All that shuffling around was, perhaps, not very productive, since they would all be leaving the facility entirely within three months if things went according to plan, but certainly both parties involved deserved the change of setting along with their increased responsibilities.
There had barely been room in the tiny storeroom-cum-office for Ikari's chair, but he jammed it into the space behind the desk anyway. It was the only thing he'd allowed himself to keep from his old office, except for the framed picture of his son that stood at the corner of his desk on the side nearer the wall. It loomed there, big, brown and leathery, far too big for its setting but offset a little bit by the fact that the desk was also too big for the room.
He was there, shuffling through some files trying to find the last set of preliminary specs for Archangelion that the Halifax team had sent down. They were in here somewhere, he knew, buried under a ream or two of manpower reports and moving plans that someone in the bureaucracy had forwarded to him even though he wasn't the Director any more and had nothing to do with them. From time to time, he glanced at the telephone as if hoping it would ring.
There was a knock on the frame of the office's open door. The office door was always open; closing it would require putting the visitor's chair up on the desk or out in the hall. Ikari glanced up and was surprised to see DJ Croft standing in the doorway.
Ikari cocked an eyebrow. "Mr. Croft!" he said. "I hadn't expected you, of all people, to come visit me. I take it this isn't a social call?"
DJ looked a trifle sheepish. "Actually, it is, Professor. Can I come in for a moment?"
"I suppose," Ikari said dryly, "that depends on whether you intend to kill me."
DJ's sheepish look took on an overtone of outright embarrassment. "That's what I want to talk to you about."
"Well, by all means then, come in." Gendō waved toward the visitor's chair. "Enjoy the sumptuous accommodations."
DJ sat. "Look, Professor—I can't deny that I've said a lot of nasty things to you over the last year, and most of them, I meant. But as it turns out, it wasn't really you I was saying them to, was it? Since the scene went down in your old office a bit back, I've had to do a lot of thinking about that, and I don't think I have any reason to hate you."
"You have no way of knowing how much of what I did before then was my decision," Ikari pointed out. "Perhaps I'm a ruthless, evil man, and the creature was just there to try to moderate my behavior."
DJ shook his head. "I might believe that if I hadn't seen you fighting it," he replied. "One of you wanted to kill me—one of you was willing to kill Rei to do it—and it wasn't Gendō Ikari."
Gendō considered this for a moment, then gave a satisfied nod. "A rational conclusion," he decided. "Assuming, of course, that you, or anyone else, know who Gendō Ikari is any more. I'm not certain I do."
"How long had the Enemy been controlling you?"
"Almost twelve years, since just after my wife died," Ikari replied. "I suppose I was most vulnerable then. Yui was everything in the world to me; I didn't count my work as competition, because we worked together, and my work was her work. When she was gone, I tried to find out what had happened. I didn't believe the official report that it had been an accident. I went in search of the truth." He smiled, a bitter, ironic smile. "Well, I found it, and it took over my mind.
"I can't blame it for everything that went wrong in my life after that, though. I had already started down a self-destructive path. My obsession with learning the truth about Yui's death, my obsession with continuing her work to honor her memory—between those two obsessions I had no time for the things that had been my life. I ignored my son, with the result that he now hates me. I abandoned all my hobbies, everything that gave me pleasure in life. It may come as a surprise to you, DJ, but I had interests, once, outside my work. I played chess. In college, I was the captain of the Nekomi Institute of Technology's Kendo Club."
"No kidding," said DJ, impressed. "Always wanted to learn that, but I move around so much I never have the time."
Ikari smiled nostalgically. "I loved baseball, too. Was a passable pitcher in college, had a hell of a fastball, if I do say so myself. 'Rocket' Rokobungi, that was me."
"Uh, 'Rocket' what?" DJ asked.
Gendō gave him a puzzled look, then nodded. "Oh, of course. You wouldn't know that I took my wife's name when we married."
"Ah!" said DJ, and then, in an undertone, "(I can see why.)"
Gendō chuckled. "Indeed. Anyway, if I thought about it for a few minutes, I could probably still give you all the relevant stats for any member of the 2001 Red Sox." Ikari's eyes lit up with happiness at the memory. "Ah, That was a magical season! The world lay in ruins, some parts of it still wracked by calamity. A year before, Boston had drowned and the Sox had fled to Pawtucket. San Francisco was under a dome, struggling to survive. And still there was baseball. Those two teams managed to overcome the worst conditions in the country and make it all the way to the World Series." Ikari grinned wryly. "Unfortunately, the Sox broke with their tradition of winning the Series everytime they move to a new ballpark. Perhaps McCoy Stadium was inelegible because it wasn't technically new."
DJ smiled. "D'you think they'll ever win the whole thing?"
"I suppose that depends on whether there's a next year," said Ikari lightly, as if he the contingency involved were good weather, not the continued survival of humanity. "Oh, by the way," said Ikari, picking an item up from his desk blotter and tossing it across to DJ, "I think this might be yours."
DJ looked at the item, and then his face took on a look of surprise with a tinge of wonder. It was a copy of A Night To Remember, in a condition that might charitably be called 'well-thumbed'. If it was DJ's missing copy, it looked as if it had spent ten years in a lending library in the months it had been gone. He looked inside the front cover. Yep, there were his initials; it was his, all right.
"Where'd you get it?" he wondered as he tucked it into a pocket of his jacket.
"I'm not sure," he said. "I think Colonel Keller left it on my desk a couple of weeks before... " Gendō made an expressive shrug, indicating that he hadn't yet thought of a convenient, short way to refer to the events of the previous few weeks.
"Hm. Last I knew, Rei had misplaced it in the infirmary. I wonder how many hands it's passed through since then."
Ikari looked thoughtful. "I think Otto gave it to me as a message, trying to remind me of happier days. There was a movie that my wife and I were fond of during our courtship... " He paused, sighed, cleaned his glasses, and went on, "If you don't mind, I don't think I'd like to go there just yet."
"Sorry," said DJ, getting up. "I've taken up enough of your time. I just wanted to tell you... I'm willing to blank the slate and start over, if you want."
Gendō Ikari smiled. "I think, Mr. Croft, that I'd like that. Come by again tomorrow if you like. I don't get much company down here."
DJ grinned. "I'll do that."
John Trussell sat at the master console in one of the secondary EVA control rooms. Never used in battle, these rooms had been prepared as contingencies should the Master Operations Control Room be put out of action. They were much smaller than the MOCR, and not as lavishly outfitted with recording, data-analysis and telemetry gear. Makoto Hyūga, seeing one on his operations-center tour shortly after his promotion from Equipment Section to Operations, had called them the "emergency battle closets". Gradually, over the course of the project, all but one of them had been reassigned to other tasks and re-outfitted accordingly. This one was the designated home base of the Jet Alone Adaptation Initiative, and its heavy armor-glass window overlooked the disused surface-to-air missile silo which had been reassigned to house JA.
On the two largest monitors of the multi-function console, Truss was surveying two diagrams. One was a schematic of Jet Alone, reflecting the Mark II standard Truss and the Equipment Section had arrived at after subjecting the original AG Systems design to two weeks of intensive, critical scrutiny. Most of the original structure had been left in place, but JA's multisectional, tentacle-like arms had been replaced with magnetic-ram-driven solid-segment limbs like the legs. This modification had strengthened the unit's upper body considerably, giving it greater hand-to-hand combat capabilities; it had also given the team some extra space in which to site JA MkII's planned complement of integral weaponry.
On the other was a comparison chart of two energy-corona diagrams. One, in red, was of an EVA's AT Field, generated based on data gathered from EVA-01 during the full-power event it experienced holding back the Eleventh Angel. The other, in blue, was of the more complex energy interactions resulting from EVA-01's spontaneous creation of a half-dozen Elerium colliders during its battle with the Thirteenth Angel. A few days ago, while glancing through old reports looking for operational information recorded by EVA-02 during its encounter with JA, Truss had noticed these two diagrams, and they had set something scratching at the back of his mind. Whatever it had been, it hadn't fully formed into an idea, so he'd stuck the diagrams on the other monitor, hoping that the notion would gestate while he worked on the next revision of JA's operating software.
The unspoken truth about all of the effort and expense going into the modifications of Jet Alone was, of course, that it was probably all for nothing. Although the modifications John and his team had devised for the unit would make it a very powerful weapon, possibly the world's most effective land-based conventional combat system, it remained just that, conventional. It had no Absolute Terror Field capabilities, and as such, it couldn't hope to be effective in battle against an Angel—or an Evangelion. Truss had been given access to all the accumulated data on the AT Field, the initial research group's speculations on the source of the field within Angels and EVAs, and all the rest, but none of it had been of avail. A frustrating problem, and apparently insoluble.
The door hissed behind him; he glanced over his shoulder and smiled as he saw Maya Ibuki entering the room. She came over and put a hand on his shoulder.
"How's it coming?" she asked.
"Oh, fine, I guess," said Truss. "Scrapping the AGSys code and starting over was definitely the right call. I'd be going out of my mind trying to adapt the old stuff to the new arm configuration, let alone patching in weapons controls."
Maya chuckled. "I can imagine." The rotating energy-corona comparison diagram caught her eye. "Huh, what's this?" she wondered, leaning forward over Truss's right shoulder to get a better look at it.
"Something that caught my eye the other day," Truss said. "I thought it gave me an idea, but it passed before I could get a lock on it. I've been hoping that if I left it there it'd come back to me."
Maya looked at the diagram again; then something snapped behind her eyes, and her face slackened momentarily as the works behind it went into high gear.
"Oh my God," she whispered. Then, leaning a bit further forward, she reached and brushed Truss's hands away from the console. She shifted the focus to the monitor with the energy diagrams on it, then started manipulating the blue diagram. She fiddled with the configuration a little, moving the colliders around, deleting four of them, adding another back, and changing their relative positioning. As she did, the interaction fields around them warped, shifting, as the computer recalculated them on the fly based on the repositioning of the cores that generated them.
When Maya had arranged the three colliders into a horizontal row, Truss realized what she was doing. His eyes widened. He moved his chair over to one of the other consoles, patched it through, and the two of them started working on the problem together.
Asuka Sōryū-Langley left the Evangelion test bay at noontime with a definite spring in her step. She was scheduled for her first full-activation Evangelion test the next day, with a surface deployment and even, if they all felt particularly ambitious, a combat simulation on the bill of fare. The Medical Section had certified her "combat-worthy". That was not the same as "fully sound"; she still had the occasional strange pain, her strength had not fully returned, and she still walked with a slight limp. Her endurance was just about back, though, and she could see the top of the recovery hill from where she stood. She'd probably always have the slight limp, anyway, unless she bothered to have further corrective surgery done; all the reconstruction work on her right leg had left it a half-inch or so shorter than the left. She doubted she'd care enough to get it fixed; she barely noticed unless she actually stopped to think about it, and it disappeared entirely if she ran.
As she passed through the empty Wedge, it occurred to her that she hadn't been out on the plaza in front of Central Dogma's GeoFront-surface (it couldn't really be called "above-ground") pyramid in a long time, not since she and Jon had spoken next to Pyramid Pond after the Skyfall Incident. She wasn't sure, now that she thought about it, how many more opportunities she would get to do that, so now, while she had the time, she went through the Wedge's outer doors and out on to the wide expanse of white concrete. It was a pretty spot, situated below one of the Geo-Front's larger skylights so that it was bathed in natural sunlight, assuming any was to be had on the surface, for most of the day. Now the light was faintly orange from refraction through the skylight crystal, and it glittered on the surface of the pond and washed the concrete into a golden yellow-orange tint. She stood in the center of the plaza, facing the pond, and looked up at the gleaming orange trapezoid of the skylight.
Movement caught the corner of her eye, and she glanced up to see the Stars and Stripes fluttering at the top of its pole in the slight breeze that was kept blowing across the plaza for just that purpose. It was one of two dozen flags kept flying, a dozen on each side of the plaza, representing the member nations that had originally sanctioned NERV. No one had taken them down after NERV's defection from its parent organization, even though some of the flags were now inaccurate, representing countries not approving of X-COM.
Asuka turned to the right, walked across the plaza, and stood looking up at the black, red and gold flag of the Federal Republic of Germany. A tangle of emotions she hadn't known she had passed through her. She'd never considered herself all that patriotic; in fact, she'd hated the tiny, bucolic town her parents had insisted on settling in, forty miles from the FEISAR complex outside Hamburg, and wanted nothing more than to escape from it. She'd been ecstatic when the Kriegsmarine fleet escorting EVA-02 had sailed away from what she'd thought of as her dreary, boring, and rather stupid country of origin.
Now, looking up at the flag, she felt sorrow and rage at the thought of that country and its people under the thumb of SEELE, ranked against its old enemy Britain in the setting-up phase of another world conflict. The world political situation was sliding toward outright war, with Germany, the United States, and other SEELE-controlled nations speaking out loudly against Britain for its X-COM/NERV-friendly policy. The United Nations was on the brink of collapse. Even the most optimistic pundits thought it was only a matter of months before the SEELE-controlled Bundeswehr and United States Armed Forces launched attacks against X-COM facilities in the UK, Canada, and possibly elsewhere in the Empire. Another global war with Germany the villain; Asuka's heart cried out at the thought.
Gazing up at the flag, she stood to attention, raised a hand in salute, tipped her chin up defiantly and raised her voice in song:
Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit
Für das Deutsche Vaterland.
Danach laßt uns alle streben,
Brüderlich mit Herz und Hand.
Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit
Sind des Glückes Unterpfand.
Blüh' im Glanze dieses Glückes,
Blühe, deutsches Vaterland.
Blüh' im Glanze dieses Glückes,
Blühe, deutsches Vaterland!
Asuka lowered her hand, stood respectfully for a moment, and then lowered her eyes and walked back inside with a new resolve. She'd never really thought she'd loved her country until it had been lost to her. She hoped that someday she'd see Hamburg again.
Hours passed as Truss and Maya experimented with different configurations, but with each minute, the frustation grew. It just wasn't working. The elements looked promising, but something was missing, some moderating factor, a key or catalyst to turn raw aligned energies into a very special effect. It was the elusive magic of the AT Field, and though Maya's idea had been a good one, they couldn't make the energy fields produced by the Elerium cores' interactions match the AT pattern, no matter how they fiddled with the configuration.
Finally Truss pushed himself away from his console with a disgruntled sigh.
"It's no good, Maya," he said. "There's some magic to it we just don't understand."
"There's no such thing as magic," Maya replied, stubbornly continuing to poke at the diagram. "Only a science more advanced than we yet understand."
"Either way it's beyond us," Truss replied pessimistically. He was hungry, and he never did his best thinking on an empty stomach.
Maya refused to be defeated. "Ask the systems at X-COM now that we have access," she said. "Maybe they've got something on it."
"Why would they?" Truss wondered. "They've never done any EVA research."
"Just look. Try their records on Elerium field interactions."
Truss shrugged. "OK, fine, I'll check." He opened a session with the interactive database system at X-COM Halifax, a system overseen by one of Halifax's triumvirate of HAL 9000 computers.
After he passed authentication, a voice not unlike that of SHODAN came from the speaker on his console.
"Good afternoon, Dr. Trussell," said the voice. "I am Leela, a SAL 9000 computer. I administer the database systems here. How may I help you?"
"I'm looking for any information X-COM's research division may have gathered regarding energy field interactions with Elerium-115."
"There's quite a bit of that," Leela replied. "Plasma weaponry and anti-gravity systems are both based on Elerium energy-field effects, as are a number of other experimental technologies, all derived from alien technology captured during the Hidden War."
"I specifically need anything you might have on the field interactions of multiple Elerium-collider power generators in close proximity."
"Again, there's quite a bit of it. Most of it pertains to UFO power sources, motive drive power and defensive applications."
Truss glanced excitedly at Maya. "We're interested in the last part."
Leela paused, then said, clearly reading from a report, "In 1999, a complete and intact battleship-class UFO was captured when X-COM forces under the command of Lieutenant Otto Keller destroyed an alien base in the Congo. This craft's capture provided X-COM's Research Division with an unparallelled opportunity to study the inner workings and operating principles of alien spacecraft. It was found that their powers of flight and maneuver, as well as their uncanny resistance to damage from conventional weapons, were the result of energy field interactions from the multiple Elerium collider generators which provided them with all internal power."
"That's the one!" said Truss. "Can you send that document to my station here?"
"Certainly, Dr. Trussell."
"Were there any attempts made to duplicate this effect?"
"No," Leela replied. "The Second Impact forestalled all developments based on these alien technologies. This report was catalogued, but, for all practical purposes, lost."
"Lost? But you've just quoted it to us."
"X-COM's Research Division catalogued 75.72 million gigabytes of information regarding alien technologies before the Second Impact, Doctor," said Leela. "After the Impact, that information remained intact, but most of the people who knew what to ask for were either dead or assigned to other projects. No one has ever asked for information pertaining to the subject since February 11, 2000."
Truss reflected on this for a moment, then said, "All right—thank you, Leela."
"You're welcome, Dr. Trussell," said Leela, and signed off.
Truss looked over at Maya, who was barely suppressing a yell of triumph. Together they plunged into the X-COM report. It was dense, tough going in spots, but everything was there in black and white. The missing key was a special focusing element, present in the energy-handling systems of UFOs. The substance that focusing element was made of, a curious red material resembling a gemstone but impervious to laser spectrography, had defied all the X-COM researchers' attempts to identify or duplicate it—but Truss and Maya were intimately familiar with it. The biggest challenge in the development of the general-production Evangelion had been synthesizing enough of the material to make EVA construction possible.
It was the sort of material to be found in the core of an Angel, or an Evangelion.
A small spherical module made of that material, placed at the point of an equilateral triangle whose other two vertices were at the centers of two Elerium colliders, matched the blue diagram to the red one, creating an artificial AT Field. The technology had existed all along, but the key to linking it together had been lost in the sea of information spewed out by two separate, uncommunicative research efforts.
