Stage XVIII: In the Shadow of Memory
"…and of course I did not place the Geass on the Nerv personnel necessary to run daily operations, of course."
Lelouch concluded his lecture and sipped his tea. C.C. fingered a video disk in her hand.
"And you have leaked the video of Langley's execution onto the internet?"
"Internet, press, human rights organizations," Lelouch said drily. "Henry Langley was a lost cause from the beginning. Only now is he of any use to somebody."
"Useful, but not to himself, I suspect?" C.C. asked. Lelouch set his tea down and wiped his mouth.
"No, unless that man has changed since the last time I saw him."
"Entry Plug approaching critical depth"
"Initiating primary contact"
"Initiating secondary contact"
"Pilot synchro-graph, stable; all circuits are operational. Activating Core A-10 connections"
Slowly, Shinji Ikari opened his eyes. The Entry Plug of Unit 02 made him shudder. Everything felt as clammy as dead flesh. The Plug smelled even worse of blood than Unit 01's. It smelled…like Langley.
Odd; he never smelled Langley; he would not have been permitted to come so close, but it felt like her.
Monitoring devices went ballistic as the synchro-graph shot backwards and circuits broke down.
"Pulses are reversing! The Eva is rejecting control signals! All communication with the Entry Plug has been lost!"
"Abort the experiment!" Misato yelled. "Sever power supply!"
The Umbilical Cable burst out of Unit 02's back. During testing, Evangelions were not equipped with charged internal batteries, and haven't, since the accident involving Unit 00 going berserk during testing.
"It's not stopping!"
"What?" Misato exclaimed. "But there's no power supply!"
"I'm reading external power from the Eva!" Maya replied, frantically checking the Umbilical Cable. "But there's no power flow from the reactor to the Cable in this testing site!"
"Nonsense; if there's no power flow, how can there be External Power?"
Maya shook her head in wonder.
"I don't know, ma'am, but the Eva is operating with no power again!"
"And what about the pilot," Misato demanded. "Do we have his status?"
"None, ma'am; all the monitors are being disrupted, but…"
She tapped some keys furiously.
"His synch ratio is almost four hundred percent! How is that even possible? This is Asuka Langley's Eva! Even if it was configured for him, he still shouldn't get synch scores that are even close to this range!"
"Unless the synch meter is malfunctioning, which it could be, considering all our other problems; then I suppose that the Eva could be…trying to merge with him?"
Misato turned to Ritsuko, who looked a little constipated.
"It is a possibility," she replied. "We don't know everything about the Evangelions."
"Didn't we create them?" Misato snapped. "So why is it that we do not know everything about them?"
Ritsuko glanced around the room. All of the Nerv technicians focused on what they were doing, without paying much attention to the two senior officers.
"I do not have time to explain," Ritsuko said darkly. "Right now, we have to keep Shinji's synch ratio under 400%, or else…"
"Or what will happen, Ritsuko?" Misato demanded. "Will the thing that happened to Yui Ikari occur again?"
"That's enough out of you!" Ritsuko roared. "Ibuki, try to revert connection flow to normal; use the seventh-level backdoor entry. Are we getting a response yet?"
"N…not yet," Maya replied, a little timidly. "The Core isn't making contact with the computer system; it's making all decisions on its own."
"And how is it able to do that?" Misato interjected. "Is it even sentient? Shouldn't the computer be the Eva's brain?"
"It…is somewhat sentient," Ritsuko said, breaking a moment of silence. "But it shouldn't have the ability to operate its own computer systems; we aren't fools. The Eva has gained a new level of awareness."
"And how would it do that?"
"Contact…" Maya whispered. Ritsuko's eyes bulged in anger at the slip-up.
"Get me…synch ratio records…from the Evangelion's black box," she roared. "Do it now!"
"Ikari, is that you?" the voice asked. In the soft white glow of the void, Shinji saw flapping hair part to reveal a curiously serene face.
"Lady Langley? What are you doing in Unit 02?"
"Isn't that a silly question? This is my Eva."
