Thursday, June 11, 2015
Tokyo-3, Japan

Adam Schneider & Chris D'Ambrosio
"Scanning Protocol"
XCOM Legacy (Original Soundtrack)

Darkened buildings, deserted streets: an unnaturally quiet urban area, even for this hour of the night. No lights burned anywhere. Not in the windows of the glass and concrete towers. Not the streetlamps. Not even the traffic signals—but then, there was no traffic for them to direct. In a city that looked built to house millions, perhaps tens of millions, there was not a single living soul.

At least, not until the giant arrived, emerging from an underground portal in the middle of an intersection. The flashing orange warning lights and hooting sirens seemed like an intrusion in this place of uncanny stillness. They, along with the hiss and clatter of the machinery, lasted only a few seconds, and in their wake, the silence and darkness descended again. The giant itself, once freed from the gantry that delivered it to the surface and then collapsed back into the street, made no sound. The only light came from its baleful yellow eyes, and a single round green lamp on its forehead.

As it moved out of the shadow of one of the nearby skyscrapers, its footfalls resounding less than such a colossal figure's had any right to, a beam of moonlight fell across it, glinting silvery from the crest of its helmet-like head. In that light, the rest of it would have looked black, had there been anyone present to see it.

In the cockpit, the giant's pilot thumbed a key on one of his control grips and reported, "Deployment successful. I'm in position."

Tōji Suzuhara (SEVENTH CHILD)
Pilot, Evangelion ULTRA Test Unit 07

"Copy, Ultra-07, we show the same," replied the voice of his operations handler, whom Tōji knew only as Ops. "Look sharp. Anomaly reading is 500 meters dead ahead."

"Roger." Tōji guided Ultra-07 warily through the empty city, scanning each cross street as he passed it. Up ahead, the entry plug's holographic information system painted a pulsating bullseye on the intersection where the anomalous reading was the strongest.

When he reached it, he saw nothing out of the ordinary.

"Nothing here, Ops," he reported.

"Wait one, SATCOM is trying to refine the fix," Ops replied. "Reading is weak and seems to be destabilizing."

"This is pointless," Tōji replied. "Why even deploy for a minor anomaly in an abandoned test facility? We all know it's not going to be an Angel."

"Because on the off chance it is, there's nothing to prevent it from moving to a populated area. Besides, think of it as a dress rehearsal. We're probably going to be transferred to Worcester-3 soon."

Tōji arched an eyebrow. He had never seen Ops—the comm system was configured for video communications, but nothing ever appeared in the window but the SEELE insignia and the words NO SIGNAL—but he assumed the people in the control room that must exist somewhere could see him. "How do you figure?"

"Do the math, Suzuhara. They've got no pilots now. The First Child is in critical condition after that fiasco with the Prototype, and I hear tell the Third Child witnessed the accident and refuses to have anything to do with the program."

That drew a dark chuckle from the pilot. "Sounds like he's the only one of us with any sense. But how does that end with me going to America?"

"Who else are they going to send?" asked Ops rhetorically. "The German? Her unit won't be operational for at least another month, and they'd never risk plugging their golden child into 00 or 01."

"Fine, but I didn't think anyone there was cleared for Ultra ye—"

It happened faster than a person could react, so fast it had to be slowed down a hundred times before the puzzled SEELE operations personnel replaying the satellite footage could tell what had happened: a black spot suddenly appearing on the ground in the center of the intersection and spreading out, almost instantly expanding to a disk fifty kilometers across. A disk into which everything that had been standing above ground within it vanished, instantly sinking as if the blackness were a hole in the world. Buildings; trees; streetlights...

... and Ultra-07, which was gone from both view and radio communications before its pilot could even finish speaking the word "yet".

And then, just as suddenly, the black disk collapsed back to a point and vanished, leaving behind a perfectly circular, perfectly level patch of concrete, marked only by holes where buildings had stood and now were gone, leaving only their foundations.

"Hold Your Ground"
Thick as Thieves (2012)

Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

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

Exodus 5:2
The Best Toys

by Benjamin D. Hutchins
and Jaymie Wagner
with Jen Dantes
and Philip Jeremy Moyer

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

© 2021 Eyrie Productions Unlimited

Wednesday, August 25, 2021
07:18 hrs Japan Standard Time
Ōta, Japan

As they sped south on whatever highway this was, DJ wondered how Misato had managed to round up a Porsche in Japan on such short notice. Surely they didn't rent them at the airport, even to uniformed XCOM general officers. Did the agency have that kind of motor pool? If so, why had no one ever told him about it? He was an MIB operative with, the last time he bothered to check, the effective grade of major. Maybe it was only for generals?

He didn't ask out loud, though, because he knew Misato was expecting him to. Instead, he asked the other obvious question:

"So. Where are we going in such an almighty hurry?"

Misato didn't answer for a moment; all her concentration was occupied by the need (for some values of "need") to make a racing gear change and get around a delivery van. Traffic was light this early on a Saturday morning, but the Brigadier was driving—as she always had, in DJ's experience—like it was a life-or-death battle against impossible odds.

He didn't comment on that, either; just glanced into the tiny back seat to see that Asuka was still sound asleep—dead to the world despite the evolutions Misato was putting the car through, her head tipped back against the headrest and rocking gently from side to side with the vehicle's motion.

Misato saw him look back, glanced in the rearview mirror, and grinned. "Wow, she's really out cold," she said.

"It's how she handles jet lag," DJ explained. "She'll pop awake when we get where we're going and be fine for the rest of the day. Whereas I," he went on, sounding a trifle annoyed about it, "will most likely burn out in..." He glanced at his watch. "... round about three hours."

"You had 10 hours to sleep on the flight over," Misato observed.

"Mm, that was the plan, on paper," DJ replied. Then, sitting back in his seat with a faint smile, he went on, "But the paper doesn't mention anything about how eh... frisky her ladyship tends to get after a good fight."

"Doooooon't need any more information," Misato said, then paused to dice with a taxicab for the only clear route around a Japan Post freight truck. Then, as if the previous few seconds' conversation hadn't intervened, she said, "We're heading for the Vickers-Mitsubishi shipyard in Yokosuka."

DJ raised an eyebrow. "Shipyard?"

Misato nodded. "Something there it's becoming increasingly obvious we're going to need."

As they drove past Mikasa Park, DJ looked with interest out his window at the grey bulk of the memorial battleship that gave the park its name, then chuckled.

"Poor old Mikasa. In the course of the last century she's gone from being a ship, to a building, to a submarine, and now back to a ship. She must be terribly confused." He kept the ship in sight as long as possible, then sat back and went on, "Shame we haven't more time, I'd rather like to take the tour."

"Maybe next time," Misato said. "Besides, I think you'll like what we're here to see even more."

She pulled the car to a halt in a parking space before a red-brick building that, given its location, DJ suspected of looking older than it really was. Waiting for them there was a slim young man in a white coverall marked with the Vickers-Mitsubishi logo—three diamonds inside a capital V, its arms elongated into stylized wings. DJ was mildly, but only mildly, surprised to find that he knew the man.

"Huh," said Asuka, blinking awake as the car came to a halt. "Are we there?"

"Just about," DJ replied. "Enjoy your nap? Look who's here."

"Makoto!" Asuka said, springing to embrace him as soon as she had extricated herself from the back of the Porsche.

"Good to see you again, Mr. Hyūga," said DJ, shaking the engineer's free hand. "What've you been doing with yourself?"

"Well," replied Hyūga with a smile, "if you'll follow me, I'll show you."

"Well," said DJ matter-of-factly.

Asuka stepped to the edge of the roof, her hands on the safety railing, and leaned out for a better look.

