Something bothered Ritsuko. It bothered her on in a way much like having an answer on the tip of her tongue. Over the past several hours they had made significant headway, building off the headway Asuka and Rei made, to bootstrap their new interface to useful function. The successes were heartening, but at the same time, she had a sense that something was still wrong.
For most of the crisis, their successes were well-grounded guesswork. The fact that they were correct did not make her feel any better about how little they actually knew about the situation. Ritsuko had experienced similar situations back in college, though under far less awful stakes. Misato later told her she acted 'twitchy', and somewhat manic. The scientist hadn't denied the possibility.
One problem they had solved was the time dilation between the girls, and their own perspective. Again, the scientist had to guess at how dangerous the distortion was, but it was prudent to assume it was potentially harmful. But the nagging uncertainty that they either fixed nothing, or made it worse still lingered.
She stared at the big display and its steadily increasing stability percentage. Since they had secured a connection to the MAGI and initiated the recovery procedures, Maya had taken over most of the human resource management. Ritsuko didn't so much have the luxury to let her mind wander; there was little else for her to do. So she stared at the display, and thought back on what the pilots had told her. A world made of memories and shared sensory data, metaphorical representations of MAGI processes.
It was almost like.. .the... "Oh goddammit. The human interpreters are offline!"
Misato knew that sound. She knew her best friend's oh shit voice. She twisted so fast, her hair whipped out and nearly slapped Maya in the face. "The what?"
Ritsuko didn't answer, but the cigarette in her mouth bobbed up and down while her jaw spasmed. Misato and Maya moved over to crowd around, while Fuyutsuki loomed behind them one level up. Nearly every other technician and engineer turned, paling. They all shared the same awful realization. It galled Ritsuko in a way she had trouble describing. It was the same problem they had before but in a different direction, and it necessitated more explanation.
She also hated repeating herself, or the obvious. "It's part of the MAGI-00 virtual machine. We normally don't see it during process tracking. The zero-zero machine is our interface with the MAGI, and it's the MAGI's interface with us."
Her fingers flew over the keyboard, drawing up documentation and code from dumb storage. "A computer can't think anything on it's own, we have to tell it what and how to think. That was our problem with Maya's new brain."
"So we had to teach it how to talk to Asuka and Rei, so we could in turn give commands to the MAGI itself through them." The big screen shifted to display two rows of icons, each numbered one through six and marked with the letters ''HMNINTRP'. The amber graphics flashed once, then shifted to angry, hissing red. Ritsuko wasn't surprised.
Misato moved up to put a hand on her friend's shoulder, but Ritsuko didn't seem to notice. "The MAGI was no different. We had to teach it that Angels were a threat. We had to teach it to recognize what an Angel was. To recognize humans and cars and buildings and everything else. Those are things we care about. A computer can't, not on it's own."
Ritsuko sighed and stared at the recovery progress bar. It still bothered her, but why eluded her. She looked up at the Sub-commander, her protege and her best friend. "Without the interpreters, the MAGI don't know what a person, Angel or car is. They don't know that six white unmarked vans arriving at the same time is suspicious.
"And without those interpreters, Asuka and Rei should already be brain dead."
The thing tapped on the glass, again and again with long thin tar black fingers. Asuka willed herself to stay staring straight ahead, right at the lumpy, misshapen head. It had no eyes, but she did not risk glancing at the door handle. All the creature had to do was reach out and tug, removing their one line of defense. Behind her, Rei quietly turned off the lights one by one, and pulled out their weapons, both the improvised, proven implements, and the new gear NERV had provided.
Asuka hissed, urgently but as quiet as possible. "I thought Ritsuko said this place was shielded!"
Even moving around, Rei was whisper-quiet, and her voice doubly so. "That was never certain."
The redhead could only roll her eyes. "Well duh!"
Finally, after several minutes, the creature stopped exploring. It had examined every corner of the glass door, and brushed its fingers along the seams and tracks, and for one terrifying moment, the handle. It had no core, no recognizably Angelic features. The searchers were new and all the more awful for it. It turned and loped towards the balcony and swung one liquid leg over the side. Then it stopped, twisting bonelessly towards the door. Asuka could only assume it saw in infra-red, otherwise they were screwed.
Pausing right in front of the glass once more, the thing leaned in. With all the doors and windows closed, Ritusko's shielding blocked all sound. Neither girl could hear the thing. The white slash at it's neck, the one that reminded Asuka of dress suit and pants, sucked itself back into the black mass. Its egg-shaped head twisted on a too thin, kinked neck, before the black split down the middle.
A sliver of white, finer than porcelain china pushed out of the head and spread wider, eerily similar to the bird mask of the First Angel, but the similarities ended there. The blank surface grew out and dominated the head. It turned again, and that time Asuka knew it saw her, it watched her with that eyeless face.
And then it was gone, vanished over the balcony edge to do who knew what. Asuka turned to Rei, letting out a long, shaky breath.
Rei gave the tiniest shrug she could manage. "These are not any memory I have."
"You sure? It's sure as hell not me one of mine!" Asuka still kept her voice low. Any other time they both knew she would have shaken the windows. Rei showed her unease as best as she could, but still could only offer another shrug.
"I would have mentioned it before."
Misato rubbed at her temples, knowing that it wouldn't do a damn thing to stop her worsening headache. She'd heard Ritsuko describe migraines enough to know, emphatically, that she herself did not have them. Knowing that didn' t make the headache any less agonizing. Fortunately the Sub-commander was able to play 'cooler head' and useful target to Ritsuko's exposition.
And then her headache got many times worse. Bowling over two technicians and a nurse, a man who was just as much lazy as deliberately unkempt. Wild-eyed and furious, Ryoji Kaji demanded one simple thing: "Where is Asuka?!"
Stammering, Misato stumbled over his name before catching her breath. Half the eyes in the room were on them now. "How did you get past the-"
Kaji didn't let her finish. He didn't grab her by the jacket and shake, but his hands found the lapels nonetheless, fisting up the fabric. It struck Misato right then, that Kaji looked old. The lights were still mostly emergency-red, making the lines on his face stand out all the more.
His knuckles creaked before he spoke. "Katsuragi! Where is my girl?"
A worn, gnarled hand came down on the younger man's shoulder. Fuyutsuki gently tugged him away from Misato, putting every ounce of Wise-Old-Man into his voice. "Calm down, Inspector, Asuka is safe enough, for the time being."
Rolling his shoulders, Kaji let his hands fall from Misato's rumpled jacket. He started to search his pockets for a cigarette."Don't give me that, old man. I heard Akagi say brain dead as I was coming in."
Ritsuko stepped up from her console. "Kaji, the girls should be brain dead. They aren't. We've been talking to them."
"Then what the hell is going on, Ritsuko?" The search for nicotine stopped when he remembered he pawned his last pack to get into the test facility. "I had to jump a half-dozen security checks and lock downs to even get here."
Kaji bluntly ignored all the glares he received at that. As far as he was concerned, security procedures were meant to keep everyone but him out. He sighed, folding his hands into fists and letting them go, over and over.
"There are a lot of awful things I could say, which aren't at all helpful." Ritsuko shrugged, in some way actually glad Kaji was angry this time. He couldn't lie when he was angry. "We know the test plugs are taking the raw personality data and sending it into the Conspiracy Buffer. We also can assume that something is being sent back to their bodies, here in the test plugs."
Misato was just about to tell her friend to get to the point, when Kaji beat her to it. He cut Ritsuko off, nearly growling. "Science later. What is going on, right now? Use small words, please."
Wilting, Ritsuko nodded meekly. "Their consciousnesses are being hosted in the Conspiracy Buffer. The simulated world is being run out of their own memory and personality. The girls aren't just in the MAGI, they're basically in each others minds."
After reporting in, Asuka and Rei decided against closing the curtains. As much as they found the teeming mass disturbing, being able to see threats coming from at least one side was worth any unease. With no solution yet in sight, the girls were left to keep themselves busy. Asuka had pulled out her handheld, hoping to get her mind off the close encounter. Adrenaline tended to linger in her system longer than she would have liked, and it left aching exhaustion in its wake. Ayanami was content to sit nearby, listening to whoever NERV had operating the terminal.
Tossing the game aside, Asuka stood up and stretched, forwards and backwards before spinning on one foot. She angled off towards the kitchen, but not before stopping and waving. Once she had Rei's attention, the question was asked. "I'm going to make something to eat, do you want anything?"
The other girl nodded, only requesting Asuka set aside something without meat. Earlier Asuka had asked Rei if eating meat here in a fake world would have bothered her. The other girl had pointed out to her that aside from some very early memories, Rei had no sense for what meat tasted like, and they both knew they shared sensory perception. Asuka decided to not push the issue for her own sake; she had no desire to put more of herself into another person through a freaky brain-share.
The meal was halfway finished cooking when Asuka realized Rei had played her.
Halfheartedly swearing revenge, Asuka came back not long later with two plates full of steaming noodles, with a side of cooked beef for herself. They hadn't been able to reliably summon food through the new interface, so the girls were still stuck foraging. Some things were just too complicated, it seemed. Rei had never eaten marinara sauce before, and Asuka couldn't find it or the ingredients in the nearby grocery store. It didn't help that all the sauces looked the same basic grey. Asuka also conveniently ignore the fact that Japanese style noodles were entirely different from American or European fare.
Food itself, the act of eating, was largely psychological at that. It helped them feel better. At that point Asuka felt no need to keep up appearances, being as ill-mannered as she pleased. Though not a slob, the redhead dove into her meal. Rei on the other hand ate quickly but cleanly, and handled forks and chopsticks with equal skill.
"This... This isn't really bad, is it?"
Asuka spoke around her latest bite. Rei looked up from her own meal. They thought about it, and in a way it wasn't that bad anymore. The immediate threats to their sanity were being removed, as well as their sources of various discomfort. They had contact with the outside world, and while the rest of the simulation seemed to still be going weird, they felt reasonably safe in their bunker of stability.
Then the air split and began to leak black pitch.
