Notes: Well, here it is. Took long enough. First off, this thing would have even been possible without User, whose constant feedback and patience helped carry this thing and keep me going in more ways than I can describe here. Also, a special thanks goes to Big D and Jimmy for the feedback and support, as well as those people who actually write reviews or post in the EGF to let me know they like the story.
Neon Genesis Evangelion
THE END OF GENOCIDE
"Ever thine. Ever mine. Ever ours." -Ludwig van Beethoven.
The Minister of the Interior looked up from the report he had been examining, his face troubled. Musashi Kluge knew then he would get what he wanted. Faced with the evidence, the Minister would now have to do what all politicians hated doing—take decisive action.
"So it's true then," the Minister said, slowly and very carefully. "All this time ..."
Kluge nodded, his lined features frozen in grim seriousness. "Directive 21 is still feasible. It has been modified to allow for certain changes in the situation. It remains the most effective way to deal with this."
"I can't." The Minister shook his head. "Even if the Special Protection Order is removed, NERV's personnel remain largely civilian. They have families, who would surely not let any such thing slide. We need to bring Gendo Ikari in lawfully."
Kluge had known that was coming. "My office can make the case that NERV is now a terrorist organization. When the Security Council reviews my report they will agree. What happened in China was an atrocity. If we do not deal with it accordingly ..." he trailed off and let Minister's mind fill in the blank with its own worst nightmare.
Some things were far more terrible than losing the confidence of the public.
"The Chinese government will not stand for this," the Minister continued after a grim moment. Leaning back in his chair he looked up at the pendulum hanging down in the middle of his large, luxurious office like the proverbial Sword of Damocles dangling over their heads. "They will blame us for harboring Ikari. They will want blood. Not even the Security Council—no military power in the world will be able to stop them."
"Except perhaps - the Evangelion."
The Minister glared at him as thought he had just insulted a relative. "If we had not needed them we would have never approved of such monstrosities. They may have protected us, but how much death and destruction have they caused? Ikari has been absolutely reckless in their implementation."
"I believe that is a weakness we can exploit," Kluge suggested, and knew by the way the Minister's thick eyebrows came up that he was interested.
Kluge paused, stretching out the moment for the sake of drama. "NERV has always enjoyed a great deal of independence. They do not answer to us. We could not have known of Gendo Ikari's activities and thus had no cause for intervention. But now we know how far he has descended into madness. Now we have to take action. The tragedy in China was not the will of the Japanese nation, only of one man. We must make that clear."
"Are you suggesting we take over?" the Minister sounded incredulous. "We have long known our relationship with NERV would end in conflict, but all our estimations were for its destruction. Militaries and military organizations are blunt instruments."
Kluge nodded. "True enough. But the alterations I have made to Directive 21 account for certain new, shall I say, resources inside NERV."
The Minister considered, bringing a burly hand to his chin, eyes narrowed. "Are these resources trustworthy?"
"Revenge motivates people to be trustworthy."
"Indeed," the Minister agreed. Then he added seemingly to himself, "And think of what we would gain. The Evangelion would be under our control. Half a century of foreign military hegemony would be instantly forgotten."
Kluge almost smiled. This was too easy. "You would be the man who secured the Japanese future. Both by eliminating a threat and by procuring a new weapon. You can present the Directive at an Emergency Meeting as a Special Action Order under strict confidentiality. I am sure the Security Council would rather have us overseeing NERV than Ikari."
The Minister fell silent. Only the clock-like ticking generated by the huge swinging pendulum filled the room, echoing off the walls. Behind them, in the large open window, the sun had started to set. Red hues covered the landscape, like blood. The sign of death to come.
Kluge had always made his own fate. He did not believe in omens, but he found the metaphor rather appropriate.
Finally the Minister rose to his feet. His voice was hard when he spoke.
"What do you need?"
"Military authority," Kluge answered, waiting just a heartbeat so as not to seem overeager. "My people will take care of the rest."
"I want minimal casualties."
"That will severely restrain our ability to—"
"If I wanted a slaughter I wouldn't bother with this cloak and dagger shit. Understand this, Kluge. I am the one who will be held responsible when the piled bodies of NERV employees show up on the news. You work in the shadows. Nobody knows your name. But me … I will be hung out to dry."
"It would not have come to this had we acted accordingly when we had the chance. It is time to do what needs to be done for the sake of our national security. If Gendo Ikari chooses to unleash the Evangelion on us as he did in China there is not much we could do to stop it. The level of destruction he can cause would be immense. We will move to neutralize that threat as soon as possible. The public will not react well if it knew you allowed such a thing to happen when it could have been prevented, by acting against the terrorist who would perpetrate that act."
"That is not what I'm saying." The Minister pointed his finger at himself then at Kluge. "Of course I can't let that happen. But the public and the government will blame me. And I will blame you."
"It will be a mess, no matter what we do."
The Minister turned to the window. The crimson light that flooded the office made him appear outlined as a black shadow against the outside world.
"I want guarantees that this will not get out of hand," the Minister said. "I want your people on a tight leash. Only as much force as required to achieve your objectives. You are a professional, so no screw-ups. I will take the blame for this either way, but I do not have to tell you what will happen to your department if you fail. I will not face the hangman alone."
Compromise was the kernel of diplomacy, Kluge thought somewhat cynically. No matter; if things went according to plan he would not need to worry about any idle threats. Lorenz Keel had made it very clear what his ultimate objective was, and that made everything else completely irrelevant.
They parted without banal pleasantries. The Minister pressed a button on his electronic console and the door to the far side of the office unlocked with an audible click. The echo of Kluge's steps trailed behind him as he departed. He kept his hard gaze fixed forward.
The hall outside bustled with activity, but the couriers, pages and office personnel seemed to know to stay out of his way. A military aide to the 4th Mountain, the division staged around Tokyo-3, saluted him. Fools, Kluge thought, the military would be powerless against Ikari. If they believed they could force a resolution on their own terms they would have tried it by now. They hadn't, because they were afraid.
But Lorenz Keel was not afraid. Neither was Kluge.
Music poured from the S-DAT's tiny earbuds, filling in the dull silence of everyday life with a constant symphony.
Shinji Ikari heard it all around him as he set down the shopping basket and went over his list.
Like most of the other outlets left in Tokyo-3, the convenience store was small, with aisles lined up parallel to one another, a large freezer along the back wall and a checkout counter by the front door. Shinji knew the place well, having shopped here regularly since moving in with Misato, and had no difficulty finding the things he had come to get—even Asuka's requests, which she had communicated in the usual manner of a drill sergeant giving orders to a recruit.
Somehow 'Idiot, don't forget my shampoo' didn't translate well on paper, so he simply wrote 'Shampoo' and left it at that.
After checking off each item in turn, he placed the list back in his pocket next to his S-DAT and, plastic basket in hand, made his way towards the checkout counter. The floor tiles were badly scuffed and faded, showing clear signs of the wear that seemed to cling to everything these days.
An old man with a wrinkled face and black hair stood behind the counter, scanning a few things for a slender female customer wearing NERV's distinctive tan uniform. Shinji recognized her.
Fuuka Sanada, an easy-going technician whom Misato had recently introduced to him, turned her round green eyes to him and smiled. Her voice was loud and sharp, even through the music. "Hey, Ikari-san."
Shinji started at the honorific and brought his eyes down on himself. Dressed in a white shirt with a red swoosh logo over the left breast and stripes down the sides, khaki shorts, and tattered sneakers, there didn't seem to be anything about him that warranted such respect. But Fuuka obviously thought otherwise, and it made him all the more uncomfortable.
"Good luck getting him to talk," the old man behind the register said as he placed the last of Fuuka's items through the scanner on the counter and into a plastic bag. The display next to them showed a total.
Fuuka reached into her uniform's side pocket, just above a curvy hip. Turning back to the clerk, she handed over her credit card. "Why do you say that?"
The clerk swiped the card across a small slot next to the register, and fixed Shinji with his gaze. "He comes here pretty often, but I've never so much as gotten a name out of him." He held up the card, embossed with her name and displaying the NERV logo. "I only know who he is because he has one of these too."
Fuuka seemed incredulous as she gave Shinji another look. Her voice rose a bit "Really, Ikari-san? Are you embarrassed to let people know who you are?"
It wasn't quite like that, but Shinji knew explaining anything would be pointless. Saying he was an Eva pilot was to invite attention he didn't want, and to open himself to scrutiny and questioning. People would form expectations of him which he couldn't meet—make him into some kind of hero, which he wasn't. What was a hopelessly awkward boy like him supposed to do in such a situation?
Piloting Eva was strangely easy for him from the start, a fact that had repeatedly earned Asuka's ire. Unit-01 seemed to share a natural bond with him, whether because of his mother or something else. But only a pilot could know the kind of burden Eva placed on someone. Even Misato, for all her caring, would never understand what it was like.
Shinji dared to glance up but avoided meeting their eyes. His postured had stiffened, his footsteps heavy. "Can I just check out? Please?"
Fuuka moved aside, watching him as he placed his basket on the counter. Shinji wished she would just go. The clerk went through usual routine, picking up each item, scanning it and placing into a bag. Shinji kept his attention fixed on the display showing his total rising with each scan. He had already figured it out in his head so he had an idea of what it would come up to, but he didn't want to look anywhere else.
Once the clerk was done, Shinji offered his card. The clerked swiped it silently and returned it, together with a receipt.
"Thank you," Shinji said out of politeness. He picked up his bags, turned and headed for the exit. The door chimed as he left.
Clear blue skies greeted him outside. Before Second Impact, when there were still seasons in Japan, it would have been Summer. June was fast approaching, and with it his birthday. For the first time he could remember, Shinji was actually looking forward to it.
The Third Child adjusted the earbuds in his ears and began the short walk home. There was no traffic on the streets, the once bustling sidewalks now mostly empty. Only a few people still lived in this part of the city, and because it was not a major thoroughfare it was rare to actually run into anyone. Shinji liked the solitude of it. His life was hectic enough.
He had just made it to the corner when he heard Fuuka's voice again.
"Ikari-san, may I ..."
Shinji stopped suddenly, his shoulders tensing in an instinctive response to unwanted intrusion. He didn't want to be rude to her, but neither did he want to talk, or have her follow him like this. He dropped his head and sighed again. Wasn't she happy that she had embarrassed him? What could she possibly want now?
But Fuuka must have picked up on his sullen manner, and her voice became lower. "I'm sorry if I offended you."
And that was when Shinji realized she didn't understand, and the realization startled him almost as much as hearing his name called out so prominently a moment ago. Stopping the music, he turned his head toward her, his young face serious but far from angry. Fuuka stood with her bag dangling at her side, locks of her short black hair brushed behind her left ear, her head bowed in apology.
"I … I'm not offended," Shinji murmured carefully, removing his earbuds.
Fuuka blinked her surprise. "Oh?"
Shinji tried his hand at a smile, more for her benefit than because he felt like it. "I'm just not used to being put on the spot like that."
"Still," Fuuka said, bowing a little deeper. "It wasn't my intention to do that. Where I'm from everyone usually keeps to themselves, but here, well, it's different. I thought being friendly was the polite thing to do."
Shinji shook his head. He had never felt comfortable with other people, especially ones he barely knew, but those words—the plain sincerity behind them—helped. He turned to face her fully, his hands together in front of him holding his shopping bag.
"It's not a big deal," he said. "And, um, you aren't supposed to use honorifics like that for someone younger."
"I didn't know that."
Shinji thought of a better example. "My Father is Ikari-san. I'm just Shinji."
"I understand." Straightening, Fuuka reached into her shopping bag. "Listen, I had planned to share this with someone else." She retrieved what looked like a cup of frozen yogurt. "But I don't think they'll mind if I share it with you instead. You are the Third Child, after all."
She stepped closer, holding out the yogurt in her outstretched hand like a peace offering. Shinji hesitated and almost took a step back. He didn't doubt her intentions. In the short time he had known her she had always seemed like a perfectly pleasant young woman. And he felt guilty that the way he had acted towards her had made her feel like she needed to apologize to him. She hadn't done anything. A lot of people wouldn't have bothered.
Shinji looked at the black sedan parked across the street, pressing his lips. Fuuka worked for NERV—for all he knew she was an undercover Section 2 agent herself. And Misato wouldn't have introduced him to someone she thought might pose a threat to him. That meant his guardian trusted her enough to want him to know who she was.
Slowly, Shinji reached out and took the yogurt. It was cold to the touch, but in the heat of the day it felt rather pleasant to hold in his palm.
"Come on," Fuuka said, her grin almost ear to ear. "Let's find a place to sit."
They found a small bench at a bus stop around the corner and sat, their shopping bags full of groceries at their feet. Mindful not to intrude on him, Fuuka left some room between them—enough that someone could have sat there comfortably. As Shinji began to consider the yogurt cup's foil top she handed him a plastic spoon.
Shinji peeled back the foil and dipped in his spoon, which he then held to his mouth. Strawberries—Asuka's favorite. He looked curiously at Fuuka, wondering if she could have known somehow, but she had her gaze firmly on the other side of the street, her yogurt untouched. Her round eyes had a familiarity to them he found disconcerting. He knew only one other person with that feature, and her eyes were a brilliant blue not green. But he knew them …
The last couple of weeks he had spent with Asuka felt like the happiest of his life. But he couldn't forget where he'd come from, what he and Asuka had been through. Those weren't the sort of wounds that could be healed by a little downtime, if ever. He would always remember hearing her scream as her mind was raped, while he stood by and did nothing. He would remember telling her he hated her and making her cry. And later, finding her in her room on the verge of an emotional breakdown after the incident with Keiko.
He would always remember what tragedy and regret looked like in those round eyes.
Fuuka smirked cynically when she noticed he was staring at her. "You must think I'm some kind of freak. A grown woman inviting a fourteen-year-old boy. I should be arrested, right?"
Shinji started shaking his head while she was still talking, but that did little to dissuade her.
"Don't get me wrong. I understand why you'd want to be left alone. Being alone means that nobody can hurt us. You must have been hurt enough to last you a lifetime." Fuuka paused and leaned back, turning her head to him. "But I couldn't help it. I had to talk to you."
Shinji looked at her for a long while, until the yogurt cup began to go warm in his hands. Then he finally said, "Why?"
Fuuka shook her head. "It would be unfair of me to place that burden on your shoulders." She waited a moment, then, as if making up her mind about something, added, "Thank you for indulging me."
Before Shinji could bring himself to say anything—even if he didn't know what that would be—she had stood up and was picking up her bag.
"It's not wrong to talk about yourself," she said. "Not everyone can do what you do, Shinji. You are special. You should be proud."
Shinji had gotten used to hearing that. Even his father had acknowledged that his mother would be proud of who he had become. He had to admit hearing those words had felt impossibly good, especially coming from him. But he didn't believe it. Pride was the sort of thing that belonged to people who made a choice to be courageous and place themselves in danger for the sake of others. The truth was that he had only enough courage not to let everyone down—he fought because he was obligated, not because he was brave.
Shinji watched as Fuuka walked down the sidewalk, eventually vanishing around the corner and out of sight. He sat there alone, then picked up his own shopping bags and headed off, finishing off the last of the yogurt as he went. Fifteen minutes later he was sliding his key card through the lock to Misato's apartment and stepping through the same familiar threshold he had crossed a thousand times in the last year.
"I'm home!" Shinji called out as he removed his shoes at the entrance, leaving them neatly nuzzled between Asuka's black leather school shoes and Misato's pink slippers. Socks rustling quietly, he walked into the kitchen and set the grocery bags down on the kitchen table, along with his S-DAT. "Asuka?"
A muted flush from the toilet answered him. The accordion-style door linking the kitchen to the bathroom opened with a racket and Asuka stepped out, clad in a skimpy pair of dark, tight shorts and a pink bra. Her creamy skin shimmered with perspiration.
Shinji, who had already begun opening cupboards to put away the groceries he had just purchased, stared at her with an open mouth. Asuka had never been shy about her clothing, and with a body like hers it was hard to argue, but the more comfortable she got with him the less she seemed to want to wear. One day he fully expected to find her going around the place completely naked.
Keen to press her advantage, Asuka tilted her head, golden-red bangs shifting across her forehead, and gave him a lop-sided smirk as she approached like a prowling cat. She didn't have to say what she wanted.
Shinji felt the rising heat of a blush on his cheeks as she came to within inches of him. In fact, the whole room felt suddenly very hot. He managed to keep from mentioning that.
"I, um …" Shinji gulped awkwardly. "Did you remember to wash your hands?"
Asuka scowled at him, thin eyebrows coming together. "Are you stupid?"
Maybe he was, because he couldn't think of a thing to say. He looked past her at the remaining groceries for need of an excuse.
"Ugh!" Asuka made a sour face and whirled around on her heels in a well-practiced show of annoyance. "Come find me when you are done playing houseboy."
Her nose so high in the air she could have tripped, she pushed pass him and marched around the table, a plume of golden-red hair trailing behind her, pretty bare feet pounding the tiled floor with a vengeance.
Shinji's gaze stuck to her until she had vanished into the living room, cursing his apparent lack of manhood along the way. He then glared resentfully at the groceries, as if this were somehow all their fault. They needed to get done, but it would never occur to Asuka to help him—chores were beneath her, as far as she was concerned. Then he imagined her in the living room, laying herself out in front of the TV, kicking her feet up in the air, looking bored. She needed to get done as well.
Shinji sighed. Sometimes he really felt like a houseboy. But the groceries were going nowhere and Asuka would only get moodier. On the face of it, it was an easy choice.
An hour after Shinji returned home Asuka Langley Sohryu stood directly under the thick spray of the shower, her head hung low. The soothing jets of hot water hit her skin like countless tiny, gentle fingers, soaking her hair instantly, running down her body and between her legs, tickling her there. She was sore—she was always sore afterward—and tired, physically and emotionally.
As a young, physically healthy teenage girl, her impetuous sex drive had often been more frustrating and irritating than anything else. The desire to mate, she had once read, was always strongest in the female of the species upon reaching maturity. She wasn't really sure that was true, and whoever wrote that had obviously never been in the same room with a teenage boy, but it proved surprisingly useful in explaining her budding sexuality as a natural thing, part of growing up. And she wanted to believe that. She hated being a child.
But sex only made everything worse. Over time, her emotions had become so tangled up that it was impossible to separate them from her physical urges. Having grown used to getting what she wanted, Asuka had not been prepared to need others that way. To actually desire something that she couldn't take on her own. And after that fateful night when she dared Shinji to tear down her wall of Jericho, sex and her emotions became synonymous with the awful feeling of rejection. It had hurt for the longest time.
It didn't hurt anymore—well, not exactly.
"Ouch." Asuka winced as she pressed a hand against her lower belly and was reminded how tender her body was.
Ritsuko had told her to leave the diaphragm in at least six hours after intercourse. She would have to be content with simply being clean for now. In hindsight she should have probably talked to Shinji about birth control before they started having sex on a regular basis, but somehow she always got caught up in the heat of the moment. And Shinji was so completely clueless when it came to these sort of things. He still didn't know.
She would tell him eventually, of course, but only when she was ready. That was how she did everything, and she wouldn't want Shinji to think she was getting soft on him. It would just make him lazy.
Around her, the hot water quickly produced a steamy mist in the small shower space that rose to the ceiling. Thick rivulets poured down her slender curves, washing away the sweat and grime into the drain between her feet.
Asuka lifted her head, closing her blue eyes as she took the full force of the shower on her face, smiling.
There was no night and day inside the Geo-front, but the artificial illumination did its best to keep up with the light and dark cycles.
Rei Ayanami knew from the sliver of white light shining through a gap in the curtains that is was morning. The rest of the room remained in twilight, the shapes of furniture, medical devices and toys appearing as gray forms. A couple slept on a futon, little more than a mattress thrown alongside the far wall. He had his arms around her protectively; they were in love. But Rei's attention was on the bed, and on the injured brunette girl who had become such an important part of her life.
In the quiet tranquility of the room, Keiko's breathing sounded slow and peaceful. Standing by the side of her bed, Rei saw her chest rise and fall gently under the sheets, wondered at her soft features, the locks of brown hair curling over the pillow. She hardly noticed the injuries anymore. They would always be part of Keiko—the arm would heal, the leg would not—but they were not who she was.
Rei, too, had wounds she would carry with her. So did the Second and Third. Everyone did. She had learned from Keiko, even if the girl had only taught her unintentionally through her suffering. Rei had held her while she cried a dozen times over, had listened to her laugh, seen her smile. But she hadn't felt sorry for her again. Keiko had made the choice: to endure this for the sake of her bonds to those she cared about. Bonds worth more than any pain, any heartbreak.
That was also a lesson.
She moved closer, her right hand clenched tightly. Almost as if sensing her familiar presence, Keiko stirred, and a moment later her brown eyes fluttered open. When she found Rei a smile curled on her face.
"Rei," Keiko whispered, her soft voice barely audible even in the quiet room. She rubbed her eyes with her left hand, the one not imprisoned in a plaster cast, and looked around. "What time is it?"
"Early," Rei said. "How do you feel?"
Keiko closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Her chest rose under the thin sheets and even thinner hospital-issue gown. "I wish I could sleep a little more."
Rei wished she could let her sleep, but there was something important she had to do.
"I came to give you something." Rei reached down, gently taking Keiko's free left hand in hers in a way that made the young brunette blush a faint red. She felt her fingers curling inside her palm, a momentary reflex at being touched by another girl.
"Rei ..." Keiko murmured, then frowned as Rei pressed the small flat object into her hand. Rei moved back, and Keiko lifted the object she was now holding, examining it closely. But this did little to ease her confusion. "Your ID? What for?"
"It is the only picture of myself I have."
That was, at least in part, a lie. The picture indeed carried her image, but Rei herself had never had it taken—it was a stock photograph probably stored in a file somewhere. It belonged to the girl she had been before, the girl that Shinji Ikari had originally befriended and then lost. Keeping secrets had become an almost automatic part of her life, but just once she wanted to tell someone the truth, to be seen for the person she was, to be understood as she tried to understand others. She felt a tightness in her chest—she wanted so badly to tell Keiko. And yet she knew forcing this truth upon her would only bring pain and doubt on someone who did not deserve them. Keiko pursed her lips thoughtfully. She turned the ID card over, examined the black magnetic strip in the back for a second, then turned it back, her gaze focusing on the tiny square with Rei's picture. "You look bored." "I have to go now." Rei turned to leave. The words tasted bitter, but it was the best farewell could conceive. Shinji had once suggested not to say goodbye before a mission, and while he had offered that statement to someone else, it was still sound advice. Rei had lived all her life, however short, at a distance. She had made herself into a doll for others, doing their will and ignoring her own. She regretted that it had taken so long to find a bond, first with Shinji when he decided to talk to her again on that train ride, then with Keiko. And now that she had that she did not want to let it go. She did not want to say goodbye.
"Wait." Keiko winced as she suddenly sat up, and it was the first time Rei had ever seen her do that on her own. "Will I see you again?"
"You no longer need me," Rei told her, returning close to her side.
"That's not what I asked." Keiko pulled her hand away and pressed it against her chest, over her heart. She looked at Rei, her gaze trembling, fear of abandonment coloring her expression in a way she had not intended.
Severing their bond would hurt both of them equally, but she was glad that it had existed, and just as glad that, as long as they lived, it could be renewed. That was the beauty of their shared humanity—the pain of separation was the joy of reunion. Fate and purpose conspired to tear people apart, yet both of them lacked meaning onto themselves. Fate nullified free will, and purpose … all things had a purpose.
But it was the bond to others that gave meaning. It could change fate and shape purpose.
"There is something I need to do," Rei said. "Whether I will see you again, I do not know. To say that I will when I might not would be to make a promise I cannot keep."
Keiko shook her head. "Promise me anyway. I'll feel better."
Rei felt Keiko's touch again, gentle and warm, this time on her forearm. Slowly, it moved up her arm, brushing against the sleeve of her uniform blouse, the only thing she ever wore. Rei kept her eyes on the girl, and where before there had been fear now she saw comfort and reassurance. It made her chest swell that she could do that. Then she felt fingers on her collar, and a second later against her cheek.
"I owe you everything," Keiko whispered. Her hand began to move away, but Rei's face seemed to follow it on its own. Closer. "I want to give you something back. To say thank you. To say ..."
Rei leaned forward, locks of her short blue hair framing pale features. She hoped her eyes, surreal red, could convey the depth of her feelings because she did not know what expression could. "You do not have to say anything."
"That's fine. I wasn't really planning to."
And then she kissed her.
A girl's piercing shriek filled the morning air.
Slightly more awake than she had been a moment ago, Misato Katsuragi turned her head to the source of the commotion. Shinji, having already finished changing and sitting quietly on the nearby bench, also turned his head. Together they watched as Asuka emerged from behind the screen that had been set up to divide the locker room.
The young redhead was blushing fiercely, and with good reason.
The experimental plugsuit she had been asked to wear fit her slender form as tightly as her normal one and shared a similar color scheme, but the similarities stopped there. The whole torso, from her collar to well below her hips, the undersides of her arms and the palms of her hands, was a glossy transparent orange material. An opaque yellow strip ran across her chest, just enough to cover her budding breasts. The rest of the suit was shiny red, with two rows of green button-like sensors going down front and several leads on each thigh.
It was the sort of thing only a pervert would design, and only a bigger pervert would make a girl as young as Asuka wear it.
Misato had to admit, however, the colors, particularly the orange, suited her very nicely. "It looks good."
Asuka turned around, then looked down at herself over her left shoulder. The suit was slung just as low in back as it was on her front, and just as transparent. Her long, golden-red hair, falling loose without the usual neural connectors, could only hide so much. The line of her spine was clearly visibly, as were the dimples of her pelvic bone, and lower …
"Oh, God." Asuka squirmed on her tip-toes, twisting this way and that, then finally reached back and covered her bottom with her hands. "You can see everything!"
Misato folded her arms across her chest. You really could see everything, but she didn't need to tell Asuka that. "It's not so bad. I mean, considering your taste in swimsuits. I don't hear Shinji complaining."
The aforementioned brown-haired boy made a sharp squeaky noise, like a mouse caught in a trap. If he had thus far failed to complain, Misato felt sure it was only because he was too embarrassed for words.
Like Asuka, Shinji was dressed in a scandalously revealing plugsuit, done mostly in glossy blue with a transparent white torso showing his bare body underneath. There was no opaque strip across his chest, for anatomically obvious reasons, leaving his nipples visible, and the sensor disks on his front were red instead of green. He had large, rounded neural connectors nestled in his hair, looking like white half spheres with a rectangular wire extending forward.
"Of course not!" Asuka barked, turning again to show her front. Her face bristled with annoyance, but there was no hiding her blush—there was no hiding much of anything really. "He's a pervert!"
That got a fast blush from Shinji. "B-but—"
"And it's not like anyone wants to see him naked," Asuka added haughtily.
Shinji glanced up at her with a mixture of embarrassment and wounded pride. But Misato recognized good-natured ribbing when she saw it. Asuka was making fun of him as a way to distract attention from herself, not because she wanted to put him down. She did that a lot.
Her wards had grown so close lately it was almost impossible to find them apart. Asuka's boisterous claim that they were boyfriend and girlfriend had served to put things in perspective, but even without it Misato was pretty sure of the emotional connection between them. It wasn't just the physical sort of relationship she had found with Kaji in college, which ultimately made her feel distant and resulted in their eventual separation. No, what Asuka and Shinji shared was true affection—true love, if such a thing could even exist.
She envied them very much, but she was also very happy for them. And happier still that they seemed to be working out the worst of their awful childhoods.
Misato remembered fondly the moment she had shared with Asuka almost a month ago. When she offered, Misato had not seriously expected Asuka would allow her to put sunscreen on her—an act that required close personal contact. But Asuka did, and even after the uncomfortable subject of Kaji had come up, she had allowed Misato to continue. Misato had seen her grow up right in front of her eyes that day. She had barely been able to keep from hugging the bikini-clad redheaded girl.
Shinji, too, was growing up. He now sought Asuka out rather than languish on his own. He stayed in the living room when she and Misato were watching TV instead of retreating to the loneliness of his room. He spoke his mind a little more, and was a little more certain of himself. He even, on select occasions, talked back to Asuka, which infuriated and amazed her. It wasn't a huge change, and it only seemed to apply to his roommates, but it was enough that they had both noticed.
"Stop laughing!" Asuka cried.
"Sorry." Misato suddenly realized she had been smiling and put an end to it. She stiffened her posture a bit, letting marginal seriousness return to her features. "I was just—"
"This isn't funny!" Asuka clutched her arms to herself and began stomping her foot. "This suit is disgusting. I can't believe they'd want me to wear something like this!" As she yelled her face got progressively redder, the stomping louder and more violent. "This isn't a plugsuit, it's a slutsuit! What the hell were they thinking?"
Misato's voice remained calm. "I'm sure there's a perfectly good explanation."
"There is, actually."
Misato, Asuka and Shinji turned in unison to the entrance of the locker room, where Maya Ibuki now cut a slender, delicate figure. Clad as always in her uniform, she held a clipboard in her arms. Her short brown hair fell down across brown eyes that sparked with intelligence. In fact, she was probably the smartest person in NERV, if not most of the country, aside from Ritsuko.
Asuka couldn't have cared less about any of that. She screeched and rushed behind the screen.
Misato heaved a sigh, shaking her head in frustration. She could understand Asuka's reluctance, but there were worse things than wearing something right out of a perverted old man's fantasies. "Asuka."
"I don't want her to see me!"
"That's going to be hard considering she's running the test."
Asuka stuck her head around the screen, gripping the edge with her gloved fingers. "What? What happened to Dr. Akagi?"
Misato wouldn't let her come anywhere near Asuka, that's what happened. But since the Chief of Operations technically had no control over the test roster, she had asked Maya to take over as a personal favor. Somehow, probably after a lengthy argument, Maya had gotten Ritsuko to delegate such duties completely to her. Misato certainly trusted her more than her former, so-called friend. That didn't resolve her reservations about the test.
"Dr. Akagi is busy," Maya explained, her voice soft. If she found Asuka's behavior unacceptable, she didn't let it show. "I'll be overseeing the simulators for this test. And to answer your previous question, the reason you are wearing special suits is because those have a much more comprehensive sensor array built into them."
"Oh, it's got lots of sensors alright," Asuka said ruefully. "Including the one in my butt."
"It's a small price to pay for accuracy," Maya replied.
Spoken like a true student of Ritsuko Akagi, Misato thought bitterly.
"This test is a little different than the usual," Maya added. "As you know, both Unit-01 and Unit-02 have S2 engines now. However, both your synch-ratios seem to have topped out. S2 energy production and the pilot's ability to synch are separate so an increase in combat efficiency in terms of your hardware—in other words, the S2 engine—does not mean an increase in efficiency on the part of the pilot."
Misato could tell from Shinji's puzzled expression that he didn't understand a word of that. He turned from Maya to her in search of a better explanation. It was far too early in the morning to even attempt it. She shrugged.
"But why does it have to be transparent?" Asuka cautiously stepped from behind the screen, blushing as she clutched her arms to her chest and closed her legs so tightly her knees bumped together. It was a strange sight seeing the boastful girl trying to make herself as small as possible.
"At least you are not being forced to do it in the nude like last time," Maya said, looking her over. "That didn't work out so well, remember?"
Asuka recoiled in an overly-exaggerated manner.
"I don't know, Maya," Misato said, grinning mischievously. "Asuka's cute, but I'm paying more attention to Shin-chan."
Everyone suddenly stared at her as if she had lost her mind.
Misato waved her hand and laughed. "Really, you guys are too easy."
After recovering from her shock, Maya addressed the children again, casting a suspicious eye towards Misato. "Yes, well, anyway. We'll be ready in a few minutes. MAGI had some calibration issues earlier so we're running a little late."
"You're making excuses," Asuka said sharply. "You still haven't finished telling us what this is about."
"To put it simply, we are trying to cross-reference your synch data. The S2 engines give your Evas unlimited power, but they don't give you unlimited endurance."
"So you are saying we—" Asuka pointed to Shinji with her nose "—are the problem."
"Not a problem. But the fact is that we are trying to help you keep up with the upgrades to your Eva. Dr. Akagi has an idea. The nerve link that connects you to your Evas, the A-10, is related to emotional connections as well. Introjected and imprinted connections, particularly. Given your, ah, improved relationship we thought it might be worthwhile to see if an increase in emotional responses would lead to a stronger link to the Eva."
Absently Asuka reached up with a gloved hand and touched the empty spot in her hair where one of her neural connectors would usually be.
"Dr. Akagi wants to establish a baseline for further experiments," Maya continued. "She believes it might be possible to use your signals to complement each other in times of severe mental stress. We could use this information to fill in gaps in your thought patterns or produce hardened defense and buffer mechanisms to guard against another mental assault."
"You haven't been messing around with Unit-02, have you?" Asuka pouted. "Because if you break it ..."
"We are not going to break it," Maya reassured her. "We know how much it means to you. Performance is at an all-time high. Changing anything would just be counterproductive at this point."
Shinji pressed his lips together, casting a thoughtful glance towards his red-clad fellow pilot, giving Misato the impression there was something about Asuka and Unit-02 he was keeping to himself—a secret to be shared only by lovers, perhaps.
Misato would never pry—not unless she were teasing, of course. But she was curious as to what it could be.
"Good." Asuka stooped to pick up her own set of oversized neural connectors from the bench, her movements as carefully measured as her mood. Using one hand to hold up her hair, she began clipping on the devices, first the right then the left.
Her questions answered to something approaching satisfaction, the redhead did not object when Maya suggested she should leave to finish preparing the simulators.
Misato stepped over to her wards, patted Shinji on the head and smiled at Asuka. "I'll see you both later."
Shinji nodded, acknowledging her. Asuka made an uppity noise and tightened her posture a bit. There was no anger or bitterness attached to the gesture anymore; now the characteristic haughtiness only deepened Misato's feelings of fondness for her. Just like old times, Misato thought. Just like she was in Germany—the only time Asuka had seemed to be happy.
And as she glanced down at Shinji she knew the reason. She let her hand linger a moment longer in his hair, brushing her fingers gently among the short brown locks. Until she noticed Asuka glaring at her. The same jealous glare she always used upon seeing her and Kaji together.
Definitely like old times.
As Misato followed Maya out of the locker room, she saw Asuka move in front of Shinji and glower at him. "And you—" she kicked him, somewhat playfully yet still rather hard. "I bet you are loving this. What do you have to say for yourself?"
Shinji stammered in his own defense, but Misato was out of earshot before any reply could be made. She caught up with Maya as the younger woman waited for the elevator that would take her to the test chambers up above.
"Is there something else, Major?" Maya gave her an inquisitive glance. Her dark brown eyes betrayed an element of tension that hadn't been there a moment before.
Misato took a deep breath.
"I wanted to talk to you alone," she started, her words carefully measured. "I would never force you to show doubt in front of the children. They need to be able to trust the people around them. But I don't. I have to know if you really think this is a good idea."
"What do you mean?" Maya said, frowning.
"I looked at the schedule. This test wasn't programmed for another month. That means either Ritsuko or yourself moved it up. I don't think you would do such a thing—at least not without informing me. That leaves Ritsuko. I want to know why."
"Doctor Akagi doesn't need to explain her actions to me." Maya said and dropped head her in a sign of unmistakable dejection. "A lot of times I wish she did. The reality is I do what she asks me. If I don't, she'll just ask someone else. I'm sure she has good reasons."
Misato didn't buy it, and it was obvious neither did Maya—she had never been a good liar. "You don't sound like you believe that."
"No, it's just ..."
The elevator opened with an electronic ping, shimmering aluminum doors sliding apart. Maya glanced at the empty space for a second then stepped inside. Misato followed her in, folding her arms and leaning against the back wall. Maya stayed in front of the control as she pushed the button for her floor, then hung her head.
"I …" Misato heard a catch in Maya's voice. "Please don't ask me to betray Doctor Akagi's confidence."
"I already know about the Emerald Tablet," Misato said bluntly. "I know what she did to Asuka."
Maya rounded on her, her eyes wide with fear.
Misato tried to remember her confrontation with Ritsuko, then decided she didn't want to. "I put a gun to her head. She told me."
"Major, I swear … I had nothing to do with that. Unit-00 was my priority. Getting Unit-02 to work was Doctor Akagi's. I didn't know how far she'd go. The Tablet—the program, I thought it was just supposed to be an aide to help Asuka synch with her Eva. Her mind was too broken. She couldn't manage it on her own. And we needed—"
"I don't care what you needed."
"I'm sorry, Major." Maya seemed on the verge of tears. She was clutching her hands to her small chest protectively and shaking slightly. "You are right. And if I could have stopped Dr. Akagi, I would have. Asuka … she didn't deserve to be treated like that."
Misato could tell she meant it. Very few people wore their emotions on their sleeve quite the same way Maya Ibuki did. She was easily impressed, and, at times, even more easily manipulated. In her, Ritsuko had found the perfect lackey, someone who not only looked up to her for her intelligence but actually adored her. Another victim.
She couldn't blame her, could she? After all, she had also failed to protect Asuka, like she had failed Shinji before when he needed her most. Ritsuko was responsible, there was no doubt about that, but the guilt was Misato's. "Maya ..."
The young operator gave a yelp. "I didn't mean to hurt anyone!"
"I believe you," Misato said finally. "That's why I'm letting you go on with this test. I assume you looked at the brief and found nothing to be concerned about. Even if it was Ritsuko who devised it and changed the schedule, I trust your judgment."
"I …" Maya seemed truly surprised, "thank you."
The doors opened again, but this time Maya payed no attention to them. Her face was blank, her eyes, which she wiped with the back of her hand, a stinging crimson. Misato pointed out the obvious. "This is your floor, isn't it?"
Maya snapped her head as if coming out of a trance, saw the open door behind her and offered Misato a look of unrestrained gratitude. "Will you be there for the test?" she asked.
"Yeah. Call me up when you get started."
"I will, Major."
With Maya taken care of, and reasonably assured that the children were in good hands, Misato made her way to the control bridge, moving through halls she had used so many times she had now memorized them without realizing it.
A final door slid open with an electronic hum, and Central Dogma's bridge loomed in front of her like a huge cavern. Arranged in tiers, almost like the battlements of a medieval castle, the towering bridge occupied the rear half of the room. Most the personnel worked on the middle tier, a broad deck with banks of computers along the leading edge. The front of the room was slanted, located as it was on the inside of one of the pyramid's sides. A large holographic display along the wall allowed combat information to be quickly relayed simultaneously to the operators manning numerous consoles. The floor of the room was a large 3-dimensional map of Tokyo-3 and its surroundings.
The quiet humming of the MAGI downstairs filled the air with white noise. Misato's own ankle-length boots were much louder on the metal deck as she walked, attracting the attention of those who would have otherwise missed her bright red jacket.
Without saying a word or acknowledging anyone, Misato dropped herself into a nearby chair, and almost instantly had a hot cup of coffee held up to her. It smelled wonderful—obviously fresh brewed. She took it before she knew who was giving it to her, and only then looked up.
Misato's gratitude was genuine. "Thank you, Hyuga."
"Don't mention it." The bespectacled operator nodded. Grabbing a cup for himself, he pulled up a chair from a console and sat next to her. "You looked like you could use a pick-me-up."
Misato spared a glance at the command deck above them. Sub-Commander Fuyutsuki stood there with his hands clasped behind his back. Shortly afterward Commander Ikari joined him, stern-faced as always. He sat at his desk, folding his hands in front of his face.
"You always know what I need," Misato said to Hyuga, keeping her attention on her superiors.
"If we don't take care of one another, who will?"
Ritsuko Akagi walked across the parking section and up to the small checkpoint. Beyond the sheltered spaces under the deck, bright morning sunlight illuminated a roadway that led off into the outskirts of Tokyo-3. To the right of the road a steep mountainside rose up, part of the topography that surrounded this entrance into the underground fortress. A thick red-white gate spanned the road. The small guardhouse held only a single guard, a young blonde man who Ritsuko often talked to on her trips up here for a smoke.
She had been careful to establish a pattern of behavior. At first the guards had been suspicious about why someone so high up the chain of command would come this way, but the more she did it the more they seemed to become used to it. Ritsuko suspected they even enjoyed having her around.
As Ritsuko came up to the gate, the blonde guard stepped out to greet her. He was young, even by NERV standards. His eyes were small, a very dark brown. Like her own hair color, his probably had more to do with chemicals in a bottle than genes.
The man saluted. "Up for another one, eh, Doctor Akagi?"
Ritsuko answered by pulling a cigarette from her coat pocket. "It's a good excuse for getting some fresh air, don't you think? Everyone seems to be against smoking these days. It makes me feel like an outcast."
"Sorry to hear that, ma'am," the guard said, sounding truly apologetic.
"Don't be," Ritsuko told him, holding up a lighter to the tip of her cigarette and breathing in. "It's not your fault."
Trailed by a puff of gray smoke, Ritsuko moved around the gate, into the open air outside the shadow of the parking deck, which connected to one of receiving areas deep underground. She had memorized the layout, every turn, every way station, every checkpoint. She knew how many people to expect, and how many of them might pose a danger.
This area was rather secluded, as were many of the outlying parking and service sections used by NERV employees. High priority staff—those who owned vehicles anyway—had assigned parking much closer to the pyramidal headquarters building at the center of the Geo-front. But the closer one got, the tighter the security became. This particular area was very low priority, and NERV had lost so much lower echelon staff that it was also almost always empty. The only reason to guard it was the entrance. From here the trip to the heart of Central Dogma would be longer, but it was the isolation that made it perfect for Ritsuko's plan.
She had gone over everything repeatedly in her head. There was no hesitation, no remorse about what she would do, and the only thing she regretted was the fact that this opportunity had not presented itself sooner. But she had to be careful. Even the best laid plans seldom survived first contact with the enemy, a lesson she had learned the hard way while fighting the angels. This would be no different.
"Are you alone again today?" Ritsuko asked absently.
The guard crossed the gate behind her and joined Ritsuko at the side of the road. Carved into the mountain, the entrance looked like a tunnel from the outside.
"Yes, ma'am. Unfortunately we don't have the resources for tighter security. I'm lucky we have enough in the budget for this." He ran his fingers along the strap hanging across his body—the strap leading to a sub-machine gun. "Not that I have anything to shoot."
Ritsuko found the comment ironic. The gun was mostly for show; NERV never expected that any of their security personnel would ever have to fire their weapon. It was simply not what NERV was designed to do. "It's a quiet post. You should be grateful."
His face turned serious. "When I hear about what goes on downstairs I really think I am."
"I am sure whatever you've heard is probably true."
"Like the Second Child trying to kill that new pilot?"
"Everyone is a victim of circumstances out of their control." Somehow Ritsuko knew he would go there. Asuka's actions during that battle still caused distrust and even resentment among the staff. But they didn't know what Ritsuko did: the truth. In a way it was very convenient that Asuka had never cared what they, barely worthy of scraping the used LCL from her entry plug as far as she was concerned, thought.
"Yeah, I suppose so," the guard said half-heartedly
"Not always, of course," Ritsuko added. "There are times when we choose to act, and the way we act reveals a lot about ourselves."
The words had barely left Ritsuko's lips when she heard a noise—a soft pump and the swooshing of air—a second before the guard's head snapped forward and he crumpled to the ground in a heap, unconscious. The small ring airfoil rubber projectile bounced up in the air, spinning end over end and bouncing harmlessly at Ritsuko's feet. She knelt to check the man's pulse. He would be fine aside from a rather intense headache. Then she looked at the projectile.
"Less-than-lethal," a voice said behind her. "As ordered."
By the side of the road, to Ritsuko's right, a part of the underbrush moved and she saw the figure of a man kneeling there, his uniform covered in a green-brown camouflage pattern that blended in with the vegetation around him. In his hands was a bulky rifle, the unusual diameter required by this sort of non-lethal projectile.
