Misato was so nervous she thought she might throw up. She paced around the inside of the tent, feeling sweaty and stuffy in her suit jacket and skirt, and looked in the mirror again and again to check her hair. Ritsuko, leaning casually over the back of her folding chair, looked at her and smirked.
"You look fine. Calm down."
"I don't look fine," said Misato, plucking at the collar of her jacket. "Why is it so damned hot in here?"
Ritsuko snorted. "It's not, it's you. It's cooler than it has been in months."
"This is ridiculous," said Misato. "I don't see why we have to have a stupid ceremony."
"You're just scared to talk in front of a crowd," said Ritsuko.
"I could use a cigarette."
Ritsuko smirked. "I quit."
"Everyone is so boring now," Misato mused. She stood by the door, waiting for the cue.
Ritsuko pulled on her labcoat and stood behind her, shuffling her feet. She fiddled her hair- she'd now grown a long, dark ponytail that hung down past her collar- and adjusted her glasses. "You mean professional. We're on our own, now. Time to grow up."
"I am grown up," said Misato.
"You're as freaked out as I am," Misato huffed.
"Maybe, but needling you is always amusing."
"Everybody ready?" said Kaji, from outside the tent. "I opening the flap."
Ritsuko snorted. Kaji pulled the tent flap aside and ducked his head under it. He looked Misato up and down and lifted an eyebrow. She stuck her tongue out at him, and Ritsuko chuckled softly to herself. Kaji managed to look professional himself- he could almost be called dapper in his dark suit. He held the flap while Misato and Ritsuko emerged, and fell in behind them as they walked towards the pavilion.
The sun was beating down through the open roof of the Geofront. The biggest hurdle in the resconstruction effort was in stripping the old city away- much of it had simply been burned to the ground, scorched away, and after the pounding the roof of the cavern took, there was no way to repair it. With the Geofront itself essentially unoccupied, there was no choice but to blast away small sections and clear them up as they fell until the entire floor was open to the sky. It was an engineering feat on a scale with the initial construction of Nerv headquarters itself, and it was only the beginning.
Since the demolition effort ended, plant life had begun to reclaim the fertile soil. In fact, plants thrived in the Geofront, springing from every square inch of the rich, black earth. It was a constant battle to keep the growth back from the construction site. It made the air heavy and humid, and the wind carried the strong scent of flowers and foliage. Misato breathed it in deeply as she saw the stage that had been set up out in front of the work camp where construction would begin. The Secretary General and Prime Minister were already up on the stage waiting for her. Ritsuko and Kaji followed as she jogged up the stairs, and took up positions behind her.
She had some note cards in her pocket, but the speech was short and sweet- she had Shinji write it for her, of course. She walked up to the podium and put her hands on the side, gripping the slick, polished black wood as if she needed it to keep from being flung off the earth. There was a sea of faces in front of her, stretching out in the bright sunlight, and she was distracted for a moment.
Kaji cleared his throat.
"Good morning," said Misato. "As the newly appointed Chief Operating Officer of the Institute for Human Advancement, it is my great pleasure to welcome you all to the groundbreaking ceremony for the Institute's new facilities, on the site of the former headquarters of Nerv."
She looked around. No one was booing. So far, so good.
"There are no adequate words to tally the sacrifice, loss, and suffering that led up to this moment. We must take time to look back on the long chain of events that led us here. Anything I might say pales in comparison to the blood that has soaked this ground. We stand here today in remembrance of the lives lost in Second Impact and in the angel war, of the sacrifices and simple mistakes that we have made."
She lowered her head for the moment of silence. She heard cicadas buzzing in the background.
"We owe it to those we've lost to move forward. For too long, the most brilliant minds of the human race have been forced to turn their talents towards implements of war and destruction while the world slowly wastes away. Today we take the first steps on a new path. The promise of science and understanding will no longer be used to end lives but to save lives, to feed the hungry, heal the sick, make whole the maimed. In this place the last fortress of mankind will be reborn into a gleaming icon for the future, a shining city on a hill, a metropolis. By the authority vested in me by the United Nations and the government of Japan, I am proud to turn the first load of soil and begin marking the foundation of the future."
She took a deep breath, walked over to the government delegation and accepted the golden shovel from Nakashima. It wasn't really gold, of course, but it was shiny enough. Misato jogged down the steps, moved to the square of plain black soil marked out by tape, and planed the shovel. She turned it up, and a small pile of earth formed, almost in the shape of a pyramid.
She looked up and nodded at the applause, mouthing "Thank you," until the clapping died down.
"Enough of this crap," Ritsuko said as Misato got back onto the stage, "We have work to do."
Kaji could barely contain his excitement. So much sacrifice and heartache, and he was finally here, standing in the office of Keel himself, the Chairman of the Human Instrumentality Committee and the head of Seele. The place had a sepulchral air to it, like a tomb, and that felt entirely appropriate. It had probably been elegant once, but a team of investigators under Kaji's direction were going through it with a fine toothed comb. He'd spent a full week sweeping for bombs and traps, and was surprised to discover nothing. Keel was probably so sure of himself that he hadn't bothered, knowing he either be dead or God, probably not figuring on being one and then the other.