"It's incredible," she said, eyes wide.

DJ nodded, too absorbed in the sight before him to agree more vocally. Hyūga had brought them to the roof of the shipyard's administration building, which had a commanding view of the waterside facilities: a view that was, at the moment, entirely dominated by a single vessel.

The vessel in question was so vast it hadn't initially registered on DJ's consciousness as a vessel. Rather, his eye had at first taken it for an expanse of empty ground, possibly a parking lot or an area intended to contain new storehouses or fabrication facilities in an upcoming expansion to the shipyard, until he had noticed that it was bracketed on three sides by narrow expanses of water. Factory complexes don't have moats, at which point it suddenly dawned on him that this was a ship, the most colossal one he had ever seen or heard of, moored in a gigantic berth at the quayside behind the admin building. Not just a ship, but evidently an aircraft carrier; what he had taken for a patch of paved land was now revealed to be a flight deck that looked as big as a decent-size golf course, uninterrupted by any vertical structure.

"Can I cook," Misato asked, hands triumphantly on hips, "or can't I?"

"Mobile Fortress Ryūjō," she explained as they rode along the pier on the vast ship's port side in a golf cart marked with the Vickers-Mitsubishi logo. "Originally laid down in 1999 to serve as X-COM's last resort in the event that the Cydonia mission failed and Earth's governments fell. Obviously, that didn't happen, so she was never completed."

"The Council nearly canceled the project and scrapped the unfinished hull at least a dozen times between then and 2015, but somehow it never quite happened," Hyūga put in from behind the wheel of the cart. "Then SEELE showed up and ordered work to be resumed—we think the plan was to use her to replace their submarine base once they'd consolidated their control."

Misato picked up the thread. "But then that didn't happen either. So, back into mothballs. There were calls to scrap her again then, too, but by then she was so nearly complete that it seemed like a waste just because nobody could think of a use for her." She smirked. "Or at least that was the excuse."

"In reality, of course, we kept working on her on the side," Hyūga said. "Shigeru and I came to Vickers-Mitsu after NERV disbanded, officially to work on the company's various conventional projects for the JMSDF, but actually we... well, we were more like moles, really," he added with a wry smile. "We've had a team quietly putting the finishing touches on RJ here for the last four years. Part of Misato's contingency plan."

"It wasn't just mine," Misato allowed. "There was a whole group of us who knew disbanding NERV was a mistake, one the Council would eventually be only too eager to reverse."

DJ was mildly distracted at this point, as they were driving past an enormous graphic painted on the towering side of the ship. This was not a logo or insignia, but rather an illustration, cartoonish and brightly-colored, depicting a cheerful-looking girl in a maroon jacket and odd visored metal hat. She was drawn in an exaggerated chibi style, big-headed and huge-eyed, and was surrounded by a small formation of what appeared to be little point-ended paper crosses, which DJ vaguely remembered was not Christian imagery but rather something out of Japanese mysticism.

"Cute," he observed as they cruised past the gigantic mascot. "One so rarely sees proper nose art these days."

"This thing just goes on forever," Asuka said admiringly. "I've never seen a ship so big."

"Nobody has," Hyūga said with a note of obvious pride. "She's the biggest ship in the world—the biggest ever constructed. Seven hundred meters long, 150 abeam at the waterline, displacing nearly three-quarters of a million tons fully loaded. Her flight deck has more than ten times the area of any other carrier's."

As Makoto led them over to the nearest gangway, up a long elevator ride, and onto the massive flight deck, DJ and Asuka both noticed a distinct vibe as uniformed techs and crewmen passed this way and that. There was an excited sort of mood—glad to be finishing the project and launching the ship they'd poured so much effort into, but the reasons for their hasty preparations were also quite clear to everyone aboard, adding an edge to it all.

DJ found it strikingly similar to the mood in Central Dogma around the time of Gabriel's Horn: proud of what they'd done to combat the threat, but knowing that if it didn't work, they might well be dead tomorrow. A bittersweet nostalgia, but some part of him savored it all the same.

He'd expected them to be led belowdecks to some form of quarters, but instead they were headed to one of the massive elevator platforms that (DJ assumed) would be responsible for raising or lowering the transport aircraft from the ship's hangar deck, where a small stage with a lectern and some chairs were being hastily assembled.

"What's this, then?" he wondered. "Are we really giving a press conference in the middle of trying to launch?"

Misato shrugged. "PR is part of the game now—one downside to being a not-so-secret organization these days. I promise it won't be anything crazy. A nice little speech about how we're going to be taking our new mission seriously, probably asking you two to wave to the cameras, and we'll let people go on their way."

The Langley-Crofts made eye contact for a moment, and Asuka grinned as she offered a "well, it can't hurt" sort of shrug. DJ considered for a moment, then nodded, trying to straighten himself up slightly. "Fair enough—but I make no promises about staying awake if someone decides to put on a stuffed shirt."

Misato smiled. "Oh, I don't think you'll have to worry about—"


The interrupting shout made DJ's head snap round, and that wave of nostalgia suddenly turned into a wrench of unpleasant surprise as he saw a man approaching them at full steam, his face like a thundercloud.

Gendō Ikari looked quite a bit different from the last time DJ had seen him. His hair was greyer, and perhaps a few lines of age had appeared in that imposing face, but he'd gone to the effort of dressing much as he had in the Bad Old Days, and his aspect reminded DJ of more than a few unpleasant encounters.

"I might have expected this," Ikari continued in a slightly less thunderous voice once he'd come closer, his voice monotone, yet dripping hostility. "I can't imagine what hole Katsuragi dragged you out of, but you have a lot of gall coming to me like this."

Asuka and Misato both gaped a bit at this, while DJ blinked, trying to figure out what the hell was going on. "Now, wait just a minute Gendoof!"

With startling speed for a man of his age, Gendō had suddenly lept forward, an almost maniacal grin on his face, and seized DJ into a bear hug so fierce that it threatened to send them both sprawling to the ground. "I'm so glad to see you, my boy! I can't tell you how much of a relief it is that we'll have both you and your lovely wife to help us."

Suddenly in on the joke, Asuka and Misato started to laugh as the initial shock wore off, the younger woman putting an arm around her friend for support, while Makoto snickered behind one discreetly raised hand.

DJ backed up once the Professor had released him from the embrace, and coughed for a moment before his lungs remembered how to reinflate. "Well, ah... yes. Good to see you, too?"

Ikari grinned, taking his red-tinted glasses off and replacing them with a much less threatening pair of rimless spectacles. "Forgive me for the prank, DJ, but the temptation was quite overwhelming."

Unnoticed by the small crowd, a small antigravity drone had appeared just off the professor's shoulder, and to their surprise it floated around to face him, the front-mounted cameras whirring softly as they focused, and spoke with a very familiar voice.

"That really wasn't very nice, Gendō," SHODAN noted. "Both of our pilots have been through quite a bit in the last 24 hours."

Ikari nodded, his smile turning a bit sheepish. "True, true. I'm afraid I'm still a work in progress, dear."

SHODAN's drone(?) floated back to face the others, sweeping the cameras over them. "That is very true, Professor. Hello, everyone. It is very good to see you again. Welcome aboard."

As uniformed personnel shepherded the new arrivals into place on the stage, Asuka—who fancied she was rather more alert than DJ at this particular moment—realized that she didn't recognize all the uniforms in question. Some were XCOM personnel, right enough, and others wore Vickers-Mitsubishi coveralls like Hyūga's, but the others were new to her. They looked very similar to the standard XCOM battle dress, less the body armor, but in dark blue instead of the usual black and grey. And now that she thought about it...

"Have you noticed?" DJ murmured quietly to her. "No NERV insignia. Not one, anywhere on the ship or anyone's uniform."