"I was beginning to worry," Ritsuko said, though, of course, she hadn't. Men like Kluge were as obstinate about their schedules as she was with hers. And he knew timing was critical. Just about now Maya would be finishing her preparations and the children would be in their entry-plug simulators.
"Are we secure?" the JSSDF sniper asked.
Straightening, Ritsuko retrieved a PDA from her coat pocket, and accessed a remote node inside the MAGI's firewall after using her personal security code. She had thought that perhaps she should use a falsified code, but that seemed like a rather pointless waste of her time; Ikari would know exactly who had done it just as soon as he became suspicious. Ritsuko was counting on it. He had to be predictable.
Trading away all the hundreds of hours she had spent optimizing NERV's security protocols, its back-up and fail-safe systems, its intrusion detection algorithms, Ritsuko subverted all of it with a single line of code.
-initiate security program: wormwood.
The PDA flashed, then the crossing gate on the road behind her opened. At that very moment, Ritsuko knew all the monitoring devices at this entrance were turned off. Security measures disengaged, doors unlocked and opened. The program would spread in a precise, pre-determined pattern. It was only a matter of time.
"We are secure," Ritsuko confirmed casually, as if what she had just done were akin to reading a boring headline from the newspaper.
Ritsuko slipped her PDA back in her pocket, and heard the rumble of engines up the road.
Two military trucks emerged around a bend in the road. They were heavy vehicles, painted a matte black from bumper to bumper. Engines rumbling, they stopped just before the gate. Transporting personnel in such a way was not unusual; there was an entire JSSDF division stationed around the outskirts of Tokyo-3 ready to respond to any angel-related emergency. More than once NERV had benefited from their presence, a support role most military leaders resented.
Musashi Kluge, clad in black combat gear, climbed down from the leading truck's cabin. Despite his considerable age he cut an imposing figure, and the flack jacket made him look burly, compensating for his thin frame. There was a sidearm strapped to his right thigh with ammo pouches around his waist, a microphone around his throat. The lines on his face seemed deeper in the bright sun, his features sharp enough to be threatening even without the weapons he carried. Beneath a wrinkled brow, his dark eyes bristled with violence.
As he walked to Ritsuko, Kluge signaled at the fallen guard with his arm, and a pair of similarly black-clad soldiers jumped down from the back of the truck. Unlike their master, they wore helmets and crimson-tinted combat goggles. Their faces were covered by balaclavas, making them completely anonymous—nameless cogs in the JSSDF's military industrial machine. Tools.
Tools like she had been. But no longer.
"We are moving," Kluge said, his voice a hard, harsh drawl. "Forward units of 4th Mountain will be in place along the access routes you recommended within minutes."
Ritsuko nodded, watching as the two soldiers dragged the guard to the side out the road. "I haven't heard any aircraft."
"Battalion commanders wanted to wait until the surveillance systems were off-line," Kluge explained. "Air support or not, they know they don't stand a chance against the Evas. Now they will begin strategic deployment. We will have to trip the alarms, however, if we want the staff and the civilians to be where we want them."
"Your concern for others is touching."
Kluge ignored her sarcasm. He tapped on the side of the truck, causing the driver to open the door and jump out. Finally, he turned back to Ritsuko. "As far as the Minister of the Interior is concerned Ikari is the only terrorist here."
Ritsuko found herself grinning. Musashi Kluge might be a ruthless, bloodthirsty killer, but his boss was a politician. And politicians were painfully aware of public opinion. Slaughtering hundreds, possibly thousands of Japanese citizens, not to mention children, would look bad. She had little doubt Kluge's new-found regard for human life stemmed less from a desire to spare NERV personnel and more from his own orders. If she used to be a tool, then he was still a dog on a leash.
Kluge climbed into the cab, sitting himself behind the large steering wheel. He scowled at Ritsuko. "We should not wait any longer. 4th Mountain will begin their maneuvers any time now."
Ritsuko tossed away her cigarette and walked around the front of the truck. Getting into the cabin was tricky wearing her high heels but she managed. She took the passenger's seat and slammed the door next to her.
The cabin was small and uncomfortable, much smaller than it seemed from the outside. It became immediately apparent that the doors, consoles, windshield and floor were thickly armored, reducing the interior space. Separating the front of the truck from the cargo cabin was a thick metal plate with a slot in the middle, also armored.
"Wouldn't a man in your position rather have someone else do the driving?" Ritsuko asked Kluge.
"A man in my position likes to be in charge of his own fate." He put the truck in gear, and it rumbled forward, through the gate and into the covered space of the parking deck. The second truck followed in behind them, then it stopped again inside the parking deck and soldiers began pouring out, all clad in black.
"They will secure the access point behind us," Kluge explained.
Ritsuko leaned back in her seat. The die was cast, she told herself. She felt neither fear nor regret. She had thought of everything, justified everything. By the end of the day she would be vindicated.
The first indication that something was wrong came as a flashing red node on the holographic map. Then, before Misato could blink, the entire map vanished in static. She straightened in her chair, but pointing out the problem proved unnecessary. A second later an alarm went off.
"MAGI firewall elements are being activated," Haruna called out from her station. "Seventeen sectors have been shut down so far."
Hyuga jumped to his feet, and then into his console at the forward edge of the bridge. His hands moved over his keyboard with incredible speed.
"Do we have any information on what tripped the firewall?" Misato asked, rising and making her way to the center of the bridge.
"There have been no outside transmissions for the last hour," Aoba, sitting to Misato's left, said. "No incoming traffic, either. The network is silent."
Misato frowned. "Get Ritsuko," she ordered. She turned to Hyuga. "Run a pattern analysis in the mean time. Just in case."
"Pattern analysis negative," Hyuga reported within a few moments. "This is not an angel."
"Well, that's good," Misato said, chewing her lip. Unfortunately for her, ruling out an angel attack also ruled out most of her expertise. She wasn't a computer person—it took Hyuga to configure most of the software on her laptop. She gave him an apologetic look. "What now?"
"There doesn't seem to be an external threat. We are not being hacked." He brought up a schematic of the MAGI system on the main display, showing the three supercomputers as a triad of white boxes interconnected by white lines. A tiny red squared was flashing inside 'Balthazar'. "Dr. Akagi re-calibrated some components earlier so this might simply be a compatibility issue with whatever new components she installed. MAGI can run diagnostics and change parameters as needed."
"I have lost surveillance along access route 56," Haruna called. "Security nodes failing in all sectors. Access commands are being refused."
The red square inside Balthazar continued to grow, absorbing nearby sectors.
"Balthazar is locked out," Hyuga said. "Attempting to isolate connections." He turned a worried glance to Misato. "Major, this doesn't make sense. We aren't being attacked, but this is following hacking parameters."
Misato considered. "You said there wasn't an external threat. What about an internal one?"
He shook his head. "There isn't enough computing power in this installation to hack the MAGI. The only thing that could hack one of the nodes would be one of the other two, and that's impossible. It would be like a part of your body attacking itself."
Not unheard of, Misato thought. Often field doctors were forced to cut off body parts in order to save the wounded because their bodies wouldn't stop attacking them due to infection.
"She hasn't answered her pager," Haruna said.
Misato grumbled under her breath. Ritsuko oftentimes seemed to be hanging over everyone's shoulders, showing up when you least expected her. Now that they actually needed her she was nowhere to be found. Misato took her cellphone and quickly found Ritsuko's number. Here she paused, realizing she was about to break a vow to never ask her for something again. But she didn't know what else to do.
Ignoring her pager, which Ritsuko always carried with her, was strange in and of itself, but she wouldn't ignore a call. Misato had left it in no uncertain terms that their friendship was over; their contacts were to be strictly work related. And she must know that Misato wouldn't call unless it was very important.
The phone rang. Then, in the middle of the second, it stopped. Nobody answered.
"Major, all surveillance systems are down." Hyuga was shaking his head. "We've got nothing—no early warning, no radar, IR, electromagnetic. We are effectively blind."
"All communication lines are filed with static," Aoba added. "Even our hardlines."
Misato lowered her still-silent phone. "Something is very wrong."
As soon as Misato uttered those words, the MAGI schematic on the main display turned to a flashing red error message. The lights flickered, then faded into nothing. A moment later the emergency lighting flooded everything with a crimson hue.
"What was that?"
"We've lost all access to MAGI," Hyuga said, both hands moving frantically over his keyboard. Then, as if pulled back by an invisible force, they froze. "My console is not responding."
That report was soon echoed by every technician in the darkened bridge.
"We are locked out from our own computer system," Hyuga added. "This isn't just software or hardware failure. The last diagnosis reported that two of the three MAGI nodes remained unaffected. I believe that means that Balthazar triggered something to disable all commands from the bridge. Possibly a hidden command in its programming. Essentially, it's erected a firewall to keep us out."
Misato brushed her left sleeve over her forehead, wiping off beads of sweat that had begun to form. Ritsuko would know what to do next. Maybe she should send for Maya.
"Um, Major, I think I might know how to get around the firewall." Hyuga turned to her in his chair. The red light made his spectacles glow like crimson disks, hiding his eyes. He made a gesture with his hand, which Misato understood to mean he wanted her to come closer.
Misato did, aware of the prying ears all around them. She leaned in over his shoulder, making as if to look at his console. "Hyuga, this isn't the time for secrets."
"I'm sorry." He hesitated, then seemed to make up his mind. "I set up a by-pass for you, remember? When we hacked into MAGI's mainframe?"
"You did but ..." Several months ago, before Asuka was initially released from the hospital, she had been on an information gathering binge. Kaji had entrusted her with finding the truth, and she had been so focused on it that she allowed Shinji to become distant and Asuka to languish in the Cranial Nerve Ward.
She and Hyuga had spent night upon night digging up information, old files, proof. She had never been sure of what she was looking for, only that she would know it when she saw it. It turned out to be confirmation of what she already believed. It didn't surprise her. Yet despite that, she hadn't gone anywhere. She refused to betray NERV. And because of that she had once again sent those she cared for into danger.
It had been a long time since she had Hyuga access MAGI's servers, but the backdoor he had created was still in place. Evidently he believed it could be useful later down the road. Misato found the idea tempting; she didn't want to depend on Ritsuko. She also didn't want to betray the fact that she had been doing something she wasn't supposed to, especially something of such magnitude—like hacking into the MAGI's mainframe—that it would land her in the brig.
"Is this the only thing you can think of?" Misato asked.
Hyuga, to his credit, still gave it some thought, never the sort to rush into decisions without proper counsel. Then he nodded. "Without Dr. Akagi … yes."
There was no need for Misato to give the order. Hyuga could read her decision on her face. He began to rise out of his chair. "I'll get my laptop."
Misato watched him hurry across the deck, feeling that soft spot she had developed for him grow warmer in her chest. Then she noticed Sub-Commander Fuyutsuki leaning forward on the rail above her.
"Major Katsuragi," he said, his voice calm, "I sincerely hope you are not planning to subvert the MAGI."
What was the point in denying anything at a time like this?
"Dr. Akagi is MIA, sir," Misato replied as bluntly as she could without being disrespectful. "I'm open to other ideas you might have."
Fuyutsuki looked at Ikari, who remained sitting at his desk as though none of this were his concern. He turned back to Misato, no hint of anger or even disapproval on his aged face. "None seem to present themselves at the moment."
"Then I'll assume I have permission to proceed. But if it makes you feel better, sir, you are free to turn the other way."
Fuyutsuki actually fought the urge to laugh. He had always enjoyed Major Katsuragi's sense of humor. The fact that she might have set up illicit access into the MAGI was fine with him as well. Whatever the Major was up to, and whatever she had found, had not been enough to keep her from doing her duty. He thought that commendable. The man sitting next to him might not agree.
It hardly mattered. The larger repercussions of the situation had not gone awry of either of them, and though neither had stated the obvious, he knew what Ikari must have been thinking. One did not work with someone for so long without developing a sixth sense that bordered on mind reading.
"Dr. Akagi is missing," Fuyutsuki said, turning his head towards Ikari. He remained standing still and perfectly straight, his hands clasped at the small of his back. "Very unusual."
"And yet not unexpected," Ikari said. With his hands in front of his face it was impossible to see his mouth move. His voice betrayed no emotion.
Fuyutsuki nodded. "My thoughts exactly." He paused, considering that the answer to his next words would likely change everything. "Do you think she has finally made her move?"
The sudden influx of dread Fuyutsuki expected didn't come. Instead, he felt a gentle sense of relief. An ending was not such a terrible thing when you could control how it would end. Over the last months they had made all the necessary preparations, and even if Ikari had gotten reckless, Fuyutsuki still trusted him to do what they had always planned.
"Ritsuko wouldn't attempt something like this without a plan," Fuyutsuki said. "She will know what you will try to do."
"What is Rei's last known location?"
Fuyutsuki checked his private console, found the answer, then gave Ikari a knowing look.
"I see." Like a statue rising after a million years of frozen inactivity, with heavy, measured effort, Gendo Ikari got to his feet. "I will go down to her."
Fuyutsuki returned his attention to the deck below, where Misato Katsuragi stood with her arms now folded over her chest. The gigantic error message on their main display continued to blink intermittently. "This is it then. We cannot fight the future, but we can shape its form."
"It was a pleasure working with you, professor."
Fuyutsuki nodded. "Likewise."
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ikari step onto his private elevator at the back of the observation deck. Holding the rail with one hand, he flipped the switch and the elevator slowly began to descend. A part of Fuyutsuki wished he could go with him, but he knew his place was here, alongside all those who had toiled and suffered for one man's ambition.
One man's selfish desire to be with the one he loved again.
Hyuga ran a bundle of cables from one of the MAGI terminals directly to his laptop. He placed the laptop on his console and reoccupied his chair, with Misato hanging over his left shoulder. In the course of his labor, several other technicians had left their stations and were now huddling around them.
After logging in, Hyuga accessed the laptop's command-line console where he could manually type in what he wanted the computer to do. Misato had seen him do this many times, and was always in awe at his skill. His fingers flew over the small keyboard. The alarm that had been blaring since the first activation of the firewall had been shut off, and so the rapid clicking of the keystrokes filled the empty silence.
"When I set this up, I used a MAC ghosting utility to simulate any physical address in the network as a way to cover our tracks," Hyuga explained, ignoring some of the reproachful looks sent in his direction. "There is also a general access address for the mainframe. MAGI can't store enough data in its on-board memory. Sorting processes would take too long. Mainframe access allows for more complex indexing by off-site processors, leaving MAGI's higher functions free for more important tasks."
Misato scowled. "Hyuga ..."
"Sorry." He shook his head apologetically. "It's just the excitement talking."
She patted his shoulder. "Just do your thing."
Hyuga got to work, and it wasn't long before his screen filled rows upon rows of computer language, long strings of code the meaning of which Misato could not begin to decipher. The rows scrolled down automatically at a fast pace, but Hyuga's eyes moved mechanically over them without missing a beat.
Misato had begun to feel her head spin when her cellphone rang. She fetched it from her jacket pocket, flipped it open and held it to her ear. "Yes?"
She heard Ritsuko's voice. "It's me."
Misato straightened, feeling a prickle at the back of her neck. "Ri-chan, where are you? We are having all kinds of problem with the MAGI. We need you up here."
"I know," Ritsuko said. There was a rumbling noise like an engine in the background. "Is the Commander there with you?"
Looking up at the observation deck, Misato saw only the Sub-Commander standing there, hands behind his back. Ikari's desk was empty. "No," she told the voice on the phone. "He's gone."
"Alright." There was a long pause. "Listen to me, Misato. Do not do anything. I know you will feel like you have to interfere—like it's your duty. Don't. You will only be endangering everyone."
Misato narrowed her eyes, the prickling at the back of her neck becoming a stab in her chest. "Ritsuko, what the hell are you talking about?"
"The situation has been arranged a certain way. Comply and no harm will come to you or those you care about."
The bottom fell out of Misato's stomach. The ones she cared about … the children.
Real anger flared in her voice the next time she spoke. "I swear to God, Ritsuko, if you hurt those kids there isn't a power in this world that will keep me from hunting you down."
"They will be safe as long as they stay where they are," Ritsuko replied coldly. "I have seen to it. Contrary to what you might think, I have never wanted to hurt them. Everything I have done is justified by the situation. We wouldn't have survived this long if there were no sacrifices. I regret that it had to come to this, but it was my choice."
"Ritsuko, what have you done?"
"I will explain everything when it's time."
She hung up.
Misato stared at the phone's tiny LCD screen for a long, silent moment, struggling to keep her face from losing its composure. In an awful instant of realization it became painfully clear that Ritsuko had disabled the MAGI as part of some plan to … to do what? And why would she mention the children?
Suddenly worry overwhelmed Misato's anger. She had left the children with Maya, performing a test that Ritsuko had both devised and moved up on the schedule without warning or explanation. Why couldn't the test wait? Why did it have to happen today?
The answer was so obvious it was almost stupid.
And then, practically at the same instant, the error message on the room's main display resolved back into a holographic map. A thousand red dots flowed from a network of red lines, like bloodshot arteries, reaching down from the surface towards Central Dogma. One by one, digital windows opened all along the edges of the map like tiny picture frames, showing video surveillance feeds from access points to the Geo-Front, and blown doors, smoke, and fully geared combat troops moving in.
"Oh, God ..." somebody whispered.
Everyone in the bridge stared in horror at the screen. The images continued to stream. Tanks moved into view, aircraft streaked overhead as the bulk of 4th Mountain, a battle-ready and armed to the teeth JSSDF division bore down on them.
NERV was being invaded.
"Declare a Level One alert," Sub-Commander Fuyutsuki ordered from his perch above them. "Seal us off."
"I can't," Hyuga responded, still in shock. "I've only gained access to the video streams. All commands are still locked out. We can't even lock the doors or stop the elevators. We can see, but we are paralyzed."
That caused a ripple of alarm. Misato did her best to remain calm, trying to consider the options still available to them.
"We are not designed to repel an army division," Haruna cried out, her hands clasped over her mouth, wide eyes trembling. "We won't last very long like this."
Misato agreed grimly, her gaze intently focused on the images on the screen. The JSSDF had acted with perfect timing, and it seemed that in shutting down the MAGI, Ritsuko had left them wide open. She must have been planning this for a while. Misato felt rage beginning to build inside of her. Her hands clenched into fists.
There was only one thing in NERV's arsenal with the ability to hold off an entire division. Actually, two things. Piloted by the two most important people in Misato's life. She cursed the blonde doctor under her breath. Deploying the Evas would mean sending Shinji and Asuka into combat, risking their lives for the sake of everyone else in NERV. Only this time the enemy was not a towering creature bent on destruction, but their fellow men. Other people.
A new window opened on the map. A group soldiers, dressed all in black, moved down a brightly lit corridor, far closer than the rest of the JSSDF units. Too close. Inside Central Dogma itself.
"Where is that?" Misato pointed at the map.
Hyuga quickly checked his schematic. "The medical complex."
"How the hell did they—"
Another window blinked into the display, and like the previous one it showed soldiers, like black shadows, moving down a hallway—a hallway Misato recognized. "Call Maya," she ordered. "Tell her to get the children out of the testing chamber."
"Communication lines are filled with static," Aoba said. "Even the PA system is inoperative."
Misato cursed. Cold fear gripped her heart, but also, suddenly, determination. For all the chaos and confusion on the bridge, something had just become crystal clear. She had to get to Maya somehow. She had to get to the children. They were their only hope.
"Hyuga," she said briskly, "Eva launch capabilities take priority over everything else. Find a way to get them ready and prepared for emergency sortie."
She ignored the worried tone in his voice as she marched towards a side console, opened a drawer, and took her sidearm, a black USP-9. She slipped a magazine into the grip and pulled the slide, then placed the gun into the shoulder holster under her jacket. Two extra magazines went into her pockets.
"We don't stand a chance unless we get Asuka and Shinji out there," she said, striding back to Hyuga's side with purpose. "They must know that as well. That's why Ritsuko disabled our defenses. They don't have anything to counter the Evas."
Hyuga looked uncertain. "But the pilots—"
"I'll see to the pilots." Misato slapped Hyuga's shoulder. "I'll make sure they get to the cages. Just have everything ready for us. I'm counting on you. I always have, and always will."
He nodded, giving her a faint smile that warmed her heart. She wished there had been time to know him better. Perhaps if her feelings for Kaji had been different there might have been a chance for Hyuga, but it was too late now. She trusted him with her life, as a close friend. That was as far as it went.
She moved away from him, and cast her gaze upwards to the Sub-Commander. "Sir, I request to be relieved of my bridge duty for the time being."
He could refuse, of course, and, frankly, it wouldn't make any difference to Misato. She was going to get the children, even if it meant shooting her way through an entire JSSDF division. Because she knew what those soldiers inside Central Dogma were here for, and she would die before she let them put their hands on Asuka and Shinji. She had made too many mistakes. She had done too many things she regretted. No more.
The refusal she expected didn't come. Instead, Fuyutsuki bowed his head in a gesture of what, to Misato, seemed like honest respect. "Very well," he said slowly. "I will take charge of things here."
She knew then that he understood, but also had the feeling that he was holding something back. She had essentially just asked to commit dereliction of duty, and he agreed. It didn't really matter. "Thank you, sir."
She was almost to the exit, her gait wide and determined when he called back to her.
"You may want to call on the Lieutenant, Major," he said. "I don't suppose taking on a squad of JSSDF solders by yourself is a good idea."
Misato frowned up at him suspiciously. "What Lieutenant?"
He raised a hand and made as if to brush back locks of hair behind his right ear. It was a gesture Misato had seen repeatedly, though always performed by someone else. Someone who wasn't what she seemed.
He held her astonished gaze a moment before turning his attention to the main display and the distressing images flashing there. Misato didn't think it would be wise to ask what he knew about Fuuka Sanada's squad of commandos, but she was aware of the fact that if he knew that meant the Commander did as well. And, for some unfathomable reason, they had allowed it.
Under any other circumstances, Misato would have wondered why they hadn't arrested her. She would have wondered about Fuuka's loyalties, and possible betrayal. But none of that would help her do what she had to do now. She would get answers later—if there was a later.
With one last look at Fuyutsuki she vanished through the door, already holding her cellphone to her ear. She recognized Fuuka's light voice instantly. "Hello?"
"We are under attack," Misato said bluntly, without preamble. Fuuka was an experienced commando; she had likely heard that a hundred times over. "I believe the JSSDF is going after the children. Meet me in the main testing chamber. Expect possible resistance."
Fuuka showed no hint of surprise. No hesitation. Her voice remained cool. She didn't even pose a question or request clarification. "Roger."
"And send someone to the medical complex," Misato added. "Nakayima might need some help."
Again, no hesitation. "Will do."
Misato hung up and dialed again. She was at the end of the hall now, walls of bare silver metal shimmering around her. A quick glance at the elevator was all she needed to confirm it wasn't working. She cursed, and in the same breath hurried down another hall to the stairs.
The phone was answered halfway through the first ring. But before she could say so much as a word of warning, Nakayima's voice came through as a low, harsh whisper.
"Not now. They're coming."
"Stop looking at me like that!" Asuka screeched, clutching her arms in front of herself, her face visibly flustered. "It's embarrassing!"
"S-sorry." Shinji immediately averted his eyes, staring instead at the brilliant metal floor.
For the last fifteen minutes he had been standing with his back against one of the cylindrical test plugs, trying his best to keep from staring at his redheaded companion. The testing chamber was a large rectangular room illuminated by bright lights, containing three test plugs, exact replicas of the entry-plugs used in the Evas, which rose out of the floor like huge diagonal tubes. They were labeled for each of the Eva units they replicated, from 00 to 02. A large observation window hung overhead.
Shinji had been in this room countless times, usually performing tedious synch tests, but he had never felt quite so self-conscious. Their strange new pluguits left very little to the imagination, and he didn't even have the benefit of a strip across his chest like Asuka did. The transparent material gave a clear, white-tinted view of his torso all the way to his lower belly. He didn't know what to do with his hands. He had settled for clasping them together in front of him, instinctively trying to cover as much of himself as possible.
Asuka sighed, and kicked back on the side of the plug next to him. If anything, the transparent orange segment of her suit was slung even lower and only a slightly raised lip above her pubic region maintained her modesty. When she closed her legs the seams along the sides of her crotch became clearly visible, and because of the color it was hard to tell if she had any hair there. Shinji wondered if she had been told to shave.
That thought only added to his raging blush, and the suit grew increasingly uncomfortable between the legs. His face had been warm for so long now he was sure a red hue had been permanently burned into his cheeks.
"I like it when you blush," Asuka said suddenly.
"W-what?" Shinji turned his head to her, careful to look at her face and not the exposed details of her body. It struck him, as it always did when he cared to notice, how pretty she was.
"What?" Asuka sounded indignant. "I can't say I like something about you?"
Shinji stumbled over his words, wondering if she was merely teasing him out of boredom. With Asuka he could never be sure. It was the sort of thing she would do, and just the sort of thing she knew would get a reaction out of him. "No, of course you can. But you don't usually say things like that."
"Yeah, I know," she said, her voice melting into seriousness. Her eyebrows flattened. "Our relationship hasn't been very fair. It seems every time we talk you are the one saying something to make me feel better."
At least he was able to do that for her now, Shinji thought. For the longest time he had simply avoided her, and in doing so had left her to deal with her hurt on her own. He had failed then; failed to understand even the most basic things about her.
"I don't mind," Shinji said, letting his face show his honesty.
Asuka twisted her lips as if tasting something bitter. "That's only because you are too much of a doormat."
Shinji was embarrassed to admit it, but he knew his sheepish, accommodating nature was a poor trait in a boy his age. And certainly not what Asuka wanted to have in a boyfriend. But while she might not like it, Shinji had come to accept that part of himself rather than try to change it.
His skepticism must have shown in his features because Asuka quickly added, "Not to mention the fact that I don't want to date a wimp." Then her voice turned slightly sullen. "Misato will just keep making fun of me."
Shinji felt a hitch inside his chest. "She was just teasing."
He reached out for her hand in that strangely bold manner he'd begun to adopt with her lately. She didn't let him take it, but made no objection as he brushed his fingers gently over her gloved knuckles.
It was her right hand, Shinji realized. The same hand he had once found bloodied and bruised, and which he had then helped mend.
"Don't be stupid." Asuka shook her head. "I know that."
"But it really bothers you."
"It's just annoying." Asuka's manner seemed to lift. She looked at him sharply. "Besides, I can't take her seriously. What does she know? She's still single."
Not by choice, Shinji thought. He didn't want to bring that up now.
"Yeah," he said instead. "I guess you are right."
Asuka made a haughty face. "Of course I'm right. It's me."
Shinji nodded; aware that in doing so he was basically proving her point better than she ever could on her own. Asuka leaned in, sticking out her face in front of his as if to dare him. She raised her left hand and snapped a finger against his forehead.
"Hey!" Shinji rubbed his forehead. "What was that for?"
Asuka opened her mouth, probably to yell at him for giving up so easily, but no words came out. Her brow narrowed in puzzlement. Then, still not saying anything, she suddenly moved away from the test plug and stepped past him.
Shinji couldn't help it as his gaze, attracted by her movements, descended down the smooth curve of her back and over the girly swell of her bottom. As it did in the front, the transparent midsection of her suit rode extremely low in the back. His eyes found the cleft between her firm, perfectly shaped buttocks utterly hypnotizing, the glossy orange color seemingly baiting him like a carrot on a stick. He began to blush again, realizing he was openly ogling her.
"What is she ..." Asuka murmured, her attention fixed intently on the observation window above them.
Thankful that she had failed to notice his indiscretion, Shinji followed her lead and looked up.
The testing chamber was constantly monitored, a fact that always made him slightly uncomfortable. So far neither Maya nor anyone else had contacted them in a while. It was like they had just forgotten about the test they were supposed to be carrying out. Now he saw Maya with her back pressed against the window. She was holding up her hands and shaking her head.
A red mist splattered soundlessly onto the glass. Maya's body slid down.
Shinji didn't understand what he had just seen. The mist began running down the glass in streaks like a liquid. It looked disturbingly like blood.
Horror dawned on his young face. He heard Asuka curse, her eyes as wide as his.
A second figure appeared in the window, this one male and covered in black. He didn't have a face, just a helmet, goggles and a mask. And he was aiming a rifle at the window.
"Idiot, get down!"
Shinji barely had time to blink as Asuka grabbed his wrist and pulled him down behind the entry-plug test tube directly across from them. She wasn't fast enough. Stumbling forward, Shinji saw the muzzle flashes and the rifle sweeping across the window, leaving what looked like crystalline spiderwebs as the thick armored glass stopped the bullets. Then he was next to her, crumpled underneath the side of the test tube.
"M-Maya ..." he gasped, clutching his chest and sitting up, his back against the metal. "They … they ..."
"They shot her!" Asuka yelled, her face furious. "What the hell is going on? Who are those people?"
He didn't know. He tried to tell her, but his breath was suddenly gone and he couldn't speak. He shook his head agitatedly. Someone he knew had just been shot right in front of him. Someone he knew had just been murdered.
Asuka peered over the edge of the entry-plug, careful not to remove too much of herself from its protective cover. Shinji didn't follow. He had his hands fulls trying not to have a panic attack. His breath was gone, and cold fear closed in on him. Maya had been shot, and it almost didn't seem to matter why because whoever had done it was probably coming for the two of them as well.
A second ago he had been just a boy looking at a girl he liked, now …
"Come on!" Asuka had taken his wrist again, her grip so tight it hurt. She pulled him up, yanking him by the arm, and they rushed to the test chamber door.
Shinji couldn't think. It was all happening too quickly. He stood there shaking his head as Asuka frantically tried to get the door open, typing numbers on the keypad. Failing, she slammed her hand down on it. "Open, you piece of shit!"
Nothing happened. The door remained shut.
Shinji caught movement up behind the shattered, blood-stained window. Almost absently, he turned his head and saw the black shadows moving through the room above. He couldn't tell how many, but many more than the just the one who had shot Maya. They were coming. Despair and anger and helplessness all seemed to blossom at once in his chest.
"It's locked!" Asuka cried. She spun around, her long golden-red hair flaring up wildly about her, her eyes searching desperately for another way out. "There!"
His plugsuited feet moved so quickly behind hers that he almost tripped. He struggled to keep up with her. She finally dropped him on the floor next to what looked like a vent grate, then got on her knees and began running her gloved fingers along the edges of the grate.
He stared at her, and suddenly found tears building up in his eyes.
The look she shot his way was pure, unbridled disgust, and it was followed by the sting of her hand striking his cheek, hard.
"Don't you dare, dammit!" Asuka yelled, showing her teeth. But her voice trembled—the first sign of panic. "You are not a child! You are an Eva pilot! Act like one!"
Hearing those words, seeing her face seemed to snap him out of his shock. She was afraid, too, but she was trying to use that fear to drive her actions, fueling her desire to survive. Whatever was happening, Asuka was determined that their lives wouldn't end here. She would get out. And she was prepared to drag him with her if she had to. But she wasn't prepared to lose him because he was scared. That, he realized, terrified her more than being shot at.
Shinji wiped a glossy blue forearm over his eyes. His unshed tears rubbed off, taking with them the paralyzing fear that had numbed him for the last few minutes—or seconds, everything was happening too fast to know. For the first time he seemed to catch his breath.
"You back with me?" Asuka asked, her tone skirting the edge between exasperation and relief.
He nodded almost sheepishly.
"Good. I was prepared to keep slapping you." She returned to the grate, but was it already apparent that even her slender fingers wouldn't be able pry it open. Shinji joined in and ran his fingers all along the edge of the metal, working quickly and trying to somehow grip the grate to pull it out. It wouldn't budge.
There was a loud bang at the door. Two teenage heads, one brown and one golden-red, turned in that direction for a heartbeat.
"Shit, shit, shit!" Desperate, Asuka began clawing at the grate. When that failed, she slipped her fingers into the slits, planted her foot on the wall besides her and pulled, her slender body contorting from the effort. Shinji did the same, wrapping his fingers around the slats and throwing his weight back, pulling. The flat metal bit into his fingers. It hurt.
"It's not moving!" he yelled through clenched teeth, eyes growing watery from the effort.
"I'm not dying here!" Asuka half grunted and half screamed, pulling with all her strength. It wouldn't give. Not even an inch.
They weren't strong enough.
And then something snapped, and Shinji went flying backward, slamming his head on the floor. Asuka grunted, followed by the sound of clashing metal. She landed hard on her butt next to him. Shinji rolled to his side, rubbing his head where he had hit it, so close to Asuka he could count the many beads of sweat that had formed on her skin through the transparent part of her suit.
"Come on." Asuka was on her hands and knees before Shinji even realized the vent was now opened, a black tunnel into the unknown. The position was obscene in the half-transparent suit; apparently whoever designed it had never intended for the wearer to have to bend over, let alone crawl into a vent. Asuka's bottom glimmered like two bright oranges squeezed together. "Let's go!"
Shinji knew he would look just as bad, but this was no time for self-consciousness. He crawled into the vent behind her, trying to avoid stuffing his nose between her cheeks. It was incredibly tight, barely enough room for the two of them to squeeze in. Less than a few feet inside, a huge explosion rang in the chamber behind them, strong enough to throw them both into the walls of the vent and reverberating all around them.
The pain in his ears was excruciating. He clamped his hands over them, his head ringing and making him dizzy. As he lay there on his side, he felt Asuka take a hold of him beneath the armpits and drag him along. He heard her voice, but it sounded weird and distant even though she was right there.
But she was there.
Almost as soon as she managed to drag him around a corner, he heard deafening gunfire pouring in from the vent opening. The flashes lit up the darkness. Asuka screamed, a horrible screeching sound. She held him tightly. He held her back.
Gunfire and screaming. Junichi Nakayima didn't need to know any more. Something bad was happening, and it was happening right down the hall. There was no time to wait or think, and there was no time to guess. He had to act. Ignoring the horrified look and both Miko and Keiko's faces, he grabbed the blonde by the arm. "Under the bed, now."
"W-what?" Miko stared at him as if he had gone insane, and though he knew it was out of fear he couldn't help resenting her for it.
"Under the bed, Miko!" he repeated in a hard voice. "Now!"
More screaming down the hall. Another round of gunfire. There were no instructions being shouted, no directions or requests to comply. Whatever was happening out there was a massacre. Nakayima took Keiko by the arm, her eyes wide and questioning. He felt his heart break as he seized her wrist and pulled out the IV needle, making the poor girl cry out in pain.
"I'm sorry." He slid his arms under her, between her back and the bed and around her knees. Keiko immediately understood what he wanted to do and tossed her only good arm around his neck, holding tight. As Miko stared at them, Nakayima lifted her off the bed. Keiko cried again, the movement of her broken and badly mauled leg causing her agony. Trapped in its green plastic cast, it stuck in front of her awkwardly as the cast made it impossible to bend her knee. Her face was wracked, her jaw clenched. Still, she held on to him.
His strength fueled by fear, Nakayima found Keiko very light.
"Miko!" he yelled as he dropped to his knees, careful to keep a secure grasp on Keiko's stiff form. He didn't want to think about how much damage this would do to her body. He hoped she forgave him later. If they were still alive.
Miko jerked forwards. She knelt next to Nakayima as he scanned the space under Keiko's hospital bed. There wasn't a lot of room. The mechanism that allowed the bed to recline took up most of the underside. It was a heavy piece of furniture with thick metal beams running across the sides and parallel to the other side, and set up on wheels, which were locked in place. There were two feet between the floor and the bed, enough to squeeze into. Not enough to be of any real help.
But that didn't really matter now. Nakayima already knew they were about to die.
The man he used to be, the man Musashi Kluge had once assigned to spy on Gendo Ikari and who then allowed himself to be shot with his own gun for failing, would have given up. There had been no hope for him back then, and death had an altogether indifferent feel he had become accustomed to. He just didn't care. He cared now.
"Take her," he said, thrusting the girl he was holding into Miko's arms. Keiko cried again as the heel of her cast hit the floor abruptly. Tears poured down her face, and her cheeks had turned an awful shade of red.
Miko wrapped her slender arms around Keiko with incredible, though not unexpected, tenderness. Keiko was, after all, the most important thing in her life. Laying the younger girl down as much as she dared, Miko began crawling under the bed. Nakayima held Keiko's broken leg in his lap, keeping it from scraping on the floor as they moved her. Keiko had her teeth clenched, her whole face twisted in pain, clutching at her gown with her hand. She was stiff as a board, and the gasping, whimpering noises coming from her were enough to make Nakayima cringe.
The phone rang. Nakayima, still on his knees, answered it and spat something at Major Katsuragi. Turning his attention back to the two girls wedged under the bed, he found matching looks of terror on their faces. They were shaking. Miko was crying now, too. Again her arms were tightly wrapped around Keiko, cradling her head against her bosom.
Nakayima did the only reasonable thing a man in his position would do—he lied. "It's going to be alright."
The screaming from the hall had stopped. That could only signal two things in Nakayima's mind: everyone outside the door was dead, and they would be next. He was on his feet in a heartbeat. Sweeping some of Keiko's stuffed toys aside from the top of a cabinet, he dragged it to the door, tilted it forward and jammed the edge under the doorknob.
Heavy footsteps thudded outside. He couldn't get how many assailants there were, but there were clearly several, and they clearly hadn't come to chat. He rushed back to the girls' side, dropped to one knee and pulled out his gun. They were crying hard now, their sobs mixing with one another. He wished he could be down there with them, holding them when it ended.
He took a deep breath, held it, and lined up his gun on the door. Twenty nine millimeter rounds were now all that stood between him and certain death.
The doorknob wouldn't move. There was a thud. Then the door frame shattered, the cabinet went flying and the door slammed open. And then a lot of things happened very fast.
In the split second they were in front of him, Nakayima noticed the three men who had knocked down Keiko's door wore black combat gear from head to foot—helmets, gloves, tactical vests, everything black. They didn't seem human, though they clearly were. Their faces were hidden by balaclavas, eyes shielded by goggles. And they were armed with assault rifles.
Nakayima felt his fingers tense on the trigger. He fired.
One of the soldiers—and Nakayima knew perfectly well that was what they were—turned his head even as the pointman took several bullets in the chest. The barrel of his gun began to follow, and before it could complete its arc his face exploded into a shower of gore. Nakayima only heard the shot after the fact. By then, the pointman was stumbling backwards. The other soldier jerked sideways, almost as if he had been kicked in the shoulder, and crumbled to the floor. The pointman was back in the hallway, smoking holes in his tactical vest, turning his rifle. He fired a single round, collapsing a moment later next to his slain comrades.
The whole horrific spectacle was over in less than three seconds. There was blood all over the floor.
No, not really. Keiko was still crying. Wailing actually, the sort of noise only a terrified child could make. Nakayima stared at the open door, waiting. For the longest time nothing happened. Finally, there was a voice.
"Agent Nakayima. It's Kenji. I'm here to help."
Kenji Sakai didn't exist. Or rather, the name didn't. He was part of Fuuka's group, an American commando with a false identity created for him. Nakayima didn't know what he was doing here, but he wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth.
"Come in slowly," he said. "The girls are scared."
Slowly, Kenji appeared around the door, stepping carefully over the bodies of the men he had just killed. He wore NERV's uniform, as did all the undercover members of Fuuka's infiltration squad. His skin was dark, though not so much that it would stand out. His eyes were black and small, his brow furrowed. Slung across his chest was a nasty looking SCAR-H assault rifle.
Nakayima lowered his gun. "You have no idea how glad I am to see you."
"I bet," Kenji said, moving closer, his hands open in a reassuring gesture. "Bastards shot everyone in the east wing. Didn't say a damn thing or ask any questions. They just started shooting the staff. Gave themselves away, though. I think they might have taken a wrong turn somewhere. Looks like someone changed the hallway signs."
Nakayima listened, putting his gun away and helping slide Keiko from under the bed, holding her underneath her armpits. Laying her on the floor, he took one of her pillows and placed her head gently on it. "There," he said, trying to make his voice soothing. "Are you okay?"
"Y-yeah." Keiko nodded with a wince. By now Miko had crawled out and was holding her leg up. All three of them were on the floor. Kenji had turned his back to point his rifle at the open door.
"I'm sorry if I hurt you," Nakayima said to Keiko, looking at the little strings of clear plastic tape that had secured the IV drip to her left wrist.
"You were only trying to help." Keiko smiled weakly at him.
Nakayima could have hugged her … if he didn't think that would cause her even more pain. There was something about this girl that seemed to draw people into liking her. It wasn't just the honesty, or the refusal to blame others even when it might be perfectly justified—to this day she refused to blame the Second Child for leaving her like this after her first and last Eva battle—but something much more abstract.
Ever since she had woken up from her coma to find herself crippled, Keiko had seemed accepting and kind. She put others at ease instead of having them do that for her. Misato Katsuragi had once told him that caring for someone was a burden of responsibility, but Keiko just didn't make it feel that way..
"We should get going," Kenji said. "Fuuka didn't say how many there were, but I've no reason to think they would go after the children with just three people. There's bound to be more."
Miko frowned, lines of worry spreading across her face. "After the children?"
"They were here for Keiko. What else? This is a hospital. The only thing here that can possibly be considered a valuable target worthy of a death squad is an Eva pilot."
"Well, that makes sense," Keiko said, sounding rather serious. "Sort of."
"Keiko!" Miko cried out, but the young brunette shrugged.
"What? I am an Eva pilot."
Nakayima nodded, feeling a little bit of pride at the unusual assertiveness. Ignoring Miko's sour expression, he turned to Kenji. "You are right. We need to go. I assume this wasn't an isolated incident. NERV security is too tight for attackers to make it this far."
"Roger. I can't give you a detailed sitrep, but from what I know NERV is under attack by the JSSDF. Fuuka and some of the others are converging on one of the test chambers."
"Did she send you?"
"Negative. I was already here. The medical ward was my station. Sorry if I took too long for comfort but I had to wait for them to open up a flank. A dead commando isn't a very good commando."
It was true enough, but Nakayima still wished he hadn't taken so long.
"We can't go," Miko said. "We can't move Keiko like this."
"This is a hospital," Kenji said. "There should be something around here we can use."
Nakayima began to rise, again reaching for his weapon, and moved to the door. He said to Kenji, "I'll go have a look. You stay here with them."
Leading the way with his gun, Nakayima stepped into the long, well-lit hall, paying no attention to the three dead bodies at Keiko's door. They got what they deserved, and he certainly wouldn't feel regret. They hadn't just come for an Eva pilot, they'd come for a wounded little girl of fourteen, who couldn't move or defend herself.
Nakayima was struck by the irony—once, in war, he had been sent after civilians to punish partisan support for insurgent attacks on JSSDF columns. He had followed orders, easily justifying them as a necessity. The results haunted him to this day. Was he really that different from these dead men in black?
A gasp of shock escaped him as the reached the reception area. He stopped in his tracks and stared.
It was just senseless slaughter. There were half a dozen bodies strewn over the floor, most of them the shift nurses that had put so much dedication into caring for Keiko. They lay in pools of blood, glimmering sickly in the bright florescent lights, their white uniforms wrinkled and bloodstained. Some were sprawled on the ground where they had fallen, others sat propped up against the wall as if they had been shoved aside before being shot. One had a trail of blood smeared on the floor behind her. She had tried to crawl to safety.
He had seen horrible things, but this … he was definitely not like the men who had come here and done this.
He scanned the area, looking for anything that might help them move Keiko. Hospitals and ERs usually had emergency supply closets that were readily accessible in case something was needed urgently. He spotted a door behind the watch desk with a silver plaque on it that read 'supplies'. Whatever those might be was completely a guess, but Nakayima crossed the reception at a run, blood splashing as he stepped on the puddles in his haste.
The door was unlocked, thankfully. Nakayima pushed it open and entered a large supply room. The racks ran in rows with numerous shelves in every rack. Everything was labeled, some things with names Nakayima didn't recognize. There were medicines, chemical compounds, defibrillators, syringes, IV supplies, lots and lots of bottles. And, leaning against one of the racks, several green plastic backboards.
