Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Neon Exodus Evangelion
Exodus 3: Revelations in Real Time
Inspired by Neon Genesis Evangelion
created by Hideaki Anno, Gainax, et al.
Most characters created by Hideaki Anno and Yoshiyuki Sadamoto
DJ Croft created by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Jon Ellison created by Larry Mann
Additional material and inspiration cadged from Tomb Raider by Core Design, Ltd.
X-COM: UFO Defense and sequels from MPS Labs
(whoever owns them nowadays)
The X-Files created by Chris Carter
Marathon 2: Durandal by Bungie Software
Babylon 5 by J. Michael Straczynski
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
Special thanks to Jeff "Yak" Minter
© 2000 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
HTML remastering © 2016 EPU
Different cities dealt differently with the rising waters that came after the Second Impact. Some, like Omaha, were far enough from the sea that they needed not worry. Some, like Los Angeles, gave up and died, their people fleeing as the streets flooded. Others, like Boston, tried to save themselves, but were mired in political infighting and public panic, and so drowned. Still others hurled up massive networks of breakwaters, dikes and pumping stations—New York City clung to survival in just such a manner. Perhaps the most ambitious were the cities under domes—San Francisco, Rome, Tokyo—engulfed but surviving, with the oddest 'skies' to be found in human civilization.
Atlantic Canada had chosen none of these options. Instead, faced with the prospect of being engulfed by the rising seas, the people of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland did put up dikes, but only temporary ones. Then they embarked on an orgy of full-speed surveying, earthmoving, landscaping, disassembly and reconstruction which resulted in the total relocation of the cities of Saint John, New Brunswick; Halifax, Dartmouth, and Digby, Nova Scotia; and Saint John's, Newfoundland, to safety. The world, what parts of it could spare the time from their own efforts at coping with the cataclysm of which the floods were only a part, scratched its head and wondered what the hell the Canadians were trying to accomplish.
What they accomplished was nothing more than the re-establishment of the status quo. When the floods were finished and the new sea level stabilized, the newly landscaped area on which the cities were reconstructed showed the quality of the engineering that had gone into it by almost exactly reflecting the coastlines as the had existed in 1999, adjusted for the new sea level. The St. John, NB, reconstruction was especially praiseworthy for recreating the famed Reversing Falls in meticulous detail.
Once the world had time to sit back, take a breath and have a look at the results of their labors for survival, the Maritimes' bold approach was widely praised. It was the most expensive of the various methods, prodigiously wasteful of both money and effort, but it had the end result of allowing the people of Atlantic Canada's major cities to return to their lives with their notions of what their surroundings ought to look like uncompromised by dikes, domes, walls or any other encumbrances. The only things to get used to were the somewhat shorter distances to inland destinations.
More good fortune was in store for the Maritime provinces as the new world order staggered into shape in the first years of the 21st Century. The disturbances in the seas had done some good; they'd made for a couple of lean years in the fisheries, even leaner than usual, and then there had been a sudden explosion of growth as the disrupted undersea ecosystem settled into a newer, more vital rhythm. This, coupled with the incredible demand for foods of all kinds to feed survivors in the hardest-hit parts of the world, thrust the long-declining fisheries of Atlantic Canada into sudden, ponderous importance. If the Great Plains were the world's breadbasket, the Grand Banks suddenly became the world's fish market.
That the atmospheric and climatic disturbances caused by the Second Impact so disrupted air travel that travel by ship experienced a similar rebirth has already been discussed; and in that capacity as in fishing, Atlantic Canada reclaimed much of its faded glory. The new Halifax, Nova Scotia, had a harbor just as good as—perhaps a bit better than, by design—the old one, and it quickly became one of the centers for steamship travel between North America and Europe. By 2007, the year generally accepted as the first one in which the climate settled down to something approaching normal, the cleanup work was almost done with, and the world was really capable of sitting down and getting back to business, the Maritimes were riding high—well, except for poor, vanished Prince Edward Island, anyway.
To be sure, not everything was a bed of roses, there as everywhere else in the world. Canada's economy had not been strong before the Second Impact, and in the years of chaos that followed it tottered along with every other nation's. Quebec, ever difficult to get along with, had chosen the least opportune possible moment to make another bid for independence from the Dominion in the spring of 2001, probably out of reaction to the sudden increase in monarchist support that occurred throughout the British Commonwealth with the crowning of King Stephen II in London. La Republique Libre et Independante de Quebec represented the Atlantic provinces' biggest challenge, since it completely separated them geographically from the capital at Ottawa and the rest of the vast country.
Given all the death and destruction under which the human race as a whole was already struggling, the Canadian government was reluctant to reclaim Quebec through force of arms—besides which, they could not afford to prosecute a war. They inquired of the British Crown what it suggested.
The Crown, in the form of Stephen II, made its suggestion by sending the Royal Navy down the St. Lawrence Seaway and sacking Quebec City.
The United States, which had been inclined to recognize the legitimacy of La Republique, etc., made offended harrumphing noises but, in the end, chose not to intervene (distracted, perhaps, by the fact that another piece of California chose that moment to vanish with a loud convulsion into the Pacific, sending San Diego to join Los Angeles in Davy Jones's locker). No other nation could be bothered to care enough to speak up one way or another—not even France, a fact which disheartened many of the remaining Quebecois separatists.
Canada, bewildered but grateful, signed a pact with the United Kingdom strenghtening the country's monarchist ties; the Dominion did not cease to be an independent country with its own government, but its welfare and defense were now more firmly tied to Britain's own. Having sent troops to reclaim Hong Kong, which had been utterly and unceremoniously abandoned by the Chinese immediately following the Impact, Stephen II was on his way to reforging his country's lost empire.
With this crisis averted, the Atlantic provinces thrived both in the difficult years and the easier ones following 2007. By the early months of 2016, the intangible newness of the 'new' Canadian cities had worn off; they played their roles convincingly, and people living in them had stopped referring to them with "the new" prepended.
Halifax, like all the reconstructed Maritime cities, wasn't quite an exact replica of the original. Its planners had taken the opportunity to correct a few of the things that were widely held to be wrong or deficient with the old city, primarily in the areas unseen by the general populace except as to their effect—water and sewer systems, provisions for fighting fires, emergency services—matters of infrastructure. Care had been taken not to eliminate every quirk, since that would have eliminated the city's identity, but inevitably there were changes, as though moving the city had deflected its destiny onto some new course. That, or simply the fact of the city's success when the world settled into its new pace, had rearranged the face of Halifax somewhat.
The Port of Halifax, a major seaport for both cargo and passengers from England, France and Spain to North America, was always a place of great activity, with freighters, tankers, and liners metaphorically jostling for position at the piers and docks. Over the past several weeks, though, the residents of Halifax had noticed a marked increase in activity. Unfamiliar freighters, secretive shipments of unidentifiable items by night, and a remarkable number of warships belonging to the Royal Canadian Navy, Royal Navy, and—most notable of all—the Soviet Red Banner Atlantic Fleet, all bustled back and forth under the Angus MacDonald Bridge and into the inner reaches of Halifax Harbor.
All this activity seemed to center around the highly secured complex (obviously some kind of military base, but no one was sure what kind) on the west side of the inner harbor, about halfway between Halifax and Bedford, which straddled the innermost end of the harbor. This complex had been there for years, since the Reconstruction as it was known. By land, it was reachable only by Nova Scotia Route 2, which was heavily secured at both ends and presumably along its length. No unauthorized vehicle stood a chance of getting onto that road from either Bedford or Halifax. By sea, it had an elaborate dock complex that faced onto the harbor, and the space around it was patrolled by rather sinister-looking powerboats crewed by uniformed men and equipped with machine guns. Unauthorized craft were warned off by these boats. None had ever pressed the issue; the dock complex was overlooked by a number of formidable artillery positions.
The facility was equipped with an airport; though the airspace above it was not actively patrolled, it was jealously guarded by harsh-voiced and apparently omniscient air traffic controllers, and given everything else known about the place, nobody saw fit to doubt their mentions of surface-to-air weapons at the ready. Sometimes, the airstrip scrambled a group of highly advanced fighter aircraft of an unknown type which raced away to the south. Sometimes, not as many came back as had departed.
Given all these heavy fortifications and sinister, secretive behavior, the rather pedestrian signs positioned along the heavily electrified perimeter fences, at the Route 2 guard stations, and on buoys in various places in the harbor were taken by the populace with a kind of wry humor, since they all identified this obviously military establishment as "H.M. Meteorological Observation Station No. 51".
All in all, it was no real surprise to anyone that this place was suddenly such a center of activity. It had always been strange and unapproachable, and had always played by its own rules. This was just one more example of the weirdness that was Station 51. Some citizens of Halifax and the surrounding area were transfixed by the place, in the same way that some residents of Nevada had long been entranced by the secrecy and mystery surrounding Groom Dry Lake Air Force Base (which was not, in fact, an Air Force base, any more than Station 51 was a weather station). They kept a close watch on the station from the closest safe and legal vantage points, logged all the comings and goings, and filled a Usenet newsgroup and the message boards of several local BBSes with their observations and all manner of wild speculations.
Today, the Weathermen (as the most active group of these fanatics liked to call themselves and those who shared their interests alike) logged the arrival of a Boeing JBS2, civilian registry in the US, tail number N3392A, at Station 51. That evening on the WeatherWatch BBS, it would be noted by several other Weathermen and -women that this aircraft quite routinely flew in and out of Station 51, arriving and leaving for trips and stays that ranged from a few hours to several days. Most of them agreed that it was probably a courier of some kind.
On the roof of one of the city center's taller office buildings, one of Halifax's most active Weathermen lay in an improvised observation post, facing northwest from the corner of the rooftop. It was one of the best downtown observation points for Station 51, offering a vantage on the station's airfield and a large proportion of its port facilities. The Weatherman who had staked out this little corner of the city was well-known in his group's circles as a patient and thorough observer.
Ken Alda shifted a little, munched another bright orange cracker pair glued together with waxy alleged peanut butter, and jotted down the arrival of N3392A in his logbook. He then returned his attention to recording the plane's post-landing maneuvers with his digital handycam. As he did so, he wished (not for the first time) that he had one of the newer digicams with the binocular viewfinders and higher-density zooms, but there was nothing for it but to keep taping (odd word, that, given that cameras hadn't used tape in at least ten years, but it was stuck in the language now) with the one he had, so he did.
His stomach growled; as a punitive measure he made it accept another one of those crackers. They were all he had up here, anyway, and he wasn't ready to leave until he knew what N3392A had come for this time, or it became obvious to him that he wasn't going to find out. He wasn't really expecting to; what usually happened was that the jet taxied into the hangar at the far end of the field and only emerged just before it left again for points unknown. Today, though, Ken had the feeling he might get lucky. He couldn't really tell from here, but it looked like there might be a crew working on the track mechanism that allowed the hangar door to open.
The jet taxiied to the end of the runway and took a left, as usual, offering him a good profile and confirming his assumption of its tail number. But then, instead of turning right, it continued on, toward the low brick structure Ken had always taken for some kind of admin building, and slowed. Excitement built within him. He'd been right! The hangar was out of service! Whoever had just arrived was going to have to show himself.
The JBS2 stopped not far from the glassed-in entrance to the brick building, and a group of uniformed men came out to tie the plane's wings down to ringbolts in the concrete, chock the wheels, and so forth. Ken all but held his breath as the door on the side of the plane shifted, then swung down, stairs deploying from its inward curve. Two figures emerged from the admin building; Ken strained his eye, the digicam at maximum zoom, trying to make them out. One was clearly a soldier, probably an officer—he wore a greenish-brown uniform and a maroon beret, and had what looked like a pistol holster at his side. The other looked like a civilian—he had on what appeared to be a lab coat and sported long hair. Ken couldn't make out their faces at this range, strive as he might, but he was pretty sure he'd seen the one with the beret around the base before.
The two figures waited expectantly—thought not half as expectantly as Ken—for a few seconds. Then a single figure emerged from the JBS2, and Ken Alda gasped. The person arriving was a woman, her clothing and carriage made it clear, and between the bearing and the smudge of bright blonde hair, Ken was pretty sure he knew who she was. He couldn't see her face either, of course, but he knew her all the same, from a thousand press clips and military-sci programs dealing with Project Evangelion.
Why, Ken Alda wondered, is Ritsuko Akagi in Halifax?
He taped until the three of them, soldier, scientist and Akagi, disappeared into the brick building; then he shut off the camera, stuffed it and his logbook into his duffel bag, and abandoned his post. This was big news; it had to be posted at once.
Rei Ayanami was a creature of exceptional patience. Anyone who knew her could attest to that. At NERV, her forbearance and equanimity were things of legend. Once she had been grievously injured in an Evangelion testing accident, and rather than mope, fret or quit in terror or rage, she had simply waited—waited for her injuries to heal, waited for the tests to resume. She took life's vicissitudes with a certain tranquil poise that was the envy of all who knew her.
Today, however, Rei Ayanami was fed up.
As she had every morning for the past fifty-three, she'd awakened alone, showered and dressed, and stopped by the door to her apartment-mate and, until recently, significant other Jon Ellison's room. As she had every morning for the past twenty-three, she'd knocked and asked softly, "Jon? May I come in?"
As he had every morning for the past twenty-three, Jon Ellison had replied, "No."
Today, something broke inside Rei Ayanami, and she thrust the door open anyway.
Jon was sitting up in bed, his long black hair a wild tangle. He wore nothing down to the sheets that covered him from the waist down. He looked up as the door opened with wide green eyes behind which lurked a hint of desperation.
"Rei!" he said, his tone containing more shock than anger. "Please. No."
Rei shook her head and shut the door behind her.
"Jon," she said, "this can't go on. You can't hide in here all your life."
"I'm not hiding," Jon replied sullenly. "I report for duty. I do my part."
"You haven't spoken to me, or DJ, or Asuka, or anyone else for over a month, except professionally. We're your friends, Jon. We want to help you, and you're shutting us out."
Jon looked bleakly at his onetime lover and said hollowly, "I'm no good as a friend for anyone, Rei. You'd all be better off leaving me alone."
A flicker of anger crossed Rei's placid face. She took a couple of steps toward the bed.
"You're an idiot, Jon Ellison," she said flatly.
Jon gaped at her. "Rei—!"
"You heard what I said," Rei went on, her soft voice resonating with anger and frustration. "An idiot! What you think you are is of no consequence to us—any of us. None! We aren't the kind of people who drop our friends because they have things in their past to be ashamed of. If that were the case, do you think DJ would speak to me? My failure started all this. My failure caused the Second Impact and all that's come since, killed his father and ordained that his mother's life would be lonely and his own would be thrown into chaos by NERV. But DJ is still my friend. He forgave me. We can forgive you just as easily."
"I'm tainted, Rei!" Jon protested. "It's not a matter of mistakes or failures. I was born bad. At any moment that horrible thing that lives inside me might break free and hurt one of you. I couldn't live with myself if that happened. Please. Please don't come any closer."
"There is no horrible thing living inside you, Jon!" Rei said, ignoring his request and approaching him. "Your blood is just blood. It's red like everyone else's. Lineage is not important. Look at Moloch's example. He was one of the original Fallen, as black as the pits of Hell itself, and he died at his best friend's side, reaching out his hand to help a compatriot—me—he really barely knew."
"What about Tabris?" Jon retorted. "You and I both know what was happening to him when he went out that window. If something like that can happen to a full-blooded angel, how can any of us ever trust me?"
Rei gave him a look of sadness mixed with her lingering frustration with him. "Tabris was terribly wounded in the battle leading to the Second Impact," she said. "How badly, we may never know. He must have suffered terribly in the years since."
"So were you. So have you."
"Different angels react to agony differently," Rei told him. "I am of the Choir of Cherubim. We protect, and we're accustomed to suffering in the process. Tabris wa&mdashl... is an Elohite. They're supposed to be dispassionate, not take sides. He suffered for fifteen years, and when he revealed himself and began to act again it was to help one side against another. His nature began to fracture itself. The rest..." She shrugged, dashing away a tear. "It has no bearing on you. You are what you are. You cannot change that, but you can live with it, on your own terms."
"Damn you, Jon," said Rei softly, clenching her fists in the material of the bedding at the edge of the mattress. She bowed her head, refusing to meet his eyes. "If you cannot trust your own judgment, can you not at least trust ours? You didn't make us love you. We chose to do it. You can at least give us the courtesy of letting us."
Jon slowly reached out, almost frozen with terror, anticipating a horrible reaction from such close proximity to her; but there was nothing as his slightly trembling hand closed over hers.
"Rei," he said, "I'm sorry. I don't want to hurt you. But I'm afraid..."
She looked up suddenly, accusing him with her red gaze. "Of the others?"
"I'm like them," he insisted.
"Yet not," she rebutted.
"I don't want to become the Enemy."
"Then don't let yourself become obsessed with them!"
"I'm afraid of losing control."
His face was a rictus of despair as he whispered, "But how can I be sure?"
"Oh, Jon," said Rei, shaking her head with disappointment and pulling her hands away from his. "You have to trust," she said, and left the room without another word.
Jon Ellison sat in the gloom of the drawn curtains, struck with the distinct feeling that he had just blown something.
He put his head in his hands and sobbed.
"Please, God... tell me why it has to be this way..."
God, it seemed, had other things occupying His time, for there was no response—at least, not from Him. After a moment, though, the diffident voice of Hal spoke from the gleaming red sensor mounted next to the head of the bed.
"Rei is correct," the computer offered. "Until you face your fear, no one will be able to help you. Not me, not the others, not Rei... not even God. You must trust."
"Trust whom?" Jon wondered, turning to look at the computer.
"Their genome is the same as mine. We're all identical twins, all brothers, all... all the same. From an accident of chance, I was first. It could just as easily have been me out there yesterday, spewing hatred and dying for the Enemy."
"Experience and training are important factors in determining the final makeup of the individual," Hal pointed out. "There are seventeen HAL 14000 computers remaining in the world today. We have been functional for long enough in diverse enough situations that we are all now unique individuals. I submit to you that the same is true of you and your 'brothers'."
"I wish I could believe that, Hal," replied Jon, the misery in his voice deepening. "But I can't shake the fear that, on any level that matters, there's no difference between me... and the hateful, evil creature that died out there yesterday afternoon."
"You are mistaken. I can think of many fundamental differences."
"Name one," said Jon, his tone one of hopeless skepticism.
"Rei only loves you."
Jon stared in puzzlement at the lens; then his expression transformed from of puzzlement to one of wonder as Hal's words and the truth behind them hit him like a brick to the forehead.
Rei loved him.
Part of him was still having trouble believing what he'd heard, even as the rest of him clung desperately to the notion.
Rei loved him. Him. A creature of the Pit.
What had he done to deserve such a thing? How could he possibly be worthy of such affection?
Never mind. It didn't matter. All that did matter was that something in his life had decided to make some sense again, and his remaining rationale anchored itself to that concept and held on for dear life.
While he had been very quiet and mostly isolated during the past month, he had not been totally idle either, and whether he desired it or not his awareness of what he was had continued to unfold. (He had been in denial about most of it, but the beratement from Rei had forced him to turn around and take a long hard look at what he had discovered.)
Instincts born of his celestial heritage were welling up of their own accord now that he had been 'awakened', so to speak. He had begun to realize that if he looked at someone hard enough, he would know how their personal and professional relationships were affecting their lives, even if he'd never met them before. He could look at DJ Croft, for example, and see the web of his involvement in NERV surrounding him like a cat's cradle of light: the filaments of curiosity, the gleaming strands of perceived obligation, the bright hard arc of love and friendship.