It was well past midnight when they finished the revisions to JA's design, marked them Emergency Rush, and fed them into the TechDiv pipeline so that, when the dismantling and reconstruction work on JA began tomorrow, the workers would not only remove JA's arms and parts of his internal structure, but also his reactor housing. A great many changes had to be made to the computer systems as well, given the massive new demands on the power system imposed by the colliders and the field-management systems. It remained to be seen if the system as they had devised it would actually work in the field, but before that could be tested, it would have to be built.
It was a gamble, and both Maya and Truss knew it. If they tore down JA and reconstructed him with Elerium colliders and a miniaturized EVA core, and their conclusions regarding the field effects were incorrect, they would have expended a tremendous amount of time, money and energy on a change that brought no gain. The colliders would make JA more powerful, physically, and would be more stable and manageable than the reactor, but if the field didn't work the way they thought it would, he would still be easy prey for an Angel or enemy EVA.
But if it worked...
When Maya and Truss finally made their way home, it was with the tired satisfaction of a job well done. Now, if only the suspense of waiting for the reconstruction to be complete didn't kill them...
Several hours earlier, DJ Croft stood with his hands clasped behind his back, looking out at what he could see of the lights of Worcester-3 through his bedroom window. He was frowning at his reflection in the glass. He'd been feeling out of sorts for the past few days—not sick, but psychically unbalanced, as though nothing about his world was quite in the right place. The core of what had been the counter-conspiracy against SEELE, which had come together so magnificently at the point of crisis, now felt like it was eroding. Its members hadn't had a real conversation since the day Gendō Ikari's controller was exposed; they were all too busy with preparations for the move, seeing to the defense measures in the interim, and their own personal difficulties brought on by the many revelations that accompanied the crisis. On top of that, he thought he was having a growth spurt. None of his trousers seemed to be quite long enough, and he'd noticed lately that his shoes were too tight.
He sighed, long and deep. Behind him, the door to his room vibrated to someone's gentle knocking, then opened slowly. Asuka Sōryū-Langley, just released from a day of pre-operations EVA testing, slipped into the room. She saw and immediately recognized the mood he was in. She'd become quite adept at reading his moods of late. She walked up behind him and put her arms around him, her chin on his shoulder.
"What's the matter with you?" she asked softly.
"Everything," he replied irritably.
"No, I mean it. What's wrong?"
DJ sighed. "Ah, I don't really know, love. Maybe I'm just getting old." He disengaged from her, walked around her and flopped down on his back across his bed, feet hanging down the side.
Asuka climbed up next to him, sat with her feet to one side and played idly with his loosely-knotted necktie as she said, "DJ, you're fifteen years old."
"Oh, don't remind me," he said with a pained expression. "Why the hell can't people be fully-grown at ten? Why do we have to endure twenty years of our favorite clothes suddenly not fitting us?"
Asuka couldn't help it; she started laughing at this plaintive lament. He glared up at her, mock-offended, and said, "Oh, y'think that's funny, do you?"
She got hold of herself and said, "I'm sorry. It's just... that's not really what's bothering you, is it? Did you want to be five-foot-one your whole life? Stop complaining about secondary matters and tell me what's really wrong."
DJ sighed, turning on his side to take her hands in his. "I can't hide anything from you, can I?"
Asuka smiled. "I hope not."
DJ gave her a grin, then sobered and said, "It's Jon. I'm bloody worried about him. Ever since it all blew up he's been going round like he's in a trance. He hasn't said ten words to me in the last three weeks. Just goes about his business, comes home, goes into his room and won't come out."
"Have you tried to talk to him?"
"He won't let me in. Have you?"
"He won't let me in either."
"Christ." DJ shook his head. "How long can he go on that way? How long can Rei go on that way? She sits outside the door to his room waiting for him to call, to say he's ready to talk to her, hour by hour... "
"Rei's holding up all right," Asuka told him. "She seems to understand what's happening to him. The last time I tried to see him, she told me not to worry too much—that it's all just a matter of time."
"I wish I had her confidence." DJ sat up and looked her in the eyes. "What's happened to us, Asuka? We used to be able to be happy, even in the middle of all this madness. It's like it's finally wearing us down. Now, when we need to pull together more than ever."
"We're just tired," she said, patting his arm. "You're tired."
"Tired," he snorted. "I don't bloody do anything anymore. I barely pull my weight."
"Nonsense," she said, giving him a playful scowl. "You must be tired, or you wouldn't be saying stupid things like that."
"I say—Miss Langley... " he said with a tone of overt formality.
She grinned and replied, "Yes, Lord Crofthenge?"
"I wonder, would you accord me the very great honor of your companionship this night?"
"That would be my distinct pleasure, my lord," she said.
"Asuka?" he asked later, in the dark.
"Yes?" she replied sleepily.
"Do you think we're too young for this sort of thing?"
"I imagine our parents would think so," she said.
"No," he said, "not the act—the feelings that go with it." His hand squeezed hers in the dark, where their fingers had lain interlaced since the whole adventure began. "Are we old enough to know what love is?"
"Are you second-guessing me or yourself?" she wondered.
"Both, I suppose," he answered honestly.
"What are you wondering?" she asked. "Whether we'll still be together in five years, or ten, or twenty?"
"More or less," he replied.
"Who can say?" she said. "Perhaps we'll be killed next week. Perhaps we'll drift slowly apart over the course of years and finally go our separate ways with nothing more than sweet memories and a longing wistfulness that the magic wouldn't last. Perhaps one day it will all turn to hate and we'll tear at each other until one or the other of us is pushed too far and kills."
"Asuka!" he said, shocked.
"Or maybe," she said, moving her face closer to his so that her breath whispered over his cheek as she spoke, "what's between us will grow stronger with every passing day, and we'll spend our whole lives together, in peace and warmth and mutual respect, complete unto ourselves and yet two halves of a whole, until time first separates us and then reunites us forever."
DJ lay speechless for a moment, and then said with admiration, "That was beautifully said."
"I must have read it somewhere," she replied with a chuckle. "Go to sleep, DJ. Tomorrow will attend to itself."
As he drifted off, DJ decided that that was excellent advice.
The next morning was bright and clear, good operations weather. At his new station in the MOCR, Truss stifled a yawn and watched with detached interest as steady, stable, boring readings from Asuka Sōryū-Langley's first above-ground test in EVA-03. The test was going extremely well. She had passed the basic agility tests the first run through and proceeded to live-fire exercises with no emotional issues, control problems, neural crises, or equipment failures. Everything was going extremely well. If the test proved fully successful, Truss knew Maya would certify the unit and its pilot combat-operations ready, which would be a big step toward NERV's operational readiness recovery.
The changes in NERV's structure showed themselves to the staff in unexpected places sometimes. For example, the people in the control room for this test weren't the same group as those who had been present for all the other EVA operations. Ritsuko Akagi and Otto Keller were gone to Canada. Gendō Ikari was down in his office professing disinterest in the operational EVAs with so much data to be collated for the Archangelion project. Maya now stood up on the main deck with Misato Katsuragi, ultimately responsible for Technical Division activities during the operation. Truss was in Maya's old place in the back of the "orchestra pit" as Supervisor of Technical Services, watching over the two young men from Weapons Division who had taken over his old place as primary console operators—though why there were two of them when Truss had been expected to do the job all on his own in the old days, Truss didn't care to speculate.
He liked his new subordinates, much as the notion of being in charge of something had alarmed him. They were well-trained, competent and eager to please, and they handled their consoles with assurance. Makoto Hyūga, the senior of the two by around a month and so automatically named Deputy STS, to take over if Truss were called away or incapacitated, was a cheerfully earnest type who would've been a signals ensign in a World War II naval drama. Truss didn't know his mate, Shigeru Aoba, very well by comparison—he was quieter and kept more to himself, though he wasn't rude or standoffish. Truss had heard that Aoba played guitar in a fairly popular local band before joining up with NERV to fight the good fight.
Truss stifled another yawn; Hyūga saw him doing it and grinned. The boss was working too hard, between these tests and the work on Jet Alone. Why, just this morning he'd seen the TechDiv memo about huge revisions to the JA design based on a breakthrough he and Captain Ibuki had had the night before. Hyūga didn't understand most of the calculations in the memo, but he had no doubt that they represented a real leap forward in human understanding of EVA technology. Truly brilliant scientists always did their best work after 2 AM, and the time stamp on the memo had been 5:42. Besides, Gendō Ikari himself had replied to the emailed memo saying that he found the concepts in it "remarkable," and from Ikari, that was skyrocketing praise.
Hyūga turned back to his console with renewed energy despite the boring nature of this particular test. At least Sōryū-Langley was blowing things up. Besides, if Lieutenant Trussell had achieved his officer's commission, his increased responsibilities, and his opportunity to create technological breakthroughs in the dead of night with a colleague as congenial as Captain Ibuki through diligence at this very console, then Hyūga thought that was a pretty damn good testimonial for diligence.
"... No, DJ, look. Three years after the assassination, the Air Force dumps Kennedy's casket in the middle of the Atlantic because it 'isn't evidence'?! Doesn't that strike you as just a little bit suspicious?"
"I told you, Gendō, I don't find the Kennedy assassination interesting. Human history has had some much more arresting conspiracies. You want to talk about political assassinations? The ancient Egyptians bumped off a pharaoh and then tried to erase him from the historical record. Let's see the Mafia try to do that to JFK."
"Oh so? This sounds interesting. Tell me more."
"Fellow name of Akhenaten, became pharaoh in 1358 BC..."
As the SEELE Antonov AN-411 streaked across the sky toward Worcester-3, Shinji Ikari mentally reviewed the information he'd been given during the mission briefing. It was to be a precision strike, the first in a series which, when complete, would drop the city's defensive capability to virtually nil. The primary targets for Phase One were above-ground installations—weapons blocks, communications towers, and the most strategically-placed of lift bays and thoroughfares. Paralysis, not infiltration or theft, was the order of the day. SEELE had provided the Third Child with a map of the most vulnerable locations, which he brought up on EVA-04's viewscreen for a final review.
If all went according to expectations, the opposing pilots would be Rei Ayanami and Jon Ellison. Ellison, Shinji was told, was an experienced pilot and fully devoted to the NERV cause. As for Rei...
"The neural pulses are feeding back!"
"Cut power! NOW!"
"Commander, the entry plug is ejecting!"
"Commander, wait! It's too dangerous—Unit 00 still has 25 seconds of power left..."
Stop it, Shinji chided himself. Distracting yourself with thoughts of the past will only serve to get you killed.
According to the briefing, there was also a small but nonzero chance that DJ Croft could be pressed into service. SEELE had received reliable reports that Croft had never synchronized with any EVA but his own, but Natla had felt it was best to advise their new pilot on how to deal with him... just in case. If DJ appeared in another unit, Shinji was to exercise extreme caution, but continue with the mission. If EVA-01 put in a surprise apperance, however, the operation would be cancelled immediately. Shinji was still too inexperienced to risk a battle on such level technological ground.
"Third Child, we're approaching the drop zone. Your synchrotron readings are holding at 45 percent, and all systems appear to be go. Are you ready?"
Shinji closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "I'm ready."
"Brigadier Katsuragi! I'm picking up an unexpected radar contact on the edge of Worcester-3 airspace."
"No, it's an aircraft. Trying to ID the radar signature, hold on." Hyūga's eyes went wide as the results of the check appeared on his screen. "What the hell? It's an An-411!"
Misato marched over to the terminal for a look. "How is that possible? All Antonov aircraft are in their bays! John, can you get a visual from any of the perimeter viewing stations?"
"One step ahead of you. It's coming up on the main viewer now."
A chorus of gasps filled Central Dogma as the plane and its cargo, a gleaming chrome Evangelion, came into view.
Misato was momentarily dumbstruck. "Unit... 04?"
On the master viewer, the image of the chromed EVA zoomed in, resolving in enough detail for the unit's production markings to be visible. Immediately, SHODAN bracketed the EVA, and below the reticule surrounding it appeared the words:
TARGET: PRODUCTION TYPE EVANGELION UNIT 04
Truss nodded. "SHODAN confirms—target is Evangelion Unit 04. I think we can all guess its purpose—it's being carried in the drop position. Estimated touchdown in Worcester-3 within two minutes. And from the markings, I'd say that's a SEELE aircraft."
Misato's confused expression morphed into one of shock, and then into anger. "Those bastards!" she snarled. She lashed out at a nearby desk, toppling it and sending a ream of papers flying across the room. "We fell for it—hook, line and sinker. SEELE told us Unit 04 was destroyed, and we never even questioned it. They stole it right out from under our noses!"
"There's more bad news," Aoba added. "It seems to have been outfitted with some kind of on-board power source. 04's going to have an advantage over anything we can throw at it."
"Who in the hell is piloting it?!" Misato demanded.
"There are a couple of theoretical possibilities," said Maya, "but if you're going by the Marduk Report, it has to be Shinji Ikari."
"Oh, damn. This is going to get extremely ugly." Misato paused for a moment to regain her composure, then turned to Maya. "Get Professor Ikari up here, and prep Unit 00 for launch."
"I'm on it."
"Asuka, bring Unit 03 back to Lift Bay 16—we should have someone ready to take over by the time you arrive."
Jenna Steen, promoted to Chief Medical Officer in Ritsuko Akagi's absence, glanced at the gathered EVA pilots, slipped over to Misato, and whispered, "Ellison isn't ready to go operational yet, Brigadier. He—"
"I am ready," said Jon flatly. Jenna felt a blush on her cheeks; she had no idea the young man's hearing was so acute. Jon stepped forward, determination but no offense on his face, and said again, more firmly, "I am."
"No," said Rei, "I'll go."
Jon turned, puzzled. "Asuka can't bring Unit 03 back soon enough for it to be reconfigured—"
"No matter," said Rei. "I'll take Unit 00."
"Unit 00?" Misato objected. "Rei, you were having problems with that unit before we recalibrated all its neurosystems for Jon. I can understand that you want to protect him—"
"I don't need protecting—" Jon interrupted, a bit indignant.
"This isn't about Jon," said Rei, her voice cutting both of them off despite its softness. "It's about Shinji. I'm the only one of us he's met. I think he'll talk to me. Maybe we can stop this without letting anyone get hurt."
For Rei, that was practically a speech. Misato looked at her for a long moment, then turned to Jon. He glanced at the Brigadier, nodded his understanding, and stepped back.
"Go," said Misato.
Not bad, Shinji thought. Not the most graceful of landings, but given less than a week of training and only those ersatz air-drop landings to work with, no one could have expected better.
He unslung his EVA's autorifle and set about causing some damage.
"... Moved the capital?!"
"Into the middle of bloody nowhere. You can imagine how well that went over—"
Alarms blared, and both men came to their feet out of reflex.
"Ah, Christ, I thought we might be done with this," DJ growled. "Suppose we ought to head for the control room."
Ikari shrugged dismissively. "Why? I'd just be dead weight, and you're—"
"Equally useless with Unit 01 out of commission," DJ finished, "I know... I just thought it would be nice to keep my hand in."
"I was going to say you're not on call," said Gendō with a wry grin, "but if you insist on putting so fine a point on it... "
The intercom crackled, and Maya Ibuki's voice called, "Worcester-3 is under Evangelion attack by SEELE. Professor Ikari, to the control room, please."
DJ and Gendō looked at each other in confusion.
"Evangelion attack?!" said DJ.
Ikari looked confused for a moment; then his face melted into a look of utter horror.
"Oh my God, no," he murmured; then he seemed to shock himself into motion. "Come on!" he shouted, jumping over the end of his desk and leaving papers scattered everywhere in his wake as he crashed into the hall at a dead run. DJ looked around in puzzlement for a moment, then ran after him.
"OK, Rei, we're ready to power up if you are," said Maya Ibuki to Rei's image on the EVA-cage comm screen. "I hope you know what you're doing."
"Activate," said Rei flatly.
Maya nodded. "Power up Unit 00's neurosystems," she said, and Truss moved the appropriate controls.
The green boxes marched across the status board, but stopped, hovering, the last box before the break-even line flickering fitfully.
Go away, said EVA-00. You are my enemy.
Rei closed her eyes and told it in return, You are mistaken, but there is no time for me to waste on convincing you. You're needed. You will act.
The Synchrotron spooled up to 45%—good enough.
"Evangelion Unit 00—Moloch, moving out," said Rei.
DJ and Gendō Ikari arrived in the control room to find it in chaos; Unit 00 was in the field—apparently with Rei behind the controls, since Jon was standing in the corner of the room, arms folded, watching the battle with a darkened countenance—and everyone seemed to be talking at once.
"Shinji, please," Misato was saying over the background chatter of defense operations, "I don't know what they told you, but I'd be willing to bet it's not true. Why don't you stop this and we can talk about it."
"You would say that," Shinji Ikari's voice replied from the commset speakers. Gendō Ikari flinched as if slapped. "They warned me that you'd try to sweet-talk me, but I won't listen!"
"Shinji!" Misato tried again. "Please, stop! I can protect you from them—do you understand?"
"I'm not the one who needs protection!" Shinji replied, a touch of hysteria creeping into his voice. "Besides, you can't protect anyone—I know you're just a figurehead there, so my father can deny responsibility for NERV's crimes in public."
Misato slammed a hand down on the console. "I'm what? Now you listen here, you little punk! When I get my hands on you—"
"Misato, love, I don't think that's helping," said DJ quietly, elbowing her away from the pickup. "Shinji? This is DJ Croft. Listen to me. Your father isn't even in charge down here any more, all right? Now, nobody wants to hurt you. Why don't—"
"No! I won't listen to you," Shinji's voice replied. "You're just my father's puppet, like all the rest!"
DJ and Gendō Ikari shared a bemused look.
Covering the microphone pickup with his palm, DJ observed wryly, "Gendō, my friend, I believe your boy's been misinformed."
Ikari allowed himself a dark chuckle before sobering and pushing his glasses back up his nose. "He won't listen to any of us," he sighed. "Natla's people have been too thorough for us." Driving a fist into the opposite palm, he said darkly, "By God, they'll pay for this."
"It's no good, Unit 00," Truss observed glumly. "Unit 04's rate of fire is too heavy for you to get close."
"We need a plan, quickly," Jon pointed out. "She's on the outermost set of umbilicals."