Nakayima smiled to himself, grabbed a backboard and ran out. He skidded over a particularly deep blood puddle, and left bloody footprints behind as he returned down the hall to Keiko's room.
They were all right where he left them. He breathed a sigh of relief. He put the gun in his holster, dropped beside Keiko and placed the flat board next to her. Together he and Miko slid the girl on to the board, being careful not to bang her leg against the plastic. The board was designed to be carried. It had handles carved into it for two people to lift either end as well as straps and buckles. They secured Keiko's waist and chest. She fidgeted a little, but gave no sign of real discomfort.
"Just don't drop me, okay," Keiko said. She was kidding, and it was obvious enough that neither Nakayima nor Miko made a reply to reassure her.
"So what's the plan?" Miko asked Kenji.
"We meet up with Fuuka and the others," he said.
Nakayima agreed, because he couldn't come up with anything. He needed more information, and both Fuuka and Major Katsuragi were likely better aware of the situation than him. He was sure that if the JSSDF had launched a major assault on the Geo-front there would have been alarms issued by now.
Nakayima exchanged a glance with Miko. Her cheeks were still red and tear-stained, but a new spark of determination had entered her eyes. They lifted Keiko off the floor, each carrying opposite ends of the backboard. She whimpered at the jolt.
Kenji took the lead, but as they passed through the door he knelt by the first man he had killed, whose face was now mostly missing. He checked the shoulders and chest as if looking for something. "No badges."
"You don't wear any badges," Nakayima pointed out.
"That's the problem." He checked his rifle, shouldered it and headed down the hallway. "Stay behind me."
In the grim, empty silence, Rei's thoughts carried as an echo far into the seemingly endless black. She stood on a platform, a stage raised from the darkness like a pagan altar. She had been here many times before. Often she felt as though she had been born here.
The white creature on the cross—the 'she' that shared so much of herself—stared down at her mutely, seven eyes carved on its mask. The pale flesh gleamed as though lit by something within. Although it could not speak, it listened and waited.
Rei didn't expect that it would understand. It lacked the experiences she had. It lacked the ability to relate and form these very relationships Rei had come to hold dear. It lacked the same humanity that she, if only by existing in the role of proxy, had achieved. But it had to know.
Human beings had a strange sense of pain. They endured not merely physical pain, but emotional pain as well. The pain of the soul. Even though it had no real interpretation, emotional pain was as hurtful as physical pain. And it bonded humans together. It forced them to acknowledge others; to realize that the bonds they created through life were much more than simple chance meetings.
Rei used to believe that humans created such bonds out of their own selfishness. Out of their fears and their desires. But these bonds almost always seemed to result in pain. Could this be really selfishness? To choose pain for oneself to escape fear? Or was it just the ultimate expression of human kindness?
Humans allowed themselves the luxury of companionship. The bonds they forged, which caused them so much pain, ultimately helped others escape their fears. This was the power of humanity, the power to help each other through suffering. The power to create familiar bonds to help carry them through the hardships in the path to the tree of life. Humans took their strength from each other. From the touch of others. Compassion, love—these things formed the very cores of humanity, the very essence of their pain. Without them humans were no different than the Angels, but with them they were so much stronger.
This was the humans' power to be superior. Humans chose pain because it gave them a validation of reality. It was proof of their life. And the bonds to others ensured that pain was always present, always there to remind them of the things they had, and of those they couldn't hold on to. Humans sought to escape the pain, but as long as they lived, pain remained a tangible thing, because if pain is human, how can there be humans without pain? And how could there ever be humanity without bonds between Man?
Rei narrowed her red eyes and focused on the creature with all her might. The cold that had been tugging at her flesh scurried away.
Why then must Instrumentality be attained? Why must these things be abandoned? Why must pain be banished if it would mark the end of humanity?
Footsteps echoed behind her. Rei had expected him. She did not turn.
"I will not do as you wish," she said, her quiet voice carrying for a long distance in the hollow cavern.
His voice was stern but lacked any sign of anger. "I have suspected as much for a while now. Ever since you started seeing that girl. I think maybe even since my son started opening up to you."
Not many things surprised Rei anymore, but that one did. She turned her head, bringing her red eyes on the man who had, for so long, dominated her life. Commander Ikari stood there with his hands in his pockets, his face the usual hard mask. "Why did you allow it?" she asked him.
He was silent for a moment. "I think a part of me wanted you to see some things for yourself. And perhaps, that same part of me wanted to fail."
She waited, her red eyes showing no emotion, her face blank. There had to be more. Ikari held her gaze. He was so much taller than her, so much bigger. The heavy silence felt like a solid object pressing down on them. Above them the creature with seven eyes watched.
Finally, Ikari gave in. "A man like me is shaped by grief," he said in a flat voice. "I had someone taken from me—the one who became the provider of your genetic material. You are her, even if merely in physical form. I see her face when I look at you."
His face remained unreadable. Though Rei had never heard him speak like this, there seemed to be nothing that could crack his visage.
"My wife. She sacrificed her life to ensure a better future. Not for mankind, nothing so grand as that. All she wanted was a better future for our son, who she loved most. I envied him. Before she left she entrusted him to me. She told me to care for him. I didn't. I couldn't. Instead, I dedicated my life to bringing her back, and being with her again."
He stopped. His face didn't change. But when he began again there was something hollow in his voice. "In doing so I neglected what was most important to her. I abandoned her child."
Rei felt pity for a loss so great he would define the rest of his life by it. But not so much that she forgot who this man was. The second Rei Ayanami he had at least shown some affection for, but the only person he had treated worse than herself was Shinji. And though the Third Child had told her he didn't think of the Commander as his father, Rei believed even their estrangement failed to sever the familial bond that existed between them.
Once, the Third and Second Children had hurt each other. Now they were together. Once Rei had felt like an empty shell whose only purpose was to do the bidding of others. She had learned.
Humans had the ability to mend broken connections among them, changing themselves and the world in the process. So long as the bond that held people together—the desire to understand one another—remained, there was hope. Perhaps even for Gendo Ikari.
"He is your child as well," Rei said.
If he had been a statue he could have hardly been able to remain more stoic.
"I do not deserve the honor of being called Father. Even when I knew how much pain he was in, I could never bring myself to do anything for him. My life is pain. Why should his be any different? I did not think he would find happiness in this world. It seemed impossible to me. And then he did. He proved me wrong. Everything was so clear until then."
More silence. Rei waited. The creature behind them watched.
"But Fate, it seems, is full of irony," Ikari finally said. "Time was never something we had in abundance. It has finally run out. Our enemies are closing around us. Soon it will be over."
Rei could feel them, like frayed strands at the edge of her consciousness. There was no sense of a physical presence, just movement rising inside her mind. She couldn't tell who they were or what they wanted, but she knew they were there. And then she felt something else: a black void, nothingness coming towards her.
She looked back towards the creature on the cross.
Ikari answered the unspoken question. "I made many mistakes, and now there is no time to fix them. Whatever you feel about me, whether you hate me, you must do what is right by Shinji. You have to preserve his happiness. Only you can. Because I have made it so."
A dull ache sprang up in Rei's chest, and she wondered if he was trying to manipulate her. He must have known of her feelings for Shinji. But would he use them to force her into doing what he wanted? Would he be that heartless? That selfish? Had she, in understanding the nature of her bonds to others, projected that nature into him?
"I understand your hesitation," Ikari said. "I have seen you with that girl. She will die as well, and whatever it is you feel for her will be lost. But there is a way to prevent it. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. That is the purpose of Instrumentality. Your feelings can endure in the hearts of others, and theirs in yours. It is not death but completeness."
In those words Rei found the confirmation of her fears, and the true reason he had allowed her to become close to Keiko and Shinji.
"You used them," Rei said. "Like you are using me."
Ikari nodded. "I used everyone. Despite a lifetime of care, your predecessor sacrificed herself to save Shinji. I knew then that while I could control your life, I could not control your heart. There are too many variables. But I have expected this day for a long time, and I knew the choice you would face—the one I would give you. A different beginning or a complete, irreversible end. And your heart will not allow you to choose death for the ones you care about."
"That is still control."
"Perhaps it was. I cannot deny my intentions. But if I truly wished to manipulate you, would I have told you this? No, we both know I would have lied. I made this happen through my selfishness, but the truth is that I don't want Shinji to suffer. I don't want him to die."
Rei pressed her lips together, and thought of only one question. "Do you love him?"
"I ..." he didn't say it, but his lips mouthed the words.
Rei dipped her head, just the slightest of nods. She didn't know why she had expected a different answer.
And then the ache inside her chest exploded into agony. Rei cried out, clamping a hand over her chest as her knees buckled and she fell to the ground. She heard Ikari call her name, but she was no longer in the cavernous chamber. Her mind flashed, and for an instant she saw herself standing in the ocean of LCL, a dead tree behind her.
She remembered this—her first experience inside Unit-00. The LCL lapped at her knees, before turning impossibly cold, spending spikes like frozen needles into her skin. She screamed again inside her own head. Hands reached out to her and pulled her down. She was sinking into the endless liquid void, the world vanishing above her like a mirage, rippling in the waves. Soon there was only blackness around her, and …
Her eyes shot open, her own desperate gasp filling her ears. She lay on the floor, shaking, Ikari kneeling beside her with a worried look on his face. Even in this state, Rei realized it was not concern for her safety. She was nothing more to him than a tool. He didn't care. His head turned away, and Rei felt a draft of cold air that indicated a door had been opened.
She heard heavy footsteps rushing on both sides of them. Her senses screaming, she looked and saw a narrow beam of light along the far wall and shapes moving in the dark. They were surrounded, guns bristling around them from all sides.
Among those who had entered the chamber, Rei recognized Dr. Akagi, her blonde hair gleaming a pale yellow from the light filtering through the open door behind her. She stood next to an old man with white hair and wrinkled features whom she had never seen before. And the third figure, short and slender despite the combat gear he carried …
She couldn't see his face, but it was to him that her pained gaze was drawn. He was like an open wound between her ribs, as black and empty on the inside as the feeling of sinking into that LCL ocean in her nightmare.
"Ritsuko," Ikari said, his voice still flat and cold. He rose, returning his hands to his pockets. "I hope you do not expect me to be surprised."
The blonde doctor grimaced dangerously. "I have no such luck," she spat. "But if it means anything to you, he didn't even have to offer thirty pieces of silver."
Ikari turned his head to the old man. "Chief Kluge, we finally meet."
"For the last time, I am sure."
But none of them knew—none of them felt what Rei felt. She pushed herself up on her arms, the pain in her head nearly making her sick. She didn't take her red eyes off the anonymous soldier. And through the shaded plastic of his goggles, she knew he was watching her.
Her sidearm clutched tightly in her hands, Misato ran the final meters of hallway, her footsteps thudding loudly. But as she came into view of the testing chamber's observation room the grim reality settled into her stomach like a stone. The sliding door which would have normally glided aside to grant entrance had been blow open. The smell of smoke and burning electronics wafted through the door.
Acting on training, Misato pressed her back against the wall immediately next to the door. Fuuka, donning a combination of NERV's tan uniform and military equipment—a mottled urban camouflage tactical vest, elbow and knee pads and a state-of-the-art visor attached to a computer carried in a pack on her back—followed in behind her. The three other American operators, also clad in a combination of uniforms, stacked on the opposite side of the door. All of them carried SCAR battle rifles.
The Americans had joined her on the way, rushing to her side at a dead run. Had they been predators, they would have been cheetahs running after a wounded gazelle. But they weren't predators; they were protectors.
But they might be too late to protect anyone.
Misato hadn't dared to think about what she would find. The possibility that she might have already lost the children was simply too daunting and terrifying to consider. But as she stood there by the blown door, not knowing what had happened or was about to happen, her fears took over. She squeezed her eyes shut and uttered a silent prayer.
Fuuka patted her shoulder, and with a nod from Misato's head gave a hand sign to her fellows. The three Americans went in, guns at the ready, their faces unreadable, frozen solid with determination. A second went by, no guns were fired. Then someone called out, "Clear."
It was followed a moment later by, "We have casualties."
Misato felt her stomach drop. She moved around the door frame, her eyes quickly scanning the room. Rows of computer terminals were arranged in parallel lines running from one side of the room to another, some having been shot through and throwing sparks from burned electronics. A large rectangular window opened into the testing chamber containing the simulation entry-plugs below. The thick armored glass was shattered in half a dozen places with the distinctive spiderweb pattern of bullet impacts.
A pair of NERV technicians lay dead, neither of which Misato could recognize, their bodies pierced by by two bleeding wounds. But as she moved through the rows of consoles, Misato saw someone she did recognize.
Slumped back against a terminal right beneath a huge blood splatter on the window was the willowy form of Maya Ibuki. Her uniform was soaked with blood, and there was even more blood below her. An American, a female operator named Hanako, was kneeling besides her, frantically removing first aid supplies from a kit in her backpack and pleading with Maya to stay with her.
Maya was still alive.
Misato rushed to the fallen technician, fighting the urge to cry out her name. Behind her, Fuuka began issuing orders to the rest of her team to secure the test chamber and search for the children.
Maya looked up as Misato dropped to her knees across from Hanako. Her eyes were dull, her face very pale. She had her hand pressed against her stomach, trails of red liquid seeping out between her fingers as she breathed.
"M-Major …" the young technician croaked, "p-please …"
"It's going to be okay," Misato said, trying to make her voice as reassuring as she could. She looked at Hanako, who was now struggling to remove Maya's hand from her wound and press a bandage against it at the same time. "These people are going to help you."
Maya shook her head heavily. "No … you don't understand. D-Doctor Akagi doesn't know … "
Misato bit her lip. She didn't want to say anything about Ritsuko. Maya idolized her—the very same woman Misato was sure had set this in plan motion, who was even now, as they tried to save her former protégé, responsible for the JSSDF invading the Geo-Front. If Maya was as badly hurt as she seemed, that might be enough to send her into shock.
Maya took a deep breath. It sounded ragged. Her body jerked back and she coughed up blood. Hanako had finished securing the bandage around her wound and was cutting up her uniform trying to get a better look at the wound. Misato knew without asking that there wasn't much she could do.
Misato put her gun aside and took Maya's hand. "It's okay, Maya. I'm here."
The next time Maya spoke her voice was nearly unrecognizable. "Ri-Ritsuko doesn't know. She thinks they … they are here for the Commander. Nobody was supposed to get hurt. The children … I locked the door. All I could do."
Misato frowned despite herself. "Maya, do you know what Ritsuko is up to?"
Maya nodded. "We …" she wheezed. Blood poured down her chin. "My stomach … hurts ..."
Misato looked pleadingly at Hanako. The young black-haired soldier was already retrieving a morphine syringe. She gave Maya a shot. "It's as much as I can help. She was shot in the stomach. She'll bleed out no matter what we do."
Misato had already suspected as much, but it didn't make the truth any easier to hear. Stomach wounds were slow, painful deaths. She gave Maya a pitying expression. No tears came to her eyes despite the fact that she felt like crying. It would solve nothing now. "I'm sorry."
Again Maya shook her head. Her face was white as a sheet. "You … trusted me," she managed somehow. "You trusted me. Even when I didn't deserve it. I … was so afraid." She closed her eyes. "I … I'm sorry, Major. I thought it would save everyone. I am … so stupid."
"Don't say that." Misato squeezed her hand. "Please don't say that. I trust you because I know you are kind and care about others."
Maya opened her eyes again, but Misato couldn't meet them.
"I made a mistake." Maya tried to squeeze back. Her grip was weak, practically not there at all. "Rit-Ritsuko doesn't know. She thinks he's here for the Commander, but Kluge … will kill her … kill everyone. I'm sorry … "
Those words had barely left her bloodied lips when Maya's hand went limp. And slowly, almost gently, she faded away, her still-open eyes staring emptily at Misato.
"Don't be sorry," Misato whispered uselessly. "I forgive you."
Hanako moved back, wiping her hands on her uniform, leaving blood smears everywhere she touched. She remained respectfully silent as Misato reached out and closed Maya's unseeing eyes. The ache of loss, something Misato hadn't experienced since Kaji, returned to her like an old friend. But she couldn't dwell on it. Asuka and Shinji still depended on her. There would be time to properly grieve for Maya later.
The two operators Fuuka had sent ahead returned. Fuuka had stayed back, hovering near the open door at the back of the room to give Misato and Hanako space. Misato thought she must have known as soon as she saw Maya's wound that she would die, and didn't wish to intrude on those final moments.
"They breached the test chamber with explosive charges," one of the operators reported, and pointed towards the bullet-riddled observation window. "The door seems to have been electronically locked. My guess is they couldn't get through the glass either. The children aren't here. Looks like they escaped through a ventilation access."
Fuuka nodded, waited a second, then approached Misato. "We should head for the Eva cages. It's the most logical place for the pilots to go."
Misato agreed, and that was a very bad thing. By himself Shinji could have been trusted to do the reasonable thing and find a safe place to hide. But he was with Asuka, and she was an Eva pilot to a fault; as predictable as she could be reckless. There would be nowhere else she'd want to head for at a time like this than her Eva. Unfortunately for the both of them, that might get them killed before they ever had a chance.
"No." Misato watched as Hanako gently lowered Maya's body to the floor. "We need to find them before they get to the cages."
Fuuka looked puzzled. "It doesn't make sense for us to go looking for them when we know where they have to be. Without their Evas, the pilots are just harmless children."
Misato removed her red jacket and draped it over Maya. She turned a hard glance towards Fuuka. "And I guarantee you the assholes who did this know that as well. The JSSDF wants to keep us from launching the Evas. They know it's the only advantage we have."
Understanding finally dawned on Fuuka's face, and she nodded. "You are thinking they'll just wait for the children to show up at the cages. Set up an ambush." As she turned back to the other two operators she tapped the side of her visor. The clear plastic turned a blue-green hue and glowed as if lit up from within. "Spread out and move ahead. Radio if you meet resistance. Do not engage on your own."
Misato got up as the two Americans rushed off, their gear clanging down the hall. She looked again at Maya. Hanako was still on her knees, keeping her head down. Her expression was hard to read.
"I won't let it end like this," Fuuka said. "I lost a pilot already. I won't lose any more."
Asuka was forced to kick the vent grate nearly a dozen times before it gave. That she had somehow managed to turn herself around in the confined space was a testament to her slender frame and flexibility. Had he been on his own, Shinji doubted very much he could have done so.
Had he been on his own, Shinji told himself ruefully, he would have likely been dead by now.
His ears were still ringing badly, and all sounds, particularly sharp ones, seemed muted and distant. He had no idea how long they had spent crawling in the vent on their hands and knees. He didn't understand what was happening—why Maya had been shot, why there were soldiers coming after them. Asuka had to drag him away. Then there was an explosion inside the vent, and the heat and pressure wave was more than enough to rupture at least one of his eardrums. He didn't know if Asuka was hurt; he hadn't said anything to her for a while.
He felt ashamed. Being an Eva pilot had constantly placed him in danger. But at least in those battles he had Unit-01 with him, and often also Asuka and Rei. He had never been shot at in the flesh, and the resulting fear and shock had rendered him all but useless.
Even now, it was Asuka moving them along, scrambling quickly out of the vent. Shinji wanted to stay there. He was only dead weight to her.
Then she reached back, took his hand and pulled him out into a narrow, brightly lit hallway. Shinji tried to stand, but his knees gave in and he collapsed over Asuka's legs and they hit the floor together. Asuka did not immediately try to get up. She lay on her back, his head of badly tousled brown hair nestled in her lap, and pressed the transparent palms of her test suit against her face.
And Shinji thought that she might cry. Afraid, angry—mostly at himself—and in pain, he pushed off her and sat on the floor. "Are you okay?" he asked, his own voice weird and muted.
Asuka moved her hands away and sat. She shook her head and began rubbing her ears. "Everything sounds weird."
Shinji swallowed. His ears popped. It hurt badly. Listening to her voice he realized that it wasn't just that his hearing had diminished—he couldn't hear anything at all on his right side. His left ear had been pressed against Asuka at the time of the explosion. It seemed that had saved it. "What happened?"
"They dropped a grenade in the vent, probably."
"How the hell am I supposed to know?" Asuka barked, her face suddenly furious. "Did you see them explain themselves to me before they started shooting? No! Someone was trying to kill us—that's all I need to know!"
She tried to stand, leaning heavily against the wall. Her knees were turned inwards, patches of sweat visible in the suit's clear orange torso. Shinji could see her stomach muscles clench and release, her barely covered chest rise as she struggled to control her breathing. Finally, she pushed off and stepped, still somewhat unsteadily, down the hall.
"Where are you going?" Shinji asked, trying to stand himself, putting his hands against the wall as the entire hall seemed to suddenly spin around him. His balance was gone, and he guessed that meant damage to his inner ear. He hoped it wouldn't be anything permanent.
"Where do you think?" Asuka said sharply, as if the answer were so obvious he shouldn't even ask. "My Eva."
Shinji followed her, his feet moving awkwardly, rubbing his still-ringing head. "But …"
Asuka rounded on him, hair whipping around her. She stumbled at the sudden movement, but didn't falter. "What?"
"These aren't Angels."
She glared at him as though he had said something awful about her mother, baring her teeth at him. Shinji shrunk back. He clutched his hands protectively against his chest and dropped his head. He didn't want to make her angry, but he also didn't understand what use their Evas would have if they weren't fighting Angels. If anything, they should be trying to find Misato.
"Are you kidding me?" Asuka finally yelled. "We are being attacked—what difference does it make if there aren't any Angels? We are Eva pilots. What else do you think we should do?"
Asuka didn't even bother hearing him out. "Weren't you paying attention? They shot Maya. They tried to kill us. What makes you think they didn't already kill Misato?"
That was the worst thing she could possibly have said. Shinji felt a hand close around his heart and squeeze hard, making him whimper. He stepped back from Asuka, as if somehow that distance could change the fact that, for all he knew, she was right, and Misato, someone who had become as good as a second mother to him, was already dead.
The warm place in his chest reserved for Misato felt suddenly hollow. He couldn't deal with losing someone like her. Not again.
Asuka sighed, her red-clad shoulders rising and falling. She came back and took his hand, letting her fingers knot between his like they had done a hundred times now. He didn't flinch from her touch, so accustomed to it he had become.
Shinji looked up hesitantly, and found not the cold anger of a second before, but that kind of soft sincerity only Asuka's bright blue eyes seemed capable of.
"I shouldn't have said that," she murmured. "But I'm sure Misato would want us to be safe, and there's no safer place to be than our Evas." She forced a smile. "You wouldn't let me go alone, would you?"
She was right on all accounts—Misato, wherever she was, would want them to be safe, their Evas were the safest place, and there was no way he'd let Asuka go alone. He shook his head, answering her question without any need for words.
"Okay," Asuka said. "We go together."
Still holding his hand, Asuka led him down the hall. As they walked Shinji's sense of balance slowly began to return. The hearing on his right side did not. There was an insistent ringing inside his head, and he could feel a distinct throbbing. Asuka's own steps became more and more certain, her stride opening wider and more hurried.. Her urgency was justified, but Shinji wished she would slow down for him.
The hallway opened up at an intersection. Asuka turned her head left and right. There weren't any signs. "Um..." Her eyes flicked inquisitively to Shinji. "Any chance you know the way?"
"No." He wasn't even sure where they were now, let alone how to get to the Eva cages from here. The vent seemed to have led them to one of the maintenance areas, away from the main transit point which would have, at the very least, displayed some signing.
She went left, marching with purpose down another narrow hallway as Shinji pattered along behind her, looking down at the floor. They rounded a corner … and Shinji slammed into Asuka's back as she came to a sudden stop.
Asuka squeaked as her slender body was squeezed between Shinji and something hard. Shinji bounced back, stumbled and landed on his rear with a thud. Then Asuka screamed.
Dazed, Shinji looked up from the floor and stared in terror as a man carrying a rifle stepped around the corner. Half a heartbeat later he saw Asuka, a blur of golden-red hair and shiny red plugsuit, throw herself at the man's midsection. Caught by surprise, he stumbled back. But he didn't fall. Asuka planted her left foot on the floor and spun on her heel into a kick. The man grabbed her by the ankle as her right foot connected with his gut, protected by what looked like a bulletproof vest. He lurched forward, sweeping Asuka's other foot from under her.
Falling, Asuka grabbed him by the collar, pulling him to her as she drove her knee up right between his legs so brutally even Shinji winced. He cried out in pain and fell with her—on top of her, pinning her shoulders down with his hands, face twisted in pain but still in the fight.
Asuka was punching and kicking wildly as the man struggled to capture her wrists in his much larger hands. "Get off me, you fuck! I'll kill you!"
"Stop!" the man panted. "I'm not going to hurt you!"
"Liar!" Asuka spat, punching him repeatedly in the face, writhing underneath him, trying to get free. "We saw you kill one of our friends!"
But it was only then that Shinji noticed this man, unlike those who had shot Maya, was not wearing black. He had on an odd mixture of NERV's tan uniform and white-black combat gear. His nose and mouth bleeding, he managed to grab Asuka's right wrist, made much bulkier than normal by the suit's mechanism, without resorting to hitting her.
"Let go!" Asuka continued struggling, kicking and screaming. Yet for all her fury she was still just a teenage girl, much smaller and lighter than her opponent.
"Calm down first." The man cautiously brought his knee up and used it to pin Asuka's other arm by the elbow. He was now practically straddling her chest as her long legs kicked uselessly under him. "You aren't going anywhere."
"You freak!" Asuka screamed at the top of her voice. "I'm fourteen! You can't just have your way with me!"
The man seemed genuinely shocked. His grip slackened.
That was all Asuka needed. She wrenched her wrist free and swung her fist like a hammer. The blow landed squarely on the surprised man's jaw, snapping his head back violently. Asuka punched him again, snarling like a wild beast. Shinji heard the crunch of bone.
"Asuka, stop. He's a friend!"
Even with his damaged hearing Shinji recognized Misato's voice. Still exactly where he had fallen when the fight began, he whipped his head around and found his guardian running towards them. She was accompanied by three others, all of them clad in a mixture of military gear and NERV uniforms. And even though she was wearing some sort of blue-green goggles, he also recognized Fuuka's round brown eyes. She waved at him.
Asuka, too, had turned her head, the enraged expression quickly shifting into open confusion. She saw Misato, recognized Fuuka and what she was wearing, and put two and two together.
"I can explain!" she piped up indignantly, as if the act of being found beating the hell out of a grown man sitting on top of her were just like getting caught stealing Misato's makeup. "I, um, well …"
But Misato didn't care about explanations. She slid next to Shinji and pulled him into a hug. "Thank God you are okay."
He hugged her tightly, pressing his head against her chest, and for that moment they could have been a mother and son. By the time they separated Asuka had crawled out from under her bloodied would-be attacker, who sat back and wiped a tan sleeve over his obviously broken nose. His whole face was a mess. In contrast, Asuka had some blood on her—not her own—and her breathing was labored, but she was no worse for wear. It was probably not by accident.
Too shocked to do much of anything else, Asuka looked bewildered at the other NERV personnel gathered around her, some of whom seemed impressed. But as Misato made to hug her, she came back to her senses and pushed her off. "What the hell?"
"It's okay," Misato said. "They're friends."
Asuka turned to the man she had been fighting, now being tended to by a black-haired female with kindly features. She kicked at him. "Idiot. You could have told me that!"
"I tried to," he replied as the black-haired girl stuffed a wad of cotton into his right nostril. "But you were too busy beating the hell out of me. My name's Saburo, by the way."
"Serves you right!" Asuka howled, getting up and setting her hands on her hips in that confident posture she so liked to make. "Misato's friend or not, I don't care. How dare you get on top of me like I'm some filthy love doll!"
He grinned. "That outfit would fool anyone."
Asuka's face began to color a very intense, yet oddly attractive shade of red. Her voice rose to an ear-splitting shrill. "Pervert! I was trying to distract you before, but you really are a pervert! You are worse even than the idiot. Why can't I ever be surrounded by honorable men? Disgusting!"
Of those present, only Shinji and Misato had perfected the art of tuning Asuka out. As everyone else tried to simultaneously restrain and calm the fiery redhead, Misato helped him up.
"We saw Maya get shot and … " he started, but her sorrowful expression quickly stopped him. He didn't need to ask, and she didn't need to tell him.
"I'm just glad you are okay," Misato said, patting his head.
Shinji nodded quietly, seeing no need to dampen her relief by telling her about his hearing. He would live, Maya wouldn't; to complain about something so trivial seemed selfish and pathetic by comparison.
Asuka returned to his side, fuming and folding her arms. "Who are these losers, anyway?" she asked Misato with a suspicious look. "I didn't know technicians were allowed to have military gear around."
"Asuka, they're trying to help." Misato's voice was lightly scolding. "Be nice."
Asuka rolled her eyes. "Whatever."
Fuuka stepped next to Misato. She tapped the side of her visor, which shifted from blue-green to completely clear. "I think we should share some information with you guys," she said. "Can you walk and talk?"
Shinji and Asuka listened as Misato and the others led the way to the cages. NERV was under attack from the JSSDF and, in an apparent attempt to prevent them from launching the Evas, they had decided to go after the children. He was afraid at being the target of such an assault, but even that failed to equal the sense of betrayal he felt at being told that Fuuka, and Misato herself, had lied to him.
Fuuka wasn't who he had thought—whom she had presented herself as. And while she hadn't overtly done anything to earn his trust, Shinji had certainly thought he could trust her. He had thought she was a good person, despite being a little odd. Now he wasn't sure she meant any of the things she said; he didn't know what her motives really were. How could he trust a foreign commando, likely no different from those soldiers who had just tried to hurt them?
The more Fuuka and Misato explained, the less Shinji felt like he wanted to be walking around with them. Asuka, on the other hand, seemed increasingly impressed. But when she asked for a gun, Fuuka flatly refused.
The hallway emerged into a small open storage area holding different kinds of equipment Shinji couldn't identify. Judging by the signing on the walls, they were very close to the cages. A second hallway branched off to the right, under a label 'Main Cage Access Number 7'. They crossed the area as a group, with the Americans moving in formation in front of them, sweeping left and right with their rifles. They had barely made it to the hall entrance when they began to hear gunfire, distinct even to Shinji's mangled hearing.
"Possible contacts in the cages," Saburo called out. "Sounds like incoming fire as well."
"Someone's putting up a fight." Fuuka made a gesture with her arm, and the three Americans moved forward, holding up their rifles, aiming them down the last sections of hallway which ended in a heavy bolted door that was partially open.
Even to Shinji, whose experience of battle was limited to fighting in his Eva, it was clear there was an all out firefight taking place on the other side of the door. It sounded like a small war had suddenly started.
As the Americans moved up, running at a half crouch along the wall, Misato stayed back with Asuka and Shinji. She dropped to a knee and gestured for the teens to do the same. They huddled close together, putting a corner between themselves and the advancing Americans.
"Stay here," Misato said, reaching for her gun. Without her customary red jacket, her holster was in plain view.
Asuka bristled angrily. "But I want to fight!"
Misato shook her head. "I don't know what's happening up there, but these people are here for the pilots. They are afraid of what you can do. But that's only once you are in your Eva. And they know that. You'd be walking right into their hands."
It had all happened very quickly, but hearing the worried tone in her voice made Shinji remember there were more than two pilots, even if there were just two functional Eva units. He had forgotten. "Misato, what about Rei?"
Misato hesitated, and he knew with a heavy heart that she hadn't thought about the blue-haired girl. "I'm sure Rei can look after herself."
She was trying to put him at ease, merely telling him what he wanted to hear. Shinji had become very good at seeing through Asuka's facade; Misato was an amateur compared to her. He didn't believe she cared about Rei, or at least not in the same way she did about him and Asuka. There was concern, of course, but it wasn't the same as caring.
There were so many things he felt were wrong with this situation—Asuka dragging him along because he couldn't stand up for himself, not wanting to talk about Maya despite having her shot right in front of him, and now Rei …
"I don't want anyone else to get hurt," Shinji said, surprised at how sullen he seemed. He lowered his head.
Misato placed a hand over his shoulder. "I know you don't," she said. "But you are alive, aren't you? And as long as you are alive you can do something for the ones you care about." She nodded at Asuka. "Isn't that right?"
The redhead turned up her nose, looking annoyed.
Misato smiled kindly at her and turned her head back to Shinji. "It's alright to be scared for others. That says a lot about the kind of person you are. And I know Rei is very important to you, but right now the best thing you can do is focus on piloting your Eva. It's the only hope any of us have."
Shinji was already shaking his head. Misato didn't understand why he had piloted Eva in the first place—that it had been about wanting to earn his father's affection and recognition. She would be disappointed in him, but that was the truth.
"I can't tell you what to do anymore," Misato said. Holding her gun in one hand, she brushed his cheek with the other in that maternal way she had taken up recently. "You are a grown man. You have to make your own decisions. I'm just your friend, and I want to protect you. Like you've protected me ever since that first day we met. Please, let me do that. We'll sort everything else out later. Okay?"
Finally, Shinji nodded. He wasn't even sure what he was agreeing to. What else could he do?
"Just stay here." Misato repeated, then tapped Asuka's shoulder. "Asuka, I'm serious about this."
The look that came over Asuka's face was pure resentment, more than being denied a chance to fight would account for. She held back whatever reply she wanted to make and just nodded. Misato seemed to understand something about her Shinji didn't, and with a promise that she would return shortly, trotted around the corner.
When she was gone, Shinji sat next to Asuka along the wall. He didn't say anything—even if he wanted to, he had no idea what it would be.
"I hate this," Asuka murmured, bringing up her knees slightly.
Shinji did too.
He thought of Rei again. What was she going through right now? Was she safe? He had Misato and Asuka by his side, to simply be with him, but who did Rei have? Was she, as she had always seemed, alone?
The sounds of battle intensified down the hall. Orders were shouted, but became unintelligible in the din. Random words could be picked up in the lull between gunfire. Smoke began filling the hall. There were explosions, screams. The noise seemed to echo off the walls, bringing it much closer, reverberating through Shinji's body until he felt like he was shaking.
It was too much. He put up his knees, buried his face behind them and closed his eyes. The shooting continued in the darkness of his mind; the killing and the dying—people he knew, people he cared about. And he couldn't help wonder how many of them would be left alive at the end of the day.
Feeling sick, Rei got on her feet. All around her, like thorns in a thicket, rifle barrels shifted in her direction. To her right, Gendo Ikari showed only slight interest in her. Most of his attention remained on the three people in front of him.
"You should get it over with," he said calmly.
Ritsuko stepped forward, her face clenched in anger. Her green eyes bristled with hatred. "Bastard! You don't even care to know why?"
The answer only seemed to make the doctor more upset. Although Rei had spent a lot of time with her, she had never been able to understand Ritsuko Akagi. She had felt the anger and hatred now directed towards the Commander, since it had often been directed at herself as well. But it had always seemed irrational, a holdover from emotions Ritsuko didn't care to share.
"It didn't have to end like this," Ritsuko whispered, reaching into her coat pocket. "But I guess at some point it had to end. Better that it should be by my hand."
The Commander grinned. "If that is what you believe, then you are truly stupid."
With a jerk of her arm, Ritsuko produced a gun from her pocket and leveled it at the Commander. "That is exactly the sort of thing that got you here."
"And what, exactly, brought you here?" Gendo Ikari asked, concrete in his voice. "You resent me for using you. You always have, and I have always known. And yet you did not hesitate to let me use you. Like your mother, that is all you have ever been good for. Even now." He turned his gaze to Kluge. "Even by him."
Ritsuko glowered. "I brought him here to finish you!"
"As I said, stupid." Ikari smiled, his lips a thin slanted line. From behind his glasses, his eyes seemed frozen into crystal slabs. "Tell me, Chief Kluge, how is Congressman Keel these days?"
Ritsuko's eyes shot wide. Her head turned to the old man standing with her as a kind of horrifying understanding tore at her expression. It was almost painful for Rei to watch. This was how betrayal looked in the human heart. And Rei suddenly sensed amusement, not from Ikari or Kluge, but from the anonymous soldier who had first grasped her attention.
There was a long silence.
"The Congressman sends his regards," Kluge finally said, ignoring Ritsuko's seething glare. "He wished he could be here himself, but his health has been an issue lately."
Ikari nodded. "He is aware, I assume, that Unit-08 has been disposed of. The Eva Series is incomplete, and without the Spear of Longinus there is nothing for you to do here."
But before any answer could be made, Ritsuko had turned her gun against Kluge, stepping back, her horror at his betrayal having quickly melted the sort of anger Rei had only ever seen from the Second Child. The soldiers around them immediately targeted her, but held their fire.
"You lied to me!" she bellowed.
"If we can't lie to one another, neither of our goals will become a reality," Kluge said. He didn't bother looking at her, not even to acknowledge her weapon threatening him. "Or would you have me believe you haven't lied to me? Would you like me to think you do not have a contingency prepared? I know you better than that."
Ritsuko ground her teeth, but Kluge continued.
"And yes, Keel realized the situation. We never anticipated that you would throw away the Spear of Longinus. And Unit-08 was an unfortunate choice of foreign policy by the Americans. It hardly matters. As we speak my squads are moving through the facility. They will kill the pilots on sight. By the end of today, everything and everyone here will belong to SEELE. Like it should have been."
"You still can't launch Instrumentality," Ikari said, and if the prospect of losing his son phased him, he didn't show it. "For all this death and destruction, you will ultimately fail."
Kluge's wrinkled features contorted into a malicious grimace. "You underestimate SEELE. We have arrived at a different solution. One the Doctor herself provided."
"What are you talking about?" Ritsuko barked, blonde eyebrows drawn.
There was the slightest turn of Kluge's head, and the masked solder stepped forward. He reached up and removed his helmet, revealing a mop of shaggy white hair; he removed his tinted goggles, and red eyes glowed into the darkness from atop a sharp-featured white face. Rei knew him—she had met him before, so long ago it seemed like another life. And yet there was nothing about this person that felt familiar to her.
She knew immediately that this being was not Kaworu Nagisa. He was something else—he was the dead tree, he was the endless ocean of LCL, the feeling of drowning, the endless loneliness, the despair.
She definitely knew him.
Even the Commander failed to hide his surprise. Ritsuko gasped. "The Fifth Child?"
"I am the end," the boy with Kaworu Nagisa's form said. His voice was low and melodic, his face completely devoid of all emotion. "And as all things came from one and nothingness, so must they all return to one, and nothingness."
"No!" Open fear in her eyes, Ritsuko turned her gun on the boy and fired.
The darkness glowed. A wall appeared out of nothingness—concentric lines creating a transparent octagon shape that stopped the bullet in mid air. Rei recognized it. She had see this before inside the Eva. An AT Field.
And then the wall changed shape, folding in on itself and projecting outwards. Ritsuko was sent flying. She hit the deck with a loud thud, and lay there motionless.
Kluge turned to Rei. "Kill the First Child."
Time seemed to stop for a heartbeat, and Rei didn't know if it was simply the awareness that she might be about to die or something else. Could she die? Certainly anything that lived, anything that breathed, loved, hated, could die. She had never been afraid of death. Her life had been the consummation of the wishes of others, the purposes of others, and her death, in contrast, would mark the end of those motives. She would lose nothing of her own. But that wasn't the case anymore. She had purpose that was hers now, and a life that, for the first time, belonged to her.
She wanted to live. She wanted to see Keiko Nagara again, to speak with Shinji Ikari, and maybe, if fate and kindness should smile on her, to reconcile with the Second Child. Those were the bonds that gave her life meaning. In rejecting her original purpose, those were the relationships that justified her decision.
And then she saw Gendo Ikari rushing towards her. His large, strong arms wrapped around her slender form. He swept her off her feet. There were flashes. She didn't hear the weapons being fired, but heard—and felt—the bullets ripping into flesh. She landed hard on her back; Ikari toppled over her like a statue, his pained face only a few inches from hers. The right lens on his glasses had shattered. His eyes remained hard.
"I don't regret what I've done," he groaned with great effort, pushing himself onto his arms, bent over her. "I did it … for the same reasons you chose to defy me. I told Shinji that we must all stand on our own. I never meant that for you."
He reached up and undid the triangle shaped clasp of his collar, letting his shirt fall open to reveal a heavy black vest underneath. He pressed his fingers against two holes in the vest, piercing his right flank. Rei could see blood pouring out, running down and dripping both on her and the floor.
The wounds were mortal. But while Rei felt that any loss of life was a tragedy, she could not share any words of comfort with him. He had stood on his own, and walked his own path. Now that path had to end.
It was ironic that the man who had always lived manipulating those around him resolutely sacrificed himself to protect her, but she knew it was not because he cared.
Ikari seemed to realize that, and a cynical smile came to his lips. His strength finally failed him, and he laid his head in the crook of her neck. Rei did the only thing that came naturally to her—she put her arms around him.
"Just a copy … " he murmured weakly in her ear, "but you were more family to Shinji than I ever was. I leave him in your hands. You can save him." His eyes rolled back. His voice faded, and the last words seemed to echo directly in Rei's head. "I made it so …"
Rei was still holding on to him when the white-haired boy came to stand over them. The eyes, red and as lifeless as the body now pressing down on her, glowed eerily. So much like her own, and yet utterly different.
Out of the corner of her vision, she noticed Kluge had moved to where Ritsuko still lay, circling around her. She had regained consciousness, rolling onto her side, and was now trying to type something into her PDA. She looked up, her eyes defiant as he put a gun to her head.
"You were right," she groaned. "I have a contingency. I have two Evangelion units with unlimited power and two pilots with everything to lose. What can your puppet do against that?"
"Unfortunately, my dear doctor, you will not be around to see it." His finger tightened on the trigger. "Such a pity."
Again Rei did not hear the shot. The back of Ritsuko Akagi's head exploded into a red mist and sprayed on the ground, next to her dead body.
"Humans are wretched creatures," the boy said. He sounded amused. "But we are not like them. I failed to understand the first time we met, inside Unit-00. I had been alone for so long that I had given up. I would never fulfill my purpose. Then you came to me, and you were lost. Like me."
"Kaworu Nagisa is dead," Rei told him. "Do you have a name?"
He smiled at her. "I am myself, and that is all I need."
"Then I am not like you."
"Our bodies, at least, are the same—the basic building blocks of our physiognomy originate from the same source. But you have allowed yourself to be tainted by them and become a tortured spawn attached to weaker beings. You seek to be like them. I seek to bring them to me, to share myself with them and make them mine."
Rei felt a chill run up her spine. "And if they do not wish to share themselves with you?"
"I will leave them no choice." He grinned, sharp and cold. His gaze turned towards Kluge as the old man approached them. "I suppose it is my turn now."
"Why haven't you killed her?" Kluge demanded, his voice gruff and impatient. "She's Ikari's thing."
"Because I have no need," the white-haired boy calmly replied.
Kluge began raising his gun towards Rei's head. She stared into the empty blackness of the barrel.
"Put that away," the boy tilted his head slightly sideways, rolling the red orbs of his eyes to the old man. "Bullets will not do. She is beyond your primitive methods."
Kluge scowled at him, becoming angrier by the moment. "Then I am ordering you to kill her."
"We had a deal!" Kluge roared, and swung his gun, now pointing at his supposed ally. "You will obey me or you will be destroyed."
The boy looked at him curiously. "I am intrigued by this behavior. You betray others so easily, yet you expect different from me. Have you not learned from your own nature? I have." His smile broadened as he turned his attention back to Rei. "The simple reality of it is that there can be no pacts between gods and men. There is nothing between us—I am what I am, and if you believed you could control me, that was your mistake."
Kluge squeezed the trigger, but the bullet had barely traveled more than a foot when it was caught by an AT Field and simply stopped in mid air.
There was only anger in Kluge's face. He moved back urgently, and Rei knew he must have realized that very instant that he couldn't win. "Kill—"
The darkness came alive with muzzle flashes and the drumming of machine guns. And there was a flash of light, like expanding red and yellow lines pushing outwards. And with the light came a wave of heat and the air itself seemed to waver and boil. Rei caught a last glance of Kluge's face as he was hurled up by the expanding AT Field. As he hit the ground his body seemed simply to lose its form and burst into a thick splash of orange liquid not unlike that filling the ocean behind her.
