Stage XV: The Machine
Mount Asama Geological Observatory
The mood inside the room was tense. Asuka and Misato stood next to one another with arms crossed, glaring at the panel of technicians and a large screen filled with bright red.
"Ma'am, the probe…it won't last any longer," a technician blurted. He was addressing Asuka, ignoring Misato, who was technically the commander of this operation. She scowled.
"Nerv will compensate you for any equipment damaged or lost," she snarled. "Press on!"
The technician glanced at Asuka.
"I am only an observer," Asuka said. "You will take orders from Captain Katsuragi."
Overhead, monitors chimed. The probe had reached its maximum safe depth.
"Keep going," Misato said. The technicians muttered amongst themselves. Asuka glanced at the older woman. She was having problems repressing her temper. On the other hand, the technicians clearly did not want to break valuable equipment at the word of an Eleven.
"I guarantee that Nerv will compensate you for your time and equipment," she said. "Carry on."
She and Misato exchanged glances. Misato's eyes narrowed. Asuka dipped her head.
The probe emitted a loud crack. Warnings blared to life across the control room. The technicians scrambled to try to save the probe, but it was too late. Pressure from many kilotons of magma shattered the machine, and the screen fuzzed out.
"The probe has been destroyed, ma'am," the technician glowered, this time at Misato.
"Send the bill to Nerv," the woman replied coldly. "Any data recovered?"
"None before the—" the technician began.
"What's that?" Asuka asked sharply, before the technician could hide something.
"Oh, nothing," the man said.
"Bring it up," Asuka said coldly. "Now"
The bit of data was magnified. It was clearly a huge spike on the abnormal energy readings chart, the one especially modified to sense AT Fields.
"You missed it, sir," Asuka said. "Something even an untrained eye could easily notice. What a shame for a skilled employee of the Imperial Academy of Science. Get every bit of data from this probe analyzed, cleaned and sent to Nerv immediately. Do I make myself clear?"
"Y-yes, milady," the man squeaked. Misato looked away for a moment while Asuka took a small sip of coffee. Not decaf.
"Let's go, Captain," Asuka said. "Let them work in peace."
"After you, milady," Misato replied, stepping aside.
The two women found themselves outside, in the open field where the probe had been assembled. Now, a plethora of machines dominated the view, along with a gigantic crane that sprawled across the open mouth of the volcano. The remains of the probe were being hauled up, to the great dismay of the yard workers. Some cast Misato dirty glances, but hurried away when Asuka appeared. Asuka, for her part, seemed used to the aura of power.
"Well, Captain, do you know what this means?" she asked.
"There is most likely an Angel hidden in Mount Asama," Misato said.
"And why has it not attacked?" Asuka asked sharply. "Every time we have detected an Angel, it was on the warpath. Yet this one has been emitting faint readings for a week. Therefore, it is either…"
She pulled on her gloves.
"A. non-hostile, which I doubt, B. disabled, which is a possibility, considering how deep down it is in the volcano, or C. weak and not yet ready. I am inclined to go with choice C."
"In other words, it's still immature?"
"Perhaps; we must wait for more accurate results. In the meantime, I believe it is time we went on alert."
He sat away from the gaggles of Britannian students, alone, as usual. Lamprouge was off on some business of his own, and Shinji was left to stare at Rei Aldington from the shadows. Like him, she never interacted with the other students. He wondered if he should go to her. She looked so lonely.
But he wasn't capable of sustaining a conversation. What if he made himself look like a socially awkward idiot? He probably would. Talking to girls was…never his strong suit. Still, he just wanted a friend. After all, they would watch each other's backs…
But she never went into combat, not even once. It was he and Langley who cleared every mission. Ayanami—it sounded better to his ears—was never seen taking her Unit 00 out of the Cage. He wondered why. Perhaps it is because Unit 00 is the Prototype and not meant for combat. Still, he liked to know that he would have a friendly person backing him up.
"Hey, Ms. Aldington," he said. "Do you, uh, mind if I sat?"
She shook her head no, but declined to talk, instead taking out some books and beginning her school work. Half of lunch eroded away in this quagmire of awkwardness, neither of the two allowing words to escape their lips. His heart pounding, Shinji decided to take a step.
"Aren't you going to talk?"
'That was a horrible way to start a conversation,' he thought immediately. She turned in surprise.
