One Month Later
The sun ebbed in the purpling evening sky as the greatest armada since Third Impact readied itself for departure. Ships of every imaginable description jostled with one another as if the sea wasn't wide enough to hold them. To our right were the giant tankers. Despite their recent conversion to troop transports, their crews still complained that they reeked of crude oil. The Cavour, probably the world's only remaining aircraft carrier, sat on the edge of the horizon surrounded by a pack of destroyers. Sailors still called the ship by her older Italian name despite the Chairman's insistence on rechristening her the Nanami.Huddled under her decks were twenty fighter-bombers, the entirety of our fleet's air cover. After seeing the UN Pacific Fleet from its gargantuan flagship Over the Rainbow, the sight was underwhelming.
The trip to South America would take a few months, and I wondered what Berlin would be like when we got back. The second EVA wouldn't be repaired for a while, but the S-2 engine was intact, and the tech team had already figured out how to tap into its limitless energy. I'm no engineer, but even I recognized the value of that energy in rebuilding the framework of industrial civilization.
Asuka had spent the day screaming herself hoarse at the crane operators as they lowered "her" EVA into a cargo ship. I felt sorry for any South American warlords stupid enough to resist when we arrived.
And no, that wasn't a joke.
"Well, she's as cheerful as ever," a voice behind me said.
"Aoba! Where have you been?"
He put a hand on my shoulder and smiled slightly. The former bridge crewman wore a uniform so gaudy that for a moment I thought it was intended as a joke. The mass of epaulettes, triple-breasted buttons, and braided gold made him look like he'd stepped out of the Napoleonic wars.
"Better question: What's with the suit?" Asuka sniffed.
"Jinnai's idea of a little joke," he said.
"I don't get it."
"He kicked me upstairs," Aoba said. "Supervisor-General-in-Chief of the Engineering Corps. Jinnai wanted me as far away from politics—and you two, incidentally—as possible, so he invented some no-name post with a fancy title and a fat salary to keep me happy. Serves me right for training my replacement to work the MAGI."
"Sucks for you," Asuka observed.
Aoba chuckled. If he was bitter or embarrassed, he didn't show it.
"A stupid uniform is a small price to pay for comfortable anonymity," he said.
I nodded and wondered what it would take to get the same thing.
"Besides," he continued, "I got out at the right time. Sometimes I think Jinnai's a little crazier than Winthrop. You know what he was going to do if the EVA failed? He wanted to use the MAGI control over the N-2 mines to destroy Berlin block by block until the army gave in."
We both stared at him, open-mouthed. That was one conversation we hadn't been privy to.
"All in all, I'm glad he let me out with as much as he did," he added.
"I guess it's good to know where you stand in the grand scheme of things," Asuka said. "Shinji could learn a couple things from you."
"Oh?" Aoba said, his voice dripping with feigned interest.
Asuka took a deep breath and launched into a tirade that she must have been planning for me later on.
"This idiot sends money to enemies of the state. Just the other day, he stopped a girl on the street corner as she was getting dragged off by the secret police to ask her where her family lives so he could give them money for food. The kid has the political savvy of a brick wall—"
"Her kids would have starved Asuka," I said.
"Who cares? And don't interrupt--"
"And she wasn't an enemy of the state anyway. The woman was a greengrocer!"
"With possible ties to the Chiang-Shih. And I told you already, don't interrupt—"
"She wasn't even Chinese!"
"So she was innocent!" Asuka snapped. "So what? The woman's a liability!" She stood with her legs apart and waved her arms over her head in a way that told me that I would never win this argument. Aoba leaned against a nearby tent post and rolled his eyes, a picture of amused indifference.
And why not? I thought. We're not his problem anymore.
We did our best to engage in a couple minutes of conversation—which, as usual, consisted of Asuka throwing barbs while I stared sheepishly at the ground and tried to answer questions in monosyllables. Charming couple though we undoubtedly were, Aoba found some polite reason or other to break away. We were on our own again, and it was getting dark.
"Would you like to watch the sunset?" I asked.
"It's kinda nice to watch. If you want to."
Asuka shrugged and walked over to a spot a few hundred meters away where the view wasn't clogged by a wall of rusty ships. She sank to her knees, and I sat down beside her. I sighed as I watched the clouds darken and the sun slowly sink under the water.
