Billions of years ago, the galaxy was lifeless and inert, save for one world, the home of the First Ones. They had the curious intellect of men and the unrivaled power of Angels, yet when calamity befell their world, they were helpless to stave off a slow, agonizing death. Instead, to preserve some remnant their kind, they created "Seeds of Life" to go about the galaxy. The First Ones harvested their own essences to serve as the raw material for this task, to imbue the Seeds and their progeny with the souls of all their kind. When the First Ones went extinct, the Seeds understood they were the last traces of a dying race, the only beings capable of promulgating their history, their legacy.
Seven Seeds of Life were sent into the cosmos. Two of them landed on Earth, and their story has already been told. As for the other five, what became of them is a mystery, for few outside the cloistered circles of Seele even knew of the others at all, but they are out there, and they are watching. No human can fathom what judgment they have passed on their sister Lilith's children, but soon, they will make their intentions known, and man will have to choose whether to embrace their judgment…
Or to resist it.
In the Year of Our Lord
Two Thousand Forty-eight
The greatest downside of merging with the minds of all humanity and separating from them by choice was that everyone who came after you knew your face and your name.
"You're that boy…."
Invariably, he was that boy. Twenty years in the future, he would still be that boy, even as a grown man. What was worse, this idiosyncrasy of Instrumentality seemed to work only against him, never for him. Passing other people on the street, he might recognize something familiar in a smile, a lock of hair, a laugh, but the names and faces of every human being on the planet blended together and eluded him. They were too many for any one man to remember, yet everyone else knew him. They knew him right away, for he was the first, the one who inspired others to follow.
It was an honor, in a sense, yet also an uncomfortable burden, never having anonymity wherever he went.
"You really are! You're that boy, aren't you?"
Sheepishly, he nodded. It was all he could do after a half-day spent traveling. When a fellow passenger had spotted him, he was obliged to entertain a whole traincar with tales of the battles between Eva and Angels. Only some fell for the grandiosity of his descriptions. Others nodded politely, knowing that the truth was much darker than the brave depiction he shared with them. Perhaps he should've tried a different story, one people hadn't learned from collective memory, but at that point, tales of Eva had become well-rehearsed to him. Even the embellishments he added—about the Fifth Angel blasting through half of Mount Futago to get to him—came to him as surely as if they were fact.
From the train station, he'd taken a taxi, wishing to avoid undue attention. The driver knew his face, of course, but unlike most others, the cabbie focused his questions on life after Impact, not before. "When you left, what was it like? Desolate everywhere? Fragments of the Giant's body all over? A red sea lapping at your feet?"
"Something like that, yeah."
"So it is, then." The cabbie tapped a hand on the steering wheel. "In two years, from abject desolation to civilization. Hardly seemed possible back then."
It isn't possible. Not for humans, anyway.
And so, the taxi came up to a house by the sea. The coast was rocky, awash with jagged black stone. The red mist from the waves put a foul, bloody taint in the air—even with the windows up, the smell was palpable.
"If you don't mind me asking," said the boy, "why did you come back, sir?"
"Are you going to label me a damned cultist if I tell the truth?"
The boy shook his head. "Not at all. Actually, that answers my question already."
"It's a strange world we live in these days."
The boy nodded. The cabbie was quite right about that.
Leaving the taxi, the boy fished through the leather bag on his shoulder and tossed a handful of bills at the cabbie, not bothering to count them. When the driver called out, asking to give back the change, the boy waved him off, and the cab sped away. He stepped down a path to a dark brown, wooden two-story house. A man with gray tufts of hair around his ears waited for the boy at the door, and that's when the glimmer of recognition shone in the stranger's eyes. "You're that boy," he said. "You really are; you're that boy, aren't you?"
Yes, he was that boy. He'd learned quite quickly not to deny it. "That's right," he answered, bowing. "I'm very sorry for your loss, Nakamura-san."
"I appreciate the sentiment," said Nakamura. "Please, come in."
The boy stepped inside, marveling at the decor. The carpeting was a light, creamy color, yet it showed no signs of wear, totally spotless and pristine.
"Yes, my wife insisted on the carpet," Nakamura explained, leading him through a white-walled hallway. "She was quite obsessive about it and cleaned or bleached every last stain as soon as one appeared."
"Ah, so your wife—is she the one…?"
"Yes, that's right. She's the reason you're here." He huffed to himself. "To think I'd be walking this hall with you, of all people! You manage to keep your identity hidden pretty well. An anonymous post box, an untraceable phone?"
"I enjoy my privacy," said the boy.
"As you should; you deserve it. Someone looking for her—it would have to be you. Can't believe I didn't figure it out sooner."
The boy opened his mouth but said nothing. All in all, it was for the best. He was looking for someone lost in this calamitous world, and people like Nakamura volunteered their stories, their information to him when he asked for it. The anonymity of bulletin boards and chat rooms protected him, impersonal though it may have been.
The two of them walked on. Family photos adorned the walls. Nakamura and his wife on vacation in old Tōkyō, posing by a tower the boy had never known. Another photo showed Nakamura slaving over a workbench, building circuitry with a soldering iron while a young girl—no older than ten, in the boy's judgment—watched from a safe distance.
"Yes, my daughter." Nakamura straighted the golden picture frame. "She passed on a few months after this photo was taken, about six years ago?"
The boy frowned.
"Pardon me," said Nakamura, shaking his head. "Thirty-six years ago. Time—it confuses me."
The boy nodded. "What happened to her?"
"Terminal illness. She was never in the sea, either."
"I see. I'm sorry for asking."
"It is what it is. Really, this is all I could've asked for. When I came back to this house after the Impact, I hardly expected any of it would be left, but here it is—it's perfect, untouched. It's like I never left. Hardly a speck of dust collected anywhere. Do you know what the odds of that are?"
At least a few billion to one. "Is there some place we can sit and talk?" asked the boy. "I'm afraid I do have to catch the train home at two-thirty."
"Of course. Please, let's go downstairs." Nakamura opened a door, leading down to a basement. Shelves lined each wall, housing electronic equipment, computer parts, and unfinished circuit boards. Nakamura sat at his workbench, putting aside a voltage meter, and offered the boy a stool beside him. From the leather bag, the boy took out an SDAT tape player and a folding microphone with a stand. He connected the input jack and set up the microphone on the workbench, halfway between him and Nakamura.
"Nakamura-san, are you sure this is a story you want to tell?" asked the boy.
"It's the truth, and it needs to be heard. That's what I've decided. My wife has convinced me of it."
The boy nodded, bowing before his benefactor. "Thank you, again." He hit the rewind button on the player, but it clicked instantly. Pressing record, he cleared his throat and began. "It's July 21, 2048, or Year 33 After Impact. I'm with Nakamura Daisuke, an electrical engineer. We're talking in his home in Toyama. It's roughly eleven-thirty. Please, Nakamura-san, you may begin whenever you like."
Nakamura drummed his fingers on the holed cardboard covering of his workbench. "In the time since my daughter died, my wife and I grew apart. She devoted herself to cleaning the house over and over, several times each day. She'd complain about our child running through the house, treading specks of dirt in impossible places—impossible, of course, because our daughter had long since died.
"For my part, I'd been working on robotics. I hoped, perhaps only slightly, that I could rebuild her somehow, as if I knew a damn thing about programming an artificial intelligence, as if it would even be right to try to recreate a person's mind that way and to give them a metal body. Grief does funny things to you."
"It sounds natural to me," said the boy.
"Don't kid yourself. It wasn't natural. Rebuilding a child out of machine parts never ends well. Haven't you ever read any science fiction?"
The boy sniffed at the scent of blood in the air.
"Right, well, where was I? Ah yes, I remember that day. With my wife upstairs, I was building a robotic arm. I couldn't tell you how long I'd been working on it. Ten hours? Twenty? A hundred? It's amazing how, if you put your mind to it, you don't need to see the sunlight. You don't need to sleep. I'd been fired a month before, so I had nothing else to do. I contacted professors in metaphysical biology, hoping to somehow imbue a hunk of metal with my daughter's soul. One of them was crazy enough to say it could work. The others said I was the crazy one, that I needed a shrink. I don't know which possibility was worse.
"So as I slaved over my daughter's robot body, I was surprised to find someone else down here, in this basement. I didn't expect guests or visitors, but I heard a voice clearly. It said, 'Papa.' That's what my daughter called me. I looked to the staircase. There she was—angelic and beautiful and alive. She walked toward me, and I knew something was wrong. It didn't make sense. Never mind that she shouldn't have been alive; in the months before she died, she needed a wheelchair to get around, but I didn't care. Every step she took toward the bench pulled at me, like there were happiness and joy waiting if I would just embrace her. And you know something? That feeling was right. Maybe it wasn't happiness per se, or joy either, but relief? Yes, there was relief, even though she was fake."