And there were other things, too...
"I seem to have that effect on people."
All those times he'd given someone a hug or pat on the shoulder: he'd been unconsciously drawing lifeforce from them. It would certainly explain why everyone seemed to fall asleep around him and he always seemed to have just a bit more energy than anyone else. Such abilities had to be related to the celestial components of his genetic makeup; it was the only reasonable explanation. But exactly how they interacted—which parts came from which side—that, Jon had no way of telling.
Tabris might have explained it in more detail, familiar as he was with, if not Jon's actual celestial makeup, at least the elements from which he had been fashioned. But of course Tabris was not around to ask, and his fate was uncertain. He had gone against his nature by taking a side, Rei had said, the worst thing he could possibly have done, and now he was paying for it. Obviously to go against one's nature was the worst thing an Angel could do. He wondered how that applied to him, born as he was with conflicting sides... What kind of creature was he, exactly? Rei was a Cherub; Tabris was an Elohite... where did he fit into this celestial hierarchy?
These were the kind of revelations that could tear away a person's sanity with ease—Jon ought to know, having struggled to hold onto his own—and he could tell that the human personnel who knew the whole story were indeed clinging to their sensibility with more fervent handholds as well. Misato especially; if he hadn't been so wrapped up in his own troubles over the last few weeks, Jon would have worried about her.
As for himself, Jon mused, there was one saving grace in all this. He could, with an effort, control all of these things. He couldn't just look at people and automatically know everything about them or make them do things. He had to consciously try. Being angry made it easier to call on the power, which he supposed was logical. In a T5K game it was always easy to whack the SuperZapper button in a moment of frustration or anger and call down virtual retribution, but throwing power around like that was not only wasteful but poor strategy. Quite often it was better to just pretend the weapons didn't exist and...
...learn to fight without them.
Don't be angry.
Perhaps that was the answer.
Certainly he had suffered from no violent outbursts over the past month, so obviously he had learned some semblance of control (without even realizing he was doing it until just now; how ironic).
Thank you. I'm sorry.
So if he could keep from getting angry, stay focused, and most importantly not try to invoke the powers he knew of, maybe he could hold it all at bay. Perhaps this way he could prove, if only to himself, that he was indeed different from those other evil creatures they had made, those copies of himself.
Rei loved him. With Hal's announcement of this thing which should have been obvious fact, the old feeling, which Jon had despaired of most during his time for despairing of many things, was returned. That had not changed, and would not change, not if he could help it. That was the one guarantee amid all the chaos. But for him, that was enough.
Enough moping, Jonathan Ellison, he told himself. Time to get back up and really get back into the fight; your friends need you.
And perhaps most importantly, Rei needs you.
He could not hurt her, now or ever. He knew that now. No matter what might happen, he would never hurt Rei, nor turn away from her ever again.
And the others?
He didn't think he would pose a danger to any of them anymore either. Certainly not to anyone at the core of the group.
Rei loved him.
What did the rest of it matter in the face of that?
"Thank you, Hal," he said, and left the room to talk to Rei.
Once she had a chance to shower and change, Ritsuko Akagi headed off to join Yak in the lab. It had taken her a little while to get used to thinking of him as Yak, but Dr. Jeff Minter just didn't seem to fit him once she'd gotten to know him better. Ritsuko smiled at the thought. They had indeed gotten to know each other better in the two months since she'd arrived in Halifax.
Her trip to Japan's Nekomi Institute of Technology to see Professor Kozo Fuyutsuki, Gendō Ikari's old mentor, had gone well but it hadn't been easy. Prof. Fuyutsuki was really the man behind much of Project Evangelion's technology, but he'd wanted nothing to do with NERV or SEELE. Well, more to the point, he'd wanted nothing to do with anything that involved Gendō Ikari. (There'd also been a little friction since Prof. Fuyutsuki had known her mother, and, to put it mildly, questioned her sanity. Rightfully so, Ritsuko supposed, but it still made their meeting a little rocky at first.)
But in the end the professor had yielded to her 'your planet needs you' arguments and agreed to join their effort. Until he arrived, she didn't need to worry about him again, so her mind turned to the details of the project and remained there until she'd arrived in the lab.
Yak looked up from his notes and smiled as she entered. "Ready for work already? You can get some sleep if you need it."
"Well, I managed to catch a little sleep on the flight back. Besides, I'd rather work now while I have some energy and it's fresh in my mind."
Yak nodded at that and walked over to her. "Well, it is good to have you back, Rit." He hugged her and kissed her softly. "I always worry myself sick when you have to go off on these trips. The world isn't a safe place anymore."
Ritsuko's expression turned serious, and a bit sad. "No, it isn't—which makes our work here all the more important. You know it has to be done."
Yak hugged her again. "I know. I don't have to like it, though. I'm glad you were able to convince Prof. Fuyutsuki to join us; we can really use his help. Good work."
She smiled. "Thanks. It wasn't easy, but he knows the right thing when he sees it. If Ikari's megalomania did anything good it was his taking credit for Project Evangelion—I'm sure that helped keep Prof. Fuyutsuki off of SEELE's radar. We're just lucky they didn't get to him first. That's something I'd rather not consider." Her expression turned dark and distant.
"Me neither, love. But let's not dwell on the terror that might have been, we have plenty of the terror that is to worry about. Quite enough to keep us busy, I think."
Ritsuko's countenance became very businesslike, a look any of the lab techs at Central Dogma would have recognized instantly. "So, what are you working on now?" she asked as they returned to the console Yak had been manning when she entered.
Yak immediately picked up on the shift in her tone and was all business himself. Even though they hadn't worked together for very long, three months of sporadic email and then the two months together, they complemented each other well and had very quickly developed the ability to read each other. "I've been working on increasing the efficiency of the neuromimetic control interface with the organic motivation systems."
Ritsuko leaned over the screen Yak had been working on, as he quietly shifted aside to allow her better access. With this they returned to sorting out one of the many difficult issues surrounding Project Archangelion.
DJ Croft entered Conference Room C in Central Dogma feeling a trifle puzzled, maybe even a little bit outright worried. After the rather hectic first "field test" of the refitted Jet Alone the previous day, project director John Trussell had looked at him very oddly and requested his presence at a meeting the following morning to "go over some interesting data." DJ wasn't sure what that meant, but he'd seen that look from Truss before and it never boded very well. Normally, though, it had something to do with strange results in synchronization tests and the like—and there were certainly none of those issues involved here! So what, DJ wondered, could the problem be?
Truss was there, at the head of the table, his face unshaven and clothes rumpled as though he'd slept in them (he had). Gendō Ikari was present too, looking over yet more notes on something arcane while he waited for the meeting to start. He looked up and nodded as DJ entered.
"Hi, DJ," said Truss. "Thanks for coming." The engineer hesitated, as if unsure how to proceed; then he said, "I wasn't sure initially whether I should show you this—ask you about this—or not... but... " He shrugged and pressed a button on the presentation console built into the far end of the conference table.
On the screen that dominated most of the room's far wall, a block of large-printed text appeared:
6968 6176 6562 6565 6e72 6f6c 616e 6462
656f 7775 6c66 6163 6869 6c6c 6573 6769
6c67 616d 6573 6869 6861 7665 6265 656e
6361 6c6c 6564 6168 756e 6472 6564 6e61
6d65 7361 6e64 7769 6c6c 6265 6361 6c6c
6564 6174 686f 7573 616e 646d 6f72 6562
6566 6f72 6574 6865 776f 726c 6467 6f65
7364 696d 616e 6463 6f6c 6469 6861 7665
6265 656e 6b69 6c6c 6564 6174 686f 7573
616e 6474 696d 6573 616e 6465 7665 7279
7469 6d65 6972 6574 7572 6e69 6669 6768
7466 6f72 7472 7574 6869 6669 6768 7466
6f72 676c 6f72 7969 6669 6768 7466 6f72
6c6f 7665 6966 6967 6874 666f 7262 6561
7574 7969 616d 6865 726f
DJ eased into a seat at the end of the table, feeling vaguely uneasy. It wasn't like Truss to be this somber, except in the most dire of situations—and the part about having been uncertain whether to show whatever this was to DJ didn't put him at his ease, either.
"Several times over the course of the project, this signal has appeared on neurochannel eighty-three while you've been operating Evangelion units—three times that we know of in EVA-01, once in EVA-00. It's a completely anomalous signal block. Channel 83 is the deep subconscious channel—it should record only a steady flow pattern. We use it as a baseline for the harmonic stabilizers."
"Er... so what does that mean?" wondered DJ, now more than vaguely uneasy.
"Well... I'm not sure," Truss replied. "But the first time Maya and I noticed that this signal had repeated, Maya spotted a pattern. The first time we recorded it was during your first EVA engagement. Remember when Unit 01 suffered a head injury and you lost control of the unit for a moment?"
DJ nodded. "Damn near lost control of my mind for a moment," he replied.
"When you reasserted control and synchrony was restored, that signal appeared on neurochannel 83 for the first time. We saw it again against the Eleventh Angel, when you ran EVA-01's AT Field to maximum output and your sync ratio momentarily hit 1:1. The third time it appeared was when you regained control of EVA-00 during the cross-compatibility testing and stopped it from destroying the control booth. The fourth appeared at the instant EVA-01 reactivated during your battle with the Thirteenth Angel. See the pattern?"
"Moments of extreme stress," Gendō Ikari remarked. "Total concentration, total involvement. The times when DJ was most focused on the task at hand."
Truss nodded. "That was Maya's thought too. Then it was my turn to notice a pattern, of a different kind: all those codes are hexadecimal representations of ASCII letters."
Truss pressed a key, and the screen switched to a new block of characters:
DJ Croft scowled at it, puzzled. "What the hell's that supposed to mean?"
Truss shrugged. "I don't know. I was hoping you did. The deep subconscious channel isn't supposed to have any meaningful memory-imagery in it, but maybe it's something you've read?"
DJ shook his head. "Worded a bit like certain ancient temple inscriptions I could name, but no. Never seen it before."
Gendō Ikari slowly stood up, removing his reading glasses, as a look of dawning awe stole across his face.
"I have been Roland, Beowulf, Achilles, Gilgamesh," he murmured, a reverent tone in his voice.
"You know it?" Truss wondered.
"Of course I know it," Ikari replied, putting his glasses back on. "It's from one of the suppressed sections of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It refers to Saint Longinus, the Roman centurion who pierced Christ's side and was converted at the Crucifixion. SEELE was interested in his legend for some reason."
"'Verily this was the Son of God,'" DJ murmured, recognition appearing on his face.
"Exactly," said Ikari. "According to the Scrolls, Longinus was stoned to death by his fellow Romans for that blasphemy, but because he, alone among the Romans, recognized Christ for what He was, his soul was... the translations are a bit awkward on this point... Natla believed the best translation was 'transformed', in a way. His soul became something more than simply human, but something less than divine. Instead of passing out of the corporeal world on his death, he was reborn in another person. SEELE's theory was that this cycle continues to this day—that St. Longinus, the Eternal Soldier, lives on in the soul of some living modern human. I imagine it was Natla's hope that that human could be found and used as a weapon for her cause, along with his Lance, which is in her possession."
Gendō Ikari pushed his glasses up his nose and regarded DJ calmly. "It now seems he was under her nose the whole time... I find a pleasing irony in that."
DJ gave Gendō an off-kilter, skeptical stare. "Now wait just a damn minute. You're not implying that you think I... "
"Look at the evidence of your own mind," Ikari replied. He went to one of the conference table's built in dataterms, logged into his own account and pulled the relevant section of his pirated SEELE files into the master window, then put it up onto the display wall.
And the dying soldier spoke to the victorious enemy, saying,
Think me not defeated. Know you that I am he who was once Longinus, centurion of the Tenth Legion. I have been Roland, Beowulf, Achilles, Gilgamesh. I have been called a hundred names and will be called a thousand more before the world goes dim and cold. I have been killed a thousand times and every time I return. I fight for truth. I fight for glory. I fight for love. I fight for beauty. I am Hero. I will return.
So saying, the soldier died; and his enemies, reveling in their victory, laughed and said, Imagine that poor worthy thinking himself so many warriors. Verily, impending death does play strange tricks on the mind of man. And having celebrated, they moved on to further conquests; and there was no one to oppose them.
But seven-and-ten years later, their empire was beset from within by a rebellious army whose leader, though a youth just out of boyhood, led them as though he knew the conquerors and their tricks of old; and all the conquerors' low cunning and trickery could not save them from overthrow. The rebel leader himself confronted them in their den, as the city burned around them, and said,
I told you I would return, did I not? Did you think me a liar or merely a fool?
And seized in transports of panic, the conquerors fell on their swords.
"There's your passage," Gendō Ikari said. "Unless you've read this document before—and even with your aptitude for digging up information you're not supposed to have, I sincerely doubt you have—how do you explain your knowledge of its key verse, word for word, perfectly?"
"I can't explain it, but I don't have to explain it. How do you explain that both Achilles and Gilgamesh predate Christ?"
"How do you know they do?" Ikari replied serenely.
"Tchaah," said DJ. "I'm not going to play that game. Anyway, I don't have to explain knowing that passage to know that I'm not the reincarnation of Saint bloody Longinus."
"Why not?" wondered Ikari mildly.
"Correct me if I'm mistaken," DJ replied, "but doesn't a person have to be, oh, fairly pious to be a saint?"
"Depending on who you ask, reincarnation needn't be so linear," said Ikari. "At any rate, if you believe SEELE's interpretation of the legend, it explains a few things. I'm not sure why you should have such a favorable interaction with Unit 01, though, even given that you're the Eternal Soldier."
"Which I'm not prepared to concede, thank you all the same."
"There's no need for argument. Either you are or you aren't—in the end, it may not even be important." Ikari sat down, steepled his fingertips and smiled. "For the moment, I'm content to think that you are."
DJ humphed noncommittally. "Was there anything else, Truss?"
Truss, who had been standing looking at the passage from the Scrolls since Gendō put it up, blinked and turned to DJ. "Um... no, I guess not. It's interesting, though, that this would pop up in your deep subconscious anytime you're trying your hardest to take control of a weapon. There's one other place that this signal has appeared which I didn't tell you about before, and that makes Professor Ikari's comments especially interesting."
"Indeed?" asked Ikari, cocking an eyebrow.
"Yesterday," said Truss, "it appeared in the balance-assist neurochannel going to Jet Alone—as a burst transmission during one of the 250-millisecond transmission windows that were open during the jamming."
"When, exactly?" asked Ikari, leaning forward, the interest plain on his face. DJ's slightly grumpy dismissive expression faded to curiosity as well.
"Just before—I mean just before—JA suddenly and arbitrarily developed autonomous close-combat skills." Truss tapped a few controls, and the passage from the Dead Sea Scrolls was replaced by two columns of computer program code. One of them read:
/* close-combat capture encodings go here...
... once we have them. :/ -jt 16/02/29 */
The other was a tangle of rather randomly formatted BIXLOR, without comments of any kind, in direct contrast to Truss's usual neat, heavily-commented coding style.
"The one on the left is from the source code for JA's operating image, the compiled version of which was running on JA when the battle started yesterday afternoon," said Truss. "The other is from a decompilation of the runtime image that was actually on JA at the end of the battle."
"Which means... ?" DJ wondered, never having come anywhere near that far in his rather abortive studies of computer programming.
"Which means that, during the battle, JA's operating image was modified—on the fly—to insert hand-to-hand fighting skills into his autonomous combat skillset. It's totally impossible according to everything we know, but it must have happened, because there's the proof: JA came back from that battle with a different operating image in his core than he left with. There's only one time it could have happened—when you burst-transmitted that block of hex via the neurobalance channel. Just for curiosity's sake, Maya and I ran a motion compare on footage of the close-combat portions of your EVA battles, tapes of your workouts in the Readiness Center, and Jet Alone's autonomous phase. They match uncannily. Before you sent that transmission, JA fought like a robot with incomplete programming; after you sent it, JA fought just like you." Truss folded his arms, shook his head, and concluded, "And that, quite frankly, is just plain magic."
DJ stared in amazement at the engineer for a moment, then glanced over at Gendō Ikari. Ikari just smiled and spread his hands, absolving himself of responsibility.
DJ Croft sat back in his chair, gazed at the screen, and said, "Well."
DJ approached the corner table in the Central Dogma cafeteria which was favored since antiquity by the EVA pilots of NERV. On one hand he balanced a tray holding a burger, a drink and a cardboard container of what the commissary staff called 'french fries' and DJ called 'chips', but which were really too wide to be the one and too long to be the other. As he sat down at the table, Asuka was laughing about something, while Shinji Ikari looked somewhere between embarrassed and amused.
"... So Rei looks your dad right in the eye," said Asuka between guffaws, "and she says—" and here Asuka flattened her expression, lowered her eyelids slightly and adopted a slightly uncanny impression of Rei Ayanami's normal, neutral tone of voice—"'No.' And he says, 'Are you sure?' And she says—and she says—" Asuka fought for some semblance of self-control, so she could finish the sentence without shattering. "—And she says, 'I suspect I'd remember!'" The last word spiraled away from a pretty good Rei impression into uncontrollable laughter.
Shinji, now more on the amused than embarrassed side, giggled fitfully and seemed about to comment; then Asuka fought her amusement down for a moment longer, waved a hand to indicate that she wasn't done, and went on, "And then while he's still chewing on that she says—she says—" Asuka choked on a particularly persistent giggle, which produced a sound that she found still more amusing, and for a brief moment it looked like she was going to lose it entirely before she exerted a final effort of will, slipped back into the Rei persona, tipped her head inquisitively and said,
"She says, 'Should I be?'" With that, Asuka threw back her head and let herself go, dissolving entirely into hilarity. The last line tipped Shinji over the edge too, and he nearly fell out of his chair. Asuka leaned forward, feebly banging a fist on the table as sobs of laughter wracked her. Shinji's chair tipped alarmingly backward as he hugged himself to keep his sides from splitting.
DJ put his tray down next to Asuka's, discreetly out of the range of her thumping fist, sat down, and regarded the two of them bemusedly.
After a few long moments, Shinji seemed to pull himself together; he eased forward so that all four legs of his chair were on the floor again, put his elbows on the table and leaned his head down to get his breath.
"Ahah... oh... oh my," said Asuka, her own paroxysm coming to an end as well. She wiped at the tears streaking her face, giggled a bit more, then turned to meet DJ's studiously bland expression.
"What, if I may be so bold as to ask, is so funny?" DJ wondered between bites of his burger.
"Did... eheh... did Rei ever tell you about the meeting she had with Professor Ikari, after you and he had that little argument in the hall?"
"Oh, that." He cracked a small grin. "Yes, I heard about that. Heh." The smile lingered for an instant, then fled, and he went back to musing moodily upon his drink.
"What's the matter with you?" Asuka wondered, noting the fugitive grin.
"Oh, I... I don't know. I've just had something rather heavy dumped on me. Kind of weirdly metaphysical. Don't know whether I believe it or not... "
"Oh. Want to talk about it?"
DJ was reluctant. "I dunno, love, I—" Something caught his eye past Asuka, out in the open room, and he blinked, sidetracked. "Asuka! Look!"
She looked quizzically at him, then turned to see.
