Tuesday, August 24, 2021
22:37 hrs Pacific Daylight Time
Vancouver, British Columbia

It was unmistakably a scene of utter chaos. That was a phrase that appeared in every single one of the television news reports from the scene that night: "a scene of utter chaos," spoken spontaneously and independently by every reporter covering the incident.

Carly Lehman had just said it, getting the phrase onto the record for CTV, when a piece of what had been an apartment block comprehensively erased her broadcast van from existence and took her off the air. She and her sound and camera techs barely avoided being erased along with it, and as they cowered unashamedly in the questionable safety of the lee of a bank, the three watched the creature walk past and move on uptown. Seventy or 80 meters tall, reptilian-looking, it walked with a hunched bipedal gait, its enormous claws making gouges in the street.

Without consciously realizing she was doing it, Carly got her cellphone out of her pocket and dialed the station; she couldn't send pictures with no transmitter, but she could at least keep talking to her audience if her producer could patch her through. This, knowing the value of live commentary, he did without delay.

As Carly and her crew watched, a company of Leopard 2A6M tanks rolled out from one of the cross streets, a few blocks farther up the Kingsway, and opened fire. Just as the air strike back at Main Street had done, this only seemed to make the monster angry; it gave a deafening shriek as the high-explosive shells burst against its leathery hide, then shook its head, hunched its shoulders, and charged.

"Oh God, it's happening," Carly said, her eyes fixed on the carnage as the creature tore into the tanks, scattering them like toys. "Just like in San Francisco. If you can hear this and you're still anywhere near downtown Vancouver, get out, just get out. The Army can't stop it. The Air Force couldn't stop it. I don't... I don't know if there's anything that can stop..." She paused, looking puzzled, as a new sound reached her consciousness above the roar and crash of the slaughter. Jet engines.

Looking up, she saw only the darkness of the night sky for a moment, and then her eyes picked out the formation lights of two aircraft, approaching from the south. With their corners defined by the lights, she could make out their shapes, and a new thrill of horror touched her heart as she realized they were either flying very low, or they were colossal, bigger than any airplanes she had ever seen before.

Bombers, she thought. They're going to nuke the creature... and the city with it. Like Modesto.

"Carly? Carly, are you there? What's happening?" said her producer's voice, but Carly had lowered her phone and was slowly, almost involuntarily rising to her feet, watching the approaching bombers.

There. Dark objects falling. Only one from each, but huge, so big that even those gigantic planes could only have been carrying a single one apiece. Maybe not nukes, then, but the biggest damn conventional bombs she'd ever heard of. Not that it mattered. She was assuredly just as dead either way...

... Were the bombs shaped like people?

The nearer one of the two slammed into the middle of the Kingsway a block and a half northwest of Carly's position, sending out a shockwave and a curtain of dust that nearly knocked her off her feet, but there was no explosion. Less than a second later, the other one touched down a half-block behind it, sending up a second cloud of debris and shattering what few windows had survived the passing of the reptilian monster.

Carly stood transfixed as the dust and rubble settled... and revealed a gigantic thing in the rough shape of a man, unnaturally lean and elongated, but still a damn sight more humanoid than the other thing. It crouched in a three-point stance in the middle of the crater its arrival had smashed into the street, its head bowed, chin tucked against its chest. In the fitful glow of the few surviving streetlights, Carly could see enough to realize it was armored, its body covered in gleaming plates of smooth, dark-green and black metal or composite of some kind, all topped with a helmet sporting a hornlike central crest.

The second giant walked up behind it, the streetlights glinting from its own black and scarlet armor. This one had no horn, but four round green eyes, glowing brightly in the otherwise faceless mask of its helmet. As it drew even with the first giant's impact crater, that one moved, raising its head; its own eyes, only two of them, shone white through horizontal slits in the armor of its head.

"Oh. My. God," said Carly, raising her phone reflexively back to her head, as it dawned on her that she had seen these two shapes before; not in person, no, but in news reports from the other side of the continent, all through the tumultuous fall and winter of 2015.

At the far end of the street, the monster turned at the sound of the impacts and saw the two new arrivals. Screaming its defiance, it started loping back up the Kingsway toward them.

"Carly, what is it? What do you see? Talk to me!" Carly's producer begged.

"I see..." Carly began, then trailed off again as the red giant reached to its back and drew a colossal sword, the edge of which began to glow a bright orange with a high-pitched, keening sound. The other crossed its long, spindly arms and drew a brace of tank-sized pistols from conformal holsters built into the armor plating of its chest, its massive hands thumbing off the safety levers just like a human gunman would've done.

"Oh!" declared the hornèd giant in a cheerful-sounding, thunderously amplified voice. "It's good to be back."

"Evangelion!" Carly cried, suddenly galvanized, as the two cyborg war machines broke into a run and met the monster's charge with their own.

"Hold Your Ground"
Thick as Thieves (2012)

Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Neon Exodus Evangelion
Exodus 5: This Is (not) The End

Exodus 5:1
This Is (not) A Test

by Benjamin D. Hutchins
and Jaymie Wagner
with Geoff Depew
and Philip Jeremy Moyer

Based on characters from Neon Genesis Evangelion
created by Hideaki Anno and Yoshiyuki Sadamoto

© 2016 Eyrie Productions Unlimited

Tuesday, August 24, 2021
1430 hrs Australian Eastern Daylight Time
Former X-COM research station ARQUEBUS
20 miles off the Queensland coast, Australia

DJ Langley-Croft felt he had earned this. They both had. After an extremely stressful last few weeks, the chance to return to the beach where they'd celebrated their honeymoon and just forget the outside world had been fantastic.

As the earl and his countess lay on matching beach towels, DJ was sipping a suitably fruity drink from the cooler they'd set into the white sand between them, while Asuka was enjoying a post-prandial nap.

Unfortunately, that was about to change.

At first, he thought the faint set of contrails he'd noticed were from a commercial or transport flight of some kind, but that was dispelled within moments as they began to descend and angle towards him—quickly resolving into the shape of a Northrop C-230 Skyranger growing closer, the sunlight splashing off its canopies.

He could think of three agencies who used that particular craft: XCOM, the United States Air Force, and the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce. None were particularly welcome interruptions to his plans for a luxurious retreat.

"Bugger," he sighed, and moved to a sitting position, setting his drink box into the sand before gently shaking his wife's shoulder. "Mrs Peel? We're needed."

Asuka stirred with a slightly disgruntled sigh—their visitor was still too far off to be heard, but her husband's touch had brought her back to something like wakefulness. "Mmm? Vas?"

"Skyranger," DJ explained, gesturing to the rapidly growing shape in the sky.

Asuka sat up herself, sighed, then began stuffing the remnants of their lunch into the cooler. "Right. I'll finish packing—you get to see what they want, Mighty Adventurer."


DJ rose, dusting loose sand from his brightly colored tropical shorts, and walked a short way down the beach, away from the towels. There he waited for the Skyranger to start its VTOL landing cycle, ducking slightly to avoid the sand getting whipped up by the transport's approach, and covering his ears as best he could against the howl of its ducted turbofans.

Once the Skyranger had settled onto its landing gear, the engines spooled down to a softer idling tone, and the loading ramp opened to reveal someone he knew very well, indeed—though the XCOM logo tastefully stenciled on the aircraft's side had been a clue. (Why, he had wondered since the changeover, did they decide to get rid of the hyphen?)

Brigadier Misato Katsuragi was, by some standards, just on the cusp of middle age as she approached her 35th birthday, but to DJ the last five years had simply added a graceful touch of maturity that had made her more beautiful than ever in his eyes. Part of him wanted to rush up with a joke and a hug, or at least a warm handshake, but the look in her eyes was serious enough to hold him back from that. In some very particular moods, Misato might well employ a Skyranger for a personal errand, but this was clearly not a social call.

Still, he couldn't resist the urge to raise a hand in a rather exaggerated "over here" wave and call,

"Hullo, Brigadier! Fancy running into you on this deserted island."

"DJ," Misato responded, a slight smile touching her face despite the gravity in her eyes. "You're pretty hard to get ahold of when you want to be."

DJ shrugged nonchalantly. "Well, after successfully locating and mapping an Ubaid city and fighting off the buggers who wanted to loot it, we felt we'd earned some quiet time. Plus the matter of our anniversary."

Misato nodded, her smile becoming a touch wry. "Five years and you're both still alive!" she agreed, nodding. "I know people who've lost some money on that."

"Particularly those who bet on me killing him, I imagine," Asuka quipped, dragging the cooler behind her as she approached. "Hello, Misato."