Kaji moved through the room in a clean suit, with a dust mask over his face. The office was huge, big enough to hold a good sized house, and the far wall was all glass, open to the sunrise. The walls were lined with an impressive and expensive collection of books, now being picked through by his investigative team. With half of the books missing, they looked like an old man's mouth, full of gaps and rotten teeth. The old bastard had a fine collection of art, as well. Set in alcoves around the office were a number of originals. He had a particular interest in Blake, including both of compositions of the Great Red Dragon, presumably rescued when the original museums that held them were burned or inundated in Second Impact.
Keel's desk, Kaji saved for himself. It had been pushed to the side of the room, not by his team but Keel's own people, when he was moved from his mechanical chair to a complex mobile hospital bed that kept his failing body alive. The scuff marks from the wheels were still visible in the ancient looking hardwood floor. The desk was pushed up against a row of bookshelves. As Kaji looked over the books, he realized they were all Bibles of varying age and provenance, and in a dozen languages. The disconnect between Keels' motives and his fascination for the esoteric bothered Kaji. There was something wrong about it.
The desk itself was big enough for three. Keel never had a personal computer, and it was still scattered with papers. Carefully, Kaji began picking up each page with a pair of tweezers to look it over, while a technician held open a plastic baggie for it. It would all be catalogued, run through cryptanalysis, and stored. Even a seemingly mundane document could hold some sort of code or hidden message, and every care had to be taken. If there was no code, it was all stunningly boring. Keel seemed to have a fixation on Nerv's budget, demanding detailed reports on everything. Kaji blinked in surprise when he realized that Keel was keeping some kind of notes on Misato's uniform allowance.
Once the top of the desk was cleared, there was only an antique banker's lamp and a telephone, an old style rotary phone with an ornate receiver and cradle that was actually wired to the wall by a long, gilded cable. Handling it, Kaji could tell from the feel of the materials and the weight that it, too, was a genuine antique. For a man who had himself mashed into a monstrous half-alien cyborg shortly before his death, and who depended so much on technology for every part of his life, Keel seemed to have little affection for gadgets. He started going through the drawers, only to find more mundane junk. The file drawers held more budget reports, a list of contacts Kaji already knew of, and the one on the left was filled with ancient, crumbling candy wrappers and a pile of thoroughly used cotton swabs stuffed into an old coffee mug. Kaji held that gingerly, dropping it into an evidence bag.
He took a step back from the desk, sighed deeply, and looked out the window. Then, the phone rang.
Everyone in the room tensed, and there was silence. The phone continued to ring. Kaji pulled his mask down, walked to the desk, and gingerly lifted the receiver, not quite touching it to his ear.
"You will find nothing of value here, Inspector."
The line went dead.
Asuka woke up, to discover she was sleeping above the covers.
Four feet above the covers.
She'd gone to sleep beside Shinji more out of habit than anything. In fact, she'd almost forgotten what it was like to be tired. She could work on her thesis and clean the tiny apartment she shared with Shinji and catch bullets out of the air with her bare hands for days and not even feel a wisp of fatigue, or even get hungry. She could run so fast all she could hear was the blood rushing in her ears, and she could jump up to the balcony of their fourth floor apartment. It was all incredible, but the one thing she dreamed of most never seemed to happen, no matter how easily it came to Shinji.
"Shinji!" she screamed, "Help!"
Shinji woke with a start, sitting bolt upright in bed. His hair was a fright, sticking straight up from his head, and he given up on wearing shirts when they slept together, since she had a habit of ripping them off of him in her sleep. He rubbed his head, looked around in confusion, and then his eyes slowly swept up.
A wicked smile slowly spread across his face. He reached up and poked her hip, and she drifted slowly away, flailing.
"How do I stop this?"
He shrugged. "I really don't know. I just do it."
"Oh," she snapped, "That's just fantastic. I have to meet with my academic adviser today. How am I supposed to explain this?"
Shinji folded his arms on his knees and looked up at her. "You know how I flew the first time?"
"I have a feeling I'm going to find out whether I want to or not."
He pushed the blankets from his legs and hovered up beside her, turning on his side. "I slipped in mud and fell off a cliff."
"That sounds like you," she snapped, crossing her arms over her chest.
She yelped as, unbidden, her feet drifted down. She put her arms out to her sides as if trying to balance herself on a narrow ledge. She promptly rose up and thumped her head on the ceiling. She scowled at the offending architecture and pushed herself back down. Her toes touched the carpeting, but she immediately started to turn and yelped, pulling her shirt to her belly as she gradually rotated head over heels.
"Any time!" she said, scowling.
"This is going to take all day," said Shinji.
He took her by the waistband of her sleeping shorts and walked to the narrow window that looked out over their small balcony. A bird lighted on the ledge, quorked, and flapped off into the sky. Shinji looked at her, looked at the window, and slid it open.
"Don't you dare."
He grinned at her, took her by the ankle, and pulled her out the window.
"Hey!" she shouted, "Don't-"
He pulled her out over the street and let go. She took one look at the ground and immediately rocketed upwards, spinning wildly, flailing her arms in all directions. The world shrank with stunning speed, and the harder she flailed trying to stop, the faster she went. Shinji slid up beside her, his hands folded behind his head and his legs crossed, watching her. She slowed in her strugglings, and finally came a slow, almost upside-down hover.
"I'm getting a headache."
"No you aren't."
"I'm getting a headache in principle," she snapped. "That kind of headache."