He swam towards her, pawing the gelatinous world and parting wisps of white matter that coiled in cotton-candy clumps around them. She turned to face him. With great surprise, he noticed that she was stark naked, drifting in the eddying currents of the strange world. She did not seem to notice. Her eyes were level and emotionless, even colder than Rei, who at least showed an underlying humanity.
"I should ask you that question myself," she said. "What are you doing in my Eva?"
A thought escaped her, snagged onto Shinji's ear, and wriggled itself inside.
'Well, what am I doing in this part of an Eva?'
Everything was mush, incorporeal and incomprehensible. Langley's annoyance bubbled over Shinji's mind. She was looking for something concrete, too.
He was holding a teacup, he realized. They were sitting on the precipice of a cliff, overlooking the crashing ocean and a dull, red sun. She sat across from him, in a tight corset dress emblazoned with a golden eagle, wearing a semi-veiled, bejeweled headdress. Her eyes were closed as she took in the taste of her tea. One eye slid open beneath a false eyebrow sparkling with strange gem fragments. She looked like a being out of fantasy. The waves lapped a lighthouse crusted over with barnacles and seaweed. In the background, a bell tolled.
"Well, Ikari? Aren't you going to answer me?" she asked, closing her eyes again and taking another sip of tea. Confused, he did not attempt to answer. The saucer clinked as she set it down. A slender tube-shaped bracelet formed by thin gold chains clamping small rubies dangled in the wind. She looked about, her question put to the side for the time being. Her lips trembled.
"Western Virginia…" she whispered. "I haven't been here since…"
She trailed off, looking about anxiously.
"Where are we, Lady Langley?" Shinji asked. She shrugged, breathing a little heavily.
"I don't know."
She rose, lifting the hem of her skirt, and made her way up a rickety old staircase built into the side of the cliff. Shinji followed dutifully. Her unease grew like a dark, repressive aura, making her radiant beauty just a shade duller. The dress was split down the back. The movement of tightly bound muscles beneath fragile skin mesmerized Shinji's eyes. Her hair was bound into a neat bun beneath the headdress that carried a hint of the majesty of an ancient Empress from the East. When they reached an intersection, Langley stopped.
"It can't be…" she muttered. Whispery voices came from the glade of trees up ahead. Her hands clenched in their white gloves. A tall, widely built man strolled out of the glade, hand in hand with a young girl of about ten or eleven. Langley's breath caught. The little girl was in the exact same outfit as she was, wreathed in exquisite beauty, and the man…Shinji's mouth fell open. Charles zi Britannia smiled down at the younger version of Langley. The older version hissed in revulsion.
"No!" she yelled. "Get away from him!" Running, she tried to wrest the girl away from the Emperor of Britannia. Her hands shot through them. Her eyes widened and brimmed with tears.
She collapsed to her knees as the girl and the Emperor strode through Shinji and stopped nest to a blooming rose garden. The man knelt by the girl, fairly beaming down at her as she petted the blooms.
"Aren't they pretty, Miss Langley?" he said.
"Yes, my Lord," the girl answered. "Exquisite."
"Would you like one?"
The older Langley lurched to her feet with a dismal cry. Her lashes bent under the weight of fat teardrops that hung onto each fiber. Her hands beat the immaterial dream with futility.
"I would not presume to intrude so far on your Majesty's hospitality," the little girl replied. "But that would be lovely."
Smiling, the Emperor snipped off a bud, and put it in the girl's hair, his hand traveling down her cheek, with two fingers stroking a stray strand. The little girl blinked.
"Thank you, your Majesty," she said. The Emperor's smile grew. His hands wrapped around the girl, lifting her up in his arms. She gave a little squeak, and he laughed heartily.
"Come, little one, no need to be so formal," he said. The older Langley turned away, frantically looking for a way out. She ran through the trees, and burst out of the bushes, ending exactly where she began, unable to run away from the scene. It seemed to be her past.
Shinji took a knee next to the older Langley, looking with concern into her stricken face.
"Don't," she said, half to him, half to the world. "I don't want to think about it!"