"Asuka," Misato said with a nod.

"You are known in some circles for your bursts of Teutonic passion," DJ acknowledged. Then, with a pointed look at Misato, he added, "I was rather hoping the next one would be along shortly."

As Asuka, with a slight blush and a half-suppressed smile, reflexively slugged him in the upper arm, Misato gave a snort of laughter and replied, "I can appreciate that, but something's happened. We need you both to come in now."

"So," said Asuka, free hand on her sarong'd hip. "What exactly is going on?"

"It's too much to go into on the beach, as much as I'm enjoying the scenery," Misato replied. She stepped back slightly and gestured to the dimly lit interior of the Skyranger, "I'll give you a full briefing in the air. Please. This can't wait."

DJ's eyebrows rose, but the whole situation had his interest piqued, and all three of them knew it. "Well. Once more unto the breach, then?" Turning to his wife, he bowed slightly, arm outstretched towards the ramp. "After you, Countess?"

Asuka snorted, lugging the cooler behind her as she mounted the ramp. "My lord is much too kind."

Tuesday, August 24, 2021
10:45 hrs Pacific Daylight Time
37° 47'N, 122°25' W

DJ had always found San Francisco to be an interesting city.

The oceanfront vistas, quaint houses, and that magnificent bridge had been gone for years, of course. The Second Impact (and the resulting seismic upheaval along the San Andreas Fault) had done away with them, and those born after the event, like DJ and his peers, had only seen them in old movies and TV shows. The people of northern California, however, hadn't accepted that fate.

In the short term, though a hastily erected dome had preserved much of the surviving portion of the old city, the expansion of the San Francisco Bay into the larger Gulf of Portolá had forced most of the survivors to move inland to what was now beachfront territory. Sites like Pleasanton and similar settlements were already established (though Pleasanton hadn't been a seaport before the waters rose), but after the Angel War had come to an end, a campaign began to "reconstruct" the famed city using some of the same resources and expertise that had just saved Humanity from the brink of annihilation.

The resulting amalgam rimmed the Gulf, with some structures raised from where they had been encased beneath the waves and lovingly reconstructed back on dry land, while others were rebuilt as closely as possible to match. Several artificial islands and reefs now supported much of the new city, while a few structures that had been too delicate or impractical to move were left beneath the dome. They were joined there by a large portion of the city's infrastructure (particularly the fusion reactors and desalination plants that provided electricity and fresh water to much of the surrounding region), all linked to the shoreside city by a series of undersea arcologies.

The end result, after a brief but vigorous political wrangle over exactly where to put the "New" in the name, was the New City of San Francisco, geographically a much larger city than its predecessor, and on course to become more populous in short order as well. Located at the heart of northern California and southern Oregon's power, water, and technology industries, it was a vibrant and dynamic place to live. A promising beacon of humanity's new future.

Or at least it had been when the Earl and Countess Langley-Croft last saw it.

"My God," DJ breathed as he looked through the Skyranger's window at the livid scar of destruction that reached inland from the shore. "It's one thing to be told the city was attacked, but I haven't seen anything like this since..."

"The war," Asuka agreed, putting a hand on DJ's shoulder. "But even then, we did our best to protect the civilian population. Worcester-3 was built to prevent this kind of outcome... so we never thought we'd see something like this."

Misato took a long look at the destruction, then turned away. She'd seen all too much of it in the last few days.

"No one ever expected an attack like this—particularly after the end of the Angel War. We had a few assets at Alcatraz that we were able to help throw into the city's defense, but most of the conventional forces had to be scrambled from Beale and China Lake."

"Doesn't look like they had a lot of luck slowing down whatever it was," Asuka observed glumly, her eyes tracing the path of the battle as spelled out in broken buildings, bomb craters, and the still-smoldering wreckage of civilian and military vehicles.

"I'm afraid not," Misato agreed. "We finally brought it down outside Modesto with a nuclear strike, but obviously that's not a solution anyone wants to repeat."

DJ was silent for a long moment, then turned away from the window, giving his friend and former commander his full attention. "So what was it? Certainly not an Angel."

Misato frowned, shaking her head slightly. "No, it wasn't an Angel—or anything like those things we fought at Halifax. This was... different." Turning, she punched the intercom key set into the bulkhead behind her. "What's our ETA, Foley?"

There was a crackle of static, and a man's voice, filtered through the pickups of a pilot's helmet replied. "ETA 5 minutes, ma'am."

"Very good. Keep the comm open for us, please?"


Misato turned back, snapping her seat's restraints back into place around her torso as the intercom hissed for a moment, then popped back to life as their pilot spoke to someone on the ground.

"Central, this is Big Sky. We are inbound with the goodies—requesting landing clearance on Pad One."

Another man's voice, closer to a baritone, replied with a carefully precise Midwestern accent, "Copy, Voodoo 3-1. Pad One approach confirmed—we'll see you on the ground."

"Hear that?" DJ asked Asuka, sotto voce. "We're the goodies."

"Oh good," Asuka replied dryly. "I've always wanted to be identified on the same level as branded swag from a trade show."

DJ snorted, then blinked as he realized they appeared to be heading for a patch of... featureless water, out in the middle of the gulf. The Skyranger, its pilot evidently undaunted by this, shivered as its VTOL fans engaged, followed shortly by the whine-clunk of the landing gear locking into place.

Just as DJ felt he really ought to say something, the water ahead of them began to ripple and churn, before a large domed platform broke through the surface, the translucent covering irising open like the petals of a flower, revealing a raised landing platform surrounded by steadily blinking landing beacons.

"Oh, very Century 21," DJ observed admiringly. "Are you sure XCOM doesn't owe the Anderson estate some royalties?"

"What makes you think we haven't paid them?" asked Misato, her grave expression softening into something almost like her old cheerful smirk. DJ chuckled and patted her knee, giving her as reassuring a look as he could muster given all he'd just seen. A moment later the Skyranger thumped onto the landing platform, its engines spooling down, and the ramp started to open.

There was still a faint sensation of movement, but as DJ disembarked, he could see that this was because they were still moving; the platform on which the Skyranger had landed was already retracting, its domed cover closing overhead. By the time he, Asuka, and Misato reached the bottom of the ramp, the water was already rising up the sides of the dome.

They descended, smoothly and near-silently, into what looked for all the world like a giant elevator shaft. Once they reached the bottom, the massive hangar doors off to one side of the platform clunked, hissed, and then opened—but only partially, making an opening just a few feet wide.

Through that opening came a single figure, tall and slim, dressed in the grey fatigues and light body armor of an XCOM tactical officer, his long black hair pulled straight back into a low ponytail. DJ and Asuka shared a private little smile at the sight of him as he squared up and gave Misato a crisp salute.

"Welcome back, Brigadier," he said. "I see you found them."

Before Misato could reply other than to return the salute, Asuka stepped past her, ignored the man's soldierly bearing entirely, and—with a delighted cry of "Jon!"—seized him without warning in a bear hug, planting a kiss on him.

Once released, Jon Ellison blinked in slightly flustered surprise, then glanced past the grinning redhead's shoulder at DJ, who was a pace or two behind her.

"Don't get your hopes up, mate, I'm not that pleased to see you," DJ replied wryly, then grabbed his forearm in a fraternal clasp that did at least lead to a backslapping man-hug. "You're looking good, though, Colonel, I have to admit," the Englishman added.

Jon didn't speak for a few moments, not because he was at a loss for words, but rather because he had too many to pick out the right ones. Up close, the Langley-Crofts could see that despite his upright carriage and generally put-together appearance, their old friend looked exhausted, his lean face drawn, dark circles around his red-rimmed green eyes. Exhausted, and haunted, probably by what those eyes had recently seen.

Finally, in a low voice choked with emotion, he said simply, "God, it's good to see you two again."

"Good to see you too," said Asuka, her manner more serious now that she'd seen how hard-hit he was by recent events. Then, looking curiously around, she went slightly pale and asked quietly, "Where's Rei? Is she all right?"

Jon gave her a puzzled look, then seemed to realize why she might suspect otherwise and hastily shook his head. "She's fine," he assured her. "Or, well, she will be. She's ashore, helping with the relief efforts. She'll be back this afternoon."

"We've got a few hours before the briefing," Misato put in with an indulgent smile. "Why don't you show DJ and Asuka around a little and help them get settled in?"

"Right," said Jon, grateful for the suggestion. "Good idea."

"Go on, then, I'll see you all at 1600," Misato said, making shooing gestures, and she stood and watched with that same nostalgic grin as the three former Evangelion pilots moved off down the hangar access corridor and into the station proper.