"Okay," he sighed. "Where do you want to go?"
"Close your eyes."
She closed her eyes, half expecting him to pull something on her, and drifted to the side, without meaning to. He kept his voice even and calm.
"Remember how to swim?"
"Of course I remember how to swim."
"Good," he said. "Now, think about swimming. When you swim, do you think about every movement in your arm? Curling your fingers to paddled the water, or do you just do it?"
"I just do it."
"So do that. Keep your eyes closed. You're already facing down, just move forward."
She took a deep breath, as if she stood on a diving board, and just focused on moving foward. She put her arms out almost instinctively, and her heart leapt as she felt herself gathering momentum. Shinji tapped her on the shoulder.
"You should probably open your eyes now."
She opened them, saw the ground rushing up at her, and screamed. She folded her arms in front of her face and blinked her eyes shut again, turning her head away. She could almost feel the ground under her, and when she opened her eyes again, she was only inches away. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and very slowly, turned herself upright, and lowered her feet onto the ground. She stood there, looking around, glad that no one seemed to be around to see them. It was still early morning, a few minutes after sunrise.
"Now," he said, "try it with your eyes open this time."
She nodded, took a breath, and looked up.
"I can fly!" she shouted as she rocketed into the air, arms at her sides.
She turned and did a lazy, clumsy loop in the air, and then a figure eight, whirling higher and higher, spinning in wider circles. Shinji followed her, lying on his back, arms folded over his chest. He looked unimpressed, or was trying to, but smiled a secret smile to himself. Asuka charged at him, and he yelped as he slid out of the way. She hooked a tight turn around him in the air until she pressed against his back, threw her arms around his chest, and kissed his cheek.
"Catch me if you can," she whispered.
Hikari felt the heavy weight of anesthesia settled on her as she woke up, and by now it was an old friend. She let her eyes adjust to the light, and it took her a moment to realize that she could see from both of her eyes. A hand reached over her head and swung the light away, and Ritsuko pushed the button to raise up the back of the bed. She touched Hikari's chin, tilting her head to the side, singing softly to herself as she admired her handiwork. A small green circle traced around Hikari's sight, settled on the scientist, and on the left side of her vision, a scrolling readout of biometric data appeared.
"You gave me a heads up display," Hikari croaked. "Cool."
Ritsuko smiled. "I thought you'd like that. How does it feel?"
"Itchy," said Hikari. "I'm thirsty."
"Of course," Ritsuko said absently, fetching her a drink from the table. "The itching should go away after a while. I need to run some tests."
Hikari nodded and sat up. Ritsuko held up a pen. "Follow this with your eyes, please."
She moved the pen around, and Hikari swiveled her gaze around to trace it. Ritsuko nodded and smiled warmly, then slipped it back into her coat.
"Really itchy," said Hikari.
"Ready to get up?"
"I think so."
Ritsuko grasped the side bar of the bed and lowered it out of the way. Hikari looked down and flexed her left hand in front of her face. The complex system of joints and tiny motors worked at her command, as deftly as her own fingers. As she looked at it, a readout on its functions appeared in her eye.
"Wow," she said.
"This is only the first version of the eye," said Ritsuko. "If you're willing, we can make improvements. I already had some ideas drawn up."
"Okay," said Hikari, leaning to the side as she swung her mechanical leg out. Her metallic heel clicked on the floor as she stood up.
"I need to rubberize the soles," Ritsuko said, absently.
"I'm right here," Hikari grumbled.
Hikari smiled. "How does it look?"
Ritsuko picked a mirror up from the side table and handed it to her. Hikari sucked in a breath, her stomach clenching at the thought of what she might see. She was prepared for the scars. They'd been minimized into a few small, barely noticeable creases in her skin around her eye and along her jawline. Her right eye was as brown as ever, but her left eye was a pale, almost slivery off-white, unmarked by veins, and the iris was silver. If she looked carefully, she could see tiny bits of machinery moving as it focused and unfocused.
Without warning, the mirror tripled in size, and she nearly dropped it.
"Zoom function," said Ritsuko.
"You could have told me!"
"Discovery is half the fun."
Hikari blew her hair out of her eyes and took a few steps. She was already used to the leg, but she'd also gotten used to having no depth perception, and constantly having to turn her head if she wanted to look to her left. She held her hands out to balanced herself, perpetually tilting a little too far forward to balance the battery pack on her back. The first one had been boxy and bulky but the new version spread the weight out much more evenly, enough that it was barely noticeable if she wore the right clothing. Rituko crossed her legs and admired her handiwork as Hikari walked around.
"It works," said Hikari.
"Excellent," said Ritsuko. "Let's get you dressed and we can get you home."
Ritsuko blew her hair out of her eyes as she sat up from the microscope. Sometime during the day, or maybe the evening, she wasn't quite sure what time it was, her hair had started to slip. She pulled loose the rubber band that held her ponytail, flopped it on the desk, and set about gathering her hair back up. She worked it back through the band, shook her head, and saw Kaji reflected in the glass in front of her. She nearly jumped out of her skin, whirled on him, and made to throw a coffee cup.
"Stop doing that!"
"Sorry," said Kaji. "How's it going on our little project?"
Ritsuko motioned him forward, then hit the switch on her lab bench to close the door. "It's going poorly, but I think I have an idea of what we're dealing with."
"Follow me," she said, standing.