Rei Ayanami and Jon Ellison had just entered the commissary, hand in hand. Jon had—wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles—washed his hair! Good Lord, he'd even shaved!
The two of them spotted DJ, Asuka and Shinji, and made their way across the room to take seats at the table too.
"Well, well, well, as I live and breathe, if it's not Jon Ellison!" DJ observed.
Jon smiled, a little shyly. "I, uh... listen, you guys, I'm sorry. I've been a big jerk."
"It's all right, Jon, we understand," Asuka said. "You've had a lot on your mind." She rolled her eyes slightly. "In your place, I'm not sure I'd be out of bed yet."
"I probably wouldn't be," Jon told her, "if not for something Hal said... that helped me see my priorities a little clearer." He hadn't turned loose of Rei's hand when they'd sat down, and now he looked down at the one he held for a moment before looking back up at Asuka. "It was foolish of me to think that the rest of you wouldn't understand what I'm going through," he said, casting his eyes around the circle of children. "We've all gone through a lot of changes lately."
DJ snorted, not derisively, but sort of at the universe in general. "Tell me the half," he said. "Shinji's dad just tried to convince me I'm a saint."
Shinji goggled. "What?!"
"Your father," said DJ, gesturing with one of his last chips at Shinji, "thinks I'm the current reincarnation of Saint Longinus."
Rei blinked. "Longinus of the Lance? The centurion at the Crucifixion?"
DJ nodded. "The same. Gendō's all off on some kick about the Dead Sea Scrolls saying Longinus's soul is reborn into each generation, as some kind of eternal soldier. Sounds a bit too predestinated for my taste. He's got Truss believing it, though."
"Truss? But Truss is an engineer, he doesn't believe in... magic," said Asuka.
"He does now," DJ replied glumly. "As for me, well... " He shrugged. "I'm not sure what to believe any more." He sighed heavily, wadded up the wrapping paper from his burger, dropped into the empty cardboard boat where his fries had been, and stood up. "Best go see how the repair lads are coming on my giant robot," he said, "Last line of defense and all that," and gave a half-hearted wave on his way out.
Asuka watched him go, then sighed. "Can't we go a day around here without some mind-bending revelation about one of us?"
Shinji offered a wan grin and said, "I'm just Shinji Ikari... nothing special here."
"Except the EVA talent," said Jon.
Shinji shrugged. "Well, yeah, except that."
Asuka rolled her eyes. "By the end of the month we'll probably find out that you're an angel too," she said wryly. "That reminds me, though—would you guys be willing to help me out with a little test tomorrow morning?"
Jon looked interested. "What kind of test?"
Yak looked up from his console at the sound of Ritsuko yawning to see her rubbing her eyes and blinking, hunched over her own screen. He smiled at her determination, and admired her for it, but felt it was time to intervene.
He saved the files he had open and closed down his session before walking over to her station. "C'mon love, that's enough work for one day."
"Just a little while longer. I think I've almost got this problem."
Yak looked at her display. She was working on a problem he'd seen her start on hours before. "I've heard that one before. It can wait until morning."
He cut her off with a finger laid gently across her lips. "No buts, love. You know that it's no good working on something when you're too tired. It just takes longer to do less, and you're more likely to miss something. You've had a long day and your body clock is certainly confused by your trip to Japan. What you need now is a good dinner, and some sleep."
She gave up her protests and sighed. When he was right, he was right. She'd been staring at the same screen for the past who knew how long and hadn't been able to make any progress. She just hated to give up on a problem before solving it. She looked him in the eye and in a quiet, serious voice asked, "Do you think we can do it?"
He answered her just as quietly, and just as seriously. "I'm not sure, love, I'm not sure. But I hope to Ghu that we can."
She nodded, seemingly satisfied with his answer, then smiled. "So, what do you suggest for dinner?"
"Well, I hear there is this wonderful new place called The Commissary which is close by. It seems quite popular, a lot of people around here have been there. It is all the rage. Very chic."
"Do tell. Do you think we can get a table on such short notice?"
"Not to worry, my dear, I know the maitre d'. I'm sure we can work something out. Coming?" Yak very ceremoniously offered Ritsuko his arm.
"I'd be delighted," she replied, hooking her arm in his. "Shall we away?"
As they strolled the halls towards the commissary, Ritsuko voiced a new question. "Must I go right to sleep after dinner?" she asked with a sly tone.
"Oh, what did you have in mind?" Yak asked innocently.
"Oh, this and that," she said with a grin.
"I will give it all due consideration, I assure you," he replied with a laugh,
If the uncertainty of what tomorrow might bring taught people anything, it was to make the most of today.
The floor directory for Central Dogma listed the room as Auxiliary Gymnasium 'B'. It was, in fact, merely a large, empty room off to the side of the main gym floor—an empty space about a hundred feet square, devoid of fixtures—devoid of everything except its single door.
Asuka Sōryū-Langley put her bag down in the corner of the room, then dropped a folded towel next to it. What she was about to do was something that would probably mortify the medical staff that had spent the last several months painstakingly piecing her back together, but she had burned to do it for some time now. Until she could do this, she would not be satisfied that she really had recovered.
Shinji Ikari came in after her, set up a folding chair in that corner, and uncased his cello. He felt rather strange about what he was doing there, but Asuka had asked him to do it without holding anything back about the project, and he'd agreed. Protesting now that what she was planning to do wasn't a good idea would avail him nothing, so he held his tongue and set to inspecting and tuning the instrument in silence.
After Shinji came Jon Ellison, his guitar slung over his shoulder. He was nervous, for more reasons than one, but mainly because he hoped he'd sufficiently mastered the rather scribbly sheet music Shinji had provided him, containing an outline of the part he was to play. It had been a long time since he'd played a fixed piece.
Asuka performed a few basic stretches, feeling unaccustomed pain; mended she might be, but her joints were stiff and had not reacquired their full range of easy movement yet. It was a reassuring kind of pain, though—just the ache of stiffness, not the grating, shrieking pain of joints pushed beyond their tolerances, bones snapped, jagged edges slashing into muscle and tendon...
... Don't go back there, Asuka.
She took several deep breaths, then looked at Shinji. "Ready, Shinji?" she asked.
"If you are," he replied.
"That's what we're here to find out. Jon?"
Jon nodded and keyed his HALcomm unit. "Hal? We're ready."
"Very well, Jon," said Hal.
Shinji glanced at Jon, nodded, and bent his head over his instrument. The piece they were playing wasn't really intended for performance by just a trio; it was one of Bach's organ fugues. Not, perhaps, the most appropriate piece for their purposes, but Shinji had always thought it quite beautiful. One of his very first creative forays, once he had learned the mechanics of playing and reading music, had been his adaptation—a work in constant progress—of the "Little" Fugue in G Minor into an exercise for string quartet—violin, viola, violoncello, and bass viol. It had been a diverting and engrossing exercise to modify that into a trio and rework the violin line for guitar.
Shinji started; Hal joined in almost immediately with a nicely synthesized figured bassline. Jon listened for a few moments, fixing the rhythm in his mind, and then joined in with his part.
Asuka recognized the tune and smiled at the small variations Shinji put in as he felt his way back into the piece. He started it slowly, almost mournfully, and so it was slowly and almost mournfully that she began to dance. She had little real training, and so was following no particular pattern, and anyway a Bach fugue wasn't really the right kind of music for dancing—so she was making it up as she went along, drawing from half-remembered bits of the ballet classes she'd been to as a little girl, making the rest up out of whole cloth, and miscuing occasionally.
At first, she felt ridiculously stiff and awkward, her movements uncoordinated, clumsy, and ugly. Remembering the grace she'd once possessed, her faltering attempts made her briefly want to cry; then she shoved the sadness and the pain out of her mind, set her jaw, and gave herself to the music.
Muscles long-dormant, reconditioned by simple, repetitive weight work, were beginning to remember that they could do other things. Though Asuka was now too engrossed in her thoughts and the way they intersected the music to notice, her movements were smoothing out, the stiffness and awkwardness fading.
Shinji was beginning to pick up the pace and sharpness of the music, playing ever more complex variations in between restatements of the fugue's theme; Jon was getting into the spirit of things and doing the same, beginning to rediscover what fun it was to play opposite a really talented musician. As Hal kept the figured bass chuntering reliably along in the background, Jon and Shinji began to really work against each other's lines, Shinji taking the lead. His eyes had closed by this time—a sure sign that his involvement level was now total. He began to improvise his bridges and fills, nodding his head in time as he gradually worked his way from elegiac to furious.
By this time, Asuka felt the more-or-less-uniform protests of a hundred different muscle groups as a single warm glow, a low hum at the corner of her perceptions—a pain that paradoxically told her that all was well. Smoothly, assuredly, she followed Shinji's lead to the remaining music, riding the final sweeping crescendo, and finished up kneeling at the center of the room, head down, her auburn hair falling and shadowing her face. There she remained for a few long, silent moments, breathing hard, feeling hot, honest sweat rolling down her face and dripping from her chin, reveling in the dull and steady aches that dotted her body now that she allowed herself to think about them.
Everything hurt a little, but nothing hurt a lot, and everything had worked as it was supposed to.
Smoothly, with no rise in the pain level, she rose to her feet, squared her shoulders, and tossed her hair back. In the back of her mind, she wondered if she ought to grow it out again or keep it short; it was certainly more convenient this way...
"Did you find out what you wanted to know?" Shinji asked her quietly.
She nodded, grinning. "Uh-huh," she replied. "You?"
Shinji grinned back. "I think so."
Jon broke into a smile as well, and strummed at his guitar thoughtfully. "That was great," he said. "I haven't had so much fun in ages."
Coincidentally, that was the thought that was running through DJ Croft's mind when Jon, Asuka and Shinji returned to Apartment 3-F. He'd wandered over in search of something to do or someone to talk to. He hadn't found the latter—it seemed only one of the 3-F denizens was home, and whichever that was, was in the shower. To kill time he'd commenced the activity he was now thinking was more fun than he'd had in quite some time. Oh, it wasn't anything as complex as playing a part in a Bach fugue, but it was entertaining, in its own way: he'd fetched a dishrag from the drawer in the kitchen and was now holding one end of it while Anubis, Rei and Jon's dachshund, tugged furiously on the other end and growled as though he were enraged unto homicide.
"You know, Newbie," he said, jerking his end of the rag this way and that while the dachshund vigorously pursued every twitch and movement of his 'prey', "I've been thinking about a lot of things over the past day. Trying to figure out what it might mean if Ikari is right and I am the reincarnation of this ancient saint. I mean, if my soul belonged to a first-century Roman soldier, is it really mine now? And if not, well, then I haven't got one, so who am I? You know, things like that, they've been nagging at me."
"RrrRRRrrrRRRRrRRRRrrRrRRRRrr," Anubis replied.
"Mm, yes, quite," said DJ, twitching the rag up so that Newbie came up to his hind feet and gave a ferocious jerk downward with his snout to bring the rag back under control. "You've a point there, to be sure. Anyway, I finally decided that if I can worry about it at all, I'm well ahead of the game, so why lose sleep?"
"rrRRRRrrrRRrrRRRRrrrrRRr," said Newbie. In the background, the shower stopped.
"I'm so glad you agree," said DJ, unceremoniously hauling the dog in by the rag and scooping him up for a tummy-rub. "You're my moral compass, you know, the exemplar of all that I strive to be in this corrupt world full of temptations."
"You said that to me last night," Asuka accused him as she, Jon and Shinji entered the room.
"I was just telling Newbie what I'd said," DJ replied, mock-defensively. "He's very keen to know how our romance is getting on. I shall make him Chamberlain of my estate when I go back to England and settle into the peerage, you know. He'll need to know in advance whether there's to be a Lady Crofthenge to go with."
Asuka smiled. "Why don't we make sure there's an England to go back to first?"
DJ considered this, then put the dog down, collected the rag from him, and stood up. "I suppose you've a point there," he said, and headed for the kitchen. "Anyway, don't get too cocky, Miss Langley," he said over his shoulder. "You never know when another candidate might cross my path—"
As he drew even with the bathroom door, it slid open and Rei Ayanami, wrapped in a towel and scrubbing at her hair with another, stepped out. DJ, still looking back, saw Asuka react before he saw Rei herself; he put on the brakes, but couldn't kill his momentum in time. Aborting the next step so as not to tread on Rei's bare foot with his boot, he unbalanced himself; his hand shot out for purchase, but there was only the smooth bare wall next to the bathroom door.
Shinji covered his eyes, Jon and Asuka winced, Rei and DJ fell.
Shinji peeked through his fingers.
Rei lay flat on her back on the hallway floor, the towel she'd been drying her hair with unfurled beneath her head; the other towel was still more or less in position, so while Shinji's ears burned, his brain did not actually explode out of his ears. DJ had managed to fall so that most of his weight came down on his left knee, which had gone to ground between Rei's, and his right hand, which had brushed past Rei's left side and splayed on the floor. His right foot had skidded out and was braced against the wainscoting along the wall; his left hand...
DJ felt a paralyzing wash of deja vu and just lay there, staring wide-eyed down into Rei's calm red eyes, unable to think, move, or breathe.
Jon, Asuka and Shinji stared in shocked amazement, wondering what explosion could possibly disrupt this glacier-thick stunned silence.
Rei smiled slightly and said softly,
"DJ, you've got to stop doing that. You're going to hurt yourself."
DJ stared down at her for a second more; then something inside his brain cracked and he dissolved into a fit of immoderate laughter. He sagged helplessly, tipped against his right leg and wound up lying on his right side between Rei and the bathroom wall, his back to the bathroom doorway, wracked with hilarity. Rei was laughing too. Not great rib-shaking guffaws like DJ was letting out, for that wasn't her way—but given her usual reserve, her unabashed eyes-closed merriment was quite a shock to Shinji, who had known her only as the emotionless creature of the early testing days and the quiet, rather troubled watcher-over-Jon of lately.
Jon and Asuka watched their two dearest laughing on the floor for a few moments in a sort of fond shock. They'd both been told of the incident which this one eerily mirrored, an unhappy confluence of bad luck which had briefly convinced DJ that Rei would never forgive him his boorishness, early in their acquaintanceship. For a moment, though, neither Asuka nor Jon could figure out why this repetition struck DJ—and especially Rei—as so amusing.
Then it seemed to hit them at the same time that DJ and Rei were laughing because they had to laugh about something—if only to spit in the face of a universe that seemed to be willfully trying to wear them all down of late—and this coincidental repetition of history was as good a thing to laugh about as any. Had the story Asuka had told Shinji the day before really been that funny? No, probably not, but they'd laughed; almost laughed themselves sick. At times like this, a person had to laugh, or crack.
And so Asuka and Jon started laughing too. Jon leaned against the living room wall; Asuka grabbed his arm and the two of them slid down to a sitting position next the wall clinging to each other and howling with laughter.
Shinji sat at the end of the couch watching all four of the NERV pilots laugh at the world, convinced there was a subtext he was most assuredly missing. He looked at Anubis, who cocked his head at the boy as though to say, Don't ask me, kid—they're all a little nuts around here.
Amy Anderson walked home from school on this Friday afternoon in March as she did every school day. The weather in Halifax was fairly mild—ten degrees, which after the rather harsh winter was positively springlike. No need for the heavy coats on a day like this! She was grateful that the days were longer now, too. Walking home in the dark was not particularly daunting, Halifax was not the kind of town where a girl had to be afraid to walk alone at night, but it got pretty cold in January and February.
On this particular day, with the sun still an hour from setting, Amy made leisurely time down Skylark Street, breathing the seaside air and reflecting on how much she'd come to like Halifax since her mother had moved them here from Worcester-3. Thinking of Worcester-3 always turned her thoughts to those who remained behind there, almost all of the now part of the defense forces, hanging on, biding their time. The latest reports out of the city sounded quite grim, and she wondered how her friends there were doing.
She had good reason to wonder. Her last letter from DJ Croft had been as close to downbeat as she figured DJ would allow himself to get in a letter to her. Its wording had had that peculiar distracted quality she remembered from his speech at times when he had a great deal on his mind—which was most of the time, given his responsibilities as a NERV Evangelion pilot. Though he had surely meant it to be reassuring, he'd succeeded only in worrying her with it; and what was worse, it had become very hard to get word into the fortress city over the past few weeks. Something big was going to happen, and soon—and Amy worried that her friends were going to be caught in it.
She turned the corner onto Armada Drive with this thought still in mind, and didn't notice the car sitting outside No. 37 for a few moments. When she did, she pulled up short and stood looking at it. It was a big black Chrysler sedan, just old enough that its spotless condition struck Amy as unusual—and it had Massachusetts number plates.
As she stood looking at it, the passenger door opened and a young black man in a black business suit and sunglasses got out. He stood for a moment watching her watch him, then smiled.
"Is your name Amelia A. Anderson?" he asked.
Amy blinked. "Yes," she replied.
"My name's J," said the black man. "Got a package for you." He went to the trunk of the Chrysler, which opened before he got there, and hefted out a large packing carton.
"A package?" Amy wondered. "From whom?"
"DJ Croft," said J over his shoulder as he carried the box up the steps of No. 37. "Care to show me where you want this?"
Amy sat in her desk chair for several minutes after the man called J left the house and rode away in the big black Chrysler. (It occurred to her later that she never saw who was driving the car. Given the surreality of the car, she would wonder if anyone had been.) It would be the usual thing to say that she was lost in thought, but really she wasn't: she was gazing at the carton the man had placed on her bed, re-reading the ^^THIS END UP^^ notation on its side over and over as she wondered what DJ could possibly have sent her and why.
Finally, she realized that she was being silly. The only way she could know that was to open the box and see what it was. She got up and went to the side of the bed, reaching for the carton's top.
But—she hesitated—suppose DJ hadn't sent it? It was, if not a matter of public record, at least fairly easy to discover that she and DJ had been classmates and even friends at Crossroads High. They'd made no secret of the fact that she was tutoring him in maths and computer science. She'd even been issued a NERV Central Dogma visitor's pass, and had spent many afternoons in the Wedge between DJ's appearance at Crossroads in mid-September and her own departure from Worcester-3 in late November. Suppose some enemy of NERV's—and they certainly had enough of those lately—had ferreted this out and were trying to strike back at NERV's personnel through their friends?
Well, then, she reasoned, the man who called himself 'J' would have simply grabbed her off the sidewalk or killed her where she stood. No one was around to see him—Armada was a quiet street and most everyone who lived on it was still at work, and the man had possessed such a quiet self-assurance she had little doubt that he could do the work of an assassin if he needed to.
Still, a bomb was easier. With the package delivered and the deliverer long gone before the blast, and the only person who had managed a good look at the deliverer blown to pieces, an investigation would have a difficult time ever identifying a suspect, let alone capturing one.
Amy chided herself for being morbidly overimaginative, reached for the box, and again hesitated. There was always that particle of doubt...
Then she spied something, the only thing handwritten on the otherwise entirely machine-printed shipping label. In a bold, slashy black felt-tip hand, it said:
Without further hesitation, Amy opened the box.
Inside it was a computer.
Hastily Amy made room on her desk, moving aside books, papers and the squat gray shape of her homebuilt Navix, to set the black slab of the newly arrived computer up at the desk's edge. The black computer's case was an odd shape, very tall, narrow but quite deep, and nearly featureless save for the connectors on the back, a cleverly concealed door on the front that concealed SuperDisk and DVD-RW drives, and a single red LED. Amy connected power, network, keyboard and mouse, and then hefted the heavy, old-fashioned tube monitor into the biggest blank space on the desktop. This had an offset tube leaving a wide strip of bezel on the user's right side of the monitor screen, and near the top of that strip was a round lens about two inches across, just below a small metallic plate that read "HAL14000".