"So this is Fort Alcatraz," DJ observed as they walked down the utilitarian steel corridor. "Heard about this place for years, never thought I'd actually see it."

"You grew up here, didn't you, Jon?" Asuka asked, holding onto the taller man's arm in a companionable sort of way as they walked.

"That's right," Jon replied, nodding. "The E branch of Project Ascension was based here—over in the old Model Industries Building."

They reached another massive double door, and Jon paused to place his hand on the reader plate of a biometric scanner beside it. The scanner pinged, after which the door unlocked with a clatter and opened a few feet, and he gestured his old colleagues through—

—into what seemed for all the world to be an open, outdoor space, grassy and pleasant, flooded with faintly greenish, slightly ripply daylight. DJ and Asuka, stepping through, looked up as one to see that the "sky" was a vast, overarching dome of some transparent material, beyond which lay the waters of the Gulf of Portolá. As they watched, schools of fish cruised past, like flocks of birds in an ordinary sky, and high above the sun could be seen as a wavering silvery disc.

"Oh wow," Asuka breathed. "This is amazing."

"Not... what I was expecting," DJ agreed, looking appreciatively around. In front of them, the craggy hill that was the middle of the island reared up, surmounted by the cream-colored fortress that had been the old prison. Even the lighthouse was still there, and still—DJ assumed for purely whimsical reasons—operating, its beam twinkling across the inner surface of the dome as it swept relentlessly round.

The station's "campus" was a place of bustling activity; as Jon led them up a stone staircase toward the main building, Asuka and DJ saw a dozen or more people in uniform pass, each of them pausing to salute their guide, and more could be seen moving around the various footpaths and walkways. Inside the central fortress were even more, all of them moving about with a brisk air of purpose that put the Langley-Crofts in mind of Central Dogma in the old days. A few people seemed mildly taken aback that their commander was accompanied by a couple of people in brightly colored beachwear, but most got right on with whatever they were doing, too preoccupied to take any notice.

"Alcatraz has been an active XCOM facility since the 1960s," Jon told them as he led them through the corridors of what had been the prison's administration wing. "That's the real reason the prison was closed down in 1963. In those days almost the whole facility was underground, of course, because XCOM was a secret organization back then. The dome went up after Second Impact. They tell me it was quite a race against time to get it sealed before the inundation."

"I can imagine," said DJ.

"I've arranged quarters for you in the officers' section," Jon went on; then, pausing to consider their apparel, he asked, "Did, uh, you bring anything else to wear?"

"Not as such," DJ replied. "Misato literally came and pulled us off a beach."

"Oh. Well... I'm sorry about that," said Jon. "But we... I... really need you here."

"We saw," said Asuka, taking his arm again. "It's not a problem. Right, DJ?"

"Absolutely," DJ agreed. "Happy to help however we can, you know that." He stifled an involuntary yawn, then added sheepishly, "Mind you, I wouldn't say no to a bit of a lie-down first. One doesn't get a lot of sleep on one of those planks they call seats in a Skyranger."

Jon chuckled, a bit wanly, but sincerely. "Sure. We'll skip the tour for now, then, and I'll show you straight to your room. While you're getting some sleep, I'll see if my quartermaster can round up a few things for you. I didn't realize Misato wasn't even going to give you time to pack."

"To be fair, she'd have had to take us back to Brisbane for that," Asuka pointed out.

A former federal prison sealed inside an undersea dome was nowhere near the strangest place either DJ or Asuka had tried to sleep. Once installed in a comfortable room in the base's visitors' quarters, they had no trouble at all dropping off.

When DJ woke a few hours later, he found himself alone on the temperfoam double bunk, sounds of a shower in use filtering out of the ensuite bathroom. A moment later, there came a chime at the corridor door, and he realized that the caller's first attempt must have been what woke him. Rising, he dragged the sheet along with him and went to answer it.

"With Colonel Ellison's compliments, milord," said a crisply uniformed XCOM support technician, proffering a duffel bag and a flat closet-hanger garment bag, both stenciled with the agency's logo.

"Ah, thank you," said DJ, taking them.

"He also asked me to let you know that the briefing starts in 30 minutes in Ready Room Alpha." Stepping back and to the left slightly, the technician pointed to a stripe painted on the corridor wall opposite the door and added, "Just follow the red line."

"Righto, we'll be there," DJ replied, nodding. "Thanks."

"Sir," said the technician, squaring up and saluting.

"Er, carry on," said DJ, returning the salute as best a man can when holding two pieces of luggage and wearing a bedsheet as an improvised dressing gown. As the tech left-faced and headed off back down the hall, DJ backed up so the power door would close again, then went over to the bed to unpack the bags.

The garment bag proved to contain a black two-piece suit and white shirt, their fabric of a slightly unusual weight and texture. DJ chuckled at the sight as he laid it out on the bed. Inside the duffel bag he found socks, utilitarian male and female undergarments, and an assortment of sturdy, much-bepocketed clothing in a clearly different size than the suit. DJ was sorting all this into two stacks, humming domestically, when Asuka came out of the bathroom a few moments later, wrapped in one towel and scrubbing at her hair with another.

"Delivery," said DJ, gesturing. "Jon's quartermaster is not imaginative," he added with a faint smirk, "but he, or she, is efficient."

They arrived at the end of the red stripe expecting to find a conference room, like the ones back at NERV HQ in the old days: neat, antiseptic, more like an operating theater than a place where people congregated. Instead, they found themselves entering a big, open-plan room that looked more like an upscale hotel lounge, or even somebody's living room, with big floopy red leather couches, a chrome-and-glass coffee table, and a preponderance of Raygun Provincial deco details, including some very fetching Martian Heat-Ray floor lamps DJ instantly and completely coveted. Behind the couches, a huge multisectioned bay window had a commanding view of the hangar complex, the retractable landing bay, the dome, and the waters beyond.

Jon was already there; having shed his body armor, loosened his necktie, and removed his hair elastic, he looked much more like himself to the Langley-Crofts, even if he was sitting more upright than they had thought a person could sit on a couch like these. Misato, on the other hand, looked completely like herself, in civvie shorts and a threadbare Duran Duran T-shirt, slumped so deeply in the corner of the other couch that it didn't look likely she'd be able to get up without assistance.

"Well, I guess we didn't need to worry about being underdressed," DJ observed. Though provided with the full traditional uniform of the XCOM MIB Special Services Division, he had opted to leave the jacket behind in the bedroom, and had neither the shirt buttoned to the top nor his own tie tightly knotted. Asuka had taken it even further, skipping both field blouse and dress shirt of the de-ranked XCOM trooper fatigues she'd been issued and sporting only the charcoal-grey tank top, subliminally marked with the XCOM logo in black, over the cargo trousers and boots.

"I have to admit I was expecting something a little more Dr. Strangelove," Asuka remarked, turning around to take in the room.

"We have one of those too," said a voice behind her, "but it tends to make meetings a little tense."

Turning, Asuka and DJ saw a man in the complete MIB suit, buttoned up and freshly-pressed-looking. She judged him to be in his late forties or early fifties, with neatly cut dark hair receding from a high forehead. In his black suit and polished tactical brogues, he looked more like an accountant or mid-level census bureau official than an XCOM operative; but even if she hadn't known what a person had to be capable of to be chosen for the Bureau, Asuka could tell from his bearing, and his penetrating eyes, that he was a man to be reckoned with.

"Lord Langley-Croft; Lady Langley-Croft," said the new arrival cordially, offering a hand. "Special Agent Phil Coulson, MIB Southwestern US. Welcome to Fort Alcatraz."

"Thank you, Agent," said Asuka, shaking the hand. "It's quite a facility."

"Call me C," said Coulson, smiling.

"Not P?" DJ inquired with a smile of his own as he took his turn at handshaking.

"MIB already had a P when I joined," Coulson replied.

"XCOM loves its codenames," said another voice from the doorway behind Coulson. "Maya had to threaten to resign both our reserve commissions to stop them from calling us ABBOT and COSTELLO."

Asuka blinked, peered past Coulson, then broke into a grin at the sight of the speaker. "Truss!" she cried, delighted.

She and DJ had to wait for John Trussell, formerly head of NERV's Special Technical Services division, to put the boxed pizzas he carried down on the coffee table, but after that it was time for the hugging and the manly backslapping.

"It's so good to see you again," said Asuka, taking her turn. Then, sobering slightly, she added, "I only wish it were under better circumstances."

"Agreed, on both points, believe me," Truss said.