"That's what most people say," the boy agreed. "It was a relief."
Nakamura nodded. "I don't remember much in the time right after that. It's all jumbled and blurry. I know your face. I know you were there. Others, like my neighbors, my wife's family, my own, sure. Everything else is too indistinct until we separated again. Instead of one among many, I was myself again. To be honest, I don't know if I felt or thought anything at that point, not until something tried to reach me. It spoke with my daughter's voice, but I wouldn't be fooled again, dammit! That's insulting, humiliating, and I would have nothing of it. I lashed out, telling it so, and, it stopped trying to fool me. It spoke with a girl's voice, quietly, like a whisper. It was no voice I knew. It asked me why I was still there, in the sea, and I told it I didn't know. I didn't see the harm. There were others in the sea, and I could feel them, if not so keenly as I had before. My wife was there, too, but though I knew it, I couldn't feel anything from her. I didn't know where her pain ended and mine began, but I began to think it was better to share these emotions and not have to deal with them on my own. My daughter wouldn't come back to me if I summoned the will to pull away, so why try? What good would it do for her? Then the voice started to argue with me. It said,
" 'Your daughter is dead. She can't see what you're doing. She can't know how you sleep here, in the sea. Staying or going makes no difference to her, so why should her existence determine what you do? If life isn't worth living without her, why do you choose to live at all? '
"And I thought about that for a while. I tried to defend myself, to say it was natural, that I was still grieving, and whatever that voice was, it had no right to judge me, but then I realized I wasn't being judged. The voice wouldn't come back to argue with me. It had said its piece, and it only hoped I would listen and think. And it was right about one thing—my life wasn't defined only by people who'd gone before me. I could still make something new and be proud of it. That's when I felt myself floating and came up in the sea. My wife came out, too, hours after me. We decided together to try to rebuild our lives. We both heard that voice speak to us. We both thought to thank it for trying to help us move on."
Nakamura looked away, rubbing his eyes. He took a deep breath to collect himself before continuing. "My wife is dead now. That resolve we gained two years ago to step out of the water and reclaim this house from the elements didn't last. Not for her, anyway. Though I encouraged her as much as I could, each passing week took its toll on her. She began to think there were voices talking to her, putting words in her mind soundlessly, like characters on flashcards. She tried to volunteer at the school down the road, but they became too much for her. One day, she walked into the ocean and made it three hundred meters from shore before I realized she'd gone. I found, in one of her letters, that she thought they told her to return there, that she'd find our daughter there, along with solace and comfort and peace."
The boy pursed his lips, unsure what to say.
"But regardless," said Nakamura with a shudder, "I wanted to tell the world, and all the people who feel like they're losing hope, that something did speak to us, encouraging us to come back to this world. Maybe it took the form of a loved one or friend, an image we'd find comforting, but that doesn't change what really happened, and I want no one to forget the hope they felt when they came out of the water. No one else should try to go back in."
A moment of silence passed between the boy and Nakamura until at last the boy regained his wits and cleared his throat. "Um, um, you didn't recognize the voice, you said, right?" asked the boy. "The one that convinced you to leave the ocean?"
"No, never have. But I remember, as I wiped the water from my eyes and swam to shore, I saw someone standing over the ocean. Not on the shore, but actually over the water, hovering above it. I couldn't see her eyes, and when a wave came over me and turned me around, she was gone. I could never be sure, but I've felt for some time that was the image of whatever thing had spoken to me in the ocean. I'd stake my life on it."
The boy pulled out a drawing from his bag—a pencil sketch on plain white paper. "Is this her?"
"Boy, I know who she is. Couldn't you take a photo of the petrified skull or something?"
He shook his head. "That wouldn't be a photo of her."
Nakamura frowned. He studied the drawing and nodded after a short time. "Yes, that's her. Almost looks human when you look at her that way."
Fingering a button on the SDAT, the boy frowned. "Yes, well, thank you so much, Nakamura-san. This has been very helpful. And I'm sorry again, about your wife. I wish I could've done something, if I'd been able to get a message like this one out sooner…"
"Don't concern yourself over it. Why don't you come upstairs? I can get you something to eat. Should be plenty of time before your train."
"That's all right," said the boy. "I've got some things to think about." Staring at the drawing, he wandered up the stairs and out of the house, and thankfully, Nakamura was kind enough to call a new taxi for him to get him back to the station.
You've been helping people, haven't you? Making them realize they have something they can do with their lives, bringing them out of the sea: not just me, but strangers too, like Nakamura-san, the taxi driver. Are you so busy reaching people in the oceans that you have no time for anything else? No time to live like you did before? Or maybe you can't?
Gently, he folded up the drawing—an image of a girl sitting at the side of a hospital bed, reading from a book and guarding a tray of food. Though the picture was monochrome, he looked into the girl's eyes intently, as if he could glimpse from the penciled shading a distinct, vibrant red hue.
Where are you, Ayanami? What are you doing now?
As the train back to Tōkyō-2 passed through a tunnel, Ikari Shinji glimpsed his own reflection in the window and realized the last two years had done him some favors. His body had matured. He was taller. His face had taken on a sharper, more adult shape, mostly in the cheeks. He felt under his lower lip for a hint of stubble. When unshaven, his image reminded him of his father—at least, of what he could remember of Gendō's younger days.
And it wasn't like the old commander could be found to tell him differently.
Shinji ran a finger along the metal of the traincar wall. It was a smooth, polished surface, free of scratches and devoid of rust. It shouldn't have been possible. It shouldn't have been so pristine, but it was. This Shinji knew absolutely, for though he was the first of mankind to emerge from the LCL sea, it took him over thirty years of dreaming to do it. In that time, humanity's great works—the evidence of civilization—should've decayed. Grasses should've poked through the cracks in asphalt. Railways, like the one he rode on, should've become impassable and overgrown, but as more people reasserted their individuality, what they found was a world suspended in time. Power plants had continued to run unabated. Food stores years past their expiration date stayed fresh and safe to eat. Without such impossible marvels, humanity surely would've descended into abject chaos and madness. Instead, civilization quickly picked up where it'd left off, and in two short years, the trains were running once more, but that left one significant question:
Or, better yet, who was responsible?
The answer was clear to Shinji. It was the answer he'd been searching to prove on and off for at least twenty months. Word of his quest had become rumor and the fodder for ridicule, yes, but Nakamura had heard about it and had the story to back up his claims—nay, what Shinji knew to be true as soon as he realized how impossible the world had become.
Ayanami Rei was alive.
Though her severed, petrified head still marred the beach where he'd emerged from the ocean, she was undoubtedly alive. She touched the minds of men and encouraged them to realize their individuality, to walk from the waves of LCL and back onto land once again. To ease the transition back to living, she preserved human civilization. She protected technology and foodstuffs from the weathering effects of time. Such feats we well within her powers, for Rei was hardly the stoic, bandaged girl he'd met years before.
She was Lilith—an Angel, or something like one.
No, no. Ayanami is Ayanami, whatever else she may be. When she spoke to me, she did so with the face of a friend, not an alien's face, not something foreign and unknown and unfathomable. Lilith is the name of a creature, something that isn't from this world. That's not Ayanami at all.
But in that respect, Shinji was largely alone in thinking so.
Instinctively, Shinji looked toward the voice in the aisle but tried to avert his gaze as soon as he could manage it. He pulled on the hood of his green sweatshirt, hoping to hide his face, yet if someone had spoken to him, his efforts to conceal his identity must've been for naught. "Yes?" he asked. "What is it?"
"I'm sorry, sir, I know you don't like to be approached." The voice belonged to a girl, teenaged, with bright green eyes and curling locks of blonde hair. "It's just—I recognized you as I was going to the toilet, and, um…" She turned her hand toward him, palm forward. On her third finger, there was a ring with the jewel facing in. It had a diamond shape, taller than it was wide, with the right half wholly dark and the left largely white, save for a black void in the upper quarter. It too was diamond in shape, but set sideways, and placed to evoke the image of an eye.
This design Shinji knew well. It mimicked the look of Rei's petrified head after half of her broken face slid into the water, never to be seen again.
It was the emblem of the Cult of Lilith.
"You can sit," said Shinji, patting the empty seat beside him, "but please don't speak too loudly."
"I understand completely," said the cultist girl, stepping in from the aisle. "Archon Juniper says you don't like to be approached by strangers. I'm sorry again."
"It's not being approached," Shinji assured her. "It's the attention. And tell the archon I know some things about her, too."
"Good. Now, er, what was it you wanted to ask me?"