And that's what I get for thinking he's not paying attention, thought Asuka with a wry inward smile.

"Mm," she agreed. "And I don't recognize the blue uniforms."

Another small group arrived on the little stage from a different direction at about the same time, and DJ's weary face took on a look of delight as he spotted more familiar faces among them. Rei was there—and, which did not escape either Langley-Croft's notice, she'd exchanged the summery civilian clothes they'd last seen her in for one of those dark blue uniforms. DJ supposed that meant she knew what they were all about, which would simplify finding out. Maya was in that group as well, and with them...

"Amy, 'ello!" DJ cried, arms wide. "And the one and only Dr. Ritsuko Akagi, blimey, it's like This Is Your Life!"

Smiling, Amy Anderson embraced first him, then Asuka, amid declarations of how good it was to see each other again. Ritsuko probably intended to hang back, but Asuka wasn't having any of that and hauled the elder doctor into an embrace as well—then stepped back and gave her a reproachful look.

"You're still smoking," the German pilot accused. "I smell it on your lab coat. The last time we talked, you said you were quitting."

"I did quit," Ritsuko said, looking faintly aggrieved. Shooting a dark look at Ikari, she went on, "And then Gendō dragged me back into this insanity and I had to start again."

"Hm, that's a bad sign," Gendō observed matter-of-factly. "I'm reasonably sure we haven't even reached the insane part yet."

Ritsuko gave him a half-hearted glare. "Reassuring as always." Then, seeing that Asuka was still giving her a faintly belligerent look, she spread her hands in placation and said, "I'm working on it, all right? Besides, there's barely anywhere on this ship a person can smoke," she added ruefully.

"Well, that's as it should be," Asuka replied mercilessly. Then, softening a bit, she continued, "It's good to see you, anyway. And now that I'm here, I'll help you stay out of trouble."

"I can't wait," remarked Ritsuko dryly.

"Wilkommen in meiner Welt, Frau Doktor," DJ quipped, then accepted his punch in the arm without comment as Amy, Rei, Maya, and Misato all giggled.

"Looks like everybody's here," Misato observed when she'd finished.

Turning to look, Asuka saw what she meant: While they were all getting assembled, other shipyard personnel and people in those blue uniforms had conducted a large crowd of people in civilian dress aboard and formed them up facing the stage. Judging from the notebooks, sound recorders, and camera personnel, there was little mistaking them for anything other than the press corps.

Misato took a small comm unit from her jacket pocket, keyed it, and said, "Central, this is Archon. We're ready for Menace Flight."

"Roger that, Archon," Central Officer Bradford's voice replied. "Menace 1-4, this is Central. Proceed."

The next voice DJ heard belonged to the pilot of the An-602 that had delivered DJ's EVA to Vancouver, replying crisply, "Understood, Central. Firebrand is inbound. Menace 1-5, follow me."

"Right with you, 1-4," acknowledged the other Antonov pilot. DJ hadn't caught her callsign, but she sounded like she was from East London, which was a pleasant surprise to a jetlagged Englishman who hadn't been home in a long while.

A moment later, the Evangelion transports arrived in dramatic fashion, sweeping in over the harbor and making a low pass over the ship. That effectively silenced the hubbub of the crowd. Even if it hadn't, no one would have been able to talk over the noise as the two giant aircraft made an orbit of the docked vessel, then made vectored-thrust vertical landings on deck, lined up one in front of the other, just behind the stage. Watching them at it, Asuka couldn't help but be impressed with the precision of their approach. It can't have been easy, landing two such enormous aircraft in close formation like that, and they were aligned bang on the centerline, to boot.

As the scream of the Antonovs' engines died away to silence, the crowd of reporters broke into applause, first hesitant, then louder.

"So that's why they have folding wings," DJ mused. "I was wondering." Then, while the reporters were busy clapping and cheering, he leaned and asked Misato, "If you were having the Menaces brought over anyway, what was the point of driving down here?"

"Pretty busy airspace around here, even with XCOM's ATC priority," Misato replied. "If they messed up the approach, the Council thought it'd be nice if you two didn't get killed."

"In that case, why did they let you drive?" asked Asuka, deadpan.

Misato gave her an eyerolling look, then turned and went to the podium. Behind her, as a sort of backdrop, the Antonovs folded their massive wings, then began to descend below the flight deck on the ship's similarly massive deck elevators.

At the lectern, slightly to everyone's surprise, the first person to speak was not a uniformed dignitary, but rather Gendō Ikari. Of course, despite his civilian status, he needed no one to introduce him; anyone familiar with the Angel War, which was to say anyone who hadn't been living rough in the jungles of Borneo for the last seven years, knew exactly who he was.

Now, without any preliminary niceties at all, he leaned to the microphone and spoke.

"Five years ago, fighting as members of the NERV organization, we did battle with a force determined to bring about the end of all life on Earth. An enemy thought by many to be unbeatable." Brandishing a fist, Ikari declared, "We did not merely defeat them, we broke them! Now, despite our desire for peace and tranquility, another force has chosen to strike, to bring terror and pain into our world. We do not know who. We do not know why. And more importantly, we don't care why.

"What matters to us is that, whoever is behind these strange creatures, they have chosen to strike against our world, and we are going to, once again, be that bulwark! To say to them, No! With our willpower and our firepower, to show them why God is in his heaven: because we're here to protect the world!"

With a palpable effort, Ikari returned from the heights to a more grounded tone, sounding almost confidential as he told the (slack-jawed) assembled reporters, "We who were once the heart of Project Evangelion have faced the apocalypse before. We did not blink then. We will not falter now. We have the tools; we have the talent..." He smiled. "... And we have a plan."

A few of the reporters seized the pause and tried to call out questions, but Ikari forestalled them with a raised hand and said, "To tell you more about that plan, I shall turn you over to the leader of our grand new expedition." Stepping aside, he indicated the person waiting to take his place and declared, "Marshal Misato Katsuragi!"

Looking faintly bemused, Misato straightened her jacket and stepped to the lectern, where she found herself unable to speak for nearly a minute thanks to the applause.

When it at had at last quieted enough for her to be heard, she said wryly, "Thank you for that introduction, Comrade Political Officer Ikari," turning the trailing end of the applause into a ripple of amusement. Then, sobering, she faced the audience and said without further preamble,

"Since the kaijū attack on San Francisco, there's been a lot of speculation, a lot of questions in the press, about whether XCOM would bring back NERV. Well, I'm here today to tell you: no. We're not."

She let the momentary buzz of surprise and puzzlement that remark elicited died down, then went on, "There are two reasons for that. First, it would be illegal. The UN Security Council voted five years ago to mandate that the organization be disbanded. In spite of our performance in Halifax, they considered NERV compromised by its former association with SEELE, as part of the similarly compromised GEHIRN organization. Reactivating it now would be in blatant defiance of that order.

"Second, and probably more important, it would be the wrong tool for the job. NERV was a static defensive organization. Its function was to hunker down in a hole—literally!—and fight off the enemy when they came to it. Well, we can't do that with this enemy. Last night's attack on Vancouver strongly suggested that the kaijū, whatever they are and whoever controls them, can appear anywhere. That means to fight them effectively, we need to be able to go anywhere, and fast. NERV couldn't do that. On the rare occasions when we had to fight an Angel anywhere outside of Worcester County, it was always a huge and barely controllable effort."

She shook her head. "No, the force that fights this fight has to be a lot lighter on its feet than NERV ever was. It has to be able to react fast and move faster. This ship will enable us to do that, and so will a more streamlined structure. Administratively, strategically, in every way that matters, we're a whole new outfit now—even if you do see a lot of the same faces," she added with a grin.