"Well, what is it?" he asked, confused. The Emperor of Britannia was acting like an old, albeit odd, gentleman of an uncle, lavishing so much of his attention on her that even a clueless Shinji could tell that it was a good thing.
"I know what you are assuming," the older Langley said, putting her hands over her temples. "Stop it, you damn fool! Get out of my Eva! Leave me to be! Shut it off!"
The conversation between the Emperor and Langley grew louder, until a heated argument reached the observers' ears. The older Langley gasped in anguish.
"Wait, your Majesty, what are you doing?" a terrified child's voice came from the direction of the younger Langley.
"Don't you understand me, Asuka? Don't you understand my pain?" the Emperor was bellowing. "Oh! You were just like Marianne! Just like her! Two peas in a shell! Why must you continue to deny me my dreams? Come back to me!"
The little girl's screams were accompanied by ripping of some cloth. The little headdress hung on a tree as a garter belt clinked against the gravel path. The Emperor's breathing grew heavy and labored while the little girl stopped screaming, and whimpered.
"Don't you worry," the man moaned. "I'll make you an Empress! You'll have anything you want; anything! Just keep being my little Marianne…"
The little girl shrieked in pain. A small hand reached out of the bushes, groping for something to latch on to. The Emperor grabbed it and held it to himself. Shinji's mouth gaped as slick, wet plopping sounds accompanied each and every sob. The older Asuka clamped her hands over her ears, rocking back and forth. Gradually, the little girl stopped screaming. The man groaned, and sighed in relief. The older Asuka retched emptily, hands covering her body almost by instinct. The Emperor rose from the bushes, buttoned his pants, and looked down at the girl's body.
"But you're not Marianne," he said with a hint of regret. "Perhaps I can make you more like her, but…in the end, you're only like her in a Knightmare."
He walked away rather nonchalantly for what he had just done. Twenty or so minutes passed before the girl crawled out of the bush, trying to hide herself with the scraps of rags that the dress had become. She reached down, a young mind inexperienced with the ways of the world. The rose bud Charles had given her was still stuck in her mane of tangled hair. Shinji turned away. Happiness turned to horror in an instant so miniscule that Shinji's comprehension still reeled at the thought. The older Asuka was staring into her own hand, as if feeling the pain over again. The scene wavered. The older Asuka turned her eyes.
"He came back a few times after that," she said calmly. "He seemed to think that because I piloted a Ganymede like Empress Marianne, I must somehow be another version of her, a woman God sent to replace the one he lost."
"And soon after he gave me the post of Knight of Two, he forgot about me, stopped visiting my room. I was cast off, a toy that was no longer entertaining to him."
Tears filled the blue eyes that had first pierced through Shinji in a hill side rice paddy. She looked him over.
"You should not have seen that," she said.
She gathered herself together, muttering, "This is all in the past; I've moved on," while Shinji looked on in shock.
"Well," he said. "He couldn't just…do this to you, could he?"
She threw her head back and laughed bitterly.
"Oh, you idiot," she said, "Do you think that this wouldn't have been covered up? He showered the Langleys with everything they could have wanted." she turned her back to him and began to walk away.
"Wait!" he yelled after her with some bravado. "Are you just going to go? Aren't you going to…"
"What?" she asked bitterly. "What can I do?"
Lelouch Lamprouge could do anything. Operate a huge underground terror network, openly fighting the world's greatest army, maneuvering around the world from behind the shadows of Zero's mask were no problems for him.
But his skinny arms screamed in protest beneath a pair of tiny dumbbells. Exhausted, he dropped the little things beside the bench and huffed. Suzaku Kururugi chuckled at his friend's expense, and picked up one of the dumbbells with one hand, tossing it back and forth while leaning into his wheelchair. Lelouch gritted his teeth in anguish.
"What's this, Lelouch? Come on, it's not a twenty kilogram weight; it's just twenty pounds! These weights are always in pounds. Don't tell me you can't even lift twenty pounds."
"You're having too much fun, Suzaku," Lelouch growled.