Beyond the main lab, Ritsuko kept a smaller, private lab, for work she wanted to keep away from the other technicians and scientists, usually for their own safety. In this case, it was for secrecy's sake. She didn't want anyone know what she knew or show she knew it. She had the major components of the helmet she'd removed from the lone survivor of the attack spread out on a metal tray. It had taken her weeks to strip everything out of the helmet itself. She locked the door behind her and pulled out the tray for Kaji to see.
She pulled a pen from her pocket and pointed to the device. "I can't get much out of the central processing unit. Unfortunately, when Shinji disabled it, he also prevented me from learning anything about the signal or who was transmitting it, but there was definitely someone else sending signals to this device."
"What does it do, exactly?"
"You know how the A-10 clips worked?"
"They stimulated a particular set of nerve clusters in the pilot's brains. The way our clips worked was a back and forth connection. The clips connected the brain of the pilot to the Eva's body through a form of quantum entanglement. There's a lot of applied metaphysics involved in the latter part, I'll spare you."
"So what does this thing do?"
"Something similar, but cruder, probably for simplicity's sake." She touched the clips that dangled from wires attached to the body of the device. "These were wired directly into the subject's skull for a direct interface with the brain. They enabled whoever was transmitting the signals to this box to make the person attached to the device feel a particular way."
"Mind control," said Kaji.
"Exactly," said Ritsuko, as she slipped her pen back in her pocket. "Wire people up with these things and they'll believe whatever they tell you, hate your enemies, love your friends."
Kaji scratched his chin. "Sounds sophisticated. Cutting edge stuff?"
Ritsuko shook her head. "No, the basis for this tech is over forty years old. There was an American scientist named Jervis Tetch who developed the theory behind it and experimented on mice and rats. It was an extension of Skinner's methods at first, but he quickly realized how sophisticated the system could become."
"You'd think that would be nobel prize material," said Kaji. "Why haven't I ever heard of him?"
"Because he also tested it on humans. He wired up a few thugs and formed a gang of sorts, and most importantly, he used a prototype wireless version on a student of his, a girl. She resisted it, but it destroyed her mind in the process, left her in a coma. Tetch spent the rest of his life in an insane asylum thinking he was a character from some old book."
Kaji paced around the room. "Yet, here it is, today, being used on people."
Ritsuko sat down and folded her hands on top of her knees. "The only people in the world who had access to this technology, was Nerv."
"Yes," said Kaji, "but where did we get it?"
Ritsuko shrugged. "I don't know. I never put much thought into it, really. The kinks in the nerve clips had already been worked out by the time I started my work. I already thought about it, it's a dead end. It's like they just appeared."
"I don't think this is over," said Kaji. "When I was cleaning out Keel's house, someone called me, on his private line, and told me I was wasting my time. There's someone else behind Seele."
Ritsuko felt cold, and unconsciously mimed the action of holding a cigarette. "You never mentioned that before."
"There'd be no point. I'm officially under Misato's jurisdiction as security advisor now, and my investigation team was disbanded. I never found out how or why."
"What are you going to do?"
He leaned on the counter. "That's why I wanted to see you. I'm going to start looking into this on my own, off the books. I need equipment, resources, assistance and I want you to hide it in your budget."
"What kind of equipment?"
"My old climbing harness and pistol isn't going to cut it."
Ritsuko shook her head. "I don't design weapons. Never again."
"No weapons," said Kaji. "Everything will be nonlethal. Death is too easy for these people. I want justice."
Ritsuko pulled her glasses off. "Have you talked to Misato about this?"
She stood up. "You can't do that to her. Not after everything that's happened. She deserves to know."
"She'll try to stop me."
"She'd be right. You don't have to do this on your own. You have Superman on speed dial."
"The kids have suffered enough, we-"
Ritsuko crossed her arms. "The kids can see gamma radiation. I think Shinji may be able to achieve superluminal speeds under his own power if his abilities keep increasing. There are others, too."
"Who?" said Kaji.
"Hikari," said Ritsuko. "I've been working on a suit, it would armor her vitals and give her strength in her natural limbs equal to her prosthetics."
Kaji's eyes narrowed. "What?"
"It was her idea. I'm working on others, too."
She looked at the map she had on the wall, marked with color coded pushpins. She walked to it and traced her fingers around the map. "Ever since the end of the war, things have been happening that no one can explain. You're not the only one who's been sneaking around," she touched a spot on the map. "There are reports here of someone who can move so fast they can't even be seen," she touched another spot, "An anomalous energy reading. Something is happening."
Kaji looked at the map. "These points are evenly distributed."
"Yes," said Ritsuko. "I think it has something to do with the particle wave matter released into the atmosphere during the war. Rei has another theory."
Kaji raised his eyebrow.
"She calls it 'sympathetic terrain'. The equations are complicated, but her proofs are… elegant. The implication is that, somehow, Shinjni is causing people to develop superhuman abilities simply by existing."
"That's ludicrous," said Kaji.
"So it may sound, but see the blue pins? They're all confirmed reports. They're all young people, too. Something is coming. You're right about one thing. This isn't over."