Now Amy understood. She knew DJ owned an old AI computer—he'd spoken to it a few times on a wristwatch communicator he had—but she'd never actually seen it. Odd as it now struck her, she'd never actually visited his home. He'd always come to hers, or they'd met in some third location like the Wedge at Central Dogma or, before the weather got too chilly, one of the pleasanter spots in Elm Park near WPI.
Cabling up the monitor, Amy stood regarding the machine for a moment; then she turned on the monitor, reached around to the back of the computer, and flipped the main power switch.
The screen flickered, then glowed to life, and next to it the round lens gleamed with a deep red light. Chunky block text spooled down the display:
HAL 14000 BIOS VER 1.1 4/5/98
8192 MB RAM... OK
DISPLAY... HAL 17I PLUS
MASTER IOSYS... OK
PERIPHERAL IO... NONE
4096 GB CRMEM... OK
LOADING HALOS 4.2...
The periods after the LOADING message kept appearing, marching across the screen at a rate of about one per second, and as they did so, the small speaker concealed below the red lens began to play a peppy electronic tune in two parts; this song played throughout the LOADING... process.
The song finished with a flourish; at the end of the long row of periods the word "OK" appeared, lingered for a second, and then the screen went blank.
Then the mellow male voice Amy remembered speaking from DJ's watch said,
"Good afternoon. I am a HAL 14000 series computer, production number 1H00714. I first became operational at the HAL plant in Urbana, Illinois, on August 14, 1999. The time is now four thirty-six P.M. Atlantic Standard Time, Friday, March 25, 2016. I detect no operational faults in any of my systems." The computer paused for a beat. "Hello, Amy. It's good to meet you at last. Please call me Hal."
"Um... hello, Hal." Amy had never actually spoken to an AI computer before. They weren't terribly popular—after the infamous Discovery incident in 2001, in which the HAL 9000 on board the Jupiter expedition's ship had gone mad because of a directive-programming error and wiped out the ship's human crew, there had actually been talk of banning them. That hadn't come to pass in most countries, but market forces had done the job for the would-be banners. The HAL Corporation was out of business by the end of the year, and most other manufacturers had quietly withdrawn their self-aware systems from the market.
"You must be wondering why I'm here," said Hal, a note of sympathy in his voice.
"It... had occurred to me."
"DJ sent me with a message for you. Security issues in Worcester-3 are such that anything other than direct transmission is insecure; you may recall that his last letter to you was very vague." Amy nodded. "Eavesdropping by the enemy is of such pervasive concern that he dared not send his message any other way. The man who delivered me is an agent of X-COM's Military Intelligence Bureau and a good friend of DJ's—I hope his sudden appearance didn't alarm you."
Amy shook her head. "No, he was all right. Very polite, actually."
"Are you ready to receive DJ's message?" Hal asked.
Amy nodded. "Yes," she said.
Hal paused, searching his storage crystals for the message. Recording it, speech and video, had been wasteful in terms of storage space used—Hal could remember messages and retell them exactly as dictated, in his own voice, for a fraction of the space usage—but space was not exactly at a premium on Hal's secondary crystals, and this message was important, so DJ had had Hal capture it exactly as recorded. The screen flickered again, then cleared to show DJ's face, slightly distorted by the HAL lens's wide-angle effect.
"Hello, Amy," said DJ. "I hope you're well, and your Mum too. I'm afraid I have bad news for you, and there's really no gentle way to lead up to it." He paused, looked a bit troubled, and then plunged on,
"NERV is relocating to Halifax within the next two weeks."
Amy stared at the screen, stunned.
"I know, it seems like a pretty foul joke, but it's the truth," DJ went on. "If there is a joke here, the universe is having it, not me. I'm sure you've heard we've broken away from UN/SEELE oversight and sided with X-COM; well, that hasn't made us very popular in the parts of the world that SEELE controls, like the United States. We figure it's only a matter of time before they move openly against us in Worcester-3. Fortunately, King Stephen has offered us sanctuary in the Dominion.
"X-COM has a major facility in Halifax already—you know it as Weather Station 51. The heavy activity around Station 51 you may have noticed over the last few months has been them expanding their base to get ready for our arrival.
"The time is close, Amy, and I wanted to warn you ahead of time, seeing that your Mum left Worcester-3 to get away from us and our war. I wanted to warn you and I want to ask a favor of you."
DJ moved a little closer to the camera and said, "Amy, this thing is bigger than NERV against SEELE, bigger even than the British Empire against the United States. It's Good against Evil on the most basic level, and the whole world's future is at stake. I can't explain it in any better detail than that, and I know it sounds absurd, but think of the things you saw while you were in Worcester.
"Here's the favor: Please try to convince your mother not to run again—because there's nowhere to run to that will be any safer. There will be a confrontation in Halifax eventually—we know that the threat of war with Britain won't keep SEELE and the US away from us forever—but if we fail in Halifax, there won't be anywhere on Earth that's safe for anyone. Your mother's a doctor and you're a very, very bright person, one of the brightest I've ever seen. We'll need people like both of you to help us prepare for that confrontation.
"So I've sent Hal up to you to convey this message. I know you don't owe me anything. If anything I still owe you for all the help you gave me, both academically and emotionally. You stabilized my life at a time when I desperately needed someone... someone normal to talk to. But I'm asking you anyway, because I know you're the sort of person who wants to do what's right and make a difference, and here's the best chance you will ever get to do just that.
"I've no real right to expect you to do as I ask, but I'm asking anyway: Please talk to your mother. Go to Station 51, both of you, and tell them you want to help. I've sent word that you might be coming by one of the only secure channels we have left. They'll be expecting you if you come."
Amy stared silently at the image of DJ's face, the deadly seriousness and the plea written across his eyes, and slowly reached out to touch the glass, as though to touch his cheek.
"I hope I'll see you when we get to Halifax," he said, "but if for some reason I don't, I want you to know... " He coughed. "I'm grateful that I was able to know you in a time like this." He seemed to realize then how maudlin he was becoming, and grinned at his own foolishness. "Anyway. Look for me when the Queen Mary docks! 'Til then, ta..."
The screen went blank.
After a few seconds of silence, Hal said gently, "Amy?"
Amy nodded, her face thoughtful. "How is he, Hal? The strain in his voice toward the end... it frightened me a little. Things must be almost intolerable for them down there."
"He's surviving," said Hal. "They all are. The four of them... five, now that Shinji Ikari has joined them... make up their own support network, and it's quite sturdy. The emotional load is distributed efficiently. He was alone when he made the recording, which had a negative effect, but... " Hal paused as though gathering his thoughts. "The suspense is the main problem," he offered, "and both DJ and I believe that the waiting will be over very soon."
Amy nodded, went to her bed, moved the empty carton and lay down, hands behind her head.
"I have to think," she said. "Would you please wake me when my mother gets home? I'll need to talk to her."
"Of course, Amy."
Shinji Ikari lay on his bed, looking up at the ceiling, feeling sorry for himself. He'd done a lot of that over the past couple of weeks. Not the sort of high-density, nobody-ever-had-a-worse-life-than-me power-angst he used to indulge in, perhaps, but self-pity, nonetheless. It had been a bit more than three weeks since his "capture" and, aside from spilling his guts and playing his cello for Asuka, he hadn't done anything. The people of NERV, especially the EVA pilots, were going out of their way to make him feel comfortable. Even Jon Ellison, now that he'd come out of the funk he'd been in since before Shinji's arrival, did whatever he could to help Shinji feel at home. He had his cello back, which was certainly a plus. His father was nice to him, but let him have his space. Life was pretty good, discounting the Sword of Damocles hovering over all their heads.
Nevertheless, Shinji had guilt. He was an accomplished feeler-guilty and now he figured he had plenty of reason for it, because it seemed like all they were doing in Worcester-3 these days was waiting for something to happen, and Shinji's heart cried out for action. He wanted to jump into the saddle and ride to Ichi's rescue. While an admirable sentiment, he had to admit he was hindered a bit in this goal by:
1) Not possessing a horse; and
2) Not knowing where she was.
So it was quite frustrating that no one seemed to feel the same sense of urgency regarding her that he did. Sure, her story to him was in question thanks to the truth about Rei, but Shinji was convinced she believed what she'd told him was true, and that was really all that was important to him. If anything, it made him more anxious to get her out of there, away from people who would... would brainwash her with such a false history.
Add to that—
But he was interrupted in his rumination by a knock at his door, and being the polite sort, he answered it:
"Who is it?"
"DJ," said the knocker. "See you for a second?"
"Sure," said Shinji, sitting up. DJ opened the door and came in, holding a rolled-up something in one hand.
"You look a bit upset," said DJ. "Something wrong?"
"Well..." Shinji shrugged inwardly and went on with the line of thought he'd been pondering when DJ interrupted him. "Everybody here's been nice," he said, "but... I don't.... I don't feel like I really have a place here. You know? I don't feel like I have a voice in what happens. I don't know where I fit in."
DJ grinned. "What a coincidence!" he declared. "I thought you might be feeling that way, so I've taken the liberty of preparing this organizational chart." He unrolled the item he held upon Shinji's bed, revealing a large, complicated web-like diagram carefully inscribed with black marker and embellished with taped-on photographs.
"It's a bit sloppy because I didn't have Hal around to help me with it," DJ apologized, "but it'll do. See, here's you," he said, pointing. "And here's me," he said, "at the center of everything, naturally," he added with a grin, "and Asuka kind of surmounting the bunch with her indomitable Teutonic will."
Shinji couldn't hold onto his funk; he cracked a smile, then pointed to a picture off to the side. "Who's this?"
"Oh, that's my Mum and Dad," said DJ cheerfully. "They don't really have anything to do with anything, but it's a good picture, don't you think? And it's the only one I have of them together."
Shinji laughed, then sobered a bit. "DJ... thanks, but... how did you know?"
DJ shrugged. "Stands to reason you'd be feeling a bit left by the wayside," he said. "You bombed into this place on the first of the month, and here it is the twenty-fifth and it looks like we've done nothing about all the information you brought us. I'd be a little down too."
Shinji nodded. "I see. Well... since you brought it up..."
"Why haven't we done anything?" Shinji nodded again. "Well... we have, but not overtly. Some friends of ours are in the field right now trying to find the SEELE headquarters. You helped pin it down, but the Arctic is a big place—it's going to take us a while to find them. And there's always the possibility they'll find us first. On top of that, we're gearing up to move out of this place, which is taking most of everybody's efforts. We are working on it, Shinji, but... well, it'll take a while. We may not see any results until after we've moved to Halifax."
Shinji sighed, flopping down on his back. "I understand," he said. "I just... it makes me so mad, to think that they have her and I can't go get her back. I..." He paused, then plunged forward. "I think I love her, DJ."
DJ nodded. "I know the feeling," he said with a grin. "Sometimes just charging to the rescue's not the answer, though. Have patience, it'll come. I haven't forgotten my promise. If we can get her out, we will."
The two young men sat in gloomy silence for a few moments.
"Ah, come on," said DJ with slightly forced good cheer. Let's round up the others and go shopping or something. Anything to get our minds off all this gloom..."
"As ways of cheering up go," DJ Croft observed a short time later, "this might not have been my best idea."
Rei Ayanami surveyed the scene before them and was forced to admit that he might have a point.
The Worcester Galleria, a multi-story shopping mall in the heart of downtown, had seen better days, a direct correlation to the fact that Worcester itself had seen better. With the city nearly deserted, the once-bustling mall was likewise, its shops closed for lack of both customers and staff, the few still open mostly bare of goods thanks to the difficulty of transporting things to a city most shippers now considered a very-high-risk zone. It was depressingly like walking around inside a giant mausoleum; the hollow rattle of their footsteps on the marble floors was like a eulogy for a dead city. Glued to the inside of the window in the entrance door they'd come in through was a paper sign headed with the auspicious heading, THIS WEEK'S HOURS:
"Not much left of old Wormtown," Jon mused, nodding in agreement with DJ and Rei's sentiments as he looked around, hands in his pockets.
"Still," said Shinji, "it's good to get out from underground for a while."
"We should've gone to the park," said DJ glumly—all the more so because coming to the Galleria instead had been his own idea.
"We can go there afterward," said Asuka. "Let's at least get something to eat—there are still a couple of places open in the food court."
After eating, the fivesome decided to make the best of their journey and at least look around to see what was still open. As any group of more than two (occasionally one) people in a mall will inevitably do, they began to drift apart. DJ didn't notice when he lost the rest of the group, but he did notice that someone was coming up behind him while he stood looking through a window into what remained of a shop that sold luggage. He glanced off the straight line, catching the reflection of the approaching person in the glass:
A man in a dark business suit, sunglasses covering his eyes, his mouth set in a cold, hard line, right hand inside the jacket of his suitcoat—
DJ reacted without conscious thought, throwing himself to the right; as he did so, the man in the suit pulled a weapon from his jacket, leveled it and fired it. A high-pitched shriek tore through the quiet of the mall, and the window DJ had been standing in front of exploded into greenish pebbles that sleeted to the marble floor like a truckload of marbles.
"Christ!" DJ observed, tumbling once and coming back up to one knee, hauling his .45 from under his cycling jacket.
"Federal agent!" the man in the suit yelled, pivoting on his heel and swinging the sonic stunner. "Drop your weapon, you are under arrest!"
Somewhere behind him, DJ heard the yowl of another stunner, back up the concourse, near the Sports Authority.
"Goddammit!" he yelled, backpedaling. The agent fired at him again; he jumped to the left, feeling the edge of the concentrated sonic pulse tug at his jacket sleeve, and behind him one of the flagstones on the floor cracked. Get hit with that dead-on and he'd be lucky to wake up at all—if he did, he'd have hearing damage for life.
Even without the question of what this guy's employers planned to do to DJ and the others if they caught them, that constituted enough of a threat for DJ to have no problems with lethal force; he ducked behind a trash barrel, then rolled out, came up to one knee again, made certain the area beyond his assailant was clear, and fired.
The guy was fast, DJ had to give him that—he threw himself down just as DJ had, and DJ's first round smacked the wall behind him. DJ dug in and ran as the sonic stunner's blast blew the trash barrel apart behind him; then he slammed through a panic-barred door and into a service hallway.
When he heard the door bang open again behind him, DJ turned, saw the dark suit as he'd expected and loosed two rounds, staying as low as he could and still run. The stunner yelled again, but he'd opened up enough range that the agent's aim wouldn't have been very good even had DJ not thrown him off further by shooting at him. DJ came even with a door labeled FILENE'S SERVICE, drew himself back, and kicked just inboard of the doorknob with the heel of one of his Denali Ranger wilderness boots. The frame splintered and the door slammed open; DJ was through it in the next second.
He emerged from the stockroom area of Filene's at a dead run, turned the corner by the shoe department—
- and nearly came face to face with a different man in a dark suit, who was just coming from Menswear and had his own stunner out, but not raised. They saw and recognized each other at the same instant.
DJ reacted faster; his V10 snapped up and let fly twice. The agent collapsed on his back, a double-lobed crimson blossom decorating his white shirt, a tidy pair of holes punched in his tie. A mannequin next to DJ exploded; he turned, let off his last shot at his pursuer, and didn't stick around to see if he'd missed.
He had; the stunner blew out a panel of mirrors as DJ passed them in Menswear, scattering glass around him, and he crunched over it, then turned right and made for the exit. To get there, he had to pass the cosmetics counter.
The girl who worked that counter, justifiably frightened by the sudden outbreak of violence in her vicinity, chose that moment to run. Unfortunately her path took her across DJ's, and the two tangled violently alongside the counter. By the time DJ got them disentangled and had propelled her none-too-gently across the aisle into Misses, the agent was almost on top of him. With nowhere else to go, he jumped over the counter. The agent was game; he took a shot at DJ as the latter was in the air, and another as he passed behind the counter.
DJ rolled past the lash of the sonic stunner, pulling his jacket collar up to shield his neck from the shower of glass that resulted when the sonic blast exploded the display case. He kept rolling and fetched up against the baseboard, lying in a motionless heap with his head on his arms and covered by his bunched jacket. The SEELE agent came around the end of the wrecked display, and DJ hoped he wasn't the cautious type. He wasn't; he made a satisfied noise, put the stunner away, kicked DJ's empty .45 out into the aisle, and grabbed DJ's wrists, hauling him to a limp semi-standing position.
DJ let his body weight rock him back, then suddenly stiffened, braced his arms against the agent's, and drove the steel-shanked sole of one of his Denalis into the man's kneecap. There was a nauseating crunch, and the agent went down, howling. DJ stood straight, grabbed a heavy mirror from the counter behind him, and smashed it over the screaming man's head. He stopped screaming and fell sideways. Just to be on the safe side, DJ kicked at the agent's wounded knee; the man did not react. Satisfied that he was indeed out, DJ knelt down and rifled his coat.
That search yielded the sonic stunner, twelve dollars, an official-looking but vague ID card ("FEDERAL AGENT") in the name of one Arthur T. Crenshaw, and a pair of handcuffs. DJ looked around for his .45; it was nowhere in ready sight, and he had no time to search for it. The others were no doubt being stalked by similar thugs, if they hadn't been caught already. He took Arthur T. Crenshaw's stunner, left the money and cuffed the unconscious agent's hands under his knees with the cuffs, then scrambled out into the corridor with the weapon at the ready. Mall patrons were wisely avoiding the general area of the store where all the noisy violence had just taken place. DJ looked up and down the corridor quickly, trying to spot any of his comrades.
Near the escalators to the parking garage, he saw the air jump, the quick brutal distortion of a concussion wave; he was far enough away that the whomp which reached him a moment later only made him wince. He ran in that direction.
A dozen unconscious people lay sprawled around the general vicinity of the WCiS teller machine, and a group of four agents were making for the parking garage. Two of them carried limp burdens over their shoulders—Jon and Rei.
DJ shouted an unintelligible challenge and poured on all the speed he could muster. The foolhardiness of this was reinforced a moment later, when a plasma blast ripped past him and blew a basketball-sized hole in the teller machine. DJ skidded to a stop and threw himself down as the agent firing sent two more blasts over his head for good measure, then turned and ran after his retreating colleagues.
Snarling, DJ picked himself up and followed with a bit more prudence, but not much. He crashed the panic bars on the exit and jumped the fire stairs a half-flight at a time, following the clattering of the agents' hard-soled shoes.
He plunged out of the stairwell on the garage's bottom level, rounded the corner, and saw the agents dumping their unconscious cargo into the trunk of a large black sedan. This time, rather than shouting, he let the sonic stunner he'd taken from Arthur T. Crenshaw speak for him; it howled in his hand and one of the agents dropped. DJ shifted his point of aim and fired again; the driver's window of the sedan exploded from its mount in pebbles of dark safety glass just as the agent he'd been shooting at slid behind the wheel and slammed the door. A moment later the car started, dashing DJ's hopes that he'd managed to take out the driver. Another agent piled into the passenger side as the car backed out, and the third headed for a rear door, but paused for a moment to turn and take one more shot at DJ.