The cultist blinked. "Oh, um…my, you'd think I'd know by now what I wanted to ask. I can't remember…"
Shinji laughed to himself. This movement of believers in the all-knowing, benevolent Lilith might be better called an order or church. No doubt others fearful of their hold had labeled them a cult, and the name was just too ingrained by that point to change it.
"Well, let's start with what she was like," the cultist concluded. "You knew Lilith when she walked the earth with mortals. You were her favorite. There must be something interesting you can tell me."
"First of all," said Shinji, "to me, she was always Ayanami. Second, I was never her favorite. Third, our lives were interesting, yes, but Ayanami kept to herself most of the time. She was in sad circumstances. It's better that she's free of them now, that she's helping people on her own terms."
"So you do believe in Lilith—that she exercises her will in the world each and every day."
"I absolutely do."
"Then why don't you join us? Your insight into her life would be truly enlightening."
Shinji shook his head. "I could tell those stories, yes, but I couldn't join your cult and worship Ayanami anymore than I could pray to my father or my girlfriend. She was a dear friend to me. I can't see her as anything else."
The cultist nodded to herself, pondering his words. "I see…."
They talked politely for the rest of the ride to Tōkyō-2, with Shinji trying to steer the conversation away from "matters of faith" as best he could. The cultist's name was Masuyo, and she'd been running an errand for one of the archons in the capital. Popular stigma had it that the cultists were deluded, radicalized after their experiences in the LCL sea, but Shinji knew that not to be so. He had friends in the movement—a particular archon among them—and though there were some desperate, fanatical people in their midst, most that he'd met were well-adjusted, well-meaning people, this Masuyo included. Her only flaw—like some others in the cult he'd met, but not all of them—was her insistence on seeing everything in terms of "Lilith's" benevolence. Delaying a train five minutes because it had a malfunction on the tracks, for instance, so one tardy passenger could make his ride. Most people would call it good fortune or luck, but to Masuyo, it was the will of Lilith manifest. To that, Shinji could only politely smile and resist the urge to shake his head. The thought of Rei acting so like a god he'd wrestled with many times over the past two years, and not once had he come to embrace it. He could scarcely understand the idea at all.
When the train pulled into their destination, the two cordially parted ways. "It was very nice meeting you, Ikari-san," said Masuyo. "Perhaps you could join us for a service at Kakō tomorrow?"
Shinji made a face. "I'm sorry; I don't like to go to Kakō, or the ocean in general. The smell of blood—I don't care for it. Never have. Going to Toyama was hard enough."
"Did you find what you were looking for, at least?"
"Yes." Shinji smiled. "Yes, I did, for now anyway. Thank you."
The cultist Masuyo beamed. "May Lilith watch over you. I know she has and will."
Shinji smiled again as the young cultist disappeared in the crowd at the station. Though he didn't share her capacity for worship and faith, he believed in her blessing—that just as he looked over the ocean one lonely day and saw the image of a schoolgirl floating over the water, all he had to do was turn around, and maybe, just maybe, he'd glimpse her looking back at him one more time.
Abruptly, he glanced over his shoulder, and by a bench in the distance, he glimpsed a janitor collecting an empty paper cup.
Straight away, Shinji returned to his apartment, a penthouse in a high-rise of the old Matsumoto district, before the city was converted into a replacement capital. On his back, he carried a small sack of letters—the day's mail, or at least what'd made it through screeners and tests to ensure the contents were safe. That process in itself cut the volume of mail in half. Shinji didn't know how other people of some fame (or infamy) dealt with the influx of messages, or the vast numbers of people hoping to communicate with them in some way. "They throw it all away, of course," his roommate had said once. "They pay people to read it all and send meaningless responses. No one would read through every single letter like you. No one else has the patience."
She was right, of course. Shinji doubted there were many who had the time or inclination to read through strings of expletives damning him. Many a letter cursed him for abandoning paradise and condemning all humanity—whether people chose it or not—to live isolated lives, separated by the AT fields that enclosed their souls. In the minds of some angry, restless citizens, the departure of just one mind from the sea created a barrier and asserted individuality and incompleteness whether they wanted it or not. Shinji understood their feelings, having wanted nothingness once himself, but to the last man, he encouraged them all to search for some purpose in life, something they could make their own. Even if that purpose was encouraging others to return to the sea, a goal and drive were better than nothing at all.
This day, however, picking up the mail was force of habit more than anything. While he would doubtlessly find time to peruse his letters, they'd have to wait for later in the evening. Nakamura's story had given him a lot to think about, but more importantly, he had dinner to prepare. That too was one of his daily distractions, the ways in which he passed the time. Though civilization had resurrected itself, society hadn't been so quick to rebound. For every teacher and peace officer who chose to stay in the sea, the need for a replacement had to be assessed. School districts shuffled students between half-empty buildings. Though he'd attended classes for a while, picking up where his education had stalled, recognition of his face made it impossible for Shinji to continue as a normal student. Even with Tōji and Kensuke's support, Shinji dropped out and only saw them on weekends from time to time. The prospect of a private tutor he also rejected, not willing to endure that kind of environment again. It would be little better than total isolation, and he wouldn't fool himself into thinking otherwise.
So looking for evidence of Rei, reading letters and responding to them, cooking meals—these were the things Ikari Shinji did with his time. That wasn't to say he hadn't tried other pursuits. Uncertain of his skills in most fields, Shinji'd thought cooking meals would bring him peace. He'd volunteered at a nearby refugee shelter for a time, mastering the menu in less than a week. Shutting himself in the kitchen, he didn't have to deal with the pressure of being recognized outside of his coworkers in the galley, and the staff could pass along messages of gratitude from the people he fed.
But for all his efforts on the stove, Shinji could do only so much for the many hundreds of displaced souls that frequented just his shelter alone. So many had come from the ocean with nothing but the clothes they imagined themselves in. Though abandoned buildings and houses provided plenty of shelter, so many had lost much more than just their homes. What does a man do when his depressed wife refuses to come back from the sea? If he had baked bread for a village that could no longer grow enough grain, what was he to bake instead? Though many had found ways to cope, adopting new pursuits and vocations, the rest meandered through the new world, looking for new direction, new purpose, and found all avenues closed to them.
With every day, the aimless masses grew more numerous, and what Shinji saw in them—the desperation in their jaded, sullen eyes—convinced him to act. He approached politicians, bureaucrats, and officials at all levels of government, but their excuses were all the same: you can't make people work if they don't want to. You can't create jobs out of nothing. As long as rations and frozen foods were good enough, as long as the empty skyscrapers hadn't fallen into disrepair, these people had no real shortages or needs. What more did they want their government to do for them?
Shinji wouldn't leave the matter there, though. He spoke out. Where television failed to reach people, he went on radio and told the story of what he'd seen. Mankind hadn't come back from total dissolution for people to drift with the currents of civilization listlessly. He told the world and everyone who'd listen—mankind needed to wake up and make an effort to change. And what did he get for that?
A gunman who barged into the shelter's kitchen with a pistol, who got five shots off as Shinji and his fellow volunteers ducked behind stoves, holding metal trays before their bodies as improvised armor.
"You have the gall to decide for humanity that we should live alone in this painful world?" he cried, firing a shot that ricocheted off the interior wall. "You coward! You're no better than your father, Ikari! At least his way, we would've known no isolation, no fear!"
The gunman rounded a corner, unloading three shots at a female volunteer. The bullets dented her round serving tray, and she dashed for the exit door, screaming for her life.
"That's right, Ikari," said the gunman. "I know you're here! I feel your fear pulling at me, tugging at my heart. Weaker men who accept your crime might resist it, but I don't!"
He peered around a cream-colored locker, and there, Shinji crouched in a corner, unable to fit entirely behind a large pot.
"Now you die, the way you should've thirty years ago." He leveled the pistol, taking aim.
And his heard jerked away, reacting to something invisible, inaudible. His eyes widened; his face twisted in recognition…and horror.
"Lilith?" he whispered.
Lilith? thought Shinji. Ayanami?
The gunman fired across the room, at an angle out of Shinji's sight, and the rest of the staff whimpered in fright. The gunman frowned, displeased with his shot, and looked to Shinji once more.
"No matter. Your so-called god can't protect you, Ikari."
The gunman pulled on the trigger repeatedly, but the slide disengaged from the rest of the frame, and metal scraped against metal in a gesture of total impotence. The shooter turned the weapon to the side, starting at it in disbelief.
And a cadre of peace officers tackled him, shoving his body to the wall and kicking the gun away. The shooter would've succeeded in assassinating Shinji if he hadn't wasted his last shot on air. That was the official report, yet Shinji thought differently. Something had distracted the man before he could pull the trigger the tenth time—something no one else in the room heard or saw.