Misato scrubbed at her eyes. It was three in the morning, and she still had a pile of paperwork to approve. She always thought that being in charge would mean there would be less work, not more. She was beginning to wonder how Ikari had always kept his damned desk so clean. Probably from foisting most of the work off on his subordinates. Now that Shinji was busy with actual work for the Institute, not to mention his other job, she didn't feel right demanding his time. She blew her hair out of her eyes, took a sip of cold coffee.
"The hell with it," she said.
She knew, instinctively, that Kaji would be about, mostly because he always let her know before he headed off to their Spartan apartment. The place never seemed to see enough use, and felt a little empty after Hikari adopted Pen Pen from her, now that Shinji was moved out and Misato was too busy to care for him properly. One thing she was sure of, their bed had seen far too little use, in every possible sense.
"Great," she mumbled as she touched her hand to the panel on the wall to lock her office. "I'm developing a paperwork fetish."
One of the perks of being Chief Operating Officer was her own personal elevator. She took it down to the lower level where Kaji kept his office, and knocked on his door. There was no answer. He heard a soft voice mutter "Oh, shit."
Misato frowned, and as she touched the panel beside the door, her fingers curled around the butt of a phantom gun- she didn't wear a sidearm anymore. The door slid open and she found Ritsuko inside, fiddling with something on a bookshelf next to Kaji's desk. She barged inside and planted her fists on her hips.
"What are you doing in here?"
"Ah," said Ritsuko, "I was borrowing a book."
She looked nervously at the shelf. "Improvised explosive devices and mines- a demolitions primer."
"Bullshit," said Misato. "What are you really doing?"
"I can't tell you."
"Don't tell me you're sneaking around bugging everyone's office."
"No," Ritsuko said defensively.
Ritsuko didn't answer her. Instead, she edged to the desk and sat down on it, looking away towards the floor. "It's not my place to tell you."
"Tell me what?" Misato demanded.
"Top shelf, third volume from the right."
Misato's eyes narrowed, and she walked over to the shelf, watching Ritsuko all the while. The third volume from the right on the top shelf was a faded looking photo album. She reached up, standing on her toes to touch it, and managed to curl her fingertip around it. It slid forward, pivoting on a hinge, and clicked.
There was a pneumatic hiss, and the shelf started sliding backwards. It kept moving until it hit the far wall. She stepped into a small, cold alcove made of polished metal. A set of steep, narrow steps led away into darkness, and the bottom was set into the ash-black rock of the Geofront itself. In stepping through the hidden door, she'd technically gone outside. She started down a few steps.
"Ritsuko?" Kaji called. "Does it work?"
"Kaji?" said Misato.
She could hear his breath catch in the darkness. "Don't come down here."
"Why the hell not?"
She jogged down the rest of the way. There was some kind of a chamber cut into the rock, harshly lit by portable work lights hooked up to one of Ritsuko's pet projects, a generator that made electricity from some kind of current blah blah something something, she was too angry to think. She saw a figure moving in the darkness near some work benches and reached for that missing gun again.
"What's going on?"
Kaji stepped into the light. He was wearing some kind of coat, no, it was a cape draped around his shoulders. The bottom was scalloped. It shifted and moved unnaturally, almost like it was alive. Another one of Ritsuko's science projects, no doubt. There was a hood or something hanging down behind his face.
"I didn't want to involve you with this."
"Involve me with what? What is that thing? What is that, a mask?"
Misato's fists clenched. "I can't believe this. Don't tell me you're starting this secrecy bullshit again."
He looked wounded. She felt herself soften, but resisted the urge, forcing her face into a scowl, and stalked over to him. "So what is it?"
"I never wanted you to see this."
He spread the cape apart, lifted his hands over his head, and pulled the mask on.
Blind, naked terror ran through her. She turned and almost fell as she darted through the darkness. The pounding of her heart was louder than the click of her heels on the black stone or the ragged breaths she drew. She ran to the stairwell, grabbed the hand rail, and used it to wheel herself around the corner as she ran. Her foot went out from under her.
Kaji caught her in his powerful arms. He'd pulled the mask back.
"Why does it have to be a bat?" she snapped, brushing the tears out of her face.
He looked at the floor. "I'm not really sure. It's just something I know I have to do."
"There are men out there with resources and means beyond our ability to reach. No one can touch them, not even after everything that's happened. They're not afraid of anything."
His face hardened into a scowl. "They're going to be afraid of me."
Everything about the situation made Kensuke nervous. He was nervous about his suit, which was his father's meager college graduation gift. It was all his old man could afford, and Kensuke didn't resent that, but a little tailoring and alteration would have gone far for him. He was never an athlete, not like Toji or Shinji were, but he wasn't in poor shape, either. He fattened up a bit during the stressful first years of college but lost the weight as he leaned into the degree program and shed pounds as he gained experience and skill. He'd always thought of himself a superstar hacker, but those first few classes were an eye-opener. When he learned about the future Institute for Human Advancement and the possibilities it represented, he put almost everything aside to give himself a chance at employment with the Institute.
Now that possibility was unfolding, and he was flat terrified of it. He was sitting in an electric tram car with a dozen other young men and women, all like himself in ill fitting formal clothes, briefcases full of portfolios and proposals and letters of recommendation clutched to their chests. His bundle of papers was particularly thick, mostly accolades he'd earned, but it was layered with disks full of his programming work. He always had the feeling he was on the verge of a major breakthrough in the cryptography, a new algorithm that would set the stage for the future development of cryptography and cryptanalysis, but it was always tantalizingly out of reach. As a salaryman, he'd have to subordinate his dreams to the needs of his company, but at the Institute, the advancement of humanity came before profits or corporate hierarchies.