Misato let that tension break play itself out, then continued, "For example: in both of its original incarnations, NERV was a paramilitary organization. All of us had ranks in a hierarchy—a chain of command." Moving casually across the stage to where DJ, Asuka, and Rei all stood, she went on, "We took a lot of heat, not just for using 14-year-olds as pilots, but especially for explicitly making them soldiers. And here's the thing—it didn't work anyway."

Suddenly hooking an arm around DJ's neck and dragging him back to the lectern with her, she asked the assembled reporters with a grin, "I mean, even now that he's all grown up, can you see this guy playing along with a military chain of command? 'Cause he sure as hell didn't when he was 14, I'll tell you that for nothin'."

That got an even bigger laugh, amplified further by the exaggerated look of wounded dignity DJ gave Misato as he straightened his tie and returned to his spot. Misato let it die down naturally, and it was in a more serious tone that she carried on:

"So this time, we're not doing it that way. Back in the NERV days, our detractors called us cowboys, and you know what? I'm down with that. We're not an army. Oh, we have an army's worth of people backing us up—the crew of this ship: all our engineers and technicians, armorers and medical staff, researchers and analysts, everyone who makes this crazy magic happen.

"But out on the front line, our Evangelion pilots are just a handful of gunslingers, putting their necks on the line to try and make the frontier—that is, the future—a safe place for our families, our loved ones, and all the people we'll never even meet. That's why I've given up the title of brigadier. If we're cowboys, then I'm the Marshal..." She stepped back and gestured to the three pilots arranged to her right. "... And these are my Rangers."

While that was sinking in, Misato returned once more to the lectern, surveyed the crowd of reporters with completely serious eyes, and then finished,

"So this is not the second coming of NERV. What we're inaugurating today is officially designated XCOM Special Services, Global Large-Scale Threat Response Command. Now, we recognize that that's a mouthful and it doesn't make a good acronym," she added with another little smirk, "so we have a code name you can call us by."

Straightening her sleeve with a gesture that seemed almost automatic, she spread her hands, palms outward, to encompass the whole array of people and equipment around and behind her, and in a more metaphorical sense the entire organization:

"This is PALADIN."

DJ zoned out a bit while Misato took questions, describing the nuts-and-bolts organization of XCOM's new division in as much detail as the public was cleared to have. He figured they'd be getting a proper internal briefing about it later, and anyway, he was in no condition to be taking critical information on board right now. Truth be known, he wanted nothing more than to find a dark place and get some sleep at this moment.

Instead, once the Q&A session was over, he and the rest of the team had to go down off the stage and do some press relating, hosting a sort of impromptu open house on the sprawling flight deck. Luckily, this was a thing he was reasonably good at, even when not at the top of his game. This was primarily because he'd realized early on in his married life that, in pretty much any public-eye moment where he and Asuka were together, all he really had to do was stand back, look good with her, and let her shine. She loved that stuff at a level he could only fake.

As they circulated, Rei noticed him letting her ladyship do the heavy lifting, caught his eye and, with a faint smile, silently called him on it. He acknowledged the bust with a rueful little grin, then applied himself to the task of making it through the rest of the occasion.

Fortunately, Misato had her own idea of the best uses of time, and so before the press corps was really ready to leave, she was putting the run to everybody not meant to be aboard. By 1100 hours, Ryūjō had her colossal berth to herself once more, and without the visitors underfoot, her crew and the shipyard workers could return their full attention to preparing the vessel for sea.

"Right, then," said Misato with a satisfied nod. "Now that they're out of our hair, let's get you two familiarized with the ship."

DJ looked at her askance. "That sounds likely to take... some time."

"Oh, not the whole thing," Misato said, leading the way to a deck hatchway. "It'll probably take you months to really know your way around. For now, let's start with the bridge."

Since Ryūjō had no island, the bridge was in a slightly less obvious place than on most carriers of DJ's acquaintance, but Misato clearly knew where she was going. She led them through a couple of grey-painted corridors, marked near the tops of the walls with stripes in a color code they did not yet know, and then, to both DJ's and Asuka's mild surprise, into a compartment that looked uncannily like a small subway station—complete with a two-car train.

"First ship I've ever seen with its own light rail," DJ remarked as they boarded.

"Spared no expense," Misato replied, keying a destination into the touch panel at the front, and the people mover whisked them away, depositing them a minute or two later up at the very front of the ship.

They found there a wide, well-lit room, with big windows all across the front and around to the sides, in which a half-dozen or so personnel in those blue PALADIN uniforms were going about their business with unhurried efficiency. The rear third or so of the floor was raised a step higher than the rest, sporting a couple of crew positions and a trio of seats, evidently for officers. When DJ, Asuka, and Misato arrived, only the center one was occupied, by a middle-aged man with greying hair and a professional manner.

"Let me introduce you to the captain—the officer who'll be in command of the ship's operations," said Misato. "Asuka, you remember Captain Barraclough?"

"From the Queen Mary," said Asuka, nodding. "How are you, Captain? I never got a chance to apologize to you—I wasn't a very good guest last time we saw each other."

"No apology is necessary, Lady Langley-Croft," Captain Sir Stuart Barraclough replied graciously, standing to greet her. "You'd a great deal on your mind at the time. And this must be Lord Langley-Croft? Welcome aboard the Mobile Fortress Ryūjō, both of you."

"Captain, pleasure to meet you at last," said DJ, shaking the man's hand in his turn. "Thanks for looking after my friends when I was... indisposed."

"You're most welcome, sir," the captain said. "It was my singular honor."

"Next, let's have a look at the where the actual PALADIN operations will happen," Misato said, and then, faintly at a loss, she added, "Uh... steady as she goes, Captain," ignoring the fact that as yet, the ship wasn't going anywhere.

Barraclough saluted, studiously concealing his amusement. "Aye aye, Marshal."

The compartment abaft the bridge, where Misato led the Langley-Crofts now, was a bigger, squarer room, its ceiling at the same level as the bridge's, but its floor level one deck down, giving it a lot of wall space for displays. To both Evangelion veterans, it was instantly recognizable as a variation on the EVA control room back in Worcester-3, albeit larger and with more stations, the functions of which were not always obvious.

It also contained a rugged-looking, buzzcut middle aged man in a "tactical sweater" variant on the PALADIN uniform they'd already seen, whom Misato introduced as the heretofore-elusive Central Officer Bradford.

"This is the Combat Information Center—John's kingdom," Misato explained with a wry little grin. "Rigged out for EVA operations control, obviously, but it's also where the aerospace assets will be managed from. Sort of like how we ran the Geo-Front during Angel emergencies, except RJ can fight back herself if she has to. Stuart's people up on the bridge will see to that part, in coordination with us down here."

"Ah," said Asuka, nodding. "This must be the tactical situation plot, then?" she inquired, indicating the massive horizontal holotank dominating the center of the room.

Bradford nodded. "That's correct, ma'am. As you can see, right now it's showing the ship's status."

DJ looked over the tank, taking a few moments longer than usual to get oriented thanks to his mounting fatigue. After a little effort, though, the picture came together: little holographic icons for the smaller aircraft, and a pair of somewhat bigger ones for the Antonovs, arranged on the holographic flight deck. The cross-sections of lower decks were dotted with other markers he didn't recognize, moving here and there, or blinking, or playing little animations he was too tired to decipher.

"Final preparations are underway in Engineering," Bradford noted, gesturing to a particularly busy-looking cluster of icons deep within the inner structure of the ship. "We'll be ready to sail within 48 hours. Engineering estimates our convoy speed for the first leg will be around 30 knots."

"Good," said Misato. "I have a feeling we don't have any time to lose."