Even the gunman denied it afterwards, refusing to admit the possibility that "a false god had appeared to him to save her prophet." He called his error a mistake in judgment nothing more, but Shinji refused to believe him or to be deterred. In walking from the ocean, Shinji'd made a choice for himself; that was all. That others felt compelled to follow or isolated for being separated from even just him, that wasn't anything that'd crossed his mind. The genie couldn't be put back in the bottle; even if he went back to the sea, and he had no desire to do that, others would stay behind. There was no use in being so angry about it—that was the only way he could see the issue. Having read thousands of letters from the angry and dispirited hadn't changed his view.
But coming to the shelter the next day and finding it half-empty, abandoned as word of his presence there had spread, convinced him of something far more profound: to those who'd emerged from the sea, only to encounter a world without greater meaning and promise, no amount of pragmatism and reason would change their feelings. They needed hope and weren't getting it, so they found someone to blame instead.
Shinji hadn't been back to the shelter after that.
Since then, Shinji had spent his time how he pleased. He wasn't prone to extravagances, though the high-rise penthouse did give him privacy and seclusion. He read letters. He practiced cello. Mostly, he kept on the trail of Rei—questioning officials, investigating sightings, and collecting stories of her appearances both before and after Third Impact. As far as he'd known, no one had seen her in the real world since he'd made it to shore that first day—at least, not until Nakamura told him otherwise. Really, the engineer's tale had only confirmed what he already knew: Rei was watching and helping people out of the ocean, and not just in the circle of people he knew. In the same way she'd appeared to people from far and wide to beckon them to Instrumentality, she'd reminded them what good it was to assert their individuality and live again. If people could only remember that, maybe no one would write him angry letters.
For the moment, however, Shinji cooked. He couldn't bring himself to use meat when it was scarce compared to prepackaged rations, so he crafted a meal from tofu, carrots, onions, and mushrooms. It was more of a boxed lunch than a true dinner in style, but the meal had to be portable, for at six o'clock that evening, he was going to make a delivery.
Though the artifacts of human civilization had been preserved through the decades, the men who'd built such marvels were much scarcer than before. Counting heads across the world was no easy task. Though some of the industrialized nations, including Japan, had emerged from the sea peacefully, in other parts of the world, the first people to awaken laid claim to the lands and homes of their enemies. Southeast Asia was a hotspot, just as it had been after the Second Impact. Central America, the Middle East, the Balkans—even the so-called First World nations were in strife, if of a different sort. News of Canadian and Spanish ships trading fire over untainted fishing rights off the North American coast was the talk of the week. Considering how little was understood about the effects of LCL on marine life, any clean patch of seawater was well worth the price in lives and gunpowder, or so it seemed.
How anyone could be so cavalier with human life when less than two billion souls walked the Earth Shinji couldn't understand. Granted, for most of mankind's existence, the world had been less populated than that, but even two billion could be difficult to house, clothe, feed, and supply when half the farmers in the fields refused to emerge from the sea, when packaging and distribution plants closed down for lack of supplies and workers. Mankind had become efficient in numbers. Increasing population permitted specialization. With humanity having dwindled by almost a factor of four in a short span, that efficiency and specialization was forfeit. It could no longer provide enough for humanity to survive.
Even with a miracle to put them back into their cities and homes, the shock of being dissolved and reconstituted still lingered.
But in some circles, the greatest minds of humanity convened to find ambitious solutions for the problems of a post-Instrumentality world, backed by the trust of the public to solve crises with intellect and science instead of with labor and machinery that couldn't be maintained or didn't exist. It was to one of these laboratories Shinji went that evening, three boxed dinners in hand. He presented a gold visitor's badge to the Self-Defense Force soldiers in the lobby. A great, steel skyscraper it was, and every time he went there, it was a small relief to him to go up in an elevator, toward the sky, rather than down, into the Earth, where secrets would stay buried and forgotten.
Nevertheless, though it was a different environment, Shinji found the laboratory eerily familiar. The sight of men and women in labcoats, running experiments and tests on things Shinji could hardly understand—it dredged up memories of sitting in the entry plug and looking out to the monitoring room as technicians studied his progress, with Doctor Akagi overseeing the affair.
Shinji paid no more mind to the thought. Through hallways pungent with chemical aromas that tingled the nose, Shinji found the thick wooden door he sought and knocked twice.
"Come in!" said a voice.
He turned the knob gingerly and peered inside. By the bench on the far wall, a woman sat on a metal stool. A pair of safety goggles rested on her head, for she looked through a microscope with one eye and at a notebook with the other as she jotted down her observations. Her vibrant red hair she'd tied into a bun, keeping stray strands out of her way as she worked.
"What took you so long?" she demanded, not bothering to look away from the slide. "If you're going to the toilet more often, maybe we should invest in diapers?"
Shinji found another stool and set the three boxed dinners there, unwilling to expose them to chemicals or other hazards by placing them on a lab table. " Sorry," he apologized. "I thought it would just take a second?"
The woman dropped her pen and turned from her microscope. "Shinji?" She blinked, puzzled. "Ah, what the hell—what time is it?" She turned back to the lab table, sliding the notebook away. "Where's my watch?"
Shinji looked up, studying the clock on the wall. The minute hand moved smoothly at an incredible rate while the second hand was entirely still.
"It was about six when I left," he said.
"Christ!" Asuka Langley Sōryū yanked the unused safety goggles from her head and cast them aside. Rubbing her eyes, she took a deep breath. "No wonder I feel like I've been working for fifteen hours straight."
"You have been."
Asuka shot him a curious look, then tilted her head as she thought about the remark. "You're probably right. Ah well, nothing to be done about the past." She looked to the stool beside Shinji. "And you brought food! This late?"
"I took the train to Toyama this morning, remember? Didn't get back until the middle of the afternoon."
"Ah, that's right." Lazily, Asuka kicked off her shoes, stood up, and stretched, yawning. "How did that go? The old man didn't tell you anything interesting, did he?"
"Actually, he told me he saw Ayanami after he woke up."
"I'm not. I mean, it's not concrete proof, but until now, no one else has seen her in the real world. I think it's time to spread the word."
"Let me guess," said Asuka. "You called our favorite Special Attaché?"
Shinji shuffled his feet. "It seemed like the easiest place to start."
Smiling to herself, Asuka rose from her stool. "Shinji."
"Close the door."
Confused, Shinji inched the door shut, and Asuka removed her labcoat. In working with chemicals and reagents, she had to choose practical clothing—long pants and shirts, closed-toe shoes—to protect her body from accidental contact as much as she could, but as Asuka sauntered up to Shinji, he knew well that she didn't need to wear a short skirt or a low-cut top to get his attention. She paced toward him one step at a time, placing one foot in front of the other to give her hips a suggestive sway. Her gaze was controlled yet intense, for she stared him down, and Shinji found himself unable to look away.
"You know, Shinji, a girl could get confused if, when she's alone with her boyfriend, he keeps talking about other women," she teased him. "I mean, right off the bat you start talking about First and then the colonel. Who's next? You've been friendly with a particular archon, I've heard."
"That's not what I was saying," he protested.
"Oh, I know; I'm just reminding you." She smirked. "But, since we're all alone here in this lab, you could give me some additional assurance."
Shinji fought off the grin on his lips. "I'm sorry, Sōryū-san, but I really don't know what you mean by assurance. Is there something I should do now?"
"Why yes, there is," said Asuka, nodding gently. "Close your eyes, and we can assure each other of our mutual intentions, repeatedly."
His eyes fluttering shut, he listened for Asuka's footsteps. He winkled his nose, waiting to feel her breath on his upper lip. She put a hand on his shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. She pulled him downward ever-so-slightly, and—
Click, squeak! They both realized one of the door hinges needed oiling.
"Oh my." With a wry smile, a woman with dark hair and thin, black-rimmed glasses stepped around Asuka and Shinji and walked right up to the microscope, peering over her spectacles to look at the slide. "I could've sworn I was in the LCL concentration lab, not the reproductive rates experiment. Since this is the cell culture I was looking at before I had to go to the toilet, I think my first assumption was correct. How strange it is, then, to find a dashing young man about to smooch my daughter here, even if they have been going out for close to a year."
Shinji bowed, his cheeks red with embarrassment. "I'm very sorry, Aunt Kyōko. It won't happen again."
"Well, I should hope it will!" she answered. "After all, the world needs repopulating, but it shouldn't happen here. You might contaminate my samples."
Her mouth hanging open, Asuka looked aghast. "Mama, please!"
"Besides," said Kyōko, "these tables aren't comfortable. Nor are the stools."