The ride calmed his nerves. He didn't really recognize his old home. He'd seen the Geofront itself maybe five times, and most of those under stress, visiting Hikari in the hospital. Access to the cavern was tightly monitored during the war and even the son of an employee was denied regular access. It looked nothing like it once did. There was no longer any roof- when the foundations of the old city collapsed, they were simply stripped away and the materials recycled and re-purposed for use in creating the new city. The new construction represented Doctor Ritsuko Akagi's famous Human Paradigm, a set of principles designed to bring humanity into harmony with itself and with nature. There were no high rises- all of the buildings were low to the ground and spread out, and rather than built up, they were built down; if more room was needed, rather than the structurally problematic practice of building a high rise, the engineers and architects built into the ground where the Earth's natural facilities for cooling, heating, insulation, and the like could be exploited. The expertise developed in the old Geofront was used to make subterranean spaces more livable.
While it was as dense as any pre-war city, New Tokyo was a glorious world of green. Every roof was covered in plantings, either decorative, or gardens. The air smelled of flowers and foliage and life, and was cool and humid with an underlying scent, almost a feel, really, of fertile Earth. Part of that was due to Akagi's advancments in the use of LCL to revitalize dying soils. She was well on her way to solving world hunger. Kensuke was so excited he could barely sit still. All of these wonderful things were happening, and he was going to be part of it.
If he didn't totally screw this up.
The building the tram was approaching wasn't the institute proper. It was visible from every point in the valley, a giant, hollow glass pyramid that gently swirled through a variety of colors as the glass altered its tint and hue every second to ensure the perfect comfortable temperature inside. It was a marvel, the photo-reactive glass and the computer system that controlled it all powered by microscopic photovoltaic elements embedded in the glass itself. The pyramid was proof of concept for a hundred such technologies. The glass system was already proliferating into the world, incrementally reducing the amount of power people used for air conditioning and the like. It was a small thing, but every tiny advance helped push people into a future without want or strife.
As if conjured by the thought, he saw the war memorial. The battered head armor of Unit One dominated the low rise that had been dedicated to the dead and injured during the Angel War. The armor sat empty, pulled apart by wires like an exploded schematic to act as a pavillion over a white wall etched with the silvered names of the lost and the dead. The tram disembarked at the memorial, leaving the applicants to walk into the pyramid on foot. Kensuke waited his turn and walked over to the wall before joining the others. Embedded in the very center was a glass case full of photographs, turned in by people who lost loved ones or suffered injuries, a mosaic of the world during the war. He teared up a little when he saw a picture he'd taken, of Toji and Hikari, only a week before her injuries.
He fell in line with the others, needlessly adjusting his tie. The entrance to the pyramid was a monitored by the all-seeing eye of the MAGI system. His heart fluttered at the idea of gaining access to it, the world's most powerful and most intelligent computer, rumored to be a true artificial intelligence. He'd heard rumors that it incorporated alien technology.
A familiar voice called to him. "Mister Aida."
He turned, and saw Hikari walking towards the security check. She waved him him forward, and he stepped out of line and hurried to her. She looked great- one had to look to see the fine scars that surrounded her eye, and in her black suit she looked perfectly normal, the only thing out of place being the black glove on her left hand. She smiled warmly at him.
"Hello, Kensuke. How have you been?"
"Nervous," he blurted. "I'm here for an interview."
"I know. Doctor Ikari sent me to escort you for a personal interview."
Kensuke paled. "Ikari?"
"Not that Ikari," said Hikari. "Come on."
Moving through the security stations with the head of security was surprisingly easy. Hikari only had to look up, pull back the lock of hair she wore over her artificial eye, and the gates raised to admit her. Kensuke quickly lost track of where he was- the interior of the pyramid was twisty and turny, and the constant color shifting of the flying glass over his head distracted him. It became easier when they came to an elevator. Hikari hit the button and they rode a few levels down, and she walked him to a rather plain looking door.
"Wait here," said Hikari. "Good luck."
Kensuke swallowed. He felt like he'd been waiting forever by the time the door slid open and a soft voice said, "Come in."
Kensuke edged into the office. It was dark, and the entire back wall was covered in computer equipment, monitors, keyboards, and the like. The occupant was turned away in a high backed chair. Kensuke edged forward and jumped when the door slid shut behind him. There was a guest chair in front of the plain black desk that sat in the middle of the room. The chair spun around, revealing a slight young woman who looked far too young to have a doctorate, dressed in a simple green dress and a white lab coat. Her nametag said R. Ikari.
Kensuke adjusted his glasses, and before he realized it, he was staring at her. She looked so familiar.
"Do you know a Shinji Ikari?"
"Of course I know him. He's my brother."
"I didn't know he had a sister," said Kensuke.
"Neither did he, for a time," she said, smiling softly to herself.
Kensuke blinked. She looked very familiar. Her hair was down past her shoulders, a mousy chestnut color, neatly cut, and her eyes were a piercing green, like two chips of emerald, lively and excited, like everything she saw was new. He was sure he'd never seen her before, but there was something about the curve of her jaw, the shape of her nose, that was so familiar, and her lips especially. Kensuke swallowed.
