When the human body tires, the mind feels the effects as keenly as any bundle of muscle fibers. The eyes stay open, but vision blurs. Sounds reach the ears but go unprocessed. Accustomed to the scent of a place, the brain filters out the aromas and vapors, as if they were never there.
So it was for the woman with two golden cherry blossoms and bars on her shoulders. Her legs and back tingled numbly from the stiff, inflexible material of a fake leather chair. A broad bank of monitors and flashed in a dizzying set of moving pictures and colors, but to Misato, they all ran together, formless and inert. The ringing of telephones gave way to a dull, high-pitched buzz in her ears. The smell of coffee grounds permeated the room, but Misato's nose had long since grown indifferent to it. The dark liquid in her mug may as well have been water, for when she touched the substance to her lips, she tasted nothing. The act was robotic and unthinking.
She twitched. She shut her eyes tight, letting the stinging feeling behind her eyelids pulse and subside. Her eyes shut, she cleared her throat. "Yes?"
"Things seem to be settling down out there."
Misato's eyes fluttered open, and her gaze wandered to the stark red digital clock on the wall. 0531, it read.
"Are they now?" asked Misato.
"Yes, Colonel," said the sergeant, who flipped over a page on her clipboard. "The fires in the historic district have been contained, and local police have managed to break up a mob of rioters near National Square. There've been no new reports of organized violence for the last half-hour."
"But do you have Lorenz?" asked Misato, straightened herself in her chair. "Is he in our custody? Is he lying dead on a slab?"
The sergeant opened her mouth slightly, staring. "Ah, no, not that I'm aware of, but I can check—"
"Don't bother." Misato pushed on the armrests, rising, and her legs felt wobbly under her. She grabbed the edge of the boardroom table for support, but when the lieutenant tried to move in to help, Misato put up a hand between them, insisting on doing this herself. "If you don't know, we don't have him, and that self-pitying bastard has fled the city, probably the country, for good. He'll spread his message of despair to anyone with ears."
"People won't listen to the likes of them forever, Colonel. Eventually, they have to see how destructive that way of thinking is. At least, I pray for that to be true."
Misato gazed between the monitors on the large, wall-mounted bank. On one screen, a car burned in a brilliant blaze. On another, police in riot gear and shields fought through crowds of the discontented, withstanding their barrage of rocks and bricks. Bullet holes and shattered glass marred a once-proud storefront.
"Don't pray," muttered Misato, who took her emptied mug with her. "We're the ones who need to make it happen, to make people see there's more to life than Eisheth's shroud of despair or Lorenz's wish for nothingness. It's an effort we need to push toward every second of every day."
The sergeant glanced at the clock. "Every second, Colonel?"
"What are you suggesting?"
"We're going on hour ten on watch, ma'am. I'm all right, but there are still a few men here from the shootout yesterday, or the raid on the radio tower. Some of the company commanders wish to know if they need to stay on standby any longer."
"And if I say yes?"
"Then they'll break out the wide-awake pills."
Misato huffed. She could use one of those right then, if she wanted to stay awake, but what good would it do? Keel was gone. Eisheth was watching them from the depths of space, and the chaos that had taken hold in Tōkyō-2, troubling though it was, had started to wear off. The long night of Eisheth's Reckoning was coming to a close, but the damage would linger and fester in the consciousness of mankind until someone bold—someone like Misato—stepped up to stamp it out.
But not when she was going on over twenty hours without sleep.
"It's late," said Misato. "So late it's early, but we can draw down for now. Let the next watch know they're taking over."
The sergeant nodded. "Yes, Colonel."
Word spread through the war room, with half of the weary analysts and watch officers putting down their headsets and retiring for the morning, but where many of them left the brightly lit room with baggy eyes and zombie-like expressions, Misato looked back at the monitors on the walls. Derailed trains, broken water mains, riot, fires, and panic—Misato took every image in. For two years, she had worked to help rebuild civilization, yet the best of her efforts were being undone in a single night.
For all that she'd done thus far to shield humanity from Eisheth's gaze, the monstrosity's five-eyed stare had paralyzed mankind for a night with panic, grief, and terror. Years to build something up, only days to throw it all away. Perhaps that was all meant to happen. As long as there were people like Keel—people who didn't believe in building something for the future—then destruction of all mankind had made was inevitable. Whether it would take days, months, or years, the time would come.
So when Misato stepped out of the war room that morning, feeling chills in her body from the early hour, she left with a spot of resolve, an unshakable determination that no one would dissuade her from. She would track down those dangerous, determined minds who followed Eisheth, and though she might sleep in the meantime, she would find true rest only when those people's poisonous thoughts were contained.
In truth, Misato recognized that she had hardly been at the forefront of the post-Instrumentality renaissance. For two years, she'd kept her work secret and in the shadows, but in her mind, there was no effort more important to the continued freedom of the human race than her own. She wasn't just the tip of the spear. She—along with the entire new Eva project—was the spear itself, and if she faltered, humanity would go with her.
So when she emerged from the Defense Ministry to the distant wails of sirens, she walked into the dawn with a heavy heart. Still, she was resolved. She could've stayed on the base—within the mountain—and kept herself safe, but her home was not in a stuffy, cramped set of quarters that she'd hardly ever lived in. She had her own home, and she would go to it. Heavens forbid if someone like her stayed holed up in a mountain, isolated and detached from the suffering of the common man. She drove through the streets in her blue sportscar (an Alpine A310, as she would excitedly tell anyone who asked; she'd spent weeks trying to find another one after Instrumentality's end) unafraid of what might find her on the streets of Tōkyō-2.