Eyes widening, Asuka grew even paler. "And just how do you know that?"
"I was young once. How do you think I met your father?"
Shinji frowned. "You worked in a lab together, and then—"
Asuka covered his mouth with her hands, muffling the rest of the question. "Stupid Shinji!" she cried. "You really want to finish that?"
"Oh, no, we didn't work together," said Kyōko. "I was in graduate school, and one day, I walked in on him canoodling with a first-year who'd just joined our group." She leaned back from the microscope. "She was kicked out after I reported them for that, but right after, he asked me out for coffee. You'd think I would've realized he was a cad at that point."
With a look of utter horror, Asuka glanced away from her mother. "Mama, what have I said about telling these stories?"
"Yes, yes, I know, too much information." Kyōko peered through the microscope once more. "Go take your break, Asuka. Eat something. I'll eat later. And if you need an extra fifteen minutes to yourselves, I know a place—"
Asuka, Shinji, and two of the three boxed dinners were out of the lab in a flash. The door slammed behind them with definite finality.
Glancing back with curiosity, Kyōko pursed her lips. "Well, my little cells," she said, changing the slide under the microscope. "You never tire of my stories, do you? No, you don't. Well, there was this one time in Munich, underneath a scanning-tunneling electron microscope, when I finally realized the meaning of perturbation theory…"
As peculiar as Kyōko could be, her revival had had a profound positive impact on Asuka. In the weeks and months after the two of them met on the desolate beach, Asuka and Shinji had always stayed together—on one level because they had no one else to turn to, on another because each knew what the other felt exactly. Perhaps they knew too well, for that knowledge made their initial advances toward one another feel forced, like acting from a script both parties had already read and grown tired of. Though Shinji had distanced himself from his father and seen his mother off to the stars, Asuka still held something back, something that didn't come out until one mild day in December—warm as it was with Japan's eternal summer—when Shinji and Asuka were being honored at a private, outdoor dinner to recognize the Eva pilots and staff. Though Asuka had looked proud to receive a medal and recognition, her pride had vanished quickly, disappearing in a somber, brooding mood. Only when a strange woman stumbled into the party, rambling incoherently, did Asuka truly come alive again.
After that, the party was more than a ceremony for the pilots. It celebrated something thought impossible—the reconstitution of a human body from the soul contained within Eva, one believed to have been damaged and corrupted through madness and despair. Though Kyōko still behaved somewhat erratically, Asuka had embraced her mother eagerly that evening, and for the first time, Shinji shared intimately in Asuka's elation and joy. Unfair though it may have been for Asuka to get a parent back when both of Shinji's couldn't or wouldn't return, the complete transformation of his friend and lover had been well worth seeing. From lethargy and caution, Asuka was energized. She and her mother, both scientists by trade, found jobs in a new government laboratory in the capital and worked together every day. Though Asuka lacked the graduate degree her mother had earned, having finished university by fourteen was more than enough qualification for her. She put her intellect to good use.
In fact, perhaps she used it too much. As with Eva piloting before, Asuka had a tendency to put a great deal of herself into her work. When Asuka wondered aloud when the last time she'd eaten or slept, it hardly surprised Shinji. Left to her own devices, Asuka would likely work twenty-five hours in a day somehow.
As it was, Shinji and Asuka stopped in a small break area one floor up. With microwaves and refrigerators and tables, it was a common place for researchers to store food or drink and rest from their work. With a heavy sigh as she sat, Asuka closed her eyes, and Shinji placed her meal and chopsticks before her.
"Did you hear that?" asked Asuka. "She wants grandchildren."
Shinji made a face. "Aren't you going to eat?"
"In a minute." Asuka pushed the box aside, and though Shinji had already opened his, he laid his chopsticks down and watched her carefully. Her eyes fluttering open, Asuka leaned back in her chair, looking lazily around the room. "You know, I used to think I didn't want to have children."
"I know that."
She scowled. "Not finished."
"Sorry about—" Shinji winced, catching himself. "Go ahead then."
"Do you want to have children, Shinji?"
"See, that's what I think, too. Why would anyone want to worry about having to raise children the way the world is right now? We're young. We're sixteen. We could wait ten years for things to settle down and still be plenty young enough to start a family. I'd probably have my doctorate by then."
"You'll have a doctorate by twenty-one, Asuka."
She beamed. "Damn right." Revitalized, Asuka took the cover off her boxed dinner, thanked him for the meal, and dug in. "Wow, what is this? This is tofu? It doesn't taste a thing like it!"
"I had to get a little creative to make it seem that way," said Shinji.
"Creative's good. I'm telling you, Shinji—you should do something with this. This or your cello playing. It's better than going around hunting for ghost stories."
Shinji nibbled on a piece of carrot, thinking carefully on what to say. This was no new argument for them. She'd made it no secret she didn't think much of him looking for Rei. It was nothing mean-spirited; she just didn't see the point.
"If she's alive, good for her; all the best to First in whatever she does," said Asuka. "And if she's dead, like the people who collect her stone body parts will tell you, then I don't think she'd want you wasting time looking for her. So, why look at all? What does it accomplish?"
Maybe nothing. Indeed, to that question, Shinji could think of few answers. Everyone else he could account for in some way or another. Was it so wrong to want to solve a puzzle, to feel like one of those detectives in an old murder mystery?
"You don't read murder mysteries," Asuka pointed out.
That was true, but he could pretend!
Asuka narrowed her eyes skeptically.
"All right, that would be silly," Shinji agreed, "but Ayanami played a big part in convincing me to come back into the world. I think she would want me to keep telling people the same things she told me, even if it is a personal decision. I owe her that much."
"Why do you need to be the one to do that? If she's going around, contacting people and trying to get them to come out of the ocean, she doesn't need your help."
Shinji shrugged, saying nothing, and Asuka let out a breath in frustration.
"It's not like she was that convincing…"
The chopsticks slipped from Shinji's fingers, clattering on the table. "She spoke to you, too?"
"That's not what I said."
"But that's exactly what you said! Asuka, I've been trying to find evidence of her for months, and you're just saying this now?"
"That's not what happened," she insisted, "and I don't want to talk about that time! Not another word about it. If you want to keep chasing after that perfect girl, go ahead. You're no one's man but your own, so I won't stop you, but that doesn't mean I have to have a part in it, too. She wasn't really a person, Shinji. She was something totally alien and different from us. Humans can't get the kind of power she had. We have to live with just our own two hands. Just remember that, out of the three of us, she was never the same as you and me. If you're asking yourself how she can be alive and why she wouldn't have talked to you or anyone else, God only knows. You can't forget that she never thought, never felt, the way we do, and it's a mistake to believe otherwise."
What she said was nothing that hadn't already occurred to Shinji, doubts that had given him pause at one time or another, but every day, he had to get up in the morning and decide—was it better to awaken or to sleep? He chose to wake up every time, affirming the decision he'd made years before, and that alone could give him the drive to see things through.
Nevertheless, there was one thing he wouldn't let pass. "She was a person, Asuka," he insisted. "Whatever else she was, she was a person."
Asuka's face twisted with regret. She let out a breath, shaking her head. "Sorry," she said. "That was too harsh. All of it."
"Not all of it," Shinji reassured her.
"It was! It was." Collecting herself, Asuka leaned forward, folding her hands on the table. "I'm glad you found something out about her, really. It means it's not empty and foolish. There's no value in meaningless pursuits, you know. People like us are important in this world. We should be doing important things to match that."
Shinji nodded. "This is important to me, Asuka."
"Well, duh!" she cried, grinning. "You'd think after going out for a year I could at least see that much!"
She laughed, and Shinji laughed with her. It warmed him inside, to see Asuka smiling like that. Her energy was truly infectious, and in recent months, it's become more and more frequent to see.
Relaxing again, Asuka returned to her food. She leaned back in her chair, slumping slightly.
And her stockinged foot rubbed against the inside of his shin.
"When do you think you'll be home tonight?" he asked.
"Ah, who can say?" She picked up the boxed dinner tray, continuing to eat as she slumped further. Her foot slid upwards, past his kneecap. She wiggled her toes, tickling his thigh. "Even with Mama going at it while we've been eating, I'd say there are still half a dozen cultures to examine? Four stains to examine for each one, then follow-up work. And if we have to pack everything in for the night, it'll just take longer to get back to where we were tomorrow. It's really for the best if we do it all as soon as we can."
Shinji cleared his throat. "So you're going back to work right away, then?"
"I didn't say anything about right away." By then, she could hardly contain her grin. "Honestly, Shinji, sometimes you're difficult to read."
He cleared his throat. "How's that?"