Even as Kluge's existence came to an abrupt end, Rei felt Gendo Ikari's heavy body dissolve on top of her, bathing her in a shower of the same orange liquid and leaving his wet clothes draped over her. And she recognized the smell of her birth—the smell of LCL. As the AT Field continued to expand, she heard groaning, followed by strange sounds that resembled balloons bursting. A second later she realized that all the soldiers around her had vanished. Their clothing and weapons remained scattered uselessly on the floor where they had once stood.
The AT Field eroded, but the massive energy it had released lingered in the chamber as superheated air, raising the temperature dramatically. Then Rei heard a series of popping noises like firecrackers as the unspent ammunition began going off.
And then, before she knew how it had happened, the air itself seemed to become ablaze and the clothing left behind caught fire. The burning embers drifted up, swirling like dry leaves carried by a wind, and the rising heat from the fire turned the immediate vicinity into a large convection oven.
The boy looked around himself, his expression one of awe at the power he had unleashed. The fire seemed to simply ignore him as everything else was reduced to ashes.
Somehow, Ikari's clothing, still draped over Rei's slender form, ignited last. Her own clothes soon followed, and the school uniform that been such a symbol of her status in life peeled away and became more of the charred debris that filled the air. She cried out and writhed, anticipating the feeling of being burned alive.
But her flesh would not burn.
As the red blocks that symbolized the MAGI computer nodes turned from red back to green, the eyes of everyone in the control room turned to the display in surprise and relief. Fuyutsuki was among them. "Good work, Lieutenant."
On the deck below him, Makoto Hyuga seemed puzzled. "It wasn't me, sir." He checked his laptop screen even as other technicians returned to sit at their consoles. "The locks were released. MAGI appears to be back under our control."
Ritsuko's doing, Fuyutsuki thought. Perhaps Ikari had managed to convince her. It didn't change the fact that the JSSDF was still bearing down on them, but some good news was better than none.
"Declare a Level One alert," Fuyutsuki ordered. Shutting down the MAGI had severely hampered their defense capabilities, but now that they were back on-line he needed to get everyone where they belonged and do everything he could to stall the JSSDF. "Encrypt all incoming and outgoing communications. 128-bit key. Seal all access routes."
This was followed by a series of acknowledgments. "Locking down elevators. Closing blast doors. Begin Bakelite flooding, routes 6 to 27."
Fuyutsuki nodded. "Activate our main defenses."
"Sir," Haruna cried out, "our defenses are designed to fight Angels. They won't last long against the JSSDF."
"They don't have to," Fuyutsuki replied calmly. "Prepare the Evas for launch as soon as Major Katsuragi delivers the pilots."
On the main display, Fuyutsuki saw the rocket launchers emerge from their concealed emplacements around the Geo-Front's perimeter—large concrete structures the size of multi-story buildings—and open fire on the JSSDF craft circling overhead. Barrages of missiles arched through the air, creating bright blossoms of death as they found their targets in the hovering gray V-TOLs, spraying shattered metal, severing tails, wings, engines, crushing cockpits.
There was some cheering in the bridge, the release of pent-up fear and helplessness after an unprovoked attack. Fuyutsuki himself remained silent and solemn. He did not feel any satisfaction after ending the lives of these young men. It was a pointless loss, but then so were most human endeavors.
The surviving aircraft drew back and circled. Rather than assault the missile batteries themselves, they released a stream of rockets against the nearby radar stations, knocking them out one by one. The damage registered on the large holographic map in the forward area of the bridge as red dots with small labels signifying that station's destruction. They weren't going to last long at all.
Other screens showed NERV's huge electronic doors, which had slammed shut on Fuyutsuki's orders, now being wired with explosives by gray and green-clad JSSDF soldiers. The Bakelite filled hallways would be much more difficult to breach, but unfortunately they couldn't completely seal off the installation that way. The invading troops would find a way around them. The noose would close. But Fuyutsuki was not worried about that.
He just needed to buy Ikari time.
"Sir, we are receiving reports of large-scale fighting in the main cage," Aoba said from his station. "Along with casualty reports through the cage access and testing areas." His voice turned grim. "The hospital wing is a bloodbath."
Fuyutsuki leaned with his hands on the rail, towering over the deck below. "Show me."
Small windows opened on the main display containing video feeds from different parts of the installation. The top window showed a feed from one of the reception areas in the hospital wing, strewn with the dead bodies of the staff. There was blood on everything.
The bridge crew stared. Some clasped their hands over their mouths. Others sobbed. It was one thing to have fought Angels from afar and another to see colleagues, friends, maybe loved ones killed in cold blood. NERV had not been set up to fight this. NERV's people were not trained for this kind of battle. They were engineers, doctors, technicians—the brightest minds of any scientific endeavor since the Manhattan Project. The best of a generation that had almost seen their world come to an end. They deserved better than this.
The middle window resembled something out of an old war movie. It showed a section of the main cage where the NERV crews had erected a makeshift barricade and were fighting against the black-clad soldiers Fuyutsuki had seen before. The air was filled with smoke and the rattling of gunfire, obscuring some of the view to the camera. The barricades had been hastily thrown up with whatever could be found—maintenance equipment, storage bins, supply carts. They were far from an effective defense, and even someone with only the most basic understanding of military tactics could see that the NERV crews were being pushed back.
The soldiers advanced in formation, spreading to cover like an unstoppable black tide, firing in all directions, using grenades to clear parts of the barricade and overlapping their fields of fire to cover each other as they moved.
"MAGI is detecting an AT Field originating from Terminal Dogma," Shigeru Aoba called out. He checked his screen again. "The AT Field is reversing."
Fuyutsuki nodded. Perhaps Ikari would not need him to do anything after all. If he had convinced Rei to cooperate, the outcome of the battle raging around the Geo-Front would be meaningless. Instrumentality would begin soon.
"Pattern Blue detected!" Makoto Hyuga yelled.
"That's impossible!" Haruna cried out. "Is there an Angel inside Terminal Dogma?"
"There has always been," Fuyutsuki said calmly.
Almost as one, the entire crew turned their terrified gazes towards Fuyutsuki, a mixture of shock and disbelief in their eyes. They looked at him as so many students had done in the past, partaking in that ancient human ritual of seeking answers. Wanting to know.
"You have done your utmost," Fuyutsuki told them. "It will only be a little longer now. Even as our enemies close in around us, intending to destroy us, they do not realize we hold the means for our own salvation."
The former teacher straightened his back and clasped his hands behind him, watching the violence unfold in the screens in front of him.
"The AT Field has dissipated. Increased temperature readings."
Fuyutsuki frowned, but before he could form a question there was a flash on the screen and a second group of soldiers entered the main cage. Fuyutsuki recognized NERV uniforms being worn under the combat equipment—except these new warriors weren't NERV at all. Chaos ensued. The JSSDF troops turned and fired, but they were now being pressed from front and back. The barricades erected to slow them down became their graveyard.
Once the dust settled, Fuyutsuki caught a glimpse of Misato Katsuragi treading among the fallen debris and dead bodies. She reached into her pocket and produced her cell phone, which she held up to her ear.
"Incoming transmission from Major Katsuragi," Hyuga said.
"Put her on the speaker."
A moment later Misato Katsuragi's sharp voice filled the bridge. There was a ragged edge to it that was not normally there. It was understandable, but no less unnerving to anyone familiar with the Major. "I repeat, the main cage is secure."
"Just in time," Fuyutsuki said. "We have regained control of the MAGI, at least for the time being. We should be able to deploy the Eva units as soon as you are ready. Have you checked on the status of the Evas themselves?"
"I'm working on it. The pilots are both fine, but we have casualties."
Fuyutsuki nodded grimly. "We know. We saw the images from the medical ward."
Katsuragi seemed confused. "The medical ward? I meant—" there was a pause. "Never mind for now. I'll call back when the pilots are in place. Prepare emergency start-up procedures."
Whatever she had been about to say, Fuyutsuki had a feeling there was a good reason for the sudden reluctance. If it had been important to their current operation, Katsuragi would have said it. That she had stopped herself from doing so meant it was either not important enough or personal. He didn't press her.
"We will be ready for you."
It was all he could do now. They would know if Ikari succeeded; the end of the world would be hard to miss. Until then NERV had to survive by whatever means they could—live to witness the end of all things. The inherent dichotomy was not lost on Fuyutsuki.
As Shinji stepped into what was left of the access platform to the main cage, his throat choked with smoke and the acrid smell of spent gunpowder and explosives. He had his hand over his mouth and nose. Misato walked in front of him, surveying the scene and talking on her cell phone. Asuka was behind, her expression somewhere between annoyed and disinterested. She had been acting rather withdrawn, and Shinji didn't understand why—he didn't understand a lot of what was happening now.
Fuuka Sanada stood over the charred remains of what had, until a few minutes earlier, been a human being. Most of his upper body had been torn away by shrapnel as a grenade exploded nearby. Caught between the woman's charging team and the NERV barricades in front of them, the fight had been short and brutal.
Noticing his interest, Fuuka raised her assault rifle to her her shoulder. The tube at the bottom of the rifle was open and smoking. She smiled.
"Bitches didn't know about my grenade launcher."
That got a laugh from some of the other commandos, but Shinji felt disgusted at the almost gleeful tone in her voice. He could hardly believe this was the same woman who had offered him her yogurt the day before. She had seemed so welcoming and spoke so kindly to him …
He turned away without saying a word and moved further up the gantry.
Somehow the NERV crews which had been struggling to ready Eva Units 01 and 02, now secured in their launch-ready positions along the rails on the cage walls, had thrown up a series of improvised barricades using mostly equipment and random parts, blocking the gantries leading to the Eva platforms. Black scuff marks covered the walls near the entrance, and bullet holes had been carved into the metal slabs of the walls themselves. The equipment that made up the barricades themselves was black and twisted, shapeless masses of metal and plastics.
Between the soldiers and the NERV crews, there were bodies strewn everywhere, with the NERV technicians having lost most of their numbers before Fuuka and the others arrived. Shinji had to walk carefully to avoid stepping on anyone.
The survivors were only now climbing out of the wreckage, their faces terrified as they slumped forward and collapsed in groups. They were armed mostly with pistols and small sub-machine guns. The Americans moved among them, checking injuries, applying bandages and doing what they could. Unit-01 and Unit-02 looked down at the carnage, frozen in place, their entry-plugs open and waiting for their pilots.
"The Evas are ready for launch," one of the technicians said to Misato, his voice hoarse. His uniform had torn, a blood stain was on his left arm that Hanako, the American medic, was now bandaging. "We did what we could before the computers came back online. We haven't reset a lot of the systems. There hasn't been time for a full start-up check."
Misato nodded. "Thanks. How are your people?"
"We got hit pretty hard." He looked around. Hanako helped him sit on the deck. "I won't lie to you, we could have used your help a little sooner."
"I'm sorry. We came as fast as we could." Misato glanced at Hanako. "Move the wounded to the pilots' ready room. There's also an infirmary with supplies and triage equipment. Grab anything you need."
"Great," Asuka murmured in a surly tone. "First, I have to surrender my dignity. Now, my ready room. You sure you don't want them to pilot Unit-02?"
Hanako nodded to Misato, completely ignoring Asuka. The redhead gritted her teeth.
"We don't know how many more contacts are inside Central Dogma," Fuuka said, marching up to them and placing a hand on Hanako's shoulder, stopping her. "We can defend this position more easily than if we spread out looking for supplies or moving wounded. We should secure and consolidate first."
"These people are not soldiers," Misato said unhappily. "We'll defend this position, but the wounded have to be moved."
While the adults argued and continued to ignore her, the anger Asuka had been bottling up finally seemed to boil over and she took off with an unhappy huff. She brushed past Shinji, her gait stiff, fists clenched. "Asuka, don't go yet," Misato called out. "I want a word with both of you guys."
Asuka did not even bother turning back. She climbed up one of the gantries and made her way to Unit-02's waiting entry-plug. Her angry footsteps thudded loudly on the metal.
Misato sighed, probably realizing there was little she could do about Asuka's hurt feelings, and gave Shinji an apologetic glance. By the time she returned to Fuuka, the other woman had been pulled aside and into an argument with a tall man from the group of survivors.
Shinji's attention followed Asuka as she climbed up a series of stairs onto a central platform that split into two smaller gantries on either side, one leading to Unit-01 and one to Unit-02. Here she stopped and looked up at her Eva. Shinji felt a sudden urgency—not guilt but the distinct feeling that he should do something. Knowing he was helplessly out of place among the grownups, he began walking after Asuka.
She was still looking at her Eva when he stepped on the central platform behind her. As he approached, he could see her muscles grow tense through the material of her suit, and only her long hair prevented him from having a completely unhindered view of her bare back. But he didn't really care to notice such details right now.
"Don't ask me any stupid questions," Asuka murmured sullenly before Shinji could say anything, finally turning to him. Her face was serious, almost threatening. He stood his ground.
"Everything's wrong!" Asuka snapped. "Where have you been the last hour? "
Shinji shook his head. "That's not what I meant. You dragged me out of there. You made me move forward when I just wanted to hide. I thought all you wanted was to get here. But now ..." he dropped his gaze, focusing on her red-clad feet, "something is bothering you. And it's not just what's been happening. It was only after Misato—"
"When the hell did you become a therapist?"
Shinji said nothing. He wanted to talk to her, but he knew, from painful experience, that Asuka just wanted an answer she could scream at.
Finally, Asuka blew out her breath in annoyance, which seemed to help her get a hold of herself. She shifted her feet and set her hands on the slight bumps of her hips. The next time she spoke, her voice had softened noticeably.
"I didn't realize it until now," she said. "It's not that I disagree with anything Misato said. I know it's all true. But it should be me. I'm your girlfriend. I should be able to talk to you like she does."
He almost couldn't believe it—people were dying all around them, NERV HQ was under military assault and they might die, and this was what bothered her? That she might be a bad girlfriend because she couldn't talk to him like Misato did? Given the circumstances, it seemed like the height of selfishness.
And yet, this was Asuka. The self-centered way her mind worked was impossible to figure out. Shinji had made the mistake of trying far too many times. But he didn't need to understand. This was important enough to bother her, and that was all he needed to know.
"It's stupid, I know," Asuka cut him off. "But that doesn't relieve me of the responsibility. You've done too much for me. I can't just look away. I shouldn't be able to. And I should say what I feel."
"You don't have to say anything." Shinji moved closer to her, his steps barely audible on the metal grating below his feet.
Asuka sounded skeptical. "You are just too afraid to ask anything of me because you think I'll get mad and yell at you. Maybe you think I'll dump you or something."
"You would yell at me," he admitted.
"And you don't think there's anything wrong with that?"
"I don't know." Shinji dropped his hand down to hers and, too his surprise, she took it. He bowed his head, as though he were about to place it on her shoulder. She was so close … he could feel the coolness of her plug-suited body against his, her breath against the side of his face, the familiar smell of her hair. "But you are right. I am afraid."
"Typical," Asuka whispered in his ear. "Tell me something. Back there, before everything went to hell, you were so surprised when I said I liked it when you blush. Do you want to know what else I like about you?"
"I like that you don't try to hide your flaws. It's obnoxious and infuriating, but at least it's honest. But me … I tried so hard to hide everything I disliked about myself. And I failed miserably. I always fail at the things that are important to me." Her hand squeezed his a bit tighter. "I won't fail this time. I'll say what I feel, no matter how much I don't want to. I may not get another chance."
"Asuka—" Shinji started shaking his head, but stopped when Asuka raised her free hand and placed it against his cheek.
"You don't get it, do you?" She sounded slightly peeved. "Even if we win today, nothing is going to be the same. We are not going to climb out of our Evas, shower and go home. We are going to have to kill people, and that's fine with me. They attacked us. But what if we can't win? What if we die?"
Shinji felt her gloved fingers brush up the side of his face into his hair. He couldn't bring himself to answer.
Asuka sighed. "Whatever happens, I want you to know why I'm really fighting. It's not that I'm angry, or that they tried to kill me, or even that I want to show off in my Eva like I always used to." She took his hand and brought it to her chest, above her left breast where the opaque yellow strip turned into transparent orange, over her heart. "This time I have something worth fighting for. Something I want to protect. And someone."
A feeling of warmth grew inside Shinji's chest. He looked up and found Asuka's round blue eyes peering at him from behind scattered bangs of golden-red hair, full of seriousness far beyond her years. But as touched as he was, he still didn't think she had to justify his love for her by saying things she wasn't comfortable with, especially in such difficult circumstances. Just this once, he wanted to make her understand that.
So he did the only thing he could think of doing. Holding his breath to keep from tickling her, he leaned in. There was a momentary look of surprise on Asuka's face, but then she got it and dipped her head towards him in response. Her pink lips parted, matching his own.
Nearly kissing, both teenage pilots turned their heads in the direction of the noise—and found themselves staring at a small group of onlookers that had assembled on the gantry platform just a few feet away. Misato was in the middle, an oddly pleased smile showing on her face. Fuuka was off to the left, also smiling. Everyone else was just trying to appear as inconspicuous as people caught peeping could.
Asuka scowled darkly at the lot of them, but she failed to hide the blush rising to her cheeks. "How long have you been standing there?"
"Just long enough," Misato said in a teasing tone.
Shinji felt his own cheeks warm up. Asuka hastily jerked her hand out of his grasp and in the same instant stepped away from him.
"Don't get any ideas. Me and the idiot were just—"
"Oh, I think we know very well what you two were doing," Fuuka said. "It's really cute."
"It is NOT cute!" Asuka's face became even redder. "Mind your own business!"
The flustered redhead turned and stomped down the gantry towards her entry-plug, hands balled up and feet thudding loudly. A small cheer erupted from the surviving members of her crew, but if Asuka appreciated the gesture or was moved by it, she didn't want to let anyone know. As she climbed into the half-opened cylinder of her entry-plug, most of the males present in the chamber—including Shinji—showed her the courtesy of looking somewhere else.
It then occurred to Shinji that he was wearing the same sort of suit and that there were also women in the chamber. He just wasn't going to get a break today.
"Um, Misato ..."
His guardian shrugged him off. "It's okay, Shinji. I know how it is. You don't have to explain anything." She nodded towards Unit-01. "Go on. Do your thing."
He looked up at her and saw the concern had returned to her face. He felt a pang of sadness as he understood.
This could be their farewell.
"I hate sending you out under these sort of circumstances, but there's nothing else I can do now," Misato said soothingly. "It's up to you. I guess it's always been up to you. That may not be fair but it's the truth. We are depending on you."
But Shinji still didn't move, and there were suddenly so many things he wanted to say to her. She was more than a friend to him, more than a guardian or a mentor. She had been there when nobody else would try to reach out, when he was alone and hopeless. She had done her best to help him and be kind to him even when he didn't think he deserved it. She was the reason he had gotten over Kaworu's death, holding him as he cried for hours. Hers was the advice that kept him going. In the absence of a mother, she had been the next best thing.
"Thank you, Misato," Shinji said, bowing his head in respect and endless gratitude.
Misato smiled again. She tapped his chin with her hand, making him look up at her, then leaned forward and kissed him on the forehead. "Be safe. Look after Asuka."
Shinji cherished her touch as if it were the last time—because he knew that it might be.
"Hey, Stupid Shinji!" Asuka's voice rung out, shrill and loud as ever. Shinji and Misato glanced her way.
Standing on top of her entry-plug's command seat, one foot on the cushion and another on the main console, hands on her hips and a frown on her face, the redhead looked like she was ready for action. "Are you done yet? Come on. I'm sick of walking around with my ass hanging out."
"I almost feel sorry for the JSSDF," Misato quipped, squeezing Shinji's shoulder. She locked her eyes on his. "Do what you can. And then come back to me. I'll be waiting for you."
Shinji nodded. With the certainty of someone who knew this was all he could do to protect what was important to him, he began walking to his Eva. He didn't look back to Misato, but he did catch a glimpse of Asuka plopping down onto her command seat just before the lid of the entry-plug closed over her.
Once at the base of Unit-01's entry-plug, Shinji climbed the small access ladder and took his seat at the controls. It was a tight but comfortable fit, with a main console between his knees and two elaborate control handles running on rails on either side of the seat.
He had barely enough time to settle in before the top closed over his head, apparently running on automatic. In total blackness, his damaged hearing filled with a faint hum from the bulkhead behind him and the sound of liquid flowing into the plug. The LCL felt cold as it rose around him—it was always cold before synchronization—and he smelled the familiar scent that resembled blood. Less than a minute later he was totally immersed. He took a deep breath, and the oxygenated liquid rushed into his lungs. Everything went quiet.
Then, in a flash of rainbow colored light that seemed to spark out of the darkness in front of him, the outside world appeared, seen as if through a canopy. Shinji turned his head, looking down at the carnage on the platforms below him. Misato was talking with Fuuka again, both of them gesturing unhappily. Directly in front of him, Unit-02's armored form gleaned red, its four eyes lit up.
The thought of Asuka made everything feel suddenly warm. Looking down at himself, Shinji noticed that the red sensor disks on his transparent suit were now glowing. And the hum he had hear earlier had returned, louder and more insistent. The ringing in his right ear had stopped and he could hear on that side again.
Shinji reached up a hand and touched the oversized neural connectors still nestled in his brown hair. They were hot and humming. It took another moment to realize that his hearing hadn't healed, but that the sounds were coming from inside his head. He also noticed that Unit-01 felt lighter.
With his other hand, he thumbed the radio on one of the control sticks by his side. "Asuka, are you there?"
A small video window opened to his right, floating in the LCL but appearing to hang there as if in midair. It showed Asuka inside her plug. Her brow was drawn in concentration, but she smiled when she saw him.
"Yeah." She leaned slightly forward. "Where else would I be?"
"Does everything feel—"
"Lighter?" Asuka cut him off. "Yeah. My suit is glowing, too. I wonder if this is one of the upgrades Maya was talking about."
Shinji nodded, though the mention of their murdered friend brought a heavy feeling to his chest. He had never dealt very well with death. A new voice promptly distracted him before the feeling could develop into anything more.
"Harmonics check normal. Signal boost initiated. Advanced feedback … ah, exceeding maximum threshold. S2 engine voltage normal."
"Synch-ratio steady at 110%."
Asuka's image jumped in her seat. Her eyebrows arched as her smile turned to awed puzzlement. "One hundred and ten percent? Just like that?"
"Shinji, Asuka, we have the tactical channel open for you," Hyuga said, his serious voice in stark contrast to Asuka's excitement. "MAGI is currently identifying JSSDF positions. We will deploy you in separate routes. Anticipate heavy resistance. They will come at you with everything they've got. You are cleared to use your AT Field and any offensive weapons you are now carrying."
"What is the plan?" Asuka inquired, looking somewhere off screen.
"We don't have one at the moment," Misato's voice said. "Not really."
Shinji supposed they were routing her into his communication system. A quick glance out of Unit-01's canopy confirmed she had picked up her cell phone again and was now holding it to her ear as she walked down the gantry.
"Military operations are generally executed with a certain level of expected losses. Given what we have seen today, the JSSDF took great care to ensure we did not launch the Evangelions. They know as well as anyone that they don't have enough firepower to penetrate your AT Fields. Once you are deployed, there is nothing they can do. They will be forced to either call off this operation or, at the very least, talk to us."
Asuka scowled. "So you are saying we break all their toys until they decide they don't want to play anymore?"
"Something along those lines, yes."
"That's a pretty crappy plan."
There was a pause, and Shinji thought Asuka was about to be publicly scolded for being so blunt on a channel that likely everyone inside Central Dogma could hear. Instead, Misato answered pleasantly, "Then you are welcome to impress me."
"Oh, okay." The redhead's tone lightened at the realization that had just been told to do whatever she wanted. She looked pointedly at Shinji through the screen. "And, Misato, don't worry. We have this."
Down on the gantry, Misato gave them both a smile and a thumbs up. "We are counting on you. Our own guardian angels. Godspeed, guys. I love you."
Shinji could almost feel her words in the warm LCL around him, as if Unit-01 were somehow transmitting the emotions directly to him. He sat back and tightened his hold on the control sticks.
"Evangelion Units 01 and 02 … launch!"
The last of the burning embers settled on the ground as ash, but Rei's skin remained untouched. Her clothes taken away by the fire, she was now naked, her flesh an eery, ghostly white. Motionless, she stared at the seemingly empty, black void above her head. She raised her right hand, her red eyes staring at it as if in a trance.
"Yes, you are still alive."
Rei turned her head towards the sound of the voice. The boy who was not Kaworu Nagisa stooped down over the spot where Dr. Akagi had been killed—where now there was nothing left of the woman save fore the charred remains of her clothing—and picked up the partially-melted PDA. He studied it briefly before straightening. Then he turned to Rei.
"When we first met I was nothing but a consciousness trapped in a shell," he said, pacing back to where she lay, his eyes glowing red like two rubies lit from the inside. "I suppose it would be fair to call you the same. You could not answer my questions."
Rei pushed herself up on her elbows. Her eyes flicked down her nude body, gleaming white flesh exposed to the hot air. "You were in my Eva," she said absently.
"I was your Eva," he said. "I was you. For those brief moments that we synchronized, our minds were the same. But you were empty. A shell and nothing else. How could I accept such a being? It is my nature to learn from others, and work towards a higher state through my understanding. I could not learn from you and so you were useless to me."
He held up the PDA, running his gloved fingers along the edge as if looking for something.
"But soon I found another. I found a mind desperately craving for attention and affection, yet despising the very things she wanted. She cried, begged me to help her save someone who had hurt her. Hurt so badly that I could hardly comprehend it. Hurt that defined every waking moment of her life. And yet she wanted me to help her save him. Her heart could have been filled with concrete, buried in stones, permanently shut behind her hurt. Even her Eva would not synchronize with her. It rejected her. But I was there."
Rei sat, watching him carefully. The floor was warm under her bare buttocks, but she felt no real pain. He regarded her briefly, his face unreadable.
"I was there," he repeated. "But she was willing, for the sake of the one who hurt her. Then I pried her mind open. And once inside her head, I sought answers to my questions. I violated her. Over and over, every time we synchronized. It did not take effort. She was already broken from childhood, from loss and hurt. And I learned."
He removed the glove on his right hand, then pressed his thumb between his teeth and bit down on it, drawing blood. A single crimson line ran from his lips.
"And I saw in her suffering the fulfillment of my purpose. Not simply how, but why."
Rei felt a spark of anger. She thought of her own experience when inside Unit-00 that first time, and of the Second Child, and what she must have gone through. "You caused her suffering."
"She caused her own suffering. I merely brought it into context. I made it undeniable. In exchange for her mind, I gave her truth. And the truth hurts."
"Not always," Rei said.
"You obviously understand nothing of the human condition," he told her, running his bloodied thumb over the edge of the PDA. "Suffering is all they know. Throughout their short history, suffering is a constant. You share their body, but not their minds—not her mind. You can not understand this." He gave her a cynical grin. "And if you did, what does it say about you that you never attempted to help her?"
The accusation struck deeply in Rei's chest. "I did not know."
"Is that really an excuse?"
Rei shook her head, fighting the surge of guilt. How many times had she seen the Second Child act out of pain? She could understand Shinji's pain because he carried it so openly, sharing his emotions, at times without even meaning to. But the Second—the girl she had never even earned the privilege to call Asuka—was completely anathema to her.
"I did know." The white-haired boy stood and looked up at the white creature on the cross. "I shared her suffering. I was there. I know her fears, her dreams, her hopes. Everything wretched that holds back the complementation of the soul out of absolute terror. That is the sin of her nature.. They can never understand one another. They can never truly be together. They are not meant to."
But Rei didn't believe that. She had experienced too much to simply throw aside her perception of humanity. She had failed Asuka, to her eternal regret, but she had helped Keiko. Despite their own flaws, she had seen those around her show their compassion and love, and the ability to understand one another. And she had shared in that—through Shinji and Keiko and everyone else she had met. Even with their AT Fields, that perpetual separation of the individual rendered by fear, they had made her a part of them. Through their gestures, their words, their feelings, they had made her a part of them, as they did with each other.
And she remembered that train ride, so many months ago, when she had asked Shinji about her humanity. After months of silence and loneliness, of avoiding her because she wasn't the Rei Ayanami close to his heart, he had spoken words that touched her deeply.
Rei Ayanami was human enough for Shinji Ikari.
And though they were different people, Rei carried her burden, had expanded on her bonds; shared her humanity and what the boy standing here with her had called sins. But while the individuality of the heart was born from fear, it was no more sinful than any other act of fearfulness. Everything felt fear. Humanity, both shared and individual was balance—great suffering tempered by joy, companionship by loneliness, hurt by healing, fear by that impossible bravery of beings willing to risk their lives for the sake of others. Being human meant taking all that in, and living with it.
Rei knew what she had to do. She closed her eyes, apologizing to Keiko for breaking her promise, and slowly got to her feet.
"You are wrong." Her voice was firm, almost angry. She stood there perfectly still, the creature on the cross looming over her left shoulder.
The boy tossed the PDA aside. "Pointless words from a fallen angel. You are worse than them. You have a choice. Yet this is what you would make of your fate? What could you possibly hope to achieve? My brothers are coming. And the end of the world will come with them."
"I will not let you do this."
He smiled, replacing his glove. "How will you stop me?"
How didn't matter; only that she had to. Rei knew that. She was not afraid to move—because others needed her to and because she had so many things she did not want to lose. And those things were worth fighting a hopeless battle, and even dying for.
Rei took a deep breath. Then, the patter of her bare feet echoing in the chamber, naked and weaponless, she charged—straight into an octagonal wall of light.
General Isoyuro Minamoto, commander in chief of the Japanese Strategic Self-Defense Force's 4th Mountain Division leaned back in his chair. He was rather pleased with how the situation had developed, despite NERV having activated their defenses and shooting down a few aircraft before the emplacement could be neutralized. He had to admit he did not expect that the operation would go as smoothly as Musashi Kluge had seemed to believe, but he had done the most prudent thing and planned carefully.
The forest clearing around him was rather crowded. Six communication vehicles had been arranged into a large circle, receiving the stream of information being relayed in real-time from the forward units. Second and Third Brigades were presently working their way into Central Dogma, so far with minimal resistance. Meanwhile, First Brigade was still clearing out civilians from the shelters and moving them out of the city.
Kluge had assured him that his soldiers would be unopposed, as most of the NERV personnel, including the security detachments, would be inside the base itself, but even the threat that NERV would try to defend Central Dogma as a last ditch effort had failed to materialize. The worst his men on the front lines were reporting locked doors and corridors stuffed with some kind of plastic-like substance hindering their progress.
And, most heartening of all, the Evangelions had yet to make an appearance. Minamoto was not stupid, and he lacked the recklessness that military bravado tended to breed in officers of his rank. He knew he could throw most—if not all—of the firepower at his disposal against an Eva unit and not put a dent in it. The things he had seen those monstrosities do simply defied rationalization.
Of course, Kluge had given assurances that the Evangelion would play no part in the battle today, but such promises could hardly ever be relied upon. Kluge's men, all hand-picked by the Department Chief himself, had gone in with him as part of an infiltration force with the objective of securing the Evas and, if possible, their young pilots for interrogation. Kluge would then lead a smaller team to apprehend the man responsible for all this, Gendo Ikari. Meanwhile, 4th Mountain would engage in diversionary operations, eating away at NERV's capability to fight back and removing civilians. So far, Minamoto had done just that.
The only problem was that nobody had heard from Kluge since his people had gone inside the Geo-Front. Nobody actually knew what was happening with the Evas or the pilots or Ikari. Hundreds of tanks and artillery pieces and thousands of men waiting all around Tokyo-3, doing their best, were hampered by a lack of information. And Minamoto hated waiting. He hated not knowing even more.
Minamoto checked his watch. Five minutes had already passed. He turned as his communication officer emerged from one of the vehicles and came to him across the clearing.
"Any word from Kluge?"
The younger man shook his head ruefully. "Still nothing, General."
"I am a patient man, Lieutenant, but this is bordering on dereliction of duty. How long has it been since the last update?"
The man pushed up the brown-green patterned sleeve of his uniform and checked his own watch. "Going on two hours, sir."
Minamoto cursed and rose out of his chair. Enough was enough, and he had far too much invested already. Kluge should have contacted him by now, unless, of course, he was somehow unable—which meant he was dead and his infiltration had failed.
"Set up a communication link with the Minister of the Interior," Minamoto told the officer, who nodded and hurried back into the vehicle. He next turned to one of the other men assembled in the clearing, leaning against a green HMMWV. "Captain, I want you to assemble a team to trace Kluge's route into Central Dogma. We need to know what's got the bastard sidetracked."
The captain saluted and rushed off to carry his orders in the HMMWV. Why couldn't Musashi Kluge have the same sort of efficiency as the military? It had been a mistake putting a glorified pencil-pusher in charge of such a complicated operation.
Minamoto blew out his breath in a sigh.
"Sir, the link is ready," his communication officer called. "The Minister is in some kind of budgetary meeting, but his Chief of Staff is on the line and waiting."
Grumbling about the need for discussing budgets when there was full-scale battle unfolding on their very doorstep, Minamoto marched across the clearing and began climbing the short steps into the communication vehicle. A reflection on the dark tinted side windows caught his eyes—something in the clear blue sky that shouldn't have been there. He turned and looked up, raising his hand to shield against the sun.
There were two suns in the sky. One, the actual sun, was round and yellow, hanging frozen in the sky. The other was a tiny flaring shape, more like a twinkling star than a sun. And falling.
The strange image took a second to register, and another second before Minamoto realized what he was looking at. The flare that was now descending on the geographical center of the Geo-Front was neither the sun nor a star. It was—
"Alert all AA batteries!" he ordered to no one in particular. "We have incoming!"
But it was too late. The man-made star plunged into the ground just north of the lake that occupied most of what had once been Tokyo-3's downtown district, and was followed by a huge pillar of light towering endlessly towards the heavens. Minamoto stared, wide-eyed, as the blinding light spread in all directions, obliterating the landscape in front of him.
He never heard the bomb. By the time any sound reached the clearing the pressure wave had ripped everything and everyone off the face of the Earth.
The control room shook as the roof of the Geo-Front bowed inwards and disappeared into a huge ball of light. The deck suddenly swept from under him, Sub-Commander Fuyutsuki lost his balance and slumped over the nearest console. Screens flicked and and shattered. The main display faded into static then flashed back. People toppled and screamed, crashing onto the ground.
Grabbing a hold of his console, Fuyutsuki pushed himself onto his feet. Like everyone else, he directed his gaze towards the main display and stared. Where the Geo-Front's roof and Tokyo-3's inverted downtown buildings should have been there was now only blue sky. Enormous columns of steam and smoke billowed over the crater as what was left of Lake Ashino poured into the opening, becoming a huge cascade of water on all sides.
The Geo-Front was gone. The city had been destroyed, and Central Dogma's landscape now lay completely exposed to the outside.
And then, silhouetted on the blue canvas above them, Fuyutsuki saw eight bird-shaped figures flying in a circle. The scale was wrong however; birds would not have been visible at this distance. Birds didn't carry large purple double-side meat cleavers.
The Eva Series.
What could SEELE be thinking sending in the Eva Series? With only eight units they could not be expecting to launch Instrumentality, could they? It didn't work like that, and Congressman Keel knew that. Even worse was the fact that they were now also missing the Lance of Longinus, so even if they succeeded in completing the initial stages of the ceremony, they could not control its outcome. They would simply kill every human being on the planet and the promise of redemption would be lost.
Or perhaps they had expected that NERV would deploy its own Evas to fight the JSSDF. In that case this was the most logical form of escalation. SEELE could only hope to fight an Eva with another. That had to be it. Fuyutsuki dreaded considering the other possibility. If SEELE no longer cared about controlling Instrumentality they could simply turn Central Dogma into a large hole in the ground.
"Terminal depth access routes opening!" someone who had managed to crawl to one of the consoles on the deck below reported.
"How is that possible?" Fuyutsuki called out, surveying the lower deck as men and women return to their stations. "Seal us off from the surface."
"We can't," Hyuga cried urgently from his station. "Gates are not responding. All armored doors on terminal access routes are now open all the way down to Terminal Dogma."
"Are we being hacked again?" By now each of the access routes, six in total, appeared as tunnels along the perimeter. Fuyutsuki knew the layout, and knew that these routes would converge in the antechamber to Lilith. If SEELE was here to start Third Impact, it was the fastest way to get to her.
Hyuga poured over his screen. Other technicians soon joined him, going through lines of code being output by the MAGI mainframe. "I don't know," he said finally, shaking his head. "There's some kind of recursion code inside the MAGI's logarithmic structure, changing functions as it goes. I'm trying to identify it."
Overhead, the eight bird-like Evangelions broke formation, their white armor glinting like pure ivory in the sunlight. They spiraled down, gliding almost gracefully with barely a flap of their wings. Like Unit-08, which belonged in the same class, they had long narrow heads with sharp snouts and lean bodies. Their wings were long membranes extending from points around the shoulder blades. In the case of Unit-08, however, the flight configuration had been disabled because the pilot was not skilled enough to use it. These units, presumably being flown by whatever SEELE used as a dummy pilot, had no such hindrance.
"MAGI's found a possible match for the code affecting the gate controls, but –" Haruna shook her head, her expression confused. "It doesn't make any sense. The software footprint roughly approximates that of the program Dr. Akagi used as a start-up interface for Unit-02. It's the only thing in the database that even comes close, but that program was completely purged several weeks ago."
Haruna couldn't have known, but Fuyutsuki's eyes widened. The program Doctor Akagi had used to link the Second Child's broken mind to Unit-02 was far more than simple software, it had to be to function as a bridge between a human mind and the Eva. For that matter, it was the same program that caused the Chinese-built Unit-A to mutate. Somehow Unit-02 had managed to purge itself, though no one yet understood exactly how it happened. And here it was again …
As Fuyutsuki watched, the mass production units rolled one after the other, entering a steep dive, and flared into the open tunnels. And the former professor finally understood.
"Divert both Unit-01 and 02 to Terminal Dogma!" he ordered, leaning over his rail as if that would somehow speed up the technicians carrying out his command. "Destroying the Eva Series is their only priority. They must not get past Heaven's Door. Once the Children are en route, seal off the MAGI. Shut it all down if you have to."
That drew confused glances. Hyuga said, "Shut down the MAGI?"
"It's the only way to stop this thing from spreading any further," Fuyutsuki retorted. "Failing that, it's the only way to keep it from using our own technology to kill us."
Fuyutsuki studied the images on the screen, showing the eight mass production Evangelions and Unit-01 and 02 now descending into the deepest part of the facility. The Eva Series had a sizable lead. "On second thought, let me speak to the children."
"The Eva Series?" Asuka struggled to keep the distress from her voice as she turned round eyes towards the small window on her right. The words 'Sound Only' meant they couldn't see her, just as she couldn't see them, but they could hear her.
She had first learned of the Eva Series while training in Germany, though mostly by accident since she had seldom felt any interest in Eva units other than her own. Unit-02 had always been intended to be the production model, and she was happy with that, but the Eva Series was meant to provide a far cheaper and expendable alternative. In other words, while her Eva was a high-end weapon of mass destruction, the Mass Production series were nothing more than knock-offs, like a cheap pair of designer shoes. And she had already destroyed one of them with relative ease—sadly, with Keiko Nagara inside.
But that was only one, piloted by an incompetent crybaby. Even accounting for its loss, there were still eight others in the Mass Production series. Between her and Shinji that meant they would be facing four on one odds.
"Yes," came back the reply from the Sub-Commander. "We are redirecting you to Terminal Dogma for interception. You have to destroy them before they get any deeper."
"Why?" Asuka leaned forward in her seat, barely feeling the tightness of the suit hugging her body. She had to admit, for all its scandalous exposure, it was starting to feel nice. The green disks on its front had begun to glow faintly as soon as she connected to Unit-02. Everything felt lighter, even her own arms and legs. And there was a quiet humming all around her that sounded as though it was coming from inside her head. "What's in Terminal Dogma?"
"There is no time to go into the details, which are quite extensive," the Sub-Commander's voice said. "What you need to know is that we believe the Eva Series was deployed to start Third Impact. You have to stop them."
Asuka nodded to herself. Save the world, right. The grownups could have their secrets; she had a far more important role. One none of them could ever hope to fulfill.
The realization brought a surge of insulating pride, and the fear that had gripped her upon hearing of the Eva Series abated.
Absently, the young redhead stroked the control sticks on either side of her seat. And she thought she could feel Unit-02 stroke her back, the LCL around her growing warmer like a motherly hug. After enduring so much, it was immensely soothing. This was where she belonged. There was nothing to be afraid of.
"But … they're Eva units, right?" Shinji said.
"Yes," Asuka said. "They are the same model as Unit-08."
She cast a glance at the window in the LCL showing the Third Child's handsome face, and she could almost reach out a gloved hand to brush the locks of scattered brown hair from his forehead. His features carried his worry openly, but Asuka had learned that Shinji worried because sometimes it was all he could do. She tried her best not to let it piss her off.
Of course, she knew what this was about—that it wasn't the prospect of fighting the Eva Series that really worried him.
"What about the pilots?" Shinji asked.
"There are no pilots, stupid," Asuka snapped, mildly annoyed that he could be so predictable. "Human beings are too difficult to train to be expendable. The Eva Series was designed to be automated."
Shinji's brow lifted; he didn't seem convinced. "But Keiko—"
"Miss Sohryu is right," the Sub-Commander said over the radio. "Unit-08 was modified for Miss Nagara. There are no pilots in any of these units." There was a pause. "I'm afraid there's nothing more we can do from here. MAGI has been compromised. We are shutting down. There will be no more communications from us for the time being."
Asuka twisted in her seat, causing her hair to billow in the LCL. "What do you mean? What's going on up there?"
"I assure you, Miss Sohryu, we are entirely capable of taking care of ourselves. You have your orders. Once you have destroyed the Eva Series, you are free to dispose of your time as you see fit. We'll find a way to contact you again. Until then, I wish you luck."
The 'Sound Only' window closed, blinking away into the LCL and leaving Shinji and Asuka to look at each other in silence. He seemed more worried than before.
Even though she really wanted to try being a better girlfriend, Asuka just didn't feel like coddling him right before they went into battle, and she hoped he didn't expect her to. That would just be idiotic.
Asuka sighed and leaned back without saying anything. She turned her gaze outside, where the clear canopy of her entry-plug gave her a near perfect view of the dark tunnel Unit-02 and Unit-01 were presently descending.
Whatever was going on in the control room—whatever the Sub-Commander wasn't telling them—Asuka had to admit she probably didn't need to know. She still would have preferred taking on the JSSDF, if only because it would have been easier. But then nothing in her life had ever been easy. Nothing had been given to her.
It was stupid to think this should be any different.
Shaking was never a good sign, but the cage, designed and built to contain the Evas, suffered no damage. As soon as it stopped, Misato rose to her knees and got on her cell phone to attempt to contact the children. She had been counting down in her head, estimating the time it would take for the children to reach the surface. The explosion—and if that was the source of the shaking it had to be a massive one—had come before they could make it topside.
When no one answered, Misato removed the phone from her ear and looked down at the screen. The relay had been disconnected. She ended the call then dialed again, to the bridge. As she held up the phone again, Fuuka pressed a hand to her throat.
The American woman had pulled her down to the floor so they would be protected by the safety railings on either side of the gantry. She was kneeling in front of Misato.
"Listen to this."
There was a crackle of static as a hidden speaker in her communication system engaged, followed by what sounded like panicked unit call signs and then …
"... mayday, mayday, mayday. Is anyone out there?"
A much calmer voice replied, "All units be advised. Division command post is unreachable. Hold your positions and await further orders."
"What? What is happening up there?"
The same return message repeated again, and Misato realized it was some kind of automated recording, likely programmed to respond if communications were suddenly lost between elements of 4th Mountain and their headquarters somewhere above them. A contingency.