Rei's voice came over the radio, quiet and calm. "No. I have one." She jettisoned her EVA's umbilical and proceeded on battery power—directly toward the silver EVA. "Shinji, I'm coming to talk."
EVA-04 froze for an instant, not unlike its pilot's heart. That was Rei Ayanami's voice! What was she doing out here? What was she doing aboard Unit 00? SEELE's intelligence told them that the EVA prototype had rejected her, that she couldn't pilot it any more!
"Rei!" Jon called after her, but was stopped short by a single word from Rei:
Jon studied her image on the big screen, and understood.
Shinji wrenched himself out of his horrified hesitation and opened fire again. "Stay back! I don't have anything to say."
Moloch's vambraces opened, and Rei withdrew the twin Progressive Knives. Immediately, she let them drop to the ground beside her. "Shinji, I'm unarmed. Stop firing."
As he sensed that Rei had no intention of slowing her approach, Shinji's voice took on an edge of panic. "No! You have to stop! I don't want to hurt you—don't let them make you do this!"
"No one is making me do anything."
Unit 04's rate of fire slowed as its pilot became more and more flustered. This can't be happening, he thought. I'm so close to accomplishing the mission goal, but now I have to fire at an unarmed unit—I might even have to kill Rei.
"Unit 00 has broken free of the restraints!"
"Pilot's vital signs are unconfirmed!"
My father almost killed her as I watched. How can I bring myself to do the same—to finish what he started?
"Unit 04," crackled the voice of Jacqueline Natla in Shinji's ears, "you're falling behind schedule. Destroy Unit 00 and proceed."
"Ayanami is not above sacrificing herself in battle in order to escape her no-win situation."
How can I take her life, even if it's to save everyone else?
"I saw what my father did to you! He doesn't care whether you live or die, he just cares about himself and his project!"
"I'm not defending him."
The distance between them had been cut to only a few hundred yards, and Shinji had completely forgotten to keep running.
Damn it, Rei, don't you understand? I'm trying to save your life!
"Don't... I can't kill you... please, stop! Stop!!"
"I can't do that."
Unit 04 raised its rifle, ready to fire. Shinji's mind went into a tailspin. "Stop! This is wrong!" he shrieked. Nothing made sense anymore.
"Unit 04, what the hell are you playing at?" demanded Natla. "Kill her and get on with your mission!"
"No!" Shinji shouted, slamming a hand down on the communications panel and cutting off the command frequency. "I didn't come here to kill anyone," he added, though now he was only transmitting on the tactical band used by NERV. His head swam, and he could feel the panic crawling up into his throat. His purpose was no longer clear, he had failed to leave the city fast enough, Rei Ayanami was in the wrong EVA, Jon Ellison was nowhere to be seen, and the other unit—
Shinji's realization came a moment too late. While Rei approached and diverted his attention, Asuka had maneuvered Unit 03 around to Shinji's blind side. Now, As Rei brought Moloch's hand up to grasp the barrel of Unit 04's autorfile, Orcus passed by Unit 04 at a dead run. The black EVA reached out and tore at the Elerium collider which powered 04 with all its might, hoping beyond hope that it would break loose.
It did—leaving a trail of sparks, armor, and mechanical parts behind. Orcus never slowed down, and Malphas was unable to react in time.
Shinji screamed as Malphas lurched violently from the force of the impact. 04's rifle was also jarred loose, but not before it was accidentally fired into Moloch's arm and chest. Rei's EVA was thrown backward, but she did not cry out nor lose her footing.
"Bastard!" Shinji snarled, whirling to face the black-and-red interloper. "Look what you made me do!"
Jon wasn't any too pleased about the side effects of Asuka's unauthorized attack either—it had given him a nasty jolt to the gut to see Rei's EVA shot—but the instinctive anger that seeing her threatened always gave rise to was directed at Shinji, not Asuka.
Asuka stopped Orcus within the city perimeter, knelt, and retrieved an umbilical from a service block, then stood and brandished EVA-04's power core.
"You want your power unit back, Third Child?" Asuka taunted, the grin audible in her voice. "Come get it."
Shinji's snarl escalated to a roar as he drove his EVA into a run, charging toward the black enemy unit. Asuka stood her ground, holding the device enticingly out (though she knew there was no way Shinji could reattach it even if he took it back—the power induction socket on the back of EVA-04 was mangled far beyond serviceability, and much of it was still hanging from the Elerium collider itself).
Rei got Moloch to its feet and looked the situation over. For just a moment, she considered calling to Asuka to get out of the way of her charging adversary. Then she noticed something about EVA-04 that made her realize all in a flash just what Asuka had been planning all along, and she remained silent—and silently impressed.
A moment later, Shinji Ikari's howl of anger faltered, then sputtered out in a welter of vocalized question marks as his EVA's run slowed, slowed, and finally stopped, and the machine toppled face-first to the street, skidding to a halt a couple of inches from EVA-03's toes. Behind it, a thick greenish trail of battery gel led back to the spot where Orcus had torn away EVA-04's Elerium collider, and with it half of the EVA's back armor and various internals—including the outer walls of the primary battery cells.
Maya saw it first. "The SEELE aircraft has just launched an air-to-surface missile!"
Rei keyed her radio and shouted, "Asuka, incoming fire!"
A half-second later, the N2 missile landed.
As soon as Rei could pull herself to her feet, she was charging towards ground zero. "Asuka, are you all right? Unit 03, come in!"
Silence for a few beats, then, "Yes... we're alive."
A few seconds later, Rei arrived on the scene. Orcus was charred, its armor melted in spots, but relatively intact. It was huddled over Unit 04's damaged back—Asuka had shielded it from the explosion.
As Shinji's unconscious form was being toted into the infirmary by a stretcher crew, Gendō Ikari stood at the end of the corridor, his hands behind his back, only the extra lines on his face betraying great anxiety.
"I was afraid something like this might happen," he said to the man next to him, without taking his eyes off the infirmary door. "Fool that I am, I never gave my brother a way to contact me here—'security reasons', I told myself, but really I think I was just in denial. Even so, I never dreamed that they would use him against me this way." He scratched at his chin fretfully. "When he wakes up, he's going to be horrified at his situation. It would be helpful if he had his familiar things with him. All he left home with were the clothes on his back."
Ryoji Kaji gave the scientist a thoughtful look. "Has the Aircraft Section still got that JBS2 you used to use for your reporting trips to Geneva?"
"Yes, I think so," said Ikari. "I'm not cleared to draw flights from the Section without talking to Command first, any more, so I don't know for sure."
Kaji grinned and clapped Ikari on the shoulder. "Don't worry about it, then. I'll, uh, borrow it and go get his stuff if you give me your brother's address."
"Would you, Ryoji? It would be a great comfort to him."
"Sure, no sweat."
Shinji Ikari returned to consciousness slowly, painfully, in a welter of confusion. His memories of the last several days flooded back before he got around to opening his eyes or getting up. The speeches, the footage, the battle, the bomb... the lies.
All of it.
He opened his eyes.
"This ceiling," he remarked to himself softly, "is unfamiliar."
"You get used to it," said a voice to his right. Sitting gingerly up, Shinji turned to look, and saw a redheaded girl sitting on the edge of the next bunk over in what appeared to be a small hospital ward. The girl wore the greenish-white tunic and trousers of a patient, and, with concentration etching lines around her blue eyes, she was performing arm curls with a small barbell. Shinji recognized her from the photos he was shown during his orientation—but he had expected Asuka Sōryū-Langley to be in much poorer condition.
"I guess you would know," Shinji allowed.
"Smart and tactful," said Asuka, rolling her eyes. "I love that in a man." She narrowed her eyes in concentration and lifted the barbell from knee to shoulder again, sucking in air between gritted teeth as she did so.
"They... they told me you'd been crippled, nearly killed," Shinji murmured.
"They exaggerated the first part," replied Asuka quietly.
Shinji decided it was best if he didn't try too hard to keep this faltering conversation going, and instead lapsed back into silence. Before too long, a couple of white-coated medics came in, examined Asuka, and told her she was free to go. She went into a side room and came out in skirt and blouse, a small bag over one shoulder.
She waved a parting to Shinji; he half-heartedly returned it and tried to think of something to say, and then she had gone. The medics looked him over, pronounced him healthy, and left the room. He noticed no one had told him he was free to go.
Misato Katsuragi sat at the head of the table in Conference B, wondering if anyone would hold it against her if she gave herself up to a fit of humorless, hysterical laughter. The whole thing was ridiculous. While NERV had been coping with the trauma of separation from SEELE—reeling with the discovery that its parent organization was an alien conspiracy and facing the incredible task of moving the largest militarized research and development organization ever created—SEELE had grabbed the production facilities for the Evangelions, most of Project Ascension, and the one remaining child with the EVA talent right out from under their noses.
Misato took a deep breath and got hold of herself.
"OK," she said aloud. "The situation's bad, but not as bad as it could be. We can even reasonably claim that we came out ahead this round. We got a damaged but reparable EVA and the Third Child, and all they got was some more collateral damage to a city we're abandoning anyway."
Maya Ibuki frowned, fiddling idly with the button atop a ballpoint pen, and said, "The first isn't as much of a win as you might think. With EVA-01 out of commission and DJ unable to interface with any of the others, we've got pilots for all the operational EVAs we have. Another one is just deadweight. Besides, SEELE controls the production facilities. They can have as many of them as they want."
John Trussell added gloomily, "Our situation's not as good as that, either. They've left us in a bad state defensively. Conventional ground defenses reduced to 45% effectiveness, air defenses knocked down to 70%, and worst of all, we have no operational Evangelion units for the next five days."
Misato looked startled. "What? Explain."
"Unit 01 is still unresponsive to all test stimuli," said Truss. "Unit 03 will be in repairs for five days. We could probably have Unit 04 operational in six or seven, but given the circumstances, I wouldn't rate it operation until we've had a chance to really swamp out its software, and that'll take another two or three days on top of the repairs. Rei's interaction with Unit 00 without a proper reconfiguration beforehand doesn't seem to have affected her at all, but it's thrown the unit's neurosystems into chaos. It'll take us at least a couple of days to straighten everything out. We're seeing the weirdest resonance pattern ever, even for that unit, just sitting there idle. I can't imagine what it might do if we powered it up."
Misato groaned wearily. "It never rains," she muttered. "At least we got Shinji away from them. If the Marduk Report was right and there aren't any more children with the talent out there, then all the EVAs in the world won't help SEELE mount another attack, within our vulnerable timeframe or out of it."
"Somehow," Maya observed, "I doubt they'd go to all the trouble of seizing both EVA production facilities if they didn't have that angle covered." She sighed. "As for Shinji... well... what are we going to do with him?"
"He'll have to be extensively debriefed," Misato said. "He's been deeper into SEELE than anyone else we have access to. He's seen their EVA facilities, no doubt talked with their tech staff. We need to know what he knows."
"Who's to say he'll be willing to tell us?" asked John Trussell glumly. "They must have played on his hostility toward his father to get him to cooperate with them. You heard what he said during the attack. He thinks we're all his father's puppets." He gave Misato a pointed look. "Or were you planning on using force?"
Misato scowled. "No," she said. "That's the kind of thing SEELE would do. We won't sink to their level." She looked to the other side of the table. "What do you think, Professor?"
Gendō Ikari looked tired and drawn. He'd counted on his son being safe with his brother, the boy's uncle, in Japan. Word hadn't reached him of Shinji's disappearance—Gendō's brother had no idea how to reach him in the US. To have the boy suddenly thrown into his face this way had stunned and infuriated him, and now he had no idea what to do. Looking up at Misato, he told her as much.
"I'm torn," he said slowly. "On the one hand, I want to see him, to try and prove to him that I'm not the man he remembers hating. On the other hand, I don't think he would believe me. He's not ready to believe me. Look at his situation. He's been lied to about us; that much was clear from his attack. They lied to him about us and they lied to him about being on his side, or they wouldn't have tried to kill him when he failed his mission. He's lost. He won't know whether he can trust anyone... but he certainly won't trust me." Ikari sighed deeply. "No. It's better if he doesn't see me just yet."
"What about Rei?" Maya wondered. "They've met before, and there's obviously a connection there somewhere—look at the way he reacted to her in the field."
Misato shook her head. "He's refused to see her already," she said. "Rei wanted to see him in the infirmary, and he asked the medical staff not to let her in."
Maya frowned. "That's strange. I would have thought... " She shrugged. "What about one of the others?"
"Jon isn't in any condition to make new friends," Misato said. "Asuka is our only fully operational EVA pilot right now. We can't spare her. And DJ—well, you heard Shinji's opinion of him."
"That he's Professor Ikari's yes-man? That's ridiculous," Maya said. "No one who knows DJ could believe that."
"Not yet," said Maya.
Misato looked thoughtful, then nodded. "Well, it can't hurt anything, I suppose."
Confusion had given way to nervousness, and that was working its way slowly toward outright fear, for Shinji Ikari. In the hour since he'd awakened, he'd been removed from the infirmary by an escort of two sinister-looking men in identical black suits. They hadn't said much, just led him down several confusing corridors and deposited him in an empty conference room with instructions to "Wait here, please." So he'd waited, wondering what NERV was planning to do to him, and each speculative notion that came into his head was worse than the last.
He'd just about convinced himself that they were going to have him killed as a security risk when the door opened and someone entered. To Shinji's horror, it was DJ Croft. The former EVA pilot was wearing a black jumpsuit with his last name stitched over the breast pocket and a patch on the left shoulder bearing the NERV and X-COM logos. He had a handgun of some kind in a holster on his belt and a black ballcap on his head that seemed to have a radiation symbol embroidered on the front.
"Hullo!" said Croft cheerfully. "I hope we haven't bored you too awfully. I only just got done with a test or I'd have come down straight away."
Shinji didn't reply for a moment, as Croft pulled a chair around and sat down at the conference table opposite him. Then he said softly, "They told me your unit wasn't working."
DJ looked rueful. "They were right," he said, "bloody thing's on the blink. They've got me testing on their other giant robot."
Shinji wondered about that for a moment, then noticed the lettering around the radioactivity symbol on DJ's cap: JET ALONE JA-01. He'd been told of Jet Alone during his training at SEELE. They knew that NERV had it, but judged its likelihood of appearing in combat to be almost nil.
DJ looked upward, following Shinji's gaze, and took off the cap, turning it to look at the logo himself. Shinji saw that Croft's initials were embroidered on the back of the sweatband. DJ grinned. "Not bad, eh? Part of our separation from SEELE. Command thought it would be good for us to have a bit of a boost in our esprit de corps. New uniforms, project caps, better base privileges. Makes us feel like it's worth bothering with the fight, or that's the idea, anyway." He put his cap back on.
"Why are you here?" Shinji wanted to know.
"Well," said DJ, "basically, it's like this. The Powers that Be in Charge here, they know that you must be feeling pretty well out of it right now. God only knows what they told you about us at SEELE, but we're guessing it wasn't anything too complimentary. My CO, Brigadier Katsuragi, decided that somebody needed to sit down with you, find out what they told you about us, and then see how we might go about proving that it wasn't true." He spread his hands. "We decided you'd be more comfortable talking to somebody your own age, and since I'm the least busy of the four, I'm elected."
DJ thumped the table with both palms and stood up. "Now then. We're the worst hosts in the world, aren't we? Locking you in a conference room without anything to eat and forgetting about you for hours... it's disgraceful. Right, follow me."
Shinji got hesitantly up as the jumpsuited figure strode out into the hall, following at a trot when it became clear that DJ hadn't noticed he hadn't followed immediately. They paused so that DJ could leave his jumpsuit in the pilots' locker room and recover his jacket, shoulder holster and shoes. Shinji got a puzzled look on his face as DJ walked right past the door marked "Commissary". It got a little more puzzled when they went into an elevator. The elevator let them out in what appeared to be a parking garage.
His confusion hitting a peak, Shinji finally protested. "H-hey! Where are you going?"
DJ stopped, turned and let him catch up. "You're not hungry?"
"Well, yes," Shinji said, thoughtful. Then he remembered that he was confused and a bit irritated, and blustered again: "But this is a parking garage!"
"Uh-huh," said DJ. "What about it? Where do you keep your car?"
"I don't have a car!"
DJ looked thoughtful for a moment, then said, "Mm... no, I suppose you don't." He shrugged it off. "Anyway, in you get," he said, gesturing to a large black Chrysler sedan with no markings and anonymous license plates.
By this time, Shinji had no idea whatsoever what DJ was up to, but he decided anything beat sitting around in a conference room waiting for them to kill him. He got into the passenger seat.
DJ started up the car, put it in gear, and headed for the ramp up to the top-floor access to the S490. As they rounded the top corner, DJ said offhandedly, "As it happens, I'm not authorized to remove you from the compound, so when we get to the guard station, it's probably best for you to be out of sight."
"What?" Shinji asked, confused.
"Get on the floor," said DJ, slowly and patiently.
Shinji looked at him as though he had several heads, then did as he said.
"Afternoon, Barney," said DJ cheerfully as the Dodge pulled up to the guard post at the garage exit.
"Hey, DJ," said the security guard, a lanky Southerner DJ only knew by his first name. "Gettin' outta here for lunch for once? Can't say I blame ya. Busy day today." Barney thumbed a switch, and the candy-striped metal arm across the roadway swung up. "Take care."
"You too, Barn. See you later," said DJ. "Stay down until we're on the highway," he muttered to Shinji as they drove away.
Shinji did as he was told, then popped up and got into his proper seat. "What's going on?" he demanded. "Are you kidnapping me or something?"
DJ shrugged. "Well, technically, I think what I'm doing is unlawfully removing you from detention. Do you like Chinese food?"
DJ sighed, realizing that he was going to spend a lot of his time repeating things slowly and patiently until Shinji got his bearings. "Do—you—like—Chinese—food?" he repeated.
"Yes, but what—"
"Right, then. Nobody from Central Dogma will be lunching at this hour—I hope. We'll go to Ping's Garden and get something to eat, all right? You must be hungry by now."
Shinji would have protested, until it occurred to him that the gnawing, empty sensation in the middle of his being was probably an indication of just that.
They ate in relative silence, making small talk, but nothing more. DJ didn't seem to care whether Shinji told him anything or not.