"They pulled you away from JPL for this thing?" asked DJ as she turned Truss loose. "I guess they are taking it seriously. But where's Maya?" he wondered.

"Still in Pasadena, wrapping a few things up at Tech," Truss replied. "She should be here tomorrow. In the meantime..."

"In the meantime, dig in," said Misato, hiking herself forward in the couch with great effort so she could reach the pizza. "We've got one more coming, but she should be here any minute—"

"I'm here," said another familiar voice from the doorway, and DJ and Asuka turned to see Rei Ellison standing there, casually but stylishly dressed in a summery white sundress and tennis shoes, with a bookbag over her arm and a blue-dapple dachshund on a leash.

Like Jon, she looked tired, her already normally pale face a bit drawn. She was also, the Langley-Crofts were mildly alarmed to see, injured; her right arm was bandaged from wrist to elbow and suspended in a sling, her left knee bound up in an Ace bandage. Still, the pleasure in her scarlet eyes at the sight of her friends was real, and illuminated her from within despite her obvious fatigue. She released the dog's lead, letting him dart across the room to gambol at DJ's feet, while she made her way toward them at a somewhat more deliberate pace.

"'Allo, Newbie," said DJ heartily, crouching to give the dachshund a scruffle. "Remember me, eh? What've you been letting Rei get mixed up in, then?"

"Don't blame Anubis," Rei chided him with a little smile as she limped toward him. "He didn't go with me to the lab that day... luckily."

Reaching him, she let the bag slide off her shoulder and to the floor with a shrug, then gathered him without further preliminaries into a hug with her good arm. He returned it gingerly at first, mindful of her injured one, which was trapped between them by the sling; but she wasn't having any of that and drew him in tight, hanging on in silence for nearly a minute.

"All right?" he asked quietly when she finally released him.

"Recharged," she replied with the same little smile, then turned to give a similar treatment to Asuka, who had stood by watching with a look of fond indulgence.

"Right, then," said Misato when they'd all finished. "Eat up and get comfortable. What you're about to see shouldn't be taken in on an empty stomach."

It struck DJ as slightly odd, under the circumstances, how smoothly and easily the four of them, plus Misato and Truss, fitted back together into the unit that had weathered the worst of the Angel War. He hadn't expected awkwardness, to be sure—the four pilots made a point of getting together at least two or three times a year, often with other fellow veterans of the War, and very rarely did more than ten or twelve months go by in which everyone in this room had seen everyone else.

They hadn't all been together at once for some time, though, and never under such inauspicious circumstances. The knowledge of what had brought them to this room was never far from the surface—but rather than casting a shadow, it seemed to crystallize the occasion somehow. They ate pizza, chatted, lounged, even joked, all in the silently shared knowledge that whatever was going on, they were all going to face it together, and was there anything in the world they couldn't take on in that configuration? The imminent, immanent eschaton hadn't even made that list.

Finally, Truss put aside his greasy paper plate and napkin, settled back in the couch, and plied a remote control. The lights in the room dimmed as a holographic display field powered up, spanning the full width and height of the opposite wall. At first, it showed a still-frame view of a busy day in progress on San Francisco's Embarcadero, the long main street fronting on the Gulf, evidently shot from a camera placed high on one of the buildings facing out to sea.

"Here's what we know," Truss said. "At the moment, it isn't much. At 9:45 in the morning on the Monday before last... well... this happened." He pressed a key, and the frozen image sprang into life, revealing that it had been paused video footage. In the foreground, the foot and motor traffic on the Embarcadero moved along, people and vehicles heading to and fro in the usual orderly fashion. In the background, the oceanside horizon shimmered, silhouettes of ships moving along it. And in the middle distance...

Nothing happened at first, but within a few seconds, the surface of the water started to roil and bubble, as if something huge were rising up from the bottom of the sea. There was no sound, but DJ could imagine the cries of consternation from the people in the foreground as they paused, caught each other's attention, pointed, their body language clearly asking, What the hell is that?

A moment later they had their answer, as the roiling surface of the water parted and an enormous... thing heaved itself up. It was so gigantic and out-of-context that DJ was briefly unable to see it as anything other than a jumble of individually meaningless impressions: wetly glistening hide; wickedly curved claws; a weirdly shaped head with a crest like a gigantic axe blade; widely-spaced, eerily glowing orange eyes; that same orange glow shining from inside its mouth as it opened slavering, teeth-studded jaws to roar.

Truss froze the image again and let them all just take it in for the few moments he knew it would take for the minds of those who hadn't seen it before to make sense of it.

Asuka, who had kicked off her unlaced boots and stretched out on the couch with her legs across DJ's lap and her head in Rei's, sat slowly up and regarded the screen with a face all but blank with dismay.

"Mein Gott," she murmured, unconsciously taking both Rei's hand and DJ's. "What is that?"

"Some of humanity's finest minds have been working on that question for almost two weeks now," Coulson replied. "So far they've come up with virtually nothing."

"But we know what it could do," said Misato bleakly, cracking a tall can of Kirin Ichiban and downing half of it without her usual show of gusto. "We saw that first-hand."

He started the playback again, and the former EVA pilots watched in silence as a half-hour movie, made up of video from a number of sources and tightly edited (Asuka guessed by Truss himself), showed them the enormous creature's rampage from end to end. It started on the Embarcadero, and ended nearly two days, many miles, and (in Misato's case) two more beers away. In its wake it left carnage and devastation—only the smallest corner of which, Asuka and DJ realized with mounting horror, they had seen on the flight in.

Its actual death appeared not to have been caught on video, but the picture froze again on a shot of the monstrous creature, now finally a monstrous corpse, stretched full-length on the ground amid the smoking ruins of what had once been a corner of the NorCal metroplex the new San Francisco had anchored.

"XCOM's Xenobiology department has been investigating the creature's remains almost since the moment it fell," Truss said. "So far, all we really know for certain are the bare facts. In life, it was 92 meters tall. It weighs twenty-seven hundred tons. Its biochemistry seems to be based on silicon and ammonia, even though that's... well, impossible... and although its physiology has nothing identifiable to do with the Angels of six years ago, it was generating something very similar to an Absolute Terror Field."

"Scheiße," Asuka hissed, then looked thoughtful. "Wait. Similar how, exactly?"

Truss leaned forward slightly. "It wasn't generating an AT field around itself in the same way Angels and EVAs do. Instead, its local phase space was... twisted, is the best way I can explain it. Conventional weapons could clearly hit it, but their destructive energy was..." He paused, searching for the best word, then said, "... attenuated by the distortions—like trying to shoot someone through a swimming pool of Jell-O."

"Thank you for that fascinating image," DJ replied, his mouth on autopilot while his brain attempted to take this information on board.

Truss grinned, despite the gravity of the situation. "My pleasure. But back to the subject at hand... beyond what I've already told you, it's as complete a mystery as the Angels were at first. Where it came from, why it attacked, what its ultimate goal was... we have no idea. We even had to make up a name for it."

"Officially, it's classified as Anomalous Entity 01," Jon put in, "but the tactical personnel who fought it gave it another name."

Misato nodded, took another uncharacteristically joyless pull on her fourth can of Kirin Ichiban, and said, "We call it Trespasser."

"You said you killed it with a nuclear weapon?" DJ asked.

"Nuclear weapons," Jon replied, "plural."

"It took three tactical ballistic missiles to put that damn thing down," Misato elaborated. "Glassed most of Modesto in the process. Probably could've been tidier about it, but on such short notice, five-kilotonners was all we had handy." She swigged the last of the beer and slumped back into the padding behind her, the empty can dangling from her fingertips alongside the couch. "Obviously that's no more viable a long-term strategy than it was against the Angels."

Shaking herself out of her funk, she started trying to get up from the couch. As DJ had suspected, she found herself unequal to the task; he rose and offered her an arm with which to lever herself out of the cushions.

"Thanks. Which brings us to the reason for this little gathering, much as I wish it was just a social affair," she said, brisk and businesslike again. "Come with me."

Glancing at each other in puzzlement, DJ and Asuka followed her, Truss, and Jon down the corridor, Rei and Anubis falling into step with them as they left the room. The Brigadier led them into a large elevator, DJ guessed some sort of freight lift, and keyed it into motion with an ID card fished from her shorts pocket. With a clunk and a smell of grease and ozone, the car began to descend.

"We don't know for certain that AE-01 wasn't a isolated incident," Jon said, "but we'd be foolish to assume it was. XCOM's predictive data array—basically a newer model of the Magi—puts the chance of a second attack at 72 percent."

"Which is where you come in," Misato put in.