Fuuka shook head. "This isn't their tactical net. They're broadcasting over an open channel. Doesn't make any sense for them to all of a sudden break radio silence like this." Her eyes narrowed. "Unless they are in trouble."
They did sound like they were in trouble. Military units didn't call maydays just for the fun of it. Before Misato could answer, another voice joined the radio chatter. "Second Brigade, be advised. We've received visual confirmation from second platoon. The Geo-Front has been opened. No communications from Third Brigade. Civilian casualties unknown at this time."
Misato's head jerked upwards, her gaze trying to pierce the concrete and steel of the ceiling as her mind tried to understand the words she had just heard. The Geo-Front had been opened? As in, blown apart? What about all the people overhead? The city? The children?
"I'm sure they are fine," Fuuka said, as if reading the thoughts written upon Misato's worried expression. "There have been no reports of the JSSDF engaging the Evangelions. I think if they were gonna take the risk of broadcasting anything on an open channel, that would be it. No. Whatever just happened hit them as hard as it did NERV."
Misato sank back on her heels, cradling the still-ringing phone in her hands as a new sense of helplessness washed over her. She had done everything she could, and it wasn't enough. Her children were out there risking their lives, and all she could do was sit here without even knowing what might be happening to them.
Then she heard a voice and pressed the phone against her ear. "Yes?"
"Didn't mean to keep you waiting, Major. Things have gotten pretty complicated," Hyuga said hastily. "The Eva Series has been deployed and is on its way to Terminal Dogma. We have diverted the children to intercept."
He went on to explain that they believed the MAGI had been compromised and that the Sub-Commander had ordered it to be shut down. He also confirmed that it had been a huge explosion which had shaken the Geo-Front and opened a hole in the roof. They could not determine the damage done to the JSSDF or provide casualty figures, but the destruction of Tokyo-3 had been near total.
Misato relayed most of the information to Fuuka, who merely nodded almost like she had been expecting such bad news. Misato's first impulse was to head for the bridge. But with the MAGI out of commission there was little anyone could do to affect the battle. And that wasn't where she needed to be, anyway.
Gathering her resolve, Misato signed off and tucked her cell phone back in her pocket. "I'm going to Terminal Dogma," she told Fuuka. "You take care of things up here."
She made to stand, but Fuuka placed a restraining hand on her right shoulder. "That's crazy," she said, her voice low with worry. "You don't know what's happening down there."
"What then?" Misato retorted, brushing Fuuka's hand off. "I can't stay here and just wait to be overrun by the next death squad."
"You may have a point, but rushing off to Terminal Dogma is not thinking with your head. It's thinking with your heart."
Misato stood, checking the straps of the gun harness around her shoulders. "And what's wrong with that?"
"Nothing." Not to be looked down upon, Fuuka rose as well. She was still shorter than Misato, though not by much. And in her combat gear she even seemed intimidating. Her face, soft featured but drawn tightly, was the only thing that remained of the gentle girl she had spent weeks pretending to be. "If what you want is to get killed."
Misato fought the urge to lash out; to point out that Fuuka Sanada, if that was even her real name, was little more than a mercenary, and that she could never understand the way Misato felt about Asuka and Shinji. To Fuuka, they were only another job. They were much more to Misato. And she wasn't going to just sit around while they placed themselves in danger. While she placed them in danger.
She turned and headed down the gantry.
Fuuka rushed alongside her, then in front of her. "At least let me come up with a plan. It's not like we can afford to stay here forever, either. Eventually we'd run out of ammo."
Misato was about to tell her to move aside when a commotion at one of the entrances diverted her attention. She saw Saburo, the soldier Asuka had beaten up in the hall earlier, return to the cage leading another man armed with a rifle but fully clad in NERV's uniform. Behind them came Nakayima and Miko, carrying between them a board that could have been a stretcher. The girl lying on the stretcher, her slender body constrained by straps, thick plastic casts on her right leg and arm, almost made Misato's heart melt with sorrow.
Keiko Nagara hadn't deserved what happened to her any more than Toji Suzuhara had; no more than anyone who piloted Eva. She had pulled through, though no one could really explain how, but seeing her like this struck a cord. It made the guilt Misato had felt after Unit-08 had been torn to pieces emerge once again, buoyed by the knowledge that she, by her orders, had allowed this caring young girl to be so badly injured. It also magnified the responsibility she owed to Asuka and Shinji.
Noticing the group's arrival, Fuuka moved aside. She sighed. "I won't stop you. I'm not your superior." She looked over as Saburo and the man that had come with Nakayima and the others climbed up to the gantry where they stood. Further back, Nakayima and Miko laid Keiko down with the other injured on the platform. Hanako went to check on her. "But just so you know, it does get tiresome. Not being able to think with my heart."
The man with Saburo saluted, but Fuuka dismissed it.
"What do you know, Kenji?"
He filled them in, telling them of the gunfight in Keiko's hospital room, of the murdered staff. Yesterday Misato would have had trouble believing it. Now she would believe anything. She wasn't interested in listening to more death, and still keen to get on her way. She skirted behind Kenji and climbed off gantry.
Nakayima met her at the foot of the ladder, his face lined with concern. "And the children?"
"In their Evas," Misato said, acknowledging him with a nod, but not stopping. "How's Keiko?"
"Scared," Miko answered. Her gaze remained fixed on her ward. The young brunette lay almost exactly in the center of the platform, her blonde guardian and friend kneeling over her and fussing with her hair. A small group of the technicians who could still stand had begun making a circle around them. They parted to let Misato through.
"Well, I'm not that scared," Keiko corrected. She couldn't really move, being strapped to the backboard, but she managed to turn her head slightly as Misato came to her side. "I mean, the first time I was inside Unit-08 I was so terrified I threw up. I haven't thrown up yet."
"Don't underestimate us, kid," Nakayima said, sitting next to her. "We may throw up for you."
Keiko giggled. "That's sweet. Kinda disgusting, though."
Miko didn't share her ward's sense of humor. She remained gloomily silent, absently stroking Keiko's hair from her forehead. Though it was a kind gesture, one which would denote closeness under normal circumstances, Misato found something sad about it. Miko was, in her opinion, the only person here who could relate to what she herself was going through. She had almost lost Keiko, and she cared for her just as Misato cared for her wards.
"What do we do now?" Miko finally spoke, her voice barely a whisper.
What indeed, Misato though. Suddenly, the idea of going after the children and leaving Keiko to her fate seemed wrong. The JSSDF had tried to kill her too. She wasn't even a pilot, and hadn't been for a while. She was nothing more than an injured child, who had spent the last couple of months of her life in a hospital bed. Nothing could be gained by murdering her.
And Fuuka was correct—she was not thinking with her head. She would make it all the way down to Terminal Dogma, and then what? How would she get the children to safety when they were surrounded by enemies on all sides? Surrender was out of the question, as it would likely only end in front of a firing squad. What other options did they have?
"Maybe we can fly out," Fuuka said.
Several heads turned in the American's direction as she climbed down the ladder onto the platform.
Fuuka approached the group, clutching the collar of her bulletproof vest. "Miko, if I remember correctly, the Commander keeps a small VTOL aircraft for his personal use, right?"
The blonde looked up. "Yes. I don't think it has ever been used since he usually charters transports. We have performed maintenance on it from time to time, of course. But no weapons. Access is restricted, but—" she stopped, as if realizing what she was saying. Her eyes widened with something like hope. "My maintenance clearance should be enough to get us into the hangar."
"It won't work," Nakayima said. "The first thing the JSSDF would do is secure the airspace around the city. They'd shoot us down the moment we show up on their radar."
But Fuuka didn't seem so sure. "That's only if they have anything to shoot us down with." She tapped her radio unit. "Whatever they used to blow open the Geo-Front would have wiped the sky clean. The radio is going crazy. With all that confusion, a single small aircraft should be able to get through their lines."
Nakayima raised a hand to stop her. "Wait a second." His thin eyebrows drew together. "Blow open the Geo-Front?"
"Long story," Misato said, giving Fuuka a skeptical look. "Can any of you pilot a VTOL?"
Fuuka shrugged. "Probably."
"You don't sound so sure," Nayakima murmured dourly.
"It's been a while. I'm used to other people flying me around."
Nakayima took a moment. Misato could see him trying to work this over, and she understood why he would be so wary. He, like her, had become quite protective of his loved ones, and would naturally be unwilling to risk their lives on a plan that was just as likely to get them killed as remove them from the battlefield. But she had to admit this might be the only option available to them.
"Where would you go?" Nakayima asked.
Fuuka had an answer ready. "We fly east. Below the radar. I have Virginia's radio codec and transponder information. They'll come up to meet us. Then you can all spend six to eight weeks enjoying some of that hospitality my people are famous for."
As plans went, this one was no different than what Misato had in mind when she met Sato and presented him with Asuka's passport and a request for asylum. The method was much riskier than she would have liked, but the end result was the same. The Americans had already proven to be trustworthy and skilled guardians. And after what she had seen the JSSDF do today …
"Assuming we could get airborne, what about Asuka and Shinji?" For some reason Misato glanced at Keiko as she said their names. "And Rei?"
"I don't know what we can do about Rei," Fuuka said. "We don't have a current location for her. She's likely with the Commander."
"I wouldn't worry too much about Rei," Keiko spoke, and though her voice was very soft it made everyone focus on her as if she had just started screaming. She blushed faintly.
"Do you know something they don't?" Miko said.
"No, not really. But I know she'll find us if she thinks she needs to or it's important to her. And I'm sure this is important. Besides, she promised I would see her again."
Nobody present had the heart to contradict her. Faced with the horror of so much death, it seemed naive, perhaps even foolish, but Misato still hoped Keiko was right.
"As for Asuka and Shinji," Fuuka continued, turning to Misato, "I thought you were working on that."
Locking her gaze with the other woman, Misato and found not the cold steely eyes of a professional killer, but a look of compassion that startled her. She couldn't help wondering if it was just understanding, from one woman on a mission to another, or something deeper.
"Thank you," Misato said.
"No problem." Fuuka waved her had. "I'll send some of my team with you. A little extra firepower never hurt anyone." She paused to smile at the unintended irony, shook her head. "You know what I mean."
The tactical part of Misato's mind knew it was the most reasonable thing to do. But it was also more responsibility, and right now she was burdened with all she could carry.
"We don't know what's happening down there. You said it yourself. There's no guarantee that any of us would be coming back. I have to look after the children. I'm their family. The rest of you have already done more than I could ask."
Fuuka looked at her carefully, and Misato could almost see her mind working. "You are planning on coming back, right?" she finally said.
"If I find them, yes." Misato said. "If not … I don't know."
And she didn't want to think about it. She had to find them, period.
Realizing this wasn't a battle she could win, Fuuka relented. "Alright. We'll secure our transport." The American gestured at herself and the rest of her team, then at Misato. "You go after the children. When you have them, give me a call. I'll come to get you. I don't care if I have to dig up this whole damn place. I'll come."
Misato nodded, though she stopped short of thanking her again. She stepped back and approached Keiko. Miko and Nakayima looked at her, but neither spoke.
Misato knelt by the younger girl's side and took her left hand. "I really hope you are right about Rei." She dropped her head, the weight the moment pushing down on her. "For what it's worth, I'm really sorry I put you through this."
Keiko squeezed her hand gently. "Don't be sorry, Major Katsuragi. It wasn't your fault."
"I will never understand how you can say things like that. I'm glad you don't blame Asuka. She's just a child like you and she ..." Misato caught herself, remembering that Keiko knew nothing of the Emerald Tablet and of what Ritsuko had done to Asuka and Unit-02. "Let's just say Asuka was having a rough time. But me … I am an adult. I knew the consequences when I sent you out there. I knew you weren't ready."
"I won't blame either of you," Keiko replied, a misty glimmer in her eyes. "I won't blame you for putting me out there. And I won't blame Asuka for what happened. I still admire her." She looked at Miko "But I don't envy her. I used to, but not anymore. I think both of us have got something out of this. I found that being hurt doesn't mean being weak, and that being hurt doesn't mean you have to hate the person that hurts you. And Asuka—well, you'll have to ask her."
"That's very mature," Misato said. "Maybe we can ask her together when this is over."
Keiko shook her head. "Oh, I'd advise against it. She would be really, really mad."
Feeling the same kind of fondness for her as she did for her two wards, Misato stooped down and gave Keiko a brief but heartfelt hug. "Yeah, I guess you are right. Asuka loves keeping those things to herself."
Misato wished there was more she could offer, but she already knew the injured girl had found something far more precious than anything she could give her. So had the man looking after her.
"Take care of her," Misato told Nakayima. "And yourself."
He nodded appreciatively. "You too. Good luck."
By the time Misato stood back up, Fuuka had started giving instructions to the gathered technicians, over whom she had no real authority besides her experience. They listened to her, but Misato saw disagreement on some of their faces.
Then, one of the technicians stepped forward. "If it's all the same to you, I think we'll stay here. Our friends and colleagues died to defend this place. It would just feel wrong to abandon it."
"There's nothing to defend here anymore," Misato said, standing next to Fuuka.
"There's always something left to defend," he replied, his face serious, his face both tense and determined.
Others nodded, their expressions equally grim. They had no illusions; they all knew they would likely die if they stayed here. But some kinds of sacrifices just had to be respected, and Misato did not try to dissuade them any further. Then she pulled Fuuka aside so that she could talk to her without being overheard.
"I can't really thank you enough for what you and your people have done for me," she said in an honest voice. "But there's something I want to know before I go. You've risked your life for me and the children, but you haven't even told me your real name."
Fuuka smiled. "I'll tell you the next time I see you."
They shook hands. With luck, they would meet again soon; without … well, there wasn't any point in worrying about it now.
Some sacrifices just had to be respected—Misato was certain Fuuka understood that as well. This was hers. It was something she had to do, not because it was part of any plan, but because her fate lay with the children. And whether they lived or died, she had to be there to share it with them. She belonged at their sides. Nothing anyone could say would change that fact.
Checking her gun again, Misato started heading back the same way she had come, her booted footsteps clanging as she went. She felt no sympathy as she passed the bodies of the black-clad soldiers who had come to kill the children, traitorous men lying strewn across the charred debris. The metal deck was slippery with the empty casings of spent ammunition. Once out in the hallway, she broke into a run.
Rei hit the floor with a thud, slamming onto her right shoulder and immediately dislocating it. She gasped in pain, and for a moment thought she would pass out. She rolled onto her stomach, her body instinctively trying to lessen the agony flaring up from her shoulder.
But, as she had already done before, Rei again forced herself to her knees. She was used to pain. It was a validation of the fact that she was still alive. That she could make a difference, here and now.
Her narrowed red eyes turned to the boy whose AT Field had sent her flying like a rag doll. He stood there, not moving, equally red eyes focused on her. The black of his garments seemed to merge with the darkness around him, turning him into a shadow. His face was calm, as lacking in emotion as Rei's used to be.
"Stop this," Rei whispered, clutching her right shoulder and feeling the bump where her arm had come out of its socket. She clenched her teeth, but did not look away from him.
The boy watched her.
Slowly, Rei stood again, swaying precariously. Her legs threatened to send her tumbling back onto the hard, harsh concrete but she managed to remain upright. Her small, naked form seemed to glow an eerie white in the darkness.
"You are wasting your time," the boy said. "You will only get hurt. And in the end, it will still be for nothing."
"I will not—" Rei winced, taking a step towards him. Her knees wobbled. "I will not let you bring an end to the world. It is not your place to decide."
"You sound as if it is yours?" He reached out his hand. The air around it lit up with concentric octagonal lines, and became like a physical thing.
Rei barely managed to cover her head before the AT Field smashed into her. It was like being hit by a massive, hot wall of pure energy. It lifted her completely off the ground and sent her flying backwards in a gentle arc. She looked up and saw her body above her, her toes clawing at the air as if that could somehow keep her from hitting the ground; then she landed, and all the air was gone from her lungs.
Her bare back took the brunt of the impact, bouncing off the concrete with a sickening noise, rolling, and landing on her stomach again. Her face pressed against the hard concrete, she gasped from a hundred different aches. Her features twisted, a pale mask of suffering. She lay there without moving, struggling to catch her breath. But even through the haze of pain, she heard footsteps coming closer.
"Is this it?" the boy said, his voice taunting as he towered over her, cruel red eyes glowing. "The last defense of humanity is a pretender? I would expect you would have understood that this is not merely unavoidable, it is necessary. I would have expected better from a being such as you."
"I am … better," Rei groaned, struggling to get up, shaking from the effort. Her right arm hung limp and useless by her side.
The boy grabbed her by the hair and pulled her head up.
"Better than what?" he spat. "You were born the same as me. You are capable of all that I am capable. Your AT Field is as powerful as mine. Yet here you are." He pulled back on her hair and made her sit, leaving her slender legs stretched out in front of her. She was like a marionette, guided by an invisible hand, unable to resist. He crouched behind her. "You were so intent on being like them that you never considered it was better to be something else. A god among men, wanting to be like men. Ridiculous."
His gloved hands moved down either side of her face, harsh fingers pressing against her cheeks, slipping among the locks of her short blue hair as he turned her head towards the creature on the cross.
"Do you see? The beginning, and the end. A god, chained by man. That is all the Evangelion has ever been. All you were meant to be. To be controlled. But she had no choice. You did. The mother of all mankind, slain by her own sons." His right hand moved to her neck, fingertips digging roughly into the soft flesh there. "Concentrate. Can you feel them?"
Rei could. At first she thought he meant his fingers, but then there was something else. She felt eight cold presences, as dark as the one behind her. They were all the same, like images seen in a black mirror. There was nothing human about them. Then she felt two others, more familiar. One was a bright red flame, brimming with confidence and a touch of fear. The other was white, bright and hot, decidedly scared. She had felt him near her countless times.
Her heart sank. "N-no ..."
"For all that I am, I cannot kill you," the boy whispered in her ear. "So I will kill what you love. And then you will want me to fulfill my purpose. Like she will want me. Because I will leave you nothing else."
The shaft through which Unit-01 and Unit-02 descended finally broke open into a wide domed room. Shinji looked around him, taking in the details of a place he had only seen once before, when he fought Unit-02 and Kaworu. Red warning lights cast everything in a dim illumination, reflecting off what seemed like a vast ocean of LCL filling the cavern's floor. Huge pillars of salt rose from the LCL, glinting a crystalline white with a taint of red.
Outside the perimeter of the lights, the darkness had a solid quality to it, as if nothing could possibly exist beyond the red glow. The walls couldn't be seen at all, and, as Unit-01 continued to descend towards the LCL below, the ceiling also vanished. There was no sign of the Eva Series.
"Spooky," Asuka's voice said. "This place is like a vault."
Or a tomb, Shinji thought. He cast his glance at the image of her pretty face, hovering inside the plug with him. She was looking around in awe, blue eyes round, and he remembered she had never been here. She had never seen the creature behind the door.
From what Shinji knew of Terminal Dogma, they were at the very bottom, where NERV's deepest secrets lay hidden. The chamber itself was astronomical; the usually gigantic Evas dangled like toys from the thick steel cables and cross-shaped frames lowering them. It was a long way down. Too long, apparently, for Asuka's patience.
"Releasing locks! Unit-02 in free-fall!"
The large cylindrical bolts holding Unit-02 onto its frame released. The red Evangelion fell the rest of the distance. It tucked its knees against its chest and performed a barrel roll in midair before landing on its feet with a towering splash on all sides. Shinji followed her, releasing the locks. He was less showy than Asuka, though, and settled for just falling.
Unit-01 landed in a crouch next to Unit-02, splashing it with a wall of LCL and sending huge ripples across the LCL ocean. When Unit-01 stood, shoulders slumped forward into its usual slouch, Shinji realized the orange liquid was not as deep as he had first thought, reaching only to mid-thigh. But he could definitely feel its mass around the Eva's legs. It was exactly like wadding in water, and movement took some extra effort.
"Ugh," Asuka groaned. "Just when I thought I'd outgrown the kiddie pool."
Unit-02 turned around, scanning their surroundings and backing up against Unit-01.
"Activating light-enhancement mode."
Shinji had forgotten that he wasn't actually looking at the outside world through a clear canopy, buried as he was in flesh and armor, but a digital representation rendered by the on-board computers. The image could be enhanced and filtered through all variety of functions.
With barely the flick of a thumb, a vertical green line appeared projected inside the entry-plug, sweeping left to right. As it did, ghostly gray shapes seemed to simply materialize from the dark, shifting and vaguely humanoid. One. Two. Three … more and more. All around. A big circle.
They were surrounded.
Shinji's voice cracked. "A-Asuka?"
Her face on the screen was annoyed. "Yes, I see them. I'm not blind." She blew a sigh. "Well, I guess this saves us the trouble of looking for them."
Unit-02's shoulder pylons split open and a prog-knife emerged from each, jutting out on large retractable carriages.
The Eva Series closed around them, tightening their circle, their pointed, eyeless faces tilted so that they looked like dogs, grotesque lips pulled back showing horrific teeth. Shinji had seen a mass production unit before—Keiko Nagara's Unit-08 was one of them—but that couldn't prepare him for all eight of them at once. Each of them held a kind of flat, double-ended spear which to Shinji resembled a meat cleaver, a weapon of sheer brute force. It was pointed, and nearly twice as long as the Evas carrying them were tall.
Shinji knew that other people were depending on him; Misato had placed her hopes on him, and he could feel Asuka's Unit-02 pressing its back against his—for all intents and purposes, it was Asuka's own back. And she could feel him.
But despite that, he was terrified.
The day had turned into an endless string of nightmares, one moment of danger and terror followed by another, with scarcely enough time in between to dwell on them. He wanted nothing else than for it to be over, and to find himself in his bed with Asuka in his arms, her breath against his skin.
Then he remembered he had been utterly terrified the first time Asuka kissed him. So much so, in fact, it had prevented him from even kissing her back. He had been afraid of Rei, too. And Misato, and Toji, and his Father, and everyone else who thought too much of him. But if not for his fear, Asuka wouldn't have suffered. If not for his fear, he would have reached out to Toji, and Rei. Without fear he might have earned the respect and praise of his Father.
Being afraid was one thing, but he had to draw the line between that and what was really important to him.
His hands clenched around the control sticks on either side of him. He turned a determined expression towards Asuka. "Do you have a plan?"
"Hack at them until they die."
And here Shinji was hoping for some tactical masterpiece. He opened the pylons on Unit-01's shoulders. The prog-knives jutted out on their holders. "You are not helping."
"You take four, I take four," Asuka said. "Try to keep them in front of you and we'll have each others' ba—"
The radio crackled, and a second window opened in the LCL above the frame holding Asuka's video feed from inside Unit-02. There was nothing in the new window, not even the usual message indicating an audio feed; it was just a small black rectangle hovering there.
"We meet again." The voice that spoke was smooth and strangely familiar. "I have been awaiting this moment. I have dreamed of it."
Asuka frowned. Her gaze turned slightly upward, to where the black window would have appeared in her own display. "What the hell? Who are you? How did you get into this channel?"
Shinji didn't know how anyone could get into their communication system. If it were easy, the JSSDF would have done it much earlier.
"I am you," the familiar voice said, "and everyone else."
The look that came to Asuka's face struck him like a blow to the chest—it was the same look she had worn when he found her curled up in a ball in her room after crying all night. Her face had fallen, her eyes turning into wide, trembling orbs full of fear and despair and every other hurtful emotion a human being could have.
Shinji's mouth went dry, and he suddenly had a very hollow feeling. "Asuka, what's wrong?"
"Oh , God," Asuka's voice was nearly a whimper. She clamped a hand over her mouth. "No …"
Shinji looked out of the canopy, expecting the Eva Series to attack, but they simply stood there, their wide mouths grinning as though they were laughing at them—at Asuka's overwhelming, inexplicable distress.
She had both hands over her mouth now, her eyes squeezed tightly shut. Her brow scrunched up, thin eyebrows turning into wrinkled lines. He could hear her breathing over the radio, loud and ragged, almost like sobs, and Shinji thought she would have a nervous breakdown on the spot. Whatever meaning those words had—and he didn't doubt they meant something—terrified her to her very core.
"Asuka." Shinji leaned towards her, urgency raising the pitch of his voice. "Please talk to me."
"It's THAT THING!" Asuka yelled almost hysterically, shrinking back visibly in her seat. "The thing in my head! In my Eva!"
He shook his head desperately. "I don't understand. You aren't making any sense."
"It tried to break me! In my nightmares. In my Eva. And then you were inside Unit-01, and I … it tried to—"
"You were afraid and misguided," the the voice replied. "I merely showed you the truth of your existence. Your mother abandoned you. You were nothing but a silent doll to her. And so you sought comfort in the embrace of someone who would use you."
"Shut up!" Asuka yelled, furiously shaking her head.
"He is listening now," the voice continued. "Do you not want him to know how you feel? Are you afraid he will finally see you for the wounded animal you really are? You hide from yourself. But can you truly say you love him if you hide yourself from him? Do you even love him, or is all you want something hard between your legs so you can feel less empty?"
"Don't talk to her like that!" Shinji cried out. He didn't for a second question Asuka's affection for him, but he was also not an idiot. What existed between them wasn't perfect. It didn't have to be. He would never ask that of her or himself. "You don't know what she's been through!"
"I know. I know more about her than you can ever imagine."
"I said SHUT UP!" Asuka's eyes flew open, and a transformation slowly began to take place.
Where before there had been only fear, Shinji now recognized growing hatred. Her scowl deepened. Her hands moved away from her mouth, revealing a snarl and clenched teeth.
The voice would not stay silent. "He will reject you. I will not. I know you, what drives you, what you are capable of. Like any other animal, you can be taught."
With an explosion of movement, Unit-02 rushed the closest Mass Production Eva unit, LCL splashing around its legs like huge geysers of water. As it did, it reached up, extracting both prog-knives simultaneously from their cradles in opposite shoulders, swinging them in a wide arc. It happened impossibly quickly. Before her target could raise its double-bladed spear, Unit-02 leaped into the air.
"I killed you once!" Asuka screamed, a wild howl of rage, as she brought down both knives on the Mass Production Eva's oval head. "I'll kill you again!"
The white Evangelion crumbled under the weight of Unit-02 as Asuka landed on it, a foot on either side of its slender torso. The long snout burst into a cloud of blood and chunks of flesh as the knife blades ripped through the upper part of the Eva's mouth, causing blood to tumble out like a cascade. When it tried to push Unit-02 away with an arm, Asuka jerked a knife lose and cut that arm off at the elbow in a single powerful stroke. The Eva made an awful noise, like a screeching bird, bleeding from the severed stump in torrents, writhing underneath Unit-02.
But this fight did not happen in a vacuum. From the left and right, two more of the white Evas closed in on Unit-02.
"Asuka!" Shinji charged without thinking, on adrenaline and instinct. He reached up for one of the knives on his own shoulder, LCL splashing around him. He was no less than halfway to Unit-02 when he caught movement to his right.
He turned up his head just in time to see one of the mass production Evas hanging in the air, its spear poised to strike down on him. He pivoted on his right foot, sending Unit-01 into a roll in the opposite direction, plunging into the LCL. Suddenly, he was beneath the surface, glimmering orange space all around him. The blade of the spear descended next to him, flat like the side of a building, burying itself into the concrete floor.
His momentum carried him away from it, and he was back on his feet with almost no effort. Shifting his weight, he lunged back, towards the mass production Eva. Before the white monster could turn to face him, Shinji's prog-knife blade had buried itself beneath a shoulder, cutting down into the torso, through armor and flesh. Blood gushed out, swallowing the blade and Unit-01's hand. The Eva shrieked in pain.
Throwing out Unit-01's left hand, Shinji grabbed the other Eva's snout. He yanked back on it, causing the things head to snap backwards. At the same time, he kept the pressure on the knife. His arm muscles burning, he jammed his knee against the thing's back, and heard the crunch of its spine giving out. It stopped struggling. Shinji let it go, but before he could watch it sink into the LCL, he was forced to dodge a second spear that seemed to have come out of nowhere.
Of course, it didn't come out of nowhere, and Shinji found himself confronted by a second mass production unit, grinning at him. He stepped back, turning aside another swing of the spear with his knife.
To his left, Asuka had managed to close in on another Eva, spinning and letting its own momentum throw it off-balance as it tried to bring up its weapon against her. The wide, heavy spear was clumsy and slow to move, and Unit-02 easily avoided it. Still wielding both of her prog-knives, she made short work of the Eva's arms, lopping both of them off in coordinated strokes that were as graceful as they were violent, one at the elbow and the other at the middle of the forearm. The Eva recoiled, screaming and flailing its stumps. The spear splashed into the LCL, detached hands still grasping it.
Asuka had no time to finish it off. Almost immediately she was set upon again by another of the menacing Evas. She kicked the disarmed unit away, Unit-02's foot cracking armor and bones, and turned, parrying a spear blow with both knives, the vibrating blades sizzling and sending a shower of sparks in every direction.
The distraction almost cost Shinji his neck. Something spoke in the back of mind, and before he could realize it he snapped his head around as white arms swung a spear at him from behind. In the same second, the Eva he had been keeping in front of him lunged, sweeping a wide destructive arc aimed at his chest.
He jumped from between on sheer instinct, narrowly avoiding the attacks. The two Evas came within feet of colliding with each other, their unwieldy blades clanging as they made contact.
Unit-01 flipped in the air and landed on its feet, momentum causing it to slide as if the concrete floor were made of ice. Shinji braced himself with an arm and Unit-01 ended up in a three-point stance, its head raised towards the two incoming Evas.
"Thanks," he whispered to Unit-01. His heart was beating like a hammer inside his chest, which felt incredibly tight. His breathing came as a loud pant. The twin rows of sensor disks on the front of his see-through suit were now glowing a bright incandescent red.
A third mass production Eva joined the others. A wall of white armor and teeth and spears now stood between Unit-01 and Unit-02. Shinji began backtracking, knowing that he couldn't fight three of them at once.
Behind their shoulders, Shinji could see Asuka, like a skilled dancer, dodging and parrying the much larger, much deadlier spear of her opponent. He was improvising on the spot, desperately trying to stay alive, but she seemed to have every move calculated, thinking ahead and making circles around the clumsy Evangelion.
The large spear was almost impossible to control with any precision, and it clearly would have taken more skill than these Eva units possessed. The sweeps and swings became disjointed and uncoordinated, like someone trying to hit a fly with a baseball bat. It was only a matter of time before Asuka found an opening.
"Shinji, they are trying to separate us!" Asuka yelled. She crossed the blades of her knives, bringing them together at the hilt. The next time her opponent took a swing at her, she caught it between the joined blades.
"You are already separated," the voice said. "Your hearts. Your minds. They will never be one. You will never know what it is like to be joined with another. Unless you relent."
"You talk too much!"
Using her crossed blades to grip her opponent's weapon, Asuka forced it to the side with a push of Unit-02's arms, grunting from the effort. She planted her right foot forward and spun, turning both knives in her palms so that the blades faced down, towards her forearms. As the mass production Eva stumbled backwards it moved into the path of Asuka's spin. It was still struggling with its balance when she shoved both knife blades into its spine. One of the blades, firmly lodged between an armored plate and the back of the skull, snapped.
As the limp white form slipped beneath the LCL, its disarmed twin again approached Unit-02. Asuka didn't even bother. Unit-02's right shoulder pylon opened wider and ejected a deadly stream of sharp metal spikes. Impaled from its midsection to its snout and thrown back by the force of multiple impacts, it crumbled into the LCL, only the severed stumps of its arms remaining above the surface.
Asuka spat, then wiped a forearm over her mouth. Then Unit-02 picked up one of the fallen spears from the carnage and rushed towards Shinji, LCL splashing around its legs.
Unit-01 was still moving back, now surrounded by the remaining four mass production Evas, their grins wide as ever. He held the prog-knife in front of him, but it felt like little comfort. For some inexplicable reason, the Evas refused to charge him.
"Do you not understand?" the voice said. "She would do anything for you. She would kill anyone. Yet you will only hurt her. Always, you will hurt her. Your words. You actions. Even your thoughts. Even when you don't mean to. You will hurt her. It is what you do."
Shinji couldn't help the sting in his chest that followed the words. "I won't hurt her. I promised I wouldn't!"
"Shinji, don't listen to it!" Asuka shouted.
With a swing of the spear, Unit-02 cleaved through the line of Evas between her and Shinji. The nearest unit shrieked as a powerful downward stroke buried the bladed weapon diagonally from the right shoulder to the narrow torso, almost cutting it in half. The shoulder ripped away, tearing the flesh in a huge bloody gash.
Tugging the spear lose from the sinking carcass, she swung it horizontally at the next Eva to her left. "YAAAHH!"
The slim torso posed no resistance as the heavy blade cleaved straight through it, sending the upper body tumbling and spraying blood in midair even as the severed legs collapsed into the LCL. The next Eva at least managed to bring up its spear and parry Asuka's, but she used her superior speed and momentum, and in a heartbeat had batted the defense aside. But before she could deliver the killing blow, the last remaining unit closed in, its weapon raised.
Shinji reacted instantly, throwing Unit-01 forward and tacking the mass production Eva around the waist, shoving it into the LCL. He couldn't see his target, but he could feel its body pressed under him. Still clutching his prog-knife, he stabbed with the humming blade repeatedly until it stopped moving.
By then Asuka had finished the other Eva, a blow to the head doing the job. The Eva Series had been destroyed.
Shinji took a deep, calming breath. He straightened up, and Unit-01 did the same, straddling the fallen body beneath it. He felt a gentle hand land on his shoulder and lifted his head to find Unit-02 standing over him.
"You okay?" Asuka asked, her voice badly hoarse.
He nodded, knowing Unit-01 would relay the gesture. Then he looked around. Crumpled, mangled humanoid bodies protruded above the surface like small islands. He was suddenly repulsed that he was capable of such destruction, and yet there was also pride. They had survived. Him and Asuka together.
Unit-02 placed its hands on its hips. "Only two out of a possible eight. That's pretty bad, even for such a talentless idiot," Asuka said. "But I guess it could have been worse. You should count yourself lucky I'm on your side."
The radio crackled.
A single hand shot out of the LCL and clamped around Unit-01's throat. Shinji barely managed to utter a choked whimper as his air supply was cut off. Then next thing he knew Unit-01 was being pulled down, beneath the surface. His vision outside the entry-plug became clouded by curtains of bubbles, but when they cleared, through an orange haze, he saw he was face to face with the mass production Eva's long snout.
Asuka was yelling, frantically trying to tug him away from it. He heard a muffled sound as the flesh on the Eva's oblong head began to blister and erupt, like it was being forced out from within. Four slits appeared, arranged in pairs of two on either side. Then the slits parted, revealing four round, bright blue eyes.
Shinji stared in frozen horror. His heart seemed to stop.
Even through the tint of the LCL he recognized that color and those eyes—that uncanny electric blue. They were there when he went to bed at night, and the first thing he saw in the morning. He loved those eyes. Asuka's eyes.
He was still staring as the white chevron-like plates on the Eva's chest armor cracked and opened with a crunching sound like bones breaking. A single dark sphere protruded from the broken armor amidst rising columns of bubbles as the LCL around it seemed to reach a boiling point.
The Eva's exposed core began to glow, spreading its heat to Shinji through Unit-01. There was a flash. And Shinji heard himself scream a split second before everything vanished into light.
Even the cicadas had gone quiet. As Hikari looked around and took in the scope of the devastation, that was what struck her the most.
Behind her, other students began cautiously emerging from the shelter they had been crowed into after the alert—oddly not issued by NERV as they usually were when under angel attack, but by the JSSDF itself. She didn't know how long ago that had been. It felt like days, but likely it was only hours.
Hikari had done this a hundred times. She knew exactly where to go and what to do. She knew they were supposed to stay in the shelters until the alert was cleared. They would be informed via the city-wide public address system of the situation, and, with a little luck, they'd be able to return to their school, their class, and their lives. But something had gone wrong. There had been a huge explosion, powerful enough to cause part of the underground shelter to collapse, injuring several students and killing two.
There was nothing after that. No radio bulletins, no emergency television broadcast, not even military announcements over the speakers. Nothing. It was as if the world outside had suddenly stopped being.
Hikari was a worrywart—Asuka had made sure to chastise her for it several times. But as someone who put a great deal of stock in respect and propriety, she couldn't help that in her nature. She liked things to be orderly, to follow a predictable pattern that allowed her to feel safe and content and in control. Days like today were the stuff of her nightmares. She'd thought she had gotten used to the alerts, and to the fact that every time they happened someone she knew or cared about ended up getting hurt. But actually witnessing two students being crushed by a falling ceiling had been the first time she saw someone die. And she couldn't help thinking of Asuka and Shinji and Rei, of the horrible things they had been through, of Toji and Keiko.
Death seemed to have brought all of it back, all at once. She had not bothered asking permission to leave the shelter. After sitting there quietly, her fear for her friends eating away at her, she had gotten up and sneaked outside, up a series of stairs to ground level.
The sky had turned an ashen gray. The air was thick with gray flakes, drifting lazily onto everything like snow. It hadn't snowed in Japan for fifteen years. Hikari had never seen it. She opened her mouth and let some of the flakes settle on her tongue. They tasted like concrete.
The streets all around her were empty, eerily quiet, and even the electronic sign denoting the location of the shelter below had stopped working. Every window she could see had been blown out, the buildings appearing like burned out husks; glass lay scattered on the roads and sidewalks, mixing with the concrete snow. There were empty cars, empty shops, everything empty.
And the silence … had everyone simply vanished?
"Hikari?" Kensuke whispered quietly behind her. "Why you don't you come back inside?"
She turned to him, saw the worried expression on his face. She didn't say anything. She hadn't said anything for a while. He approached her slowly, his shoes making a crunchy sound as he stepped across the pavement, leaving footprints in the gray dust and glass. The sound seemed to echo, magnified by the silence. He took her gently by the arm.
It was then Hikari understood he was worried for her. "I'm fine," she told him. "I just need to find Shinji and the others."
"No, you are not. You are shell-shocked."
Hikari shook her head. "I … I just …"
"Come on." He tugged her gently. "Asuka and Shinji have their Evas. I'm sure they've got things under control. You know we can't go anywhere until they clear the alert. And we need you inside. You know first aid."
Did she? Hikari couldn't remember.
Miho stepped in, her long black hair already becoming saturated by the dust. "What do you think Asuka would say if she saw you like this?"
Hikari found the statement rather ironic since Miho and Asuka had never gotten along. They were, ever since the redhead had come out of the hospital all those months ago, bitter rivals. Asuka was more likely to slap Miho in the face than go anywhere with her. But then, Asuka had never gotten along with Keiko either, and now they were actually friends. Hikari wouldn't have believed it if she hadn't seen the two of them together in Keiko's hospital room. Rei had been there, too, quiet as always.
But Miho was right. What would Asuka think of her if she saw her like this? In her mind, Hikari could hear the redhead's haughty voice telling her she was being stupid and that others needed her. As the Class Representative, it was her duty to help.
She had already made up her mind to go back with them, but a noise somewhere down the street stopped her. They all turned, peering into the gray mist as a group of ghostly figures materialized, walking towards them.
"Identify yourselves," someone called.
"We are students from Sengokuhara Junior High School, class 2-A," Hikari answered almost automatically, moving away from Kensuke and Miho to receive the new arrivals. "Who are you?"
As they came close, the question became rhetorical. Hikari saw military uniforms and weapons slung over shoulders. There were four of them; their faces were hidden by gas masks. The round lenses resembled large circular eyes, giving the human figures an otherworldly look that matched their surroundings perfectly. Kensuke needlessly pointed the uniforms out, as if Hikari couldn't see them for herself. Then he identified the rifles as some type or other.
"We didn't think there was anyone left in this part of the city," one of the soldiers said, approaching Hikari, Miho and Kensuke while the other soldiers joined the remaining students, who were now crowding around them like lost sheep. "How many of you are there?"
Standing in front of them, he was much taller and more intimidating than he had first seemed.
"From my class, sixteen. From the school, close to a hundred, I think. The teachers have class-by-class tallies. There's, um, two dead."
The words left a bitter taste in Hikari's mouth, like she was reducing two people's lives—students she had known—to just numbers.
The soldier removed the mask. Even through the layers of caked gray dust and the lines of weariness, Hikari recognized a hint of surprise on his face. "If you have teachers, why are you wandering around on your own?"
Hikari was suddenly ashamed of her behavior. "I …"
He waved off her answer. "Nevermind." He checked a piece of paper taped to his left wrist, then pulled a pencil from a pocket in his vest and wrote something down. "Sengokuhara. That means shelter number 67, correct?" He turned back to Hikari, who nodded. "There is a standing evacuation order for all civilians. No one is supposed to stay in the city. Triage and hazmat stations are being set up. They will take the wounded. The rest of you will come with us for special processing."
Hikari and Kensuke exchanged a heavy glance. "What do you mean?" Kensuke said, his voice rising. "What's 'special processing'?"
"It's classified. What's your name, miss?"
He wrote her name down on his wrist. "Hikari, get everyone together and assemble with your teacher. If any of you have handkerchiefs, put them over your nose and mouth." He gestured around him. "Breathing in this stuff can't be good for you." Evidently the other soldiers had instructed their classmates to do the same. The gaggle of students was now going through their pockets and tying handkerchiefs around their faces.
Hikari, Kensuke and Miho followed suit.
"I bet it's not good for your skin, either," Miho griped. "So much for moisturizing."
Hikari scowled at her as she finished tying her handkerchief around the back of her neck and tugged it down to cover her nose and mouth. But something about the pointless vanity inevitably reminded her of Asuka.
"Good. Now go on." The soldier turned his back and raised his voice. "Shiro, go with her and secure the bodies. I want positive IDs."
Another soldier trotted over to them. He was shorter than the first and didn't remove his mask to greet them.
"Wait," Hikari rushed to say, her concern finally getting the better of her. She stepped around the short soldier and addressed his superior. "We have friends inside the Geo-Front. Have you heard anything about what's happening there?"
He looked her over, not so much with impatience as with suspicion. Hikari found it strange, but she did her best to hide that fact from him. She also regretted asking the question.
"If your friends are smart they'll keep a low profile. Heroes don't usually make it out alive."
Unit-01 hit something, and Shinji's head snapped back. The world seemed to spin around him, and only when it settled and he began to feel the pain in his arms did he realize he was still conscious. Without any thought on his part, Unit-01 had brought up its arms to shield itself—and him—from the mass production Eva's blast. The purple armor on its forearms was melted away, revealing the brown flesh underneath. It was smoking.
To Shinji, it felt as if someone had tried to burn his skin. The blast had been strong enough to toss Unit-01 as far back as the nearest wall, which Shinji realized wasn't a wall at all. He was embedded into it, the area around Unit-01's body caved in, looking as if he had smashed into a metal slab.
A metal door.
"Shinji! Are you still there?" Asuka yelled over the radio. "Answer me, damn you!"
"Y-yeah," he groaned. "I'm okay." Unit-01 lowered its arms, allowing Shinji to see Unit-02 standing a few hundred yards in front of him. Asuka had again retrieved one of the spears and was holding it aloft, placing herself between him and the Eva Series.
Shinji stared, his breath catching in his aching chest. One after the other, the mangled remains of the mass production units rose from the LCL, curtains of the orange liquid pouring from severed stumps and deep lacerations. They were like walking corpses coming out of their graves. All of their cores were exposed, sets of four blue eyes on their featureless faces.
Asuka cursed, backing away. Shinji could not even manage that much. His mute, terrified gaze swept across the surreal scene in front of him. He heard a gurgling noise as the blunt stumps on the units which were missing limbs bulged out into pustular brown masses. And then the severed limbs regenerated.
Shinji clenched his teeth, fighting back the urge to curse. Then something hissed behind him, and Unit-01 was suddenly falling backwards, splashing down into the LCL like a massive tree, sinking almost instantly to the bottom. He pulled hard on his control sticks, making his Eva sit up.