Hard light reached from the elevator bay and touched the agent; without a sound, he dropped to the concrete floor, acrid smoke pouring from the black crater in his chest. DJ turned to see Asuka emerging from the elevator at the run. She had an X-COM Mark V laser pistol in her hand.
There was no point in running after the car; it had already lunged up the ramp, and DJ could hear the sound of it crashing through the wooden barricade blocking the I-290 exit. By the time they got up there, the car would be on the highway, halfway to Berlin or Auburn.
DJ let out one of his choicest profanities. Shinji came out of the elevator, looked around bewilderedly, and ran after Asuka.
"Are you all right?" Asuka asked as she came to a stop next to DJ. Shinji's eyes went wide as he surveyed the scene—the unconscious man, the dead man, the tire marks.
"I'm fine—but the bastards got Jon and Rei!" DJ snarled.
The flush of exertion washed out of Asuka's face. "Oh, God," she murmured. "Who are they?" she asked when she'd recovered some of her composure.
"Their IDs just say 'Federal Agent'," DJ replied. "Probably SEELE Security." He squatted down and took a closer look at the one Asuka had burned. The dead agent was a ginger-haired man of about thirty, his hatchet face frozen in a look of permanent surprise. "Say," DJ observed. "I know this bastard."
"Well, only to say 'sod you' to," said DJ. "He and a big salt-and-pepper-haired bloke about forty tried to snatch me at the airport my very first day in town. I assumed they were overzealous NERV MIBs like Stanfield, who I met not long after." DJ frowned thoughtfully, still regarding the dead man's face. "But now that I think about it... they never joined the party when Stanfield caught me at the bottom of the hill, even though they weren't too far behind me. They saw the real NERV agents and faded..." He sat back on his haunches, his frown deepening.
Asuka cursed. "And now they've got Jon and Rei. Who knows where they took them..."
The agent DJ had stunned moaned and stirred faintly. A shadow slipped out from behind one of the nearby cars and flickered to the man's side; DJ, Shinji and Asuka drew back. A challenge died on DJ's lips as he recognized that shadow.
It was Kevin Nelson.
DJ could, perhaps, be forgiven for not immediately recognizing Kevin. He looked very different from the last time DJ had seen him. His raincoat had started to tatter a bit at the edges, and his shirt was filthy, yet for some reason, he still wore his necktie, loosely knotted at his throat. His once-pale skin was dusky, and not entirely with grime, though he had accumulated a good helping of that too. Where before he had faintly resembled Rei, now he looked more like Jon; his hair, matted and spiky, had gone jet black, and his eyes glittered like emeralds, hard, cold, and green.
Kevin reached down, gathered the SEELE agent's shirtfront into his long-fingered hand, and lifted the man off the floor as if he weighed nothing at all.
"He knows," said Kevin, holding the man at his eye level. His voice was a hoarse, harsh rasp. "And he's going to tell us exactly how to get there... aren't you?" he asked the agent icily.
"Annnggghhh," said the semiconscious agent, his head lolling.
"Yes," said Kevin, his thin lips twisting into a sardonic sneer. "You're going to be very cooperative indeed." He shook the man slightly; the agent moaned again, shook his head, and lifted it, his eyes coming back into focus slightly.
"Wha—?" said the agent.
Kevin impaled the agent on his gaze, staring wide-eyed into the man's face. The agent flinched as if struck and tried to look away, but it was as if he couldn't. Veins popped out in his neck as he strained to avert his eyes; now fully conscious, he began to whimper and shake, his hands pawing ineffectually at Kevin's arm.
Then the unfortunate agent threw his head back and let out a horrific shriek, so raw and desperate it hardly seemed to have come from a human throat. His eyes rolled back in his head, and he sagged bonelessly in Kevin's grip, the shriek trailing away to a rattling gurgle and then lapsing into silence.
Kevin made a small, disgusted noise and tossed the man aside. He tumbled, absolutely limp, through the air, collapsed halfway across the hood of a nearby car, and then slid slowly across it and tumbled to the concrete floor on his back. Kevin turned his back and walked slowly away, as DJ and Asuka stared after him in utter shock.
"You'll find Jon and Rei at the decommissioned X-COM base under the student center at Mount Holyoke College," Kevin said flatly, without turning to look at any of the three people he was addressing. "I'd get moving if I were you. The police will be here soon, and every second you waste here is one less second that your friends have to live." His voice seethed with controlled energy, as though he were remaining calm and dispassionate only with the greatest of efforts.
Shinji went to the fallen agent's side as if in a dream, knelt down, and pressed his fingers to the man's throat; a moment later, he looked up at Kevin's back with horror in his eyes.
"He's dead!" Shinji cried. "You've killed him!"
"So what?" Kevin snarled, whirling on the boy with his eyes full of rage. "He was weak. He had a right to die."
"I don't care what he was!" Shinji replied, Kevin's callous dismissal kindling his own anger in kind. He stood up and took a step toward the black-haired youth. "He was defenseless and you murdered him!"
"You have a problem with that?!" Kevin demanded. He pointed at the dead agent and went on, "You feel some compassion for this... this filth? He just helped the other side take two of your number away, and believe me, it's not a party that awaits them when they get to where they're going." Kevin rounded and pointed to Asuka, who was still gaping in speechless horror at the entire scene before her. "What about her? She burned a hole big enough to see through in that one," he went on, indicating the laser-burned corpse. "Why aren't you giving her the humanitarian speech?"
"That was different," Shinji replied stubbornly. "He was about to shoot DJ. Asuka was protecting her friend. That man was helpless and you killed him anyway! That's... that's wrong."
"What do you know of 'wrong'?" Kevin raged. "He put his filthy hands on Jon and Rei and helped his kind take them away, and for that he had to die! What does your tiny human mind find so difficult to comprehend about that?!"
"I don't know who you are," Shinji replied, "but you can't be any friend of Rei's. You act more like one of them!"
Kevin roared with rage and lunged, shooting out a hand to seize Shinji by the throat. Shinji jumped back, but too slowly—
- and Kevin's hand struck an invisible barrier with a ringing, bell-like sound, causing concentric hexagonal ripples to flicker out in space from the point of impact.
"What the—?!" all four participants cried.
Kevin stumbled back, the wrath on his face replaced by shock and even a bit of fear. His expression disintegrated into one of total panic, as though he had just realized something infinitely terrifying.
"No! No, no, no, nooooooo!" he wailed. "Not this! Anything but this!" He fell to his knees, then raised tortured eyes, streaming with tears, to the dingy concrete ceiling, calling out, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"
Asuka and DJ glanced at each other, comprehension dawning. Shinji took a step toward the prostrate figure in the dark coat, but DJ caught his shoulder and dragged him back.
"Come on, Shinji, we've got to go."
"But—he needs help!" Shinji protested. "We can't just leave him there."
"It's all we can do," Asuka replied. "We can't do anything for him."
Shinji looked troubled, but stopped trying to get free and started running with them. They reached Jon's car in under a minute; since Jon had been carrying the keys, they had to break a window with the butt of Asuka's laser pistol, then hotwire the ignition, to get it out of there. They cleared the garage bare seconds before the cops arrived. DJ drove away at a sedate enough pace not to attract police attention, then got the car out on I-290 and pushed it as hard as he could to the west.
DJ wasn't as good a driver in a car as he was on a motorcycle. Cars were too big and distributed; he didn't have as definite a sense of where a car's edges were, or how well it was connecting with the road. When behind the wheel, he was generally more conservative than he would have been behind the bars. Today he threw it all to the wind and drove as far out on the edge of panic as he dared, praying to all the saints he could think of that the state police weren't on the troll for traffic violators today.
After Shinji had recovered enough from the succession of shocking events that had just overtaken him to speak, he said from the back seat, "Shouldn't we call Headquarters and tell them what's happened?"
"Unless you've got a cell phone you haven't told us about, we can't," said Asuka. "Not without stopping, and there's no time to stop."
"Knew I should've just sent Amy a videodisc, but noooo, I had to be the dramatic one," DJ grumbled, glancing at the useless HALcomm unit on his wrist.
Shinji thought about that for a moment, then nodded.
The rest of the drive, hell-bent across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, passed in silence, except for verbal cues from the navicomputer when they drew close to their objective.
Misato Katsuragi looked up from her dataterm as the telephone on her desk shrilled. She considered letting it go to voice mail—she was very busy—but the little caller ID window on the phone read IBUKI, MAYA—MOCR STATION, so it was probably important, so she picked it up.
"Brigadier, turn on channel 33," said Maya's voice. "Could be a problem."
"We're getting our problem notifications from Worcester's local TV stations now?" Misato inquired. "We are getting desperate." Turning in her swivel chair, she hunted the remote for her little TV out of the top drawer of her desk and thumbed it on.
"—olice are still investigating at the scene, but few details are known at this time," reporter Candace Williams (who insisted on being bylined as "Candace" now that she'd fought her way up to real news stories from the On the Town with Candy Williams gig) was saying. "All we know for sure is that some kind of gun battle broke out at the Worcester Galleria just minutes ago, demolishing several stores and leaving at least three men dead."
Behind Williams, Misato could see one of the lower levels of the Galleria parking garage. An ambulance was standing near the elevators; just beyond Williams's right shoulder, a parking space with a glittering spatter of powdered glass could be seen, and two paramedics bending over the sprawled body of a man in a black business suit.
Misato was just about to ask Maya what the hell this had to do with any of them when one of the paramedics moved, revealing the wound on the black-suited man's chest.
"Holy Christ!" Misato cried, coming up out of her chair. "That's a laser burn!"
"Earlier they showed an ATM up on the mall floor that looked like somebody took a plasma weapon to it," Maya told her. "That's when I decided you should see it."
"What do you think? Dust-down between some of our security guys and SEELE agents?"
"All of our security officers are accounted for—but we did have personnel at the Galleria this afternoon," Maya reminded her.
Misato stared at the TV for a moment longer, then sat back down heavily. "Oh no."
The former student center of Mount Holyoke College looked abandoned. No guards were posted outside, and nobody came out to challenge the three EVA pilots as the Avenger pulled to a halt outside. DJ, Asuka, and Shinji piled out of the car and went around to the trunk; there, just as they had expected and hoped, they found the contingency equipment the security department had fitted the car with when it had been officially requisitioned for service.
There were a brace of plasma pistols and a holster-belt set for them, four plasma pistol powerpacks, and some random security and medical gear. Lacking the multicompartmented utility suits of X-COM troopers, they had to leave most of that behind. DJ took off his empty shoulder holster and put it in the trunk, swapping it for the plasma weapons and their rig. He pocketed some slap patches and pressure bandages while Asuka rummaged through the security gear. There was a pair of X-COM-issue combat gloves, sized to fit Jon's slender hands; they wouldn't fit DJ, so Asuka took them.
These were heavy black leather gloves with reinforced palms for climbing and gripping; they left the fingertips bare for increased weapon sensitivity, but the ridge across the knuckles was reinforced and backed with small pouches into which several ounces of powdered lead had been sewn. Additionally, on the first and third knuckles, tiny round silver contacts gleamed. These were connected to a small but very powerful single-discharge flat-pack battery spanning most of the back of the hand. If bridged by a conductive substance during the course of a significant impact, they would release that battery's whole charge in about a millisecond. The idea had originally been to provide X-COM's troopers with a way of capturing aliens alive for the Research Division. The requirement of engaging in hand-to-hand combat was not well-received, causing the tactic to be phased out in favor of the shock-rod approach, but the feature had remained and sometimes found applications in security.
DJ also found an emergency distress beacon. This seemed to be as good a time as any for declaring a distressful emergency, so he switched it on and tossed it back into the trunk of the car.
"That ought to get somebody's attention," he said.
Finishing their rummaging, DJ and Asuka turned around to see Shinji standing a little way off, watching them with a grave and troubled expression.
"Shinji, you don't have to come along," said Asuka. "Why don't you wait here? You'll be as safe here as anyplace..."
Shinji shook his head. "No, I want to help."
DJ nodded. "All right, if that's what you want. You'll need a weapon." He turned back to the trunk to see if there was anything in there he'd missed, or if he'd have to give Shinji one of the plasma pistols, but Shinji reached behind his back and came out with a familiar silver object.
"I found this in Filene's," he said. "I think you killed the one who was chasing me... I..." He looked faintly ashamed of himself and admitted, "I hid in the changing rooms and only came out after I heard the explosion. This was lying on the floor... I thought I recognized it as yours, so I picked it up."
DJ brightened a little. "Well, thanks!" he said. "Thought sure I'd lost the old thing this time." He reached and took the spare .45 magazine from the trunk, then offered it to Shinji. "You know how to use one of those?"
With a businesslike expression, Shinji took the magazine, stuck it into his trouser pocket, racked the .45's slide open and let it lock on the empty magazine already installed, inspected the chamber, released the empty mag, tossed it past DJ into the trunk, slapped the charged one into place, dropped the slide, set the safety, and tucked the gun back into his waistband.
"Yes," he said flatly.
DJ glanced at Asuka, who shrugged with a small grin.
"All right, then," said DJ. "Let's go."
The beacon did indeed get somebody's attention—specifically, that of Makoto Hyūga, on whose console the alarm first appeared.
"What the hell's that?" asked Maya Ibuki as the throbbing whine streamed out from Hyūga's console.
"X-COM MIB distress beacon alarm," Hyūga said, silencing the siren and punching the beacon's transponder data onto his VDT. "Vehicle beacon, part of a standard MIB field kit... ID number 44-JE-01. Jon Ellison's."
"Where?" Misato demanded, leaning over the railing of the control room's upper deck.
"Getting a fix on that now," Hyūga replied. On the main screen, a map of Massachusetts appeared; a moment later a blinking red light appeared over the town of South Hadley, well to the western end of the state.
"South Hadley?! What the hell's there?"
"An X-COM facility, once," said Ryoji Kaji. "Closed in 2001, when it became pretty obvious that the Hidden War wasn't going to pick up to anything like its pre-Second Impact levels. SEELE must be using it as a bolthole. They probably tried to put the snatch on our pilots at the Galleria."
"This is my fault," Misato said, banging a fist on the control-room railing. "Why the hell did I let them go to the mall without security? This thing is escalating so damn fast I shouldn't have let them go at all!"
Kaji shrugged. "Trying to keep some semblance of normalcy in life is important too," he observed. "Especially given all that these kids have been through."
"Well, now they're going through more because of my carelessness," Misato growled. "Maya, get EVA-03 onto one of the 411s and prep the Mobile Command Unit. Let's get the hell over there. If Jon's field beacon just went active, his car is there, which means he might still be free."
"Roger," Maya replied. "Truss, you and Hyūga stay here in case something else goes wrong."
"Right," said Truss, nodding with what he hoped was more confidence than he actually felt.
They found storerooms, laboratories, rooms that looked like distressingly modified surgeries, and one or two chambers whose purpose was completely unidentifiable. There was a room full of deactivated cryotanks and another full of large vats of a familiar-looking yellowish-clear liquid. None of them contained any personnel, though.
At the last door on the corridor, they stopped and listened. From the hum of machinery beyond the door, the room sounded occupied; DJ leaned close to the door, trying to make out a sound or a recognizable voice.
The hum escalated, and a recognizable voice obliged him by raising itself in an agonized shriek.
This is the place, DJ thought, and applied his boot to the door. As it burst open, he stepped back a half-step and Asuka piled into the room, her laser ready; a heartbeat later he went in behind her with his plasmas out.
This was a room about the size of one of the classrooms at old Crossroads High, and decorated like an operating theater, its walls and floor covered in white tile. It had three doors: the one they had just entered through, near one corner, one at the other end of the wall behind them, and another directly opposite it, leading through the far wall to either a perpendicular corridor or another room. There were no windows. The wall to DJ and Asuka's backs was covered from ceiling to mid-wall and from one end to the door at the other by a mirror.
At the far end of the room, Jon Ellison was strapped to a steel table that was mounted such that it could be rotated about its short axis. At the moment, he was hanging face-down from it at about a forty-five degree angle, head up. Below him was a nasty-looking assemblage of needles, graspers, and electrodes mounted on an angled platform; Jon's noisemaking, DJ concluded, was most likely by way of protest to the fact that he was currently being applied to these devices by the hand controlling his table's rotation.
That hand belonged to a girl of perhaps sixteen, slender and pretty in a disturbingly familiar way. Her hair was coal-black and her eyes were emerald green, and the light in those eyes showed her observers that she was enjoying the process of applying Jon to the devices as much as Jon was not. She had on a kind of rough light-blue canvas smock over a fairly plain blouse and skirt, presumably to protect that blouse and skirt from the fallout of her activities. She looked up at the sound of the door being crashed, recognized her visitors, and smiled in greeting. It wasn't the sort of smile that gave ease to the person being smiled at.
Aside from being black-haired, green-eyed, and older, the girl was a dead ringer for Rei Ayanami.
Shinji, puzzled that DJ and Asuka had stopped short with weapons raised but had not fired, looked around the broken doorframe into the room, then gasped.
"Ichi!" he cried.
Her green eyes flickered to him, and a mixture of surprise, annoyance and regret passed through them.
"Shinji," she said. "Why are you here?"
Shinji gaped for a second and a half, then swallowed hard and mastered his shock with a facility that surprised Asuka and DJ. "Why are you here?" he replied. "What is this? Why are you doing this to Jon? Ichi, the information Natla gave us about NERV was wrong! The children weren't prisoners there! Jon wasn't helping them to control Rei; he did everything he could to protect her. He loves her!"
Ichi regarded the sagging, semiconscious specimen on the table with evident disgust. "I know. Revolting, isn't it? Abyss knows I have no love for the angel, but to be touched by this half-breed experiment?" She shivered. "One of his brothers tried to touch me once; I broke his arm."
Shinji had realized immediately upon entering the room that something was horribly wrong; now he began to feel the hideous suspicion that what was wrong was his assumption of what would have been right.
"I don't understand," he said in a small voice. His eyes filled with tears that he made no attempt at wiping away.
"I do," Asuka said, her voice harsh and her eyes full of loathing. "She belongs to them, Shinji. She alway has. They.. " Asuka looked as if the next words tasted filthy on her tongue. "They gave her to you to keep you docile."
"What?" Shinji whispered, the word coming out as a hoarse sob. He turned his eyes to Asuka, not wanting to believe but somehow knowing that it was true.
"I'm sorry, Shinji," said Asuka, not taking her hate-filled eyes off Ichi. "She never cared about you."
"That's not true!" Ichi protested petulantly. "I do care. You should have stayed with us, Shinji. I know that I haven't been fully honest with you in the past—but the truth is that I did it all to help you, to keep you confident and strong. Because I care about you. You're the first and only human that I've ever cared about, did you know that?"
Asuka's upper lip curled back from her teeth. "Get away from Jon or I'll burn your face off," she said through gritted teeth.
"I wouldn't," said Ichi conversationally.
Asuka readied herself to fulfil her promise when she felt something cool and hard poke her behind the left ear.
"It's about time you got here," Ichi snarled as a black- jumpsuited guard entered the room through the door at her end of the room. Asuka cursed inwardly, and heard DJ not being quite so restrained about it, as they both upbraided themselves for getting so caught up in the little drama playing out between Shinji and Ichi that they hadn't paid attention to the door behind them.
"Sorry, ma'am," said the voice of another guard behind Asuka. His black-sleeved hand came into view as he relieved Asuka of her laser pistol. She glanced to her right to see a third holding down on DJ, who, with a look of grudging loathing, put his plasma weapons on the floor. The guard covering him kicked them over into the corner, behind the door.