"Aren't you going to interrogate me?" Shinji asked after their appetizers were delivered.
"Not while I'm trying to eat," DJ replied, with a tone of voice that left the subject unequivocally dropped.
Shinji was unimpressed by the hot and sour soup, but the crab rangoons were passable and the orange flavor chicken quite good. It wasn't until they were back in the car and heading crosstown again that DJ spoke up.
"Your father told me what happened the last time you came to Worcester-3."
Shinji didn't really know how to respond to that, so he just nodded and made an affirmative noise. It wasn't a conversational gambit he would have expected from an interrogator—after all, it had all happened at NERV. They couldn't help but have full information on it. Why wasn't he asking about SEELE?
"They say you turned round, walked out and never looked back," DJ went on.
Shinji nodded. "Yes, that's right."
DJ smiled. "By doing so, you've convinced me that you're the only one of us with any sense at all."
Shinji had no idea what to say to that, and in this he was beginning to sense the development of a trend. Then a question occurred to him, and he asked it, even though he wasn't sure he could believe the answer:
"Why did you do it?"
DJ considered this for a moment, the gently mocking humor slowly fading from his face. "I could be a smart-arse," he said, "and say it was my curiosity, or my contrariness, or my estimation of my chances with Misato, but I won't. The truth of it is, there was a girl going to die if I didn't come through, and I looked at her and couldn't bear the thought of letting it happen."
Shinji looked thoughtful for a moment, then asked, "Why does she do it?"
DJ seemed surprised by the question; then he smiled, a rather sad and private smile, and said softly, "It's her vocation."
Shinji waited, but DJ didn't seem willing to elaborate. After a few moments, he asked slowly, "You're not going to ask me anything about SEELE, are you?"
"No," DJ replied. "I'm not."
"Why not? Isn't that your job here? Isn't that why you're being friendly to me?"
"Sod my job," said DJ shortly. "I'm being friendly to you because you're the only one of us smart enough to stay the hell out of this mess and you've got dragged into it anyway. You've been screwed by Fate at every turn. You deserve people being decent to you for a change."
Shinji blinked at the other boy, taken completely aback. "Uh... th-thank you," he said at length, but DJ did not respond; he seemed lost in contemplation of the anger that had shown around the edges of his last answer.
The car emerged onto a roundabout with a statue of a general on a horse in the middle of it. DJ followed it most of the way around, then pulled up onto a small, concrete-paved plaza in front of a building with a very ornate white marble facade. Shinji suspected that the area was not meant for parking, but who was he to argue with the driver?
DJ got out. Not wanting to sit around alone in the car waiting for whatever was next to happen, Shinji got out too. He looked up at the building, and, as DJ came around the car to join him, he said in puzzlement,
"This is a train station."
"Yes, it is," said DJ, his face still intent. "Look, for the moment, Worcester-3 is still a free city, but nobody knows how long that's going to last." He reached into his pocket, removed a wad of bills and shoved them into Shinji's shirt pocket. "Get away from here, Shinji, as far away as you can. This isn't a place for an innocent like you. If you know anywhere to go that they won't find you, then for God's sake go there, quick as you can."
Shinji realized that he'd only thought he'd been confused before now. "What?"
"Go!" DJ roared, gesturing at the station. "Get out of this place! Get away from this fucking war before it consumes your life, like it's consumed the lives of everyone else who's got too near."
Shinji stared. DJ's face was cast in fury, not at Shinji, but palpable nonetheless. Tears had cut tracks down the British pilot's cheeks and his blue eyes burned with something that Shinji thought must look something like madness.
"C-Croft," he gasped, taking a half-step back.
The rage drained away from DJ's face, and he sagged a little as the emotion left him; then he dashed at the tears on his face and said with an embarrassed chuckle,
"Sorry... I guess the last few weeks have weighed on me more than I thought. Now go on, get out of here while you still have the chance."
"Y... you're letting me go?" Shinji asked.
"Yes," said DJ, wiping his face with his handkerchief and straightening the knot in his tie. His composure restored, he folded the handkerchief, put it back in the top pocket of his jacket, and said, "I am letting you go."
"I, uh... I..." Shinji's mind whirled. Between the bizarre conversation, the strange and suddenly reversed transformation that had come over DJ, and the utterly unexpected notion of his release, he forgot everything, including the English language. Finally, falling back on manners ingrained in his childhood, he straightened, bowed stiffly, and said, "Domo arigato gozaimasu, Curofuto-san!"
"Ist nichts," said DJ, his easy, lightly but goodheartedly mocking composure back in place. "Have you got anywhere to go?"
Shinji's own composure was leaking slowly back as he started to allow himself to believe that he was really being set free. He recovered his ability to speak English and said, "Uh... I'll figure something out. I have a cousin in the Midwest somewhere... Kansas, I think, or Nebraska... one of those flat states."
DJ regarded Shinji for a long moment, his eyes intense and rather sad; then he grinned and stuck out his hand. "Good luck, Mr. Ikari."
"Th... thank you," said Shinji, hesitatingly taking the proffered hand. "You too."
"Thanks," said DJ wryly, "I'll need it."
Without another word, he went back around the sedan, got in, and drove away.
Shinji stood and watched the black sedan until it disappeared down one of the other streets off the roundabout. Then he turned and walked slowly into Union Station.
DJ drove aimlessly around Worcester for the rest of the afternoon. He felt tired... no, more than that. He felt old. Much older than he had any right to feel. He drove mechanically, his mind elsewhere, as he unconsciously counted the minutes until Shinji would be safely away from the city, gone in any one of a dozen directions, impossible for NERV Security to trace.
There'd be hell to pay for letting him go, DJ knew that. Misato would be furious, and Stanfield, too. But having made the decision, he felt at peace with it. To hell with them! To hell with their opinions. None of them deserved to be involved in this damned war either. Why the hell couldn't they all go home and live in peace? Why had the fate of humanity come to rest on the shoulders of this one small group? If they failed, Shinji would die anyway, along with everyone else in the world. Everything anyone had ever done would be wasted effort.
He sighed and wondered how he had become so cynical all of a sudden. Didn't he believe in himself? In his friends? They had right on their side, didn't they? Wasn't that enough? Couldn't pure hearts and strong hands win the day against any odds?
Well? Couldn't they?
He looked at the clock on the car's radio and saw that it was 4 PM. By now, Shinji would be in Springfield, or Hartford, or Providence, or Manchester, or Portland. It would have to be enough.
DJ turned the car toward the S490 and got ready to face the music.
"That'll be $18.54, please."
Shinji handed the cashier a 20-dollar bill, waited for his change, and wandered outside. Sitting down on a nearby bench, he hastily set about unwrapping his purchase. It wasn't particularly cold for February in New England, but his jacket was a bit too thin for the season, and he wasn't wearing any gloves. Once he got moving again, he'd be better prepared to deal with the climate.
The shrink wrap now removed, Ikari pulled a small electronic device and a pair of earbud headphones out of the cardboard container, then tossed the packaging into a black steel trash bin which stood next to the bench. He put on the headphones, flipped the power switch, and pressed play.
No less than six portable music formats had acquired popular acceptance since the Second Impact. The venerable Compact Disc still clung to life in 2016, though its market share had dropped to something akin to vinyl LPs in the late 1980's. DVD-Audio had only received moderate success, despite optimistic predictions by so-called experts in the earliest years of the 21st century. S-DAT's low price point allowed it to carve out a niche market for itself, in spite of critical reviews as harsh as DVD-Audio's had been glowing. C/RAM (Compact Recordable Audio Media, a format based on advanced floppy diskette technology) had completely failed to catch on, despite an ad campaign that seemed to feature every well-known television personality between 18 and 25 years of age.
The two real survivors in the format wars had been MiniDisc and NoteFlash. Sony introduced, mismarketed, and all but gave up on MD twice before finally getting it right in 2004—two years later, it had taken over the role of market leader. NoteFlash had successfully coexisted with MD by presenting itself as a budget alternative. It was the descendant of MP3 flash media which had debuted in the late 1990s, extremely portable and featuring the latest in audio compression technology. What had won over consumers most, though, was that NoteFlash didn't require a player of any kind. The listener could simply plug a set of headphones into the built-in jack, then kick back to some tunes for as long as the tiny, replaceable carbon-chain realignment battery lasted.
Shinji closed his eyes, and reveled in the opening strains of the first track of Vivaldi's Popular Works. "Spring" wasn't a terribly appropriate track for a day when patches of snow still dotted the landscape, but listening to it helped Shinji focus on the matter at hand: what to do next.
He had spent the train ride to Nashua in a state of mild paranoia, laying low and worrying that DJ's actions were really just a setup of some kind. The phrase "killed while trying to escape" had sprung to mind five minutes out of the station, and he chided himself for being so naive as to think he could just walk away. But no one had come for him when the train stopped in Lowell (he had planned to get off at the first stop, but the look of the city had struck him as singularly uninviting), and when he stepped off the platform in Nashua, New Hampshire, there was no sniper waiting to end his life in the shadows. As far as he could tell, DJ had disobeyed orders and let him escape.
Even so, DJ's secret wouldn't be safe forever, so Shinji had quickly left the station behind. He quickly got lost, since he had no familiarity with the city—but he hadn't really been looking for anything, anyway, so it wasn't a serious concern. What he wanted most was a chance to think, to sort out all that had happened to him over the past few weeks. He didn't dare venture away from the crowds, though. As long as he was in view of the general populace, NERV probably wouldn't try to kill him—he hoped.
But the bustle of the crowds had played hell with Shinji's ability to think clearly. His neighborhood in Japan was much more heavily populated than Nashua, but back home his focus would have been aided by the old S-DAT Walkman that his uncle had handed down to him, and which he carried with him everywhere he went. Everywhere but the SEELE briefing, that is—he had dressed up that day, expecting an inteview, and left everything extraneous at home.
Oh, well, he mused silently. If I'd brought it, it'd be somewhere in the Arctic right now—and where would that get me? As it was he'd had to leave behind the MD-Walkman one of the friendlier tech types at the SEELE training facility had scared up for him. It was just as well; the selection of music, dubbed from the tech's own collection, leaned heavily toward progressive rock, which, while not objectionable, didn't move Shinji the way the great composers did.
Luckily, Ikari had happened across an electronics store, and was able to find something that could serve the same purpose. It was fairly cheap, too—an important factor, since he was traveling the countryside on the $237 that DJ had handed to him as he exited the car. (He'd definitely planned to fund the escape from the start, Shinji realized, since $200 of that sum was comprised of crispy, never-used twenty dollar bills... fresh from an ATM in NERV HQ, undoubtedly.) Shinji had never realized how soothing the soft click-whirr-click of the S-DAT's mechanisms had been, but faced with the MD-Walkman's almost inaudible whirr and the NoteFlash's completely silent controls, he found the lack of such sounds slightly jarring.
Still, Vivaldi had carved out a small mental space in which Shinji could feel isolated, for a time. His situation, he decided, was unfortunate but not dire. If NERV hadn't found him yet, they'd have a difficult time pinning down his location now. Even if they'd forced DJ to confess knowledge of his extended family's home states, any searches along those routes would come up empty. It had been careless of DJ to ask, and Shinji had maintained just enough sense to lie. He hoped Croft would understand, if it ever got back to him, that Shinji had meant no personal offense in doing so.
Anyway, he'd used the lie to obscure his trail while he struck off in a completely different direction. Going north did limit his destinations, to be sure, but perhaps he would go to Canada. Shinji seemed to remember someone telling him that the exchange rate was favorable there. He thought he remembered his uncle mentioning a cousin who lived in Vancouver, which Shinji believed was somewhere in Canada, and he could catch an intercontinental flight home from Montreal if need be, in any event.
The plan (such as it was) made sense, but something in Ikari's heart was nagging at him. He'd never liked the thought of running away, even though he'd proven more than adept at it over the years—depressingly so. He'd run away from Worcester-3, and that was the start of this whole mess...
Wait, he rationalized. Didn't DJ himself tell you that leaving NERV behind was the smart thing to do? And wasn't refusing to run away from SEELE what really got you into trouble? If you had left Natla and her slideshow behind, you wouldn't be watching over your shoulder for undercover agents. You wouldn't have risked your life (or Rei's) in that failed assault on the city. You'd never even have met DJ Croft, or Asuka Langley, or...
Shinji's heart raced at the thought of the dark-haired girl who had given comfort to him during the long days at the training facility. What of Ichi? Surely she was still there, sitting in her room, waiting for the day when he'd return safely... and waiting for the day when NERV's alleged reign of terror ended.
Alleged. It was a lie, he knew that now. NERV was not the evil organization that Natla had made it out to be—he was sure of that much. (They probably still wanted him dead, after what he tried to do in Unit 04, but he'd brought that on himself.) The children were not held against their will, as he'd been told. Natla had known all along that it was a lie, but it was a plausible lie, one that Shinji had been all too ready to believe.
Shinji had escaped SEELE's grasp by a stroke of luck, and NERV's by an act of charity. But Ichi remained imprisoned—physically by SEELE, and emotionally by the web of falsehoods that Natla had carefully engineered for her. How could he leave her behind now?
For that matter, how could he abandon DJ, Asuka, Rei, and Jon? It had been for the children that he had gone along with the lie to start with... and although they weren't prisoners, they were certainly still in danger. Natla wouldn't cease her plans just because Shinji had lost—his failure would only be a temporary setback to someone with her resources. And as of now, he was the only person outside of Natla's circle who had any concrete knowledge of what she was up to, or what she had at her disposal.
His own safety aside, how could he run away now, and risk having that valuable information vanish with him?
The third movement of "Winter" was just ending, and Shinji switched off the unit as the final notes faded out. The bargain-bin device had served its purpose—his only reasonable course of action was clear to him, now.
Shinji thrust the NoteFlash and the headphones into his pocket, and went into a convenience store to ask for directions to a bus terminal.
Asuka Sōryū-Langley sat on the couch at Apartment 3-D, alone but for Pen-Pen, who was sprawled in a nap-state at the end of the love seat. It appeared that she was reading a book, but the page-turning was just a mechanical reflex. If asked, she couldn't have told anyone what book she was reading, let alone what the last page had been about. She was using the familiar movements as a cover for fretting.
She was frightened for DJ. By the time he'd returned to Central Dogma, the Security force had noticed that Shinji Ikari was missing, and DJ too. A search had been underway for half an hour when DJ suddenly walked into the command center and announced flatly that he had let Ikari go.
Misato had hit the ceiling. DJ had taken it upon himself to release a captured enemy pilot?! The richest potential source of inside information about the enemy yet available, and DJ had given him money and let him walk away? What the hell did DJ think he was doing, if he didn't mind the impertinence of her asking?
DJ replied stiffly that he thought the expediencies of war had crushed enough lives, thank you very much, and Shinji Ikari deserved a chance to escape it while he still could.
Misato, so furious as to be almost inarticulate, had set NERV Security to the daunting task of boarding all passenger trains originating from Worcester at their first major stops and searching them, had dismissed all operational staff, and had confined DJ to the base until the searches were concluded. Asuka had wanted to stay—something in DJ's eyes frightened her—but Misato had ordered her to leave, and, not wanting to heighten the tension any further, Asuka had gone.
Now she was at home, fretting. Would they catch Ikari? If they did, what would they do to him? What would Misato do to DJ? It struck her as disturbing that the core of their group, the group that had successfully stood up to the alien infiltration of NERV and was starting to chart the organization's new course toward safeguarding the future, was starting to fracture over something like this.
What disturbed her even more, though, was the look she'd seen in DJ's eyes as he'd made his announcement. He looked beaten. Tired. Burned out. She realized, now that she thought about it, the relentless pounding he'd been enduring almost since day one. His personality was such that he took everything possible onto himself; he tried to do everything for everyone. He'd never really had a chance to rest since the war began, and for the last few weeks the punishment had been steadily accelerating.
He hadn't had time to deal with his feelings for her before her grievous injury.
He hadn't had time to deal with that before his subsumation into his EVA against the Thirteenth Angel.
He hadn't had time to deal with that experience before discovering that his father was dead.
He hadn't had time to deal with that loss before, if you'll pardon the expression, all hell broke loose with Jon, and Rei, and Professor Ikari.
He hadn't had time to deal with that before Ritsuko Akagi had tried to take her own life.
He kept running from crisis to crisis, trying to shoulder every burden he could see, and now he was starting to crack. He'd had to be strong for everyone in their turn, and since the one night when he and Rei had vanished, a night neither of them had ever talked about, no one had been able to be strong for him.
Asuka wanted desperately to go to him, hold him, and be strong for him; but Central Dogma was locked down tight, and there was nothing for him there tonight but the cold censure of Misato, who, Asuka knew, must have felt as though DJ had betrayed her. She might be able to understand his motivation if she stopped to think about it, but she had her own pressures to deal with, and she wasn't in a position to stop and think. She had the responsibility of command, and she had to act within it.
"Damn it!" Asuka cried, throwing down the book.
"Waugh?" asked Pen-Pen, jarred awake.
Asuka got up and paced the room like a caged tiger. "Damn it," she repeated, gesturing angrily. "There must be a way to break through this, this fog of misunderstanding. There must!"
Pen-Pen cocked his head in apparent confusion.
"I've all but recovered from my injuries," she went on. "Even my leg doesn't hurt me any more, and the limp is almost gone. I can afford to be the strong one for a while."
That sounded definitive, so Pen-Pen chipped in an affirmative-sounding, "Waugh." The penguin had no idea what the redhead was on about, but he could see that she was working herself into a froth over it, and he had learned by now that there was no percentage in getting involved in that sort of thing. He got up and discreetly retired to his refrigerator, leaving her to it.
Not noticing that she'd lost her audience, Asuka paced and muttered, "Jon and Rei are reeling from all they've learned about themselves. Misato is crushed under the weight of command. DJ is burning out. I'll have to take my turn!" She nodded firmly.
Just as she went to the kitchen to get her coat, go out, and do something, the doorbell rang.
She stopped. Who in the hell could that be, and where did they get off interrupting her moment? Everyone who she could think of who would visit the apartment had a keycode. Puzzled, she went and opened the door.