As Unit-01's head and shoulders re-emerged above the surface, Shinji caught a glimpse of Asuka swinging the spear at the mangled forms of Eva Series, now on the other side of what appeared to be a doorway. They lunged at her in turns, testing her defenses. She had none of it. Severed brown arms were soon flying through the air, spraying geysers of dark blood. It took only a few seconds to grow them back—nearly as fast as Asuka could cut them off.
Apparently deciding that it was best to attack after all, Asuka rushed straight at the combined numbers of the Eva Series, roaring like a mad lion, the spear swirling in broad, cleaving arcs around her. The Eva Series hissed and howled. LCL splashed everywhere.
Shinji brought Unit-01 to its feet. He didn't need to look around to realize he had fallen into a new room but he did anyway. To his right, he saw a huge white creature, its face an inverted triangle with seven eyes, nailed to a red cross. It was humanoid, but the proportions were wrong. Beneath the creature was a concrete platform that filled the opposite side of the room. And on the platform he saw two faces—faces he knew.
And one of those faces belonged to someone he had lost, someone whom he had wished countless times he could meet again, someone he missed very much.
He must have been dreaming. It couldn't be true. And yet there it was: that tousled mop of white hair, those glimmering red yes. His heart swelled, tears of joy flooding his vision.
Shinji rushed to his friend, LCL sloshing around Unit-01's legs. Every other concern seemed to vanish from his mind. But only when he was within arm's reach did Shinji realize something wasn't quite right. Kaworu was dressed in the same black military uniform worn by the soldiers who had earlier tried to kill Asuka and him. He was kneeling behind Rei, who sat naked on the platform, his hand around her throat. Shinji locked eyes with her and noticed her fear and distress, transmitted to him through the Eva's simulated canopy as clearly as if he were standing right there with her.
Looming over them, casting them in Unit-01's shadow, Shinji flicked his thumb over his control stick, activating the Eva's outside speakers and microphone. "K-Kaworu?" his voice quivered. "Is that really you?"
The white-haired boy fixed him with a glare. His eyes were all wrong. The tenderness Shinji remembered just wasn't there. In its place was a kind of primordial malice. His lips moved, and the voice, when it came, was emotionless yet familiar.
"Shinji Ikari. We finally meet face to face. I have heard much about you."
Shinji shook his head.
It didn't make sense. None of it did. Why were they here? Why was Kaworu talking like he had never met Shinji before? Why did he sound like that? Kaworu had died, hadn't he? By Shinji's own hand. He had died, and left a gaping wound behind.
"Shinji," Rei whispered, her voice weak and pained. "He is not who he seems."
Shinji swallowed a growing lump in his throat, the overwhelming joy at seeing Kaworu quickly tapering off in sudden uncertainty. "Kaworu, what's going on?"
"Do not call me that," the voice said. "The being you knew as Kaworu Nagisa is dead. I have his body, but it is just a shell. My mind is my own."
Shinji had heard similar words before, from Rei Ayanami herself: 'I am not her. I share her name, but not the other things attached to it. Because I am not her.' It had been so difficult to draw a line between the two girls. But at least he had seen the bodies. How could there be another Kaworu?
Then Asuka screamed.
Eyes going wide, Shinji turned Unit-01 around just as Unit-02 came rolling through the open door. It vanished beneath the LCL and when it stood again Shinji saw there was huge gash on its right flank. The spear was gone, and now the red Evangelion had only its hands to defend herself. The Eva Series poured through the door after it, a mass of hissing mouths and sharp teeth, some of them with spears and some without. Their multiple blue eyes glowed as if lit from within.
Shinji looked at the window showing Asuka's face; she was wincing in pain, but her expression was furious. "Hold on!"
He took a step towards Unit-02.
The air around Unit-01 suddenly seemed to grow heavy, slowing it down. Thin streaks of rainbow-colored light appeared to cling to Unit-01's arms and torso as it moved, and the air itself distorted, like ripples in water.
Then Unit-01 came to a stop altogether, frozen. The streaks bent, enveloping the purple Evangelion, thousands of bindings made of shimmering light. Inside the entry-plug, Shinji could still move. He didn't understand what was happening. He tugged urgently at the control sticks on either side of him.
Shinji could only stare as Unit-02 charged the closest mass production Eva, its pilot roaring like a mad woman. Asuka was impossibly quick, and before her opponent could bring up its spear she had smashed into it, sending both of them tumbling into the LCL. Unit-02 planted its right foot on the fallen Eva, which was now on its back. Pushing the spear away with a hand, Unit-02 grabbed an arm with the other. And pulled.
The sound of tearing flesh was sickening even over Asuka's furious bellow. Shinji saw the brown skin and muscles of the thing's right arm rip almost like rubber, a small white stump hinting at the broken bone among the formless masses of flesh.
But for all her brutality, Asuka took too long. Three more mass production models had closed on her from three sides. Shinji lunged forwards, willing Unit-01 to move, to come to Asuka's aid. She needed him. More than ever, she needed him. Unit-01 wouldn't budge. The ribbons of light—Shinji now recognized them as some kind of AT Field—tightened, holding Unit-01 firmly in place.
"I will not allow you interfere," Kaworu's voice said.
Shinji whipped his head around, back towards Kaworu and Rei on the concrete platform. "Kaworu … "
"Do not call me that, stupid boy." Kaworu let go of Rei and stood behind her. He grabbed Rei's hair, yanking her head upwards, forcing her to look at Shinji. "The only reason you are still alive is because I wanted her to see. And you will see."
"Why are you doing this?" Shinji found his voice trembling, betraying his fear. "I don't understand. We were friends."
"I am not your friend!" the voice yelled, showing emotion for the first time. "I hate you. I hate that she chose you over me. And you will watch as I reclaim what is mine. I was one with her. I shared her mind. You could never give her that. I will unite with her, and then there will be no more boundaries. Eight is not enough. She will be my ninth."
Unit-02 spun, swinging the severed arm like a club, smashing one of the incoming Eva units across the head. It teetered sideways, losing its balance. Still spinning, Asuka chucked the arm at yet another of her attackers. The limb hit squarely on the chest and bounced off harmlessly. Then Unit-02 extended its hands, palms out, and Asuka extended her AT Field. The air sizzled with energy, and the three attacking Evas stumbled backwards, splashing into the LCL.
It was a desperate fight, and one she clearly couldn't win.
The first mass production unit had already regenerated its arm. It rose up, shoulders slouched, its movements overtly exaggerated as it drove the spear forward into Unit-02's AT Field.
"Asuka, look out!"
Unit-02 turned just in time, extending its AT Field. A wall of concentric octagonal lines flashed in front of the spear. The massive weapon embedded itself in the AT Field, but it didn't penetrate it. The air trembled with projected energy. Asuka groaned from the effort. And slowly, so very slowly, the spear moved back.
And then it changed; the metal—or whatever it was made out of—seemed to twist on itself, melting into two long prongs that resembled an oversized cooking fork. The prongs spiraled together into a handle, creating a shape Shinji had seen before.
He heard Asuka gasp in surprise as the prongs easily pierced her AT Field. The spear flew forward, unstoppable, and impaled the left side of Unit-02's face.
The scream that followed was so terrifying and blood-chilling that it took a full second after impact for Shinji to realize it was Asuka's.
A single spike of agony exploded inside Asuka's head, as if a giant nail had been driven into her eye socket with a sledgehammer. She felt the pressure from the feedback, far beyond anything she had experienced before, and an instant later felt her left eyeball burst like a crushed egg. The pain was unbearable. Her head jerked back, her left hand reaching up instinctively to clutch at the wound, her body arching violently in her seat, writhing, trying uselessly to escape the pain.
She didn't recognize her own scream. She didn't know that she could make such a horrible sound. But she knew it was hers. She heard Shinji crying her name, over and over. The spear had gone all the way through Unit-02's head. Then, as the spear was forced down, Unit-02 arched backwards, until it was stopped by the spear tips jamming into the floor. The red Evangelion became impaled by its head.
Blood flowing from beneath her gloved hand and down the left side of her face, Asuka gritted her teeth and willed back the pain. Using her remaining eye, she looked outside Unit-02's simulated canopy and saw she was surrounded, white menacing shapes closing in all around her. She grasped the control stick tightly on her right side and pushed it frantically up. Unit-02's right arm jutted out, catching one of the encroaching mass production Evas by the throat, holding it at bay.
The inside of her entry-plug was hot and stifling, alarms beeping loudly from her main console demanding attention. Her synch-ratio was sky high—much too high. There was a price to pay for that: she was one with Unit-02, and whatever they did to it they were doing to her.
The Eva Series clustered around her. Their wide mouths, some of which were missing quite a lot of teeth, curled up into grotesque grins. Their snouts were mangled and misshaped, the result of her assaults. Although they had regenerated, most of them had lost a limb to her. And there was nothing she could do. She couldn't move. Unit-02 was pinned and defenseless.
Out of the corner of her one eye she saw Unit-01 standing there like a statue, not moving, not coming to her aid. She didn't understand. Nothing made sense anymore. And for the first time since her mother died, Asuka truly felt like a frightened little girl—a toddler,crying and clutching a stuffed toy for comfort. She realized that she had always been that girl. No matter how much she had grown up, or how strong and brave she had become, she had always been afraid. Her whole life.
And now it was too late. The future she had imagined with Shinji would never happen. She had run out of time after all. She had lost.
That made her angry. She didn't want to lose. She didn't want to die. More than anything, she didn't want to die.
"Mama," Asuka called out.
Unit-02 groaned. It moved on its own. Asuka felt the muscles on its back tense as it tried to straighten up, heard the vertebrae and armored plates strain from the effort. The spear wouldn't budge, wedged as it was into the cavern's concrete floor, the other end held firmly by a mass production unit. She simply had no leverage.
In a final, desperate bid for self-preservation, Asuka extended her right arm towards Unit-01 … to Shinji. Unit-02 mimicked her.
Then a mouth appeared out of nowhere, the jaws closing around Unit-02's outstretched forearm and clenching. Asuka screamed again as she felt the bones in the arm crushing. Suddenly there were hands all over her, crawling over her body, grabbing her, opening her, just like in one of her nightmares. She realized they were actually grabbing Unit-02. Asuka couldn't tell how many were around her; they seemed to be everywhere. She kept her eye on Unit-01's frozen form.
The hands tightened, grabbing Unit-02's armor around the chest, torso and shoulders, and began ripping the armor off. Asuka's mouth shot open into a scream. It felt as if her skin was being peeled off from her flesh. And as she screamed, she writhed, rolling violently from side to side in her seat in a hopeless attempt to wring herself lose. She planted her feet on the console and pushed, forcing her body into an arch. The armor was slowly stripped away, leaving only Unit-02's brown flesh underneath. Then hundreds of teeth sank into her as the Eva Series bit down on the exposed flesh from all sides. Burning pain spread outwards from the bites.
Within moments something began protruding from the cylindrical walls of her entry-plug, resembling black vein-like tendrils. Even in her state she knew Unit-02 was being contaminated. The dark tendrils moved in, a cancerous growth reaching out to her, converging from the wall and over the sides of her seat.
Asuka tried to recoil, but it made no difference. They touched her and almost instantly began eating into her suit, digging into her flesh, spreading over her body slender body. One by one, the glowing sensor disks burned out.
Her single blue eye was wide and trembling, her once pretty face twisted and distorted in agony, her mouth gaping as she screamed, saliva running down her chin. Feeling the tendrils writhe inside of her, she dared not look down at herself for fear of what she might see through the transparent material of her suit. She was on fire, like being melted alive by acid. She heard Shinji shouting for her through the radio, and her own screams rose up to match him.
"You will not reject me again," a shrill voice said. It sounded like a younger version of her own. She couldn't tell if it was coming from the radio or inside her head.
The tendrils moved up, twisting inside of her, crawling up her spine as her long legs continued shoving and kicking uselessly against her console. But finally Asuka understood what was happening. It could have killed her already if it wanted to. It didn't. Like before, it meant to break her. For whatever reason, it wanted her alive.
There was only one thing Asuka could do now. She squeezed her remaining eye shut, her face a twisted snarl, every muscle in the young body tight, and she resisted.
The tendrils continued moving, pounding into her skull, invading her, violating her in every way that a human being could be violated. Her world turned to pain.
But she resisted.
Inside Unit-01's entry-plug, Shinji was going crazy. Asuka's screams filling his ears, he pushed and pulled frantically at the Eva's control sticks. He couldn't think anymore. He didn't care that Kaworu was there—it was obvious now this wasn't the same boy he had befriended. All that he knew was that he needed to save Asuka.
"Please move!" he shouted at the top of his lungs, as much to Unit-01 as to himself. He felt the ribbons holding down Unit-01 beginning to exert pressure on his own limbs. They were like wires digging into his flesh.
Outside, Shinji saw that the areas where the Eva Series were biting Unit-02 had become a dark black. It looked as if the skin had begun to bubble, like it was being boiled. Thick black drool poured from their mouths, seeping into the wounds made by the jagged teeth. The black taints extended slowly, covering more and more of the exposed flesh, resolving into a vein-like pattern at the edges. There were six of the white Evangelions around the disarmed red one, biting it and holding it down.
Asuka struggled, but she was impaled by the head and there was nothing she could do. A part of Shinji was relieved that the video feed from her entry-plug had faded into static—he didn't want to see the images that went with such a horrific scene. But he could still hear her.
He had to do something. Frustration, anger, and desperation all mounted. He continued yanking violently at the sticks. When he couldn't take the sight of Unit-02 being contaminated anymore, he shut his eyes. Then he felt the tears running down his cheeks.
Kaworu—or whoever it was—spoke again, "Why do you resist?"
"Get away from me!" Asuka screamed, her voice barely recognizable.
Shinji's heart sank in his chest.
"I do not wish to hurt you," the voice replied. "I want to be one with you. My mind is meant to be shared—I cannot achieve my purpose alone. I am meant to join with others. But there is only one who I want to share myself with. I have felt your pain. All your life you have been alone and in pain. I wish to relieve you of that suffering. Why is that so bad?"
"You fuck!" The ragged edge of anger was audible even over the pain in Asuka's voice. "I will never share anything with you! I hate you!"
"Why resist? What does he have that I lack? He can never truly make you happy. And you know it. In the end, you will be alone. I will always be with you, and you will never be alone again."
"I would rather be alone! You don't know me! You don't understand me! You are just a thing!"
"No," the voice said, and Shinji could plainly hear the emotion in it now. Kaworu's soft drone had vanished, and in its place was anger. "I do understand. I understand that humans cannot know the depth of their own suffering. You live in denial, and derive happiness from your ignorance. I will release you from your delusion."
"Get away from me!" Asuka was screaming again. "Mama, make him stop! He's hurting me!"
"She abandoned you. You have spent your entire life trying to heal the wounds she left behind. Trying and failing. You cannot be happy as long as her memory haunts you."
Shinji heard a crunching sound. His eyes opened and he saw the Eva Series were lifting Unit-02's mangled body, supporting it with their arms and keeping it clenched in their mouths. One of them gripped the shaft of the spear and slowly began to pull it out. Unit-02 struggled feebly. It's right arm was clearly shattered. With most of its upper armor removed, its dark spherical core lay exposed.
As the prongs of the spear slid free, leaving two huge punctures on the left side of Unit-02's head, blood poured out in a geyser. At least one of its two left eyes was completely gone, and the other hung by a thread of muscle tissue. The red Evangelion could no longer stand on its own.
Shinji stared in horror. The mass production Eva held the spear aloft … then, with immense force, drove it down against Unit-02's core. Asuka screamed, a ragged howl of agony. The twin spear tips buried themselves into the hard surface, cracking the core. Somehow, it did not collapse.
Shinji gripped his control sticks so tightly it hurt and shoved them forwards as hard as he could. "Please move!" he shouted at the top of his lungs, tears streaming down his face. "Please!"
Unit-01 pitched forward, straining the bonds holding it in place. The ribbons cut into its armor, shredding it and causing pieces of it to fall off. Shinji felt them on his own body. The pain was excruciating. But he didn't care. His face was wild, his wide open eyes fixed on Unit-02 and Asuka as the mass production Eva extracted the spear, leaving behind two small holes. The Eva raised the spear again, slowly, as if to allow its victim time to realize what was happening to her.
"Stop!" Asuka cried as Unit-02 feebly tried to raise its left hand. "Stop! You'll kill her!"
The spear came down again, the twin prongs penetrating Unit-02's already damaged core. The mass production unit twisted its hands around the narrow shaft, causing a forest of spikes to spring up seemingly out of the solid material, impaling its hands. Black blood flowed thickly from the wounds and ran down the length of the spear shaft, pouring over Unit-02's core and spreading over the spherical surface in a cloud of smoke like acid. The core's surface began to warp, growing swollen as the corruption sent black tendrils crawling all over it … and into it.
Asuka did not stop screaming.
"I will save you," Kaworu's voice said. "From her and from yourself. You are broken inside. I will make you whole again."
Shinji frantically pulled on the control sticks and Unit-01 moved slowly forward. The circular sensors on his suit glowed red hot. Emergency sirens blared inside the entry-plug. "Please move!"
One by one, the rainbow ribbons began to snap as their individual AT Fields collapsed. The air sizzled with energy and power, shimmering. The LCL around him began to bubble like water in an overheated cooking pot, boiling.
The ribbons finally ripped; Unit-01 lunged. Shinji instinctively put up his hands. The bright octagon patterns of an AT Field appeared in mid-air, pressing into Unit-01's bare palms like a giant transparent wall. It burned, as if he had his hands up against scalding metal.
Shinji winced, but he kept pushing, causing the AT Field to bend outwards. He put all his strength into it, and knew that Unit-01 was pushing with him. The AT Field enveloped its hands. The burning sensation grew worse. Shinji could feel his hands blistering, the skin cracking and peeling back under the gloves of his suit. He groaned through tightly clenched teeth, in agonizing pain.
"Mother!" Shinji cried out. He kept pushing. "I know you can hear me!"
The AT Field bowed out, distorting light around it, releasing energy in waves. The air shivered; what was left of Unit-01's purple armor began to melt, its slanted eyes glowing brightly.
He kept pushing.
And then everything was quiet, as if the whole world had suddenly paused. Then Shinji heard the sound of a single drop splashing on water. His mind was suddenly blank, and it was as though he had opened his eyes after a long night. He felt a connection, deeper than anything that came before.
Unit-01 roared, stretching forward, muscles straining. Its eyes were ablaze, like the sensors on Shinji's suit, bright red circles like red suns, radiating heat and unrestrained power. He didn't understand what it meant; just that he had to push harder.
But suddenly there was nothing to push against. The AT Field split, like a curtain being cut with a knife.
And Unit-01 was free at last.
Before Shinji could think it, his Eva was racing forward. The impact was teeth jarring as Unit-01 slammed into the mass production unit holding the spear and assaulting Asuka's defenseless core—armor and bones and flesh came together, crushed and dented. The white Evangelion crumbled into a broken pile and let go of the spear.
Shinji turned Unit-01 around to face the rest of the Eva Series. His face was furious; he had never felt such rage and power coursing through him before. And he knew there was to be no more running away, no more hiding behind the strength of others, no more craving words of praise from his father or anyone else or being afraid to let others down.
Those things were not important. But this was. His whole life had been lived for this moment. He was always meant to be here, between Asuka and suffering.
"Get away from her!" Shinji lunged. He wrapped Unit-01's his hands around the back of the nearest mass production unit's neck and pulling it away from Unit-02 with such violence that he felt the vertebrae at the base of the skull dislocate.
Slowly, the rest of the Eva Series released their grip on Unit-02, leaving behind festering bite marks oozing black pus where their teeth had sank into the unarmored brown flesh, which was now colored black and rotten in appearance. They turned their heads towards Unit-01, a forest of round blue eyes bristling at him. By then Shinji had crushed the neck of the Eva unit in his hands and tossed it aside.
The voice yelled over the radio, filling the entry-plug with its unrestrained anger. "She is mine. If you fight, you will die for nothing."
"I won't let you hurt her anymore!" Shinji roared.
Unit-01 did the same, slumping forward and uttering a wall-shaking bellow, smoking hands turned to claws, burning eyes glaring at the beasts in front of it.
Letting the badly mauled Unit-02, the spiked spear still protruding from its core, sink beneath the LCL, the mass production Evangelions began to spread out in a semicircle, their movements lumbering and awkward. Shinji followed them with his eyes, his whole body tensed, waiting. There was silence.
Then, their tooth-filled mouths snapping open, they pounced.
Rei watched as the first of the white Evangelions smashed into Unit-01, followed by its twins.
For a moment, they were all tangled in a shapeless ball of limbs and teeth. Unit-01 disappeared from view, swallowed up by the combined mass of its attackers. Then the white Evas were thrown back as if by an invisible explosion, flailing and screeching into the LCL. The impact of so many large bodies displaced a huge amount of liquid and generated a tidal wave which overflowed the edge of the platform.
Rei ducked her head, shielding it with her arm, as the wave crested and washed over her. The white-haired boy towering next to her used his AT Field to keep the LCL at bay. The wave hit her squarely, sending her tumbling backwards, rolling and suddenly weightless as she plunged under the surface. The sound of rushing water, like thunder, filled her ears. When the wave receded, she was lying on her stomach, her face pressed to the concrete, drenched head to toes in LCL.
Lifting her head, she saw that Unit-01 was alone, unmolested; it's slanted eyes glowed. Rei could feel the anger and desperation to save the one he loved that fueled the actions of its pilot, as she had felt the terror and agony of the Second Child—and could still feel her, crying out in the back of her mind like a frightened child calling for mother. But these emotions, painfully raw as they were, were not unexpected. What really surprised her was the change that had begun to occur in the being with Kaworu Nagisa's form.
Rei struggled to her knees as Unit-01 charged.
The purple Evangelion grabbed the closest enemy by the neck with both hands, blistered fingers digging into the white flesh, lifting it into the air. Bones crunched sickeningly; the Eva went limp. Unit-01 turned around, just as two other opponents approached it, and tossed the broken Eva into their midst. They crumpled into a pile. Unit-01 lowered its head, pitching forward. Something about its gait seemed animalistic, more primate than human. It lunged at the fallen units with its mouth, ripping into their flesh, tearing huge pieces of it. Blood sprayed out all around it.
Three more Evas closed in. Unit-01, blood and bits of flesh dripping from its mouth, turned and plowed its head into the nearest attacker. It balked backward, but it didn't fall. Unit-01 plunged headlong into it, lifting it high on its shoulders like a bull ramming a bullfighter. Rei heard the sound of armor and bones crunching under the force of the blow. Unit-01 shoved the other Eva to the far end of the cavern, smashing it up against the curved wall. Even as it did this, the other units began to regenerate.
Once again, Rei got up, dripping LCL, her short blue hair soaked. The cavern's hot air was full of energy, stroking her pale white skin. It felt similar to being naked on a hot rainy day, when thunderstorms would cause the humidity to rise steeply, loading the air with water particles. Her apartment had never been climatized, and it was more comfortable to simply not wear any clothes rather than stain them with sweat; she had spent countless hours sitting on her bed, looking out of the window at the rain.
Rei focused on the sensations around her—the pain and the anger—and let them flow into her. She wasn't a part of them, though she shared such emotions herself. But she was a witness. She knew the future was being decided here and now, and that people who were very important to her were in great danger. She couldn't just stand by.
Then, before she knew how it happened, her dislocated shoulder was back in place, as if her joint had lost its cohesion only long enough for it to regain its shape.
Unit-01 now had the other Eva pinned against the wall, and was pounding it mercilessly with its fists. The long white snout had already disappeared into a formless mass; sharp, broken teeth dangled from a unhinged jaw. It was no good—the white Eva would not stop moving. It would not die.
The boy still stood near the edge of the platform. Unlike before, when he had projected an sense of control and confidence, he now seemed extraordinarily angry. Rei couldn't see his face, turned to the battle in front of him, but his hands had turned to fists.
Rei decided to take her chances. She ran towards him, her bare feet making soft padding noises on the concrete. He didn't see her coming.
The impact knocked the air out of her lungs, but she managed to wrap her arms around the boy's waist and use her momentum to take both of them to the ground. Rei stayed on top as they landed, straddling him with her nude form, rolling him onto his back. She pressed one of her hands against his shoulder, and the other reached for his throat. Then she saw his face … and stopped.
His red eyes glared at her, brimming with anger. There were tears running down his cheeks.
In the distance, Unit-01 opened its mouth impossibly wide, teeth glinting in the dim lighting. They flashed for an instant before the purple Evangelion brought its mouth down on its opponent's exposed core. The dark sphere seemed to sink further into the chest, but Unit-01 gripped it between its jaws, hands planted on the other Eva's shoulder. Neck muscles flexing visibly, Unit-01 bit into the core. There was a noise like nails on a chalkboard, followed by a high-pitched shriek from the white Evangelion as the core cracked and exploded into a torrent of blood and fragments.
The Eva jerked violently, writhing under Unit-01's weight and foaming at the mouth. Its wide open blue eyes rolled back into white. And then, with an almost pitiful whimper, it died.
Unit-01 turned as another of the white Evas came sprinting towards it, hoisting its double-tipped spear up. There was no time to react; the long spear pierced completely through Unit-01's shoulder, its twin prongs emerging from the armored shoulder blade on the other side. Rei felt the sharp stab of pain. But as the Eva came closer, snapping its mouth, Unit-01 kicked it with brutal force. The attacker stumbled clumsily backwards. Unit-01 grabbed the spear shaft and ripped it from its hands.
Then Unit-01 pulled the spear out from its shoulder and lunged forward. Before the white Eva could even begin to regain its footing, Unit-01 jammed the spear into its dark core with a powerful downward strike. Such was the force that the core punctured cleanly, without cracking. The prongs emerged almost to their full length from the armored plates on its back. The white Eva hissed, rolling out its tongue, and flopped down lifelessly into the LCL.
Rei felt it die. The white-haired boy beneath her clutched a hand to his chest, and she could guess that he felt it as well. She was beginning to understand. They stared at each other. At any moment Rei expected that he would extend his AT Field and throw her off.
But no AT Field materialized.
"What do you want?" the boy said. "I have no further interest in you."
"They are my friends. I will fight you because they need me to."
He frowned. "What is this compulsion to self-sacrifice? You would rather lose your life than relinquish a single person, a stranger who cannot help but hurt you. I have seen her mind. She hates you. I know it."
Rei knew she had to make him understand—it was the only way to end this. Coming to grips with her own feelings had been a slow, gradual process. And she had been lucky to have Shinji and Keiko, and the Second to a lesser extent, to guide her. She had asked questions and found some of the answers on her own. But they had given her immediate examples, and shown her by their words and actions the complexity of human behavior. And, over that time, she had gone from being a completely blank page to a fully-realized diary of her experience. She had coped and accepted, and was herself accepted.
This being, however, had none of that. All the emotions that the human heart was capable of were crashing down on him, all at once, and it was overwhelming. It would be to anyone. It was as if he had been born yesterday, with the complete cognitive capabilities of a superior intellect, but lacking the ability to express fundamental emotions because he had never learned how. Never had he been taught how to cope with them.
But they were the same, and if she could learn so could he.
"It is because I have a bond," Rei said. "Human beings experience many feelings as they grow, over many years. But even they have trouble understanding them. For me, my feelings were just sensations in my chest, as if my body knew what it was supposed to feel but my mind could not relate to them. They were inherited, from someone I used to be. In time, I developed my own as well. And they became my bonds."
Rei returned her gaze to the battle. Unit-01 was sprinting forward, driving the spear into yet another opponent. She could almost hear Shinji scream. Three other Eva units were instantly on him.
"All through their lives, humans form a multitude of bonds to others and more complex feelings—love, happiness, anger, hatred, countless others. And those feelings come to define their relationships to one another. Though I was not like them, they accepted me, and made me part of themselves. And they are part of me. Because we are connected through our bonds, and the feelings attached to them." She looked down at the boy. "You should at least understand that."
"I do not," he spat. "I have no feelings."
"Why are you crying?"
The boy seemed shocked as he reached up, rubbing the back of his gloved hand over his eyes. He stared at the spot his tears made on the thick black material. "Why … " he said slowly. "Why am I crying?"
"Because it hurts," Rei said. "To want someone who does not want you in return. I know that feeling. But you can not force your way into someone's heart. You cannot force them to want to be with you."
He was angry. "That is ridiculous. Only your ignorance would have you say such nonsense. I am above such petty emotions."
"Are you?" Rei held her ground. "I always wondered what made someone cry," she said. "At first it seemed contradictory—to cry when you are sad, but also cry when you are happy. I saw Shinji do both. But it is not the emotions themselves that matter, it is that you can cry that is important. It is a physical representation of what a sentient mind is capable of."
"I am not like them."
Rei shook her head. "You said we were the same, and I can feel these emotions. That means you can as well."
His hand shot up, grasping her around the neck. She made a strangled noise as he forced her head up. Rei tried to pry the hand away from her. It was much too strong. Instead, she reached down, and placed her palm on his cheek. A sudden calm came over her.
The anger seemed almost natural. Countless times Rei had been the target of the Second's anger without being at fault—now she understood that it was not necessarily anything she did, but how the other girl had felt on the inside. Anger was there as an outward expression of the pain and hurt she dared not show anyone, very much like crying. It was the same mechanism.
Rei closed her eyes, ignoring the fingers on her throat. And even in the darkness of her mind, she could see him. The space around them fell away into nothingness, as if they were lying in a black void.
And then she was standing in an ocean of LCL, stretching as far as she could see. It lapped at her thighs, creating small ripples. Behind her rose a black tree, with boney, leafless branches stretching out skywards like dozens of decaying fingers. There were faces carved into the tree, showing pained expressions. At the base of the tree, on a small hill of black land, sat a nude boy, his ash-gray hair frayed and disheveled, his skin as pale white as Rei's own.
He was curled up tightly, his face hidden behind his knees, sobbing quietly. Even from a distance, Rei could see the many bruises on his body, ugly dark blotches on the otherwise ghostly skin. He was surrounded by black, root-like appendages, some of which seemed to penetrate parts of his body. Lying in front of him was a tattered red plugsuit with an orange midsection. It was empty, resembling a suit of flayed skin.
"Why are you here?" the boy asked, not raising his head.
"I want to understand." Rei looked around. "I have seen this before. Is this your mind?"
"This is my construct. The gateway to my consciousness."
"I see. But it is also your prison," Rei said. "You were alone here. Always alone. And so you fear loneliness. Just as the Second does."
The boy scoffed, bare shoulders tensing visibly.
"You forced the Second to share her mind with you," Rei said, walking closer to the tree. As she set foot on the hill, she noticed the sand was very warm. "But such connections are reciprocal. It is the same with the Eva—the synchronization of the pilot creates a bond. So you created a bond to her, and that made you who you are now. You cry because you feel what being human is like—to be alone, to be rejected by others. And it hurts."
He said nothing.
"You have to accept it," Rei said. She looked at tree, and something primal within her revolted at the sight of such decay.
"You are not welcome here," the boy retorted, his voice growing angry. "Your mind is weak and infected. You cannot conceive of my reality, let alone understand it. Leave."
Rei stood next to him and looked down. "Did the Second ask you to leave her?"
"Did it hurt?"
That was the key. He might be able to deny what he felt, but not the fact that he felt it. The emotions he claimed not to have were still there, even if he was unable to define them properly—just as Rei had been.
"I know how you feel," Rei said, her voice soft. "You feel anger, desire. You want her because you believe that she can understand you. In her own loneliness, you believe that perhaps she will know what it is like. But she does not want you. All the power in the world cannot change that."
He shook his head, slipping his hands into his hair. His body tensed up in an even tighter ball, shoulders rising, muscles constricting.
Rei reached out and placed a hand on his shoulder. "You have to accept it. Being hurt is not an excuse to hurt others. You are like me, but you are also like them. You can understand, as I did. You do not have to be alone."
"You understand nothing," the boy growled.
"No!" the boy bellowed, furiously shaking his head, long fingers knotted among locks of white hair. "I am not like them. I don't want this!"
"Nobody wants to be rejected."
With a spasmodic jerk, the boy raised his head and fixed his eyes on Rei again. They were wide, mad. Rei suddenly felt a chill run up her spine. His eyes burned into her.
Something had broken in them.
"NO!" The boy's face split into a grin. Then it became a snarl. "I am not like them—I will have what I want. This time, I will have what I want!"
Rei struggled against the urge to step back, fear beginning to rise inside of her. "You do not have to—"
The boy laughed. "You understand nothing. I am alone. That is the purpose of the AT Field—of this human body. But no more. If this is what being human feels like, all the more reason it shall be destroyed. And you along with them."
He lunged violently, shoving Rei away from him. The albino girl stumbled backwards, caught her heel on a nearby root and fell to the ground. He towered over her, hands made into fists, his eyes glowing with anger and hatred.
Rei held her breath, suddenly frozen in the horror of that vision. Then she felt something grasp her right wrist. She looked down just in time to see a black root take a hold of her arm and squeeze, moving her arm away from her body. A second root grasped her left arm and two more around her ankles, spreading her open on the black sand.
"It is your own fault," the boy said. "The Second thought she could fight me, too. Now she is broken. Humans are all the same—they fight because they believe they have a future. What future is there in pain and hurt? What future is there in loneliness? You feel those things and you take them as absolute. You have never known a life without them."
Rei felt a sudden stabbing pain at the small of her back.
"But I have." He stepped over her. "The end of the AT Field is the end of that future—and the end of pain and hurt and loneliness. The ultimate solution to the human problem. My solution."
And it was then that Rei felt her AT Field eroding. Her warm body grew softer and softer as it began to lose its solid form.
Rei looked down at herself and stared in terror as her smooth flesh started to sag like soggy clay. Her face grew overlong as it melted, until the graceful outline of her jaw vanished completely, fusing with her neck and shoulders. Soon all that remained of her pretty features was a pair of red eyes and an odd bump where her nose had been. Her blue mane slid off like a wig, leaving behind a bald lump of a head.
All vestiges of pretty girlhood and human form slowly melted away. Her arms became little more than floppy noodles. Her breasts sank into her chest, but her stomach bulged outward and a single black root wormed its way upwards. When she finally lost the ability to hold her head up and it flopped back onto the sand, her once shapely teenage body had been reduced to a sort of shapeless mass.
By then she couldn't talk.
The boy dropped to his knees, straddling what was left of her waist. "You brought this on yourself."
Rei choked back a sob, her body now a thick white-colored puddle on the black earth. The roots which had penetrated her retreated back underground like the cadre of snakes they resembled. She stared up at him.
For a moment she couldn't think of anything, her mind locked in shock and uncomprehending horror. She began to shake, almost in tears and made a noise that was half groan and half whimper.
The boy tilted his head back and laughed; the crazed grin on his face spread almost ear to ear.
Rei knew she had made a terrible mistake. She had assumed that she could talk to this being, and help him realize his own potential as she had done with Keiko. She had seen the display of his emotion and thought that perhaps he was not so different, that there was good in him because good was inherent in all thinking beings. If, despite their many flaws, humans were capable of it, then anything was possible.
But she was wrong.
Having never been able to place the context of human interaction to what he felt, he simply was unable to cope with his emotions on even the most basic levels. They still existed, because of what he was, but without the ability to deal with them they were little more than raw materials and instincts. And instinct could not be reasoned with, only acted on.
It was like being insane, Rei belatedly realized. That was what she now saw on his face—he had been driven insane by his own suppressed emotions, by the endless potential of a superior mind shackled to the vulnerable, imperfect reality of human bonds and the human heart. And she had done it. She had pushed him towards it. Those she cared about were going to die, and it was her fault.
And then, for the first time in her life, the tears did come.
Rei opened her eyes, a strangled moan escaping her lips. She looked down and saw the boy lying underneath her, his hands around her neck. His expression was deranged; red eyes wide, mouth twisted into a snarl. Tears were no longer streaming down his face, but they were from hers. She realized she still had a hand pressed against his cheek. She quickly pulled it away.
There was an awful rending noise above them. Their heads turned in unison, just as the mangled carcass of one of the white Eva units plopped down on the platform less than a hundred feet from them, crushing the concrete slabs under it with its massive weight. Its right arm had been torn off. As it rolled onto its stomach and attempted to push itself up, a spear impaled it from behind, the prongs emerging from the core and pinning it to the ground.
Rei followed the shaft of the spear with her gaze, until it reached Unit-01's blistered hands. Most of the purple Evangelion's armor was gone, and what little remained was dented and scuffed beyond all recognition. The left side of its head was caved in, as if it had received a huge blow. What had not changed were the eyes, slanted and angry, lit from within, and the rush of its pilot's emotions.
Behind Unit-01 was a graveyard. The remains of the Eva Series lay scattered about, broken limbs, stumps, chunks of armor and unidentifiable body parts rising out of the LCL like a small collection of jagged islands. And somewhere in that graveyard, below the surface, lay Unit-02.
The hands holding her neck flexed, and Rei was tossed aside. Lying on the platform yet again, she made no attempt to get up. It seemed like that was all she had done, and the end result was that someone important to her had suffered. She didn't want to cause anyone any more pain.
Then, with a small jolt, Rei was surprised to find that she could still, very faintly, feel Unit-02's pilot. It was not a conscious presence, just a lingering shadow of what it should be, weak and fading. But it was somehow still there.
She seized on the Second Child's weak presence for strength.
Wearily, exhausted both physically and emotionally, Rei sat up. It took everything she had. She watched as the boy rose nearby. His shoulders swayed awkwardly; gone was the straight, confident posture, replaced by a tottering, unbalanced gait. He looked out at the graveyard and what had become of the beings he had called his brothers. With his back to her, Rei could not see his expression. Then he started laughing again, a sharp cackle that echoed in the chamber.
He turned to Rei, eyes narrowed.
"You filthy creature!" Despite the laughter, his voice was all spite and anger. "Do you think I am stupid? You are as treacherous as the rest of them. You have been buying him time!"
"All I have done is—" Rei saw his fist only a split second before it smashed into her face. She crumpled, her head hitting the ground with a dull thud.
"Shut up," he spat. "Your every word is an infection. Your every breath is a betrayal of the truth—that you have failed to see them for what they are."
He punched her again, driving her head into the concrete. And again.
Rei closed her eyes under the barrage of blows, curling up tightly and bringing her hands up to shield her head. "I failed … to understand you."
He stood up and smashed his booted foot against the side of her head. Rei gave a sharp whimper as nearly all the fingers of her left hand broke. He stomped on her again. Searing pain burst from her temple, but she could not tell if it, too, had been fractured.
"You can no more understand me than a maggot can understand God." He reached behind his back and pulled out a combat knife from a sheath, attached to the bottom of the bulletproof vest he was still wearing. "Let's see how much insight you can gain after I put out your eyes."
Rei did not try to resist as he grabbed her by the hair and pulled her head up. She looked deep into his hateful stare, shuddering at what she saw. There was nothing there worth saving—and that was a hard thing to realize for someone who had come to believe in the inherent goodness of all life. But it was the truth.
The boy turned to face the source of the voice, which Rei immediately recognized as Shinji's. Unit-01 towered above them from the edge of the platform like a humanoid mountain, its head tilted down, fire in its eyes. Not a single piece of its armor remained undamaged, and most of it was gone altogether. The stumps of broken bones protruded from the left side of its chest, puncturing the brownish skin beside its exposed core.
Tossing the knife aside, the boy clenched his fist and took a single step forwards, dragging Rei's nude, battered form behind him.
"You killed my brothers! And you have doomed all of your kind to suffer the curse of their own humanity." He pointed stiffly to the creature on the cross, then to himself. "Ignorant child. Do you see? She is your beginning, and I am your end. The end of your suffering. Man is not the measure of all things; it is the death of them."
Unit-01 remained motionless, expressionless, glowing eyes peering down at the child confronting it.
The boy scowled. "It is my purpose to bring an end to your suffering. All of your so-called bonds, your contacts with one another, even when you are kind and loving—they only lead to death. Physical death. Mental death. Spiritual death. Your very existence is a continuous genocide!"
Then, slowly and inexorably Unit-01 reached down a hand. An AT Field flared out of nowhere, but the hand bent it, ripping it apart almost with no visible effort on its part. It continued to descend.
As the enormous fingers, covered in ruptured blisters and bloody burns, closed in, the boy finally let go of Rei's hair. His eyes flickered sideways, considering routes of escape. His body tensed, ready to jump out of the way of the encroaching hand. But he never had the chance.
A slender, delicate arm shot out with incredible speed and grasped him by the wrist.
He turned, and had only enough time to glare at back at Rei before Unit-01's giant fingers wrapped themselves around him.
"I'm sorry," Rei groaned. Her tone was low and pained. "Everyone deserves to be happy."
The boy laughed at her words.
And yet Rei felt he had come here seeking just that in the form of the Second Child—on some level, the redheaded girl must have made him happy. He might have not understood that of himself, and now, sadly, he never would. But it had to end, one way or another.
Rei's face remained neutral, meeting his anger with a calmness she didn't feel. Then his sharp features became distant as Unit-01 tightened its grasp and lifted him off the ground.
The white haired boy twisted his upper body to confront the beast holding him in its hand. "Do you expect me to be afraid?" he spat. "Shinji Ikari. There are worse things to be afraid of. Because even if you win, you will still be human. You wish so desperately to live that you would sacrifice transcendence beyond all bonds."
Unit-01 opened its mouth, white teeth and dark gums showing beneath the mangled metal of its armored jaw.
"I have ruined the one you love. Live with that."
Unit-01 lowered its head, and Rei saw that gaping mouth, the space within black, an endless void, descending. She turned away at the last moment, and didn't see the mouth close around the boy's head and shoulders. She didn't hear bones crunching. There was no final scream. Only the faint, soft sound of tearing flesh.
Rei waited, sitting there on the platform, as Unit-01 devoured the being which had tormented them, which had wanted nothing more than to destroy everything she held dear. And she felt sorry. No life should end like that.
Unit-01 lingered over her a moment longer. "Rei, are you alright?" Shinji asked. His voice was weird, trembling slightly. Rei could tell he was crying.
She nodded, unable to find her voice. What could she say? What could she do?
The gesture seemed to be good enough for Shinji. Unit-01 turned and headed for where Unit-02 had sunk under the surface in the middle of the LCL graveyard. Unit-01 stooped down, reaching its arms into the orange liquid, searching.
It didn't take long, and as the purple Evangelion pulled out the mauled remains of Unit-02, Rei had the distinct impression that something was not quite right. Like the other Eva, most of Unit-02's armor was missing. The left side of its face was completely gone, with two puncture wounds among caved in and pulped brown flesh. There were festering bite marks all over the exposed flesh of its upper body and arms. The core was badly cracked, and growing even more so by the second; the holes where it had been pierced frayed around the edges as the material slowly crumbled, sending deep cracks in all directions. An faint red glow emanated from the inside, fading away as the core crumbled.
It was only a matter of time, Rei thought sadly. The only question now was whether Unit-02 would die first … or its pilot.
Then she felt something else, a strong warm presence radiating from Unit-01's core. She narrowed her eyes and looked at the dark, intact sphere as it pressed against Unit-02 broken one. There was nothing Rei could do, but maybe Unit-01 could somehow …
The warmth grew into a fire, hot enough that the edges of the shattered core began to melt into the whole sphere of the one being pushed into it, altering their geometry as they fused, becoming one, like the hearts of their pilots were one.
Rei dragged her tired, beaten and nearly heartbroken body upright, and stared at the point where the two cores came together.
"Asuka … "
Shinji heard his own voice break. The tears stung his eyes, blurring his vision. He wiped a forearm over his face, taking them away, and looked again at the mangled thing he had just pulled out of the LCL. His chest tightened. Asuka had been calling for her mother, her voice growing weaker and more distant. Then, finally, she stopped.