"Well, just when I think I know how you like to do things, we're here having dinner, and you're just looking at me, totally stiff. Am I wrong?"
"No, no, very stiff right now," he said with exaggerated nods.
With a knowing smile, Asuka set aside her dinner and scooted closer to the table. She leaned forward and whispered, "You know what I like?"
Asuka blinked. "Okay, that wasn't a real question. You understand why I push you sometimes, don't you, Shinji? It's because when you get pushed hard enough, you push back, and there's no one more driven and courageous than that person you become when you feel that way. Now, if you didn't have to be pushed around to get there, you could do something amazing, I'm sure. You already have."
"That's, um, nice of you to say, Asuka," he said, glancing under the table.
"Think about it," she insisted. "But maybe…after we've had a chance to do something for each other?"
"The sound transmission lab?"
"No, no, those bums changed the locks on their door. We'll have to improvise."
"Or we could wait until you come home tonight," he suggested.
She tilted her head. "Why wait?"
Taking Shinji by the hand, Asuka led him out of the break room, to parts of the research building that would be sheltered from others' eyes and ears. When Shinji was with her, it felt like nothing else in the world mattered, like the cares and worries of humanity were fleeting things that would pass in time, as long as they worked to overcome them. Though it hurt to recall those moments with her too closely, Shinji remembered every touch and caress as he took the empty containers back home, washed them out, and watched the kitchen clock tick off every second of the rest of the day. Eight o'clock, nine, ten, eleven…
At midnight, he washed up and headed for bed, finding it cold and empty.
That's why they kept cots in the break room closet, too. It was no fault of Asuka's. She truly loved her work, and being able to spend that time with her mother, who'd been taken from her when she was so young, was all the better.
It was the way things were.
At six-thirty the next morning, Shinji rose, finding no hint that anyone had been beside him, even briefly. That was no surprise, either, and it didn't bother him. Once again, he had places to go, people to meet. He fixed breakfast and sat before the television, taking in the news of the day. Wreckage washing ashore from Tōkyō-3, riots on the island of Formosa as the mainland Chinese government hoped to solidify their seizure of Taiwan with martial law. That was the sad, sad nature of humanity, one that hadn't changed in thousands of years. Given a reason—nay, an excuse—people would fight with one another. It was the way they were. That didn't mean humanity should be dismissed or written off as a lost cause. Man just had to find a better reason not to fight.
And sometimes, the better reason was because the other guy had a bigger stick. Since Second Impact, Japan's Self-Defense Forces had swelled, becoming a multifaceted, traditional military in all but name. As Matsumoto became the capital and was rechristened as Tōkyō-2, all of the governmental functions were relocated to the new capital—at first, using local and regional offices as temporary facilities; then later, in buildings commissioned for a grand National Square, which held new chambers for the Diet, a home for the Ministry of Defense unoffiically dubbed the Amber Moon, for it stood vertically like an egg on its large end, and the concrete exterior bore a peculiar yellow tint. Beyond that, most of the Square had yet to be finished.
Thus, to the beeping of forklifts in reverse and the clattering of jackhammers, Shinji visited the Square that morning, taking a seat at a stone bench and watching water spew forth from a statue of the Shintō sun goddess, Amaterasu. On that bench he passed the time, eying the sun as it rose over the Amber Moon. Workers in hardhats walked together, griping about construction regulations and the lack of unfouled water. Men and women in uniform went by and paid him no heed, for Shinji wore a green hoooded sweater with shiny sunglasses, hiding his face and eyes from the outside world. At one point, a capitol police officer looked at him strangely and asked what he was doing, but he only had to pull down his sunglasses and look the man in the eyes to make clear that he was no troublemaker or suicide bomber. His presence shouldn't be questioned, and the officer bowed in apology, tipping his cap as he went on his way.
Beyond that, Shinji waited, not knowing how long he would be there alone. Nine o'clock went to ten, then eleven. It would've been better if he'd brought a book, but he had no books to read, for no one had told him to buy any. He closed his eyes, listening to the idle chatter in the Square.
'Come to me.'
His eyes snapped open. The impression of the words was that they were faint, like a whisper, but he couldn't place the origin or source. Seeing no one nearby, he closed his eyes again, trying to relax.
He bolted upright from his seat, eyes sharp as a falcon's as he scanned the surroundings. What kind of person should he be looking for? He tried to analyze the voice, to classify it as either old or young, high-pitched or low, soft in tone or hard and demanding, but all of these descriptions seemed ill-fitting somehow. It was as if the voice wasn't a voice at all but an impression, a suggestion, a silent thought.
His stomach clenched. His heart beat faster. Without thinking, he found himself led by his legs across the Square, to the fountain that spewed endlessly in the center of the mall. There was a wide, circular pool into which the water and coins thrown in by passing visitors collected, and the statue towered above him, four-and-a-half meters high. It was made of marble, unapainted, so but for the taint of stains and pollution, it was nearly pure white.
As Rei had been, in the life that came after her human one.
'Look. Lean over. See. Breathe.'
He peered into the pool, through the clear water to the smooth white floor of the fountain. A force pulled at him, bringing his face ever-closer to the surface of the water. Was there something he would see there? Some trace of Rei? Was water the only way she could make herself be seen anymore?
But all he glimpsed was his reflection instead, growing larger and more detailed as he leaned in, until the tip of his upper lip kissed the water.
"Desperate for a drink, are we?"
Shinji backpedaled, glancing about nervously. He heard no more silent whispers, felt no more attracting pull to the fountain. Perhaps he'd convinced himself of such in desperation, in fleeting hope, but no matter. Hopefully no one but the owner of the accosting voice had seen him, and from her, he had little to fear.
It was a woman who'd addressed him, her uniform almost entirely green. In front of her heart, she bore various decorations and medals. On her shoulders, she wore insignia comprised of two golden cherry blossoms side-by-side atop two stripes. The stripes marked her as a field-grade officer—more experienced than fresh, young company officers, but inferior to any general. The blossoms signified her status within that broad group—two for second-class. In the nomenclature of Western military tradition, she would be called a lieutenant colonel.
Apparently, transferring back to the Self-Defense Forces came with the perk of a promotion as well.
"No answer?" Katsuragi Misato laughed to herself. "Strange, I could've sworn you were the one to call this meeting, Shinji-kun."
He looked both ways before answering. "Just trying not to be heard," he said quietly.
"I see. In that case, shall we find some place to sit down?"
Shinji bowed slightly, leading Misato to the bench he'd once occupied, and the colonel gladly laid her briefcase down. She put her hat atop the leather case and kicked off her shoes to stretch. So easily the former major had returned to this world. As she told it, in the final seconds of her life, she was bleeding out from a gunshot wound, having seen Shinji to the elevator with a kiss to shock him back to his senses and save them all. She lay in a puddle of her own blood, but just before the hallway was pulverized in a blast, she saw something. With the last gleam of light in her eyes, she glimpsed a glowing image of Ayanami Rei. That girl couldn't have been there. She was far beneath them in Terminal Dogma, but Misato had been adamant about what she'd seen. She said Rei came to her in the chaos of Instrumentality and rescued her from death, convincing her that her task in this world was as yet incomplete. Though the deaths of the Angels sated Misato's need for vengeance, she was still a soldier at heart, and soldiers fought until the end. Thus, she too came from the ocean, finding a blood-stained pendant of a cross waiting for her in the sand, far from where Shinji had left it.
"That much," Misato had said once, "I think was Rei's doing, too."
It was her insistence that Rei had helped her—along with Shinji's own experience—that compelled the boy to search for traces of the First Child, and from that, the rumors spread of Lilith's interference and plan for humanity, something unsubstantiated as long as the so-called goddess spoke not to waking souls. For the moment, then, Katsuragi Misato took a position in the Self-Defense Forces, returning to the vocation she'd once left for Nerv. Her energy and drive for her work hadn't suffered through the past two years, either.
"Isn't it great, being outside?" said Misato, stretching her arms. "It makes you feel alive again, doesn't it?"
"You're the same as always, Misato-san," said Shinji, fighting back a smile.
"And don't you forget it. Now, I'd start with pleasantries, but I'm a busy girl, and I know you must've been out here for ages. Sorry I couldn't tell you a more specific time, but I'm at your disposal now. What can this Special Atachée to the Prime Minsiter do for you?"
Shinji lowered his glasses, peering over the square. "I'd really prefer if we could do this privately. Do you have an office we could—"
"Nope! With half the Square unfinished, a lowly lieutenant colonel can't get an office before all the brass do, now can she? I just ping-pong around wherever I'm told to go. In fact, someone may come up with a paddle and spank me while we're talking!"