DJ frowned at the display as a thought occurred to him. "Hmm. You know... I hate to be that guy, but it inescapably occurs to me that this frankly magnificent vessel is, all the same, not going to make for particularly rapid response," he said. "I mean, 30 knots is impressive for a ship this size, but the Pacific is a bloody big ocean."

"Yeah, well," an unfamiliar voice said before Misato or Bradford could respond, "let's see what kinda time you make on auxiliary power."

"On a point of order," DJ replied, unflapped, "I bloody well am on auxiliary power." Then, looking around, he asked, "Also, who said that?"

"I did," said the voice, and a flat vidcomm window rezzed up above the tactical plot projection. This showed a head-and-shoulders view of a person who appeared to be the young woman depicted in the cartoony nose art DJ had noticed on the way past the ship's flank back in Yokosuka.

"Ship's intelligence Ryūjō," she declared proudly. "Nice t'meetcha. DJ, right?" She grinned. "Innat case, you can call me RJ."

"Oh," said DJ. "Of course. Hello! I'll have to introduce you to my mate Hal sometime, he's back in England looking after the house at the moment."

"The ship's central control system wasn't really intended to have a persona," Misato explained, "but Shigeru pulled a couple of all-nighters and, well, next thing you know we're licensing her likeness from a very confused IP lawyer at Kadokawa."

"Oh, that's where I've seen that design before," Asuka said. To DJ's puzzled look, she elaborated, "Remember when I got invited to that gaming convention last year?"

"Hard to forget posting bail internationally at two in the morning," DJ replied dryly.

Reddening, Asuka refused to meet Misato's "wait, what?" look and mumbled, "Anyway that's where I saw it."

Ryūjō struck an idol-singer-ish pose, complete with winking grin, and said, "Ain't my silhouette distinctive?"

"Uh... right," said Misato. "Anyway. RJ isn't quite finished yet, is the thing."

"We gotta run down ta Minnajima t'get my main engines fueled up," Ryūjō explained. "'Til then, all's I got is the backup fusion reactors." She shrugged. "Which is fine, I mean, we don't wanna outrun our escorts anyway."

"What's the latest on the escort force?" Bradford asked her.

"They'll be here day after tomorrow," RJ replied. "If we stay on schedule, they oughta get in just in time to pick us up off Miurajima."

DJ stifled a yawn, then apologized. "This is all very interesting, and I'm not even being sarcastic, but I really need to get some sleep."

Bradford nodded. "Of course."

"Right this way, yer lordship," said RJ, and, vanishing from the holotank, she appeared on a small screen near the hatchway leading out the after end of the room.

"I'll see you two later," Misato told them. "We're still waiting on some key personnel, and we can't start getting the systems dialed in before the EVA bay is fully operational. Until then, you're off the clock."

"You're too kind," DJ said, "I don't care what Asuka says about you."

Feeling faintly bemused, Asuka followed DJ, who in turn followed RJ as she leapfrogged from screen to screen, aft along the corridor and down two flights of steel stairs to another people-mover station. The train took them some way aft; upon leaving it, RJ led them back up one flight of stairs, then hung a left, a right, and so on through the maze to a point Asuka figured must be somewhere on the starboard side of the ship.

"Here y'are, Ranger Quarters A," said the vessel's AI cheerfully as she showed them through one last watertight door and into an area with markedly less utilitarian surfaces and fixtures.

It wasn't as drenched in luxury as first class on one of the big liners, but it was a lot more homey than the strictly military parts of the ship they'd seen thus far, with carpeted floors, normal doors, and drop ceilings hiding the maze of pipes and ducts overhead. As she looked around, it reminded Asuka of nowhere so much as the apartment they'd lived in back in Worcester-3, in the good old bad old days: kitchen (well, galley, she supposed), living room, and a side hallway with doors for what she presumed were three bedrooms and a bathroom (head?).

"How many of these apartments are there?" Asuka wondered.

"Four," RJ replied. "We got room ta set up more if we need 'em, but seein' as there ain't even 12 EVA pilots inna whole world, that don't seem super-likely."

"Dibs on the room at the end," DJ declared, heading down the hall to the door that corresponded to the one for his old bedroom on Lee Street.

"Awright, I'll log it," RJ said. "Sleep well, yer lordship."

DJ woke three hours later, his internal clock not fully reset but at least ready to continue on with the day, and wasn't surprised to find himself alone. He had fully expected Asuka not to be as keen for a nap. Assuming she was out exploring the ship, he yawned and had his first proper look around.

The bedroom he'd chosen was a little smaller than the old one on Lee Street, but comfortable, with a nice memory-foam double bunk and pleasantly convincing faux-wood paneling. There was a little built-in desk with a folding terminal on the wall opposite the foot of the bed. The outside wall, to his right as he lay in bed, was punctuated by three round portholes, each covered with metal shutters.

He got out of bed and opened one, letting in the afternoon sunlight. Now more curious than tired, he evaluated the bathroom facilities (seven out of ten, but the water pressure in the shower was a little disappointing), then went and had a look around. He almost immediately became lost in the unfamiliar labyrinth that was the vast ship, but that didn't concern him terribly much. He knew he could always turn to any one of the comm screens regularly spaced around the corridors and request directions, and for now he was content to just explore.

DJ half-expected to be challenged at any point. He was, after all, wandering around in what should be highly secure areas, wearing no sort of identification at all. He wasn't even in uniform, sporting instead the now-somewhat-crumpled MIB suit Jon's people had rounded up for him. None of the XCOM or PALADIN personnel he encountered seem to think his presence was anything out of the ordinary, though; they just nodded to him and continued on their way, evidently assuming that he knew what he was doing.

People will keep doing that, he remarked wryly to himself, then picked a hatchway at random and found that it led to a large lounge-like room. This had evidently been designed by the same person, or at least according to the same style guide, as the one in Fort Alcatraz where they'd had their briefing on the AE-01 attack. It had the same casual, comfortable air, the same red couches, even the same UFO Gothic lamps; it even had a similar panoramic window/wall, in this case overlooking part of the ship's cavernous hangar.

The only person in the room when he entered was Rei, who was engrossed in something on what looked like a ruggedized smartphone. She looked up at his entrance, smiled, finished what she was doing, and then rose to greet him.

"Mrs. Ellison," said DJ, gladly returning her embrace. "I see you've made a few repairs."

"The situation seemed to warrant it," she said. "Especially after Vancouver." With a mildly mischievous smile, she added, "It was clear then that you need your marksman back."

"Asuka would probably insist that she's the one who needs a reliable marksman," DJ said, "but..." He flipped a hand awkwardly.

"We're working on that," said Rei cryptically. "Come—I'll show you around."

"Where is your lovely husband, by the way?" DJ wondered as she guided him down one of the side hallways.

"He felt it best to remain in direct command of Fort Alcatraz, at least while we're still evaluating the situation," Rei told him. "XCOM's whole EASTPAC force structure is centered there, it's the logical place to base PALADIN's fixed assets."

"Well..." DJ sighed. "I wish he could join us here, but that makes good sense. And it'll be good to know the person responsible for all that is someone we can trust."

"That was his thought as well," Rei agreed.

"Any word of San and Shinji?"

Rei shook her head. "We're still looking. Agent Coulson has taken personal charge of the search." Her slight smile flashed again. "So we should hear something soon. He's very efficient."

"I got that impression."

She gave him a quick tour of the pilot facilities—the ready and equipping rooms, training and simulation pods, weight room, pool, gym, all pretty much just like the ones back at Central Dogma.