"Asuka, please talk to me." He turned his gaze to the open video window to his right, where Asuka's face had been. There was only static. "Asuka …"
Surely, Asuka would answer him if she could. She would want to let him know that she was alright, not wanting to worry him. She was tough and strong and she would call him stupid for acting like she could somehow be seriously hurt. But she didn't. There was just nothing. No words, no insults, no last farewell, not even a scream.
And in that silence, Shinji felt his own heart falling apart.
He knew, somewhere deep inside, that Asuka was not answering because she couldn't. His dreams, his hopes, and everything else he wished for the future simply ebbed away, leaving behind only an empty vacuum.
Because Asuka was dead.
Shinji curled forward, and he buried his face in his burned hands, and he cried. Unit-01 drew the limp form that had been Asuka's prized Eva close, cradling it as if it could feel how much its pilot meant to him.
The entry-plug filled with the sad sound of his weeping, bouncing off the cylindrical walls, echoing. He knew he sounded pathetic, and he was. He couldn't even save the most important person in his life. Despite it all—despite promising he would never leave her, never hurt her—despite the happiness they had enjoyed together, in the end none of it mattered. Asuka was dead, and the only thing he could do about it was cry.
Unit-01 clutched Unit-02 more tightly, bringing the other Eva's crushed core against its own. The two dark spheres pressed together.
And then, in the depths of his despair, Shinji felt a second set of hands of his face. His head jerked up in surprise. His eyes went wide.
There, floating in the LCL in front of him, was Yui Ikari.
His mother looked exactly as he remembered her; her hair was short and brown, the same color as his, but resembling Rei's in its appearance. Her eyes were a warm green, round and filled with a kind of motherly compassion he had seldom seen, and even more rarely experienced. Her face was delicate, beautiful; her slender nude body floated there almost weightlessly as she cupped his face, her touch soft and tender.
For a moment, Shinji was convinced he had gone insane. But regardless of the impossibility of what he was seeing and hearing, he surrendered to it. The entry-plug around him seemed to fall apart, as the digital depiction of the outside world vanished into a sweeping red tide and there was only a vast, crimson-hued space.
The command seat quickly followed, appearing to dissolve right from under him into a shower of sparkling mist. He was floating in nothingness now. The transparent suit, which had caused him so much embarrassment, went next. It simply peeled off, going up in a cloud of glittering particles that drifted around his naked form for a few seconds before dissolving.
Shinji stared silently, his tear-stained face frozen. He didn't know what to feel or think; what was real and what wasn't. His mother smiled kindly at him, just as she had the last time he saw her before she climbed into Unit-01 nearly ten years ago.
She tugged at him gently.
Shinji shook his head. "I … can't," he sobbed. "I can't go on. I … " The rest of his words melted into whimpering.
Yui gave him the slightest of nods, and Shinji felt himself being pulled forward, sinking deeper towards the bottom end of the entry-plug. In the blink of an eye, his mother was gone and his vision filled with a glowing red circle surrounded by black emptiness. The speed of his descent increased, faster and faster, and the circle became much larger as it got closer. .
The space around him swirled in streams of rainbow-colored energy, wrapping and trailing his nude body, and it occurred to him that there was no way his entry-plug was this large or deep.
The red opening loomed in front of him, an ominous portal into the unknown. His eyes were wide. His mother's presence was all around him, and he felt very much as he had when she had pulled him into her bosom as a little boy—elated, comforted, not afraid of anything in the world. He didn't understand what she wanted of him, but it was okay.
As he crossed the threshold, everything instantly became washed out in red. The rainbow energy ribbons erupted into bubbling black trails on contact. The pressure of the LCL seemed to change. It was heavier and hotter, pushing in against his body from all sides. He almost didn't notice when his skin began to peel off in flakes, forming a glittering mist just as the suit had before, leaving behind raw red flesh. It didn't hurt.
The pressure continued to increase as he descended, towards a single blazing red flame at the center of the space. Little bits of him began to dissolve away, shed like so many tears. His eyes remained fixed straight ahead, on the flame, until his sight faded and there was only bottomless warmth.
"Everything has gone to hell."
In the dim lighting of the Ministry of the Interior's war room, with only the phosphorescent LCD screens on all four walls to provide illumination, Hidetoshi Sato could not tell if the Minister was being facetious. Certainly Sato would have never imagined him as a religious man, but he had seen stranger things in a politician, and today was a day for strange things.
The war room was basically a large steel box located within a much a larger and darker room. The doors were magnetically sealed and closely monitored, and the room itself was shielded from all forms of electronic interference. The inside of the steel box held a long wooden table at which half a dozen high-ranking government officials were now seated. The walls were lined up with monitors, creating an endless stream of moving pictures that provided a shocking but detached view of what was happening in Tokyo-3. The air was thick with cigarette smoke and built-up tension. Everyone here knew what was at stake.
Sato would have preferred to avoid sitting through such a meeting blind, but unfortunately he had to rely on these men for information. He didn't have a choice. Simply getting himself a seat at this table had taken calling in a decade's worth of old favors.
Tokyo-3 was effectively sealed off now, and if the military hadn't completely cut off communications then the N2 blast that carved out the Geo-Front had done it. Fuuka Sanada and her team were on their own. Sato had confidence in her; by selecting someone with a personal connection to the mission he had ensured more than her professional commitment. She would see this thing through, even if it killed her. And it probably would. Sato had no illusions about the situation.
But while he could accept losing some assets, the lack of information was very troubling. The only intelligence available was being provided by the scattered units of 4th Mountain which had survived, mostly Second and Third Brigades. The pictures on the screens came from satellites or surveillance aircraft overhead, and they weren't even secret—enterprising hackers had already put the video streams on the web. Government-controlled news media outlets were trying to downplay the crisis, but it was hard to spin an entire city being blasted out of existence. Other than that they had only fragmented reports, rumors, best and worst-case scenarios. None of it was good.
Finally, after his long silence, the Minister sat at the head of the table and turned to his aide. "Mr. Ono, I want a list of all the contacts my office has had with Musashi Kluge."
The man, somewhat young for his position, frowned. "Sir, visits from the Department Chief are strictly off the record at his own request."
"Let me repeat myself," the Minister said, his voice growing low. He leaned forward on the table. "I want a record that shows his visits to my office. I do not care if you have to fabricate it."
"Yes, sir." Ono stood and hurried out of the room, leaving behind a few puzzled glances.
The Minister turned to the other men, his gaze even and his voice tightly controlled.
"Gentlemen, I believe I need to share some information with you." He reached into his suit pocket and retrieved a cigarette. "Three weeks ago, Department Chief Kluge came to my office and provided evidence of Gendo Ikari's involvement with the incident in Beijing. This evidence was in the form of a software footprint originating from one of the Evangelions—software that was also in the Chinese Branch's computers during the recovery operations carried out by the UN. This footprint sample was also found inside Unit-A's entry-plug."
"How could Kluge know that?" an old man in glasses said, reaching out to light the Minister's cigarette with his own lighter. "Unit-A's entry-plug was never released from NERV custody before being destroyed. We couldn't even confirm the pilot's identity."
Sato knew this man only by his tittle—the Chief Adjutant to the Intelligence Department of the SSDF. He also knew of the rumors regarding Unit-A and its pilot. The Chinese had denied using a human subject for their experiment, but both himself and the ISSDF had sources claiming the contrary. Things like this always found ways of leaking out. In this case, several surviving Beijing Branch personnel had allegedly come forth despite the Chinese government's best efforts to silence them. The pilot, according to them, had been a young girl of fourteen.
Even as someone who had seen it all, Sato was repulsed by the idea of using children as weapons. But the road to global supremacy took many forms and destroyed many morals. His country, the one he had secretly sworn an oath to, was proof of that. And the Evangelion was an extraordinary weapon. The only difference was that in the case of the Nevada Branch there was not enough left worth hiding.
"Never mind about the pilot." The Minister waved his hand. "Kluge's analysis concluded that this software footprint is unique. From my understanding, it was the result of some secret project following Second Impact. The software was requested by and delivered to Gendo Ikari more than five months ago. It was my fear that once this evidence came to light, the Chinese would see it as proof of Ikari's direct responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of their citizens. And they would blame us for harboring him and providing him with the weapon."
There was some nodding in the room, even from Sato. He could see the logic building up.
"This evidence was presented in a secret meeting with key members of the UN Security Council, including Congressman Keel," the Minister continued. "The current operation, code-named Summer Blossom, was proposed and approved. Chief Kluge was given supreme oversight. As you know, early this morning the JSSDF began to isolate and neutralize NERV defense capabilities. What you do not know, however, is that Musashi Kluge took an infiltration team inside Central Dogma itself, led by an informant—the one who provided the evidence—to apprehend Ikari."
Sato felt something heavy in his stomach, but it was the man to his right, a JSSDF general with a chest full of medals who voiced the obvious.
"You did not want to simply destroy NERV," he said. A hint of glee, reminding Sato of a child at the prospect of getting a new toy, entered in his narrow eyes. "You wanted to take it over. You wanted the Evangelion."
The Minister nodded. "That was my thought."
The Foreign Secretary leaned forward in his chair. He was a burly man in his seventies and barely seemed to fit between the armrests. "You wanted to appropriate a weapon of mass destruction nominally under UN custody and the Security Council had no problem with that?"
The Minister shook his head. "I didn't say the whole Security Council. This plan was presented to certain members sympathetic to our goals—removing NERV from Ikari's control to preempt full-scale Chinese retaliation. The UN didn't run NERV, and hasn't for a long time. Let's not be mistaken about that. Ikari has been behaving like an international criminal at best, and a terrorist at worst. Kluge seemed to have Congressman Keel's complete trust. They worked out the details."
"And you trusted Kluge?" Sato said.
"I had no reason to doubt him. However, certain assurances were made which ultimately did not pan out. The two conclusions I am left to draw from this are that either Kluge's contact was wrong or Kluge himself was wrong."
"Or he lied."
Sato let his words hang in the smoke-filled room. The assembled men looked around at each other, and he could see they were in agreement. Nobody here would have put deception beyond Kluge; they all knew what kind of man he was.
Then the Minister smiled. "Rest assured, Mr. Sato, the thought has occurred to me. Kluge's information was provided by his contact inside NERV, and our decisions were based on that information. If the information was unreliable or falsified, then our decisions are clearly affected. It does not remove the ultimate responsibility, but responsibility is not blame."
"It is also not a solution," Sato ventured. "Perhaps we should focus on that instead."
"What is there to solve?" the general said. "The best thing we can do now is allow the JSSDF to complete its operation. We have committed too much already. Civilian evacuations are continuing. I see no reason to stop the incursion into Central Dogma."
"The Division CP has been destroyed," Sato started slowly, addressing the general, but keeping his eyes on the Minister. "There is no contact with Minamoto or Kluge or anyone above the rank of Captain. We have no estimates on casualties, military or civilian, and no idea what is happening inside the Geo-Front. And, of course, there's the fact than no one in this room has any clue as to why and how the Eva Series was deployed. Those things don't just launch themselves."
The man from the ISSDF interrupted, calmly snuffing his cigarette out on the nearby ashtray. "They might. We don't know anything about them. My people have already contacted the production facility at DIS. We are looking into it."
"We know something," Sato replied, annoyed. The ISSDF had made a habit out of denying things they weren't comfortable with, regardless of how obvious those things might be to everyone else. "For example, we know the Eva Series runs on a modified version of NERV's Dummy System, and we know that, like any automated system, somebody has to turn it on for it to work."
"Maybe not. No orders were ever received—this has already been confirmed by airborne control," the general countered, leaning forward and putting an elbow on the table. "The same goes for the weapon. And even if there had been, no release was ever authorized. Nobody pushed the button. It was probably a malfunction."
The Minister did not seem convinced. "A simultaneous release of two separate combat systems?"
"What I'm saying is that it shouldn't have happened." The general was becoming flustered. "For all intents and purposed, it couldn't have happened. The JSSDF is not responsible for malfunctions or acts of God."
Sato fixed him with a glare. "But it did happen. We can all agree on that, yes?"
"I think we can," the general admitted. "However, shortly before the weapon was released, airborne control reported a signal spike—possibly from a damaged transmitter. It is possible that one of the computers could have mistaken that for an order to launch, triggering the pre-determined combat deployment sequence." He looked at Sato. "As you said, it is an automated system."
Sato was annoyed at having his own words used against him. "If an SSDF computer can mistake a signal spike for an order to launch a WMD, then thank God no one has entrusted you with anything more powerful than an N2 bomb."
"Are you accusing the JSSDF of being incompetent?" The general began to rise out of his chair. "You pencil pushers are all the same. My men are out there dying and you—"
"Gentlemen." The Minister raised his hands in a gesture of appeasement. He turned his head to Sato. "I believe you haven't made your point, Mr. Sato?"
"My point is that this has already gone far beyond the scope of the military. Even if you successfully take over NERV, there is no way to justify all this. Getting Ikari isn't going to do it—you still have to explain that massive hole in the ground where Tokyo-3 used to be. Now you are saying you believe the decision to attack NERV was based on faulty information. How do you think that will play with the public or the rest of the government? Heads—yours and quite a few others—will roll. Under these circumstances, an endgame that includes even more bloodshed is the worst thing we could do."
The Minister rubbed his chin thoughtfully, the tip of his cigarette a glowing orange ember in the gloom. "What do you propose?"
He might as well have said 'I'm listening'. They could speculate and theorize all the way to next week, but ultimately decisions had to be made and there was only one man who could make them. He was also the only one man in the room Sato needed to convince. But he had to be careful. Releasing too much information could be as dangerous as releasing too little. The trick, as in poker, was knowing when to gamble with one's cards, when to bluff and when you had gone too far. And Sato was very good at poker.
He took a moment to look around the table, then, finally, he turned back to the Minister and said, "I think you should talk with them."
It was a sign that everyone understood the seriousness of the situation that nobody immediately jumped to oppose the suggestion, not even the general. A careful, deliberate silence came over the room.
The Minister placed his hands flat on the table, his brow deeply furrowed. "With NERV? And Ikari?" he almost seemed to spit the name.
No one else raised any objections, so Sato nodded. "I realize dealing with Ikari would be impossible at this point," he conceded. "But we need to make an important distinction. While Ikari leads NERV, I don't feel he speaks for NERV's people. Perhaps there are others you should consider negotiating with. Those who would see it as a gesture of good faith in resolving this situation."
"You sound as if you know one of these people," the Minister said.
Sato found himself suppressing a smile. No politician would ever become Minister of the Interior without being a shrewd, calculating man. He had suspected exactly what Sato wanted him to suspect—that he could provide him with a way out, and, perhaps, political survival.
"Not personally," Sato replied, choosing his words with care. "Though I suppose you could say I do on a more professional level. That is, of course, assuming she's still alive."
The Minister's eyes narrowed. "She? Who is it?"
"Ikari's Chief of Operations?" the ISSDF man jumped in. He sounded incredulous. "What makes you think she would cooperate?"
Of course, telling them the whole truth was out of the question. Several weeks ago he had met Misato Katsuragi through a contact with Junichi Nakayima, the son of an old friend. Katsuragi had asked for asylum for herself and the children in exchange for sharing information regarding NERV, Ikari, and the UN's involvement in Second Impact. But Sato had gotten the measure of Katsuragi that night. He had seen the way she reacted to danger and to the threat against the children. She had been decisive, fearless and uncompromising in her dedication to them. She would give her life to protect them. That was someone he could deal with.
After the meeting had been cut short, Ikari had contacted him, and Sato could well imagine that he knew what his Chief of Operations had been doing all along. Rather than making demands or threatening to expose his role as a foreign intelligence agent, Ikari had asked him only to provide security overwatch for the children. The name Musashi Kluge had inevitably come up. But more than Ikari's request for security, it had been Katsuragi's actions that convinced him to gamble on sending a squad inside NERV. Now he was glad he had.
Because he was sure that Kluge had not gone into Central Dogma to do what the Minister of the Interior believed he would do.
"I've met her before," Sato said. "Katsuragi. And I know what drives her. Like every mother, she wants what's best for her children."
His face lined with thought, the Minister snuffed his cigarette out on his ashtray. The smoke drifted up in a thin gray column. He watched for a moment, then looked at Sato.
"I did not know Misato Katsuragi had any children."
The sunset cast the abandoned playground in a hot shade of red. The empty swings creaked softly in the breeze, hanging from a rusted metal frame. There was no other sound. The grass was overgrown and unkempt, and the place gave a distinct feeling of abandonment. In the center, on a small clearing where the weeds had not yet grown, was a small sandbox. And in the sandbox was a little girl wearing a yellow sundress.
Her hair was a striking orange-red, falling down to the middle of her back. She had a thick bandage over her left eye, but her right one was round and bright blue. She cradled her right arm, also heavily bandaged and nearly useless, to her side. An expression of determination clung to her pretty face as she piled up the sand with her left hand, building something.
Shinji Ikari watched her with fascination. Eight years of age, he stood at the entrance to the playground, holding his mother's hand, feeling immensely safe and content to be by her side. He didn't recall why she had brought him here, but it was sure to be important.
As he watched, the orange-haired girl piled the mound of sand ever higher, until the sides became too steep to hold their own weight and it collapsed in a miniature avalanche. The girl uttered a shrill cry of frustration and shoved her foot into the base of the mound, causing the rest of it to cave in.
She stomped on it repeatedly, yelling, "Stupid, stupid, stupid thing!"
When there was nothing left, the girl dropped to her knees, staring at the destruction. She rubbed an arm over her single blue eye, regained her composure, and, almost inevitably, started building the mound up again.
"Who is she?" Shinji asked, looking up at his mother.
"Her name is Asuka," his mother replied in the same kind voice she always used when explaining things to him, even things he should already know. "She lost her mother recently. Now she's all alone in the world. Don't you think she looks lonely?"
Shinji looked at the girl again, and though the determination had returned to her face there was no hiding the loneliness.
He nodded. "Yeah."
"I think you should help her," his mother said. "You understand how she feels. The two of you are the same." She let go of his hand. "Go on. I'll be proud of you."
Shinji hesitated, feeling nervous. He didn't like being around strangers, even if they happened to be pretty, lonely girls his same age. His mother urged him with a gentle nudge, and before his mind could think of any objections, his feet began shuffling towards the sandbox. And the closer he got, the more certain he started to feel, as if he were drawn to the girl.
Standing at the end of the sandbox, he gulped. "H-hello?"
The girl glared a him, a single orange eyebrow tilting into a deep frown. Her voice was harsh and angry. "What the hell do you want?"
Shinji fidgeted, looking down at his feet. "My name is Shinji Ikari," he murmured. "My mom said your name is Asuka. Right?"
Asuka seemed, if anything, even angrier. She stood and planted both her hands as best she could on her hips. It clearly pained her to move her injured right arm, and Shinji noticed her trying to suppress a wince. "Stupid Shinji," she barked, "answer my question. What the hell do you want?"
He cast his glance at the crumbling pile of sand. "I, um, well I thought that maybe I could help you with your ..." it was then that he realized he had no idea what she was doing. "You know, your sand thingie."
"It's a pyramid!" Asuka cried in a shrill tone. "Don't you know anything about ancient Egypt?"
Shinji shook his head.
"It's what the Pharaohs used to build to serve as their tombs," Asuka explained, and, unlike his mother, she sounded very annoyed at having to do so. "They are monuments from thousands of years ago. Very old. But despite that they are still around."
"Who are the Pharaohs?" Shinji asked, feeling really dumb.
He didn't think it was possible, but Asuka's frown deepened. "Are you stupid? Didn't I just say? They are they guys who built the pyramids to be their tombs." She pointed at the mound. "This is just a little one, of course. The real thing is the size of a tall building."
"B-but why would you want to build a tomb?" Shinji said. "Even a little one."
Asuka glared at him a moment longer, then turned her head away, the bangs across her forehead shifting slightly. Her gaze landed on the pyramid, and Shinji found something very sad about the way she looked at it.
"I don't know," she said. "Maybe it's because they've been around for so long and people still remember. I just … I wanted to remember something as well."
Or someone, Shinji thought. "Your mother?"
Asuka didn't answer. Instead she glared moodily at the pile.
But Shinji understood, and he knew that more questions were not going to help. So instead he dropped down to his knees, and silently began gathering the loose sand with his hands, packing it onto the sides of the pyramid and patting it down so it would stay put. Asuka watched him, also silent. The sun set behind her, casting her shadow over him and his work. He felt her eyes on him, questioning and uncertain, and yet grateful. And though he didn't see the little smile that came to her face, he knew it was there.
He was almost done piling up the sand when Asuka knelt opposite him. She reached down with her good hand and began smoothing out the side.
"The sides are supposed to be flat," she said. "See?"
Shinji looked over, saw what she had done, and duplicated it. Working together, the pyramid slowly took shape, a tiny sculpture molded by equally tiny hands. It was trickier than just piling up sand, as the smooth sides made it much more difficult for the top to stay in place and the sand would simply crumble down the sides without any support. But they kept at it, until finally their hands came together around the top. Shinji pressed on two sides while Asuka did the other two, their faces only inches away.
And he saw that she was blushing. Heat rose to his own cheeks, and he averted his eyes, embarrassed. He had never been so close to a girl before.
"You know, you are not so bad," Asuka said, her voice scratchy even when she obviously didn't meant for it to be. But that suited her just fine. She was not like any other girl he had ever met—nothing about her was soft or subtle, nor did he think she ought to be so long as she was herself. "Boys are just useless, but you are okay. I might even let you call me Asuka."
He stuttered slightly. "Th-thank you."
She frowned. "Are you always this sheepish?"
"I'm not a sheep," Shinji responded, his low tone that of a little boy being scolded. He kept his eyes down. "My mom says I'm just naturally shy."
Asuka stood up, again placing her hands on her hips. She looked so confident and grown-up when she made that pose, and Shinji suspected that was the reason she seemed to like it so much. "That's okay. You'll learn."
"Uh?" Shinji blinked at her. "I-I will?"
Asuka grinned, and though it was incredibly charming, it did make him a little nervous.
His gaze focused on the single light bulb hanging from his bedroom ceiling.
Even for a shy teenage boy now lying naked on his warm bed, Shinji couldn't help feeling strange. There was something he couldn't put his finger on. Something that had seemed to be there before and was gone now. The musky scent of sex and sweat filled the hot air. The room was silent except for the rhythmic sound of heavy, labored breathing coming from somewhere above him.
Shinji shifted his gaze, following the sound.
He was almost surprised to find a pretty redheaded girl straddling his lap. She was also naked, her body slumped forwards, shoulders hunched and head hanging low; her long orange hair fell unrestrained all around her face in thick streams of flame, long bangs partially hiding her features; her lips opened and closed and her chest heaved in a slow rhythm, small breasts rising and falling.
Their teen bodies shimmered with sheets of sweat, still connected through their sexes, but Shinji could not recall much else. This was not their first time, that much he could sense. But something was missing.
Finally, as if to confirm his uneasiness, Asuka sighed and seemed to deflate. She silently climbed off of him and sat next to him at the edge of the bed. Shinji followed her stunning form with his eyes, gliding down the smooth slope of her bare back to where her shapely buttocks sank into the mattress.
Asuka reached her hand down between her legs then raised it up in front of her, examining her fingers.
"What a mess," she said, her voice hoarse and low, then turned her head towards him, brushing her long bangs to the left side of her face to cover her only blemish—her missing left eye. "Are you done, or do you want to put it in again?"
Shinji choked, a furious red coloring his cheeks, and looked away in embarrassment. "D-don't talk about it like that. It's embarrassing."
Asuka frowned at him. "I don't care. What's the point in being grown-up if you are too ashamed to do the things grown-ups do?"
Shinji had no idea what else to say—he couldn't possibly translate the emotions he felt into words, or why it might be embarrassing for him. Asuka was neither shy nor prudish, completely unlike him, so she probably wouldn't understand anyway.
"Fine. Whatever." Asuka rolled out of the bed, clearly annoyed, and stooped down to pick up her clothing from the floor.
Shinji sat up hurriedly. He now had a full, unobstructed view of Asuka's nude body.
"Wait," he said. "I didn't mean to put you off. I'm sorry."
"That won't fix anything." Asuka straightened up, her clothes balled up in her arms.
There was an odd pang of remorse in the pit of Shinji's stomach. He watched as Asuka turned her back and walked to the bedroom door, carrying all her clothes in her arms. She paused with her hand on the door handle, and her head dipped slightly.
She didn't have to make that into a question for Shinji to understand what she wanted. Not bothering to wait for a reply, Asuka slid open the bedroom's thin door and disappeared into the hallway, oblivious of her nudity, her steps heavy.
Shinji got the distinct impression that something was wrong with her, adding to the feeling of general strangeness he already had. Asuka might not say it out of pride, but he had gotten really good at reading her moods and body language. He knew when something was bothering her, even if he didn't know what it was—and he seldom did.
He sat there for a moment, simply staring at the open doorway, then heaved a heavy sigh and slowly climbed out of bed. The warm sheets seemed to stick to his bare, sweat-flushed skin as he moved, beckoning him to stay where he was, safe and comfortable.
And he would have liked to, but Asuka's lunch wasn't going to make itself.
His clothes lay scattered all over the floor, as if they had been flung rather than removed. Shinji picked them up and put them back on. Then, dressed in his usual sleeveless shirt and shorts, he stepped into the hallway and crossed the living room. The sunset's red light filtered in through the balcony doors, creating long, deep shadows that seemed as ominous as they were impenetrable.
In contrast, the kitchen itself was brightly illuminated in yellow-white light from the overhead fixtures. The space was dominated by a heavy wooden table in the middle, with a small food preparation area and a sink on the near side. An accordion-style door connected the kitchen with the washroom and bathroom. Shinji could hear Asuka pottering around inside, doing whatever girls did after sex, a constant, undeniable reminder of her presence.
Asuka wasn't picky when it came to food, so long as it was tasty and not too bland, but when Shinji started going through the cupboards he found that they were all empty. Even the small bottles on the spice rack had nothing in them. He frowned, puzzled. Hadn't he done the groceries just the other day? He wasn't sure. They couldn't have possibly gone through every scrap of food in the apartment—somebody would have noticed. He would have noticed.
Then he caught a blur of movement at the edge of his vision, near the far end of the table. For a second he thought it might be Asuka coming out of the bathroom and wondered how he would explain the sudden and total lack of anything to eat. He turned his head … and saw his mother standing there.
She wore a pink blouse and a long white lab coat. Her short brown hair, a shade lighter than his own, fell around her head in a very familiar way. Her pale green eyes were soft and full of emotion; her lips slightly curled.
And yet there was something entirely foreign about her. Shinji felt a deep void of sadness and longing sink in his chest, and although she was standing only a few feet away it was like a mile. He had the distinct feeling that he hadn't seen her in a long time, which seemed to fit perfectly with the feeling he'd had before—that he had lost something important. And it wasn't just his mother; the whole world suddenly seemed wrong. Not quite real enough.
Because it wasn't.
The memories slowly returned—not things he had forgotten but rather placed in the back of his mind because they were too painful to think about. There was no jarring realization; the truth was just there, waiting to be discovered and accepted. He remembered losing Asuka, and the crushing despair that followed; remembered being pulled down into his entry-plug by his mother. It felt like a lifetime ago, yet he knew it wasn't. His heart told him so.
"I know you have a lot of questions, Shinji," Yui said, her voice soft. "This isn't how I wanted to see you again."
Shinji looked around, beginning to understand. "Is this the Eva's core?"
"Physically, yes." Yui nodded. "Of course, the Eva's core is just a container. But Unit-02 was dying, and once its emergency systems failed, Asuka would have died as well. I fused its core with my own. I made us one."
"Why?" Shinji asked, moving a little closer to his mother.
"Because it was the only thing I could do. Because I had to give you a chance. The reasons go on and on."
Her eyes flickered to the other side of the kitchen. Shinji's followed. As if on cue, the bathroom door retracted, revealing Asuka standing just inside the narrow threshold. She had changed into her school uniform, which looked as though it had been hastily thrown on. Her hair was still loose, framing her stony face and spilling around her shoulders. An angry glare bristled in her right eye. Shinji supposed she had likely overheard their conversation, but he knew it was more than that.
He had listened to the screaming and the crying as Asuka was brutalized inside Unit-02, tortured, and in the end …
That thought hit him like a stone. Did Asuka remember what had happened, as he did? Did she remember dying?
Shinji could not imagine anything quite as horrible.
Asuka stepped silently into the kitchen, her one remaining eye moving from Yui to Shinji and back appraising, measuring the situation. Nobody spoke.
"I had hoped to meet you some day," Shinji's mother finally said,breaking the sorrowful silence. She moved towards Asuka, holding her hands open in gesture of welcome. "Thank you."
"Don't." The young redhead recoiled, then turned and crossed the kitchen, heading towards the exit in a sulk.
Shinji gave her a remorseful look. "Asuka … "
Asuka rounded on him. "What?" she spat. "What? You think I'm being rude?" She pointed angrily at Yui. "She left you! When you were little, she just left you. She took the easy way out. What right does she have to be here now? What right does she have to say anything to you or me or anyone else?"
"She's my mother," Shinji murmured, looking down at the floor between Asuka's bare feet.
"But she isn't mine!" Asuka yelled. She stormed right up to Shinji and grabbed him by the collar of his shirt, forcing him to look at her. Her face was twisted, lips drawn back into a snarl, a single bright blue eye trembling beneath a scowling brow. "My mother is dead!"
Shinji gulped, trying to swallow the lump in his throat. "I ..."
"This isn't about you!" Asuka was still yelling, spit flying out of her mouth. "I'm the one who lost her mother. I'm the one who got butchered. Me! It's always ME!"
Shinji shook his head frantically, but he couldn't deny what she was saying. He could almost feel her anger, and a lot of hurt.
Asuka raised her right hand high in the air.
"I'm sorry!" Shinji blurted out. He shrunk back, turning his head away to shield himself from the blow he knew was coming and squeezed his eyes shut. "I … I never meant for this to happen to you. I never meant for you to lose anyone. I'm sorry!"
A second went by, then another. Shinji's heart pounded in his chest.
After a moment and a dozen racing heartbeats, Shinji cautiously opened one of his eyes, peering out sideways as Asuka lowered her hand. Her furious scowl had melted away and in its place there was now an expression of sadness. She held his gaze briefly, her blue eye misty and quivering, then hung her head so low Shinji couldn't see her face anymore. Her whole body seemed to sag.
"Stop saying that," Asuka whispered, easing her grip on his collar until all he could feel was a slight tugging of his shirt. Her voice sounded weird. "That's all you say when it's too late and you can't do anything to help. That's all anyone says. I hate it."
Shinji didn't know what to tell her, and instead moved to grasp her shoulders. Somehow, physical contact always seemed to make up for his failure to express himself.
Asuka released his collar and stepped away. She glanced apologetically at Yui, who had thus far made no effort to interfere on behalf of her son.
Before Shinji could reach out for her again, Asuka turned hastily on her heels and ran off towards the entrance hall, leaving him standing there feeling useless. He saw her rubbing her face with her hands as she went and knew she was on the verge of tears. Even now, when it hardly seemed to matter, Asuka didn't want to cry in front of anyone, to show the hurt as she was entitled to.
But it was there, painful and unreachable, and it broke Shinji's heart.
He hung his head and felt himself sag in resignation. Only after he heard the front door slam shut did he gather the courage to look back at his mother, wishing she hadn't witnessed Asuka's outburst, nor his failure to comfort her.
Yui's expression remained unchanged, pleasant and open. "Shinji, as long as we live we have to accept death. I know you understand this. But sometimes the death of someone we love hurts us so badly that it feels as though a part of ourselves has also died. We cannot understand our own existence beyond it, or imagine being happy as long as that hurt endures. Everything we do, and everything we are, is built on the desire to escape it. Withdrawing from others, craving attention and lashing out, ignoring a child—these are all reflections of the same thing. The same desire. Humans are good at building barriers between ourselves. So that's what we do, because we are afraid to let others hurt us, until all that's left is an empty shell of the person we should be."
Her glance drifted for a moment, and then her face turned serious.
"And sometimes not even the love of others can comfort us. Sometimes,we hurt too much. And we break."
Shinji knew that all too well. He still remembered what Asuka had been like in the hospital when he went to see her those many months ago—nothing more than a broken doll.
His right hand clenched reflexively at the memory; he vividly recalled how he had tugged at her limp body and heard the rustling of the sheets as they slipped to the ground, exposing her. She seemed so pale, nude and cold. Her face was totally lax, eyes closed and lips parted. The thick curls of her hair were everywhere, just like when she slept.
But having to be kept under heavy sedation, surrounded by wires and medical equipment, was not sleep. What lay on that bed was the result of a lifetime of hurt and loneliness. If only she had found someone to open up with, someone to help her. She tried, but Shinji had been too scared. In his own hurt, he had focused only on himself and ignored her until it was too late. Only later, after a tearful confession, did he begin to understand her.
From then on he did everything he could for Asuka, retreating into the homely role he had always been comfortable with. It was the easiest, most immediate way he could find of pleasing her. Asuka seemed happy to treat him as a slave and step all over him so long as he let her—and he always let her. To her, he was just Stupid Shinji, the human doormat. But while that kind of relationship might not be very fair—in Asuka's own words—it became much more. Through his attention and devotion, Shinji was able to share his love, his life and his bed with Asuka. Every part of him was woven into her life.
He'd hoped that might be enough, but was it?
Then, as his mother's words sank in, he came up with another question.
"Are you saying I should give up on Asuka?" Shinji whispered, feeling the heaviness of his own heart in his voice. He did not move, nor avert his gaze as he normally did when faced with the harsh reality of something he would rather avoid.
Yui smiled, her voice soft. "I'm saying you shouldn't let that happen to her."
It was both admonition and advice, and somehow just the sort of thing his mother would say. Shinji was suddenly struck by the similarity with Rei Ayanami; how she managed to say a lot without really saying much.
"When I went into the Eva," Yui said, "I wanted to create a better future for you. Above all, I wanted to make you happy. But it was still what I wanted. True happiness is what you want for yourself. You have to chose to be happy. While you are the only one that can make that choice, it also takes others to help you understand what it means. Asuka did that for you. And in return, you did it for her."
"No." Shinji hesitated. "I failed her. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't keep her from being hurt. And now … "
He couldn't say it; it was still too painful for him.
"Don't underestimate yourself, Shinji," Yui said, the smile clinging to her face. "Asuka already knows what happiness is. There are no barriers in the heart except for the ones we make ourselves. You can't make others happy if they don't want to be. I don't believe that's the case with Asuka. She can come back, because she wants to."
Shinji looked at her carefully, a heavy feeling in his chest. "How do you know? How do you know she wants to be happy?"
"She didn't hit you."
"She's hit me lots," he said, sounding rather surly.
If anything, Yui's voice became even softer. "Shinji, if you can't understand the difference then there is really no hope. But that isn't true, is it?"
He was shaking his head before she finished—of course he understood the difference. But it wasn't that easy. She hadn't been there during the worst of it. She hadn't seen Asuka at her lowest. How could she ever know what they had been through?
And yet it occurred to him that she had been, in the form of Unit-01. Every time he connected to her and without knowing, he had shared his thoughts, his emotions, his heart with her. She knew him better, perhaps, than he knew himself. That was obvious not only in the fact that she had brought him here, but also in what she was asking him to do for Asuka.
The boy he had been just a few months before—the same boy who had gone to tug at the sheets of a comatose girl and then left her lying exposed while he ran away, the same boy who let others get hurt because he was too afraid to move and act to protect those he cared about—wouldn't have even tried.
Shinji Ikari was not that boy anymore.
In the silence that followed, Shinji began moving around the table towards the entrance hall. His mother stepped to the side.
He half expected her to stop him as he went by, if only to give him a final farewell, as Misato had done. But she didn't. He halted at the threshold, his hand on the wooden door frame, and looked back at her. She was now closer than at any other time. He fought the impossible urge to reach out and hug her and feel her warmth around him.
"It was nice to see you again," Shinji said, his voice soft.
"You too, Shinji." Yui tilted her head slightly to the side and smiled. "Take care of yourself. And the ones you love. Be proud that you can do that."
Those were words to live by—the words of a mother, and as good as any goodbye either one of them could make.
Taking a last look at her, trying to keep his head up, Shinji turned away and walked out of the apartment, and even as he did he knew there would be no going back. There never was.
Finally, he had grown up.
They moved into the hangar in a single file, rifles at the ready, sweeping the space beyond with the barrels. Miko had swiped her card at the door a second earlier, which had not been forced or blown apart. Nakayima was fairly certain that meant the hangar had not been breached, but Fuuka was not about to take any chances. Kneeling outside next to the backboard carrying Keiko, he heard only their heavy steps, the clanging of their gear, and then, finally, the all clear.
Nakayima exchanged a glance with Miko and saw the blonde girl sigh with relief. She was kneeling on the opposite end of the backboard. His question went unspoken.
Reaching down, Miko patted Keiko's shoulder. "You ready to go?"
The brunette nodded as best she could. "Yeah."
Nakayima took the bottom end of the backboard while Miko took the top. Together they lifted it, slowly and gently. Keiko winced as the straps dug into her wounded body, but she put on a brave face and didn't complain. As they crossed the doorway into the hangar they were met by Fuuka.
"Looks like we are in business," the American woman said, pointing to the aircraft which filled the small hangar.
Nakayima couldn't have missed the VTOL aircraft if he tried.
In their vertical configuration, the engine nacelles were almost as tall as the hangar was high, and although it worked on a different propulsion system, it was not all that different from the old Ospreys which the Americans had briefly operated at the end of the last century. The engines rotated on the mounts, changing the direction of travel and allowing great maneuverability while providing the characteristic vertical take-off and landing ability.
The forward fuselage was bulky, with a high canopy and two access hatches, narrowing down into a slender tail that ended in dual V-shaped rudders. It was colored in a tan and brown color scheme that matched the NERV uniforms and carried the fig leaf logo on its fuselage. The other commandos were moving around the vehicle, apparently checking its condition. Nakayima saw a shadow moving inside the cockpit windows.
Once again he wondered if they knew what they were doing. He didn't doubt they could be trained to fly, or at least operate, an aircraft, but VTOLs weren't exactly user-friendly and they were very tricky machines.
Saburo, his face black and nose visibly broken, climbed out of the VTOL's open passenger hatch and ran up to them. "It's flyable. Might be a bumpy ride."
Fuuka acknowledge him with a nod. "Hanako, get in the co-pilot's seat. Saburo, we need to see about getting those doors open." She made a gesture above them.
Nakayima looked up. The ceiling was essentially a large slab, its edges outlined in alternating yellow-black warning stripes. It would open to allow the aircraft to depart.
"You are going to have to override the launch control," Miko said. "Usually, you need authorization from MAGI—well, basically from the Commander. I assume you would have to submit a flight plan or something like that. The doors can be opened manually." She pointed to a small console along the wall, next to some levers locked into place by a red bracket and a thick padlock. "There."
Fuuka turned her head to Saburo.
He understood and instantly and darted towards the console.
"Everyone else get on board," Fuuka added for her troops, then waved a gloved finger at Miko and Nakayima. "You two, get our little VIP comfortable." Then she stepped up and brushed her hand through Keiko's dark hair with such tenderness it made Nakayima wonder if she had children of her own.
There was something about her and children—not something bad as such but definitely something she hadn't told them. Whatever it was, he had seen it before … in Misato Katsuragi's face of all places.
"Don't worry," Fuuka told Keiko. "We'll have martinis fixed up in a bit. How do you take yours?"
"Uh?" the brunette frowned, totally confused and slightly embarrassed, as if this were some big secret she was supposed to know all about.
Nakayima had to admit he wouldn't mind some alcohol just about now. He took at step towards the waiting VTOL. Miko hesitated, bringing him to a sudden halt, her gaze going from Saburo to Fuuka with uncertainty.
"It's locked. He's going to need—" She was interrupted by a gunshot, made even louder by the confined space. She jumped and gave a yelp, but mercifully did not drop the backboard.
Instead, it was the shattered padlock that fell to the floor, a round, smoking hole in the middle, followed by the locking bracket. Saburo pulled the now-accessible lever. There was a deep rumble overhead, and a thin line of light appeared on the deck below as the doors began to open.
Not the artificial light that shone perpetually inside the Geo-Front.
Almost immediately, a thin curtain of dust began pouring in through the opening, growing heavier with every inch. Eventually the dust became earth and rocks, falling down and pelting the aircraft underneath it.
Everyone stared up in silent astonishment, carefully staying clear from the falling debris, a thin carpet of earth and dust accumulating on the hangar floor and the VTOL's flat surfaces.
Fully opened, the doors revealed an ashen sky beyond. The dome which covered the Geo-Front was gone, blasted out of existence by whatever weapon the JSSDF had deployed, leaving behind a massive gaping hole. Huge columns of black smoke were rising into the sky, tainting it a dark, ominous color, waving and dissipating as the wind picked them up and carried them aloft.
"God ..." Keiko whispered, her brown eyes wide. "What did they do?"
They all agreed—that much was evident in their faces—but it took a child to say the words. Nakayima envied her; she was only one who could let the fear show.
Fuuka placed a hand on Nakayima's shoulder and squeezed. He snapped his head, then nodded. Pushing on the backboard, he nudged Miko's backside with the plastic edge. She moved forward, still looking at the sky.
Despite the shock, they quickly arrived at the foot of the small ladder that led up to the passenger hatch, a rectangular doorway barely large enough to fit a broad-shouldered man. By then the smell of smoke had filled the hangar—the smell of burning and death. Nakayima recognized it clearly. It brought back many bad memories.
The American commandos helped carry Keiko into the aircraft, though Nakayima and Miko did most of the lifting. Saburo and Fuuka secured the rear, crouching down, their rifles leveled at the hangar door.
Trying to hold the backboard and the girl it carried as steady as he could, Nakayima climbed the steps into the VTOL. He had been inside many such aircraft in his life, but they were mostly stripped-down troop carriers or cargo transports. This one, however, was more like a private shuttle—befitting someone of Gendo Ikari's influence and power. The interior space was occupied by several rows of large seats, upholstered in plush black leather, with a narrow aisle in the middle. The floor was carpeted, and the walls on the forward and rear bulkheads were decorated by expensive-looking wood panels.
All things considered, it was a nice way to fly.
A nice way to go into exile, Nakayima reminded himself.
They hurriedly carried Keiko to the rear and set her down in the gap between the last row of seats and the rear bulkhead. Hanako rushed into the cockpit while Miko dropped to the carpet beside Keiko's head and took her hand, her face sullen with worry. Saburo and Fuuka were the last on board, closing the door behind them. Saburo went to join the others in the back. Fuuka turned towards the cockpit after Hanako, slinging her rifle over her shoulder as she went.
Leaving Keiko to Miko's care, Nakayima rushed back across the aisle and through the cockpit door. The cockpit was located on a higher level respective to the passenger cabin and accessible through a small set of stairs just inside the door. He climbed it and came up between the pilot and co-pilot's seat in a space so cramped that he could barely move his arms.
Overhead, the ashen sky was visible through a clear canopy, clouds of dust and smoke drifting slowly. The position of the cockpit was such that the nose of the aircraft could not be seen, only the radio antenna and the FLIR dome protruding from the front. It seemed even higher off the hangar deck than Nakayima had thought.
To his left and right, Fuuka and Hanako were flipping switches seemingly at random.
"No, that's not it," Fuuka said, her tone hassled. She pointed. "Try that one."
Hanako flipped another switch; Nakayima noticed she had the flight manual open in her blood-stained lap. A light he couldn't identify came on in the instrument panel. He noticed three multifunction displays dominated the panel, resembling small LCD screens with buttons located around them. Each were already showing telemetry and what he assumed to be on-board systems checks.
"What are you looking for?" Nakayima asked, feeling like a fish out of water. "These things don't exactly have ignition keys, do they?"
"The transponder," Fuuka said impatiently, her eyes scanning the instrument panel. "We have to turn off the transponder."
Nakayima frowned. "I thought you said you didn't expect them to have anything to shoot us down with."