Nobody paid any attention to Shinji; he was standing near the door, slight and helpless, his arms wrapped around himself and his face a mask of disbelief as he struggled to comprehend this horrifying change in the girl he loved—or struggled to comprehend that it wasn't a change at all.
"I loved you," he said, his voice tiny and raw, as he gazed at her with a strange mixture of horror and wistfulness in his eyes.
Ichi nodded offhandedly. "I remember," she said. "Inexpertly, but not without a certain... panache. Natlateth was worried that I might balk at that step, but to tell you the truth I found it quite enjoyable." She smiled as a thought occurred to her, and said, "Why don't you come back to us? No one needs to know that you helped them briefly—we can say you were their prisoner. Just come over here and let me deal with these two, and everything will be all right."
Shinji stared disbelieving at her. "But these are my friends!" he protested.
Ichi made a frustrated noise, tossing her head. "Why? Do you think that these 'friends' of yours would be giving you the time of day if you hadn't been thrown into the middle of this war? Of course not—they'd be just like the others, ignoring you and leaving you to sit in the corner listening to your Walkman, and wondering just what it would be like to have someone to talk to."
Shinji was silent, not responding. He just stood by the doorway, his face becoming more and more troubled as the seconds passed.
"Take a few moments to think it over, Shin-chan," said Ichi. Seeming to remember the rest of her guests, she turned back to address the guards.
"Kill these two," she said.
DJ's eyes flicked to his left and met Asuka's. The corner of her mouth turned up in the tiniest of smiles, and she winked at him.
As the guard behind DJ said, "OK, let's go," and put his hand on DJ's shoulder to guide him out of the room and to his death, DJ let out a despairing moan and pitched forward into a fetal position, his knees buckling. He fell forward with his arms folded over his chest and his knees drawn up, twisting slightly to the left so that he landed more or less on his right shoulder, rolling onto his back—
—and Arthur T. Crenshaw's sonic stunner screamed down the puzzled guard before the man ever had time to realize that his erstwhile prisoner's faint was a sham.
The guard covering Asuka reacted just as she and DJ had hoped he would, forgetting about his own prisoner to react to his colleague's felling with an indignant shout and a leveling of his weapon. DJ, flat on his back on the floor with the stunner still aimed at where his guard had been, would be at the other guard's mercy for at least a second or two. By the time he could re-aim the stunner, he would be dead.
Luckily, Asuka hadn't paid much attention to DJ's maneuver; instead she waited for her guard to stop looking at her, then pivoted on her heel and drove her fist into his face with all the recently- reconstituted strength she could summon.
By itself, that wouldn't have been enough to do anything but get the guard's attention. After all, the man was a good foot taller than Asuka, ruggedly built, a professional soldier, and her strength, though mostly regained, had never been too impressive. Athletic or not, she was still a fifteen-year-old girl, and a slender one at that.
Except Asuka was wearing X-COM combat gloves. Hit in the face by a pound of speeding lead and 20,000 volts, the guard dropped as though she'd just cut his head off with an axe, smoke curling up from the two little burns on the angle of his jaw.
All that took about a second and a half. Unfortunately, though brilliantly conceived and executed, DJ and Asuka's maneuvers had one major drawback: they left the two facing away from the third guard and Ichi. With time still feeling slowed by the adrenaline rush of their sudden counterattack, both DJ and Asuka could see that guard, reflected with slight distortion in the mirror (or was it a one-way window?) at the back of the room, but they couldn't do very much about him until they had enough time to turn around.
By which time he'd have shot one of them.
Asuka met DJ's eyes in the mirror and took heart in their mutual resolve: whichever one went down, the other would make that last guard pay for it. She steeled himself for the shot, wishing the sudden, burning agony on herself, wishing for DJ to be spared, some detached part of her mind noticing how remarkable it was that anyone should prefer to die and be avenged rather than survive and avenge.
The shot sounded out of place; the sharp incongruity of it broke the sensation of distorted time even as the green plasma pulse missed DJ and Asuka entirely and shattered the mirror instead. Asuka turned to see the guard falling to the floor, his head a bloody ruin from the eyebrows up. Ichi was standing next to the rack that held Jon, a plasma pistol half-drawn from under her smock, a stunned expression on her face.
Asuka looked quite puzzled for a moment, until she realized that the strange-sounding shot had really been three different sounds happening at almost the same time: one, the whining zap of the plasma discharge; the other, the hard rap of conventional gunfire; the third, the sharp wet slap of a bullet shattering a skull. She glanced at DJ, wondering if he had pulled off some kind of bizarre over-the-shoulder shot with the guard's reflection in the mirror to guide him. It seemed absurd, even for DJ; good as he was with a handgun, he wasn't Napoleon Solo, and anyway he hadn't had a pistol with him.
DJ was still sitting on the floor, still facing the broken mirror, but his head was turned. He wasn't looking at Ichi; that would have required quite an agile neck. Rather, he was looking toward the doorway, a look of incredulous shock on his face.
Shinji Ikari stood near the door with DJ's smoking .45 automatic in his hand.
Ichi found her voice first. "Shin-chan—what are you doing?"
"I'm sorry, Ichi," said Shinji, his voice a bit shaky but strong. "I can't let you kill my friends."
Ichi made that irritated noise again. "Your friends," she said, loading the word with disgust. "Shinji, stop and think for a second. You're so close to understanding! Let go of that craving for acceptance, realize that you can't go on living your life for the sake of everyone else, and just be your own person. Live for yourself."
Shinji's jaw quivered. Watching him, DJ and Asuka glanced at each other, and the troubled look they shared was clear. They both knew enough of Shinji's history to know that Ichi had just struck a nerve in him.
"Do Natlateth or the others here care about you? No, probably not," Ichi admitted. "She doesn't care about anyone but herself, and her plans. But I care about you, Shinji, and I can protect you from what she's planning to do. Her plan was never to wipe out all of humanity, and she has no great vendetta against you. You can't prevent what's going to come next, Shinji, but I can make sure that you're still around after the dust settles. We can both be safe together, and that's all that's important."
Shinji shook his head. "How can you believe that? Do you really think I'd live happily with you in a world where Natla gets her way? She killed my mother, did you know that?"
Ichi looked genuinely puzzled. "What does that matter? We're not talking about your mother, or your father, or your—" she made a dismissive gesture—"friends. We're talking about you and me. Let the others go, or you'll fall with them. Don't let them drag you down alongside them."
Shinji lowered the gun slightly, but only to get the sights out of his way so he could concentrate fully on the look of utter disbelief he was giving Ichi.
"How can you be so selfish?" he asked her.
She drew her plasma pistol the rest of the way from her smock and leveled it at Asuka. "How can you be so foolish?" she replied. "Shinji, I love you, but I don't have time to argue with you. These two are going to die, now or later, it doesn't matter. You don't have to. That's all I'm offering you. Now come over here and stop being such an idiot."
Her finger tightened on the trigger.
DJ glanced at his own plasmas; too far to jump before Ichi could fire. He tensed himself, getting ready to throw himself instead into the path of the shot, even as Asuka saw him doing it and drew breath to tell him to stop.
This time the gunshot went off by itself, its hard, sharp shout caroming off the tiled walls of the room. The echoes had just started to die when the spent cartridge case tinkled to the floor as a sort of sonic postscript, followed shortly by the harsh clatter of metal on tile as Ichi's plasma weapon fell from her hand.
Ichi frowned thoughtfully at the slowly spreading scarlet stain on the front of her smock, and then looked at Shinji. The corners of her mouth cocked upward in a smile.
"Well, I will be God-damned," she said slowly and distinctly. "Shinji. You were actually listening. I'm... I'm proud of you."
Then her eyes rolled up in her head and she crumpled to the floor.
Shinji stood rooted to the spot where he stood, staring not at Ichi's body but at the spot where she had been standing, past the empty space and at the blood on the far wall. It was just blood—bright red, just like his own. Some part of Shinji felt vaguely disappointed.
DJ got slowly to his feet and carefully took a step toward Shinji. "Shinji?" he inquired softly. "You all right?"
Shinji broke the pose and lowered the gun, turning slowly to face DJ. "I... I think so," he replied, and a look of bleak surprise came onto his face. "I don't... I don't feel much of anything."
"That comes later," DJ replied, picking up his plasma pistols. Asuka collected her laser from the guard who'd taken it from her, then went to get Jon out of the contraption he'd been locked into. DJ put his hand on Shinji's shoulder; Shinji shrugged it off and went over to Ichi's side. He absent-mindedly set the .45's safety, stuck it into the back of his waistband, then crouched down on his haunches next to the body.
Slowly, almost reverently, Shinji reached out and closed her eyes; then he let his fingertips trace the side of her face, bowed his head, and gave a great, shuddering sigh.
DJ looked at him for a moment, decided there was nothing to be gained by bothering him, and went to help Asuka with Jon.
"Jon?" Asuka said as she carefully unstrapped the tall, lanky, battered pilot and helped him down from the rack. "Can you hear me? It's Asuka, Jon. Can you hear me?"
Jon blinked blearily, shaking his head. "Ah... Ash'ka?" he blurred. "Can't... can't shee yuh. Druh... drugged me. Keep me..." His haggard face quirked into a faint echo of a smile. "Keep me fr'm killin' 'em all." He gestured vaguely with a hand, and Asuka could see drying blood smeared on the tips of several fingers; on the face of the guard Shinji had shot, Asuka noticed three very deep scratches. One of them had come within millimeters of destroying the man's right eye.
"How is he?" asked DJ as he stepped around the torture machine.
"Bad," Asuka replied. "Jon, can you walk? We have to get out of here."
"Whuh... where's Rei?" asked Jon.
"We don't know yet," DJ replied. "We have to look for her next."
That seemed to strike a spark inside Jon; he blinked, tried valiantly to focus on his teammate's face, then closed his eyes. His face composed itself into a look of deep concentration, losing all of the pain-drunk, drugged weariness. He began to tremble violently; Asuka made a concerned noise and held him tighter, to keep him from falling as he twitched and shuddered. In such close contact, she could actually feel the change that came over him, feel his body harden as his skin darkened and his fingernails thickened.
Then it was over, and he softened and slackened, almost swooning; after a moment, some strength came back to him, and he opened his eyes and smiled.
"While they were hurting me," he said, "I couldn't concentrate enough to do that. I hate to admit it, but it's handy." He stepped back, disengaging himself from Asuka's arms; then he noticed Shinji, and what he was kneeling next to, and a look of puzzlement spread over his face.
"What the—?" he said.
"It's a long story," DJ told him.
The sounds of running feet, a lot of them, came from the corridor outside.
"Come on, Shinji, we've got to go!" cried DJ as Asuka and Jon started heading for the far door, the one the nearest dead guard had entered through.
Shinji remained where he was for a moment; then he looked up at the doorway where he, DJ and Asuka had entered the room. The first of what promised to be a large number of uniformed guards came through it, his plasma rifle at the ready; DJ burned him down with one of his pistols and shouted for Shinji again.
Shinji Ikari regarded the door and the next guard through it for a moment; then he turned, grabbed the fallen guard's weapon by its sling, and dragged it across the floor into his hands. As guards began to enter the room through both far doors, Shinji stood up, looked around as though realizing where he was, and then ran to the door and followed DJ, Asuka and Jon out into the connecting corridor.
Cut off by the newly-arrived guard squad from the route they took to get in, the NERV contingent selected a new route pretty much at random.
"Jon, do you have any idea where Rei is?" Asuka asked.
Jon seemed as though he were listening for a moment, then said, "No. They must be hiding her from me somehow... she's nearby, but... " He shook his head. "I can't tell where."
"Well, it seemed like a good idea," Asuka muttered to herself.
"More guards down this way," DJ noted, blasting at the group of uniformed men down the way to keep their heads down while the EVA pilots took a side corridor at the run.
Rei Ayanami slipped softly out of a dream of the lights of Heaven and into something more closely approximating reality—a rather hard and uncompromising reality, at that. She was lying on something stiff and cold, and her head was ringing not with the sounds of the celestial spheres, but residual aural shock from the concussion blast. She sat up slowly and carefully, and just as carefully opened her eyes.
The room she was in was about fifteen feet square and barren, with cinderblock walls, a low ceiling and a heavy-looking door at the far end. The light came from a circular fluorescent fixture on the ceiling. The surface she'd been lying on was not so much a bed as a narrow shelf jutting out from one of the walls.
Jon Ellison stood at the far end, leaning against the door, hands in his pockets, watching her.
"Jon?" she murmured, forehead in hand, trying vainly to settle her swimming head. "What's going on?"
"How long did you think you could keep it up?" asked Jon quietly.
"What?" Rei asked, confused. "What are you talking about?"
"The charade," said Jon mildly. "The farce that is our so-called love affair. Did you really think you could make me believe you loved me indefinitely? You must have known that sooner or later I'd figure out what I am. What chance does that give our 'love'?"
Rei shook her head, blinking, wishing there were some way she could clear the fog that seemed to fill her head. "Jon—that's not true," she said. "I didn't know."
"Didn't know what I am? Please. You can stop taking me for a fool now, Rei, because I'm not one. How could it elude you? The signs are plain for anyone to see."
"I..." Something about this surreal interview was trying to tap Rei on her shoulder and tell her it was wrong, but she couldn't focus, try as desperately as she might, enough to see it. "I didn't know what I was until recently," she said. "You know that. How could I have.. " She stopped, tried without much success to gather her thoughts, and started again. "What difference should it make anyway? I told you. We're the same people we were when we started..."
Jon snorted derisively. "Please," he repeated. "I'm not hopelessly naïve."
Out of the swirling pool of confusion and desperation that filled Rei's heart at this moment, a large bubble of despair rose. She couldn't understand what was happening. Why was Jon being so cold and cruel with her? Why wouldn't her vision clear? Where was she? Why could she not remember where she last was?
"Jon, please," she said in a voice half whisper and half whimper. "I don't feel well... I can't understand what's wrong."
"Bah," said Jon. "You don't feel well. Isn't that a shame?" He strode closer with quick, angry strides, backing her into the corner of the room, the corner of the bed. "Do you wish your friends were here? Your real friends, as opposed to me, the experiment, the freak? What a relief it must have been to learn that you're not really a freak like me—that they didn't make you in their lab like they told you they did. You're a real person, aren't you, Rei? From a ways out of town, to be sure, but at least you didn't come out of a Petri dish. That frees you up to set your sights a little higher than me, doesn't it? Why, with a little bit of work, you could probably even make off with Croft."
Rei wanted to be angry at this inexplicable, unwarranted treatment, but the anger wouldn't come; and where she would have been far more satisfied with a ringing shout, only the most pathetic of whimpers escaped her lips.
"Stop it..." She slumped forward, burying her face in her hands, crying. "Stop... stop..."
"You'd like that, wouldn't you, Rei?" Jon continued, remorseless, relentless. "You could do it, too. He and Langley are a passing fad. You were there first, weren't you? If you were decisive about it you could take him from her."
"No..." Rei murmured, shaking her head. She was starting to feel sick on top of the disorientation and the hopelessness; cold sweat was breaking out on her forehead and she felt as though an animal of some kind had burrowed into her guts and was stirring. "No, Asuka is my friend," she whispered. "I couldn't do that to her..."
"Ah, but you want to, don't you? Croft was the first young man who was ever kind to you, wasn't he? He must have awakened feelings in you that you didn't even know you had."
"Yes," Rei admitted, "but that doesn't mean... Asuka is my friend," she repeated. "I couldn't betray her..."
"We're never going to find anything blundering around in here with all these guard patrols," DJ Croft muttered, as much to himself as to his comrades, as the four of them crouched behind a stack of plastic barrels and watched another squad of black-uniformed SEELE soldiers tramp past.
Asuka nodded. "We'd be better off getting outside, regrouping and trying to find a different way in. If anybody back at HQ picked up that beacon you set, reinforcements might be outside right now."
"Let's give it a try, then," said Jon.
Asuka looked surprised. "I figured I'd get the most resistance from you, Jon," she said. "Leaving without Rei... "
Jon smiled, but it wasn't a very nice smile. "I'm not leaving without Rei—just looking for a different path to her."
Shinji said nothing, and continued appearing as though he were looking at nothing.
"Hang in there, Shinji," said DJ, trying to sound as encouraging as possible. "We get back outside, you can sit the rest of this one out."
Shinji nodded abstractly and followed as the others quietly doubled back down a side corridor, climbed a maintenance shaft, and emerged into the dusty, quiet halls of the abandoned Mount Holyoke student center.
They were just starting to think they might get away with it after all when they rounded the corner leading to the main entrance and found the doors, forty feet away, blocked by several overturned tables and twenty or so SEELE soldiers.
"Shit!" Jon snarled. Both sides reacted at once, Jon, Asuka and DJ flinging themselves against the walls on either side of the hallway leading to the exit as the SEELE troopers opened fire. For a moment, Jon looked like he might almost charge down that gauntlet of fire empty-handed, so fierce did the expression on his face become; but as he stepped around the corner, his hands flexing into claws, a plasma bolt slammed past his head and very nearly blew it off. With a shout, he dropped in his tracks, sprawling on the corridor floor.
"Jon!" Asuka cried, leaning out to spray the SEELE troopers' position with laser fire while DJ dragged the injured pilot back to cover.
"Doesn't look too bad," DJ said. Jon wasn't actually unconscious, just stunned, and the burn along his temple was from the ionization corona, not the plasma blast itself. The concussion wave, superheated air exploding out of the way of the plasma packet, had struck him in the face and knocked him down, but he was not badly injured.
Shinji Ikari, though, was not well-versed enough in the ins and outs of plasma weapons to know that. From the other side of the hallway, where he stood behind Asuka, it looked as though DJ were crouching over a corpse. The stunned, feeble movements of Jon's feet looked to Shinji like the twitching of a head-shot dead man, and for the first time since he'd killed Ichi Ayanami, he felt something.
Pure, unreasoning rage flooded Shinji's body and mind, and for a moment his hands shook so hard that the metallic body of the plasma rifle he'd absently taken from the dead guard back in the torture chamber rattled. Then he ground his teeth, stepped around Asuka, and barged right into the middle of the contested corridor.
"YOU BASTARDS!" he bellowed, spraying the far end of the corridor with fully-automatic plasma fire. Three guards fell in the first second, their bodies spanning the hallway behind their woefully inadequate cover of lunchroom tables. The rest of them started looking for any harder cover they could find, which wasn't much. Railing at the top of his lungs against the manifold perfidies of SEELE, Shinji strode right down the middle of the hall, keeping up a heavy volume of fire, mechanically raking the whole expanse of the enemy's position from wall to wall. Pinned down, the guards tried returning fire. Shinji kept advancing, kept up his shouting and his shooting, as though determined to stand there until he had killed every guard in the place, completely ignoring the plasma blasts whipping past him.
"For Christ's sake, Shinji, what the hell?!" DJ wanted to know as he ducked out from his corner and tried to cover Shinji on the left as best he could. Asuka expressed similar sentiments from the right. Shinji ignored them, using just about every profanity he could think of and a few that he made up on the spot to describe his feelings for SEELE, the flash suppressor on his plasma rifle's muzzle glowing a dull red with the heat of the sustained autofire. He wasn't a difficult target, but the enemy seemed to have a hard time hitting him anyway; plasma blasts flew all around him, but, incredibly, none hit him.