"Can't help it, Lelouch," Suzaku said. "President Milly's orders"
"Of all the things Shirley could have picked to punish me…" he shuddered.
"She knows you pretty well," Suzaku said. "Come on, it's leg press time."
Clenching his teeth, Lelouch allowed himself to be led to the next workout. As punishment for his behavior, he was obligated to do something for Shirley, whatever she asked. Milly had insisted. Of all things, Shirley demanded that Suzaku, a career soldier, give Lelouch a full, three week workout course. Of all the things she could have demanded…it was this.
"Suzaku, where are you living now?" he asked with fake disinterest. It wasn't as if he did not already know.
"I rent a room. Why?"
"The Ikari boy left," Lelouch said. "How would you like to live with us? I'm sure Nunnally would be delighted." He gave the boy a small smile.
"It's going to be better than living alone, right?"
Suzaku's hand paused on the leg press. He looked back at Lelouch.
"It'll be fine," Lelouch continued. "You'll be welcome there."
"It…wouldn't be a problem, would it?"
"We're friends, right? Friends watch out for one another. You'll be fine," he said. "Move in whenever you'd like."
On a silent side note to himself, he remarked, 'And stay next to Nunnally. Protect her, Suzaku!'
Insurance is always good.
Machines surrounded the depths of the Nerv base. Gendo Ikari and Ritsuko Akagi were the only ones present, the only ones outside a large, translucent tube of orange liquid, where Rei Ayanami floated in a disconcerting, suspended state.
"Well, Ritsuko?" Gendo said. "Don't you have something to say to me?"
His tone was as cold as it always was. Ritsuko bristled, making Gendo smirk.
"If not, then I have other business to attend to," he said.
"Don't be impatient," Ritsuko admonished. "You know as well as I do what we came here to discuss."
"Of course; please, do continue," Gendo baited her on. "I came expecting a detailed report on that subject matter."
"If you so insist," Ritsuko said, annoyed. "The synchronization data in Unit 02 showed that the late Lady Langley's synchronization ratio was far beyond four hundred per cent, and the ego barrier accordingly disappeared. In effect, she was in a state of Contact with the Evangelion."
She handed Gendo a slip of paper. He peered at it, and his eyebrows rose. Ritsuko caught the comprehension on his face with some confusion. Logically, he should not have been able to understand her data.
"Do you understand what this means?" Ritsuko asked.
"Perfectly," he said. "You are dismissed, Ritsuko Akagi. Thank you for your excellent work in this matter. I will finish with Rei here." Waving his hand, he signaled the end of the need for her presence. Though angry, she had no choice but to make her exit. Once she was gone, Rei opened her eyes.
"Commander," she said.
"What is it, Rei?"
"Unit 02 has been removed from Area 11?"
"Yes," Gendo said. "It is as we expected."
"In that case, will you activate Unit 07?" she asked. "If Britannia decides to use Unit 02 against Nerv"
Gendo tapped the side of the tube absentmindedly. Inside, Rei's eyes followed his movements. He hummed to himself while he worked on the machines operating inside Rei's tube.
"It would be foolish of him to try," he concluded. "Unless he can get Asuka Langley to rise from the grave, there is no way for him to activate Unit 02 with its current Core. Creating a new set of Core and pilot will take years."
"The lady's body was transported to the homeland under full cryogenic refrigeration," Rei pointed out. "It may be possible that he has found a way…"
"Found a way to raise the dead?" Gendo snapped, suddenly agitated; hungry, Rei thought, as if he himself had someone he would like to raise from the grave. Then, the man composed himself and laughed off the prospect.
"I am disappointed in you, Rei," he said darkly. "The dead are dead…forever. They are lost to us. No miracle can bring them back."
His hand paused on the control panel.
"In any case, be ready if I need you for Unit 07," he said.
The mattress in Lelouch's bedroom was not the luxuriant type. It was ordinary, with ordinary, creaky springs that squealed when C.C. sat down next to him.
"Lelouch," she called. "Are you going to wake up?"