"You'd hardly believe we were aboard a ship," DJ mused, regarding the gym. This sported a full-size basketball court, and although it didn't have room for bleachers, it did have a sort of gallery, ringing the room like a mezzanine, two decks up. Noticing it, he chuckled and said, "Upper deck. Is this a gym or a gladiatorial arena?"

"It can also be used as a dojo," Rei said. "Speaking of which, would you mind helping me work a few kinks out? I've been out of training since the San Francisco attack."

DJ gave her a speculative look, then smiled. "I believe that can be arranged," he said.

Asuka was down in the part of the hangar that served as the EVA cage, watching the tech crew repairing the last of the wear and tear EVA-02α had incurred in Vancouver, when the image of Ryūjō popped onto the nearest screen and informed her that there was something going on in the gym she was probably going to want to see. She arrived in the upper gallery a few minutes later to find a small crowd of assorted crewpeople lining the rail, raptly absorbed in whatever was going on down on the gym floor below. Pushing to the front, she looked down and saw what all the commotion was about.

DJ and Rei were down there. He had tossed aside his suit jacket and rolled up his shirtsleeves; she had taken off the fatigue blouse of her PALADIN uniform, revealing that—like the regular XCOM uniform Asuka herself was wearing—it included a sleeveless undershirt. Both were barefoot. At first glance, it looked like they were kendō sparring, but a closer look revealed instead the amalgamated hodgepodge of weapon techniques and improvisation they'd all been taught as Evangelion pilots. Rei had a pair of wooden rods, about the length of short swords, while DJ wielded a single pole, as long as a spear, but lacking a blade. He had reach and she had speed, leaving them almost perfectly matched.

The man to Asuka's right, who like her wore the grey and black of an XCOM tactical trooper rather than PALADIN blue, glanced to see who had pushed in alongside him. Recognizing her, he blinked, and she fancied he went a little pale. For a second she wondered why, then realized it was probably because he knew that was her husband down there, crossing weapons with another man's wife.

Heh, she thought with a wry smile, rookies.

"They got to this a little sooner than I expected," she remarked with a grin, leaning out to get a better view.

The trooper looked puzzled—not the reaction he expected, apparently—then shook it off and returned his attention to the spectacle below. Asuka had to admit it was quite a show. It usually was, on the rare occasions when these two really cut loose. Seeing them at it now, the way they anticipated each other's moves and perfectly complemented each other's strengths and shortfalls, anyone who didn't know they were making it all up as they went along would assume it was a well-practiced, closely choreographed performance.

"Wow, they're really going at it," the blue-clad woman to Asuka's left murmured. "Should we... I don't know, do something? At this rate somebody's going to get hurt."

"No," Asuka said, shaking her head. "They know exactly what they're doing."

The XCOM trooper winced as the two combatants clashed, their weapons crossing with a sharp crack of wood on wood, then whipped into a complicated sort of two-way judo throw that saw both of them roll in opposite directions and come up facing each other, four paces apart. At this range, the fierce grin on DJ's face was unmissable; the restrained little smile on Rei's, less so, but Asuka knew it was there.

"It looks like what they're doing is trying to kill each other," he objected.

Asuka laughed. "Hardly," she said. "What do they teach you kids in school these days? You're looking at Evangelion Combat Team Number One. In battle against the Angels, these two could damn near read each other's mind." Folding her arms as if in triumph, she declared with audible satisfaction, "This isn't a fight, Squaddie. It's a conversation."

Wednesday, August 25, 2021
10:07 PM, Central European Standard Time
Zbgnvzsk, Transbelvia

The world-famous cellist, still dressed in his tuxedo, emerged from the stage door of the State Opera House, which gave onto the alley alongside the grand concert hall just off General Brkovzn Square. There he found a man with a gun waiting for him.

"Good evening, Maestro," said the gunman in nearly unaccented, but slightly stilted, English. "May I congratulate you on a fine recital? Please step this way. My employer asks that you attend him at once."

"I'm sorry, but I don't give private performances," replied the cellist politely, evidently indifferent to the presence of the gun.

"No performance is required," the gunman said. "Only conversation."

The cellist raised an eyebrow. "Conversation at gunpoint?" He shook his head. "No, thank you. I've had enough of those for one lifetime already. Besides, I have a flight to catch. Please convey my regrets to your employer. Perhaps next time I'm in town."

The gunman gave him a perplexed look. "I am not certain you understand your situation," he said after a moment's search for words. Then, as if sensing that something was amiss, he narrowed his eyes slightly, glancing around the alley. "Where is your companion?"

"San?" Still entirely nonchalant, the cellist looked at his wristwatch. "I expect by now she's—" he began—

"Be Good to Yourself"
Raised on Radio (1986)

—but was interrupted as the alley suddenly filled with bright light, classic rock music, and the roar of an engine. The gunman pivoted, raising his weapon, but before he could get off a shot, he'd been knocked halfway to the square.

The long black car that had hit him, which appeared to be a vintage Soviet Chaika limousine, screeched to a halt where he'd just been standing. The driver—a petite young woman with shaggy black hair in an undercut, all her teeth showing in an enormous grin—leaned out of her window, calling, "Hurry up, let's go!"

The cellist blinked, then got into the back seat. He wasn't all the way in before the driver had stomped the throttle to the floor, peeling out with another screech of tires, then fishtailing out of the alley into the square. The stunned and battered gunman, who had just dragged himself to his feet, found himself knocked down again by the swinging tail of the car as it brushed past him and hurtled off down Rdzatsky Boulevard.

"You OK back there, Shinji?" asked San Ayanami, sparing a glance over her shoulder as she manhandled the heavy car onto the elevated highway that cut through the center of the city.

"Actually, I think I might be in more danger back here than I was with the man pointing a gun at me," Shinji Ikari replied, picking himself up off the floor. "No seat belts." He looked around the cavernous black leather interior. "Where did you get this car?"

"Took it off the guy that mook was supposed to take you to see. Too bad we probably won't get to keep it. How many people can say they've got a genuine Sindikat Karpathika underboss's staff car?" She nodded to the 8-track player in the dash. "I'll give Karlo this, he's got good taste!"

Shinji might have replied, but a glint of light in one of the side mirrors caught his eye. Turning to look out the rear window, he saw a pair of smaller cars entering the highway behind them. Flashes of gunfire followed.

"They're shooting at us," he observed.

"Let 'em," San replied. "This is their boss's car, it's bulletproof."

"I think they know that," said Shinji. "At least, the guy with the RPG probably does."

"Ah, shit," San grumbled. "Why does everyone have to ruin a perfectly good car chase these days?" Placing a fingertip to her ear, she went on, "So hey, Phil, you know that thing I said you wouldn't need to do? This'd be a good time to do it."

"Who's Phil?" Shinji wondered.

A moment later, he had his answer. With a scream of high-powered jet engines, a Skyranger dropped into formation alongside them, pacing the car at an altitude of about 30 feet above the adjoining lane. Leaning against the side window and craning his neck to look up, Shinji could see a man in a black suit and white shirt standing at the top of the Skyranger's open ramp. As Shinji looked on, the man opened fire with an XCOM heavy plasma rifle, knocking out both of the pursuing cars' engines with precise bursts. As the Chaika rapidly left them behind, Shinji could see the Sindikat enforcers scattering, piling out and running for their lives before their erstwhile transport brewed up.

"Nice," said San.

Its work done, the Skyranger sped away from the car, then landed on the empty highway a half-mile or so ahead. By the time San brought the Chaika to a stop near it, a dark-uniformed tactical team had disembarked and taken up guard positions, on the lookout for any Sindikat backup that might be inbound.

"Good shooting, Agent C," San remarked as she and Shinji got out of the car.

The man in the suit, still holding the plasma rifle, smiled very slightly, inclining his head in acknowledgement.