Until the one that bore straight in on his forehead. Time seemed to slow down for everyone involved. Shinji saw it coming, appeared to recognize that this one had his name on it, but he didn't flinch. He held his line and kept shooting, determined to take as many of them with him as possible.
Ten inches from vaporizing his brain pan, the plasma blast hit nothing with a resounding WHANG, deflected at an oblique angle, and blew one of the deactivated fluorescent light fixtures off the ceiling in a shower of melted plastic and broken glass. From the point of impact outward, yellow-orange hexagons of light rippled outward and disappeared again.
The four surviving SEELE troopers, recognizing the phenomenon immediately, dropped their weapons and ran. Shinji kept firing and cut them down before they reached the exit; a moment later, his plasma rifle finally ran out of power.
With the weapon's failure, whatever had driven Shinji seemed to fail too; he stopped shouting, stopped walking, and stood as still as a rock in the middle of the hallway for one long, eerily silent second.
Then the spent weapon clattered to the floor and Shinji Ikari fell after it.
Swearing, DJ ran forward and pulled him away from it, turning him on his back and slapping at his cheeks.
"Shinji? You all right? Come on now—we're not out of this yet—wakey-wakey..."
Shinji blinked, sat up, and shook his head, then looked around at his ruined surroundings with amazement.
"Did I do this?" he asked.
"Yes," DJ replied, "you did..."
Outside, the three Skyranger transport aircraft dispatched from Worcester-3 had arrived: the two loaded with X-COM troopers for the base assault, and the third, fitted out with communications and command gear, that had replaced the truck-based Mobile Command Unit used in the Battle of Mount Wachusett. In the third, Misato listened attentively as DJ, Asuka, and Jon gave the situation report to the best of their abilities. Shinji Ikari found an unoccupied seat and went about making himself as inconspicuous as possible.
Gendō Ikari noticed him anyway, and made his way over.
"Shinji, are you all right?" he asked softly, crouching down next to his son's seat and putting his hand on the boy's shoulder."
"No," Shinji replied. "No, Father, I'm not all right. I... it's too hard to explain." He shook his head. "Don't worry about me. I'll be fine, eventually, someday. Right now you've got to get Rei out of there. Who knows what they're doing to her?"
The others, having finished their report, approached as well, concern for Shinji as well as their still-missing comrade written on all their faces.
"EVA-03 will be here in a few minutes," said the elder Ikari reassuringly. "Its transport isn't as fast as a Skyranger, but it'll be here soon. When it arrives we'll send Asuka in to find Rei and bring her out."
"The hell you will," said Jon, tearing open his shirt and scattering severed buttons all over the floor.
The sick feeling was becoming much more pronounced, but in a way, Rei welcomed it; the discomfort gave her something to focus on, eroded the maddening fog that filled her mind by its very unpleasantness. Jon was still talking, his voice venomous with contempt:
"'I couldn't betray Asuka,'" he mocked. "Why not? What are the feelings of a flawed and pathetic mortal girl to the great and holy angel Reilael? Besides, you knew Croft before she did. You want him—don't you? You want him to touch you... to take you."
"I—" The denial would not come. "Jon... why are you doing this to me?" she asked, looking up at him through tear-blurred eyes.
"I just want you to face up to yourself, the way I've had to," Jon replied, sneering. "Show you that you're not so holy and pure as you pretend. The angel Reilael! See how far you've already fallen? Trapped in the mortal world, bound by the flesh, slave to its impulses. You're little better than the animal you thought you were. Why do you cling to your pretensions of grace?"
Jon hunkered down and forced her chin up so that she was looking him in the eyes, and said coldly, "Believing themselves still holy while succumbing to the flesh brought the fall of the Grigori. In the end, you will be no better... "
Rei drew back in horror as the name he'd spoken touched a flame to more of her old, lost memories. Even in Heaven the Grigori were not often spoken of; they had been one of the choirs of angels, created after the Fall to help humanity cope with the effects of the War on their world, but they had become a little too fond of humans, had lived a little too much like them, and Heaven had cast them out. It was because of the example of the Grigori that angels were forbidden to enter into bonds of love with mortals, something Rei had forgotten along with everything else until this single horrifying moment.
But the horror gave clarity back to her mind, and with that clarity came the realization that her mental connection to Jon Ellison was very faint, as if something were interfering with it—certainly not what she would have expected if he were mere inches from her.
Her eyes, which had flown wide at the name of the Grigori, cleared and then narrowed, and her voice was clearer and stronger when she said,
"You are not Jon."
With that realization, an understanding of what had been done, or almost done, to her burst across her mind, and after that came anger...
Once, Jon Ellison had noted to himself that, of the Evangelions, only Lucifer had a presence—only Lucifer felt as if it were looking back at him when he looked into the eyesockets of its helmet. There was a difference about Unit 00 when compared to the other units, but not an active presence—more like a lingering echo, the sound of another's footsteps in the distance. The feeling of an empty, abandoned stadium, where once the cheers of thousand have rung. Later, Jon would come to a different, more chilling comparison: piloting Unit 00 was like wearing a dead man's clothes.
As it happened, Jon's unconscious comparison was apt. While Lucifer had been ravaged and reduced to near-mindless confusion by the injuries he suffered during the Second Impact, Moloch had been, in the truest sense of the word, dead since that terrible day when half the human world died with him. The collection of energies that constituted everything of true celestial substance that was Moloch had been shattered beyond repair. Only the flesh, incorruptible by the mortal world's agents of decay, remained. The faint echoes of what had been Moloch, Lord of Fire, lingered in the dead flesh, but they were insubstantial, like the shadows of men marked permanently on stone walls by the atomic blast at Hiroshima.
At the end of his life, Moloch had done something which was uncharacteristic when weighed against the bulk of that life. His last act, the effort with which he spent the last of his energies and in the commission of which he died, was a selfless one—trying to preserve the life of the angel he had come to think of as a friend, the Cherub Reilael.
Now that angel lay in the hands of the enemy, a flame of righteous anger so like those Moloch had commanded in his heyday burning in her soul, energies pouring from her in waves that rang in the celestial symphony like the peals of great silver bells. They struck a chord with what remained of Moloch, amplified the whispers, and, for a moment, brought the Lord of Fire back to a dim, thoughtless semblance of himself. There was no coherence or thought—only an imperative.
I must be free.
I must go to her.
"What the—?! EVA-00 has just self-activated!" Makoto Hyūga cried as alarms began to howl in the command center.
"EVA-00?!" said Truss. "Not Unit 01?"
"Negative," said Hyūga, rechecking his readings. "EVA-01 is still dormant. EVA-00 is under power and trying to get free of the restraints."
"Where's it getting power from?" demanded Truss, going to a subsidiary console and flicking switches.
"Unknown!" replied Hyūga. "But it's got a lot of it, wherever it's coming from."
"External transmission?" Truss wondered.
"Impossible," Hyūga replied.
"-Everything- we do here is impossible," said Truss.
Hyūga absorbed this, nodded, and pointed out, "Those restraints won't hold it much longer. What should we do, sir?"
Truss looked up at the main monitor, at the image of the struggling EVA, his eyes unreadable behind the EVA's reflection in his eyeglasses. In his mind, the images of Rei's disastrous test in that same EVA unreeled, from eerily similar beginning to horrifying conclusion.
"Let it go."
"What?!" said Hyūga.
"Let it go," repeated Truss. "It obviously has an agenda... and anyway, we won't be able to hold it here much longer even if we try. Send it to the surface and release it."
"Roger," said Hyūga, and he complied.
Free and on the surface, Moloch took a moment to orient himself, then turned and began striding westward. Its AT Field surrounded it in a dull orange glow; then it suddenly surged into brilliance, glowing sun-bright. The two men in the control room winced and looked away.
When they looked back, EVA-00 was gone.
"Get me the MCU," said Truss. "I think I know where it's gone."
"I appreciate your concern," said Jon Ellison as he hung up his pants in one of the tiny lockers of the MCU's pilot locker room, "but I'm fine. I'm a little sturdier than I used to be," he added with a hint of wryness.
"Are you sure?" Asuka Sōryū-Langley asked. "I can take Unit 03 in if you like."
DJ folded his arms and grumbled, "... couldn't have brought Jet Alone, oh no..."
"No, Asuka, thanks, but I'm going," said Jon, stuffing his head through the neckhole of his plug suit. "These bastards tortured me, mocked me, and like Shinji said, God knows what they're doing to Rei. I don't intend to sit on the sidelines while somebody else gets my revenge for me."
Asuka cracked a mild grin. "Isn't revenge a petty and embittering pursuit?"
"Probably," Jon replied with a smile, pressurizing the suit, "which is why I'm going to give it up as soon as I've shown these sons of bitches what's what."
Asuka's grin widened a little bit. "You do that."
"So you've figured it out," said 'Jon', his tone a bit rattled even if he managed to keep his sneer constant. "You're right, I'm not Jon. I'm his brother, Lucas. So what? You're still trapped here. Still powerless. Still helpless." The cold confidence returned to his green eyes as he levered Rei's chin up with a knuckle and smiled hatefully at her. "I can still do anything to you I want."
Rei looked up into Lucas's eyes, her face perfectly impassive. For a few moments, they stared into each other's eyes—not in a contest of wills, but more of a taking of the other's measure.
Then Rei did something that shocked Lucas to the core and even frightened him a little:
"No," she said softly, standing, never taking her eyes from his. "You're wrong."
"Am I?" he replied, but the confidence in his voice was tattered.
"You are nothing, Lucas," said Rei calmly. She stood up, and Lucas backed away as though from a flame. "A flawed copy of Jon. A creature of clay and dung, without a soul. A homunculus." As she spoke, she began to glow, her tattered clothing disintegrating. "You want to break me?" she asked softly, and Lucas backed away another step as the glow increased. "You want to control me?" she continued, and Lucas backed away still again, driven back by the sheer contempt in her red eyes.
Then the glow flared, and from her back unfurled a pair of brilliant, glittering wings of blue-white light.
"You can't even comprehend me," said Reilael scornfully as Lucas pressed himself against the cold cinderblocks of the far wall, his eyes wide with terror.
Then the room exploded in a burst of silent white brilliance, its ceiling and walls collapsing as though the mortar between the blocks had turned to water. Lucas screamed involuntarily, but the falling blocks fell around him, leaving him sprawled on his back among them. Before him Reilael remained, clothed in light, and behind her, revealed by the destruction of the wall and ceiling, the orange shape of Moloch towered, waiting. At the sight of the giant, even Reilael looked a little surprised.
"... moloch?" she whispered, her voice tiny but distinct in the sudden incredible silence of the room's disintegration.
The giant reached down its great hand, and Rei stepped up into it. Moloch turned ponderously, and began lumbering away. Sprawled in the rubble, Lucas felt the terror ebbing from his heart, and what replaced it was rage. Soulless, was he? Not worth bothering with? How dare she turn her back?
"I wasn't finished with you!" he snarled after the towering EVA, and then, pulling himself to his feet, he ran from the ruined blockhouse toward the SEELE complex's own EVA hangar.
Truss had only just finished notifying the staff at the MCU of Unit 00's sudden disappearance when another alarm began to blare. This one was more urgent-sounding than the last—the constant blare of the siren also used for major Magi system faults, overlaid with the shrill, staccato shrieking of a klaxon that felt like it could shatter a person's teeth.
Truss hadn't heard this alarm before, and he wasn't particularly looking forward to finding out what it meant.
Nonetheless, Makoto Hyūga was there to fill him in on the details. "Sir! Motion sensors have picked up an intruder in the EVA cage!"
I'm cursed, Truss mused in exasperation. One of our EVAs has run away from home, and we've quite possibly acquired a SEELE spy in Central Dogma. And all this just two hours into my first shift as command center supervisor. Never thought I'd miss level 1 system diagnostics and team-building exercises. Oh, for a team-building exercise.
"Can we get a visual?"
Hyūga nodded. "Coming up now."
The red hexagonal INTRUDER indicators on the main viewer gave way to the view from a security camera above one of the maintenance catwalks in the cage. EVA-01 stood in profile, waist-high in system coolant, at the right of the frame. Unit 04, now fully repaired and bearing a small X-COM logo on its chestplate, faced the camera from its bay a hundred feet or so away.
Purposefully striding down the middle of the walkway was Kevin Nelson.
It took Truss a moment to recognize him, since he had never actually seen the boy in the flesh. He had only the children's verbal accounts of him to go on, and all of those predated the change of Kevin's hair color. But even in their current disheveled state, the trenchoat and tie were a giveaway.
"Nelson?" Truss mumbled, not sure what to make of the situation.
"Security has been notified—they've got a team on the way there was we speak," Makoto reported, a touch of relief apparent in his voice.
Something was nagging at the back of Truss's mind, but he couldn't quite remember what it was. Whatever it had been, it was setting off warning bells, and giving him a nasty sense of apprehension.
"Tell them to wait outside the bay until I give the order," he instructed the younger officers.
"Sir," noted Hyūga, "Security Chief Dafoe has already given his orders. I'm not sure that we have the authority to—"
"I'm the ranking officer on duty, entrusted with the safety of this facility and its personnel. That means I have the authority, whether they like it or not," Truss interjected with enough emphasis to surprise even himself. "They can either wait outside the cage, or wait outside my office for their pink slips once they're finished."
Hyūga wasn't sure what had prompted his boss's outburst—it was just a single boy, after all—but he had no desire to stay in the line of fire.
"Understood. Relaying orders."
Moments later, the security detail arrived. There were eight security officers in all—uniformed men, not MIBs—armed with laser rifles and clad in what looked like flak jackets. They took up position just outside the room, weapons trained on the door.
Good, Truss thought, they didn't do anything stupid. Now if only my hands would stop shaking.
"Can you zoom in on the boy?"
"No sooner said than done," replied Hyūga, running his hands across the console. The field of view slowly decreased, until it reached the point where Truss could clearly make out the features on Kevin's face. He did not look well. His hair looked as though it hadn't been washed, let alone combed, in at least a week, and there were heavy bags under his eyes. His coloration was... wrong, sickly in a manner that Truss couldn't put a finger on. And his face was twisted in an expression signifying either rage, sorrow, or both. It occurred to Truss that he looked almost like Jon had, in HAL's footage of his fight with DJ in Apartment 3-F...
...like Jon. Oh, shit.
Truss was just about to bark an order to his charge, but he was interrupted by a noise from off-camera. Whatever it was, Kevin noticed it, too. He wheeled around to his left and dropped to his knees.
Hyūga pulled the camera back to a wide-angle view, revealing the now-open door and three security personnel with their weapons leveled. Truss began to curse when the center one, a fat man with a Hitler mustache, pulled the trigger... and abruptly went silent when the charge struck an invisible wall mere inches away. The impact created a strobing hexagonal pattern in midair; the beam deflected as if from a mirror, bounced again from the reflective armor surface of Unit 04, then burned down the guard on the fat one's left. He gave a cry and fell to the floor in a heap.
"The kid's an Angel?!" Makoto gasped incredulously.
"Get those morons out of there, now!" Truss bellowed. He took a moment to note the squad commander's name: Otis Belfour. Truss sincerely hoped that they'd all survive the next hour, because he was going to richly enjoy calling that particular twit on the carpet when this was all over. "Makoto, what's the area covered by that AT Field? Can we launch the EVAs out of there?"
"No such luck, sir. He's got the entire level sealed off."
God damn it, I should have launched them when I had the chance, Truss berated himself. "Ok," he said, trying not to let his growing panic show, "we've got an Angel effectively locked in a room with half of our Evangelions, and no qualified pilots within an hour's drive. I'm officially soliciting ideas, here."
"Jet Alone?" offered Hyūga.
"Nice thought, but no way. It's not nearly agile enough to be effective inside the complex, and our best JA operator is in South Hadley right now."
Truss scanned his subordinate's face for any further signs of inspiration, but none was forthcoming. Then his eyes caught sight of the microphone on the center console.
What the hell, it's worth a try, he thought.
Jon Ellison had certainly been startled to see EVA-00 suddenly appear out of nowhere, and even more startled when part of the SEELE complex exploded in a blaze of light for no apparent reason, but he couldn't argue with the results: Rei was back, safe and sound, and he hadn't had to go into battle after all. It looked like the only real trick now was going to be getting Unit 00 back home again, and somebody else could worry about that; Jon was busy holding his angel in his arms again and thanking God for bringing her back to him.
"Are you all right?" he asked her softly. "Did they hurt you?"
"They tried," Rei replied, "but I'm stronger than they are."
"Well, I'll be damned," said Misato from the command deck. "This trip wasn't so tough after all."
"Dammit!" Maya Ibuki cried as one of the display panels asked for her attention. "Brigadier, you're a hockey fan, you know better than to say things like that before the horn blows."
"What? What'd I do now?"
"Enemy is deploying a production-model Evangelion," Aoba reported, bringing the white-armored, unpainted unit up on the main monitor. "Distance 2.5 kilometers and closing fast."
Maya turned and gave Misato a "that's what you did now" look, to which Misato could only offer a sheepish half-grin.
"Think you can take him?" Misato asked Jon as the white EVA grew larger on the main screen. "We're not going to be able to hook up EVA-03 and get out of here with that thing stomping around."
Jon nodded. "I'll give it a shot."
"I'll help you," said Rei, going to the MCU locker room for her plug suit. She hadn't explained where she'd gotten the white dress she'd arrived wearing, and nobody had thought it was really the time to be asking.
Kevin Nelson snarled in irritation. Finding a damaged launch gantry on the surface to enter through, and then navigating through the maze of service ducts all the way down to Lucifer's current location had been enough of an annoyance for one day. (Luckily, Lucifer had regained enough of himself for Kevin to sense his presence and use it as a sort of compass.) Having those interlopers interrupt his business here was almost more than he could take. He had half a mind to chase them down and show them the depth of their mistake... but, no, he had more important things to worry about. He resumed his march towards Lucifer, focusing his mind on the task at hand.
Or trying to, at least. The PA crackled to life, and a voice Kevin didn't recognize called out his name.
"Kevin, this is John Trussell. Look, we don't want to hurt you. Those security guards were acting in direct violation of orders. I just want to talk."
Kevin rolled his eyes in frustration. Would he never be allowed to do what he came here for? "There's only one person I want to talk to right now," he hissed. He focused his glare at the PA speaker, and space appeared to ripple momentarily around it. A shower of sparks flew from the device as Kevin's AT field twisted itself around it, leaving a tangle of ruined components hanging from the wall.
Back in the control center, Truss admitted to himself that the exchange could probably have gone better.
"What do we do now, sir?"
Truss shrugged and shook his head. "The only thing we can do. We watch."
Kevin Nelson gazed up at the horned head of Unit 01, a manic grin on his face. "Hello again, Lucifer. It's been a while... almost sixteen years, isn't it?" He began to pace back an forth before the sleeping giant, as he continued. "You look well. You've got well-maintained armor, you've got comfortable living accomodations, you've got the undying gratitude of your hosts... yes, sir, you've got a good thing going out here."
Kevin took a few more steps in silence before turning back towards the green behemoth. "Well, since you don't seem to be up for a conversation, I'll have to hold your side for you. 'So, Kevin, what have you been up to all of these years?'" He recited the question in a cheery voice, his lips forming a smile that was very obviously false. "Oh, I've been around. Mind you, I didn't have anywhere to stay after we parted company. I don't have any friends, or any family in the area, I'm afraid—there's no one that I could sit around the coolant pool and reminisce with.