Ritsuko crushed the cigarette in her hand. Suddenly all the progress they had made up to that point seemed so weak and inconsequential. Maya explained for her while she sat there and seethed quietly. Every neurochemical function that made the girls who they were was being interpreted, intercepted and sent into what most people called the Conspiracy Buffer. Whatever data that made it stopped, and new data returned, just as she expected. Just like an Evangelion, and the test bodies.
Behind her, Kaji barely managed to get a handle on his fury. Some part of her was amazed the man was able to care, but a larger, healthier part of her shouted that cynical thought down. Instead Ritsuko chose to focus on Kaji nearly crawling over both Misato and Fuyutsuki, desperately trying to help the closest thing he had to a daughter.
Maya had been moving around during her explanation, and finally Ritsuko caught the tail-end of it. "... basically, the MAGI have been using Asuka and Rei to host and run the simulation they've described. Right now, there... really isn't a distinction between the girls and the computer." Maya's helpless shrug was audible.
The recovery process monitors continued to tick up, representing a return to normal function to. Something bothered Ritsuko about that, but it was on the tip of her tongue, and Misato loudly was doing her best to keep her ex calm. The scientist shook the remains of her last cigarette out and lit another one, for once glad the Third was in another room entirely. She looked at the big screen, but didn't really see it.
She thought back to when the MAGI were being constructed, before her mother died. As she said earlier, they had to teach a computer everything, and though she hated to admit it, the MAGI did evolve, and eventually would grow out of her understanding and control. They taught the computer how to be suspicious, and how to be afraid, taught it things and taught it how to fear those things. GEHIRN taught it how to think, and how to make it talk with real human minds... But none of that explained how it dragged two perfectly functional personalities into a shared sensory experience!
The air in the kitchen split apart. Split in the way that something moved the air, the space the air occupied, and further such things. In a way Asuka had already grown used to optical distortions, but those were like seeing the edges of something incomprehensible.
Instead, Rei and Asuka saw Not. There was nothing to see, and the only thing that gave it definition was the boundaries. A sliver-shard of fractal crystal nothing pushed out into space. It spiraled and twisted and kinked at odd straight angles. To their eyes it was unmistakably two-dimensional, a slice in their perception that looked flat from every angle. Despite that, they knew the white hole reached for them.
Liquid black bubbled out from the flat borders, crawling up and splashing around the oddly solid-nonspace sliver. It slid up the shards and spires, defying gravity and capillary action until it reached the edges and fell down. The mass splashed against kitchen tiles and whimpered, mewling softly. Toothless worm-mouths squirmed up out of the ooze, but even as they yawned, they made no further sounds.
Asuka wanted to talk, wanted to scream, tell herself that the apartment was still shielded and they were still safe. The rest of her was already gearing up for combat.
Then she saw. Saw everything. A point of not-quite blue black, the first color she'd seen other than her eyes or Rei's, took shape in the center of the fractal rip. It never once changed size, but Asuka felt her perception shifting, twisting and shrinking until she was small and it was Everything. Out the corner of her eyes, all she could see was the same featureless white. She was surrounded on five sides. Not by air, because it was solid and locked her head firm.
The void became her whole world in an instant, and then more. Tears welled up in her eyes and she could not shed them. Blinking was beyond her. Asuka had no words nor culture to describe her experience, only the most inadequate of impressions. She grasped infinity, and the concept of an infinity in turn containing lesser infinities. Unlike the white, there was everything to see, but her eyes could not find the colors or the textures.
Lost, Asuka's mind begged for mercy, some reprieve from impossible perception. Three points of light were her answer, stars in the blue that moved across her vision. Their track became her new day, and she counted. Tens of thousands of days on tens of thousands of weeks in tens of thousands of months, and still tens of thousands more years, all ten thousand times more.
On the ten-thousandth and first year, a tear made its way down her cheek.
The formless multitude gave way to a mirror of uncountable reflections. Within, Asuka saw. The sum total of her being, from every nerve, cell and sinew, into the elements that made up her mind and identity. The incomprehensible aspects of thought and personality resolved in perfect clarity. Asuka watched her mind form memories out of neurons firing and long chemical changes in her actual brain. She saw every part of her self unfold, put on display and spread out in twisting veins. She was not given the mercy of uncountable branches and connections.
Her ego lay flayed and put out on display, individuality pulled off with little more effort than taking off her shirt. Jealousy, rage, affection, pride and fear filled her awareness, captured in that mirror. Asuka looked at herself in total, and Asuka looked back. She became the branches and root of a tree, extending outward and upward and around until the tips met and merged. And then she saw the others.
Vast, resolved in perfect detail, Asuka gained greater understanding. Her eyes could not track up, down, left or right, but she knew three shapes extended past her view. Thunder broke her mind in half. Dark cavernous spaces of empty thought filled her sight and consciousness, pushing past the reflected Asuka, through the mirror and into herself. Three tower-fortresses of inhuman complexity folded and twisted in on themselves. Again Asuka was not spared. She could not self-censor her vision, her perception was total and unrelenting.
The towers became women, great queens with dark blue eyes. The forms blurred again, into a swarming mass of zeroes, ones and twos. Then it became three brains, exactly like her own yet different, spiraling into a termite's nest of cells and chambers, which Asuka knew were servers, hard drives and processors.
Asuka couldn't tell where she ended and the MAGI began, but at that moment, she lacked the capacity to care. The sum total of her being split out into individual components existed on a scale that rivaled the number of ants on planet Earth. Against the MAGI she was a drop of water poised over the ocean, insignificant and meaningless.
Then, Asuka felt pulling.
Ritsuko stared up at the screen watching the recovery progress tick up higher and higher. It still bugged her, and she still couldn't say why. "What is it about that goddamn threshold..."
Fuyutsuki and Misato were hard at work keeping Kaji detained. If left alone, she was certain he'd have tried to open Asuka's plug with a can opener. Around her, technicians worked to rebuild the proper process start sequence. They wanted to make sure everything came back online in the right order and without causing a system crash.
Fifty-four percent. She started thinking. What was going to happen when the total reached sixty-six. The MAGI would come back on, obviously. At that moment the supercomputers were limping along on tertiary systems and a significant reduced amount of... Everything. The MAGI would start back up, they'd have more if not full control, and Asuka and Rei would still be inside the plugs and the simulation.
Then it hit her. "...Asuka and Rei are still inside."
Just as Ritsuko spoke, the recovery progress hit sixty-six percent, and the main monitor washed away into a new status screen. Vital systems came on one after the other, while everyone in the chamber cheered. Throughout the Geofront, infrastructure and defensive assets reactivated. Doors unlocked, and the transit devices and all reactivated. Misato was already whispering urgently towards Maya, hoping to get a head start on retrieving the pilots.
The scientist vaulted over the nearest bank of consoles, nearly tripping over a chair on the way. One heeled shoe slipped off her foot, while the other just broke in her rush. Everyone behind and around her shouted, asking what was going on. Ritsuko didn't answer right away. Her fingers slammed into keys, but she took a breath and began to type precisely, accurately. Force wouldn't help her enter commands faster.
"We have to shut down the restart procedure. Rei and Asuka are still inside and I don't think they can survive in a fully active MAGI environment."
Just as Ritsuko's finger pressed down on the enter key, her screen went dark. A half-second later, it flashed red, marked with warnings and access-denied alerts. One by one in a blurring wave, every monitor in the test chamber returned the same results. Lights banked back down to emergency red, followed by a brief, two-note siren.
Misato jammed her beret back on her head, scowling at the lights. "Pattern blue again. Is it Rei?"
Ritsuko shook her head. She shoved Kaji and Fuyutsuki out of her way before dragging Maya to their auxiliary brain interface. The connection was still good. "Rei's not foolish enough to try more AT field experiments without feedback. This is a legitimate pattern blue."
"Aoba, Hyuuga, talk to me. Where is this thing?"
"We've got nothing, Ma'am, we're locked out of our terminals too."
Maya stared at the one green screen in the room, grinning. "I have pilot status!"
A quick retask put the view up on the big screen. Neurochemistry, brainwave patterns, heart rate and more scrolled down. Everyone watched the young woman tab through pages and pages of data. Every important nerve ending had been labeled in the system, each one vitally important to synchronization with an Evangelion. Side by side, the massive lists of green squares were shot through with fields of red. Damaged or aggravated.
Bile built up in Ritsuko's throat. Laid out like numbers it didn't look so bad, but she knew what the blocks of angry red meant. Activity alerts snapped the monitor back towards Asuka's nervous map. Misato grabbed at her friend's arm, asking without speaking.
Swallowing thickly, Ritsuko tried to keep her voice steady. "Asuka's optic nerve just detached."
Rei kept her eyes shut as much as possible. Her life depended on it. Unfortunately, she didn't need her eyes to see.
Almost as soon as the blue void appeared, Rei felt her identity begin to spin apart. Even with her eyes closed, Rei saw everything in awful, unreal detail. What she saw transcended simple light hitting her retina. The world appeared to her as edges, ghostly contours and recognizable shapes. From that tiny point in the fractal tear, a massive Other pushed itself out, impressing a sort of non-identity on everything around them. Empty, formless, the new interloper cut a hole in which it could exist.
When confronted with an entity much more vast than herself, she did the only thing she could; Rei hardened herself , and imposed her will upon her that which defined her. Asuka however lacked that ability, and the protection it provided.
Asuka's pulse was fast and punishing under Rei's fingers. She'd reached out and grabbed at the other girl by the wrist as fast as possible, but seconds were lifetimes in subjective space. The First Child pulled as hard as she could, yanking Asuka out of line and sending them sprawling in a pile. Past her eyelids, Rei saw a sickly, fluid spray of multicolored fire lance out from Asuka's face. Her left eye was gone. Not injured, nor erased from her face, but gone, like the white fractal tear. Blurry static hovered over the spot, flaking away in a rain of pixels.
Then, Asuka screamed.
Nausea built up in a roil, threatening to overflow. Rei curled up in a ball, still tangled up beneath the other girl, sobbing. She called on anything, everything that could ward her against the all-consuming empty-self. Asuka flailed, lashing out at anything she could reach, beating her fists and feet against the floor until they bruised.