"It's Saturday," he groaned. "Leave me alone, C.C."
The girl snickered, flinging off the covers.
"You are quite the lazy terrorist, Mr. Lamprouge," she said. "Will you wake up now?"
"C.C., I left you in charge of the Black Knights," he grumbled. "I'm tired."
"Will will sleep, even if there is an evacuation order for all residents within fifteen blocks of Nerv?"
"I…what did you say?"
He leapt out of bed and ripped open the blinds. The rings protested feebly as they clanked across their rails. Outside, neat lines of vehicles proceeded to leave the center of the city. This time, it seems that civil authorities were capable of dealing with crises by evacuating everything in a reasonable, orderly way. From an Evangelion launcher, smoke was billowing out. Explosions seemed to have triggered purging in sections of the city. Underground, a battle was waging.
"What's going on?" he demanded. "Damn it, tell me!"
"The Angel that Nerv captured," C.C. said drily. "It woke up, that's all."
"Mobilize," Lelouch said simply. "Get our men out there first. Contact Katsuragi and Cornelia; I have to go."
Tired no longer, he sprang towards the bathroom while C.C. turned her nose, but nevertheless did as she was told. Ten minutes later, a motorbike was hurtling through the vacant streets. The police, focused on their city's worth of charges, paid no heed to the city that lay behind them. Without harassment, Lelouch pulled into a vacant lot, where he clambered up the steps to some financial institution. The building was on sale, he noted. Squeezing into the lobby, he found that the elevators were still on. Gladly, he took one to the hundredth floor. Peering out of a window, he scanned the horizon. Smoke was still billowing out of the same launch pad, but now another one was beginning to open. The familiar klaxon hailed the arrival of a pair of rails, and the shuddering grating of metal upon metal brought the launch platform to ground level, discharging an incomprehensible mass of slimy-looking Angelic tentacles wrapped around Eva Unit 01. The entire ball rolled through the streets, crushing blocks' worth of the Settlement. Metallic screams came from the Eva's armor, which the Angel seemed to be trying to cut through with some sort of saw-arm. The Eva was trying to stab at the Angel with its knife, but the Angel's hide refused to yield. A jagged shower of blood spurted from Unit 01's midriff, where the Angel was making progress through armor and A.T. Field. Five Burais rounded a corner and let loose a clip of shells from their heavy cannons, modified Sutherland armaments. Nerv's Jet-VTOL fighters circled just above reach of the tentacles, strafing down with their chain guns. The Angel thrashed, nearly knocking a fighter out of midair and causing the Burais to flee. The Eva smashed both hands into the Angel, forcing it off. The knife's blade jammed into the arm sawing through Unit 01's midsection and broke. The arm rippled, slapped Eva Unit 01 away, and gashed the inside of the forearm. At that moment, the Umbilical Cable retracted, pulling Unit 01 out of reach of a strike that sank through the first layer of the Settlement. Separated, the combatants sized each other up. The Angel was a cephalopod with a pair of giant stalks instead of eyes. Its gaping maw was a ribbed cavern, much like the mouth of a whale-shark, except for the ring of fangs lining the rim of the mouth. It scurried along its tentacles, giving the impression of a squid out of water. Warily, it backed away and squeezed into a gap between two buildings, where neither the Eva nor the military hardware could give chase. Unit 01 climbed up shakily and backed off behind cover as well. A wall popped out, revealing a weapons cache with a rifle. Retrieving the gun, Unit 01 ducked beneath a bridge connecting two skyscrapers and went out of sight.
Lelouch's eyes scanned the rows of buildings, and his fingers tapped along the window ledge. His eyes fell upon a particularly artistic building with a dark, overhanging protrusion, as well as a deep hole dug into the front, where a set of stairs led down to a subterranean level. Several trenches, perhaps artistic impressions of a tree's roots—what these modern artists think, Lelouch will never know—jutted out in every direction. He smiled, and found his secure link cell phone.
"This is Zero," he said to an unlisted number. "Here are your instructions; listen carefully…"
End Stage XVIII