"Thank you, Miss Ayanami," he replied.

"You two know each other, I take it?" Shinji inquired, looking from one to the other.

"Special Agent Phil Coulson, MIB," said the rifleman, his tone brisk but not cold. "Pleasure to meet you, Mr. Ikari."

"I'm going to guess you didn't just happen to be in the area," said Shinji, and Coulson shook his head.

"You've been activated," he said. "Marshal Katsuragi sent me to bring you in. PALADIN needs your help."

Shinji looked puzzled. "'PALADIN'?"

"Dang it," said San. "I knew we wouldn't get to keep the car."

Friday, August 27, 2021
9:28 AM, Japan Standard Time
Yokosuka, Japan

Since the hull's christening ceremony had taken place months before in secret, and the public press event had happened while the ship was still preparing for sea, Ryūjō's actual departure took place without much fanfare. Once all preparations were completed, early on Friday morning, the vessel simply put ashore those Vickers-Mitsubishi employees who weren't coming along, cast off her moorings, and left, her vast bulk nosing gingerly out of the harbor and making for the open sea.

"Now this brings back memories," DJ observed, standing at the rail (really a chain suspended between uprights) on the starboard side of the flight deck amidships and watching the headland at the southeastern tip of Miurajima slide past.

Asuka glanced at him, puzzled. "Cape Tsurugi makes you nostalgic? I didn't think you'd ever been to Japan."

"Not the land," DJ said. "Being on an aircraft carrier with you." He grinned. "Or have you forgotten how we met?"

"I will, unfortunately, never be able to forget how we met," she replied, expressionless. Then, relenting, she smiled and went on, "But you're right, it does feel familiar." She ruffled his thick black hair. "At least this time you're not wearing that stupid hat."

"I miss that hat," DJ said mildly. "Mind you, not as much as I miss your yellow dress."

Asuka rolled her eyes. "Mm-hmm, so you've told me." As they strolled forward along the rail, she went on, "You know, there's something I've always wondered about that day."

"Oh, what's that?"

"Why the hell were you wearing a plug suit?"

DJ gave her a puzzled look, then laughed. "Completely random impulse," he said. "You remember what a cluster my first few weeks with NERV were, right? And suddenly I'm faced with the prospect of flying out to sea on one of their helicopters. I wasn't crazy about the idea. I was getting dressed for the trip and I thought, well, it's kind of like a wetsuit, maybe it'll help if I end up in the water."

Asuka considered that, then said, "Which I suppose it did, in a manner of speaking." She shook her head with an indulgent smile. "You were a weird kid."

"Says the girl who thought hot water would increase her cup size," observed DJ dryly.

"I was just trolling you and Jon!" Asuka protested. "I wanted to see if I could make you both blush. I didn't seriously think that would happen!"

"Mm-hmm," DJ replied, unconvinced.

"I have a degree in physics!" she insisted.

"Twenty points higher than me..." DJ mused sadly, then grinned. "Just as well, anyway. They were perfect as they were."

«I should pitch you overboard, you pig,» growled Asuka in German. Then, her momentary (and mostly mock) dudgeon passing, she pointed and declared, "Look there, those must be our escorts."

DJ followed the line of her gaze and saw what she meant: a small group of warships, formed up off the coast as if waiting for them. He could count four of them, but he wasn't familiar enough with modern surface combatants to get a good read on what they were from this distance.

"Must be," he agreed.

After watching the ships maneuver into a screening formation and join Ryūjō, they went down to the CIC to take a look at the tactical situation monitor. This, as they had hoped, identified their escorts, of which there were in fact five: a German Navy anti-aircraft frigate, a Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force submarine and a brace of their destroyers, and one of those little aircraft carriers the JMSDF could not, by law, call aircraft carriers. DJ noticed with faint amusement that one of the destroyers was named Ayanami.

He was about to bring that to Asuka's attention when an aircraft's icon appeared on the plot, approaching from landward, and a familiar voice issued from the overhead speakers:

"Central, this is Big Sky. We're inbound with additional personnel."

"Copy that, Voodoo 3-1," Bradford replied. "We just picked you up at the outer marker." The Skyranger's holoicon pinged from blue to green. "Your authent is green, you're cleared to land, Pad 2."

Asuka and DJ looked at each other, each raising an eyebrow—Additional personnel?—then hurried out.

Navigating with RJ's help, they met up with Misato and Rei just outside the hangar below Pad 2, and all four of them entered just in time to watch the Skyranger arrive. A coveralled technician guided the aircraft off the elevator to a parking space, and two others hustled out as soon as the turbines shut down to chock the wheels while the platform went silently back up.

Down came the ramp, and two figures disembarked—figures the Langley-Crofts recognized instantly, for all that they hadn't seen each other in person for at least a year. Shinji was taller than they remembered him, his hair longer and less orderly, and he could have used a shave, but the lines of his face were unchanged. He was even dressed the same as he had been the last time Asuka saw him, in that slacks-and-short-sleeved-button-shirt style that still made him look like an escaped high schooler. Next to him, San didn't seem to have changed at all, apart from having shaved the side of her head and acquired an eyebrow piercing that glinted under the overhead lights.

"Ahoy there, shipmates," said San with a cheerful mock salute. She had on a pair of XCOM fatigue pants, chopped off into makeshift capris, but instead of the standard singlet, her top was a black T-shirt bearing the image of a bright red cartoon demon child and the legend "HOT STUFF, THE LITTLE DEVIL".

"Welcome aboard, you two," said Misato, smiling. "Glad you decided to join us."

"Phil didn't really present it as a decision," San pointed out wryly as they all left the hangar together.

"It's just as well, though," said Shinji. "I think we'd pretty well worn out our welcome."

"True enough." San sighed. "Some of those Sindikat guys just have no sense of humor, y'know? So anyway! What's up? Phil said you guys have a new jam. Something to do with the craziness in New San Fran? Guessing the megaship is part of that. Very stylish, by the way."

"Have you heard about Vancouver?" Misato asked.

"No, not much outside news gets into Transbelvia," said Shinji. "What about Vancouver?"

"There was a second Anomalous Entity attack there on Tuesday night," Rei told him.

"Oh shit," said San, her green eyes going wide. Turning to Misato, she asked, "They nuked Vancouver too?!"

"Didn't have to," Misato said. "These two handled it—just," she added, gesturing to DJ and Asuka.

"So I'm a little rusty," DJ grumbled, folding his arms. "Like to see you do better after five years."

By the time Misato had finished explaining the PALADIN Initiative and how it was meant to differ from Project Evangelion under NERV, they'd arrived at the pilots' quarters.

"Pick out a place and get settled in," she told the two new arrivals. "At dinner this evening, we'll go over what we know so far."

Rather than dine in the ship's officers' mess or the wardroom, the Marshal, her Rangers, and a handful of other key personnel gathered in the lounge attached to the Ranger Quarters for an informal meal-cum-briefing, more like those most of them had enjoyed back in their old apartment building in Worcester-3 during the Angel War. Except in those days, of course, neither Ritsuko Akagi nor Gendō Ikari would ever have deigned to take part, sitting on couches and eating Chinese food out of white cardboard cartons with the rest of them—and nor would Jon have been present by satellite, sharing a wall screen with Ryūjō's digital persona.

"How are things shaping up in sickbay, Doctors?" Misato wondered, and since Ritsuko was occupied with a crab rangoon at that moment, it was Amy Anderson who answered:

"It's coming together quite well. Most of the facilities were finished before we left Yokosuka, and the rest should be operational by the time we pick up the last of the staff in Minnajima."

"It's much the same in Research," Gendō put in. "I had a message from Winston this morning; he's eager to get started."