Yes, definitely the same old Misato-san. Wincing, Shinji fumbled through his pockets, producing the SDAT player and a pair of earbuds. "I was hoping you could listen to this. Tell me what you think."
Taking the items gingerly, Misato eyed both, and her scatterbrained, ditzy air gave way to hardened, serious tone. "Shinji-kun," she said, "this is about Rei, isn't it?" She placed the SDAT and earbuds behind her, next to the suitcase. "I don't need to listen to that. I'm just a simple military girl. You really should be talking to someone else about this matter if you're looking to push it. Every minister in the cabinet would have no choice but to grant you an audience."
"I have no trouble meeting with them," said Shinji, "but making them listen? They just nod politely and do nothing, and then they can ask me to appear with them at events and parties when they never followed through! That's why I need your help, Misato-san. You'll actually listen, even if in the end you tell me no."
Misato bit her lip and sighed. "What is it you want me to do? Say you have something there that proves Rei's alive. What does that do for us? It's still incumbent on people to have faith in the world they live in, whether they know a living god made it possible for them to emerge from the sea without humanity destroying itself in strife doesn't matter. They have to make the choice not to make anymore chaos themselves, regardless of what Rei made them realize to get them to walk the earth again. And to blow the lid on this—you know what it would do. That crazy cult would get even more followers, more downtrodden, unhappy souls looking for a way to cause organized mischief. The government won't allow that."
Taking off his glasses and blinking, Shinji stared at the fountain in front of them with world-weary eyes. "The government already knows."
"Of course," said Misato. "It was, to be honest, one of the first conclusions we came to. Telling people that it was Rei who saved them is to tell the truth, yes, but it won't give the kind of hope you think it will, Shinji-kun. I think it's for the best if you dispel yourself of that notion right now. The road to peace and security is going to be a lot harder than that."
"And how are you seeing to it?" asked Shinji. "What exactly do you do?"
With an undignified giggle, Misato put a finger to her lips playfully. "That's a secret, you know. Someone like me can't work in the open. I've spent too much of my life in the shadows, and I'm happier that way."
So it was. With Misato, there was still a wall to hide behind, a veil of secrecy that, though she freely admitted was there, she wouldn't pull up even for Shinji. Misato kept some distance between herself and others, even with her new boyfriend, whom Shinji and Misato discussed at some length as their conversation turned to less serious matters. Misato offered to take Shinji to lunch and give him more advice on his relationship with Asuka, but Shinji politely declined. Her frank acknowledgement that the governemnt knew Rei had existed—perhaps still did—but wouldn't reveal the truth had struck a chord in him. It posed a serious question that he had no answer to, one only Misato could put to words.
"Say you do prove Rei's alive," she said. "What then?"
What then indeed. Shinji struggled and struggled to understand that question, throwing out reasons and rejecting them instantly. To see so many of the people she'd bothered saving start to lose themselves to despair—someone had to be angry in her stead, right? Or, he was desperate to thank her for saving him, and felt compelled to find her and say it in person. Neither of those made any real sense, however. If the treatment of the aimless and downtrodden were really such a crime, one should be angry and discontented over it regardless of position or status. If he wanted to thank Rei for her efforts to rescue his soul, then he should feel that desire burning inside him, bursting at the seams to come out.
But as he pondered Misato's question, he felt nothing—perhaps an emptiness, a sense of loss, the bewilderment of a traveler who has no idea what path to take or where any of them might lead.
With the matter of Rei's legacy and existence put to bed (at least, as far as he could see), just what else was he to do?
On the way back home, Shinji walked slowly, for these questions weighed him down. He found a public phone and called the lab, reaching Kyōko as Asuka was too busy dealing with samples to come to the phone. He apologized for not calling sooner about lunch, but it seemed mother and daughter had gone to a nearby restaurant anyway. There was no need for him to drop by with meals. There was no need for him to do anything.
It was a dilemma of his own doing, really. In running away from school, he'd isolated himself. In refusing to be a figurehead and symbol for the government, he'd preserved his dignity but could get nothing done. In searching for Rei, he'd given himself an impossible task to pass the time, pushing away any thoughts about the last two years, how the world he'd come back to, though almost perfectly preserved over three decades, wasn't really what he'd hoped for. Asuka had warmed to him, but with her mother, she'd also grown past him. She had the chance to make peace with the past, a chance Shinji lacked—and had done nothing to confront or understand, either.
Like the poor creatures who'd wandered into his shelter, staring emptily at the walls without drive or direction, Shinji had busied himself with pointless pursuits. He'd behaved no differently than them; only the mystery of Rei and Asuka's needs had kept him occupied, but they put him in a position of stasis, of stagnation. That's why he too was one of the aimless, the displaced.
No more, though. He hadn't come to walk this earth again to be satisfied with that.
His mind resolved on that point, Shinji set out to confront both the past and the present. He mailed a copy of the Nakamura tape to a friend in the media, someone with a sympathetic ear. Some would dismiss him and Shinji as deluded frauds, but Shinji thought nothing of it. Nakamura had done him more than a small favor—he'd relived the tragedy of his wife's suicide in the hope of restoring faith in humanity. If no one chose to listen, that was their fault, not his, and Shinji felt compelled to make good on the debt he owed.
The balance of the present thus settled, Shinji went to the train station and booked a new ticket—this time for a trip to Kakō, meaning "Crater." Japan was a seismically active archipelago, but since the end of Instrumentality, only one place in Japan could be called Kakō and be instantly understood:
It was the ruins of Tōkyō-3, the remnants of old Hakone, where the Geofront had risen from the earth and left a gash a mile deep.
Since the Instrumentality of mankind, the oceans had run red with LCL, and though two billion had come back to walk the earth, their resurrections had only dimmed the tint, not eradicated it. Thus, the ocean was still a deep crimson, and anywhere there was red water, there were worshippers of Lilith to welcome reconstituted souls back to the earth, but no shore was considered more holy than that of Kakō. The eruption of the Black Moon had created a depression wide and deep enough to erase Lake Ashi and merge it with the red seas. In this way, a holy site was born.
So once more, Shinji found himself on a train, thinking darkly on all the moments of introspection he'd endured on trains, whether real or imagined. Though he found himself facing this unexpected question of what he was doing and why, he thought back on the chaos of Instrumentality feeling self-assured. He'd known even then that to come out of the sea would be difficult, that eventually, someone would betray his trust and heart. That hadn't happened as yet, but this difficulty he faced was something like it, so he accepted his disquiet and didn't fear it. Going to Kakō would just give him a chance to find out what he was looking for, to find himself.
The train to Kakō hit the end of the line at Odawara, which had only just managed to survive Third Impact and now stood on the edge of the new cove. It was a lengthy trip, over five hours in total, so by the time Shinji left the train, the sun had begun to cast lengthy shadows. Not knowing where exactly the Cult's service would be, Shinji made for the ocean to the south and west.
Odawara was an ancient city, inhabited since antiquity, but disasters and earthquakes had ground the settlement down from a position of power in the feudal era. Much of the city had been damaged or erased in the Impact, but its location as the closest town to ground zero had made it a Japanese Mecca. Traffic generated business, yet that growth jarred against the poverty of refugees and the desperate, some of whom called themselves cultists too. With those clashes, there was strife, and where there was strife, police walked the streets in armor and riot shields. For the moment, however, there was peace—and a trail of cultists on a precession to the ocean.
They common folk wore no special attire. What most of them did have was some sign of their affiliation on them—the Cult's symbol, the Diamond and Eye—emblazoned in patches or on simple, otherwise unadorned, rings. It was their leaders, the archons, who wore gray robes with hoods down. In the distance, Shinji saw them. They set up on a stage on the beach, with one at a microphone to welcome all comers. A pole on each end held a banner with the Cult's emblem embroidered in for all to see.
And on the horizon, beyond the archons, one could make out a shadowed blob. Shinji couldn't discern its details, but he knew what it was: the severed, petrified head of Lilith, split in two and unmoved since Instrumentality's end.
Already, the beach was crawling with people—cultists and interested non-members alike. Shinji could hardly come off the sidewalk and touch the sand without running into a mass of bodies.
"Come, brothers and sisters," said the archon. "Bask in Lilith's love. She has sacrificed Her physical body, Her existence, so that we may walk as human beings once again. Every day, She speaks to the lost souls in the ocean to remind them what they can accomplish only as individuals. We've all heard Her voice, and that's why we gather here—to rejoice and celebrate and spread the message."
"To who?" cried a voice. "I live by the ocean; I haven't seen anyone swim to shore today or yesterday or the day before that! What happened to Lilith's ever-present love? Is She working tirelessly every day to restore mankind or not? Where are the people receiving Her grace?"