"What?" she demanded.
"What's the sigh for?"
"Just the sunset," I said.
I stretched my foot out to the water and dipped it in the ocean. It was something I'd been afraid to do since Third Impact. Traces of LCL from a billion liquefied corpses still floated there. Besides, I'd never liked the ocean.
Tentatively, I rested a hand on her nearer shoulder. She didn't reciprocate. For that matter, she didn't do anything to acknowledge the movement.
"For somebody who threatened to stop piloting if she couldn't go with me, you're not very affectionate today," I said. I'd meant it as a gentle conversation-starter. As usual, I managed to pick exactly the wrong thing to say. I felt her shoulders tense, and she shrugged and shied away. I withdrew my hand.
"In a few months, they'll have new Dummy Plugs and I won't be able to make that threat anymore. Besides, that kind of affection is your part of the bargain, Third. Not mine."
"Are you tired of our arrangement already?"
"Then stop," she said. She had visibly relaxed after the 'no', and her request sounded more sad than suspicious.
"I'm sorry," I said.
She gave a disgusted little snort and stood up, her arms wrapped around her torso.
"It's getting cold. If you need to use me for sex, I'll be in the tent."
As she walked back across the beach, I wondered whether she'd intended that businesslike statement to be rebuke or an ironic peace offering. She would never clarify the matter for me; that much was certain. For the thousandth time, I wondered something that neither of us dared speak aloud: Just how long can this last? The rolling waves didn't bring an answer, but they did bring sleep.
And with sleep came dreams.
I was fifteen years old again, staring out at the endless expanse of the Sea of LCL. The great red ring of souls dominated the skyline, twice as thick as it was in my own time. In the distance, the mutilated head of Rei Ayanami stared at me from its single remaining eye. Even dead, it seemed alert and watchful
Rei hovered above the churning red sea, still a fourteen-year-old in a school uniform that seemed woefully inappropriate for the most powerful being on Earth. Her sudden appearance should have startled me, but it didn't.
"Hello, Ikari," she replied.
I sat down on the shore and she floated over to me. I stared at my reflection.
"Rei, why am I like this?" I asked.
She cocked her head to one side.
"I do not understand," she said.
"My age. I'm not fifteen anymore."
"You were…uncomfortable before when you talked to me," she said. "Was this due to your age?"
"And you are more comfortable now?" she asked.
She smiled and fixed me again with her eerie, beautiful thousand-yard stare.
"Then I am glad."
"You did this to make me feel comfortable?" I asked.
She looked puzzled again, and shook her head.
"I had nothing to do with it. Your body is Shinji Ikari as he sees himself; the Shinji Ikari that exists in your mind that represents the self."
"So my sense of selfhood is stuck as a teenage boy during the worst time of my life?"
She continued staring at me, but didn't say anything. She didn't have to. I wondered if her years among humanity's memories had given her a better understanding of rhetorical questions. Then again, perhaps her refusal to state the obvious was just an extension of her unnatural economy of motion.
"Is this the life you wished for, Ikari?" she asked.
I paused, throwing aside the easy, conversational answer to give the question the thought it deserved.
"No, but it's the life I have," I said. "I'm keeping it."
Something dripped into the LCL. Its ripples, much larger than they should have been, distorted my reflection. I looked up and saw that Rei was crying.
"If…if things do not last…I will always be waiting, Ikari."
For the second time today, I was at a loss for what to say. Again, I chose the worst possible response.
"It'll be kinda awkward if I'm an old man by then," I said. I hoped the feeble joke would make her smile, as she had after the Fifth Angel. Instead, she glared back at me through her tears with a ferocity that I'd rarely seen from anyone, let alone Ayanami.
"I will always be waiting! The physical body does not matter in Instrumentality. I can see the light of the soul."
"I'd be absorbed into the universal mind, Rei."
"I would not let that happen," she said. "I have set aside a special place, as…as Yui did, with her Evangelion."
The young Angel stared at me pleadingly. I wondered at the cosmic irony of a godlike being trapped so firmly by memories of a neglected childhood that she'd latched onto the first person to show her affection.
Maybe I'm being too hard on both of us. I'm not an Angel, after all. I don't see into others people's souls. Maybe Rei genuinely saw something else in me during Instrumentality. Maybe.