Meanwhile, the silent ichor took shape. The tendril mouths fell back into the mass without a sound, not even a splash. Rising up, it bubbled, ballooned and built into a rubbery skin. Shoulders, arms and a torso pulled out in utter silence, even as the girls screamed and moaned. The room, the whole apartment flickered, crackled and disrupted by something. Color returned to the world all at once, blindingly bright.
A fist hit the floor so hard, the carpet split. "...Sonnovabitch."
Rei risked opening her eyes. Above her, Asuka had gotten to her knees. Her knuckles were torn and bleeding into the carpet, but she rose up. Making a point to keep her blind side towards the tear, she turned and dragged Rei to her feet. Ahead of them, in the ruins of the kitchen, stood one of the black tar men. It too had a blank egg-shaped face, and it too split apart, revealing the eyeless mask beneath.
The creature stood and faced them, nearly six feet tall and spindly, reedy and angular. Too-long fingers bent in the wrong directions. Without a word, the girls split apart, dashing for weapons.
Asuka reached for the pair of spears they'd fashioned over the past month, tipped with chef's knives. She'd twisted, nearly smacking herself for presenting her blind side to an opponent. The moment's hesitation saved her though. Slamming into the wall just above her head was a couch, half-embedded and teetering severely. Biting back a squeak, Asuka twisted again and slid down, rolling away while the couch dropped down, missing her by inches. She glanced back at the creature, watching it undulate back upright after the throw.
Pots and heavy dishware flew through the air, as fast and as hard as Rei could wind up and throw. The pan-axe lay nearby, right at her fingertips. The creature pitched and spun in place, before weaving towards the blue-haired girl. A saucepan slammed into its head, cracking the white face up one side, but it did not relent, pushing forward through the assault. Its right arm melted and flowed into a fist capped with three-spikes. Leaning back and heaving, it chambered and let fly, stretching its arm out nearly half a dozen yards.
The strike caught Rei, lifting her up bodily and carrying her into the glass door behind her. The spikes drove into her torso, sliding between ribs and stitching two more holes below her breastbone. The door shattered on impact, but did not give way completely. She slid down, leaving a trail of red behind.
One of the spears sailed through the air, catching the black thing in the shoulder and leaving a spray of black fanning out into the air. It turned to face Asuka, who rushed across the distance with the other spear slung low and ready to charge. The fist blurred again, becoming a spiral-bladed sword. The creature parried, catching Asuka's weapon and slapping it out of line. The brief contact sheared off masses of wood chips from the broom handle. Digging her feet in, Asuka stopped hard and slapped back on the safe end of her spear, swinging the blade up while her other hand acted as a fulcrum.
A neat slice opened up from stomach to collar on the black thing, and Asuka gave it no time to recover. The trepanation blade was awful and wickedly sharp, but heavy. The thing's spindly goo limbs couldn't bring it to bear fast enough. Driving her spear home, Asuka scored another hit, this time through the thing's chest. Blind on one side or not, she had its number. Bracing, she lifted the thing up and charged once more, slamming the black monster into the unbroken door next to Rei's body.
Cracks bloomed out from behind, and Asuka felt her spear catch in the glass, fully skewering her target. She twisted the spear for emphasis. "You're not worth my time. You're not even an Angel! And you hurt. My. Friend!"
It gave no indication of hearing her. The twisted blade vanished in an instant. Its arms coiled bonelessly, flowing up in a liquid corkscrew, aiming to drill her head clean off. Asuka's eye went wide, and she felt her grip on the spear go slack. Everything went dark, and a meaty, butcher sound hit her ears. She felt something rake through her bangs before hitting the ceiling above her.
Down below, Rei pulled the pan-axe away from the door. The creature's right leg ended at the knee, and it slumped, throwing the drill strike off. Asuka blinked once, then nodded. The spear felt right in her hands, and she shoved it forward again with all her might. The glass cracked more, bowing out behind the creature and her adrenaline shove. Twisting at the hip, she braced the broom handle in one hand and brought the other down, palm-heel first into the wood and snapping it apart.
She tossed the broken half aside and pivoted, drawing one bare foot up and putting everything she had into it. "Get. The fuck. OUT OF MY HOUSE!"
When the creature hit the ground, after flying over the balcony, it finally made a sound.
"Yeah, I know. Let's get cleaned up."
It was a strange feeling, being simultaneously keyed up on adrenaline, and bone tired from stress. Asuka wiped at the pixel fog around her face without thinking, and froze when her fingers came away wet. Scraping the stuff off on the carpet, she watched it boil away into nothing. She could see Rei out the corner of her good eye, even more pale than usual. The liquid tingled against her face and fingertips, but didn't seem itself harmful.
She flicked the last bit away from her fingers, sighing. "There aren't any mirrors in here. What's the damage?"
"Your eye is intact, Asuka-san, though it remains closed."
"Can't see out of it, so that's no big loss." She pushed herself upright and started to search through the wreckage. The white tear had collapsed at some point, leaving their apartment theoretically secure once more. Their pillow fort and bedding were ruined by the fighting, but that wasn't a concern. Asuka's priorities had changed. She came back with a first aide kit NERV had managed to supply, and the phone.
Setting it to speaker, then dialing, Asuka left it to ring. Despite having three holes punched in her torso, Rei looked fairly healthy. Still, Asuka pulled out sterile gauze and bandages. "You're going to have to lift your shirt up a little."
Rei complied as best she could, rolling the hem of her shirt up. Asuka sucked in a hiss at the bloody holes. The lines of scratches up and down her back and shoulders made moving far more difficult, but she managed nonetheless. Still, Asuka couldn't help but notice Rei fidgeting.
Asuka huffed, standing on her knees with hands on her hips. "What?"
The other girl took on the oddest befuddled expression Asuka had ever seen, switching between it and her normal placid look. Finally she just sighed. "I believe I had a joke, but I lack comedic timing."
She went over what she had just said. Asuka blinked once, then twice before doubling over, laughing. "That-that would've been great. I am in fact, not propositioning you!"
Still laughing, but less so, Asuka moved in to wrap Rei's torso up. Rei joined in a moment later, but stopped, wincing and nearly curling up. When Asuka asked, Rei forced herself to hold still. "I believe some ribs may be cracked."
Asuka hissed once more, this time not bothering to hide it. Before she could check their supplies, someone picked up the phone back outside. Misato's voice rang out. "Asuka! Rei! Are you two alright? The MAGI is back online, but we're locked out again. We've got your vitals, and it's not looking good."
The redhead didn't look up from her task. "Lemme guess; any injuries we suffer in here happen out there?"
"I'm blind in one eye. I kind of guessed."
While Asuka worked to make sure Rei didn't bleed out and die, the girls and NERV updated each other on their situation. Back outside the simulation, Misato held one hand on the microphone, offering Kaji a wry smile. "She's more snarky than usual, I'm calling that a good sign."
Overall, the MAGI were back online and nearing full operational levels. That was a mixed blessing, because while that did enable more and more control on NERV's end, they were still locked out from all their terminals other than the new 'baby MAGI' Maya had cooked up. That remained their only point of contact with the pilots. Together, in the strangest teleconference any of them had ever known, they ran down everything they knew.
"We're in a combat simulation framework, hosted inside the space reserved for the MAGI's paranoid delusions and conspiracy theories. Part of this simulation is slaved out of our own minds because otherwise, we'd have hit a big fat wall of 'Nothing' and ceased to exist."
Asuka tried not to rant, she really did, but there was only so much a teenager could stand before responsible adults wore her last nerve. Aforementioned adults all coughed politely, for once glad to be called out like that. It meant their girls were still with them, after all.
One of the nurses pressed her fingers into Misato's back and neck, administering another one of Shinji's new techniques. The genuine article had begged off for something close to a power nap. He'd burnt himself out at both ends trying to make better patches for the extra MAGI interface.
Shaking her head, Misato cleared out the lethargy and forced herself back on task. Part of that was making sure she was on the same page as everyone else, including the smart ones. "Ritsuko, help me out here, how does that work exactly? You kept saying pulling the plug was a bad idea, why exactly?"
"Right now the MAGI is partially supplementing the girls' own minds, giving them a container to exist in. Our own souls do the same thing with out bodies, as part of how AT fields work." The scientist shrugged. "This whole situation has also pulled their minds out of their bodies. Most of their minds at least. We have no guarantee they'd snap back under any circumstance."
Rei's voice was whisper quiet through the phone, but they heard her nonetheless. "Without that container, on either end, our identities would disperse like gas in a vacuum. "
Fuyutsuki laced his fingers together not unlike the Commander, with elbows planted on the table. He looked far less sinister however. "Our best bet then is to follow normal recovery procedures as best we can. We can tell when the girls are back in their bodies anyway. We have to, during Evangelion operations."
The scientists all nodded, and Misato at least knew what was going on. Kaji for his part followed as best he could, but his patience was wearing thin. Misato laid one hand on his knee when he started to shake in his seat.
Asuka broke the silence with the question on everyone's mind. "So then how do we get back to our bodies in the test plugs? There hasn't been a metaphorical representation of any of that yet, and we've explored a lot of Misato's neighborhood. Ibuki ordered a system process check earlier, and that's what caused these black tar men to show up."
"Really? A basic command like that?" Maya split open her laptop and started checking the logs, trying to imagine a simple thing creating horrible monsters.
The adults could all hear Asuka roll her eye on the other end."I blocked out most of what I saw, when the MAGI... Glanced at me, but I know that much. I saw Ibuki's user ID, somehow."
The adults and Children all fell silent at that. Maya and Ritsuko started scribbling notes, tearing of pages as they filled up with more and more information. Fuyutsuki looked oddly meditative. Looking more and more haggard, Kaji desperately needed a cigarette, and Misato did not blame him at all. Around them, technicians did their level best to crack back in, but whatever locked them out was good, terrifyingly so.
To make matters worse, they still hadn't pinned down the Pattern Blue.
Back inside the simulation, Rei had been tended to well enough that she could sit up and help Asuka bandage her eye. When all was tied off, Asuka scowled at nothing, knowing very clearly she looked quite the fool. A third of her face was wrapped in swaddling bandages. Hair shot out through the wrapping, and the gauze itself itched. It bothered in a manner that had no real word to describe it. She just knew that itched did not cover it.