Asuka and DJ exchanged another moment's eye contact, all they needed to convey the complex mixture of puzzlement, anticipation, and no-it-can't-be-can-it? they were both feeling; then Asuka said,

"What do you figure we can do about it? The XCOM Council disbanded NERV after the Angel War. Too politically fraught, they said. Too expensive. No longer necessary." Her tone made it clear how prudent and clever she thought that decision had been.

"Yes, well, the Council had their opinions, and General Lethbridge-Stewart had his," Jon replied, then added with a very slight smirk, "Are you familiar with the phrase 'black budget'?"

Asuka blinked. "You're not serious."

"Mind you," Misato put in, "we haven't been able to accomplish as much as we would have if we were still able to operate entirely aboveboard... but all the same, we're not totally unprepared. A lot of dedicated people put in a lot of long hours to make what we've got happen. For instance..."

At that moment, the elevator car emerged from its shaft, revealing that its walls were mostly glass. And beyond them...

"... does anything you see here look familiar?" asked Misato, unable to suppress a grin, as they realized that the elevator was now tracking down the wall of a vast rectangular chamber, its track running next to one of the several giant, instantly familiar storage racks that studded the room.

That nearest rack was occupied, and the sight of the shape that stood braced there, surrounded by catwalks and connected to maintenance cables, drew an audible gasp of recognition from Asuka.

Shiro Sagisu
"The Beast II"
Neon Genesis Evangelion S2 Works

"Mein Gott... is that.. Grendel?" she whispered, her hand unconsciously going flat against the glass.

"Evangelion Unit 02-alpha," said Truss, an audible note of pride creeping into his voice. "About half of it is unfielded EuroEVA Mark III parts recovered from the remains of FEISAR's Stuttgart works after the war... but the rest is everything we could salvage from the original Unit 02. Integrating it all into one functional unit took years and cost a fortune." Chuckling, he added, "Fortunately, we had both."

Asuka stared for a long moment at her resurrected EVA, her eyes watering as she blinked back tears that seemed to mix equal parts of joy and surprised shock, then pulled herself back together with a clear effort of will, her eyes bright and shining.

The next bay over was similarly occupied, and DJ gave a soft bark of laughter under his breath as he looked over the figure standing there, clad in gleaming forest green and black armor.

"Hello, old son." As he turned to Misato, it was plain he was equally pleased, with a clear undertone of satisfaction in his words. "I'd expected you'd have left him under lock at key at Halifax. After all—he's always been a bit temperamental."

Misato reached over and ruffled his hair a bit, drawing a muted "Oi get off!" from DJ and a set of soft giggles from both Asuka and Rei. "When we realized what we might be facing, I knew we'd need our best assets—and that went for both the EVAs and their pilots."

DJ turned back to the glass, taking a long look at EVA-01′, and nodded. "Though that invites the question: why EVAs and not the Archangelions?"

Before Misato could answer, Rei spoke up. "Because we invested them with the help of our three friends, the ARC units need a large portion of their power to be fully activated, and that requires particular celestial conditions. If things were to reach that point, they will gladly stand with us again, but the situation would likely be... extremely dire."

DJ nodded. "Fair enough."

That left the elevator in silence for a long moment, finally broken by the pneumatic hiss and thump of the lift reaching the hangar floor.

Doors sliding open, they stepped out to find themselves surrounded by a buzz of activity. Technicians moving purposefully between the gantry bays, ordnance techs checking the massive EVA-scale munitions in one of the cavernous side bays, various XCOM personnel on inscrutable but vital errands of their own as they moved back and forth. It all had a strangely pleasant sense of nostalgia to it, much as their earlier meal in the briefing room had.

DJ turned, taking it all in, and noticed the matching pair of silver and black giants standing across from Longinus and Grendel. "Oh, very nice. Almost a complete set here. Did you manage to track down Shinji and San, too? It strikes me that you might need a few more in that case."

Misato gave a slightly noncommittal shrug. "We've got a few leads on their whereabouts, but they move around almost as much as you two. The last we knew for certain, they were in Transbelvia. I've got people looking for them, but it may take them a while."

"Ah," said DJ, nodding. "Hard to get timely comms in that part of the world. What the devil are they doing in Transbelvia?"

"Shinji's apparently very popular in eastern Europe," said Misato, shrugging. "He's one of the last classically trained cellists. Very much in demand. Anyway, my people will find them, I just can't say for certain when—or whether they'll be ready to go on the active roster right away when we do. Which is where you two come in. At the moment we have four EVAs ready for operations, but with Rei on the IR and those two in the wild, I've got a serious shortage of pilots."

DJ and Asuka looked at each other, each knowing the other's mind with a glance, then shared a nod before DJ spoke again. "D'you know," he said cheerily, "by a bizarre coincidence, her ladyship and I happen to be qualified Evangelion pilots who have not much else to do at present."

Misato smiled, her shoulders sagging slightly as she let go of some of the tension that had been building up in her over the last few hours. "I knew you'd be willing to help, but that is a real relief to hear you say that. Thank you."

Straightening, she became a bit more businesslike despite her casual dress, clapping her hands together sharply. "Right. DJ, Asuka, I want to get you two back into training as soon as possible. We've got a lot of work to do before you're operational again, and I don't know how much time we have."

As if on cue, the lighting in the base suddenly turned from a pleasantly moderated simulation of daylight to a deep blood red, accompanied by the whoop of an urgent-sounding alarm.

Looking up towards the ceiling, DJ gave the sudden change a rather bemused look. "I'm guessing about that much."

The Brigadier gave a moment to spare DJ a you're not helping glare, then moved swiftly to the nearest intercom terminal, punching a number in and putting it on speaker for the others to hear.

"This is Central," said a voice DJ recognized from the radio back in the Skyranger.

"Bradford, this is the Brigadier. What's the situation?"

"Ma'am, we have a positive ID on a second AE making landfall on Westham Island."

Misato looked momentarily baffled. "Westham Island? Where the hell is—" Trailing off, she stared momentarily at the intercom like it had just told her something completely insane, then said, "In Vancouver?"

"I'm afraid so, ma'am," Central replied. "The Canadian PM and the Governor-General have both formally requested assistance from the Council."

"Right. Great. Fantastic." Misato looked like she wanted to kick something—or at least give this apparent whim of fate a damn good yelling at. "Let the Council know I'm determining what our options are for a response. In the meantime, shut off that damned alarm, would you?"

"Aye aye, Commander." As the connection closed, the whooping horns fell silent, though the blood-red lighting still made it clear that the crisis had not passed.

Misato turned to Truss, hands on hips, her face settling into an 'OK, this sucks but we have to deal with it' mien. "Truss, now is a great time to tell me you have an idea."

Trussell nodded, biting the inside of his lip for a moment in thought. "We've got the new Antonov-602 transports about ready to go. At top speed under load, they'd need about two hours to make it up there."

Misato sighed. "Well, that beats nothing at all. How long to get Units 01 and 02 ready and the transports prepped to launch?"

Without consulting his watch, Truss replied immediately, "Give me 90 minutes."

"Right. Rei, get DJ and Asuka over to the locker room so they can suit up. Jon, I want you up in Mission Control with Bradford and Coulson—get as much information together as you can. Truss, once you're done prepping everything for launch, head up and get ready to act as our console support."

After receiving nods of acknolwedgement all around, she turned and half marched, half ran for the nearest stairwell, taking steps two or three at a time on her way up.

DJ took a moment to watch her disappear, followed by Truss heading into his own domain, then put a hand on Jon Ellison's shoulder before he could leave. "Jon—what's this about you sitting out? There's four EVAs down here."

Jon grimaced slightly, and Asuka took note of a pained look in Rei's eyes as she turned back to face their old partners. Turning, Jon put his opposite hand over DJ's, holding it for a moment before gently sliding it off. "I tried syncing with EVA-03 after we brought it out of storage. It... didn't go well. During the war, I always had my best sync with Moloch, or Michael. In an EVA that didn't have a spirit of its own... it wasn't the same."

DJ's eyes softened, and he felt a slight blush of embarrassment heat his face as he withdrew his hand. "Oh. Bugger me, Jon, I'm sorry. We'll... look, let's talk about this when we get back."

Jon nodded, his face becoming, if possible, even more businesslike. "I'd like that. But for now... I can still do something useful, so I'd better get to work. Good luck, DJ."

DJ nodded, but didn't turn back to follow Asuka and Rei until his friend had taken the same staircase that Misato had recently scaled, though at a much more controlled pace.

"I'm sorry, Rei," DJ apologized to her as he rejoined the two women. "I had no idea. I didn't mean to open up old wounds. Not today of all days."