Standing on the threshold was Shinji Ikari.
"Ikari!" she cried; then she poked her head out into the corridor and looked around to see if he was alone. He was. She grabbed his arm. "Get inside before someone sees you!" she commanded, and yanked him bodily across the threshold.
"Ulp—!" said Shinji as she hauled him into the kitchen and shut the door behind him. "Uh, hello, Miss Langley..."
"What are you doing here?" she asked him. "I thought DJ let you go! He's down there catching hell for it right now. They're scouring all the train lines for you."
"I, uh... I decided to come back," said Shinji as she herded him to the living room.
"Why?" asked Asuka. Then, before Shinji could answer, she said, "No, save it—you'll have to tell Misato anyway. How did you find us?"
"You're in the telephone directory," Shinji said. "Once I remembered Brigadier Katsuragi's full name it was easy. I didn't want to go back to NERV Headquarters—I thought they might shoot me or something..."
DJ keyed the door to 3-D open wearily, hung his overcoat on a peg, and slumped in the doorway of the living room, leaning against the wall.
"Honey," he said in a dull, exhausted voice, "I'm home."
"We have company, dear," Asuka replied with a grin.
DJ pried his eyes open to look at her quizzically, then realized there was somebody in the armchair by the TV.
"Shinji!" he shouted. "Bloody hell! What are you doing here?!"
Shinji smiled sheepishly. "I... I didn't think it was right leaving you all to face this by yourselves." His face became sober, even rather stern, and suddenly the younger Ikari reminded DJ of the elder as he said, "I can help. I should help. So... I came back."
DJ sniffed with mock disgust, turned his back and went to the kitchen. "Bloody ingrate, you are," he said, and Asuka smiled to see him regaining his humor a bit.
Shinji got up and went after him into the kitchen. "No, that's not true," he said. "I'm very grateful to you, for leaving the choice to me. But don't you see—once you gave me the choice, it was mine to make."
DJ turned, stared intently at Shinji, and then grinned.
"You know," he said, "you're absolutely right." He opened the fridge, stuck his head in, then reached an arm back without looking at Shinji and offered him a black metal can. "Beer?"
Shinji recoiled. "No!" he said indignantly.
DJ looked back over his shoulder. "Suit yourself, no need to get upset." He delved back into the fridge. "Would you care for anything else?" he asked from inside it. "Let's see, spring water, Pepsi, ginger ale, dubious-looking 'energy drink'—whose is that?"
"It's mine," Asuka called from the living room. "It was supposed to help me with my rehab exercises. I can't stand the stuff. Shinji can have it if he wants."
"Uh, ginger ale," said Shinji.
Misato Katsuragi couldn't remember the last time she'd been so angry. At DJ, of all people! From Kaji, she would have expected an act of such wanton irresponsibility, but DJ? She'd come to rely on him, his discretion, his bolstering moral confidence. And then he turns around and pulls a stunt like this, and what's worse, he refuses to explain why except in cryptic, bullshit, philosophical riddles! Security teams had boarded and searched every passenger train in every major station within fifty miles of Worcester and turned up nothing. Shinji Ikari, their one solid source of information about the inner workings of SEELE, had vanished like a puff of smoke.
Misato slammed the door of her apartment behind her, slung her jacket toward a peg and missed, ignored it, got a beer from the fridge, downed it, got another, and stormed into the living room, a fifty-watt glower in place just for good measure if anyone happened to be in there. The whole damn world deserved to be glowered at tonight.
The first victim of the glower was Shinji Ikari.
"GYAAAAAAAAA—!" Misato cried, stopping dead in her tracks and pointing. "Wh-wh-what's he doing here?!" she demanded.
Shinji reddened a little and said, "People keep wondering that."
Misato looked at DJ. "Did—no. Of course you didn't. Why would you set up a situation where you caught that much hell, just to give me a shock?"
DJ shook his head. "I was as surprised as you." He reflected on her reaction, then said, "Well, perhaps a bit less."
Shinji broke into the byplay diffidently: "Uh... Brigadier, I'm... I'm ready to answer any questions you have."
Misato stared at him for a moment, then forced herself to become businesslike and sat down in an armchair. "I want to know anything you can tell me about them."
DJ held up a hand. "I'd like the rest to be in on it, if you don't mind, Misato."
Misato waved a hand. "Sure, fine. Their living room's bigger... let's go there."
DJ nodded. "I'll see to it," he said, and went next door. A moment later, he put his head in and said, "All right, come on." Shinji, Asuka and Misato relocated to the larger living room of Apartment 3-F, newly tidied up, its furniture and windows repaired, after the clash that had taken place there not too long before. On the love seat along the far wall sat Rei Ayanami and Jon Ellison, the one curious, the other looking rather sullen. Shinji couldn't yet have known that Jon always looked sullen when he was really just upset, so he avoided the tall pilot's baleful green eyes. He only glanced briefly at Rei, too—her resemblance to Ichi was too painful to look at for long.
"OK," said Misato briskly after they were all settled. "Now that we're all here, what do you have for us?"
Shinji shrugged. "I can tell you about what I saw, and how I was trained, and what they told me about you. But to be honest, a lot of it still doesn't make much sense to me. Especially now that I know that most of what I was told were lies."
"Perhaps we should start, then," DJ interjected. "You've been lied to by both sides, and it's time you heard the real story—all of it." He turned to Misato, who nodded her approval. DJ seemed about to speak, then paused, scratching his chin. "Damned if I know where to start, though," he admitted after a moment.
"At the beginning?" Shinji offered.
DJ sat pondering for a moment, tapping his fingers against the side of his chair, then stood up. "Right. Just a moment," he said, then strode out of the room.
This did little to lessen Shinji's sense of confusion, but at least this time he knew he wasn't alone. Asuka, Misato and Rei were swapping curious glances, neither quite sure what their compatriot had in mind. Jon gazed moodily out the window he had jumped through not too many days before.
DJ returned to the room with an armload of books—a few hardcovers and five or six paperbacks of various sizes. He carefully placed the stack on his chair, then lifted one of the hardbacks in the air for all to see.
"Almost Armaggeddon: A Scientific Analysis of the Second Impact," he said, his voice clinical. "'This 510-page volume elaborates upon the universally accepted theory that an asteroid struck Antarctica on April 1, 2000, and features quotes and findings from highly respected researchers from facilities all over the globe,'" he read from the flyleaf. "It spent twelve weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, earned its author a fistful of literary awards, is required reading in any university course on the subject and is generally considered the authoritative work. It's well-written and quite scholarly. Unfortunately, it's complete bunk."
After placing the book in front of Shinji, DJ produced a trio of paperbacks, their covers much more lurid than that of the rather clinical-looking hardcover. "These three books offer alternative theories of the events of that fateful day. The first provides allegedly irrefutable evidence that the disaster was the result of a top-secret U.S. weapons test gone horribly awry. (The weapon, incidentally, is supposed to have been based on the device used by Nikola Tesla to cause the Tunguska Event in 1908. Interesting notion, but wrong.) The second insists that the events were a warning strike by hostile aliens bent on conquering the planet. The third is a poorly-written religious diatribe warning readers that the Second Impact was a punishment from God for the manifold sins of Man. The first two were used as the basis for major motion pictures, the third had to settle for TV movie status in the US and UK."
DJ deposited the paperbacks on top of the first book, then began shuttling all of his remaining literature onto the table, one volume after another. "Diary entries from Second Impact survivors—well, survivors of the aftermath, really... tales of structures built to hold back the rising waters... accounts of the political turmoil that erupted in the wake of the catastrophe. Hundreds of books were printed in the years that followed, covering all aspects of the event and its aftermath."
DJ dismissed the pile of books with a negligent wave of his hand and said to Shinji, "You could read every one of them, and you still wouldn't know the truth—because SEELE has spent fifteen years making sure that no one learned it."
Shinji gazed thoughtfully at him, but made no comment.
After retaking his seat, DJ continued, "Shinji, do you believe in angels?"
"Do you mean the kind that attacked Worcester-3, or the kind that come from Heaven and have wings?" replied Shinji. It was clear that the question struck him as odd.
"Either. Both. You see, they're the same."
"What?!" cried out Misato, who had been letting her attention drift, aided by the alcohol in her system and her now-shattered belief that she knew the details of the story DJ was preparing to tell. Shinji had remained silent, but it was clear from his expression that he would have said the same thing if Misato hadn't beaten him to it.
"We didn't tell you before because we weren't sure that you'd believe us," offered Rei. "But we're running out of time, and you need to know."
Brigadier Katsuragi slumped further in her chair, putting her fingertips to her forehead. "Nothing that's happened today has made any kind of sense. Why should I expect it to start now?"
It took an hour and a half for the children to tell the whole story. First came the discussion of Rei's true nature, then the tale of Lucifer's failed ascension and Natlateth's betrayal. This segued into a short history lesson on X-COM, the Hidden War, and NERV's early days (including Yui's death and Gendō's ensnarement). Next, each of the children explained how they came to be part of Project Evangelion (except for Jon, who left his story to be told by Rei). Finally, Shinji was brought up to date on all that had happened since the first Angel attack, culminating in the events which had prompted the split from SEELE.
When it was over, Shinji looked almost overwhelmed. Misato appeared skeptical, but didn't speak.
Ikari broke the silence with a quiet, "Wow."
"It's a lot to take all at once," agreed DJ, "but at least you've heard it. Now you know everything that we do. What can you tell us that we don't know?"
"They contacted me at my uncle's house. They told me it had something to do with a special program for musically talented students—I play the cello," he said, and then wondered why he had told them that. Surely it was of no interest.
Jon Ellison looked up with the first look of real interest his face had held all night. "I play guitar," he said, his voice hoarse as if with disuse.
Shinji looked taken aback, and finally met Ellison's eyes. He was startled by what he saw there. He'd taken Ellison's aloofness for coldness, and decided that the young man was just an unfriendly sort, but now he could see that Jon's eyes were deeply troubled. Something very big was bothering him, eating at him, and having heard what he'd just heard, Shinji could guess what it was. His heart went out to Jon, and he smiled as best he could in the circumstances.
"What style?" he asked.
"Anything that comes to hand," Jon replied. "Blues, jazz, classical, some early rock. I don't have an electric, so it's mostly old-fashioned stuff." There was a note of desperation in Jon's voice, an almost inaudible strain, and hearing it made Shinji do his best to widen his smile a little.
"That's nice," he said, and not dismissively as so many people use the phrase. "I've adapted some of Bach's pieces into duets. We should try playing them sometime."
The corners of Jon's mouth twitched up a little, and some light came into his eyes.
"I'd like that," he said, and retired back into silence. Rei squeezed his hand, and for the first time that day, he squeezed it back.
Shinji looked at them together for a moment, felt a twinge of pain, and dragged his eyes back to Misato and his mind back to the topic at hand. "Sorry, uh... oh, yes. I went to meet with them. When I got there, they told me that they had lied. They introduced me to a woman named Jacqueline Natla, who said she wanted to talk to me about my father, and all of the horrible things he was doing." Shinji frowned. "It was my visit to Worcester-3, all over again. I almost walked out right there, but she assured me that she only wanted me to watch some film footage. I'd be free to leave after that, if that was what I wanted to do."
"That must have been quite a highlight film," Asuka added, bitterness clear in her voice.
"Uh... yeah. Just about everything that's gone wrong in Worcester-3 got at least a few seconds. I think I knew that they must have been exaggerating things a little bit, but... it didn't matter. If things out here were even half as bad as what they showed me..." Shinji trailed off, shaking his head as if trying to jar loose the memory of the footage from his mind. No one made any impatient noises, so he stopped to compose himself before continuing.
"They briefed me on all of you. Misato was a figurehead. Jon was the devoted follower. DJ was a psychotic, brainwashed puppet. Asuka was crippled to set an example. And Rei..." Shinji turned to face Rei, an almost apologetic look on his face, "they knew what I'd seen here, and they took advantage of it. They told me exactly what I'd been afraid of—that Rei was held here against her will."
"Where did they take you after that?" Misato inquired.
"I don't know, exactly. They kept me blindfolded most of the time until I got there. It was a training facility—I don't know if it was their only one—and it was huge. It was in the Arctic somewhere."
Misato looked doubtful. "X-COM has access to spy satellites that can cover that entire area. If SEELE had a large facility in the Arctic, we'd know about it."
"No," said Shinji unequivocally. "It was definitely above the Arctic Circle. They didn't tell me, I figured that out from the readings I got from EVA-04's instruments. But only the testing grounds were on the surface—they had to transport me there every time I had a live EVA test."
"Are you saying SEELE's training facility is an undersea base? Under the ice pack?"
"Maybe. That's the weird thing. During some of the simulation tests, I'd swear that we were moving. The navigational instruments didn't stay constant, so unless there was something interfering with them, we must have been."
"A submarine?" Asuka pondered aloud. "Could SEELE have built a submarine large enough to transport an EVA?"
"It's possible," Misato replied. "We talked with Harland & Wolff about it, messed around with the idea a bit, back when we were working with Antonov on the An-411, but it would've been too expensive. SEELE certainly doesn't have to worry about the costs involved, and it would explain why we've never managed to detect their base. We'll definitely have to look into it."
"What about the personnel?" prompted DJ. "Who manned the base?"
Shinji wrinkled his brow in concentration. "Natla was there, but you knew that already. The mission commander—the one who talked to me during my tests and during the attack—was a woman named Kaori Yamashita."
"That name is familiar," grumbled Misato. "Where do I know that name from?"
"I don't know... she mentioned that she used to work at someplace called Western House," offered Shinji.
"Right!" exclaimed Misato. "Westinghouse. They're one of the EVA manufacturers. Yamashita was the project lead. I've never met her, but Ritsuko used to deal with her a lot, and I've seen some of her memos. I gathered she went to school with Ritsuko's mother."
"I don't think she knows everything that's going on," Shinji added hastily. "Natla always felt like she was hiding something, but Kaori always seemed honest. I don't think she ever hid anything."
"Some people are very good at lying, Shinji."
Shinji shook his head violently. "Not Kaori."
Misato sighed in resignation, realizing that this was an argument she couldn't win. "It doesn't matter. We don't have any contacts within SEELE, so there's no way to contact her. She's on her own."
That definitely wasn't what Ikari wanted to hear, but there was nothing to be done about it now. "I don't remember any of the other officers," he confessed. "I didn't talk to them very much. I'm sorry."
"What about other pilots?" Rei asked. "Was there anyone else our age?"
Shinji cringed instinctively—partly because of the question, and partly because of who asked it. "I... no. No pilots. There was only one other person there my age, and she wasn't in the training program."
"Then what was she doing there?" Misato asked.
"She..." Shinji fought back memories and tears as he spoke. "She said that she was there for her protection."
Misato could tell that the boy was holding something back, and was in no mood for it. "Protection from what? And do you know her name?"
Shinji briefly looked towards Rei, but couldn't bring himself to maintain eye contact. "Protection from NERV. Her name..." Shinji paused, seemed to gather himself, and said all in a rush, "Her name is Ichi, Ichi Ayanami."
Five pairs of eyes grew very wide at that revelation. DJ was the first to speak, his expression one of pained realization.
"Oh, Christ," he muttered.
"She said..." continued Shinji, slightly stunned by the magnitude of the reaction he had caused, "she said she was Rei's sister. Was that a lie?"
"Not entirely," came the reply from Rei herself. Shinji looked puzzled.
"I found her in a storage vault deep within NERV's headquarters complex," DJ told him. "In a cryo-stasis tube, along with ten more. That was right before we broke away from SEELE. We weren't able to go back down there until the purge started... when we got back there, they were gone. Someone had taken them away. They're... well, we think they're copies of Rei, of one variety or another. You're the only one of us that has actually seen one."
"She was my friend!" Shinji pleaded, as if begging not to be contradicted. "She couldn't have known what was going on, I'm sure of it. She must have been brainwashed—given the same kind of story I was."
"Actually, that's possible," admitted Misato. "SEELE needs them to be cooperative. No matter what Ichi told you, Shinji, I'll guarantee you that SEELE intends to use her as a pilot. She just may not realize it, yet."
Shinji had no answer for that. He was too busy fighting away memories of what he had thought were better times.
Misato yawned, looked at her watch, and winced. "One last thing," she said. "Did they tell you what their future plans were?"
"No, except for what I was supposed to do. The attack I made was supposed to be one of many—I was supposed to weaken your defenses a little bit each time. But I don't know any of the specifics. I think they were waiting to see how the first one went."
"Hopefully, it went badly enough that they won't try again real soon. And they're short an EVA, for now." Misato stood up, wiped her eyes, and yawned again. "That's about all I'm good for tonight—I've got to get some sleep. Shinji, you can sleep in 3-F's spare room. There will probably be more questions tomorrow, by someone who is actually trained in debriefing... and awake." As she reached the door dividing her apartment from Jon and Rei's, she turned back to Shinji. "Thank you for coming back, Shinji. You did a brave thing. This will help."
Shinji sighed, his mind still a jumble of unidentified emotions. "I hope so."
As Shinji climbed into bed, he heard a soft knock at his door.
DJ Croft, clad in pajamas and a robe, stepped into the room. "Sorry to keep you up, Shinji, but there's something I have to know... and I didn't want to ask in front of everyone else."
"OK... " Shinji answered, hesitantly.
"What didn't you tell us about Ichi?"
Shinji froze. He'd almost gotten away with circumventing this topic. He'd almost gotten away with suppressing his thoughts of the night he and Ichi had spent together. But now... now it all came thundering back. And so did the tears. His eyes met DJ's, and he was surprised to find a hint of... sadness?... in the Britisher's eyes.
"She... we... we were..."
DJ closed his eyes. "Lovers?" he said softly.
The word struck Shinji like a fist, but there was also a sense of relief that he hadn't had to say it himself.
"Yes," he said, the word coming out in a choked sob. "Once."
DJ let out a long, slow breath, and placed a hand on Shinji's shoulder without looking at him. "I was afraid that might be it."
Shinji's tears flowed like a waterfall, now, and he began to cry audibly.
"She... she said... that is—we..."