He looked at her nametag again.
"Rei?" he said, quietly.
"Hello, Kensuke," she smiled. "Welcome to the program."
Rei pulled up her hood, and she walked among human beings. Throughout her life, she'd had a select, limited company. Her every movement was monitored, her every position tracked. By the time she was of age, everyone was already used to her unusual appearance and mannerisms, and either ignored her or gawked at her. In all that time, she had never gone to an unfamiliar place, as she did today, and simply walked among people who had never seen her before. She did get a few looks as she walked through the crowd with her hands in her pockets, but it was not like before. It was mostly younger men and boys looking, though a few older ones, too.
After a while, she put her hood down.
When absolutely nothing of consequence happened, she kept walking, smiling softly at the feeling of the breeze in her hair. She'd stopped cutting it, and it now reached her shoulders, long enough for the wind to play with it. She had to slow as the crowd grew denser, weaving and ducking between other people who seemed to pay her very little attention. She stopped when she saw something from the corner of her eye, a reflection in a shop window.
A yellow figure was mixed in with the crowd. People flowed around it, moving away from it without seeming to know why. She turned her head slightly while pretending to look at her telephone, and saw the crowd moving around an empty spot on the sidewalk. She turned back to the window in time to see the apparition moving away. Quickly, she turned, pulled her hood up, and followed, watching for the strange dead spot in the crowd. She kept glancing at the windows around her, spotting flashes of yellow. She quickly realized there were more of them. From the eddies in the crowd, it quickly became clear there were three such anomalies.
She followed them and watched them draw nearer to one another, until there was a single empty space in the throng of people, edging slowly towards an alleyway. She moved closer, nearly stepping into the eddy, until it moved into the alley itself. Rei darted in after it, and found himself confronted by three nebulous yellow shapes, somwehre between the color of sulfur and polished gold, flickering in and out of visibility. All that remained constant was their black eyes.
"Time is short," said the first figure.
"You are not the one who opened the way," said the second figure.
"You must carry the warning," said the third.
"What warning?" said Rei.
"Gather all your strength. He is coming."
From there, she caught only snippets. "Entire multiverse in danger… worldlines collapsing… ideological instability… must not reach… core world…"
She blinked, and the three shapes vanished.
Rei pulled out her phone and tapped the dial button. "Akagi," she said, "We must speak."
Shinji's heart was pounding as he circled their little kitchen table, arms folded behind his back. His throat was dry and he had to stop and remember to breathe. The box sat there, waiting as Asuka showered. He listened for the fall of the water to stop, then forced himself to stand still as she walked out of the bathroom, one towel threaded around her body while another held her hair in a ball above her head. She looked at the box.
"What's that?" she said.
Her eyes narrowed. "Why is it lined with lead?"
"Happy birthday," said Shinji.
"I told you not to get me anything."
"It's really great," said Shinji. "I promise."
She pulled the towel from her head and let her wet tresses drape around her shoulders. She picked up the box, turned it around, and then sank her fingers into it, probing the inside, before she pulled it in half. In either hand, she held a pair of curious masks, made of transparent, soft plastic. In each mask was embedded a small gray square that ran a wire to an ear bud. Asuka stared at them.
"What are these?"
"Put it on," he said, taking his mask from her hand. He pulled his on to show her.
When she had it on, like a dust mask with the wire running to her ear, she said "What's this for?"
Her voice doubled in his ear. "I'll show you."
She jumped at the sound.
She gave him a look and went off to the dresser to change. She stood behind a screen while she pulled on a tight black t-shirt and jeans, folding her wet hair behind her head as she walked out and slipped the mask back on. Shinji quietly waited for her to join him.
"Now," he said, "Let's see if you can catch me."
She grinned, but he was already through the open window, rocketing straight up. Asuka leapt out after him, spiraling in a wild, ecstatic corkscrew through the air as she chased after him. He had a head start on her both in the race and in the development of his powers, so keeping ahead of her was easy. He pushed straight up, higher and higher, just slow enough that she could almost reach him. The air thinned around him.
"Hey," her voice crackled in his ear, distorted by the whistling air. "I've never gone this high before."
"Okay," he said as the sky turned to dark despite the day, "You got me."
She slid up around him, touching her lips to his. He turned her in a slow circle, looking over her shoulder at the world turning beneath him. "Now," he said, "turn around."
She blinked and did as she was asked, pressing her back to him. He put one arm around her waist and then gently cupped his fingers over her eyes. She smiled wickedly. "Oh, this better be good."
"Oh," he said, "It is."
She yelped in terror and exultation as he took off at full speed. The world around him seemed to drag, and even Asuka herself seemed to slow down. He carried her through the airless void and jogged to a stop, the super hot gray dust under his feet tickling his toes. He'd gone barefoot, to avoid melting his shoes.
He uncovered Asuka's eyes, and they widened in shock. She pushed away from him and almost fell, her bod moving lazily in the low gravity. She spun around in confusion, then looked up at the tiny blue marble of the Earth peeking up over the horizon. She stood staring, slack-jawed, until he embraced her from behind.
"Mein Gott," she whispered.
Earth hung in the void, tiny and round and perfect, ever changing. He could see it all- the glaze of the aurora on the ionosphere as the solar wind curled around her, the shifting infrared tapestry of the great atmospheric heat exchange and ocean currents, the luminous halo of the ultraviolet radiation reflecting from the surface around he equator, and for the first time in his life, he knew someone else could see it, too.