Rei offered a small nod, sadness still touching her eyes. "Jon has worked hard to find a place where he feels comfortable with who he is, and what he can do for others. I'm proud of him... but this is going to be difficult for all of us."

With that said, she turned to lead DJ and Asuka across the hangar in the opposite direction. Asuka gave her husband's shoulder a discreet reassuring squeeze before they followed her.

DJ had never worn one of the armored plug suits that had become the standard toward the end of the Angel War. He'd been off the active list when they were introduced, and thanks to the circumstances under which he'd rejoined the fight, for his last two engagements he hadn't been wearing a plug suit of any type. As such, being helped to suit up by a squad of technicians was a new experience for him.

The old "soft" suits had gone on easily, like putting on a baggy boiler suit (or perhaps, given that they had integrated gloves and boots, a very large set of footy PJs). The original Type S, which Asuka had some experience with, had been much the same, but with various interlocking armored components (based on HEV hazmat gear) permanently attached.

The equipment he and Asuka were issued now was a sort of hybrid of the two, unfamiliar to them both. Upon entry into the pilot preparation area, each was handed a folded bundle like an original type plug suit, Asuka's red and DJ's black, then pointed to a row of small cubicles in the opposite wall and instructed to change as normal.

The cubicles were not fully divided from each other, in case the pilots needed to carry on a conversation while changing, but the Langley-Crofts didn't speak as they climbed out of their borrowed XCOM uniforms and into the familiar baggy slackness of powered-down plug suits. This simple act, performed so many times over the course of their original careers, brought home to them in a way that not even seeing their EVAs again had that this was a real thing really happening.

When switched on, the suits compressed as they always had, becoming as close-fitting as wetsuits, though far more comfortable. The cubicle doors in front of them, opposite the ones they'd entered by, popped open and admitted them into a second fitting room.

Here, teams of brisk, businesslike technicians assembled the new suits' outer structures, pieces of advanced composite armor that snapped together and locked onto hardpoints in the undersuits to form a hard but flexible protective shell. One of the armorers helping Asuka on with her suit made certain the control leads built into the suit were connected properly to her cybernetic neural interface module. They had evidently been briefed already that DJ didn't have one, because his suit wasn't equipped with the leads and no one mentioned it.

Once the suits were fully assembled and the technicians had verified all their work, the lead members of both teams ceremoniously presented their respective pilots with their helmets, wished them luck, and cleared the compartment, leaving the Langley-Crofts alone with their thoughts for a moment.

"Well," said DJ, regarding his helmet. "Never launched with one of these on before. This should be interesting."

He looked up from the the helmet to consider Asuka instead, and found himself automatically smiling at the sight of her, bright-eyed and smiling—almost glowing. The plug suit was very different, and the frightfully pretty girl inside it had grown to a full-fledged, gorgeous woman, but there was something right, timeless, inevitable about the overall picture. Asuka in red, a bold black 02α printed on her plastron, just below the ring of her collar. God's in His Heaven, all's right with the world.

She grinned, hooked an arm around his neck, and pulled him to her for a quick, hard kiss; then, resting her forehead against his, she said quietly, "Let's do this, Lord Langley-Croft."

DJ chuckled. "After you, Lady Langley-Croft," he said, but it was shoulder to shoulder that they went through the last door into the EVA cage.

Rei was waiting for them on the steel-grate balcony, having bypassed the changing rooms somehow; at the sight of her old comrades all suited up, she gave a nostalgic little smile, then held up her free hand for them to cover with theirs.

"Good luck," she said quietly. "Be careful. I'll be watching the operation from Mission Control."

"Thanks, Rei," said DJ, leaning to kiss her cheek. "Don't fret."

"We'll be back before you know it," Asuka added with a wink and a peck for her other cheek. Then, with a parting high five, the two pilots split up and went off in opposite directions to report to their respective entry plugs, while Rei gathered up Anubis and headed for the elevator.

22:30 hrs Pacific Daylight Time
Flight Level 220
Airspace above Vancouver, British Columbia

DJ woke from a mild doze as his An-602's pilot suddenly spoke over his idle-mode entry plug's comm speakers:

"Central, this is Firebrand. Menace Flight has reached the AO. Ready for power-up."

"Roger, Menace 1-4," the voice of Central Officer Bradford replied crisply. "You have the green light to engage. We'll monitor those readings from here."

Then, after an attention tone to alert DJ that the next transmission was directed specifically at him, Misato's head and shoulders appeared in his righthand holodisplay. She'd changed back into her uniform at some point in the last few hours, and both looked and sounded as professional as she ever had as she said,

"OK, let's get this show on the road. EVA-01′, EVA-02α, prepare for activation."

Timothy Wynn
"Squad Loadout"
XCOM 2: Original Video Game Soundtrack (2016)

For all that he hadn't ridden an EVA in five years, DJ found all the switches just where he'd left them as he ran through the prestart checklist, once as familiar as turning on the oven at home. "Roger, Control. Elerium reactors at full power. Neural systems aligned. EVA-01′ is standing by to activate."

A similar image of Asuka appeared over on the left side of the console, the broad grin on her face evident even through the slightly tinted visor of her helmet. "EVA-02α, all green. Ready to activate."

Truss's voice joined the conversation, though his face did not replace Misato's: "Prepare for neural handshake."

In the background of the open comm channel between them, DJ could hear the synthesized voice of EVA-02's new flight computer say the same thing, then announce, "Five. Four. Three. Two. Neural handshake. Initializing."

Everything blurred for an instant as the Evangelion's neural bridge engaged, establishing a dialogue between the cyborg war machine's brain and DJ's own via the network of electrodes built into his helmet and the conductive medium of the LCL circulating both within and outside it. And there, just as always, was the EVA's own presence, calm, steady, welcoming. EVA-01′ never communicated with him in outright language, the way Lucifer sometimes had, but even so, as their nervous systems merged into a single composite entity, there was a distinct sense of a query, unconfrontational, even mildly sarcastic: What kept you?

"OK, EVAs, you're online," said Truss, sounding satisfied. "Sync looks strong and stable. Average rates in the high seventies for both of you, which is... uh... let's go with impressive, given that we've done, let me think, no testing or calibration with either one of you. Asuka, how's it feel?"

Asuka's grin became ever so slightly feral, her eyes glinting, as she replied, "It feels incredible, Control. Let's go to work."

DJ suddenly and vividly remembered Asuka, a younger version of her face set in that same fierce grin, appearing on one of his cockpit's holodisplays and announcing at the start of an operation, "This is what I do, Fifth Child. This is what I was born for. What I live for. Every hour of every day. This." He had no idea now what operation it had been; from her tone, he supposed one of the early ones, from before they were friends, much less lovers. Actually, he couldn't be completely sure if it had even really happened. But the memory, real or false, was so sharp and clear he might as well have been watching a video log playback.

"Menace 1-5, this is Central," DJ heard Bradford's voice say in the background of Asuka's channel. "We show you approaching the drop point. Be advised—area is hot."

"Yeah, well," said Misato, not on that frequency, "it's about to get even hotter. Go to it, you two, but be careful." With a wry little smirk, she added, "We've never even had a successful test of most of that equipment."

Truss didn't miss his cue. "I blame myself," he said automatically.

"So do I!" Asuka added.

"Well, no sense worrying about it now," DJ put in, and then they were too busy to keep quoting old movies. He flipped switches, checking the last few systems, then gripped the control handles and reported, "Longinus, ready for drop."

In hindsight, DJ had to admit it was a dumb opening move.

In his defense, his nerves were still jangling from the drop, and he figured between that novel experience and the sheer intensity of being so suddenly and unexpectedly back in the saddle, what was circulating in his veins at that moment was about a 60-40 blood-adrenaline mix. Under the circumstances, he could possibly be excused a little bad decision-making.

AE-02 saw him coming—well, it could hardly miss him—and he had the ranged weaponry of the team, so what he should have done was grab some cover and lay down suppressive fire while Asuka, with her close-combat configuration, went up the middle and delivered the good news in person. DJ wasn't accustomed to being the standoff firepower, though; in the old days, he'd had Rei for that. His job on Combat Team 1 had been the same, in broad strokes, as Asuka's on Team 2.

As such, a frontal assault with guns blazing was satisfying, but not really very tactical.

EVA-01′ thundered up the middle of the Kingsway, drawing a bead as it went, and opened up at medium range. The pistol cannons he was using were a model he hadn't used before, and he hadn't taken the time to learn their exact provenance, but as he opened fire, DJ was pleased with them; they seemed more accurate than the Glock-Rheinmetall models he'd used in the old days, and they had better ergonomics as well. They even looked better, not that that was really a useful factor to consider.