DJ shook his head, eyes still closed. "No. You don't have to explain." He opened his eyes and chuckled wryly. "Lord knows I'm in no position to judge you." He took a deep breath. "I'm sorry, Shinji. I won't tell anyone else, if you don't want me to. Will you be all right tonight? If you need company..."
"I'll make it," Shinji managed to get out between sobs.
DJ looked at him for a few moments, decided that Shinji knew himself well enough to make that call, and said, "All right, then. If you need anything, just tell Hal."
DJ stood up to leave, muttering a curse in Natla's general direction—wherever she was. At the doorway, he turned back for a moment.
"Shinji... if we can get her out of there, we will. I promise."
No reply was forthcoming, and DJ showed himself out.
He went through 3-F's living room, passed through the sliding door into 3-D, and stood in the middle of the other living room for a few seconds with his hands clenched into fists at his sides.
"Fuck," he said in a calm and distinct voice.
"That bad?" said a soft, ever so slightly amused voice from the doorway behind him. He turned to see Rei Ayanami regarding him with the slightest of smiles.
"Very possibly worse," he said, keeping his voice down out of deference to the people trying to sleep. He walked back to the doorway. "Is Jon any better?"
Rei's smile remained, wistful, breaking his heart. "Jon has hope," she said. "He forces himself to keep distant—he's afraid he'll try to hurt me again—and he has no trust in himself, but he dares to hope again. In time, it may be enough."
DJ sighed. "I wish there was something I could do for him."
"For now, the knowledge that you have that wish is enough—maybe all he can stand. It's hard for him, DJ. Perhaps Kevin—Tabris—could have helped him find his balance again, but... I fear for Tabris as well." She closed her eyes and looked down, and a single tear trickled down one cheek.
DJ wiped it away with his thumb and held that side of her face in his hand, tipping it up slightly and smiling sadly at her as she opened her eyes again.
"I'm around if you need me," he said.
She reached up, closed her hand around his wrist, and returned the smile.
"And I, you," she said softly; then she turned slowly and went back to her own apartment to resume her vigil.
DJ looked after her for a moment, then turned and went to his bedroom. After a few restless minutes, he decided he couldn't face solitude tonight, and went quietly to Asuka's room.
She was asleep, but that was all right; all he wanted was to be near her. He slipped carefully under the covers on the far side of the bed, moving slowly and quietly so as not to disturb her, and wandered off to sleep after only a few minutes.
Rei, the only one still awake, sat next to Jon's bed looking down at his lean face, the lines of trouble etched into it by recent weeks smoothed away again in sleep. As she did every night, she sang softly, almost under her breath, the melody that she and Tabris had used to calm him that awful night in the Wedge. It seemed to bring him peace and help him sleep, even in plain voice.
Alone in Apartment 3-F the following afternoon, Shinji Ikari sat on the couch, feeling glum. This was a novel experience in some ways: he'd absorbed so much information over the past few days, all of it of staggering importance and incredible weirdness, that he couldn't make sense of any of it, let alone all of it; but he wasn't reacting to it with his usual panicked intensity. Instead, it all sort of vaguely depressed him. He felt filled with a kind of morbid ennui, as though nothing really mattered any more—the world had stopped making sense entirely, and there was nothing to be gained by panic, or industry, or anything else. He'd tried to strive for right once already, and look where that had gotten him.
He shook his head, angry with himself. Are you going to sit on someone else's sofa and mope for the rest of your life? he demanded. You have a chance to start over. Why don't you take it?
Because, he told himself in reply, I don't know how much of what anyone has told me is true any more.
His father, for all the years he'd been hateful and distant, had been acting against his will? Gendō Ikari, a puppet of a cruel and spiteful intelligence from beyond? It was almost too absurd to believe, but then, so was the idea of a race of giants controllable only by teenage children with special psionic gifts.
Rei Ayanami, an angel? Shinji didn't even believe in angels. And if Rei wasn't a... well, wasn't a person like regular people, how could she have a sister?
And if she couldn't, then who had Ichi been?
Everything Ichi had told him about her life and family was a lie if anything the people here told him about Rei was true.
He couldn't believe that Rei would lie to him; but he couldn't believe that Ichi had, either. Ichi had cared for him. Ichi had trusted him. Ichi had...
Shinji wrenched his thoughts away from that path and looked around the room for something, anything, to keep himself from thinking of her.
Standing in the corner of the room, miraculously unharmed by the melee that had wrecked this room a few weeks before, was Jon Ellison's guitar, a gleaming acoustic National. Shinji got up and went to it, then paused. Would Ellison mind? He wasn't around to ask...
... but if Shinji didn't do something else with his mind he was going to go insane.
He picked up the guitar and took it back to the couch with him. It hadn't been played in a while; he fiddled around for a while, tuning it and reacquainting himself with the instrument. He hadn't played anything but a cello for months.
Then, satisfied that he'd got it about where he wanted it, he started playing. First he strummed aimlessly; then he started to settle into a pattern, remembering a chord progression he'd learned when he'd first started with music. As he grew more and more absorbed, remembering more and more of the tune as he remembered it, he began to smile and lose track of his surroundings. Eventually, he got to a point where he had taken the instrumental line as far as it could go, so he stopped, reoriented himself, and started over, this time quietly singing,
Come gather 'round people, wherever you roam,
And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon you'll be drenched to the bone—
If your time to you is worth savin'
Then you'd better start swimmin' or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'.
He picked up a little speed and started adding embellishments to the basic progression, his voice gathering a bit of intensity.
Come writers and critics who prophesy with your pen
And keep your eyes wide, the chance won't come again,
And don't speak too soon for the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who that it's namin'
For the loser now will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'.
Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call—
Don't stand in the doorway, don't block the hall,
For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled,
There's a battle outside and it's ragin'—
It'll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'.
Completely absorbed now, Shinji closed his eyes and played through a short improvised bridge, his fingers rapidly regaining confidence as they plied the instrument. When he took up the verses again, it was with full voice, all the more because the next verse was the one that had always hit him the hardest.
Come mothers and fathers throughout the land,
And don't criticize what you can't understand—
Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command,
Your old road is rapidly agin',
Please get out of the new one if you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'.
He pulled the tempo and the intensity back with an effort, making himself use the last verse to wind the song down instead of building it further, and his voice faded almost to a whisper as he concluded,
The line it is drawn and the curse it is cast,
And the slow one now will later be fast,
As the present now will later be past—
The order is rapidly fadin',
And the first one now will later be last
For the times...
They are a-changin'.
He finished the last progression and let the guitar fall silent in his hands. He put it aside on the couch and sat quiet for a few moments. He had to admit, as he sat with his eyes closed and his breathing returning to normal, that he felt considerably better.
That, and he wanted his cello back.
The sound of one person's applause broke the silence, and Shinji jumped, coming to his feet in a rush and looking toward the doorway.
Gendō Ikari stood there, dressed more casually than Shinji could ever remember having seen him in jeans and a Nekomi Tech sweatshirt, a tentative smile on his face.
"What do you want?" Shinji asked. The words came out with more hostility than Shinji had intended. He couldn't help it—years of thinking of his father with anger and contempt had ingrained patterns in him that would take some effort to break. He wished he could take the words back and say them the way he'd wanted to say them, when he saw the pained look cross Gendō's face.
"I... I just..." Gendō trailed off, at a loss. Then, all at once, he strode into the room and seized Shinji in a powerful hug, a sob escaping from his throat. Shinji stiffened instinctively, stood like a wooden post for a few minutes, and then tentatively relaxed and accepted the embrace. He couldn't yet bring himself to return it; he was too shocked, and too accustomed to hating the man.
"I love you, son," Gendō Ikari whispered. "I'm sorry for all the times I made you think I didn't."
"F-Father," said Shinji, almost dumbstruck.
Gendō stepped back, Shinji's shoulders in his hands, letting the tears roll unchecked down his cheeks, and smiled. "You've grown so fast," he said. "I've missed your childhood. My God, I've missed everything."
"They... they told me you were being controlled. Your mind—controlled by, by aliens, or demons, or something."
Gendō nodded. "Yes, Shinji, that's true. But I can't put all the blame on them. That happened when you were three years old. I missed your first word, your first step, the first time you read anything by yourself, because I was too busy with my work. My damned work!" He drew the boy into his embrace again, running his right hand through the hair on the back of Shinji's head as he pressed the boy's face into his shoulder. "I was a bad father before they came. I can't change that, but I can try to make up for it, if you'll let me."
"Um... " Shinji had no idea what to say. He reflected with some annoyance that this phenomenon was becoming very familiar to him.
"I hate to interrupt," said another voice from the kitchen doorway, "but I've got a few things here that young Mr. Ikari might like to have."
Gendō turned, stepping aside, so Shinji could see who was in the doorway. It was a tallish Eurasian fellow with an unshaven, ruggedly handsome face set in a cheerful grin—Ryoji Kaji, whose picture had been shown to Shinji as that of one of NERV's chief enforcers, a humorless, murderous hatchet man. He and the two frightening men in black, the old white one and the young black one named Stanfield and Edwards, were supposed to be the principle agents of fear keeping the children in line. He certainly didn't look like an agent of fear right now. Over his shoulder he had a heavy-looking bag slung. His left hand held a suitcase, and his right a ponderous black case that Shinji immediately recognized.
"My cello!" he burst out. "Where did you get it?"
"At your uncle's place with the rest of your stuff," said Kaji, "where else? It was a long day, flying down there and back, but your dad let me borrow his JBS2, and I've always wanted to fly one of those."
"Jet, Business, Super-Sonic," said Gendō. "A high-speed executive transport. I used it to report to SEELE Headquarters in Switzerland. It's not really mine." He smiled at the other man. "Thank you, Kaji."
"No sweat. Which room should I put the stuff in?"
"At the end of the hall," said Shinji, pointing.
Kaji nodded and headed down the hall, whistling a happy tune.
"You sent him to get my things?" asked Shinji.
Gendō nodded. "I thought they might give you some comfort in this strange place."
Shinji's words stuck in his throat; he coughed, cleared his throat, and finally managed to say softly, "Thank you, Father."
"Shinji... will you come with me for a few minutes? There's something here in Worcester I think you ought to see."
They drove in silence across the half-ruined, almost-deserted city, Gendō distractedly guiding the car, which Shinji suspected was the same Chrysler DJ had used to take him to the train station the day before.
Shinji's puzzlement only deepened when they stopped in front of a small white church on the outskirts of town. He hadn't even known his father was religious, though he supposed that concept was kind of up for grabs after what he'd been told the night before. He wondered what his father was up to as Gendō led him into the cool wood-paneled expanse of the church's interior.
To his surprise, Gendō walked right through the church and out a side door, not giving the stained glass or the disturbingly realistic sculpture of Christ on his cross that hung over the altar a look.
Shinji followed him out, and they were standing in an old-fashioned churchside graveyard. Gendō walked between the stones, old and weathered leaning in between the occasional new or replacement marker, stopping not very far from a large, gnarled oak tree. Shinji thought the place was fairly creepy even in daylight, the very model of the Halloween thriller churchyard. He looked around nervously, and almost ran into his father's back as Gendō stopped before a marker. It was a newish-looking stone, horizontal rather than vertical and of only modest size, in pinkish polished granite.
August 9, 1977 – August 9, 2004
Scientist • Humanitarian • Mother
Shinji Ikari stared uncomprehendingly at his mother's tombstone for a moment, then fell to his knees and laid his hands against the cool stone, his eyes hot and stinging.
He could only dimly remember his mother, of course. She had died when he was three, and he'd been sent almost immediately back to Japan, where he'd been born, to live with his father's brother, Soichiro Rokobungi. His only memories were the faint and disjointed impressions of very early childhood—of warmth, and kindness, and an overwhelming sense of peace. He'd always felt her loss in an abstract kind of way, but now it slammed into him like a knee in the stomach, and dropped him from his feet just as effectively.
Gendō Ikari put his hand on his son's shoulder and said softly, "Your mother was the kindest woman who ever lived. She would be proud of the courage you showed in coming back to help us—as proud as I am."
Shinji looked up over his shoulder, dashing at his tears.
"You're... proud of me?" he asked.
Gendō nodded. "Very proud. You could have walked away and left us all to our fates, but you came back and offered what you could give. That was very brave."
Shinji's heart swelled. Could this man really be his father, the man who had alternately rejected him, ignored him, and reviled him all his life?
"How did Mother die?" he asked.
Gendō closed his eyes, thought for a moment, then opened them again.
"Jacqueline Natla murdered her," he said quietly.
Shinji's face hardened. "She murdered my mother, and then she tried to use me to murder my father." He stood up, anger making his movements convulsive. "God damn her!"
"I fear He already has," said Gendō sadly.
A terrible thought struck Shinji. "But—if Worcester-3 is destroyed, then—then—this place will go too!"
Gendō nodded. "That's why I thought you should see it now. While it's still here."
"Your mother isn't here, Shinji. This," he said, nudging the stone with the toe of one shoe, "is a symbol, nothing more. We came to this church sometimes, we were married here, so I thought it proper to put a marker here, but she's not here. The way she died... " Gendō stopped himself, shook his head, and said simply, "There was no body to bury."
"Oh." A new wave of fury struck him at that. Natla hadn't even left his father the clay to pay his final courtesy to! The heartless cruelty of it all...
He turned suddenly to his father, intensity shining in his face. At that moment, Gendō realized for the millionth time how much his son looked like his lost wife, and for the first time ever, that thought did not drive a dagger into his back.
"Father, when EVA-04 is repaired, I want to pilot it for you."
Gendō Ikari was appalled.
"No!" he said. "Absolutely not!"
"Shinji, please. Natla and SEELE are working hard to destroy everything I care about. You're almost all I have left. Please don't ask me to put you directly into the line of fire! All I want is for you to be as safe as we can make you."
Shinji would have protested—the notion had just struck him, but he felt terribly strongly about it—but the last thing he wanted in this new peace was to start an argument with his father, so he let the subject drop.
"All right, Father," he said. "I'll do as you ask."
Gendō put his hand on Shinji's shoulder again. "It's brave of you to offer, Shinji. Please don't think I don't have confidence in you. I just don't want you to be hurt any more."
Shinji nodded. "Sure. I understand." He tried out a smile. It felt all right, so he left it on his face. "Shall we go?"
"All right," said Gendō. He put his arm around his son's shoulders and the two of them left the churchyard behind.
The next morning found Asuka fretting about the EVA repair bay, Jon in one of the simulator rooms punishing himself through a series of difficult EVA sim exercises, Rei introspecting in the Wedge, Shinji playing video games nearby, and DJ and Gendō trying to finish up their interrupted conversation about the pharaoh Akhenaten from two days previous. Truss was tinkering with the still-incomplete operating code for Jet Alone, Maya was heading up the tech officers for the command room and Misato was using her assistance to run a conventional-defense drill—not that the city's conventional defenses amounted to much any more, or were worth anything without an EVA to back them up, but it was something to do.
The simulation was going fairly well when a group of three unauthorized air targets entered the city's defense perimeter for real, and set off alarms all over the place.
The console crew switched quickly and smoothly to real defense operations and took steps to identify the intruders. When that information appeared on his screen, Makoto Hyūga felt his heart sinking.
"Primary target is that Antonov 411 again," he reported. "It's deploying another Evangelion."
"Oh, hell," Misato growled. "Let's see it."
This one was blue rather than silver, and it bore no numeric markings at all, but it was a production-model Evangelion, all right—the FEISAR type, EuroEVA Mark I, rather than the Westinghouse Model 2014-A1 that Units 03 and 04 were. It had the EuroEVA's unmistakable quadroscopic sensor package, and sported slightly faster ground speed than the Westinghouse type in trade for its lighter battery load and lower uncabled endurance (though of course that disadvantage had been nullified by the development of the self-contained Evangelion power supply). At her first sight of it, Asuka's fists clenched reflexively; it was the same model as her own lost Unit 02, and but for its color it seemed identical.
"Defense systems, status report!" Misato barked.
"Air defenses at 62% capacity and falling," reported Shigeru Aoba from his status console. "Ground defenses at 34% capacity and falling. All Evangelion units non-functional. Conventional defenses ineffective, as usual."
This wasn't just a tactical strike like the last one. Misato could see that from the course the enemy EVA was following on the tac map. They knew, damn them, they knew NERV didn't have an operational Evangelion, and therefore had no effective defense against this assault. They must have rushed the attack—the unit wasn't even fully painted, they must have shoved it off the line at FEISAR just as fast as the techs could work—to take advantage of that vulnerability, and having committed themselves that far, they were going for the kill. The blue Evangelion was making for one of the primary surface access lifts. They'd all been shut down when Worcester-3 went into fortress mode, of course—fortress mode except the blocks of buildings downtown that, as they were completely abandoned, no one had seen the use in bothering to retract—but no doubt the EVA planned to use the shaft to gain access to the Geo-Front and make a direct assault.
She looked around the room, her eyes going from face to face, fixing them in her memory as they looked at that moment. Unless someone could come up with something brilliant, they were all done for, all their struggles for nothing, and Misato wasn't feeling very brilliant.
John Trussell's face suddenly and subtly changed, from grim resignation to tentative hope, and he softly murmured two words:
"What?" asked Misato, who hadn't heard him clearly.
"Jet Alone!" Truss shouted, banging his finger down on one of his panel's intercom keys. "STS to Silo 3 TechOps Chief, come in!"
"Silo 3, go," came the voice.
"Emergency. Give me an ETA to prepare Jet Alone for immediate launch."
"Uh, say again, STS?"
"I need an ETA to prep JA for immediate combat operations," Truss said. "How long?"
"Four minutes to arm the weapons, one to lock down for launch," the silo chief replied, picking up on the urgency in his superior's voice. "But, sir, most of the reactor housing armor is still off the unit, we've only just finished installing and calibrating the colliders and focus core."
Truss looked up from the panel. "How long before the enemy unit reaches Shaft One?"
"Twelve minutes, present speed," Makoto Hyūga replied.
"Get as much armor back on as you can in ten minutes, chief, and get those weapons armed. I'm on my way."