Tears slid down her cheek, unbidden. "It's beautiful," she murmured. "The colors."
"It's the second most beautiful thing I've ever seen."
"What's the first?" she said, leaning on his shoulder.
"Do I have to say it?"
"Yes," she sighed.
"This is a great present."
Shinji grinned under his mask. "This isn't the present. This is the setup."
He pulled the smaller box from his back pocket and unfolded it in front of her. "This is the present."
She snatched it from his hand, holding the ring in front of her eyes. "What is this?"
He touched the stones. "Rubies, emeralds, sapphires, and a crystalline form of a new element I helped synthesize."
"I mean, what is it for?"
She turned around until she was facing him, still in his arms, holding the ring between them, staring at it. She did nothing but breath for a while, blinking away tears.
"It's an engagement ring," said Shinji.
Asuka stared at him in dull shock for just a moment, until her face lit up in a brilliant smile that could have drowned out the sun. She crushed herself into him, so hard it almost hurt.
"Yes," she said, finally, her voice high and tight. "I'm so glad you asked before I told you."
He stood up. "Told me what? Is everything okay?"
She smiled enigmatically. "Well," she said, "it turns out you're not going to be the last child of Krypton, after all."
Shinji's jaw dropped. He picked her up by the waist and spun her with an ecstatic cry as she slipped her arms around his neck. He sat her down and pulled down his mask, and she pulled down hers, and with the Earth rising in the background, that little blue mote in the void that had seen so much struggle and strife, he kissed her, and it was a very good kiss indeed.
When it was over, there was a very brief pause, as there were many more to follow. During that short space between moments of passion, he looked over her shoulder, and looked out at a very special angle, an angle that only he could see...
Where he sees us…
You have been reading
LAST CHILD of KRYPTON
NEON GENESIS EVANGELION was created by HIDEAKI ANNO and STUDIO GAINAX with character designs by YOSHIYUKI SADOMOTO
The appropriation of Anno et. al.' s universe and themes in Last Child of Krypton is intended with the utmost respect.
SUPERMAN was created by JERRY SIEGEL and JOE SCHUSTER
BRAINIAC was created by OTTO BINDER and AL PLASTINO
BATMAN was created by BOB KANE and BILL FINGER
The character of Superman, throughout his 74 year publication history, has undergone a number of revisions, reboots, reinterpretations, rebirths, and yet has always reminded us that deep down, what we all really want is to be a hero. The depiction of the Superman character in Last Child of Krypton does not exist in a vacuum, but owes itself to the works of GRANT MORRISON, MARK WAID, ALEX ROSS, PAUL DINI, and BRUCE TIMM.
It is through their work that some part of me will always be eleven, and believe a man can fly.
Still with me? Good.
When Shinji arrived at the first secure door to the labs, Ritsuko was already standing there waiting for him. He looked more haggard than he'd seen in years, almost like she used to in the old days that now seemed to distant, a memory buried under the gleaming magnificence of the Institute and Neo Tokyo. In fact, if it weren't for the long dark hair she had tied in a loose ponytail that was draped over her shoulder, he could have seen her just the same back in her old lab. The only thing missing was the cigarette.
"Ritsuko?" he said, rushing to her side. "What's wrong?"
"We can't talk here," she said, her voice low. "You need to see this yourself."
He was surprised by the lengths she was taking. She led him through the building and the above-ground facilities, down into the secure labs, and finally even deeper, down the elevator to the old cloning lab and Shinji's own private laboratory, what Asuka had jokingly nicknamed "The Fortress of Solitude", the name she'd given to his bedroom in the old apartment, so long ago.
"What's wrong?" he said.
Ritsuko was shaking visibly as she walked with him into the Terminal elevator. She didn't say anything, but hit the switch. When it reached the bottom, she shied to the back of the tiny space and hugged herself.
"I'm sorry, I can't. Kaji is with him."
Shinji touched her shoulder. "I don't understand."
"You will," she said, "Please. Go."
He blinked, and headed down the tunnel. Kaji was standing at the end of the tunnel, waiting for him. He had his cowl thrown back over his head but was in the full suit. If he'd pulled the mask over his face he would have disappeared, blended into the darkness and made it part of himself. His cloak swayed around him as he walked.
"We picked him up about two hours ago," said Kaji. "I brought him here. I thought it was best to keep him out of sight."
Shinji nodded. There was a figure sitting near Kaji's equipment on a simple folding chair. He wore a ragged black suit that was more gray than black, and long scraggly hair and a thick beard obscured his features. Kaji stopped and let Shinji cross the rest of the distance himself.
He froze. "It can't be. You're dead."
His father looked up at him. "Of course I am. I usually am. We have a poor survival rate."
"What are you talking about?"
"I'm not your father, boy. I'm his father. I've come to warn you. He's coming."
"Who's coming?" said Shinji.
Gendo looked him in the eye, and Shinji saw madness in him. His eyes were bloodshot and his lips dry, and he was as pale as a ghost. He smelled, and his hair was a rat's nest of tangles, dirt, and dust. He smirked quietly to himself, and then began sobbing.
The adventures of the Last Child of Krypton will continue in…
The CRISIS of INFINITE SHINJIs