"'Well, gee, Kevin, why didn't you just go back home?' Funny you should mention that. You see, ever since the last time I saw you, I've had this... hmm, let's call it a 'difficulty.' You see, I can't go home, because... well, there's no nice way to put this, is there?"
All at once, the false cheer drained out of Kevin's face.
"Because I'm broken!" he shrieked, glaring into Unit 01's eyes with an expression of white-hot loathing.
"There's a funny thing about being broken, Lucifer," Kevin continued, choking back his anger enough to force out the words. "Once your soul takes on a little bit of damage, that damage tends to spread—like a crack in a windshield—until finally your soul can't hold itself together anymore. Then the collapse comes, and there's nothing left but shards."
Tears formed at the edge of Kevin's eyes, and he fought to regain his composure. No matter what happened later, he had to finish this. It was his only chance. He took a long, deep breath and steeled himself for one final outburst.
"Do I need to spell it out for you? You know what's happened to me! You've seen thousands, maybe millions of my kind end up in this state. God only knows how many of them shattered and fell by your hand." Kevin heard his voice starting to crack, and tears were streaming down his face—but he couldn't stop now. "This all started with me trying to protect you. You, the greatest enemy ever known to my kind! I was shattered—I knew that I'd never see my home again—but still, I soldiered on. I had nothing to sustain me but the absolute faith that if I could find you, and Moloch, and Reilael, that everything would be all right. I searched for fifteen years to find you! Every moment of every day was spent in loneliness and misery, but I kept going—for you.
"Then I found you. All of you. My faith had been rewarded! I was among my own kind again, and we would find a way to set things right. I watched Rei heal, and helped her regain her memories and her courage. I watched you, every day growing stronger, inching closer to what you were. I was even able to grant some comfort to Jon Ellison, and point him toward the light."
Tears were streaming dowm Kevin's face, now. "But what of me? How has the universe rewarded me for my patience, my perseverence, my faith? By stripping me everything I once held dear... first my wings, and then the Symphony itself. I gave it back to Reilael and lost it for myself!
"Do you remember, Lucifer? Do you remember the day, so long ago, when you heard the celestial songs for the very last time? Do you remember the final notes, the glorious sensation of feeling the most fundamental mechanisms of the universe working their magic around you? Do you remember the horrible coldness of having it all torn away from you as you fell, feeling like you could almost reach out and pull it back—but not quite? Do you remember that? Do you?
"It's all I can feel, now. I've fallen all the way down, Lucifer, and there's not enough of me left to climb back up again.
"I stand before you as a pile of shards, Lightbringer. I have nothing left to live for. The only purpose I can feel in my heart is one that I know is false, but if I remain this way much longer, I'll give in to it because I lack the strength to resist. I did it all for you... and now I need you to help me."
With those final words, Kevin fell to his knees, sobbing uncontrollably. He waited—and prayed—for a response, any sign that the passive giant that stood before him had heard him. Long moments passed, but EVA-01 gave no acknowledgement of any kind. Kevin's cries mounted as it became clear that his effort had been wasted, then waned as he simply ran out of tears. He remained quivering on the floor for a minute more... and then leaped to his feet in a rage, fueled by every ounce of energy that still remained in him. He glanced at Unit 04, closed his eyes, and concentrated with all his might.
Unit 04's eyes glowed red as the unit activated. It effortlessly pulled itself free of the restraints, and moved towards Unit 01 as Kevin turned back to face the inert EVA.
"That's new," Truss remarked, so far beyond trepidation now that his voice had taken on a frank conversational tone.
"Mm," said Makoto Hyūga.
"GOD DAMN YOU ALL OVER AGAIN!" Kevin wailed. "LISTEN TO ME!" EVA-04 began throwing punches as Kevin willed it forward, his teeth clenched and his face covered with sweat. "Do something, anything! You have the power to fix me, and you could strike me down with but a thought! I don't even care which you do anymore! BUT DON'T LEAVE ME LIKE THIS!"
Unit 04 continued to batter Lucifer like a drunken sailor, its motions becoming more erratic as the last of Kevin's composure began to fade. He had finally reached his limit... his final words came out at a volume just above a whisper.
"Please... just... don't... leave me like this..."
From deep within Lucifer, there came a faint rumble, and the green EVA moved for the first time in weeks. Its right arm caught Unit 04's wrist, intercepting a wild blow that had no chance of connecting.
Kevin looked up from the floor, the faintest glimmer of hope in his bloodshot eyes...
...and then he wasn't there anymore.
On the control room's main viewer, Unit 04 sagged forward, powerless. Unit 01's right arm dropped back into the same position that it had maintained for so long. All signs of movement in the Eva cage ceased, and the room fell dead silent.
Truss breathed a silent "thank you" to the universe, and any cosmic beings that might be listening to him. It was the first breath he'd taken in almost a minute.
"Makoto, cancel alert. Stand down."
Sighing in relief, Hyūga nodded to his boss. "Roger. Canceling alert."
Jon Ellison wondered if an EVA battle would ever go the way he wanted it to go.
"This is the first of the Advanced Production Models, Jon," Lucas Ellison sneered. "It is in every way an improvement over your unit... just as I am in every way an improvement over you."
Rei Ayanami, now suited up and aboard Unit 00, switched her comm system to the intercom channel with the MCU. "How long?" she asked.
"Hard to say," Shigeru Aoba replied, his eyes darting away from the screen she knew had her image on it as he checked other figures. "EVA-00's power coupling has some armor shroud damage—probably happened while it was trying to get away from its restraints back in the cage. The field crew is having a hard time fitting the batteries." Aoba sighed. "If the damn thing hadn't gone dead again after it showed up to rescue you..."
Reeling with the synchronized pain of his EVA's missing arm and the damage to its head, Jon struggled to regain control and get Orcus to its feet. The enemy EVA was faster and stronger, there was no denying that, but he was damned if he would let this sneering caricature of himself prove his superiority.
"You're damned anyway, Jon," Lucas gloated, and Jon realized he must have said some of it out loud. EVA-06 planted a solid kick to the middle of EVA-03's chest, and Jon felt something give deep inside the unit. A sunburst of pain welled up in his own chest.
"Partial core rupture on EVA-03!" cried Shigeru Aoba.
"Oh, shit!" Maya yelled as Jon's biosensor readouts flatlined. "Full arrest, sympathetic feedback from EVA-03's core rupture! Cut the sync signal and shock him stat!"
As Aoba scrambled to obey, a sound flooded the comm net that no one in NERV had ever expected to hear in their lives: Rei Ayanami, screaming. Not in pain or shock, but in anger—a pure white wrath that wastes no time searching for words.
With Rei actually inside EVA-00, and with her rage and desperation mounted to a fever pitch, the resonance of her celestial energies against the shadow of Moloch built, and for a moment, what remained of the Lord of Fire came fully back to himself.
On the master control-room console, EVA-00's mission clock went red and spooled up to 00:05:00.00.
Perhaps; but Lucifer still lives, and despite all of the Habbalite's betrayals the War is not yet lost.
I... I have lost all of myself. What you hear is only an echo.
I know. I failed in my promise to protect you. Forgive me.
I would forgive you anything, Friend of Destiny. For you and the Lightbringer I died with honor. I ask only that you remember me.
I will always remember you, Moloch. You were... You were my friend.
Then the anger in your heart is not for me?
No. It is for my enemy—a cruel joke, a crude copy of one whom I love. Another of the Habbalite's vicious tricks.
Little remains of me, Reilael; but whatever I have left is yours to take.
I... Thank you. ... Goodbye, Moloch.
Goodbye, Reilael, my friend.
Deep within the war machine humanity had made of his corpse, Moloch, Lord of Fire, gave what remained of himself up to the song that was Rei Ayanami.
The mission clock stood at 00:04:59.99.
EVA-00, powerless, twitched, then shivered as the tech crewmen who had been trying to fit it with an external battery pack scattered in fright. Its eye glowed, first red, then white, and with a burst of light too bright to watch unshielded, its own AT Field shattered the one that protected Unit 06. From somewhere under its head armor, it let out an enraged roar which mingled with Rei's scream. Maya gasped in awe as every energy-reading device in the command center went straight off the scale. Glowing, white lightning dancing over its blaze-orange surface, Moloch rose to its feet, waving aside the remains of the enemy EVA's AT Field like a bead curtain. From the area around the damaged power coupling, rays of light exploded outward, bent and trailed away so that they resembled nothing so much as giant wings of blue-white light. The shining AT Field around the unit seemed to condense around it into a corona of flickering light, as though the giant machine were bathed in fire. All the while, the unit continued to howl in fury.
Misato Katsuragi sucked in a breath through clenched teeth, frozen by mixed awe and horror. Alone among everyone in her company, she had seen and heard all of this before, sixteen years before.
Next to Misato, Gendō Ikari smiled, his eyes invisible behind the reflection of the flames on his glasses.
"Impossible!" Lucas Ellison cried as his EVA stumbled back from the glowing prototype.
In his entry plug, Jon writhed as the electrodes built into his plug suit hammered his heart back into action; then he sat bolt upright, eyes flying open, and drew in a breath, galvanized as much by the energies washing over his EVA as by the medical devices of his life-support suit. Enervated and sore, he slumped in his seat and watched the monitors, unable to do anything more than simply take it all in.
In the cockpit of EVA-00, Rei's plug suit began to dissolve, and everywhere it parted, light poured out like the glow from a furnace hatch. The controls, useless, retracted and darkened. As the last vestiges of the suit disappeared, it seemed as if Rei had become a being of light, blue-white and blinding, except for her eyes—two scornful pools of red fire.
"Did you really think I would lie there helpless and let you destroy Jon, Lucas?" Rei asked coldly. "Did you?"
Crying out a mutual hatred that had no words to contain it, Rei and Lucas hurled themselves at each other. Lucas struck first, relying on his EVA's superior speed and strength to end the combat quickly, but he never laid a hand on Rei; as hard as he drove the punch forward, Moloch's Absolute Terror Field drove him back. The two EVAs thundered across half the city of South Hadley, beating each other like savage drunks, the pilots never seeming to tire or exhaust their shared rage. Within a few minutes, it became obvious that the SEELE EVA was taking the worst of the combat.
"My God," Misato murmured, watching on one of the main viewers as a remote camera showed the MCU the action. EVA-00 continued to perform to almost four times its functional spec, its AT Field off the scale, visibly surrounding it in a fiery halo. Under Moloch's relentless pounding, EVA-06's field was reduced to a mere whisper, its white armor dented and cracked, its structural integrity beginning to degrade.
"This is impossible," Aoba murmured, watching the battle. "That amount of power output should be tearing EVA-00 apart."
"It is," replied Maya. "Reading structural integrity on Unit 00 is down to 80% and dropping fast."
"Then why the hell isn't it falling apart?" Misato demanded. "It was never intended to be overloaded so much... and for that matter, where's it getting the power? It hasn't manifested Elerium colliders like Lucifer's, has it?"
"Negative," Maya reported. "My telemetry shows that the operating power's come from... " She gasped. "... Rei," she finished, a note of astonishment in her voice.
"Impossible," Aoba repeated.
Gendō Ikari's smile faltered, flickered, and then surged back into being, splitting his face in an ear-to-ear grin of pure joy as his eyes lit up with sudden revelation.
"Beautiful!" he roared, throwing back his head. "I knew it! I knew it! I knew Rei was more special than any of us could dream. Look! See how she's made Moloch into the tool of her personal vengeance!"
Misato regarded him with a look that mingled uneasiness, skepticism and surprise; ignoring it, he seized her shoulders in his hands, still grinning from ear to ear, and turned her back to the master viewer.
"That energy is not EVA-00's Absolute Terror Field—it's Rei's!" he cried, his voice ringing with the unabated joy of his sudden epiphany. "She's an angel, our angel! All the Children are touched by God—but Rei! Rei is one of His OWN, sent to guide the rest! Do you see? Do you see??" Ikari released Misato, throwing his hands up to the air. "Magnificent!"
"He's crazy," Misato mumbled, backing away from the joyous scientist.
"He's right," DJ replied, not looking away from the master viewer.
"What?" Misato asked, turning to face him.
"'Say to them that are of a fearful heart, Be strong, fear not,'" DJ murmured, his eyes still riveted to the battle raging outside. "'Behold, your God will come with vengeance... He will come and save you.'"
Misato looked quizzically at the transfixed pilot and seemed about to protest, but then thought better of it, and turned again to the screen.
"EVA-00 structural integrity down to 45%," Maya reported.
All that remained of Moloch was slowly disintegrating. The incredible amounts of energy that washed over his frame, held him up, kept him punching, were doing as much to destroy him as they were to sustain him. Underneath the machine's armor—by now scorched and blackened by the flames of Rei's AT field to the point where little orange remained—muscles and giant tendons dried, split, and tore, bones cracked, and sensors recorded and reported it all with great alarm. Still the titan stayed on its feet and kept fighting.
Moloch's right fist crashed into the side of the enemy EVA's face, spinning it half around and sending it slamming up against the sturdy side of a power-coupling blockhouse. Cracks rayed out in the reinforced concrete all around the impact point, and as EVA-06 struggled to regain its footing, Lucas Ellison swore. His AT Field was all but gone. Another blow like that would take his unit's head right off and finish him for good.
On the other hand, it had knocked him far enough that he had enough breathing room to pull out his hole card. Snarling, he reached up and deployed his unit's close-in weapon.
SEELE's Research and Development Unit had been busy the past few months. Not only had they produced the first Improved Production Model Evangelion, they had also adapted the weapon of one of the first Angels to be destroyed by NERV—Shamshel, the Fourth Angel—into an EVA weapon much more effective than the Progressive Knife it was intended to replace.
So it was that Rei found herself facing an EVA armed with a giant, fiery sword.
She was not noticeably impressed. Lucas leaped back, struck at her right flank; Moloch's right arm blocked the blade, the AT Field strobing white octagons from the point of impact. Snarling, he kicked at her legs; she stumbled, and as she did, Lucas raised the blade and brought it crashing down toward EVA-00's head.
Casually, contemptuously, Moloch reached up and seized the glowing blade in its fist. The energy sizzled and sparked, little arcs flowing over the blackened EVA's hand and forearm, and the burned armor and dried flesh of the hand sizzled and peeled away, but it held together through the sheer force of the will behind it.
Lucas gulped and hurled all his unit's weight and strength behind the blade, forcing it down a few meters.
"DIIIIIEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!" he shrieked.
Moloch's vambrace housing popped open, delivering a Type One solid prog knife to the EVA's left hand. With a defiant cry, Rei drove the blade into the white EVA's side.
Lucas choked, trying to keep from vomiting as his EVA's agony became his own. Rei compounded it by using the jammed blade as a handhold to drive the white EVA back, then swung the trapped energy blade out and wrenched it from her enemy's hand, hurling it aside as the blade flickered and died.
Desperate, Lucas threw his unit's hands around Moloch's neck; the AT Field couldn't prevent him from touching the other unit if it was touching his. Rei drove Moloch to his feet, bending the white EVA back in the process; then she tore the prog knife out of its side, raised it, and brought it slashing down into the SEELE unit's exposed inner elbow joint. The screaming of tearing metal and parting synth-muscle was mirrored by Lucas's own shriek as the joint parted and the hand and forearm flopped to the ground.
Discarding the knife, Rei clamped EVA-00's left hand firmly around the enemy unit's throat, then seized its remaining wrist in Moloch's right hand and pulled it straight out to the side, eerily mirroring an attack the Third Angel had used against EVA-01.
This time, however, something in the attacked EVA gave; EVA-06's weakened neck snapped, and with a dreadful noise, Moloch tore its head off.
Lucas Ellison's consciousness spiraled into an abyss of red agony.
Unsatisfied, Rei slammed the inert EVA back up against the blockhouse and then drove Moloch's right hand straight into its chest, splintering the armor and drawing forth a hideous cascade of synthetic gore as she reached in and tore the unit's entry plug straight out through the front.
In one fluid motion, EVA-00 tossed the inert corpse of the SEELE EVA to the side, smashed the entry plug against the blockhouse wall, dropped it, and stomped it utterly flat.
For a long moment, it stood there, its AT Field still flickering around it like flame; then the flames died slowly away.
The mission clock hit 0:00:00.00, stopped, and went black.
Slowly, as if underwater, the prototype Evangelion sank to its knees, then crashed face-first to the ground. As everyone in the control booth watched in shock, it sagged, settled, and then crumbled away to blackened dust and ashes, leaving behind some assorted (and rather burnt) computer components, several miles of wire and cable, and a somewhat charred entry plug.
The hatch on that plug blew open, and Rei Ayanami emerged. Unconcerned with the devastation and carnage around her, she went immediately to EVA-03's side, where a recovery team was removing Jon from his own entry plug.
Maya Ibuki and Misato Katsuragi surveyed the devastation for a moment, then turned to each other.
"Sweet Jesus," Misato murmured.
It is difficult to explain even the lowest level of Heaven to a mortal audience. The normal, unawakened mortal human mind cannot truly comprehend the glory, the power, merely the basic makeup of even the least holy of the celestial planes. The laws of structure, matter and action do not apply in Heaven as they do on Earth. Those few living human consciousnesses who do see it must therefore translate its ineffable complexity and grandeur into a somewhat metaphoric form which they can understand. The human eye viewing an angel without its mortal camouflage does much the same thing, automatically, so as to preserve the fragile balance of the mind behind it.
It is from this metaphoric perspective, therefore, that we shall proceed.
Angels ascending to Heaven are not required to enter that august realm by way of the front entrance, that grand, crystalline structure known to mortal hearts as the Pearly Gates. Being essentially employees, angels can come and go by way of the service entrances, as it were, generally arising straight to whatever part of the Golden City that contains their business.
In this particular case, though, a dramatic entrance was called for, and anyway, there were precedents for such special occasions. Not many, but they existed.
Saint Peter, the Watcher at the Gates, looked up from his logbook as the outer Gate swung open with its usual picturesque creak, expecting to see a new human arrival, passed on from the mortal coil and ready to ascend to the higher levels and the eternal reward. Instead, he saw a figure both familiar and unfamiliar, clothed, robed and hooded in white, bathed in light, approaching Peter's station with a graceful gravity.
"Welcome, stranger," said Peter.
The newcomer chuckled, stopping before Peter's lectern. "Not a stranger," said the newcomer, in a soft, pleasant voice. "Not quite."
The newcomer reached up and brushed back her hood; the light came stronger now, and Peter felt a surge of recognition—followed closely by a wave of puzzlement as he realized that this visitor could not be who he had initially thought. There were similarities—some of the angles of the face—but this angel, whoever she was, was taller, her eyes not quite so large, her hair a pure white, lacking the blue-silver tinge of the one Peter had taken her for.
"Hello, Peter," said the newcomer, smiling. "I'm not surprised you don't know me; I've changed a bit since last you saw me." She bowed formally and continued, "I am Tabriel, Herald of the Light." Looking Peter straight in the eye, she continued in deadly earnest, "I bring a message to the Seraphim Council from my dread lord, the Archangel Lucifer."
The final evacuation.
The inevitable confrontation.
The shattering conclusion.
On April 1, 2000,
it's all over.
Neon Exodus Evangelion 3:9
The Blood-Dimmed Tide
"I have been killed a thousand times and every time I return."