Silo 3 was located on the opposite side of Central Dogma from the Evangelion Operations Center, a little more than a mile away. It took two minutes for the Central Dogma internal rail system to get Truss and DJ down there. DJ spent the entire ride silently gazing out the window next to his seat aboard the monorail car, his face unreadable. Truss wondered what was going through his head.
He seemed to realize he was being observed; he turned his head to look at Truss, saw the look of concern on the technologist's face, and smiled at him.
"Once more unto the breach, dear friends," he said.
Thomas Ellison, the youngest of the Ellison brothers in terms of actual manufacture, couldn't help but sneer at the thought of his siblings (to say nothing of his eleven irksome cousins) all left behind while he got the opportunity to deliver the coup de grâce to NERV. Lucas had been absolutely furious when Natlateth had tapped Thomas for the all-or-nothing followup to the Ikari debacle, and the rest had been only slightly less perturbed—except Mathieu, perhaps, but nothing seemed to bother Mathieu. He went through life with a sort of cool superiority that had never failed to irritate anybody.
Well, so what if they were all angry. So what if the decision was arbitrary—Natlateth was the arbitrary type sometimes. What mattered was that it would be he, Thomas, who struck the final, fatal blow. Once he penetrated the Geo-Front, the traitors would be defenseless. He would hunt them down and crush them one by one. Maybe he'd bother capturing the EVA pilots, as he'd been instructed, and maybe not; it depended on his mood at the moment he encountered them. What could anyone say to him if he didn't bring them back? He'd still have won the war. All else was minutiae.
He'd just used one of SEELE's Armaments Division's refinements to a NERV EVA weapon, a grenade launcher slung under the standard autorifle, to take out a missile platform when his battle computer painted a new threat. One of the several false buildings that were used as surface points for Evangelion launches was active—the lights at its corners were flashing red and a new siren was hooting in the streets of Worcester-3, the twenty-second warning for anyone who might happen to be in the area to get clear of the building. Thomas scowled. What was this? They couldn't have an operational EVA; intelligence data confirmed that all of NERV's were out of commission.
"What the hell's this?" he demanded of his tac channel.
"Unknown, EVA-05," he got back from his field commander, a major whose name he hadn't bothered to learn, aboard the orbiting An-411. "Could be an EVA launch."
"Isn't that supposed to be impossible?" Thomas inquired sourly.
"It might be EVA-01," came the voice of Kaori Yamashita, who was monitoring the operation from a comm relay station at Central Command. "If it is, get clear immediately."
Thomas gulped down fear and forced his sneer back into place. "I can handle Croft," he said with more confidence than he felt, racking a fresh grenade into the launcher.
"Negative, EVA-05," said Yamashita. "If—"
"Proceed, EVA-05," Jacqueline Natla's voice interrupted. "Engage and destroy, whichever enemy unit it may be."
Thomas grinned. At least someone had some confidence in him.
The false building shook with the impact of an EVA platform delivery, then split down the middle and fell away to reveal a gantry, but what was positioned on that gantry was not an Evangelion.
Thomas Ellison stared at it in mute disbelief for two seconds, then burst out laughing.
"Control, are you seeing this?!" he demanded incredulously.
"We see it, EVA-05," said Natla. "It reveals the depth of their desperation. Destroy it."
"With pleasure," said Thomas, his amusement rapidly waning to be replaced by anger. How dare they send this toy against him? It was a slap in the face, a bald insult. Jet Alone wasn't even a weapon, it was a failed pork-barrel project—a bone tossed to AG Systems by the United States Army when they had lost the EVA Phase Two contract to FEISAR. NERV had been allowed to capture it because of its utter uselessness.
Thomas frowned crossly at it. What had NERV done to it? Its tentacle-like, multi-segmented arms were gone, replaced by thicker, heavier, conventionally-jointed arms like something off a huge cargo loader. Where they joined the still-intact sloping red pauldrons, the armor was marred by a patchwork of bare gray spots, weld scars, and surviving bits of the original red paint. The arms themselves were unfinished, with unpainted armor and some armor segments missing to expose the gleaming structure of magnetic rams beneath. The lower slopes of the chest panel on both sides were similarly burnt and scarred, as though some modifications had been done there too. There was no sign of the tall black actuating rods for the reactor core, which should have been jutting up behind the robot.
"EVA-05," said Yamashita's voice, "exercise caution. JA doesn't conform to our files; it's been modified."
"I can see that," Thomas replied sardonically. "Don't worry. Whatever they've done to it, it's still a toy." Thomas raised his EVA's autorifle and opened fire.
Ten seconds earlier, Truss looked over the status indicators for JA's systems and felt a surge of relief; everything seemed to be working properly, even with the incredible rush to reassemble the unit. The new operating code wasn't quite complete either, which he had expected would cause problems, but the unit seemed to be quite functional. He keyed open his comlink to the command pod.
"DJ, how's everything look down there?"
Two levels below the control booth was the Jet Alone Command Center, a large, mostly empty room that contained an Evangelion entry plug on a hydraulic motion-control rig of the sort used to manipulate the fake cockpits in airliner simulators. A thick bundle of cables and wires of a dozen or more different gauges and colors snaked from the front end of the plug like the green top on a carrot, ran across the concrete floor, and disappeared into what had been a ventilator duct in the opposite wall. They ran upstairs to the control booth, where most of them were connected to the consoles there, and a few were shunted into the main conduit system to run to the telemetry monitors that SHODAN maintained for all combat units.
It had to be admitted that the fit and finish of the new control setup inside the former entry plug wasn't up to the usual polished standards of the NERV Technical Division. In fact, it looked rather like a high school science fair project, with exposed wiring here and there, instruments haphazardly installed in spaces that weren't the right size and shape for them, and the occasional poorly-executed weld. DJ Croft sat in the middle of it, in shirtsleeves and tie, not having had time to change into his purely ceremonial jumpsuit. He was strapped down, because the command pod was on a motion-control rig for a reason, and getting chucked out of the remote control for one's giant robot was even more embarrassing than being unhorsed by the real thing.
He had on manipulator gloves wired into one of the consoles, a headband based on an EVA transducer unit but cabled to a computer behind his seat, and electrodes on his forearms, neck and ankles. The first were waldo-equipped for operating JA's hands; the second fed signals back and forth between his inner ear and JA's primary gyro to fine-tune balance sensations; the third monitored his vital signs, just in case. Without a direct neural interface there was no possibility of feedback, but who knew, the jury-rigged control system might blow a fuse and electrocute him or something. The plan had been to finish testing on the new configuration, then build a 'finished' command center close to the new MOCR in Halifax.
He ran his eyes over the status displays and said, "Power train looks good, weapons are standing by."
"Roger. Engage Ibuki-Trussell Field."
DJ looked down at the newest switch, a yellow and black striped toggle that had been jammed in above the weapons selection panel. They hadn't had a chance to test this in the real world yet. He wondered if it would blow them all up.
"Engaging," he said, and flipped it.
A red light next to it started flashing, accompanied by a rhythmic buzz.
"IT generator calibration error," DJ reported. The EVA-style wraparound situation displays had been kept unmodified, and on the center one, EVA-05 opened fire with what looked like a modified autorifle. DJ got Jet Alone moving, putting a building between himself and the attacker, and toggled the switch a few times. "Negative IT activation," he said, and tried to remain calm. Without the IT Field, JA was just a giant wind-up toy as far as the enemy EVA was concerned; there would be nothing to stop it wrecking the robot and then proceeding with its deadly mission unopposed.
"I see it, hang on," said Truss, pulling open another window. "I was afraid this might happen. Take evasive action while I see what I can do."
"Roger," said DJ. JA had good land speed, especially with its heavy reactor core replaced by the collider assembly. Once the lead shielding had been stripped and replaced with lighter-weight, stronger armor plating, it would be even better; right now it was still a bit top-heavy, a state not helped by the heavier, stronger new arms. He kept a careful eye on the balance indicator and tried to lose himself in the rhythms of the machine. The jarring of the motion rig underneath him helped to maintain the illusion that he was really on board.
He rounded a corner and halted, hemmed in by rubble left behind from the previous incident. In EVA-01, he might have tried jumping it, or even climbing it, but JA wasn't that dexterous yet; he was trapped.
He turned to face the oncoming attacker. "Truss, I hate to be a bother," he said.
Truss completed modifications to the code image for the IT generation matrix, then thumbed the key to upload the changed image to JA and restart the affected system, thanking his muse again for giving him the notion of making JA's new operating system modular.
"Got you now!" Thomas Ellison exulted.
DJ reached to the weapons panel and flicked one of the four switches down. A small green light labeled [AC ARM] came on above it. The scarred, modified-looking panel on JA's lower right chest, just below the robot's orange 'collar' marking, slid back, and from within the robot's superstructure, a snub-nosed three-barrel cannon popped out. DJ flicked the safety cover away from the finger trigger on his command joystick and squeezed.
JA's primary armament, a General Electric GA/11 'Intimidator' 45mm autocannon, growled out a short burst of twenty mixed armor-piercing and explosive shells. They raked across EVA-05's chest. Thomas cried out with alarm as they exploded against the EVA, their impact driving the unit back slightly. Then he realized that they could do no harm against his AT Field and felt foolish, then angry. Snarling, he responded with a burst of his own. JA stumbled back as the EVA's lighter autorifle fire bit into the forward armor, but the robot was sturdily built; the attack did little more than smear the already-shabby paint job.
Thomas made an inarticulate noise of hatred and jacked a shell into his autorifle's underslung grenade launcher.
"Christ!" DJ muttered as he realized what the strange modification to the enemy unit's weapon was. "John, they've attached a hi-ex weapon to his autorifle. Think it's a grenade launcher, M203-style."
"Upload complete," Truss replied. "Five seconds to system restart."
"I don't think I've got five seconds!" DJ replied as EVA-05 leveled the weapon. "Ah, hell, nothing better," he muttered to himself, and kicked the robot forward into a hand-to-hand attack.
It accomplished little—JA's fist clanged ineffectually against EVA-05's protective field, making it strobe—but the lunge brought JA in underneath the arc of the grenade launcher's fire, and the explosion rearranged the rubble behind JA to no particular effect.
"Idiot!" Thomas snarled, then realized that he was just yelling at his own Control. He opened a channel on one of NERV's documented tactical frequencies and repeated the imprecation, then smashed Jet Alone back toward the rubble with a stiffened arm.
In the NERV master control room, Misato Katsuragi dropped the pen she'd been fiddling with. The enemy pilot had just jumped into the NERV tac net, his face appearing on one of the display screens. He looked just like Jon Ellison!
Jon saw, and instead of reacting with surprise, he snarled, crushing a Styrofoam cup of coffee in his fist and not even feeling the hot liquid burn his hand. Beside him, Rei gasped and put a hand on his arm. Glancing at her, he pulled it away.
"Who in the hell are you supposed to be?!" Misato demanded.
"Nice work, EVA-05," said Kaori Yamashita dryly. "You've just wasted all our counterintel work on the Ellison project in one flick of a switch. Congratulations."
"To hell with that!" the enemy pilot shouted, which confused Misato until she realized he wasn't talking to her. "I want them to know who killed them." He looked away from the side panel he'd been addressing and faced the pickup that was showing him to NERV. "My name is Thomas Ellison," he sneered. "I have the singular honor of being the one to breach your feeble remaining defenses, chase you into your burrows, and crush you like the animals you are. What do you mean by sending this pathetic toy out to do battle with me? I hoped at least I would have the opportunity of killing my failure of a brother in battle. Now it seems I'll have to content myself with smashing him like a bug." Thomas leered. "See you soon, Katsuragi," he said, and switched off his link to them.
Jon gazed at the now-blank comm screen for a few moments, the muscles at the corners of his jaw working; then he spun on his heel and stormed out of the control room.
Rei watched him go with pained eyes, then turned to Asuka.
"This," Asuka observed heavily, "was not what Jon needed to see right now."
"No," said Rei sadly.
"OK, try it again," said Truss on the intercom hardline to JA's command pod. He'd been as shocked as everyone else by the sudden appearance of what appeared to have been Jon's evil twin, but the enemy pilot's boasting had given him the time he needed to complete the restart of Jet Alone's core calibration systems without the unit being pounded further while it happened. "Engage IT Field."
"Trying it again," DJ replied, and he flipped the switch.
For a moment, nothing happened, and DJ watched EVA-05 feed another round into its grenade launcher with wry but calm thoughts of just how many times he could expect to avoid JA being blown to bits in this stupid blind alley. Then the little green light next to the red one that meant disaster began to flash. It flashed five times, then settled into a steady glow. The VDU next to it, which displayed an armor status diagram of JA, now displayed a brilliant green energy field diagram around the map of the robot's body.
"IT Field engaged," said DJ with a grin. "Truss, you're a genius."
Truss mopped his forehead, smiled, and said, "Phase spaces equalized. You take it from here, DJ."
"Believe I will," DJ replied equably, and he squeezed the trigger again.
Thomas shouted again, this time in more pain than surprise, as the second volley of fire tore into EVA-05's chest armor. The unit staggered backward, launching the prepared grenade in a random direction and blowing up nothing more consequential than a derelict water-storage tower.
"What the FUCK!" Thomas bellowed. "HOW DID HE DO THAT?!"
"Jet Alone is... "
Natla's voice trailed off, to be taken up by the more urgent tones of Kaori Yamashita:
"EVA-05, alert! Jet Alone is generating an Absolute Terror Field in counter to your own! Your phase space is neutralized, you are vulnerable to its weapons! Repeat, you are vulnerable!"
"No! HOW?!" Thomas cried, backpedaling his unit as JA began to advance. "That's IMPOSSIBLE!"
"Obviously not," Natla said coldly. "It's happening, isn't it? Whining won't help you."
Thomas ground his teeth. This damned Tinkertoy! Making him look bad in front of the boss! If the others were being allowed to watch, they must be laughing themselves sick. He wasn't going to take that, not from anyone! AT Field or no AT Field, Jet Alone was going down.
He dodged the next burst from that brutal cannon and returned fire; JA strode coolly through the light autofire, its armor shrugging the rounds off without the imbalancing effect of EVA-05's unopposed AT Field.
"EVA-05, you're outgunned, you can't win a stand-up firefight," Yamashita advised. "You have superior mobility, I suggest you use it."
Thomas was about to reply, hotly, that he was damned if he'd run away from this... this thing, when he realized that she was quite right. He jumped back, dove sideways, slid down Elm Street on the edges of EVA-05's feet and disappeared into the maze of tall buildings that made up the heart of downtown by the time Jet Alone made it around the North American Bell relay station at the top of the hill.
DJ's eyes narrowed. He realized what the enemy pilot was doing: he wanted to lure the slower, clumsier JA into the narrowest, twistiest streets in the city, where the EVA's fluidity and acrobatic prowess would give it an advantage. Down there, EVA-05 could appear and disappear almost at will, picking away at JA's armor until the robot was disabled.
DJ didn't particularly want to play that game.
He patched his intercom channel through to the master control room and said, "Misato, would you be so good as to retract sections A-3 through C-12?"
Misato grinned at his image on the comm monitor and said it would be a pleasure.
Thomas Ellison crouched his EVA behind the reassuring gray bulk of the AT&T Tower and waited, weapon at the ready, an eye on his monitors. As soon as the robot came down into the streets, he could get a fix on it by the sounds of its footsteps and stalk it without maintaining visual contact. This would be time-consuming, but simple; the clumsy machine couldn't hope to keep ahead of his EVA in these streets.
The ground rumbled slightly, and for a moment Thomas thought this was it, until he realized that it wasn't coming from any specific direction. He wondered what was going on. This was hardly an earthquake zone. He put out a hand to steady his unit against the AT&T Tower.
The Tower was moving.
EVA-05 recoiled, mirroring the surprise of its operator, and Thomas's eyes went wide as he realized that the building, and all the buildings around, were shrinking—no—SINKING, vanishing into the ground! His cover was disappearing!
DJ saw EVA-05's Elerium collider appear on his Magnetic Anomaly Detection sensor before the unit was fully revealed by the shrinking buildings. He flipped another of the switches on the weapons selection panel; this one caused a light labeled [PBW ARM] to glow above it. Along the length of JA's right forearm, an armored panel popped up, exposing a spiral of silver hoses surrounding a cylindrical core with a black emitter muzzle at the hand end; this extended telescopically until it protruded above the back of the hand. DJ dropped a targeting reticule onto JA's MAD signature and let JA do the rest; the unit raised its arm, fist clenched and tilted down out of the way, and trained the weapon on the target.
When the top of the AT&T Tower cleared the top of EVA-05, DJ pressed a thumb trigger—unfortunately, just as EVA-05 moved, turning toward its suddenly-visible enemy. For an instant, a thick line of brilliant, coruscating blue light connected JA's arm with EVA-05's left side; then the light was gone, and EVA-05 was toppling backward, smoke billowing from the charred wound in its side just below the left shoulder, half an autorifle in each of its hands.
"AAAAAAGGGGHHHH!" was the cogent remark Thomas Ellison had on hand for this situation. His plug suit responded to the sympathetic pain his EVA's abrupt wounding has caused, slamming pseudoendorphins into his system and electrically moderating his heart rate. In a moment, he'd regained some semblance of consciousness, the staggering, mind-wiping pain replaced with a dull throb and a fierce anger.
"What the FUCK was that?!" he demanded.
"Particle beam weapon," Yamashita's voice said. "You're losing your cover, EVA-05. Get out of there while I see what I can do."
"No!" Thomas snarled, driving his unit to its feet. "I'm going to tear this thing apart!"
Back at the SEELE command post, Kaori Yamashita shook her head. Ikari hadn't been the most assertive bulb on the tree, perhaps, but he'd at least followed instructions and possessed a measure of common sense. She patched her console through to the communications and sensor systems aboard the orbiting SEELE AN-411 and began a modulated frequency search.
"What are you doing?" Jacqueline Natla inquired.
"When NERV adapted Jet Alone they turned it into an RPV," said Yamashita. "I read the reports we were getting on the project before they cut off communications with us. I'm trying to isolate and cut off JA's command signal."