The two pilots sat there, thinking just as hard as the adults. Finally though, Asuka had enough. She called for Ritsuko, all but shouted at her. "This whole world is metaphor, right, and based on our perceptions and memories?"
Ritsuko temporized, speaking slowly. "That's the best guess we have at the moment but..."
Asuka cut her off. "Then I'm not going to wait around for an exit metaphor to show up. We're going to make it happen."
She pulled herself upright and helped Rei do the same. "We're going to get out of here, even if we have to tear down this world and built a road out from what's left."
In the end, it proved to be very similar to synchronization.
Asuka knew she wasn't exactly being smart about it, but they didn't have time to be methodical, and perform structured, safe experiments. Earlier NERV had provided the concept-prompts to generate new things. They had determined the girls could make things they could imagine, not just what they specifically remembered. The how eluded Ritsuko, but Misato cared more about the practical results. If the girls could call forth tools and clothes and such, they were that much closer to making doors and getting back out safe.
The refreshed, recolored world was more lively, vibrant, but no less eerie. The static wind blew into the apartment after the balcony doors had been torn down. The apartment, and later the earth itself started to shake. In response to what, they couldn't say. They didn't let it distract them, not when they had a lot to do in a very short time. The girls sat facing each other, eyes closed and intent. Outside, NERV was doing everything they could to help, but it became more and more clear that it was up to Asuka and Rei, and whatever random chance let them survive in a hostile, inhuman environment.
They all were familiar with the concept of meditation, and had Shinji been asked, he would have had quite a few insights to offer. No one did though, leaving Asuka and Rei to figure it out for themselves. Rei at least had cultural groundings in Buddhism and similar spiritual schools, as well as a practical understanding of her own AT field. Identity-science and metaphysics were only going to go so far, however. The girls realized they were trying to make their minds do things they weren't designed for. It was a gamble, based purely on the idea that at that moment, their minds were themselves being simulated and supplemented by a computer.
Weeks ago, relatively speaking, unwelcome things crawled at the edges of their vision. NERV had done their best to smooth out those rough spots in perception, but now they needed them. They needed the alien feeling of an infinite wall, or a ceiling corner that pushed towards them, instead of away. Asuka struggled to keep her breathing even, while Rei had no trouble whatsoever. Together, the pilots pulled at the surface of their reality, not so much trying to tear it away, as rub it clear.
One bright blue eye opened. "I think I got it."
Rei blinked and looked up. Asuka had already gotten to her feet, visibly focused. Not so much at peace, but poised. Her good eye closed. A moment later, the mass of bandages around her face blurred, washing away in a blur of pixels. When they cleared, the bandages were gone, and Asuka's hair fell back into place. A simple black leather patch appeared over her eye. Asuka's smile was infectious.
"You do have it." Rei stood and matched the other girl's smile with a small grin of her own. She cocked her head to one side. "The breakthrough?"
"Hard to say, I don't want to make a drink of information..." Asuka hummed. "Too easy to screw up. It's kind of like... Riding a bike."
Rei could only frown and offer the other girl a shrug. "I don't know how to ride a bike."
Humming and tapping her bottom lip, Asuka tried to think of a way to explain. It wasn't that difficult, once you found the feeling. "Really? Do you know any sort of athletic skill, something with muscle memory?"
That, Rei could answer. "I like to swim."
"Nice. It's like that, kind of." Asuka waved with her good hand. "That sort of 'I know where everything's going but not actively micromanaging.' state."
Again Asuka demonstrated, waving her hand over her new eye patch. The gesture was theatrical, it seemed, as the patch blurred once, changing colors. Another pass changed the style, complete with a skull and crossbones. The final pass was the most impressive, leaving Asuka with a leather and silk eyepiece dripping with embroidery.
The grin she gave Rei was positively fierce. "In a way, you have to stop trying to do it, and just do it."
Nodding once, Rei took up the challenge. She closed her eyes, recalling that feeling one has while in water and in motion. Not quite floating, but also cutting through and lifting one's self up. Weightless and close to flight, Rei reached for that feeling, matching her perception to memory and vice-verse. Asuka's advice had been extremely helpful.
"H-Holy shit!" Asuka blurted, incredulous.
Almost lazily, Rei opened one eye, glancing sidelong at the other girl. Her hair seemed to blow around in the breeze, moving every which way. "Asuka-san?"
Asuka's jaw had fallen open, but she recovered quickly and grinned even more than before. The blue-haired girl hovered some six inches above the carpet, and her hair and clothes seemed to shift and billow, as if underwater.
"Rei, you're floating! That's fucking awesome!"
Patience proved to be the most precious resource at that moment. With all the terminals locked out, save one, there was little else the Geofront could do. Ritsuko had split her last pack of cigarettes with Kaji, and he did not once complain about smoking something marketed at women. Nicotine was nicotine, after all. Fuyutsuki sat behind everyone at the highest chair, where the Commander would usually be. Everyone there was glad he was in that seat, right then.
Down below, the college trio, their support staff and now the nurses and doctors huddled around the one active console. Maya sat there, with Ritsuko on her left and stacks of documentation on her right. The monitor was split apart into quadrants, each focused on pilot status. Brain waves, nerve activity and more.
Misato huffed and let her hands wander, playing with the hem of her jacket or any pen that fell in reach. She'd had far too many of those amazing coffees, and while she wasn't quite on a caffeine crash, she definitely felt something. "It's all on the girls now, huh?"
Morose, Kaji rubbed at his eyes. Sitting right next to him, Misato realized he had grey hairs. The world was turning upside down. He sighed softly. "Asuka always gets herself out of messes, especially the ones she got herself into."
Ritsuko took a long drag on her cigarette. "Their plan is crazy, but I can only hope they stay rational about it..."
She let out a bitter laugh through a cloud of smoke. "The MAGI can't find the blue pattern, you know? So that means the MAGI is going to start guessing." Things always got worse when Angels were involved. Misato groaned and pressed her hands against her face.
When she dropped them back into her lap, Misato sighed. "And by guessing, you mean 'more paranoid delusions of angels taking over the base."
Maya's screen flashed, and the woman's grin was bright in the dark room. "We still have pilot telemetry. Brainwave activity is spiking, but everything seems normal."
The lead scientist moved over, while those doctors and nurses in neurology leaned in to eavesdrop. Misato stared at the spindle graphs and only acknowledged that it looked not ugly or bad. Maya changed the view to a custom screen filled with a double-handful of words. Simple things like 'food' 'water', 'comfort' 'safety'. It was their original means of communicating and sending the pilots useful materials. Maya had a hunch, and set the new brain computer to alert her if anything started to happen.
A new word had added itself to the lexicon. 'Patch'. A few moments later, a second one appeared: 'Pirate'. More started to pop into place. Colors, textures, the word 'fancy'. Maya wrote a quick script that tinted the new entries leaving their originals in green. Water, buoyancy, freedom appeared in blue, while 'healing' and 'restoration' appeared in red. Switching back to the nerve list, the angry disconnected patches slowly cooled and merged back together, though Asuka's eye somehow remained unmended.
Ritsuko had pointed out earlier that if the girls had been in their bodies and aware, the pain would have been excruciating. Now, something soothed all that away. More concepts began to fill the screen, growing faster and faster, until the window couldn't keep up, overflowing and scrolling down and out. NERV watched as a simple program folded and evolved, stamped with the personalities of two teenage girls.
Out on the balcony, the girls looked out into the city. Most of the black tar men were confined to the sky rises and the impossible mountain. Maya had admitted she left the search running, and once they got locked out, she couldn't end it. She had offered several cartons of chocolate ice cream as reparation. Asuka graciously accepted on both her and Rei's behalf.
The sky above was blue and it seemed to be a clear day, but they could still see the strange, geometric constellations regardless. The ruins of the moon remained where they had fallen.
"Okay. I'm tired of hiding."
Rei looked over to Asuka, blinking. "I do not disagree, but do you have a plan?"
"Normally I'd be all for a fight, but we don't have our Evangelions. I don't think we can make them here either." The redhead held her hand out, and a moment later a spear appeared in her hand. She had used a similar one during the original combat simulation. Frowning, Asuka turned to her bad arm. "We should try to be at our best..."
"Injuries are not technically part of our identity, but are you sure you want to risk it?"
Asuka had not quite gotten full range of motion back, since the tentacle whips had laid her arm open, she made a weak fist with that hand. "I don't think I have much choice. I'd need two arms to use this thing."
The other girl nodded. "Then be careful."
"No shit." Asuka harrumphed. "You will be too, when it's your turn. I'm not dragging you into combat with cracked ribs, even fake computer ones."
The solution, after tense, fitful experimentation, proved to be frustrating in its simplicity. Rei and Asuka spent nearly two hours working through their growing control over their immediate surroundings. It wasn't a question of willpower, not by itself, but ability to visualize and focus their intent. Mechanical injury like Asuka's arm, or the stab wounds on Rei's torso proved to be the simplest and easiest to remove. Both girls quickly realized though that they weren't so much healing as returning to an undamaged state. Part of that depended on their understanding of what was broken.
That lack of understanding denied Asuka a full recovery. She managed to fix her arm, but her eye remained stubbornly nonfunctional. There was also the fact that neither girl knew if it qualified as an injury. Having no accurate perception of it, they called it a psychic experience, and without an in-depth understanding of that, or the actual, physical problem, Asuka couldn't repair her eye. Even so, she refused to let it slow her down.
Still, Asuka raised her formerly injured arm and curled her fingers, feeling stronger on that side than she had in weeks. In the real world she would have had to undergo extensive physical therapy, but there, no need. The rules were already starting to change, and the girls were changing with them.
The air grew colder suddenly, and intact glass started to frost over. Even as gooseflesh ran up their arms, both girls shared a look. The air had been bone dry for the whole month; there was nothing to freeze. Another tremor rocked the apartment, and the broken fortress city shook as well, raining dust and debris down on empty streets.
Asuka had dropped into a half crouch and laid one hand on the rail. "The whole MAGI is back online, right?"
"I believe so, yes." Rei trusted her sense of balance to hold, standing upright.
Staring back out into the city, Asuka pulled herself back upright. "That means the conspiracy nutjob part we're standing in is awake and no longer lobotomized."