"So," asked Asuka, "if I understand correctly, we're going to this island to finish RJ's engines?"

"You better believe it," Ryūjō declared. "Draggin' ass around on backup power like this ain't gonna cut it."

"Among other things," Misato agreed. "There's also a bunch of equipment there we need, and a few more people. We actually had to sail without some folks we're going to need; they were scattered around other XCOM facilities, and when we activated PALADIN, it was more efficient to have them meet us there than wait for them in Yokosuka."

DJ nodded. "Right, and in the meantime?"

Jon took this one. "While you're getting RJ fully operational, I'm going to be activating a lot of MIB and XCOM assets to start trying to gather intelligence, in addition to the researchers who are already doing their best to autopsy and examine the AEs. My people will poke around some of the old SEELE facilities that we know about, tugging at loose ends. If we want to try to anticipate these attacks, we need to find out as much as we can about where these things are coming from, and why."

Misato took over there, sitting up a bit straighter as she switched on a holographic projector set into the floor in the middle of the room. "We're also going to try to recruit at least one more Ranger."

Shinji raised an eyebrow. "Are there any more?"

"So it seems," said Misato. "We don't have a complete picture yet, but something interesting turned up when SHODAN started sweeping the SEELE archives that were recovered during the cleanup in Geneva. It seems that back in the day, they weren't completely forthcoming with us about the results of the Marduk Report."

A head-and-shoulders portrait of a young woman, likely around the same age as the Evangelion pilots, loaded as she spoke. Brunette, fair-skinned, and wearing a set of narrow-framed glasses, she seemed to be giving the camera a faintly challenging look.

"This, evidently, is the Sixth Child, one Mari I. Makinami," Misato explained. "She was identified by the Marduk organization about a month after you were, DJ, but NERV was never notified of her existence."

Gendō looked fascinated. "Fascinating. Do we have any idea why?"

"The notes in her dossier are pretty vague—along with everything else we know about her," Misato admitted, "But we know she's a UK citizen and that she tested positive for the EVA factor. There's a note in her SEELE file that she was never contacted. It claims access to her after the initial Marduk testing was blocked."

DJ frowned thoughtfully at that. "I can just about see that, but the number of people with the power to block SEELE back then is an awfully short list."

"You're right," Misato agreed. "Unfortunately, we don't have the luxury of digging into it too deeply right now. I intend to have someone meet with her and ask if she'd be willing to sign up with us. Like I said back at Alcatraz—I want every pilot we can possibly get, but I also want her to come willingly, not just yank her off the street and tell her she's been drafted."

"Quite," DJ agreed dryly, giving the elder Ikari a sardonic look. The Professor refused to rise to the bait, however, and applied himself to some lo mein instead.

Jon and Rei shared a look (as best they could from opposite ends of a satellite video link), then smiled nostalgically before Jon attempted to bring the conversation back on track. "Well, she looks normal enough. Do we know how to find her?"

Coulson nodded from the far end of the table. "We believe she's still living in Surrey. Our resident officer in London will be reaching out to make contact, and if she's receptive, we'll send Big Sky to bring her out."

"Interesting. I wonder how many more there are?" San mused. Seeing the others giving her puzzled looks, she shrugged and went on, "Hey, who's to say they didn't hide more than one?"

"We haven't hit anything definite yet, but SHODAN is still mining the files," said Misato. "There are things that don't add up. Gaps in the records. I wouldn't be at all surprised if it turns out you're right about that."

"Excellent," DJ observed. "The more the merrier when it comes to risking your life in giant cyborg war machines, I always say."

"If she's willing to join this circus," Ritsuko observed.

Number 23, The Chase
Guildford, Surrey, England

The long pink car had pulled into the drive not more than five minutes before the event.

The event being a loud cry of "Fuck yes!" followed by doors slamming multiple times, and finally the sound of the blue Vespa parked in the drive revving up to its heavily-modified maximum power and screeching off.

Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward, XCOM MIB's London Agent-in-Residence, watched the girl on the Vespa roar off down the lane, swerve onto the roundabout at the end, and disappear from view, then sighed.

"Parker, I fear we ought to wait for the young lady's parents to return home," she observed, then added with a nod toward the hastily-scrawled, near-illegible note taped to the cottage's front door, "I doubt they'll find this terribly illuminating."

"Very good, m'lady," said her uniformed chauffeur. Without another word, he opened the trunk of the pink Rolls-Royce and unlimbered a collapsible table and three chairs, then set about readying the tea service.

Saturday, August 28, 2021
9:28 AM, Japan Standard Time
East China Sea, somewhere west of Okinawa

Central Officer Bradford was studying fleet telemetry on the CIC's master situation monitor when the icon of a Skyranger appeared at the edge of the plot, outside the fleet's air-defense perimeter. Less than a second later, the call came in on one of XCOM's standard non-emergency freqs:

"Ryūjō, this is Yagtal 2-5, inbound for personnel and equipment delivery."

Bradford nodded to his on-duty comm operator, then said, "Yagtal 2-5, this is Central. We show you approaching the outer perimeter. You're right on time. Stand by to authenticate."

"Roger, Central, standing by."

The exchange of encrypted signals that would permit the incoming Skyranger to enter the flotilla's protected airspace took only a couple of seconds, but before Bradford could transmit Yagtal 2-5's clearance to approach, an alarm blared and another group of icons entered scan range.

"Sir!" one of the sensors operators announced. "Incoming fire bearing two-four-five, missiles just entering scan range. Twelve signatures, no IFF."

"Radar profile analysis suggests YJ-83 type," put in the technician at the next console over.

Bradford considered the approaching formation of blips for all of a second, his mind racing, and then banged his hand down on the full-alert button.

"General quarters. General quarters. All hands, man yer battle stations. For'ard an' up ta starboard, down an' aft ta port. Set Condition Zebra across the fleet," RJ's voice declared over the 1MC as alarms began sounding throughout the ship.

"Alert Kaga to have their aircraft look sharp and check their transponders," Bradford told his comms tech. "I don't want any friendly fire."

Misato appeared at the upper hatchway from the bridge, leaning out over the handrail. "What's the situation?"

"Unclear, Marshal," Bradford reported. Gesturing to the holo plot, he went on, "All I know for sure at the moment is that someone just shot a dozen Chinese anti-ship missiles at us."

The Marshal's eyebrows went up. "OK, that's unexpected."

"Land of Confusion"
Invisible Touch (1986)

Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Neon Exodus Evangelion

Exodus 5:2
The Best Toys

The Cast
(in order of appearance)
Tōji Suzuhara
DJ Langley-Croft
Misato Katsuragi
Asuka S. Langley-Croft
Makoto Hyūga
Assorted XCOM/PALADIN Members and
Representatives of the World Press
Gendō Ikari
Rei Ellison
Maya Ibuki-Trussell
Amelia A. Anderson
Ritsuko Akagi
John Bradford
Lisa "Firebrand" Foley
Menace 1-5
Sir Stuart Barraclough
Mobile Fortress Ryūjō (FVX-01)
Shinji Ikari
Certain Members of the Sindikat Karpathika
San Ayanami
Phil Coulson
Jon Ellison
Mari Illustrious Makinami
Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward
Aloysius Parker
Yagtal 2-5

written by
Benjamin D. Hutchins
and Jaymie Wagner
with Jen Dantes
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

Next episode:

A new Unknown Enemy makes its first move.

DJ gets his question answered.

RJ shows what she's made of.

And it appears there were at least eight.

Neon Exodus Evangelion
Exodus 5:3—The Wrong Rec Room

"Attention, PALADIN! I have arrived! Where the German at?"

E P U (colour) 2021