DJ wondered what was going on in the enemy EVA pilot's head as the blue unit charged him, Progressive Knife in hand. With a press of a trigger, he could blow the charging unit's other arm off, or its leg, or its head. The PBW might even have enough power to punch a hole straight through the middle of the unit, reducing entry plug and pilot to vapor. The thing was a little cousin of Gabriel's Horn, after all.
His thumb hovered over the trigger as he prepared to do just that, but something, some small voice, halted him. It would be too much like cold-blooded murder, perhaps, or maybe it just offended his sense of fair play. Either way, he hesitated momentarily.
Ah, the hell with it, he thought, and pressed the trigger.
All his displays went insane, stuttering back and forth between meaningful telemetry and incomprehensible noise with a disorienting strobe-like effect.
"Damn!" John Trussell shouted, slamming a palm down on his console. "DJ, they're jammed the control signal—Jet Alone is cut off!"
Jet Alone's remote command system utilized a band of frequencies, not just a single wavelength, to transmit and receive information from its command station. That frequency changed approximately every 250 milliseconds on a random seed, which was both defense against jamming attacks like this one and another layer of security in the link between home station and remote unit—both sides of the connection had to change frequencies on the same pattern for connection continuity to be maintained. Yamashita's efforts to jam JA's signal was thus not completely successful—the An-411's comm array didn't have the sophistication or power to jam the whole frequency band or to properly chase the control frequency up and down the dial. It was effective enough, though, to isolate JA from its control station for over nine-tenths of every second, resulting in bare snippets of data from JA reaching home base and incomplete control inputs reaching JA—and JA could not act on incomplete instructions.
Thomas Ellison gave a gleeful laugh as his opponent froze, its strings cut. He slammed Unit 05's fist against JA's squat, neckless turret of a head, which accomplished little but made Thomas feel good. Then he kicked the robot high and made it topple to its back. Grabbing hold of it, he turned it over.
"Elerium colliders!" Kaori Yamashita cried. "That explains the increased power levels. It appears they've found a way to generate an AT Field from Elerium field interactions."
"Ingenious," said Natla with cold sarcasm.
When Jet Alone's remote command signal was, for all practical purposes, lost, JA's internal systems performed a number of programmed actions:
First, they checked the unit's onboard communications equipment for fault or damage, to see if signal loss was a local problem;
Second, they broadcast a Request for Command Re-establishment on the prescribed range of control frequencies, properly scrambled with the encryption key shared between the unit and its authorized control transmitter;
Third, they concluded that the transmitter station must have suffered a fault, and that it was therefore unlikely that useful contact would be re-established in a timely manner.
This conclusion gave the onboard computer latitude to activate JA's intrinsic decision matrix, the NERV-improved version of JA's original self-motivating programming. JA's expert system immediately established that the unit was under attack by a hostile Evangelion and in imminent danger. This decision authorized the autonomous use of JA's integral weapons systems.
As Thomas Ellison prepared to smash a large piece of rubble down on one of JA's Elerium cells (which would probably not have been effective—Elerium colliders are sturdier than they look—but why take chances?), Jet Alone suddenly turned on its side and flung its left arm up to block the blow. The concrete shattered against JA's heavy vambrace armor.
EVA-05 stumbled back, mimicking the shocked mannerisms of its pilot, as JA rose slowly and deliberately from the ground. As soon as the robot was in proper firing position, it opened up with its autocannon again, driving EVA-05 back and peppering its armor with dents, cracks and small craters.
"EVA-05," came an advisory for Thomas from Yamashita, "Jet Alone's expert system isn't very creative, and it's better with ranged weapons. If you can force it into close combat you should be able to overpower it without too much trouble."
Thomas deployed his unit's Progressive Knives, waited for a pause in the stream of fire from the autocannon, and pounced.
Jet Alone's expert system was indeed not adept at close combat, even less so than Kaori Yamashita, who was familiar with the AG Systems interpretation, expected. That part of the combat database was lacking in the still-incomplete NERV rewrite of JA's software. The robot was not even aware that it was equipped with close-combat weapons, let alone how they should be employed. With Unit 05 inside the safe minimum range for the autocannon's explosive ammunition, and well within the particle beam weapon's safe-fire radius, JA could do little but back away, seek cover, and protect itself with its heaviest armor locations, its forearms and breastplate, as best it could.
Even so, JA was not completely at a loss regarding the situation as a whole. Part of its analytical capabilities spent this time devoted to further investigation of the loss of command signal. Within a few seconds, it determined that the signal loss had been caused not by a fault at the transmitting station, but by deliberate interference being injected into the control wavebands by an orbiting hostile aircraft.
In the hump on Jet Alone's back, where the reactor cooling equipment had been, the NERV refit had placed eight vertical launch tubes for general-purpose missiles in between the Elerium colliders. Under normal circumstances it would be a simple procedure for JA to obtain a radar or laser lock on the aircraft, deploy one of the missiles and blow it out of the sky.
Under the current circumstances, though, Jet Alone was taking too much of a beating to get a reliable target lock on a moving airborne target. The constant battering by Unit 05 prevented the robot from being a stable enough sensor platform to achieve missile lock.
Frustrated in its attempt at remedying its situation itself, aware that it could not win in close combat with an EVA nor disengage from the speedier enemy unit, Jet Alone began broadcasting distress signals on the approved NERV communications channels, which were far separate from its command frequencies.
DJ saw the distress beacon indicator light up on the part of his panel devoted to external communications. He still had no command interface to JA, but by careful examination of the stuttering images on his display screens, he could piece together JA's view of the battle as though it were taking place in a strobe-heavy disco. He winced as he saw JA backed across the plain of Worcester-3's retracted downtown space and into the unrescinded warehouse district, its armor acquiring dents and shiny furrows where EVA-05's fists and blades battered at it. The robot weaved on its feet under the pounding like a punch-drunk fighter, its arms feebly trying to protect its sensors and vital systems, unable to counterattack. He gritted his teeth in sympathy and anger, almost feeling pain with each ringing impact and each jarring screech of blade against armor. Jet Alone was tough, but it wouldn't stand up to this pounding forever, and DJ could almost feel its robotic equivalent of fatigue as the damage mounted. Transfixed by the battle, he slipped into a kind of trance, twitching with JA's movements, feeling his identity overlay the robot's in a strange display of sympathy.
Reflexively, he ducked as JA ducked, narrowly avoiding a cut that sheared the corner off the abandoned Worcester Machine Tool Company factory building. In a real fight, DJ would have turned that duck into the half-crouch needed to throw a punishing right into his opponent's ribs, driving the punch up with the legs as well as the shoulder and arm. He could see how the maneuver would work in his mind's eye, feel the shock of the blow in his arm. Damn, how he wished he could have control, just to take advantage of that oh-so-perfect opening!
In the emergency battle closet, John Trussell gasped as the neurobalance monitor channel status window in the corner of his screen went blank, then reeled off a chillingly familiar block of text before falling silent again.
On the screen, Jet Alone hesistated for a fraction of an instant, then threw that exact blow, driving EVA-05 back a half-pace with the crash of JA's armored fist against its midsection. EVA-05 regrouped, shaking its head in sympathy with its pilot, and tried a diagonal slash with its left. JA stepped inside it, thrust the EVA's hand away with a forearm-to-forearm block, and drove its left fist against the EVA's head in a picturesque left cross.
Misato Katsuragi saw the unit's recovery and smiled with satisfaction. Keying the intercom channel to Truss's battle closet, she said, "Good work, John."
"I didn't do anything," Truss replied.
"Wha—? Then how is DJ getting a command signal to Jet Alone?"
"He..." Truss ran his eyes over his panel and saw, as he expected to see, no traffic. "He isn't. Nothing's getting through." He checked the neurobalance channel. It was as silent as everything else; after that brief burst of traffic, it had blanked completely once more. Truss keyed the intercom to the command pod. "DJ, are you doing anything?"
"Just watching the show," came the reply. "That ducking punch was a good one, my compliments to the programmer. Just what I would've done."
Truss switched the channel off, deciding now was not a good time to mention that no one had yet programmed JA with any infighting skills.
Staggering Unit 05 with the head blow gave JA all the time it needed; it stepped back out of direct engagement range and directed its rangefinding-targeting laser array upward, aiming the beam against the orbiting AN-411's radar return.
The AN-411's pilot saw a laser illumination warning pop up on his status panel and keyed his microphone. "Control, we've been painted by a ground-based laser, probably fire control. See if you can have EVA-05 isolate and destroy."
Thomas heard the pilot's request on the comm channel, but his EVA wasn't responding properly to his control inputs. He himself felt slightly light-headed from the blow to the unit's head, but the EVA itself was staggering as if punch-drunk. The phenomenon was not unheard-of; in an early engagement, EVA-01 had been struck so hard that its synchrony with its pilot had been momentarily impaired in much the same way. Either way, it prevented Thomas from acting on the aircraft's request.
Jet Alone, satisfied with its positive missile lock, popped the protective hatch on #1 tube and launched the first of its eight Soviet-built SS-X-13 Stiletto general-purpose surface-launch missiles. The three-meter-high missile jumped from its tube on a charge of cold gas, hung in the air for a split-second, and then raced away as its sustainer rocket kicked in. With a double laser and radar lock, its target was all but assured of destruction.
The An-411 pilot was good; he responded to the warning tone just as he should have, with an abrupt bank to the left and a sudden throttle-up. The fingers of his left hand instinctively reached for the controls for chaff launchers, with which the An-411, being a cargo aircraft, was not equipped. If it had, the outcome of his well-trained reflex actions might have been different.
As it was, the lumbering transport aircraft was easy meat. The Stiletto struck it at the starboard wingroot, blowing the starboard half of the wing assembly clean off the aircraft, and the Antonov's flaming wreckage spiraled into Lake Quinsigamond.
DJ's displays stuttered further, flickered, and then cleared entirely. He grinned broadly as the force-feedback mechanisms in his controls stiffened against his hands and feet again. He settled the robot a little better on its feet and opened up with the autocannon again.
The shuddering impacts of cannon fire brought Thomas Ellison back to his senses. He set EVA-05 and charged, dodging to JA's left side. It was weak on that side, he'd determined; both heavy weapons he'd encountered were on the right. By running in a circle and approaching from the left he should be able to attack with relative impunity. Still, he would be wary when he got within close-attack range again. "Should be able to overpower it without too much trouble," his ass! Those armored fists hit like freight trains, there was tremendous power in the robot's crude-looking new arms. Thomas thought his sympathetic reaction to the head shot had loosened a couple of teeth.
JA faded smoothly back from his charge, pivoting. It couldn't get the autocannon to bear, but as Thomas brought one of EVA-05's progressive blades across in a lateral cut, JA raised its left arm, and a gleaming, silver, triangular bayonet sang out of an integral scabbard over the back of the left fist, extending for the length of JA's forearm again beyond the hand. JA finished its pivot and struck downward with this blade, deflecting EVA-05's cut.
Thomas realized the change in JA's movements and mannerisms at the same time as both his own controllers and his enemies. The robot suddenly moved with a fluid assurance that looked more like an EVA's. It stepped inside EVA-05's guard with almost arrogant confidence, holding the EVA's right-hand blade at bay with its bayonet. Then it used its pile-driver of a right fist to deliver a crushing series of body blows, sending the blue EVA into a reeling stagger back against the nearest locked-down weapons block. The right-hand progressive knife spun away into the background.
Thomas shook his head, wiped blood from his lips and snarled, reversing the other weapon for attack. He drove his EVA forward, thrusting the blade at the windows on JA's head. He knew there was no pilot behind them to destroy, but it was his hope that if he could penetrate them, he could damage the onboard computers or the communications equipment or something, anything that would make the cursed thing stop fighting him so fiercely.
Jet Alone stepped back half a step, blocked Unit 05's thrust with its right forearm against EVA-05's left, and rammed its bayonet knuckles-deep into EVA-05's right side below the slope of its chest armor. Thomas writhed as though himself pierced; the unit recoiled, pulling back off the blade, tipped back and kicked viciously at the middle of JA's body. The blow cracked JA's articulated abdomen armor and made the robot stumble back a step; the two blades came apart with a ringing scrape.
EVA-05 staggered back, clutching its right hand to the wound; orange blood trickled over its splayed fingers and dripped from its knuckles to the ground far below. Inside, Thomas Ellison mimicked this position, breathing hard, his system pumped full of pseudoendorphins to counteract the sympathetic pain of his unit's mounting injuries. It began to dawn on him that Jet Alone's operator had one distinct advantage over him: however badly Thomas carved up the robot, the intelligence guiding it never felt pain.
The thought of that fact's patent unfairness filled him with rage. Screaming it out, he dug EVA-05's heels in and charged, raining a series of blows and slashes on Jet Alone's upraised forearms, adding more bright scars to the gray plating. A corner of one of the right arm's plates broke off and clattered to the ground.
Jet Alone let the frenzied EVA back it through half of the warehouse district as DJ bided his time, let the robot's automatic defenses block for him, and waited for the right opening.
Then he stopped, set the back foot, pivoted, and brought the progressive bayonet smoothly up and through.
EVA-05's left hand, still clutching its progressive knife, spun away, leaving a spraying arc of orange fluid as it tumbled and was lost among the buildings.
By this time, Thomas Ellison's biochemistry was so off-kilter that he didn't much react to the new flood of sympathetic pain; he just bit his tongue intil it bled, backed off at speed, and screamed to anyone who could hear him, "I need a weapon!"
The loss of the An-411 that had brought him to the battlefield may have robbed him of his escape route, but it hadn't cut him off from his controllers; SEELE had sent two Skyranger supply craft to follow the AN-411 with drop supplies, and they, still intact, were now mediating communications. Their comm arrays lacked the power to jam JA's comm systems as the Antonov's had, but Kaori Yamashita had spent the time unspeakingly pursuing other options since the transport aircraft's loss.
Now she calmly broke her silence, directing her overmatched charge to the building the blue EVA had crashed against after JA's series of body blows. The impact of the EVA hitting the building had partially collapsed the accordion-folding wall on the building's side, and by getting a firm grip with EVA-05's remaining hand and bracing with one of its feet, Thomas was able to tear one of its panels off and reveal part of the cache of NERV weapons within.
DJ knew when the enemy unit had backed away where it was headed, but JA didn't have the speed to catch it before it got there. Brow furrowing, he turned to a secondary display and pulled up a map of Worcester-3's substructure, and then a slow smile spread over his face.
"Misato, quick," he said to his intercom channel. "I have an idea."
Thomas reached into the weapons cache, half-crazed with an overabundance of pain-blocking pseudohormones and his frustrated rage at Jet Alone's unexpected capabilities. It fought with such cool but vicious efficiency, one would almost think it held some actual contempt for him. Thomas had long since forgotten that it was controlled by a human intelligence. He yanked out the first thing his EVA's hand closed around.
It turned out to be a standard NERV Evangelion-scale mini-missile launcher, a long green metal tube with a magazine of five white-and-red missiles on top and a shoulder cup and firing handle on the bottom. Thomas let out a guffaw of triumph, shouldered the weapon, and turned to await Jet Alone's emergence from behind the power station a block and a half away.
He waited for nearly thirty seconds; nothing.
"What the hell is he waiting for?" Thomas wondered.
"EVA-05, be advised, air units have lost visual contact with Jet Alone," said Yamashita.
"How can you lose that?!"
"They have to keep moving," Yamashita told him. "One of them made a turn and lost it behind the power station. When they completed their turn, it was gone."
Thomas panned around the area with EVA-05's sensors; he could find no sign of Jet Alone either.
"Did it run away?" he wondered.
No response came for a couple of seconds; then Yamashita's voice rang in his ear: "EVA-05, look out!" Out of the corner of his eye, he saw motion. EVA-05 turned, trying to swing the launcher to bear, even as Thomas came to full realization of what he was turning toward.
Jet Alone stood halfway out of one of the giant hatches into which Worcester-3's buildings disappeared during a battle alert, slowly rising. Its right arm was raised and extended, the fist cocked down.
Thomas ordered EVA-05 to fire.
The brilliant blue line of the particle beam connected the two combat units for a split-second; EVA-05's hand convulsed, sending a mini-missile shooting uselessly up into the sky.
The blue Evangelion slowly dropped the missile launcher, fell ponderously to its knees, and then crashed prone to the ground, smoke pouring from the place where its head had once been. Inside the partially ruptured entry plug, Thomas Ellison finally, mercifully lost consciousness.
Jacqueline Natla frowned, reached down to her side of the master control console, flipped a red plastic cover away from a button, and, without hesitation, pressed it.
DJ had been moving Jet Alone in to make certain that the enemy unit was fully disabled, and see if the pilot might be saveable; but he drew the robot up short as the orange plug of EVA-05's Elerium collider began to pulse alarmingly, then broke into a steady glow that built rapidly to a blinding intensity. With its visual sensors blinded, DJ threw JA into a fast backpedal and hoped he didn't trip over anything.
Then the Elerium collider exploded. The explosion's electromagnetic pulse wiped out communications for a moment, snowing DJ's displays; then they slowly cleared.
When visibility returned, Jet Alone stood, soot-coated but intact, at the edge a blackened crater about two blocks in diameter. In the center there was nothing but a slightly concave dish of gleaming black glass.
"What the hell—!" Misato Katsuragi inquired of anyone who cared to listen.
"Well," said DJ Croft's voice wryly on the intercom channel, "I suppose I'd call that a successful test... "
John Trussell grinned. "I suppose I would too," he said.
Kaori Yamashita looked dispassionately at the blank displays which, moments before, had shown her the self-destruction of EVA-05 and the shockwave's resultant downing of the two Skyrangers. She evinced no apparent reaction to the fact that she'd just seen Jacqueline Natla coldly seal the deaths of at least five people, assuming Ellison had still been alive when his unit had gone up.
Natla was standing there, her finger still on the destruct switch, gazing coolly at Yamashita as though daring her to react. Yamashita raised her brown eyes to Natla's cold gray ones, then calmly stubbed out the butt of her Lucky Strike, got out another one, lit it, and left the control room without comment.
Treachery, heartbreak, gallantry, madness...
And a great hero's last stand.
Neon Exodus Evangelion 3:8
"My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"