Rei nodded once. "I believe that is correct as well."
They didn't have the luxury to comment further. The practical reality became all too obvious. For a moment, the blue sky over the city bent, like a prism hanging in mid-air. A beat later, a sound of thunder blasted out, rapidly displacing all the dust and air for miles around. Rei had fought the original, and Asuka had seen it in simulation. They weren't looking at a scale model this time, and they both knew what positron beams could do, even fake ones.
The Fifth Angel hovered over the simulated city. Below, the black tar searching-men boiled out like ants from a nest. The double-pyramid of crystal split in half across the middle, shrieking. Every window not broken for miles shattered instantly. Asuka and Rei saw their worlds wash away in bright, searing white.
Asuka hadn't been alive long enough to really give it much thought, but at that moment, she realized she didn't much care for heights.
Part of that was due to having jumped off a seventh story balcony. A positron beam clipped the top three floors of Misato's apartment building clean off, and the girls were sure, under any other circumstances, they would have been dead before the beam even reached them. More blasts lanced out as the Angel spun lazily, gouging out trenches and craters in the fake city and surrounding hills. The nearby face of the mountain was pockmarked with positron impacts all in a line.
A bit more than seventy feet didn't give the girls time to banter, take the edge off their predicament. As many people were aware, it wasn't the fall that killed you.
Those people weren't in a flexible computer simulation, however. Asuka and Rei grabbed at the frayed edges, bending their minds as far as they could. Rei found that free state of water, and the air around her refracted briefly, shimmering and growing thicker around her body. She landed first, and when her toes touched the concrete, it rippled out. She sagged to her knees a second later, suddenly exhausted but exhilarated.
Asuka, on the other hand, lacked that peaceful state of mind, that understanding. The flavor of her personality was direct action and valor, driving her forward towards glory. These weren't traits she directly acknowledged, but they remained parts of her that defined her world view. When she landed, less than a second after Rei, the parking lot beneath her gave way to a yard deep crater, and great shards of pavement and dirt heaved up in petals.
When the dust settled, and the adrenaline faded enough for the girls to form a coherent thought, they blinked once, then sighed. A giddy, watery grin screwed itself onto Asuka's face, with teeth and cheeks. She raised one shaking hand to Rei, who matched the smile one for one. The girls slapped their palms together, and then broke down laughing.
Rei pulled Asuka out of her crater, once they recovered. Put to the test, their new grasp on reality proved sufficient. Right then, neither of them wanted to call much attention to the potential dangers. They'd spent far too long feeling helpless, relying on others. Now they felt powerful. Now they finally felt in control. The risks were acceptable. Asuka rubbed at her calves and thighs, looking for broken bones.
She'd landed on concrete with bare feet and suffered nothing for it. Looking over at the blue-haired girl, Asuka asked. "You think you could do this kind of body enhancement?"
A shrug was the answer, but Rei took a moment to concentrate, before kicking a nearby empty red oil drum. Why an oil drum was there, neither girl could say, but the metal folded around Rei's foot, before hurtling off into the streets out of sight. Asuka gave the other girl an approving nod before grabbing Rei by the wrist, tugging her off into the local neighborhood.
They ducked past and around the searchers whenever the grew too close, coming to rest in a small bookstore. "We can manipulate local reality, and render ourselves superhuman."
"Yeah..." Asuka trailed off, keeping a watch out the window. She ducked back when a searcher prowled nearby. The bookstore probably represented some kind of archival storage they couldn't understand. "I can't think of anything already here that's a metaphorical 'exit'. If there was, it'd be in the Geofront, but..."
Rei found it surprisingly easy to finish the thought. "But we cannot be sure."
Frowning, Asuka sat on the store counter and let her heels kick lightly. "Right... Misato and Ritsuko said this was a combat simulation, right? Parts of it at least."
"So, combat sims keep score and have win conditions, like ours did..." She looked out the window again, towards the city center and the massive crystal dodecahedron. Asuka turned back to Rei and shrugged. "We're more equally matched now. You think it's worth a try?"
Rei looked up at the simulated Fifth Angel and nodded. "The MAGI knows its capabilities. We must be faster and stronger."
Glancing down at herself, Asuka huffed. "I'm not fighting in a tank top and short-shorts, thank you very much. You shouldn't either."
The other girl nodded, while Asuka hopped off the counter and moved to a more open space. She'd already decided against trying to manifest her Evangelion. She had no idea if their reality-altering permissions would let them do something so massive. They'd proven earlier that 'broad strokes' editing proved to be the easiest, unless they knew exactly what they were doing. Piloting was one thing, but naming, numbering and visualizing every nerve and artery was beyond even her.
But Asuka could make that vague, holistic approach work for her. She took a deep breath and concentrated. Light built up around her hand, worn at the edges by those pixel-like distortions. She blanched, quickly shaking her hand and willing the glow to calm down. It shifted around her fingers to a rich dark red, and far less aggressively bright. Asuka sighed, smiling weakly.
Rei copied her, calling forth the same raw potential, though she skipped the embarrassing part. They'd need armor, weapons, maneuverability. Asuka tried very hard not to think of all the magical girl shows Kaji made her watch. The dim potential in their hands built up, spreading out to fill the entire store, flipping open books and sending papers flying. Outside, a single searcher turned and looked at the commotion. Then it moved on.
When the light receded, and Asuka got a good look at the results, she thought up a new phone with a burst of red and dialed NERV.
"Who designed this crap!?"
Outside the simulation, the silence stretched on.
All the locked terminals had been powered down, leaving the single active station glowing a pleasant green. The extra MAGI brain sat placidly in its tank, suspended in aerated nutrient fluid. Everyone gathered around the terminal shared the same strange sense of foreboding. A bubble in the brain tank collapsed with a loud pop.
"Well? Anybody?" All present could hear Asuka's frustration, and easily pictured her crossing her arms, huffing. "Alright, fine. Misato, Ritsuko, can you two and Maya set up a private channel? I need to vent."
Misato and Ritsuko looked at each other, then at Maya. The younger woman flailed, shaking her head and waving her arms, as if to say don't look at me! She's thinking at us! Maya was right, however. The girls had quickly supplanted control of the conceptual interface. At that moment nobody had any idea of what it could do. The two senior officers took a sidelong look at everyone hovering nearby.
Shaking her head, Misato took a quick breath kept her voice light and airy. "Sure, It's just us now. What's up?"
"Everything we've made so far is..." Asuka's tone fell into accusation. "Your stupid program was made by a pervert. "
The quip shot through the gathered crowd, sending them reeling. Misato was caught between having all the color drain out of her face, and swallowing her tongue. This all fortunately was silent, leaving Asuka none the wiser.
Ritsuko coughed as lightly as she could, letting her voice go cool and professional. "Asuka, to clarify, the two of you started manifesting armor and equipment, completely derived from your imagination?"
"I mean, at least it's red, and built like my Evangelion, but..." Asuka sighed, frustrated. "Yeah, we manifested alright."
Ignoring the growing furor behind her, Ritusko started to take notes.."And your state of mind at the time? Both of you."
The speakers crackled as Asuka's voice went indignant."I don't know! I was trying to think of power and stuff!"
"I thought much the same, Akagi-sensei." Rei on the other hand was whisper-quiet.
For a moment, Ritsuko was caught up in the new insights. Misato and Kaji were struck by a brief wave of nostalgia, and the times Ritsuko got really far into her projects. The crisis seemed to fall out of her attention, leaving only an intrigued, speculative hum.
A hum which Asuka heard. "Don't do that psychologist thing with me, Ritsuko."
"Oh, certainly Pilot Sorhyu. I won't utilize one of my doctorates relevant to your exact situation." She jot down a few more notes before pushing ahead. "Now Asuka, what were you feeling at the time? Be specific."
Put on the spot, Asuka floundered. She temporized, mumbling under her breath while Ritsuko wrote more and more, gradually filling the first page. That nostalgia Misato and Kaji felt gave way to something far more ominous, as they remembered the scientist's unique interrogation method. Their fear was felt for Asuka, who had no idea what was coming.
Ritsuko didn't bother looking up from her notes, content to tick points off in the air. "So, desires for power, control, a subjective sense of 'awesome'. You desired to be impressive... Asuka, what exactly is the problem?"
Asuka practically exploded. "It gave me fetish gear!"
Everyone behind the terminal went white, then immediately clamped hands over mouths or curled up into a nearby shoulder. Tension had wound itself up to a breaking point, and finally snapped. Further away and with a cooler head, Fuyutuski noted that as much as this lifted their spirits, it also told him everyone had just about reached their limit.
Stifled laughter threatened to give the whole thing away, but somehow the illusion held. Asuka herself helped by continuing to make her displeasure known, loudly.
"This is not impressive! This is perverted! I can see my nackten thighs! I can fit my hand between my breasts!" She paused, possibly for air or to breath fire. "Whoever designed this thing? I will nail their hide to the nearest wall when I get my hands on them, you understand me? This? This thing looks like it was designed by a thirteen year old."
Before anyone outside could ask Asuka for clarification, another, softer voice broke in. "What qualities designate it so?"
"Rei? No. No, you're sheltered, but not that much..." Misato could just see Asuka blinking once, then waving at herself, exasperated and utterly disbelieving. "The battle-leotard? The thigh-high plugsuit boots? None of this looks wrong to you? Give me a skirt and I'm one of those 'pretty soldiers'."
Outside, Misato mouthed to Kaji 'Pretty Soldier'? Kaji shook his head helplessly and repeated back 'thigh-high boots', but the only answer he received was a cuff upside the head. Misato pointedly ignored his indignant look.
Asuka continued to rant, blissfully unaware of the mortification and amusement building up outside. "And another thing! Rei got a practical outfit! It looks like a racing suit! With pants! I mean the plugsuits look kind of like racing gear, but hers looks like it belongs in a car, not a centerfold! It's all leather and armored pads!"
There was a moment of silence, as everyone tried to digest that image. Misato nearly lost it at 'centerfold'.
"And she has a jacket!"
While Asuka carried on, the staff and engineers nearby couldn't let the UN inspector off the hook. Quiet, playful shoves and whispered heckling sent the man mentally reeling. He shot back in defense, pointing out she had to learn some Japanese culture, and cartoons were a great way to get a handle on the language. That gave everyone a whole new line of attack, which they exploited ruthlessly.