"I was intending to ask you the same question," she said. "I do not…know."
It was even worse than Shinji had imagined. Neither of them even knew how to begin. But at least she was as clueless as he was; that was a relief. Lunch ended there, and she stood up rigidly, as if she were an automaton and not a flesh-and-blood girl. Still, the movement was graceful and pretty. A slight wind ruffled her clothes and hair, her bangs billowing over her forehead. He scrambled after her, ignored by the girl that walked like a machine.
She was icy cold to him all that day, though it was no different from her treatment of him on any other day. He hesitated to go near her, even more so than he hesitated to speak up to Langley, who at least was definitely a normal person, albeit unnervingly intelligent and hard as nails.
As usual, Ayanami paid him no heed until the end of the day, when it was her job to take him to the dormitory that Lamprouge occupied. Today, they were in no hurry to get home. He gulped, and made up his mind. He nudged her elbow.
"Miss Aldington, are you, um, going anywhere today?" he asked.
"No, I am not. Why do you ask?" she said.
"Well, um, I was hoping that you could, um, come by and, well, make friends, that's all," he stuttered.
"Because…because…" he struggled for words. A reason leapt to his mind. "Well, it would be convenient!"
She sounded unconvinced, uncaring, as if she didn't want to know that he wanted to get closer to her, as if she didn't give a damn about him. She left him, as always, and went away the same way she always went away, walking gracefully down the street and never looking back. He was a little saddened, but determined that if she wanted to drop by, he would be ready for her.
After all, he just wanted a friend, right?
"Your highness, any words?" Asuka asked cautiously. Schnizel el Britannia slowly nodded.
"You will not be part of this operation," he said.
"What…what, your highness?" she gasped.
"Asuka Langley, Knight of Two, daughter of the Archduke Langley, senior officer in the Britannian armed forces, awarded countless medals for her service to the Empire."
He chuckled over his drink, and leaned in closer to her on the couch they were sitting on. His fingers traced over her cheek.
"My dear, I would not for the world that you be the one dropped into a live volcano," he whispered. She shivered, trying to lean away from him without overtly resisting. The Prince recollected himself, chuckled some more, and downed the rest of the martini. Thankful, she nudged herself a minute bit of space. They were in his apartment at Area Eleven, a preposterously luxurious affair with fountains, an indoor pool, and a full cabinet of wines. She did not ask for any, and she doubted he would have given a minor alcohol anyways. His manner was always more relaxed here, and exhibited a scary soft spot for Asuka. If he asked, well...would there be any question? She didn't like devious politicos, especially not Schnizel. The flesh and blood Prince was no Prince Charming.
"Why did you volunteer for this, Asuka?" Schnizel asked with his back to her, voice less casual than before. "There is no need for you to seek more glory in such dangerous missions. Your valor is well established, and by heaven, you are still fourteen. There's a lifetime's worth of laurels to wear."
"Only doing my duty, your highness," she said.
"Then what of the Eleven and Aldington?" Schnizel asked. "Should they not also shoulder their share of the burden?"
"I believe, your highness, that I am best qualified for this," Asuka said. Schnizel raised an eyebrow.
"Best qualified for floating down and snapping a cage around an inanimate lump?" he asked. "Should that not be automated?"
"The risk of it breaking loose is too great," Asuka replied. "An Evangelion needs to be onsite to negate the Angel's AT Field, anyhow."
"And if the mission should fail? If the Angel should awake and find itself attacked?" Schnizel asked. "Surely, you know what happened the last time humanity raised its hand against an Angel."
Asuka shuddered. The official story of Second Impact had been that of a meteorite strike from a tiny micro-meteor traveling at nearly the speed of light. The real story was that of a completely different nature. An investigation led by the father of Misato Katsuragi had chanced upon the giant being known as ADAM, the first Angel. In the ensuing investigation, ADAM awoke, and an attempt was made to restrain it with the "Lance of Longinus," a giant lance found near ADAM dubbed thus because of its inherent anti-ADAM properties—Longinus being the name of the Roman centurion who stabbed Christ with a spear, and ADAM being an almost godlike creature. The last time that humans attacked an Angel actively, then, caused a retaliation that destroyed half the planet.
Schnizel raised his glass to her. The lust returned to his eyes.