His first burst of fire went right where he wanted it, peppering AE-02's upper body. Its head briefly disappeared, wreathed in explosions, as EVA-01's AT field neutralized the weird effect its biology had on the local phase space and enabled the explosive rounds to strike with full effect. The damage inflicted was not devastating, but the creature didn't seem to like it, all the same. It recoiled, roaring.

"Note to Armaments," DJ said as he closed in for a second salvo. "Very pleased with the ergo on the new pistols. My compliments to the—"

He was interrupted then, as just when he reached point blank range, AE-02 hauled off and clobbered him with the wreckage of the Leopard 2 tank it had been holding when the two EVAs arrived.

"—fah!" DJ finished as EVA-01, caught in full charge, was slammed clean off its feet by the blow. Displays fuzzed and DJ's head rang in neural sympathy as the green-armored EVA crashed into the façade of the tall building of to the left, pivoted, then toppled across the cross street and sprawled on its back onto the adjacent premises.

Shaking his head and blinking, DJ muttered something about that not having gone to plan. EVA-01's head lolled, the neural connection map in the holodisplay off to DJ's left a jumble of broken junctions, and the view from the EVA's eyes tilted and settled, rocking gently, on an inverted-Dutch-angled shot of the place where it had come to rest.

"Huh," DJ observed, flipping switches and resetting systems. "The new Subarus are in early this year—ohhhh no," as a hand clamped onto the EVA's ankle and dragged it back out of the dealership. "Asuka?" he inquired. "Little help?"

"I'm working on it," Asuka replied, sounding faintly testy. "You blocked my line of approach with your banzai charge. The hell was that about? Are you stupid?"

"Very probably," DJ acknowledged, and then his EVA was flying again, as AE-02 turned and hurled it bodily into another adjacent building, which promptly collapsed.

That was upsetting, but on the other hand, the follow-through left the creature fully exposed to Asuka's own, rather-better-planned charge. A sustained, rising cry rolled from her as she drove EVA-02α up the street, the tip of her cocked arc blade striking a trail of sparks as it dragged against the pavement. AE-02 turned, striking out with one of its viciously clawed forelimbs, but the scarlet-armored EVA was on top of it, glowing blade coming up and around in a strike that was part iaijutsu, part European broadsword technique, and mostly improvisation.

The creature recoiled, its roar ratcheting up several notches in both volume and pitch, as the arc blade bit into its body and delivered an electric shock that could have killed a small town at the same time. So hard did EVA-02 strike, and so dense was the monster's flesh, that the blade actually jammed in the wound, defying Asuka's first attempt to withdraw it. Growling, she set Grendel's left foot against the beast's chest next to the blade and kicked with all the force she could muster, wrenching the blade loose and catapulting AE-02 into the lake in a nearby park.

"Scheiße," she muttered, shaking her head, and stowed the blade to go and see what had become of EVA-01.

The other Evangelion was not, in fact, buried in the rubble of the building it had been flung into, as she had briefly feared; rather, it was mostly sprawled in the street on the far side, having passed almost completely through said building before it fell down.

"DJ? You OK?" she asked, kneeling her EVA next to his.

"Hnnngh," DJ replied, dragging EVA-01 to hands and knees, then to a sitting position. "Forgot how much you feel getting your arse kicked in one of these things," he observed, hand to head (the EVA rather comically mirroring his gesture).

"Here," said Asuka, handing him one of his fallen pistols. "I don't see the other one anywhere..."

"Nor I—oh, hey, they have tracking devices in them," DJ said, sounding pleasantly surprised. "I've got a pinger on my HUD pointing me to the other one... ah. Well. Seems to be in the basement of that collapsed apartment block." He sighed. "Guess I shan't be seeing that one again tonight."

EVA-02 looked up, then turned, as its audio pickups caught a sound and relayed it to the pilot. "Oh, hell," Asuka said. "Look alive, Mighty Adventurer, here it comes again."

"Right." EVA-01 clambered to its feet, turning, and then stumbled and fell down again, collapsing into a semi-sitting position.

"What's wrong?" Asuka wondered.

"Think Longy's got a busted ankle," said DJ. "Didn't really notice in all the excitement 'til I tried to put weight on it again."

"Oh, well, that's just grand," Asuka said.

Looking past her crouching EVA, DJ saw the creature, water streaming down its pitted and lacerated hide, charging toward them with that odd loping gait it had shown at the start. As he looked, his HUD painted a target indicator on it and annotated it: AE-02 [ZIIRA]

How does the computer know its name? he wondered abstractly, still slightly punch-drunk, and then pulled himself together and assumed a seated marskman posture, leveling his remaining pistol in both hands with forearms propped on knees.

"Go," he said to Asuka. "I'll cover you from here."

"What, you mean like we should have done the first time?" asked Asuka with playful scorn, straightening up. "You sure you want to try that?"

"Sure, why not," DJ replied. "I'm not proud."

Laughing, Asuka drew and energized her arc blade again, then set her EVA into first a trot, then a run, meeting the creature's charge with one of her own.

Unlike DJ, she was doing it right, vectoring to intercept Ziira at an angle that kept her from fouling her partner's line of sight (and thence of fire); at medium range, DJ opened fire, peppering the creature's head with explosions again. As before, these seemed to do it more annoyance than harm. It batted angrily at the air around its head, howling, then turned its full attention to the red EVA as it approached.

Asuka tried a different approach this time, ducking and going for a low, crippling cut, but to her distinct displeasure, the creature was faster than it looked; it anticipated her move and whirled, bringing its long, powerful tail into play. Asuka's own reaction was lightning-fast, converting her sweep into a parry, and Ziira lost the last fifth or so of its tail—but the part that was still attached slammed into the middle of Grendel's torso, folding the EVA up around the blow like a cyclist hitting a clothesline and sending it crashing into the rubble of the building EVA-01 had plowed through earlier. The arc blade flew from its hands and spun up the street, power automatically cutting off, and lodged halfway into the twentieth floor of an office tower.

"Right, sonny, that's about all I'm going to stand from you," DJ growled, ejecting the spent magazine from his remaining pistol. As the empty crashed to the street, crushing a parked car, he selected a different one from the storage compartment inside EVA-01's right shoulder guard and slotted it home in the weapon's grip.

Ziira turned its attention to the green-armored enemy, roaring a challenge and lashing its partly amputated tail in what DJ assumed was probably some sort of threat display.

"Sure, mate, keep doing the giant lizard war dance instead of coming over here and crushing me, that's just fine," he muttered, taking aim, and then opened fire again.

He was very satisfied to note that the armor-piercing ammunition he'd loaded did a much better job of punching through the entity's unusually dense body mass. Little fountains of glowing blue blood burst out with every hit, and it became apparent as AE-02 drew nearer that his fire was doing it some substantial damage this time around. By the time the pistol cannon's magazine ran dry, its charge had gone from a run to a shamble to a sort of fitful stagger. Its glowing blue-green blood was by now dripping and running everywhere, including from the creature's mouth whenever it roared, and that roar was taking on a distinctly, unpleasantly bubbly sort of tone.

Inconveniently, though, it did not drop dead two paces before it would have reached EVA-01. That was DJ's wishlist scenario, which would have afforded him an opportunity to utter a Witty Quip, but alas, it was not to be; though grievously, perhaps mortally, wounded, the creature was still on its feet, still lurching toward him with an unmistakable sort of take-you-with-me intensity—and with its damaged leg, there wasn't a lot the EVA could do to prevent that.

DJ didn't seem worried, though. "You've fallen victim to one of the classic blunders," he said conversationally, as if speaking to Ziira, as it approached. "The most famous of these is of course 'never get involved in a land war in Asia,'" he went on, "but very nearly as well known is this:"

AE-02 picked up the nearest heavy-looking object, a piece of what had been the nearby building, and raised it overhead, preparing to bring it down as hard as possible on EVA-01's head.

With an amplified scream of defiance, EVA-02 dropped out of the sky on top of it, driving both of its Progressive Knives hilt-deep into the creature's back with all the EVA's weight behind them. Ziira uttered one last (particularly gurgly) roar, a fresh fountain of glowing blood pouring from its jaws...

... and then collapsed face-down in the street just in front of EVA-01, gave one spasmodic twitch as if trying to throw the scarlet EVA off its back, and expired with a long-drawn-out rattle.

"Never turn your back on a German," DJ advised the dead creature.