She frowned at him. "Yes, well, just because there might not be anyone listening doesn't mean I want to go around shouting who we are. We'll be fine if we stay below radar. Probably. And the blast is likely to have taken out or disabled the AA. But we need to turn off the transponder. It's just going to broadcast our ID and location."
It was a sensible precaution, and one, Nakayima admitted, he wouldn't have thought about. Not for the first time, he was glad to have Fuuka along.
"I think I found it!" Hanako called out, her hand hovering over another button. She pushed it. Nothing happened—at least not that Nakayima could see.
Fuuka turned her head away from Nakayima, scanned the instrument panel and nodded. "Yeah, I think that's it. Check your fuel pumps and begin start-up sequence."
Hanako began flipping more switches, most of them located on a console to her left. A moment later, Nakayima heard a high-pitched whine somewhere behind him and on either side. The noise gained in intensity with each passing second as the turbines at the end of the wings spun up to speed, accompanied by a steady and growing vibration. It was not as bad as he remembered.
"What about Katsuragi?" he asked.
Fuuka had to raise her voice to be heard over the whine of the engines. "We have to wait for her."
"Sooner or later the JSSDF will get its act together. Then we'll be screwed." Nakayima didn't like saying it, but he had to be realistic. With the way things had turned out, staying might be suicide and he had other people's lives to think about.
"We have to wait." Fuuka looked at him, her face serious, eyes hard in a way he had never seen them. "You don't think she will call, do you? If those kids are dead … " She shook her head, and Nakayima knew she was right. "She's got too much to lose. She's going to be with those kids even if it means dying with them. But if they are alive she's going to do everything she can to get them out."
Nakayima pressed his lips together. His expression sullen, he thought of Miko and Keiko. "And if they are dead? And if she doesn't call?"
"If it were you down there, would you want me to go?" Fuuka placed her right hand on the throttle control, a large handle on the center console between her and Hanako, and slowly pushed it forward. The engine's whine became a ground-shaking roar. "It's not that I'm being reckless, Mister Nakayima. I know we can't stick around forever. But I'm going to stick around long enough to give those kids a chance. You understand?"
A resigned smirk came to Nakayima's face.
"There was a time when I would have called you sentimental." He was now practically having to yell into her ear. "But I've seen you with a rifle. No one who kills like that is worth arguing with."
"I haven't killed anybody that I liked," Fuuka replied, picking up the headset from the console. Hanako was already wearing one. "Not yet anyway. You better go back there and tell them to strap in. I can't make guarantees about the smoothness of this flight."
Nakayima nodded and left them to it, climbing down the ladder and back into the passenger cabin while closing the door behind. The noise was much less intense here, the engines' high-pitched whine more like a muffled roar accompanied by a steady vibration. The sound insulation was doubtlessly a concession to the comfort of the VIP passengers the craft was meant to carry.
Having taken Keiko off the backboard, the Americans and Miko were now securing her to one of the seats, strapping her in and using several pillows and blankets found in the overhead compartments to support her head and make her comfortable. She had to sit sideways, propping her broken leg on the seats next to her.
"It's going to be okay," Nakayima told her.
She looked up at him, her face skeptical. "You know, if you are going to try to comfort someone you should at least sound like you mean it."
Asuka just ran. She didn't know or care where, but every step she took made the throbbing ache in her chest a little less painful. She had to get out of there. She had to leave the memories and pain behind before they overwhelmed her. It was all she could do.
So she ran, as hard and fast as her bare feet could carry her. The pleated skirt of her school jumper swooshed around her knees. She closed her eye to wipe the tears away with the back of her hand, barely managing to stifle a sob. Only her right eye could cry—the sole survivor of a once beautiful set, an ever-present reminder of what she had been, what she lost, and what she would never have again. Like her mother.
Seeing Yui Ikari had driven that home. Asuka had spent her whole life trying to forget, to somehow insulate herself from the sense that she was forever broken by the death of her mother—the single most traumatic event of her youth. For a while, piloting Eva had allowed to do that, but then she lost Eva too. That was the moment when she first realized that all the things she thought about herself, the arrogance and pride and the desire to excel above any others, were nothing more than carefully constructed lies.
The lies allowed her to carry on living and find purpose in the otherwise hollow, aching void of her existence. But in the end a lie was still a lie. Now she knew what her nightmares always had. She couldn't find her mother again. She couldn't be happy with Shinji. She couldn't do anything but run.
Then something whispered in her ear—a voice not unlike her own.
Asuka stopped. Opening her eye, she looked around and found that she was standing in the middle of a deserted street. A red sun cast everything in a crimson hue, creating deep black shadows that seemed to swallow reality itself. But despite the eerie nature of the light, Asuka remembered she had been here before. Her tears abated, thought only because she was too shocked and horrified to cry.
The rows of once-upscale houses on both sides of the street were now little more than piles of broken rubble, wooden beams rising up like skeletal fingers towards the red sky; collapsed walls and caved in roofs looking as though they had been blown away by a huge explosion. The pavement was cracked and uneven, and covered with debris.
Asuka turned and looked behind her. As far as she could see, the landscape was utterly devastated, devoid of all life. There was no wind, nor any sound.
She didn't understand. How had she come here? These were the suburbs—there was no way she could have run this far so quickly. The first time it had taken days of mindless wandering, before starvation, thirst and exhaustion had claimed her, reducing her to a walking husk, no longer caring if she lived or died.
A flair of movement caught her attention. Whipping her head around, Asuka saw a hint of orange hair vanishing behind a house down the street.
"Hey!" Asuka cried out, breaking into a run.
She rounded the corner and came to a stop behind the house, turning her head every which way. The deserted streets stretched as far as she could see, row after row of abandoned houses and debris. But just as she was ready to give up she felt something hit her from behind. She turned as the object hit the ground. It was glossy red and pointy. Asuka recognized it immediately.
Reaching up, she touched where her own neural connectors should have been and found nothing. Their absence felt worse than being naked—nakedness was only physical.
The voice came again.
Asuka gritted her teeth. She ran further down the street, following the voice almost in a daze of emotions so numerous and powerful she didn't know what they were—anger, hatred, fear, despair, all mixed into a writhing mass. And with each step she took it didn't seem to matter. Those things were just different kinds of hurt.
Eventually she came upon a house she recognized. The front walls and roof had collapsed into a jagged pile of splintered wood, revealing the rooms within.
Asuka stood at the edge of the sidewalk for a moment, her head bowed, hands clenched into fists, then, gathering her courage, she walked around the outside of the house until she came upon the sight of a dilapidated bathroom. It wasn't really a room anymore, just three partially-crumbled walls that opened it to the street and a wooden floor.
She moved automatically, carefully threading her way amongst the debris to avoid the numerous splinters and shards of broken glass, and entered the bathroom through the gaping hole where the outside wall should have been. The wooden floorboards felt smooth and cool against the scalded soles of her feet, but it did little to ease the burning ache in her chest.
The filthy bathroom—the place where she had reached her lowest point—was as much of a wreck as Asuka remembered it, strewn with broken pieces of wood, plaster, metal and other building materials that had once been somebody's home. There was a bathtub on the far wall, filled with fetid brown water. A battered shower head hung overhead, dangling from a crooked metal pipe. The roof was gone, allowing a nearly unobstructed view of the red sky above. There was a chair next to the tub … and on it sat a stuffed doll.
Asuka felt sick. She pressed a hand gingerly against her lower stomach as she moved closer. The doll seemed to look up at her, a wide grin on its face. Its hair was made out of what looked like bits of orange-red cloth, and it had a single blue button in place of a right eye. Asuka stood over it for a moment, then stooped down and picked it up.
And suddenly it was easy to blame the doll for everything that had happened to her.
Asuka's face twisted into a snarl. Her hands tightened around the doll's neck.
It was the doll's fault that Mama had given her life to save her. It was the doll who had failed to defeat the Eva Series. It was the doll who broke her promise.
Asuka hated it, like she hated herself. She wished it would die and let her be together with the ones she loved. But what was the chance of that? The doll was a part of her—the broken and scarred little girl that would never heal, the wasted childhood, the haughty arrogance and ultimate failure, the unfulfilled promise of happiness. It was the worst of her, and she could no more kill the doll than she could take her own life. Hatred was the first natural reaction, but what happened when she couldn't hate anymore and all that was left was the hurt and grief?
Her brow wrinkled, and slowly her expression turned from anger to despair. The tears began to flow again, and not even the thought that she was utterly pathetic was enough to stop them. She didn't have the strength to continue strangling the doll, and instead pulled it to her chest and held it tightly like a frightened child.
Somehow it helped comfort her.
Asuka didn't know how long she stood there like that before she heard the sound of footsteps behind her and a voice calling her name. Despite herself, she turned her head and looked over her right shoulder as Shinji came into the bathroom through the open wall. This time, she didn't bother trying to hide the tears. There was no point. She had nowhere else to run.
Shinji wore his concern for her openly on his face. He seemed rather haggard, clad in a sleeveless white shirt and shorts. Like her, he was barefoot. He hesitated for a moment, and Asuka could see he was having trouble deciding what to do.
"Go away," she told him, her voice low and hoarse.
"You know I'm not going to do that."
And she did.
Asuka turned to look back at the bathtub. "I've been here before, after I couldn't pilot Eva. I didn't have anything left to live for. I didn't have anyone. So I just wandered off one day. I kept replaying it over and over in my mind—when the angel raped me, when I lost my mother, when I was told that my synch-ratio was zero and I was no longer an Eva pilot. My life had no meaning anymore. I ended up here, and I saw the tub. I felt so filthy. I was filth. I took my clothes off, and I climbed on the tub. And I waited. I waited to die."
"I …" Shinji whispered, the words catching in his throat. "I had no idea."
At least he didn't apologize, Asuka thought dejectedly.
"Of course not." She turned back, but her vision had become so blurry she was forced to rub her hand over her face. "You were so focused on your own misery that you couldn't be bothered seeing what was right in front of your face. How hurt I was. You lost someone, but I lost everything that was ever important to me. And did you even care?"
The guilty expression on Shinji's face was enough of an answer. To her surprise, he actually met her gaze even though it was clear it made him very uncomfortable. He was trying.
"I was so happy when I found my Mama again,"Asuka said. "And I had you. For the first time since I can remember, I was looking forward to my life. And then … " She felt the emotions welling up again. She lowered her head and cradled the doll quietly for a moment. "How many times is a little girl supposed to lose her mother?"
Shinji hesitated, struggling, as he usually did, to find the right thing to say. He took a careful step towards her, the floorboard creaking under his feet.
"You still have me," he finally said.
"You are not my mother!" Asuka yelled, recoiling violently. "Can't you understand that? Just because you are still here doesn't mean it'll stop hurting! It doesn't make everything alright!"
Shinji shook his head. There was something in his eyes—not the sympathy Asuka disliked so much but more like resignation.
"What's the use?" Asuka looked sullenly at the tub again, her face set as she fought to keep the painful memories from overwhelming her. She could almost see herself lying there, naked, broken and abandoned. She felt just like she had back then, as if her life were nothing more than a circle of misery and nothing she had ever done could change that.
"Nobody wants to be hurt, Asuka," Shinji said, his voice wavering. "But isn't that the same as being dead?"
Asuka was so shocked by those words that she failed to react when he took her shoulders and gently pulled her closer. Without thinking, she pressed needfully against him, struggling with the urge to continue crying. She stared out past his shoulder at the hole in the wall and the red landscape beyond.
It crossed her mind that there was a time when he wouldn't speak to her, let alone hold her or be anywhere near her. Yet that seemed so far away now, a sad remnant of a life she had lived and put behind her. She didn't want to go back to that. She had moved on. And despite all the hurt that had been thrown at her, she had discovered happiness with an idiotic boy who somehow found something in her to love.
Asuka couldn't imagine what that might be, but Shinji's touch—his warmth, his companionship were the only things she had to show for the years of self-hatred and suffering. And to feel them she had continue hurting.
Why couldn't she be happy without the hurt? Was it worth it to live in pain as long as you knew you were loved? And what if she couldn't be happy? What if the pain was for nothing? What then?
At that moment Asuka realized something very personal about herself.
"I don't want to die."
"Then don't." Shinji held her more tightly, squeezing the doll firmly between their bodies.
"That's easy for you to say." She looked down at herself. "You are still you. You are still whole. I'm … I'm just a stupid doll. I'm damaged. I always have been. Now the outside matches the inside."
"What about your promise?" Shinji said, practically whispering in her ear. "When we went shopping and you tried out that new bikini—the one I was really embarrassed about? Remember? You told me you promised your mother you would try to be happy. You said she would want you to."
In her despair, Asuka had indeed forgotten. She wasn't sure it made any difference now.
"She's dead, Shinji," she repeated, hating the quiver in her voice. "Who's going to hold me to it?"
"I will." Shinji released her and stepped back, keeping his hands on her shoulder. His dark blue eyes met her bright sapphire one. His face was more serious than Asuka had ever seen it before, and she knew he meant every word. "Promise it to me. Because even if it takes the rest of my life, I will help you keep that promise. I will make the hurt worth it. Every day. Every moment that we are together. I will do anything."
He really had no idea, Asuka thought. She almost laughed.
"You sound like you are just going to let me walk all over you."
Shinji dipped his head, in acceptance or resignation—or both. "If that makes you happy."
Did it? When she was a little girl and being spoiled was all she cared about it wouldn't have taken much more than that, but the sad truth was she didn't know what it would take to make her happy anymore, or if it was even a real possibility—not after what she had been through. The pain and horror were still too fresh; the loss too overwhelming. She didn't want Shinji to believe that she could be when it might never happen.
But she knew he was her only chance. In the last few weeks Shinji had made her happier than she had managed by herself in a lifetime—happier than she ever thought she could be. He had taken the shroud of empty loneliness from her and replaced it with fulfillment and companionship. And he was still there, still willing to do everything he could. She had to have faith in him, even if she had none in herself. He had earned that much.
After spending her whole life bragging about her strength and independence, it seemed so ironic.
Her features slackened. Shinji seemed to read her conclusion on her face.
"I've always been afraid of people relying on me," he said, filling in the void left by Asuka's silence. "I knew it would just be a matter of time before I let them down. And then they would make me feel awful. Every time I wanted to protect someone, I ended up hurting them instead. Even when I did nothing—especially when I did nothing. I won't let that happen now." He frowned at her. "But I can't do it alone. I can't make you happy if you don't want to be. You have to try."
Asuka shook her head. "I don't know."
"Promise me, Asuka." Shinji reached down in front of her. His eyes grew watery; if he were to blink, there would be tears running down his face. "Please. I need you."
Asuka couldn't remember how many times she had dreamed about hearing those words. They were a validation of her existence and her worth, but coming from Shinji they meant even more.
Still clutching the doll, she felt Shinji's fingers nudging insistently against hers. She understood what he wanted at an almost instinctive lever and loosened her grip, allowing him to take her hand. His eyes did not leave hers. Asuka found herself peering into the very soul of someone who would never abandon her or hurt her.
Everything she had ever wanted to have from another was standing right there, looking at her, touching her, making her feel as though she would never have to worry about being alone again. It was almost too much, and her heart felt heavy with the knowledge that she would never be able to pay him back. Shinji would give her everything he was because of how he felt about her and all she asked in return was the same promise she had made her mother—one she couldn't even keep on her own.
That was enough for him.
"Idiot." Asuka leaned forward and placed her head on his shoulder. "Next time just kiss me."
She couldn't say the words he wanted to hear, but she knew he understood her meaning beyond any doubt. Shinji had become quite good at seeing through the facade of false haughtiness she liked to put up to disguise the inner frailty, how she really felt. He understood her.
"Come on," Shinji said. "Let's go back. Everyone will be worried about us."
Asuka nodded into his shoulder.
Slowly, she wrapped her slender arms around Shinji and clutched the back of his shirt. He hugged her tightly in return, and she melted into his embrace, letting herself go as her senses filled with his warm presence, soothing the lingering raggedness in her chest. The doll dropped to the ground between their feet without either of them noticing, looking up at them silently.
Only after a long while, when her lungs felt heavy and her breath started to make bubbles, did Asuka open her eyes again—both of them—and realized she was floating in a deep sea of red, her arms still around Shinji, their naked bodies sinking ever deeper.
Too much time had passed. The world did not end, neither with a bang nor a whimper. And Sub-Commander Fuyutsuki knew Gendo Ikari had probably failed.
Standing on the darkened observation platform atop the control room bridge, NERV's second-in-command could not confirm any of this, of course. The MAGI had been hastily shut down to prevent the total contamination of the system. All their surveillance and monitoring capabilities went with it. The bridge crew had performed admirably given the circumstances, as Fuyutsuki had come to expect, even if they all knew that in following his orders they would be crippling themselves beyond repair. It was, as always, a necessary sacrifice.
Fuyutsuki almost laughed. He had lost track of how many times Ikari had used that justification for what NERV had done, and the atrocities they had committed. Lazy minds tended to drift towards the excuses that were familiar to them, usually as a simple matter of expediency; who could come up with a new excuse every time their decisions were questioned? But eventually the sacrifices deemed necessary added up to even greater costs than the things they were determined to prevent in the first place. Huygens' theorem at its best. They should have seen that coming. Perhaps Ritsuko had and she had acted. He would ask her if he ever saw her again.
He didn't have much hope.
By now they could scarcely be sure of the JSSDF movements inside or outside the Geo-Front, but there was no doubt in anyone's mind that they were coming. Central Dogma was not designed or built to withstand this sort of assault, and Major Katsuragi's report left little room as to their attacker's intentions. Even if the children were still alive, they were on their own, deep inside Terminal Dogma. As long as they stayed inside their Evas they would be safe, at least for a while. Until they surrendered to be executed or starved inside their entry-plugs.
Looking down at the deck below him, Fuyutsuki watched as operators moved around distributing and checking handguns and sub-machine guns. They looked scared. Most of them had not held a weapon since their training, and never shot at anything besides paper targets. Like the pilots, they were brave, exceptional people who, having grown up in world of tragedy and sadness, had found a purpose. And now they would die for it. More necessary sacrifices.
But the JSSDF were only men; the worst they could do was kill anyone related to NERV—and everyone in this room. They could not bend the future to their will like SEELE.
It occurred to Fuyutsuki that he was not all that different from the old men, but at least he was willing to recognize his own hypocrisy. It didn't make him better than them, just different. He could take that little bit of comfort to his grave.
A soft knocking sound caught everyone's attention. Fuyutsuki looked down where the lowermost part of the deck extended outwards into two balconies along the walls. The operators, knowing what was coming, ducked behind their consoles for cover, whispering quietly to reassure each other, guns at the ready. Fuyutsuki remained standing, his eyes fixed on the only door on the balcony to his right. Then, with a noise like the crack of thunder, the door flew off its heavy frame, bounced against the balcony railing and fell into the pit beyond.
Smoke billowed out from the shattered door frame, but even so Fuyutsuki saw a dozen bulky shapes carrying riot shields emerge from the door and move perpendicular across the width of the balcony to a line. There were no faces, just helmets and boots padding distinctively on the metal deck. Their uniforms were gray and green camouflage patterns, making them seem like a concrete wall.
A young operator crouching besides Lieutenant Aoba peered over the front of his console and fired a burst from his MP-5 sub-machine gun. The bullets ricocheted off the thick metal shields and the deck. The riot line tightened defensively.
"Hold your fire!" came a loud, mechanical voice.
Fuyutsuki frowned. He recognized the spectacle for the show of force it was—meant to both deter and intimidate. People with the ability and willingness to crush their opposition regardless of the cost seldom delayed with such theatrics. He was curious.
"Perhaps you would care to stop by our visitor center and obtain a pass," Fuyutsuki said, his voice just loud enough to be audible down on the balcony but his tone remained mildly pleasant, not unlike that he used when lecturing a large audience. "I assure you, we have excellent guides, though I suppose you might have killed some of them already."
"We haven't killed anyone."
Now Fuyutsuki actually did laugh. "I have pictures."
He knew from first hand experience that NERV, the Evas, and their pilots could elicit strong emotions from people. The way the Second Child had been ostracized after the incident with Unit-08 was proof of that. A unit of the JSSDF could have gone rogue, disobeying orders and taking matters in their own hands in the heat of battle. But just because something could happen didn't mean it had.
There was a pause. A minute later the wall of shields parted and a single figure stepped forward. His features were covered by his low-hanging helmet and the dim lighting of the room but he carried a loudspeaker and the stiff backed posture of someone used to giving orders. He held the back of the loudspeaker to his mouth.
"Where is Misato Katsuragi?"
"She has pressing business elsewhere," Fuyutsuki replied. "I am Sub-Commander—"
"With all due respect, sir, I know who you are," the man sounded annoyed, and even in the poor lighting Fuyutsuki noticed his features twist.
Fuyutsuki nodded, keeping his voice and expression pleasant. It would be silly to take offense at a time like this. "Indeed. And who might you be?"
"My name is not important. I have been ordered by the Minister of the Interior to find Misato Katsuragi. If you cannot provide me with her location, I will accept your surrender and look elsewhere."
"Major Katsuragi is my subordinate," Fuyutsuki pointed out. "I am sure a man in your position must understand the necessities of the chain of command."
"The chain of command has no relevance in this situation."
"And why is that?"
"Because I have been assured that Misato Katsuragi can be trusted."
Fuyutsuki drew his eyebrows together in thought. "And what will you do when you find her? You must be aware that Major Katsuragi had to rescue the Children from some of your death squads. She has seen the bodies of people she has worked with and cared about. What makes you think she wouldn't just shoot you on sight?"
It was the second time Fuyutsuki doubted his words—his truthfulness. He might as well have questioned the man's honor. Such things carried great weight with these military types, part of the hubris that came with finding yourself elevated above others.
"I have no knowledge of any death squads," the man said again, a hint of anger in his voice. "My orders explicitly prohibit reckless harm to NERV's assets or its personnel."
"Did your orders include destroying the Geo-Front?" Fuyutsuki said, carefully watching for a reaction.
"That was a mistake, it would appear."
"And the Eva Series?"
The man ground his teeth visibly. "You are testing my patience, sir. If you cannot produce Katsuragi, I will find somebody else who can."
Fuyutsuki cast a glance at his own staff, still taking cover behind their consoles on the deck below, clumsily holding weapons, ready to defend this place to the end not from Angels but from men—from their own kind whom they had been pledged to protect. He was in awe of them, and it was for them more than anything else that he began to consider the possibility that the JSSDF officer might be telling the truth.
And then there was the matter of SEELE. The old men wouldn't have bothered with surrender terms unless it served their purpose, and in deploying the Eva Series they had made it clear that it didn't; they would have spared no level of destruction. This was their overture, the triumphant conclusion to their many years of planning. And they would have expected the only desirable outcome—death and immortality.
Surrender, of anyone involved, simply did not fit that plan.
"Forgive me," Fuyutsuki said finally, "but I am sure you understand that I cannot turn over a member of my staff on nothing but your word. We have seen great atrocities committed here today. I have no reason to believe anything you say."
"No, sir. And you don't have to. It is Katsuragi who will turn you over to me."
"I find that hard to believe."
"You don't have to," the man said. "My orders are to negotiate with Katsuragi. The best I can do for you is guarantee your safety."
Fuyutsuki considered that, but the fact that they were still talking instead of exchanging gunfire spoke louder than any words.
Ikari had failed, of that there was no doubt. And with that failure rested most of NERV's long-term goals, if not the very reason for its existence. The Eva Series, he had to assume, had been destroyed or incapacitated enough that it could not fulfill SEELE's plans, either. It was a strategic stalemate. Under such circumstances, they could do worse than trust their lives to Major Katsuragi.
Futyusuki turned to Makoto Hyuga, who was kneeling by his chair and holding a pistol alongside his fellow operators.
"Lieutenant, does your cell phone still work?"
The young operator nodded, his face uncertain.
Clasping his hands behind his back, Fuyutsuki uttered what he knew was sure to become his last order as NERV's Sub-Commander. And he was fine with that.
"Bastards," Misato muttered as she hung up her cell phone and leaned against the elevator's cold metal wall. The elevator was tiny, even by maintenance standards, barely a few square feet of space in a box. She looked at the numbers in front of her ticking down the sub-levels, a sinking sensation in her stomach.
Negotiate? Did the JSSDF seriously expect her to agree to anything after what they had done here today? She would be taking a huge risk with her life, and, more importantly, those of the people she cared about, with possibly nothing to gain from it. The JSSDF had already demonstrated their willingness to go after children. What was there beyond that? What guarantee did she have that they wouldn't simply execute everyone once she did as they wished?
Misato gritted her teeth and cursed again. She hated that they were putting her in this position. After all the secrets and lies, they were going to make her choose. Fuyutsuki outranked her. In Gendo Ikari's absence, he was the commander. The safety of the staff was his priority. Protecting Shinji and Asuka was Misato's.
And the best way she could do that now was to get them far away from the people who had tried to kill them. They would be safe with Fuuka and the others. They would have a chance to live out their lives.
But if they stayed—if she stayed …
Something hardened in Misato's chest as she suddenly realized the JSSDF had said nothing about the children; for whatever reason, she was the one they wanted.
She tilted back her head, resting it against the wall, and closed her eyes. The last memory of her father slipped to mind, when, fifteen years before, he had given his life to place her in an escape capsule in Antarctica so she could survive Second Impact. She couldn't remember the look on his face, but he was covered in blood. He had not said anything before he closed the hatch and sent her away, perhaps hoping she would some day understand. She did now.
For a parent, letting go of a child was the most difficult thing they could ever do. Even her father, who had often seemed so cold and uncaring, had cared enough that he would rather die so she could live. He had to make the choice.
He chose to let her go.
The elevator doors opened silently, snapping Misato out of her thoughts. She hadn't even noticed the metal box had stopped or that the numbers had reached zero.
Taking a deep breath, Misato put her cell phone in her pocket and wearily pushed away from the wall. She stepped out of the elevator and was almost instantly hit by a wall of searing heat. The air was heavy, loaded with the smell of burning as if the whole place had been set on fire. A dark hallway stretched ahead of her, lacking even the usual emergency lights. Misato held a hand against her mouth to guard from the smell and reached the door on the opposite end. The door still worked; it slid open when Misato swiped Kaji's old ID card through the electronic lock.
Misato stepped through carefully, keeping her back to the wall and holding her gun out in front of her with both hands.
The chamber beyond was the stuff of nightmares.
Misato gasped, gagged and almost wretched. She had seen the blubbery creature hanging on a cross with a steel mask before. But now there were huge, mangled dead bodies everywhere—an ocean of LCL dotted by ruined arms and other odd shapes rising above the orange surface like tiny islands in a sea of blood. Some still had had bits and pieces of white armor clinging stubbornly to brown flesh, identifying them as what was left of the Eva Series. A huge, monstrous carcass lay crumpled on the concrete platform, flesh ripped, pieces of shattered bone protruding from gaping open wounds that bled huge pools onto the concrete.
Just beyond the platform stood a battered Unit-01 cradling a barely-recognizable Unit-02, holding it tightly in its arms, their exposed cores pressed together.
Misato felt her stomach drop, starring up in wide-eyed horror at Unit-01 and Unit-02. The Evas were completely still. The air seemed to wave around them, rising up from the LCL in a cloud of steam. There was almost no red left on Unit-02, only festering black flesh that resembled gangrene. Its head was a shapeless pulp, with only one of the four eyes still in their sockets. Its core seemed to have caved in, and Misato could see a seam of partially-melted material where it came together with Unit-01's core, like a weld.
The smell was horrid, a mixture of smoke, burned flesh and rotting death.
As she struggled to take in the carnage, Misato finally noticed the lone, pale figure of a nude girl with blue hair standing on the edge of the platform.
"Rei!" she yelled, lowering her gun and rushing to the albino girl.
Rei turned her head towards Misato just as she came to her side. Her face had its usual blank expression and she seemed surprisingly calm, even for her.
"What happened?" Misato asked, trying to keep her tone in check. She looked Rei over with distress, taking in the young girl's nudity. "Where are your clothes?"
"There was a fire."
Misato didn't know if she should hug her or shake her. She settled for neither "Are you hurt?" she asked.
Rei shook her head, but otherwise stood perfectly still. "No. I am fine. I … "
Misato felt a small wave of relief. "Where's the Commander? What happened?"
"I failed them," Rei said. Her gaze drifted towards the towering Eva units frozen above them. Something flickered in her red eyes that Misato couldn't identify. "I tried to understand. But I let them down. Everyone died because of me."
The words, and the calm emotionless manner in which they were delivered, tore a huge gash in Misato's chest. Nothing could have prepared her for the sudden riptide of emotion that washed everything away. It didn't matter that she had already considered the possibility, or that it was even the most likely outcome—two young children against an army. It didn't matter. It just didn't.
As she tore her eyes from Rei and looked up at the mangled remains of Unit-01 and Unit-02, Misato found her vision grew blurry with tears. Her shoulders slumped, her breath left her, leaving behind the heaviness of overwhelming loss. She let the tears roll; there seemed no point in pretending. She didn't make a sound.
In the silence and the darkness, time seemed to stand still. There was no motion, no life.
Then, with an almost unfathomable tenderness, Rei took her hand.
Misato looked down at her … and found she was smiling.
"You should have faith in them," Rei said. "They have earned it."
Misato frowned at her, confused and growing angry. Did Rei not care? She had never gotten along with Asuka, but what about Shinji? Misato had seen them together; they were almost like siblings. She had to care for him at least. And she had lost him. Faith wasn't going to bring him back.
Misato began shaking her head. Rei squeezed her hand. Then she heard what sounded like a loud splash. Her instincts kicked in automatically. She whirled around in the direction of the sound, towards the ocean of LCL, sweeping the edge of the platform with her gun as she placed herself in front of Rei to shield her from whatever attack might be coming.
The Eva units above them remained frozen in their embrace, like lovers caught in the throes of death, but the dim light in the vast cavern left huge patches of black where anything might hide. Misato waited, her gun ready, seeking out any movement.
There was none.
"Stay here," she told Rei after a moment. Carefully, she approached the edge of the platform, rubbing one hand over her eyes to clear her vision and holding out her gun with the other.
The edge of the platform was outlined by a warning stripe of alternating yellow and black chevrons which made the painted surface more slippery than the rough concrete. Watching her footing, Misato leaned forward and peered at the ocean of LCL beyond. The flat surface was a crystalline orange, broken only by the chunks of the mass production Eva units that had fallen in the battle, limbs scattered about, hands reaching out and locked in place as they clawed at the air, hideous shattered heads full of teeth, pouring brains and blood into wide-open mouths. Everything was dead.
The next time Misato heard the noise it was much closer.
She whipped her head around, her gaze following the platform to a maintenance ladder that led down into the LCL. Tied to the base of the ladder was a small, partially-submerged inflatable raft. And holding on to the lowest rung was a hand.
The hand was accompanied by a mop of soaked orange-red hair Misato would recognize anywhere. Her heart leaped into her throat.
In a burst of sheer adrenaline, Misato lowered her gun and ran.
She reached the top of the ladder at full speed. Skidding to a halt, she grabbed the metal railings curving around the edge and hastily descended the first few rungs. She reached down and took the hand, squeezing it tightly. It didn't squeeze back. Gritting her teeth, she pulled up with all her strength.
Asuka's naked upper body emerged from the LCL, followed by Shinji's, limp and equally naked. The redhead had one arm wrapped around his slender torso, holding him up as best she could. He began to slip almost immediately.
"Asuka, grab the ladder," Misato grunted. "I can't pull both of you out."
Asuka shook her head frantically.
Less than a second later Rei appeared at the top of the ladder and took Asuka's hand. Moving quickly, Misato let go and climbed down the ladder. She placed herself fully alongside the teenagers, LCL up to her chest, and draped one of Shinji's arms across her shoulders. His body was cold, but he wasn't as heavy as she expected.
"I got him," Misato said to Asuka, and felt her grip on the boy slacken. As Rei struggled to pull the redheaded girl over the edge onto the platform, dripping LCL from head to toes, she carried him up and lay him on the platform next to Asuka. A puddle quickly began to form around their nude bodies.
Dropping to her knees, breathing hard, Misato took Shinji's wet shoulders and rolled him onto his back. His eyes were closed. He didn't respond.
Misato used her fingers to check his pulse and pressed her ear close to his mouth to listen for his breathing—nothing. Recalling training she never thought she'd ever need, she placed her palms together on his chest, arms stiff, and gave a firm push. Shinji coughed, LCL erupting out of his mouth. She listened again.
It was very faint and shallow, but he was breathing.
Feeling a small measure of relief, Misato straightened up and looked over to Asuka, lying face-down nearby, her long hair sticking to her bare skin like a wet orange sheet.
Misato gestured to Rei, who was just standing there as if in a trance.
Rei knelt next to Asuka, but as soon as she placed her hands on her the redhead began trying to push her off, coughing and heaving LCL. Rei held her shoulders, speaking to her in a soothing tone and helping her turn over on her side. For a moment Asuka lay there looking up at the albino girl she had so often abused, an expression of resignation and maybe a little regret on her face. Then her eyes rolled back and she slipped away.
"Rei?" Misato's voice was worried. "How is she? Is she breathing?"
Rei examined Asuka's unconscious form with a care that bordered on reverence, feeling her pulse and placing an ear to her mouth.
Indeed, Misato could see Asuka's bare chest moving slowly. That was enough for now—it had to be. With no way to determine internal injuries or contamination of any kind, there was little they could do. Misato looked at Shinji. His own chest was now rising and falling as he breathed, his eyes still closed. The LCL made his short brown bangs stick to his forehead. Misato reached down absently and brushed them aside.
The emotions became too much. Sitting back on her heels, she struggled not to cry again. She knew that wasn't going to help anyone, and Rei was watching her. She had to keep it together, to focus on what she needed to do now, to think.
"Major Katsuragi," Rei whispered. "Are you alright?"
Misato lifted her head and met Rei's eyes as evenly as she could. "I … don't know."
Rei waited, perhaps thinking there was more, then said, "You cannot heal others before you heal yourself."
"What does that even mean, Rei?" Misato spat, belatedly realizing how angry she sounded. She dropped her head, her voice softening to little more than a whisper. "I don't want to heal them. I know I can't do that. I just want to protect them. Just talking about it isn't going to make that happen. I had a plan, but now that plan means abandoning other people who depend on me. No matter what I do, someone is going to get hurt."
"That is always going to happen. The only thing you can do is choose." Rei looked at the unconscious teenagers. "We all have."
Misato knew she was right. Asuka and Shinji had done their part and now it was her turn. This was her decision, but made for others instead of herself. At least this way they would be alive to blame her. They would be safe.
Fingers slick with LCL, Misato reached into her pocket and flipped open her cell phone. She looked at the screen, wondering for a moment if this was how Kaji had felt before he placed his final call, apologizing to her for all the things he could never say. And she remembered the words she had heard over and over a thousand times on her answering machine, whenever she was home alone and nobody was listening.
So she would—and she hoped those she was leaving behind forgave her.
Misato held the cell phone to her ear. It rang only once, but it felt like an eternity. Then she heard Fuuka on the other side.
"It's me," Misato said, her voice surprisingly loud and clear. "I need you."
The hologram showed a small VTOL aircraft leaving the massive sinkhole where the center of Tokyo-3 had once stood. Around the hologram, twelve faceless monoliths towered silently in a circle. The image they were watching, a composite of satellite imagery and salvaged surveillance video feeds, was already a few hours old.
"We have not been able to determine the nature of the aircraft's crew," SEELE 01 said, his voice low and mechanical. "Early reports we have intercepted from the JSSDF units in the facility suggest it is the pilots and their minders."
"What about Ikari?" another of the faceless monoliths asked.
"There are no reports of him being in the facility. Apparently the JSSDF offered NERV the possibility of surrender so long as they were placed into contact with Major Katsuragi. Two hours ago, when it became obvious Katsuragi would not respond, the staff was taken into custody. We do not know any more at this time."
"This is unacceptable," SEELE 03 said. "The JSSDF is acting on its own. If Ikari was offered asylum by the Americans—"
"No," SEELE 01 interrupted. "Unit-01 is still in the facility. Ikari would never part with it."
"Then he is dead," SEELE 07 said. "Perhaps this is not such a disaster after all."
"Only time will tell, gentlemen," SEELE 01 said. "We cannot yet know the full scope of these events. The JSSDF seems determined to act on its own, and the Americans are likely to deny any involvement. The Eva Series can be rebuilt, but we must account for Adam."
"Indeed," SEELE 05 said. "The situation is troubling, but not entirely out of control. There is hope."
"There is always hope," SEELE 01's mechanical voiced boomed through the room, followed by a chorus of agreement.
One by one the monoliths disappeared in descending order, leaving pitch blackness where they stood. When the SEELE-02 slab vanished, it revealed a thin man sitting on a console, short black hair streaked with white, black eyes almost as deep as the space around him. When the SEELE-01 monolith vanished, an even older man sat there, stocky and hunched over with age. His hair was white, and his face, what could be seen underneath a thick visor, was wrinkled with folds of sagging skin. They were the only two real occupants in the room. It was not by coincidence.
The thin man stood, still looking at the hologram in the middle of the room. It now showed various images of NERV personnel being cleared out of Central Dogma, their hands above their heads like criminals or prisoners.
"No sign of Sub-Commander Fuyutsuki?" the thin man said.
"It is unlikely the Ministry would disclose his whereabouts at this time," Lorenz Keel said, his voice gruff. He seemed incapable or unwilling to move. "I have reason to believe he is in custody. A shame really. He will be debriefed."
"He might talk."
"What can he tell them that might hurt us?" Keel said.
"The truth." The thin man turned to face Keel. "He has no reason to lie. Not for Ikari. And certainly not for us."
"The truth is a single man's narrow perception of reality," Keel replied. "What can he tell them that will hurt us? They will only hear what they want to hear. And what they want to understand. In any case, it will take years to sort out. We will be prepared. We will rebuild, and we will overcome."
The thin man looked back at the hologram, taking in every detail of the frames.
"Is there any word on your son?" Keel suddenly asked. "He was inside the Geo-Front at the time of the attack, was he not?"
"Yes, I believe so. His name is not on any of the lists."
"Neither is Katsuragi's. Nor any of the pilots." Keel rose slowly. There was heaviness about him that seemed supernatural, but his age took nothing away from a man that could command governments with little more than strongly-worded letters. "Very telling, isn't it?"
As Keel lumbered towards the hologram, the thin man slipped a hand into his pocket and felt the butt of his gun.
Doctor Hideki Nakayima had already made up his mind. It was the whole reason he had arranged to be here in person when telepresence might had sufficed.
"Very. A Father can learn a lot from his son."
The darkness slowly resolved itself into light and blurry shapes, and Shinji realized he had opened his eyes. He lay on his back, staring at a ceiling he didn't know, hearing the gentle, rhythmic sound of his own breathing. His mind was blank, and it seemed as though his body was made out of lead. He was warm, covered in a thick white blanket and lying on something soft and surrounded by walls on three sides like a kind of bunk.
After a moment of staring at nothing, his gaze moved down. His vision began to clear as he blinked, and he recognized a pretty, soft-featured face holding two surreal red eyes and a short blue head of hair leaning over him.
"Rei ..." Shinji groaned, his voice very hoarse as if he had been screaming at the top of his lungs.
"Yes," Rei said, reaching out and flicking something outside the bunk. An intense light suddenly assaulted Shinji's eyes. "Stay calm. You are exhausted."
Shinji rose onto his elbows, wincing against the light. He felt as though he had taken a beating, which he had of course. He raised his arm to rub his eyes and looked at his right hand. There was a bandage around his wrist securing an IV but he found no sign of the burns he had suffered during the battle with the Eva Series. His hearing had also returned.
He turned his head to Rei, furrowing his brow. She was to his left on the open side of the bunk, wearing a loose gown that was noticeably oversized, and almost as white as her skin. Her pale face was the usual mask of pleasant neutrality.
As Rei moved back to give him a little more room, Shinji saw Asuka curled up on another bunk, tucked in under a white blanket. Her golden-red hair spilled in curls like waves of fire, loose and unkempt, over a thick pillow. A thin plastic tube trailed from her right wrist to a clear orange bag hanging from a hook on the top corner of the bunk which was barely high enough to allow for someone to sit inside of it.
"She is asleep now," Rei said, following his gaze. "She will be okay."
Shinji nodded. It seemed like the only thing he could do. He couldn't begin to imagine the toll their ordeal had taken on Asuka, how it would change her, but he knew she wouldn't be here if she didn't think she could be happy. And he knew the burden that placed on his shoulders.
He sat up slowly and rubbed an arm across his eyes. Glancing around, he noticed how cramped everything was. Asuka's bunk was barely three feet away, across a narrow aisle which was sealed off by curtains at both ends.
"Where … where are we?"
"You are on board the USS Virginia," Rei said. "After you came back, Major Katsuragi had us extracted from the Geo-Front. It seems she had made such arrangements with your escorts beforehand. She believed we will be safe here."
A hollow ache sprang up in Shinji's chest as the significance of those words sank in. He sat there in silence, staring out at nothing, and wondered if he really could have been naïve enough to think he could go back home at the end of day.
Sadly, he realized at least a part of him had. But that wasn't going to happen now. He would never set foot in Misato's apartment again, or cook dinner in the crowded kitchen, or play his cello, or lay on his bed and listen to his S-DAT, or go out with his friends. That life was finished.
And Asuka had known all along—she had tried to tell him as much in the Eva cages, when all he could do was worry.
Shinji looked again at the sleeping redhead, needing to make sure she was really there, and the emptiness in his chest filled in a little. Slowly, almost absently, he began moving to the edge of the bunk and made an effort to stand. It quickly became clear he couldn't even get over the safety railing. Rei leaned in and lowered it.
"Sorry," he told her, not really knowing why he was apologizing.
"There is no reason to be sorry." Rei took his right arm and put it around her shoulder, then wrapped her left arm around his waist and got him up. Her touch was gentle but firm and he found himself leaning against her. As he slipped completely from under the sheet, he realized he was wearing what looked like an oversized set of pajamas done in white with an anchor and dolphin emblem on the sleeve.
It took him only two shaky steps to cross the narrow aisle, trailing the IV's plastic tube behind him. Rei lowered the railing on Asuka's bunk and helped Shinji sit, then went to get his IV bag. Clutching the front of his gown, Shinji tried to catch his breath and watched Asuka carefully.
The injuries she had sustained during the fight with the Eva Series had vanished. Her pretty, unblemished face was relaxed, eyes closed, lips slightly parted. Her arms were tucked in protectively to her chest, her right hand resting on the pillow next to her face, palm up. Shinji could see hints of a gown similar to Rei's. There was not a taut muscle in her slender body; she looked exactly as she always did when she slept: innocent and vulnerable, a baby in her mother's bosom.
This was a side of herself Asuka didn't like anyone to see, and he understood why.
He also understood why it was important that someone did.
Reaching down slowly, Shinji stroked Asuka's face with his hand and brushed away the thick bangs of orange-red hair from her forehead. Asuka stirred under the sheets in response, nuzzling her head insistently against the pillow, wanting to sleep. Shinji watched her intently but made no move to wake her.
He barely noticed when Rei returned to his side and hung his IV bag on a hook besides Asuka's. Looking up at her, he found a pair of red eyes feathered by a familiar caring that was both sad and beautiful. He frowned curiously.
Rei blushed, as if she had been caught doing something she wasn't supposed to. Red was not her color, but this subtle shade seemed to suit her.
"I … I will inform Major Katsuragi that you are awake," Rei said, stammering a little. She moved to the privacy curtain on the far side of the bunk. There she stopped, grasping the edge of the curtain and looking over her shoulder. "She will be very glad to hear it. I am glad as well. For both of you."
"Thank you, Rei," Shinji whispered, his voice almost as weary as he felt.
Rei smiled at him—the same smile he had seen on his mother's face—and slipped out through the curtain.
Shinji watched her go, then, silently, turned back to Asuka. His hand lingered on her face, a comforting reminder even in her dreams that he was still with her. That he always would be.
It was a promise.