"Now, we can't have you caught in Plan B, can we?"
Rei raised the spoon to her lips. The aroma of the soup wafted around Shinji's room. She tasted it, thought for a moment, and nodded.
"It's good," she commented. Shinji blushed at the comment.
"Ah, thank you," he said with a stammer. "I'm glad you liked it."
She looked at him strangely, and he recoiled in fear that he had offended her somehow. She put the soup down, and looked disdainfully at a tray of sandwiches. Quietly, she went back to her soup.
"Don't you want a sandwich?" he asked tentatively.
"I don't eat meat"
She didn't look offended or disturbed, merely continued eating her soup. Shinji wrung his hands nervously. Rei put down the empty soup bowl.
"Thank you…"she murmured, almost a little out of character. She smoothed the lapel of her dress, a strange outfit for her, and folded her napkin up.
"Oh, you're welcome," he said, relieved that she seemed to enjoy herself. "I, um, didn't know you were vegetarian."
"It is no matter," she said.
"But, it is!" he protested. "I didn't…that is, you couldn't enjoy something because I didn't know that you don't eat meat…"
To his surprise, she colored a little.
"I see," she said. They sat across from each other for an awkward moment. A light knock came at the door, and Sayoko appeared.
"Mister Ikari, Miss Aldington," she said. "There is a young lady to see you. She gives the name Asuka Soryu."
Shinji jumped and then sat down. He didn't know an Asuka Soryu. It was a Japanese name, not one Langley would have.
Langley stepped into the room.
"Thank you, Sayoko," she said. "You may leave now."
Shinji stared, mouth agape, as the Knight of Two removed a pretty, wide-brimmed sun bonnet and sunglasses.
"Do you mind?" she inquired. Rei opened her mouth, but then closed it.
"No, ma'am," she said. Asuka's look flitted between the two.
"It seems that I have intruded on something I should not have," she said. "Have I?"
"Of course not," Rei said. Her voice was a little steelier than it usually was. Asuka's eyes narrowed at the other girl, who met her gaze with seeming impunity.
"I will wait," she said. "In the meantime, enjoy yourselves."
She turned her heel and marched out. The door shut behind her, and Rei turned to Shinji.
"My reaction was not wholly appropriate," she observed. "Lady Langley could not have known about us." She fidgeted, and shifted her attention to Shinji again.
"Ikari, why did you do all this for me?" she asked. Shinji's confused look clouded over.
"Well, you were always so lonely," he said. "I just wanted to make a friend, that's all."
The way it rolled off of her tongue was odd, foreign, as if it didn't belong there. What, has she never had a friend? That would be ridiculous. But then, she was so very withdrawn and awkward. She was putting her gloves on—he hadn't even noticed how well-dressed she was—and fetched her jacket.
"Ikari, we should not keep Lady Langley waiting," she said. Her voice chilled several degrees. Obediently, Shinji trudged along after her. In the living room, Asuka had taken off her coat. Underneath, she wore a simple, tasteful combination of half-buttoned blouse, woolen vest and black business skirt. The Langley crest was sewn in gold thread on the lapel of her vest. She was having a soft conversation with Nunnally when Shinji and Rei appeared in the doorway. Rei knocked on the door frame.
Nunnally turned in the general direction of the sound, and Asuka set her tea on the saucer. Rei sized her down, moving as if to courtesy but stopping herself. Asuka saluted in an easy, crisp motion.
A full second passed before Rei and Shinji found the wits to return the salute. Asuka motioned to Sayoko, who wheeled Nunnally away. When the civilians were out of the room, Asuka turned to Shinji and Rei.
"I'm sorry if I've disrupted your little date," she said sternly. "A new Angel has been found. We will move to attack it. The plan has been made. Report to your Evangelions at 0600 hours tomorrow; here is the mission plan."
She produced a pair of manila envelopes and walked to the door.
"That will be all."
Lelouch Lamprouge was exhausted. Well after his day was over, he was still holed up in the Black Knights command vehicle, borrowed from a nobleman, with a custom-built module for Zero to occupy. He was struggling to keep the revolutionary fervor that had elevated him to power. The war against an inhuman enemy was draining the hate from Japan against Britannians. Sure, Zero was still a household name, a national hero of sorts, but his potent power was running out.