"Asuka. We can't see what you're wearing. We had nothing to do with it." Ritsuko stopped for a moment, rubbing the bridge of her nose. "It's all just metaphor for something, from your subconsci-"
"My subconscious does not want cleavage!"
"Of course, Asuka, you have full and total control over every aspect of your brain." Ritsuko cradled her chin in one hand, letting the pilot waste her indignant fury. Kaji meanwhile raked his fingers through the air and mouthed a particular cat sound. Misato tried very hard not to burst out laughing.
Now everyone could just imagine Asuka pacing, throwing her hands up and wanting to wring necks. "Well maybe my subconscious wants to kill me? Exposed femoral arteries!? Straight shot to my heart and lungs? My arms are fine, it gave me Unit-2's pauldrons and progressive knives, but plunging neckline? Seriously?"
Rei broke in once more. "If you had intended a handicap, I do not think it also included 'personal allowances' to fill the adjustm-"
Asuka cut her off with a low, warning tone. "Not one word from you, got it!?"
The girls were silent for a long moment, leaving the observation chamber to stew in the hilarity. Ritsuko tossed her notebook and pen down, resigned for the moment. Misato and Kaji spent most of the intervening time continuing their silent conversation, stuck somewhere between laughter and horror. Kaji had been trying to wrap his head around 'surrogate daughter' and her apparent state of dress. Misato had helpfully pointed out she had to learn the terms somewhere. The inspector was understandably nonplussed.
Morose, Asuka picked up the conversation once more. "I was wrong before, this isn't even a battle-leotard. It's a corset. I'm not sure how this could get any more fetishized."
Misato managed to keep her mouth shut for less than a second. "Are you wearing high heels?"
The subsequent silence was telling. As was the burst of laughter Kaji tried very hard to stifle. Everyone froze, eyes shifting to the inspector. Breathing was all of the sudden very loud in the chamber.
Asuka's voice went flat and toneless. "...We haven't been having a private conversation, have we?"
"No, I'm afraid not." Ritsuko sighed once more and leaned back into her chair, groaning. The crew and officers surrounding her started to laugh in earnest. Fuyutsuki was just glad the whole debacle was happening behind closed doors.
"Right then. My revenge will be unexpected and uncompromising. I hope you all realize that."
It said a lot about Asuka's character, that she defined her worst-day-ever based on the degree of embarrassment she suffered. She was also a teenage girl, who in general were not known for their sense of crisis. The injustices kept piling up too. The whole crisis, anomalous blue pattern aside, seemed to have absolutely nothing to do with an Angel. Asuka had been cheated out of her glorious debut not once, but twice in about eight real-time days.
The pilots rushed through the city streets, hugging the ground as close as possible. The searchers now posed no real threat. Their flesh was rubbery and cut easily, especially as the girls grew more and more used to manipulating the world around them. In metaphorical terms, the black tar men were the personification of a system process query. To Asuka and Rei, this looked like a bunch of eerie monsters rooting through garbage and tearing up the street and walls.
The Second Child still seethed, even then. She was stuck between elation and disgust, each time she summoned a new weapon or piece of equipment. Each attempt seemed to mock her, flaunting their obvious symbolism. The latest creation was an armored vambrace with a forearm mounted progressive blade. A part of her liked it well enough, though she still preferred spears and halberds.
There were small blessings, of course. She caught a glimpse of herself in a window and noted the Unit-02 helmet looked rather good, though it somehow let her see out of four eyes instead of just two.
Rei on the other hand was purely utilitarian, having come up with a rifle suspiciously similar to the classic pallet gun. Amusingly, Rei had never fired a gun outside of her Evangelion, leaving her ill-prepared for the recoil. The sound also attracted the searchers, in turn making Rei manifest a silencer. Single shots were usually enough to take down one of the thin men, leaving the girls free to sweep through the streets.
Still, Asuka gnashed her teeth and vented her frustrations on the process metaphors, cutting them down with one arm, or the flamethrower that surrounded the other.
Rei then decided to help distract the other girl from her troubles. "Asuka-san."
Asuka didn't answer immediately. She instead finished bisecting two searchers and immolating a third. The thermal pulse sent her hair whipping around like a candle flame. "What?"
The blue haired girl waved one gloved hand at the ground, some four yards below. "We are flying."
Blinking, Asuka looked down and then back to eye level, noting that they indeed, were horizontal to the ground and soaring through the air. Almost without thinking, the girls jinked through alleys and city streets, overhead of the searching masses.
She looked back up at Rei. "Huh. So we are?"
A grin worked its way onto Asuka's face, with Rei offering her own smaller smile. The girls ascended a bit higher, banking onto one of the long main streets through the simulation city. With a straightaway before them, Asuka felt the need see what she could really do. Locking her legs together just so, Asuka shot forward, ten, twenty, seventy, more than a hundred miles per hour. Her helmet provided a speedometer. The pressure wave trailing behind bowled over searchers and sent garbage and debris flying. Laughter bubbled up within her, even as she spun lazily, corkscrewing through the city canyon.
Wrenching hard right, with Rei close behind, Asuka soared into the clearing made by the fake moon. The mirth drained out of her in an instant, leaving the icy shock of adrenaline.
The Fifth Angel hovered above, charging its positron beam.
To the pilots, Maya's system query was an army of monsters. This was largely their fault, having no other way to interpret an otherwise perfectly normal and benign function. To those outside the simulation, watching it on a terminal, the query was represented by a graphic user interface. It detailed what hardware as being used by a given instance of software. Most of the time this was represented by file names and such.
In a normal computer the process was fairly 'dumb', monitoring specific hooks left in code and other functions. That in turn showed up on a user's screen as information. The MAGI however were far more advanced, elaborate and at times, unpredictable. Perhaps the metaphor of 'searcher' wasn't wholly inaccurate. Even limited, the MAGI were capable of adaptation. Maya had asked it to find and track all processes, so it did.
Inside the simulation, in the ruins of Misato's replica apartment, several of the thin searching men prowled through the wreckage. One heavy piece of ceiling was pushed away, allowing an unblinking, eyeless face to look beneath. There sat an undamaged, unassuming bit of consumer electronics. A hand-held game console, given to Asuka by Kaji some years ago.
The searchers rejoiced, having found their quarry at long last. Buried, hidden behind layers of code, a process known as GHOST lurked. It wasn't a particularly innocuous name; a human would have been suspicious of it instantly. A machine intelligence less so. Still, the MAGI found it, and brought it to the surface. A black hand reached out for the invader, wrapped in a skin of cherished memories.
A searing, white-hot line of light drilled a hole into and through the searcher's porcelain face.
Tactically, and strategically, they knew what they were fighting. NERV had the most data on the Fifth Angel so far, simply because they spent more than a full day fighting it. They also knew that being able to fly would only go so far, when a part of an opponent's weapon flirted with the speed of light. Asuka swung left while Rei went right, splitting up and forcing the simulation to pick its targets.
The first positron blast cut between them perfectly, digging a trench through the city and nearby lake. The column of flash-boiled water spiraled into the sky for what looked like miles, but that still failed to compete with the unreal mountain looming in the background.
Another positron burst raked the countryside, not so much aiming as guessing. Asuka took it as a message to try something. She had a month of it. She'd had more than enough. Willing out more speed, Asuka angled in and screamed towards the Angel, manifesting cannons in both arms and unloading. The Angel had proven it could shoot out shore-based artillery, and Asuka was no more difficult a target. She was however flying at the right angle at the right time. Luck countered for a lot in combat, after all.
Heavy explosive shells gouged a trench out of the Angel's lower faces, leaking red and raining crystal shards down below. In terms of scale however, it was barely a scratch, and started to heal even as Asuka swung around for another pass. The Angel spun and charged its interceptor beam, immolating the nearby towers and swatting Asuka from the sky.
She landed hard, bouncing once, twice, three times. Some new, alien reflex willed her body to toughen, protecting her from pulped bone and flesh. Even so she slid to a halt, coughing wetly and in pain.
Rei had moved to gain altitude, and observe from above. The original Fifth had been unable to defend and attack simultaneously, but this one seemed to lack an AT field altogether. It reminded her again that it was still a simulation, and the Angel copies lacked AT fields for a reason. A reason which was irrelevant at that moment. The enemy had no AT field, as Asuka proved. Rei shouldered her pallet gun and took aim.
Elsewhere, another battle raged. Needle-fine lines of light pulled themselves out of a simple LCD screen, immolating unwary searchers, even as more boiled out of sewers and shadows. The GHOST shed its disguise, standing tall as a single point of light; perfectly zero-dimensional in a three-dimensional space. The searchers raised their arms tipped with corkscrew blades and gnarled, chitin shields, and charged en-masse.
Seconds passed, and the ruins of the apartment complex became a mass grave and funeral pyre, towering higher and higher with the burning bodies of metaphor.
Asuka in the meantime had gotten back on her feet, deciding to improvise. Frontal attacks proved to be only somewhat effective, leaving her to try something else. The air around her shimmered, and she vanished. Looking up through the distortion, Asuka watched the Angel above, but it did not turn to smite her. She resisted the urge to sigh in relief, and instead focused on solving the problem. She tried not to think about how readily she was taking to MAGI manipulation.
It was at that moment that the Fifth Angel decided to attack Rei, bracketing her with positron blasts. Even with a dozen yards between her and the beams, the pressure wave ripped the gun out of her hand, and whipped at her jacket. An underdeveloped and unwelcome instinct took hold. Rei folded in on herself, and for lack of a better term, pushed, willing her soul out into space-time.
Nothing happened. The expected result of positron beams bending away from her did not come to pass, though in hindsight, Rei did recall that positron beams bypassed AT fields, including her own. She did not have time to pull herself back in, as the barrage generated a temporary super storm between the streams of accelerated matter-energy. Lightning cooked the air around her, flooding sky with the stink of ozone. Thunder meanwhile slammed into her from all sides, to the point that all internal sensation felt like boiling liquid.