The archon hesitated a bit, covering the microphone with her hand. She looked to her colleagues and conferred with them before responding. "We don't worship an all-powerful god; Lilith respects the free will of men, and if they don't wish to emerge from the sea, She will respect that…"
But the questions for the archon didn't end there. Others chimed in, asking what Lilith was doing to bring their loved ones back, why they should work and toil when Lilith could plow fields and mend broken water mains herself. Shinji paid their demands no heed. He gently pushed his way through the crowd, inching closer and closer to the ocean. The blood-smelling spray irritated his eyes. Where others faced the stage, directing their grievances and questions of faith, Shinji turned to the ocean and fought his way through the mass of humanity until the surf lapped at his feet.
Two years it had been. Two years of rebuilding civilization and seeing it teeter with mankind's worries and despair. In the end, as much as had been resurrected, some things were still missing. Rei, for one. His mother, Yui, who would surely never return.
And his father, Gendō, who—if he had been a part of Instrumentality—made little impact on Shinji's mind, so little that Shinji wondered if his father had survived at all. Still, Shinji looked over the ocean, wondering where missing pieces had gone or if they'd ever be found. Asuka'd had issues with her mother, a connection that'd been severed, scarring her, but they learned to live together again, right?
As much as Shinji told himself he didn't need Gendō's approval anymore, he still wanted it, wanted that feeling of reconcilation and forgiveness, yet as long as Gendō couldn't or wouldn't walk the earth, those feelings wouldn't come. Third Impact had transformed humanity, but not everyone felt the burden equally. Shinji had had the privilege of choice in the matter, but he, like anyone else, felt the ongoing weight of coping with the consequences.
In the end, all any of them could do was try to move forward, for the only other choice was to walk back into the ocean, hoping to dissolve, just as Nakamura's wife had. To Shinji, that was unfathomable. He'd invested too much in life to abandon it. The next day, he would consider what Asuka had said. He needed something to put his energy into, something constructive and worthwhile. Maybe that was a job. Maybe that was school. As long as it was a quiet, low-profile existence, it would do fine.
The Cult of Lilith's service dispersed at dusk. Shinji had stayed through the end of the gathering, though from a safe distance, away from the crowd. The longer he spent with people elbowing and jostling for position, the more likely it was his sunglasses would fall off, and he'd be paraded around as an apostle to Lilith.
Back at the train station, Shinji had to buy his return ticket and wait, having lacked the forethought to figure out when he should head back home. He sat beside a tree in the station lobby, taking a breath, and the fatigue of the day washed over him.
I guess I'll see you when I see you, Father, Ayanami.
He shut his eyes, losing himself for a moment to the translucent voids beyond his eyelids.
'So you give up? '
Yelping, Shinji jumped to his feet. The words—the thought—penetrated his mind silently.
'I'm out here, looking for you….'
His eyes darted about the lobby, but he saw nothing, no one, certainly no ghostly girls with bright red eyes.
He ran out the automatic doors. Even at night, the station was busy, with cultists returning home by bus and rail.
'Come and find me.'
Something pulled at his insides. A force drew him to the corner, a nearby intersection with a four-lane highway crossing a station access road, from which buses came out. It didn't make sense. Rei wasn't one for ploys or games, but who else would speak to him this way? Who else had the power?
'I'm over here….'
Across the four-lane road. He saw nothing, but the sense of the voiceless words was definite. He looked both ways, finding the light red and the crosswalk signal beckoning. His right foot found the edge of the curb, and it was only then he dared consider an alternative, another possiblity:
It was a voice that spoke to him, yet its words made no sound, even in his mind.
It was a pull that had guided him, demanding all his will to resist.
The thing that had whispered in the mind of Nakamura's wife, that drew Shinji's would-be assassin to the refugee shelter and to his target even while Shinji took cover and hid…
They were one and the same. They were the same as the force that flashed dozens of words in his mind. 'Walk,' it told him. 'Forward. Come to me. I'm waiting for you.'
He hesitated at the curb as the signals changed. Green turned to red, and to his right, beyond the intersection, a six-wheeled truck barreled down the road, its headlights only beginning to touch him.
Though he shut his eyes to keep the words out, the will of the soundless voice was branded on the insides of his eyelids. He tensed his leg, trying to control it, and it quivered with competing forces as his muscles pushed and pulled in opposite directions.
The truck driver blared his horn, for the headlights cast Shinji's shadow long into the night. Shinji grunted, focusing all his effort on the heel of his foot. It wasn't Rei waiting for him in the darkness. It was something else, something sinister, and he refused to heed it, to listen to it, commanding though it may be. What he wanted was in this world, not where the bumper of that six-wheeled truck would take him, but still, despite all his force of will, his foot would not move.
So it was the truck that moved for him. Tires skidded on the asphalt, and the six-wheeler swerved toward the far side of the road, darting around an oncoming car. It bolted over the far curb, and sparks shot off the undercarriage as metal scaped against cement. This time, wholly under his own power, Shinji dashed across the street, going around to the driver-side door. A man slumped over the airbag, his nose bloodied, but he looked groggily at Shinji as the boy pulled at the door's handle.
"I didn't hit her, did I?" asked the driver. "She's okay, right?"
"Who?" asked Shinji.
"The girl in the street! You didn't see her? Her eyes—her bright red eyes…"
Ayanami…you saved me again.
Tumbling from his seat, the driver stumbled and rolled on the ground. Already, sirens blared in the distance.
But from what?
Once again, he felt a tug in his gut, a small compulsion. He glanced to the sky, to the innumerable stars that populate the cosmos, each one a window to the past as light travels as fast as the laws of physics allow, telling the tales of planets and systems that time might already have snuffed out.
And for an instant, Shinji felt that those points of light were eyes instead, all fixed upon him, making him shrink under their withering gazes. Their thoughts bored into him, but not in silent words. Instead, their intentions came to Shinji in a form he could more easily understand.
He reached blindly for the ground, searching yet unwilling to look, and found warm, freely-flowing liquid that seeped into the earth.
CRUNCH! On the street, two cars collided head-on, flinging fragments of broken windshield glass over the road, but instead of broken, wounded bodies in the cabins, orange-red fluid gushed from otherwise empty seats. A mother and her daughter waiting at the street corner clung tightly, knowing what was to come again, and they too exploded, evaporating in a shower of LCL.
At last, Shinji looked to the ground beneath him, confirming his fears. The driver had gone first, and in the expanding puddle of LCL he'd left behind, Shinji glimpsed a reflection, the shape of a face.
A pasty white head with a purple mask. Five slits allowed it to see, with two on its right and three on its left, both sets lined up in columns. Its eyes were lazy and unfocused—mere dots that seemed to point in several different directions. Then, Shinji leaned closer, provoking a reaction. The eyes snapped forward and narrowed, subjecting Shinji to their collective, incomprehensible gaze. The more he tried to look away, the more he sat transfixed, even as the surroundings grew louder and chaotic, as the driver's LCL puddle touched his knees, bathing them in warmth, as—
There was a cold, shocking touch on his shoulder, and Shinji collapsed to the earth. His stomach rolled and churned, and his mouth sprayed bits of chewed up noodles and acid on a dark blue uniform.
The uniform of a paramedic.
"Are you all right, sir?" The paramedic withdrew his latex-gloved hand, fetching a flashlight from his shirt pocket. "Were you in the truck, sir? Are you hurt?"
Shinji wiped his mouth with his sleeve. He looked back to the truck, where another paramedic was tending to the wounded truck driver—the dazed, but entirely intact truck driver. "No, no, I'm all right," said Shinji. "I went to help him, and…I was overcome."
"That's understandable, sir. Please, step aside."
The technician joined his partner in treating the driver, and Shinji backed away without a word. There was nothing he had to say to them—no one else would understand what'd happened. The paramedics would dismiss the driver's vision of Rei as a hallucination, a figment of his imagination that never really existed, but it wasn't so. Rei had saved Shinji. She'd saved him from the thing that spoke with a soundless voice, that pulled at his heart when he was too careless to resist.
It was the giant with five eyes—not Lilith, not Adam, but one of their kin, and its vision had told Shinji all he needed to know. It and its brethren were coming to Earth to reduce human beings to LCL once again. For the simple minds of mere mortals, these creatures could not be bargained with, confronted, or understood.
Nevertheless, Shinji resolved to fight them, for that was a purpose in life that would have meaning, and maybe, just maybe, it would keep him alive.
That was the day the First Ones made their intentions known to humanity.
It was also the day that man chose to resist.
Next: The First Ones begin their assault on humanity, starting with Tōkyō-2. Coming soon: "Eisheth"
For notes and commentary on this chapter and others, visit my blog at westofarcturus [dot] blogspot [dot] com