Wednesday, August 24, 2021
01:19 hrs Pacific Daylight Time
Vancouver International Airport (YVR)
Richmond, British Columbia

"Well," said Misato philosophically from the holoscreen, "that wasn't the smoothest performance I've ever seen, but under the circumstances it wasn't anywhere near as bad as it could've been. Nice job."

"It was," DJ replied, balancing a rubberized bag of ice water on his head with the hand that wasn't holding his water bottle, "a bloody terrible job."

"Yes it was," Misato agreed, "but I was trying to be nice. Anyway, you got away with it. That's always been the important thing in this business."

"True enough," DJ conceded, taking a drink. "So what's the plan now? Head back to Alcatraz?"

Misato shook her head. "No. As soon as your EVAs are loaded, I want you both to head for Yokosuka."

DJ gave her a puzzled look. "What, Yokosuka in Japan?"

Misato rolled her eyes. "No, Yokosuka, Vermont," she replied. "Of course Yokosuka in Japan."

"... Right, OK," DJ replied. "I'm not even going to ask."

"That's fine. Just get some sleep. You'll want to be rested when you get to Japan. I'll meet you there; Big Sky should be able to get me there ahead of you."

"Roger that, Brigadier," DJ replied, and then, with only faint sardony, he signed off, "Menace 1-4 out."

He sat gazing at the place where the holodisplay had been while he drank the rest of the water in the bottle, feeling—even, on some perverse level, savoring—that curious letdown he'd always felt at the end of an EVA operation. It was partly fatigue, and in this case partly jet lag, he knew that, but there was always that odd hollow feeling, like he'd left part of his soul in the EVA and, though he knew it was on its way back to him, it hadn't quite caught up with him yet.

The conference room door opened just as he finished the water and Asuka came in, dressed in her partial XCOM uniform again and looking as beat as he felt, her hair down and damp from the shower.

"All secure?" DJ asked, rising to meet her.

"Mm-hmm," she replied, nodding. "We should be taking off shortly. Firebrand said she's already got orders?"

DJ nodded. "Misato's sending us to Japan for some reason. Says she'll meet us there and all will become clear. In the meantime we're to get some sleep."

"That'll be the easiest order I ever had to comply with," Asuka said with a laughing yawn. Then, her smile becoming slightly sly, she asked, "So... your giant airplane or mine?"

"Well, we're already aboard mine, so..." said DJ with an expansive shrug.

"Sold," Asuka said, heading for the door at the back of the compartment. "I'll be in your bunk."

"Uh, yes, so will I," DJ pointed out, following her.

Undisclosed Location

Three men and a woman sat in a darkened room, waiting for a fifth. In the background, one wall was illuminated by a holographic display that showed the titanic battle in Vancouver, edited from various news sources, on a constant silent loop.

A door opened, and a man entered, silhouetted by the light of the corridor beyond. Settling into the chair left open for him at the apex of their horseshoe-shaped table, he let the door close and everyone's eyes adjust before speaking.

"By now you've all had time to assess this information," he said, gesturing to the displays around them. "I trust you all appreciate what an unwelcome surprise this development is."

"Unwelcome surprise? It's a whole sequence of unwelcome surprises," said the man immediately to the speaker's left.

"Do we have any information as to who their pilots are?" asked the woman seated to the chairman's right.

"Nothing concrete, but it's not hard to guess at the most probable canidates," the chairman replied. "Unit 01 is only known to have responded to any pilot other than Derek Croft once—and it's very likely that the pilot who did that, Asuka Langley, is operating Unit 02 in this case."

"I thought the Evangelion units were destroyed when the project was shut down," protested the first man.

"Decommissioned," the man to his left interjected. "Obviously not destroyed—though I was under the impression that Unit 02 was a battle casualty long before then."

"We're still looking into that," the chairman said. "Regardless, the fact is before us: at least two of the Evangelions are operational, and their pilots prepared to respond to the new threat. Which brings me to the purpose of this meeting."

He swept his flat eyes around the table, then dropped his news, flatly and without further buildup: "I've just received word from our friend. The XCOM Council has scheduled a vote on formal reinstatement of NERV—and Project Evangelion—for this afternoon."

The second man on his left grunted, turning to fully face the chairman. "Can he arrange enough support to block it?"

The chair paused before answering to pull a small silver case from the inside pocket of his suit jacket, remove a cigarette, and light it. Taking a deep drag, he savored the burn of the smoke against the back of his throat while he considered his answer, then exhaled a pale blue cloud before responding.

"No. Even if Croft's grandfather wasn't the UK's representative on the council, they've always been strong supporters of the EVA project, and this," he gestured with the hand holding his cigarette to the display, which was currently portraying EVA-02's leaping coup de grâce, "will only strengthen their resolve."

The woman who had asked about the pilots nodded concurrence. "Even if we could, given what they have obviously already done without authorization, would it matter?"

"No." The chair's voice was coldly stern, even in agreement. "So we'll need to accelerate the program."

A man clad in a lab coat that appeared a muted charcoal color in the darkened room spoke up from the foot of the table. "We've had teams working on mapping and harvesting sources of raw material for some time. Resources aren't an issue. Construction could be. We're going to need more men—and more space."

"You'll get them," the chair assured him. "Just provide me with a detailed requisition on what you need."

The room lapsed into silence, save for the chairman quietly taking another long drag, then exhaling another long plume. "If there is nothing else, I suggest we all get to work." As he stood, the displays winked out, returning to their idle mode—displaying a rotating set of logos, alternating between displays, turning to the alternate side every few seconds.

The first was a red hexagon, divided by a black hemisphere that covered the bottom half of the field, while the top was marked with an abstract design of a smaller hemisphere balanced atop a black ring, perhaps suggesting a sunrise—or an eye, depending on the viewer's mindset.

The second logo, stark in its simplicity, was a grey inverted triangle, with seven black eyes set against it in two uneven columns.

"After all," the chairman concluded, "the world isn't going to save itself."

"Land of Confusion"
Invisible Touch (1986)

Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Neon Exodus Evangelion

Exodus 5:1
This Is (not) a Test

The Cast
(in order of appearance)
Carly Lehman
Anomalous Entity 02 "Ziira"
Evangelion Unit 01′ Longinus
Evangelion Unit 02α Grendel
DJ Langley-Croft
Asuka S. Langley-Croft
Misato Katsuragi
Ryan "Big Sky" Foley
John Bradford
Jon Ellison
XCOM Technician #1
Phil Coulson
John Trussell
Rei Ellison
Anomalous Entity 01 "Trespasser"
Evangelion Unit 04 Malphas
Evangelion Unit 03 Orcus
Lisa "Firebrand" Foley
Some Unspecified People

written by
Benjamin D. Hutchins
Jaymie Wagner
with Geoff Depew
Philip Jeremy Moyer

the EPU Usual Suspects

Jon Ellison created by
Lawrence R. Mann

based on characters from
Neon Genesis Evangelion
created by Hideaki Anno
and Yoshiyuki Sadamoto

with inspiration from
Pacific Rim
by Guillermo del Toro
and Travis Beacham
The XCOM series
by Firaxis Games

I must have dreamed a thousand dreams
Been haunted by a million screams
But I can hear the marching feet
They're moving into the street
Now did you read the news today?
They say the danger's gone away
But I can see the fires still alight
They're burning into the night

There's too many men
Too many people making too many problems
And not much love to go round
Can't you see this is a land of confusion?

Well this is the world we live in
And these are the hands we're given
Use them and let's start trying
To make it a place worth living in

Ooh Superman where are you now?
When everything's gone wrong somehow
The men of steel, the men of power
Are losing control by the hour

This is the time, this is the place
So we look for the future
But there's not much love to go round
Tell me why this is a land of confusion

This is the world we live in
And these are the hands we're given
Use them and let's start trying
To make it a place worth living in

I remember long ago
When the sun was shining
Yes and the stars were bright
All through the night
And the sound of your laughter
As I held you tight
So long ago...

I won't be coming home tonight
My generation will put it right
We're not just making promises
That we know we'll never keep

Too many men, there's too many people
Making too many problems
And not much love to go round
Can't you see this is a land of confusion?

Now this is the world we live in
And these are the hands we're given
Use them and let's start trying
To make it a place worth fighting for
This is the world we live in
And these are the names we're given
Stand up and let's start showing
Just where our lives are going to

Next episode:

More old friends return.

New friends appear.

A threat from an unexpected direction.

Salvation in an unfamiliar way.

Neon Exodus Evangelion
Exodus 5:2—The Best Toys

"Can I cook, or can't I?"

E P U (colour) 2016