Off-balance, Rei's concentration dropped, and her abused inner-ear rebelled. She fell several hundred feet, only gathering her wits long enough to render the rubble fluid enough to splash into. Concrete and rebar seemed to reach up and catch her, sparing her from broken bones and worse.
Her ringing head gave way to the trilling tone of the radio headset. Nausea rolled her stomach, but she sat up and answered. "A-Ayanami here."
Ritsuko was on the other end, one step short of urgent. "Rei! We just got another blue pattern that matched one earlier. If that was you, you need to be more careful! Any AT field you try to make in there will show up out here."
It started as the truest expression of a dot, the actual zero-dimensional state. That point of fire rose out of the handheld's screen and into the air above the rubble, lancing out with brief, fiendishly accurate. The searchers fell in waves, but their succeeded nonetheless. They dragged the invader, the GHOST out into the light. The point rose out of the dust and ruin.
The dot became a line, then a ring of fire, not unlike that of the sun. But it was not warm and nurturing. It was a cold fire, the impersonal heat of godhood. Rays branched and gave way to forks and graceful, sweeping curves. At no point did the growing shape become anything more than two dimensional. There was no depth, no volume to the space it occupied. It asserted itself, becoming the horizon, the unfixed reference point.
Searchers built up on corpses of their fellows, fashioning towers out of their dead and supported by the living. They reached for the alien sigil, but their hands and blades burnt away on contact.
The world moved.
Asuka didn't care for hiding, but she was not stupid either. She also felt fear. The Angel hovered above her, and the only thing stopping a positron assault was her own novice understanding of reality manipulation. She watched it nearly take out Rei, and when the other girl hit the ground, the Angel moved on to other targets. Searchers were obliterated in waves as collateral damage.
Another blast rocked the city, flooding the streets with dust. Asuka pressed a hand to her ear. "Rei. Rei can you hear me?"
Elsewhere, Rei pulled herself out of the wreckage and coughed. "I am here, Asuka-san."
"Just Asuka is fine! Listen, I figured out a stealth trick, don't ask me how but I did." She looked up at the Angel through the shimmering cloak. "Before it blasted me, I did some damage."
From where she knelt, Rei couldn't see the result, but she believed the other girl anyway. Another positron blast knocked down more buildings. "It has not ceased firing since the battle began. The original Angel could not defend and attack at the same time."
"I don't think this one can defend at all." Asuka winced when another blast took down a building behind her. "Okay, simple plans are best. We think of some really big guns and start shooting, forcing it to split fire."
Rei frowned, not that the other pilot could see it. "The enemy targeting speed is very fast, we must be faster."
It had control. There was no qualifier for it. There would either be none, or all of it. It did not move through the world, but moved the world around it. Gravity and dimensional freedom were constructs and easily ignored. Millions of searchers filled the streets, following the living symbol, even as it burned more down. The land itself curled as it past, folding in on itself and rising in waves and rolling spirals. It was not so basic as pulling or brute force lifting. There was no crack and ruin as the earth and concrete moved. It stretched and warped instead, flowing like liquid.
Now exposed, it had to improvise. Godhood wasn't when constrained.
Beneath her cloak, Asuka stared at her right arm and concentrated. For all her warrior skills, she realized very quickly that she didn't understand guns very well, to the point that the thing slowly building around her wrist probably made no real sense. She promised herself she'd correct that gap in her knowledge, once she got the hell out of the simulation. Until then, she was willing to accept whatever she got, as long as it worked.
The contraption built out of random shapes and cylinders, taking pieces of guns she had seen in her lifetime, and stranger influences. Meaner, deadlier, that was all she could think of, when demanding a new weapon. Cables and coolant lines crawled up her arm and hooked into an absurd looking ammo drum hanging from her shoulder. Three barrels of different sizes and lengths shot out, the longest capped with a progressive bayonet.
Above her, the Fifth Angel still floated, taking potshots at whatever caught its attention. Off in the distance, a second sun floated over the city, obscured by what buildings remained standing. The last piece locked into place around her wrist, unfolding to become a trigger grip. Hefting a gun that outweighed her many times over, Asuka banished her cloak and took aim.
On the other side, Rei did much the same, at first manifesting a replacement pallet rifle. Glancing at it then the Angel, she tossed the weapon aside and tried again. While she didn't understand most of the weapons an Evangelion used, Rei had trained on most of them. She merely had to adapt them to her personal scale. Black steel and plastic appeared in her hands, slung under one arm and braced with the other. Six barrels cycled through a test revolution before locking in place.
Together, at nearly the same time, Asuka and Rei unloaded with a forearm mounted artillery barrage and Gatling cannon.
Another section of the city started to melt away like wax, revealing that strange white void from before. The fractal shards of nothing seemed to reach out for the fiery symbol, but froze and recoiled seconds later. The blue dot also appeared, expanded now into a massive void in the earth. Its original hiding place had been exposed, and now it could no longer hide in fear. Now it had to move, escape elsewhere, and wait until its time was right.
Asuka and Rei had to very quickly master a skill known as move and shoot.
The Fifth Angel had nearly perfect firing arcs, save for a very small window directly above and below it, where it had to tilt forward or backward to check those blind spots. It could also tilt very fast, getting a bead on the pilots almost instantly. Proximity and speed were the girl's best weapons at that moment. Asuka hugged the planar surface as close as she could, fighting to stay parallel to the Angel's top half as it rolled.
A positron charge sat waiting on the open valley between the halves, never quite able to catch her. She let her gun-arm hang behind her, emptying infinite ammunition into the crystal as she passed. Rei remained below, having clamped onto the bottom tip with line and grapnel. One-handed, she drove the Gatling gun into the Angel's body and held the trigger down. The vibration transfer was so severe, she felt two of her teeth crack before willing herself stronger and repairing the damage.
Unfortunately, the simulated opponent was full sized, and while it lacked an AT field, it regenerated at a ferocious rate. Asuka's assault closed up and smoothed seconds after she made a pass, forcing her to manifest a second weapon and re-evaluate her approach. No matter what though, she had to keep the pressure on.
Then, the Angel got clever. It stopped perfectly, dumping inertia without incident and shifting direction. The massive crystal face suddenly stopped rolling away from Asuka. A skyscraper's worth of mass slammed into Asuka as the rotation changed, and Rei very nearly lost her grip down below. The First Child still held on though, digging and shooting all the while.
A recent memory filtered through her mind, Dropping the gun, she raised her free hand and envisioned a simple little shape, somewhat round with a cheap metal handle and a pull-tab Aida-kun called a pin. When the Angel rolled so far to leave Rei on top, she dropped the grenade, letting gravity do the work.
A moment later, she dropped many, many more grenades.
The sky and earth cracked, split down the middle in heaving fissures.
Iridescent pixel-foam bled from the rents, dissolving the concept-memory of air, cloud and city. The Fifth Angel shuddered, listing visibly and lit from within by oily black smoke and red firestorms. The inner torus reactor buckled and twisted, losing containment but not power. The positron blasts lashed out randomly, kinked and staggered in blatant denial of physics.
There was no longer any city to truly destroy, only ruins, and the strange flowing ziggurat being built nearby. Great sheets of rock and soil tumbled off the impossible mountainside. Inside, underground and through the gaps in the air itself, the fractal void issued through. Past that, the deep blue eternities pushed out and drew in simultaneously, creating fathomless depths.
Distance proved to be a fair defense, though it helped that Asuka wasn't looking at anything directly. She pried herself off the surface of the Angel and dug in, holding onto the injured monster for dear life. Another stream of charged particles obliterated a street, letting white nothing bleed out. Rei continued to summon grenades into the Angel, omitting pins and letting live explosives fall deep within.
Asuka refused to be useless, though at that point she stopped caring about who won, instead more concerned about just winning. She banished her weapon and reformed the forearm blade. Nearly two feet long past her wrist, the cutting edge was like her Eva's own progressive knife, able to extend more useful edge. A second blade appeared on her other arm, leaving her ready to cut.
Strikes came down one after the other, carving out blue shards of crystal. They fell out behind her, leaving Asuka's way clear to dig deeper inside. The Angel's skin was thick, like the armored shell of a bunker, but Asuka powered through the exhaustion. The latest swing cut through too easily, and the last layer gave way. Smoke and heat nearly roasted her alive as it rushed out the gap.
Banishing the swords, Asuka thought back to the warships she had seen, like the one in NERV's own Geofront lake, or the pacific fleet that escorted her to Japan. Boxes and racks of missiles, rockets and artillery manifested around her body, clamping onto her arms , legs, sides and shoulders. Inside the Angel, Asuka could see the reactor coils glowing blue-hot, even through the smoke.
Every panel and rocket cell flipped open, with trigger leads all ending at Asuka's fingertips. She clenched her fist and let fly.
In the far center, a red sphere floated, waiting for missile impact. The core exploded in a tiny splash of red, before it evaporated in the heat and pressure of several hundred high-explosive detonations. All around her, the Angel seemed to crunch in on itself, dissolving and fading even as it fell. The bulk dropped around her, leaving Asuka stationary in relation to the Angel's remains. The top face bore down, getting closer and closer and ready to crush her while dying.
And then the crystal wall passed through her, not even leaving a mark.
Still floating above the city ruins, Asuka looked down at the falling Angel. Rei joined her a few moments later, having dropped the last unnecessary grenade. The massive crystal shape did not so much slam into the ground as shimmer through it, dissolving the ground and rubble as it passed. Everything gave way in the passing, leaving the white fractal rend and blue void in its wake.
Floating hundreds of yards away, the girls seemed safe from the blue infinities, but every which way they turned, nearly every direction was torn through with similar gaps. The teeming mass of searchers had ebbed at some point during the fight, leaving the world oddly still. Then the two pilots saw the symbol.
Drawn of lines and curves of fire, radiating outward from a central ring, they saw It. Asuka's blind eye throbbed behind the patch. Suppressed memory threatened to burst free. It wasn't the same as confronting the MAGI, not the same sense of identity and perception, but very much the same scale.
Rei cocked her head to one side, staring at the sigil. "What is that?"
"I don't much care." Asuka looked down at the tear the Fifth Angel left in passing, then back at the symbol and the flowing ziggurat beneath it. She grabbed Rei by the wrist. "Listen, I've got a crazy idea."