"I need them to hate! There's not enough hatred…"
Hopeless, he mechanically read through a series of reports. Budget, budget, recruitment falling, finances becoming better, the organization of the Black Knights strengthening, all seemingly pointing to a generally positive trend, but the foundation of all his plans, the hatred of Elevens, was waning.
A special memo caught his eye. It came from Nerv HQ, forwarded through Britannian channels. As he read, his eyes grew wide. He was saved. A laugh rippled through his sternum, up his wind wipe, and exploded out of his mouth in a high-pitched, insane burst of sound.
Rei Ayanami found, for the first time in her life, that she could not rationalize her thoughts. They spun in circles around the events of the afternoon, around Ikari.
Why did she snap at Lady Langley? Logically, there was no way for her to have known what she and Ikari had been doing. There was no reason for Rei to feel a stab of anger at the intrusion. In fact, it was state business and should therefore be rated above personal ones.
Nevertheless, she felt as if she wanted to take the other girl and throw her out of the door for interrupting the moment.
What moment could she mean? Sitting with an altogether unfamiliar boy sipping soup could not mean so much to her; it made no sense to her. He was nothing but a charge to her, after all.
But he was still the first person to show her so much consideration, even though they were not friends.
That was what Ikari had called the two of them, friends. Rei has never had a friend, never thought she would have or need one. Being Ikari's friend, on the other hand, did not seem like such an unpleasant prospect. Perhaps he will make his miso soup for her again.
She rolled over on her unkempt bed. The room was suddenly too austere to her eye, and not even clean. All of a sudden, she felt that if Ikari were to see this, he wouldn't approve.
Rei Ayanami slipped out of her bed and picked her way through the piles of items on the floor. For the first time in a long while, she began cleaning her room.
It was always odd for there to be protests among the usually cowed Elevens, but the riot police were struggling to keep the tide of furious Elevens in check. Euphemia ducked instinctively as a can of something nasty caused her limousine to catch on fire. The flaming liquid rolled off of the side of the cab, and she screamed. The guards next to her yelled at her to order the police to open fire with live ammunition, but she shook her head vigorously. The limo's driver yelled as he found his way out of the mob and onto the highway. When they were clear of danger, Euphemia uncurled and began to shake.
"Milady," a guard said, holding out a blanket. "We're safe now."
Gratefully, she took the blanket and huddled in it. The guard handed her a glass of water.
"Thank you…" she murmured.
The protest continued. The guards exchanged nervous glances. The slogans held by the mob said to value the life of an Eleven and to scrap "Plan B." The soldiers had no idea, of course, and were accustomed to not knowing. Euphemia hiccupped.
"They don't want Nerv to use Shinji Ikari," she whispered. "Who leaked the information?"
The guards all leapt to cleaning their weapons and making sure over and over again that their ammo supply was ample. The Princess was loose with her tongue and state secrets. Nevertheless, the men knew of Shinji Ikari, the Eleven who pilots Evangelion Unit 01, whose leaked name has become a symbol of pride for all Elevens. The mob must have known something that was also leaked that involved some act that puts Ikari in needless danger, although the very nature of his job does that already.
The noise of the mob could still be heard, as far away as they were, until a pair of massive Evangelion transport roared in overhead. The crowd began to scream as the sound crushed them to the ground, and the police, even behind riot gear, were barely standing up. Then, the panic began. Protesters ran in every direction, pushing, shoving and stampeding away from the jets, which herded them like cattle. Euphemia gasped in horror.
"Stop!" she yelled. "Tell them to stop doing that!"
The guards looked at each other, shrugging.
"We don't have the authority to contact Nerv in this vehicle, ma'am," one said. "It hasn't been verified as a secure asset."
"Then drive me back!" Euphemia yelled. "Let me stop them!"
"Your highness, the pilots won't even be able to see you!" the driver interjected. "And you know they won't hear you. Please! Don't put yourself in danger like this!"
"But…" she protested weakly. The men stared grimly at her. She shrunk back in her seat, defeated. The Nerv transports pulled away and left. Underneath, Evangelions could clearly be seen. They were going ahead with their plan anyway. It was bad; if anything happens to Shinji Ikari that could be pinned anywhere near Britannia, then the island would explode.
For now, peace was restored, and Euphemia could hunker down and cry.
End Stage XV