But I doubt it.
"I'm sorry, Rei. Not today," I said. Her head sagged to her chest. A few teardrops moistened the front of her uniform. I touched her shoulder and she didn't shy away. Slowly, she raised her arm and stroked my hand with her own.
"I have infinite patience, Ikari. I will wait."
The vision faded and I found myself back on the other beach. Reality again. I checked my watch. I hadn't checked the time before I'd nodded off, but I was sure that it couldn't have been more than a couple of minutes, even though my muscles felt like they'd been asleep for hours. I forced my stiff legs to carry me back to the tent. I unzipped the flap, stepped inside, and flattened myself across the floor with a sigh.
"You picked up the stuff I asked for, right?" Asuka asked.
"For the trip?"
"What else, Dummkopf?"
"They're in the backpack," I said.
"So give them to me."
I resisted the urge to groan as I peeled my body off the floor and staggered to the bag on the tabletop. I emptied the contents onto the table and handed them to Asuka, one by one, for inspection.
"New math book?"
"Here," I said.
"You know, my college degree was in math," she said. In fact, I did know. She'd told me several times.
"That's impressive," I said.
"More impressive than your pretending to be surprised," she said. "New computer game?"
"One of the vendors near our apartment scrounged a copy of Demon Death IV," I said.
"Already beat it."
"How about Star Battles 3D?"
"Beat…You mean you got all of these?" she asked.
"Yeah. There are two more in there that you might not have played yet. I didn't know what you wanted. I'm sorry I didn't find—"
"This must've cost you a fortune," she said.
I rubbed the back of my head. It's a nervous gesture I haven't managed to break despite the fact that she constantly complains about it.
"I guess so, but what else would I spend it on?" I said.
Her voice softened a bit, and a wisp of a smile appeared on her lips.
She walked over and picked through the remaining luggage.
"You're right. I haven't played either of these," she said. "Tell you what: let's turn the game system on and I'll beat your ass a couple times before we go to sleep."
"The game system's already on board," I said.
"Scheiße, you're right."
Asuka continued digging. She picked an old, weathered book out, looked at it, and quirked an eyebrow at me.
"The Time Machine? Seriously?"
"What? It was a neat book," I said.
"Yeah, in 1895."
"Sometimes I wish I could go back and change things," I said carefully.
"What, you mean like changing history by using what we know now?"
"Clever, Third. You bought it just to spark this conversation, didn't you?"
Again, I nodded.
"You know I don't like these 'what if' discussions." There was a note of warning in her voice.
"You're much better at them than I am," I said, hoping that the flattery would get me somewhere.
She leaned forward onto the table and rested her head on her hands.
"Fine, I'll play. If we traveled back to do it all over again, your dad would've figured it out in a few days. Tops. Then he would have confined you, killed me, and used the Dummy Plugs instead."
It wasn't the answer I'd expected, but I had to admit that it was more realistic than most of the wish-fulfillment fantasies I'd indulged in over the years.
"You know, sometimes I wonder if he figured out a way to survive his trial," I said. "That man had more lives than a cat."
"Who? You mean Gendo?" She seemed surprised.
"You didn't see the rest of the tape?"
There it was again: that sickening, knotted feeling in my stomach that always came before something that I didn't want to hear.
"No," I said.
"Oh…neither did I. I thought you probably would have by now."
It was an obvious lie, and we both knew it. At that moment, though, I didn't want to pursue the question any further.
"If you're finished looking through this stuff, I can repack it," I said. I looked over and saw that she was already curled into her sleeping bag. On the off-chance that she was asleep rather than simply ignoring me, I repacked everything as quietly as possible.
"Shinji, did you bring your cello?" she asked suddenly.
"Huh? Yeah, I think it's in the trunk by the door," I said.
"Could you get it out play it for me?"
"Um…sure. Is there anything in particular that you'd like me to play?"
"Bach's Cello Suite No.1."
I took out my cello and played until she fell asleep.
Well, that's it for the moment. I had a lot of fun writing this, and hopefully you've enjoyed reading it.
It would be nice to return to the weird little universe of Evangelion sometime soon. If I get enough requests and interest, I'd be glad to write a sequel.
Until that time, I look forward to your reviews. Thanks for reading!