The blue void was the active MAGI intelligence, Asuka was reasonably sure of that. Its awareness was deadly to the two of them, but it was still a computer. And computers, even organic nervous computers, had rules. She hadn't been joking when she said earlier, she'd make a way out of there. Far enough away to be reasonably safe, Asuka reached down with her hands and will and pulled.
Cut stone burst out of the ground surrounding the irregular break in reality, shifting into a paved ring the size of several city blocks. The white void spread out to the edges seemingly of it's own accord, but stopped, becoming a perfect circle of nothing, until the blue spread out wider to fill the space. Sweat built up on Asuka's brow beneath her helmet, for no other reason than she believed it accurate.
Splitting, unfolding and twisting, primitive geometry gave way to memory and intent. Cubes, cylinders and cones built up into complicated shapes from her early life in Germany and the long history she adored. She only saw the gate once when she was eleven, but it stuck with her even then. The whole structure laid flat in the ground, framing the portal on all sides with perfect copies. Every cardinal direction held the same structure. Six rectangular columns joined the top of the pointed arch, done in the style of classical Greek architecture. Four bronze horses drawing a chariot charged towards the sky
Their portal home was surrounded by the Brandenburg Gate.
"Asuka, I believe the fiery symbol has noticed you."
Asuka turned, and was just about to ask what Rei meant when she saw. The symbol did not move like she expected, it always remained perfectly positioned and fixed in her viewpoint, never once looking closer or further away. The new lines of fire drawn towards them did look threatening. Biting of a squawk, Asuka dropped out of the air, evading one cutting beam and then another. Rei shot upward, drawing fire as best as she could.
The gate continued to build itself, but slower now that Asuka had split her attention. She refocused as best she could, but evasion took a heavy toll. Below, the portal shifted again, draining downward and filling the sides in with understandable texture and structure. Paved streets and dirt trails gave way to the iconic Japanese 'shrine steps', dotted with Torii gates.
One of the rays cut off one of Asuka's shoulder pylons, forcing her to jink on instinct. She pressed one hand to her ear and called NERV. "Get ready to recover us! We're on our way home!"
Misato turned to Hyuuga and Aoba. "Well, you heard her!"
Nodding, the lieutenants and medical staff dashed out towards the test cages, but not before Hyuuga ducked into the side room and pulled Shinji out. Misato heard him protest, saying he was 'tapped out', but she put that out of her mind. Asuka was still talking, saying something about a floating symbol made of fire. Ritsuko and Maya put their heads together over their one working console, fighting to give the engineers anything they could use.
"Maya!" Ritsuko directed the woman to the active terminal, while she pulled open a laptop. "Start on a shut down and recovery script, a complete one. Make sure you use the regular MAGI functions for it."
"The regular functions? I don't-" Even as she asked, Maya did as instructed.
"I have a hunch, Maya." Ritsuko didn't look up from her screen. "We're going to need to do this anyway. Misato!"
The tactical director looked over, pensive. Her friend waved towards the test bodies in the tank. "I need you to go over to the test cages and tell me when the girls are out, as soon as possible."
Misato nodded silently, grabbing a pair of walkie talkies and leaving one with Ritsuko, already set up.
While Maya worked to prepare the system shutdown, Ritsuko started writing her own list of commands, patching them through the spare brain.
Asuka would later admit to herself that it wasn't much of a plan, but she was tired of plans. Big elaborate ones at least. She called out to Rei, even as she banked hard and made for the portal. The blue-haired girl followed, weaving through lines of light, even as the burning symbol appeared overhead, behind them. It reached into the growing tunnel, chasing them but unable to fit entirely.
Below, Asuka threaded through torii gates and over stairs and paths, twisting around them even as they formed. She urged herself to go as fast as possible, digging deeper . It was like digging a glass tunnel, and papering the sides up as you went. They couldn't exist in the MAGI's perception space, so Asuka demanded a path through it, coated in concepts they could safely understand. It didn't matter really, that she couldn't think like a computer, because now it could understand her.
Rei joined her on the right. She rolled over and flew backwards, summoning a pair of pallet rifles to send fire towards the cutting lines of light. She had no idea if it would be effective, but she had to try something. Asuka continued to clear the way, carving a safe channel through hostile environments of inhuman thought.
What mattered at that point was metaphor. Asuka needed to satisfy the needs for a journey, an escape and threshold to pass from one state to another. Her blind eye began to bleed that pixel-fire once more, tracking a wet trail down her cheek and out the gaps of her helmet. She still held on. The rolling mass ahead of her gave way finally to something new, a shimmering liquid pool.
One of the rays cut at Ayanami's ankle, drawing a line of blood through the air. The symbol was too late though; the girls splashed into the portal, and the tunnel they carved collapsed behind them.
Choking, Asuka tried to swim, to reach up towards the surface and breath, but she couldn't get her bearings straight. Blind totally, she flailed for something, anything. Breathing was suddenly difficult, more so than she remembered. Her hair floated in the water, sticking to her face before drawing back down her shoulders. The helmet was gone too, as was her armor and everything else. For a moment she felt naked, but then a familiar pinch at her hip made itself known.
Fumbling, she reached down and felt the normally obnoxious bit of metal and plastic that pressed against her side. It was part of her plugsuit, her actual plugsuit, the real one she put on before the simulation. She looked around and realized she wasn't blind, it was the entry plug that was dark. One foot found the bottom of the plug, letting her kick back up into the seat, then towards the hatch.
Outside, she started to hear voices through the plug walls and test body. Asuka slammed her fists into the side of the entry plug, shouting through the LCL.
Misato pushed Shinji towards the far test body, telling him to help get it open. He looked down at his hands and nodded. "Do you care about the equipment?"
His guardian held up a fierce looking circular saw, while the other engineers readied hydraulic cutters and plasma torches. Shinji took that as a 'no'. He turned to the far body and raised one hand. Inside he could hear something, someone banging on the plug wall. Good enough for him. Working on the MAGI took a lot out of him, leaving him feeling drained in a manner he had trouble describing. He still had enough for this.
He brought his hand down, tearing the entire back half of the test plug off, and the clamps that held it in place during operation. LCL flooded out in a wave, soaking his pant legs. A red-clad arm flopped out of the ruined end, trying to haul herself up. Shinji was there, tugging her free and out into the open air. Asuka opened one good eye for the first time in what felt like years. She saw a dark Evangelion cage and the Third Child looking at her with a gold disc shimmering faintly above his brow.
Then the LCL wanted out of her stomach and lungs. Asuka promised herself to apologize to the boy afterwards.
A few yards away, engineers cut away metal and hinges that held everything together, letting the scrap fall away with massive bangs. A manual control let them discharge the hydraulic pressure all at once, forcing the plug ejection. Misato hiked herself up the ladder with one arm, and then opened the hatch with that same hand. The other was occupied with a radio. Once Misato saw Rei, saw her look up and blink, she called Ritsuko.
"Maya! Initiate shutdown now!"
The lieutenant mashed the button just as Ritsuko started to say 'initiate'. As the project lead expected, the command fizzled. She stared up at the main screen, past it, grinning at nothing. "Got you now, you son of a bitch."
Ritsuko hit enter on her own keyboard, sending the command through the one active back channel. System after system began to shut down one after another, leaving only a small section of hardware active. With the girls out, Ritsuko could safely isolate and purge the conspiracy buffer. The whole room, the Geofront itself went dark for a moment, and then reactivated in one massive surge. The scientist had already sent engineers to cut the physical connections to the buffer hardware.
Now the tables had been turned. All of normal MAGI operation restarted on every terminal but the spare brain's. Now, Ritsuko had a direct like to the conspiracy buffer, and whatever caused the whole mess.
Twisting in her seat, she looked up to Fuyutsuki. "Requesting permission to secure hazardous material for future research."
The old man gave her a solemn nod. "Granted."
Misato raked one hand through her hair, biting her lip. "Ritsuko, you better get down here. Rei looks pretty bad."
The handset crackled. "I'll be right there."
Shinji knelt between his fellow pilots. The nurses and doctors on hand had already laid them out on stretchers. He laid a hand on their wrists, counting their heartbeats. Looking over at Asuka, even without sensors and scans, he knew her right optic nerve had somehow been broken. Aggravation of some kind or another shot through her body, leading to soreness and exhaustion.
Rei on the other hand wasn't doing well. Ritsuko had been closed-mouth about it, but Shinji recognized the same basic problem. During the school attack, Rei had suffered hemorrhaging and internal bleeding without cause. He was absolutely certain that her skin beneath the suit would be flooded with angry red blotches and subcutaneous lesions. He looked up to Misato and shrugged helplessly. The disc on his brow glimmered faintly.
"I'm mostly empty, I can't just fix them right now." He waved to Rei. "I don't even know exactly what's wrong with her. None of my powers work without a diagnosis."
Sweeping in with a gurney in tow, Ritsuko arrived. She must have heard him down the hall. "Rei's condition is her business, it's up to her if she wants to tell you." She looked over at the nurses, nodding sharply. "We've got to get her down to the tanks."
Misato and Shinji watched them leave, but not before the lieutenant knelt down and took Asuka's hand. Kaji dashed in a moment after Ritsuko left, nearly leaping over Shinji to land next to the girls. He tumbled, but scrambled back to lock his hands with Misato's. The two adults flinched, but forced themselves not to make anything of it.
Asuka looked up through one good eye, seeing the Third on her left and Misato and Kaji on the right. They were squeezing her hand too hard, but at that moment she welcomed the pain.
Coughing lightly, she licked her lips and grimaced. There hadn't been time for a proper shower it seemed. "M-Misato. Kaji-san?"
The pair started speaking at the same time, but Kaji stopped and let Misato take the lead. "Y-Yeah, Asuka?"
"What's a number, between one and a hundred, but not sixty-two or twenty-one?"
Kaji and Misato looked at each other, then at Shinji before blinking once. Hesitantly, Misato replied. "Uh... Eighty-six?"
Asuka favored the three of them one last look, before letting her head fall back into the growing puddle of LCL. "Good enough."
AN: Thank you for baring with me. This was my first experiment in a multi-chapter, reasonably self-contained arc.