As it was, most of the major thoroughfares were deserted. Even Eisheth's devotees had their limits, it seemed, and the good citizens of Tōkyō-2 had the sense not to go out after such a tumultuous night. The financial markets would be closed, or so Misato guessed. Most of the schools, too. No one would want to be the foolish, uncaring bureaucrat who said yes, send the kids to classes and open trading on rice futures, only to have the teachers gunned down or the traders held hostage by a man in an explosive vest. That was the magnitude of what'd happened overnight.
Granted, with only her small force in the mountain, what was happening in the city wasn't technically in Misato's purview. Even if the Prime Minister wanted SDF forces to step in to maintain order, Misato had precious few men to spare for such an operation, and the order likely would've come down to more conventional commanders. Still, a threat to the city was a threat to the Defense Ministry—as well as the main artery from Tōkyō-2 to the Hachibuse Mountain base. In a way, it would've been better if there had been something for Misato to do. As it was, she'd stayed up most of the night bearing witness to the disintegration of capital city instead.
And it had disintegrated. Not all at once of course, but the process had begun, and as all living things decay, so do cities. From fires set by Keel's followers, smoke rose over the city, blanketing it in a sickly haze. Still, despite the chaos that had taken hold overnight, the city as a whole showed only scattered scars. As Misato drove from the square toward her apartment building, she half-expected to catch sight of bullet-riddled façades or the like, but instead, she ran into checkpoints in barricades, manned by local police who stopped every vehicle passing by. Misato's SDF identification kept her from being harassed, though. Indeed, the bleary-eyed officers on patrol looked happy to see her. She was a sister-in-arms, after all, and though she wasn't Shinji, she carried a decent level of recognition and respect with her, too.
"Hey, hey, stop slouching on that barricade!" said one officer to his partner. "Colonel Katsuragi's coming through."
The officers gave Misato a respectful, if casual, salute. Compared to the institutionalized forms of deference within SDF, the gesture had more feeling behind it, and Misato returned it with pleasure. "Carry on, gentlemen," she said. "You do your country proud today."
With a nod, the officers opened the barricade, letting her pass. It was good to be respected, to feel camaraderie with fellow servants of the people in this way. Prior to Second Impact, members of SDF were considered second-rate professionals at best, a fallback career for those who couldn't get past the entrance exams for the nation's toughest universities. The cataclysm of 2000 had changed that somewhat, for the needs of a more dangerous world put greater importance on those who would defend Japan. Without that change in viewpoint, Special branch would never have been formed. Still, Misato had found a position in Nerv far more rewarding—and important—than anything she could've done in SDF. Then again, had she known what Seele or Gendō had planned…
But that was all in the past. The world after Third Impact was a new and wild place. With two disasters having shaken humanity in a span of less than twenty years, what mankind needed in that dark hour was leadership—leadership that Misato was willing and able to provide. With the Japanese people's renewed respect for SDF, Misato had the leverage to do just that as a lieutenant colonel in the Ground service. Her rank meant little; her name carried much more weight. Her name and position gave her the influence to steer Japan—and, by extension, the world—toward a better future, one that would reject Eisheth's nihilism, or so she'd hoped.
If that future was indeed coming, it had yet to arrive. Misato parked in a garage under her apartment building and rode upward to the fourteenth floor. The apartment she found waiting for her had soft brown carpet and pristine white walls. A door to a bedroom was open, and light streamed in from the east through a wall of windows. Fortunately, the apartment was as clean as could be. That wasn't in Misato's nature, of course. For that sense of order and cleanliness, she had her roommate to thank.
"Out all night, and you don't even call." Captain Hyūga pressed his lips together resolutely, but the ends curled upward, betraying his efforts to fight off a smile. "What am I supposed to do with you?"
Misato wandered in and plopped herself down on a cushion at the dinner table. Hyūga looked up curiously from his efforts behind the kitchen counter as he prepared breakfast.
"Shall I make a helping for you, too?" he asked. "Since you didn't come in, I didn't know if you were staying on the base or something else. Everything all right?"
"Have you seen the news?" muttered Misato, rubbing her temple with two fingers.
"I don't like to be depressed."
"Then perhaps it's better you haven't. You'll never guess who reared his ugly head."
"Commander Ikari? Chairman Lorenz? Robin Williams?"
"You got it with the second—" Misato frowned. " 'Robin Williams?' Really? You put him in the same category as those two?"
"Have you seen the one where he dresses up as a nanny? I caught a glimpse of it in passing and had no idea 'she' was him. Gave me the shivers when I found out."
"Makoto, you and I live in the wrong country to be getting away from crossdressers."
Hyūga made a face. "You might be right about that. Let's not speak of it any more. What happened with Lorenz?"
"He's been hiding in plain sight in the Cult of Lilith, and he used tonight to unleash terror on the city."
"How bad was it?"
"You can still see the smoke in the air and the cops on every corner to maintain order."
"Sounds like Lorenz is every bit the bastard you've said he is."
"Worse. He's working with Eisheth, and if you can believe it, he actually has a following." Misato took a deep breath, collecting herself. "Wherever he's gone, I'm going to find him. Someone who spreads terror and chaos like he does can't be allowed to stay free."
"Then I hope to be by your side when you put him away," said Hyūga, solemn yet confident.
Misato nodded, taking solace in his devotion, his loyalty, for they were sources of strength for her, even in this time uncertainty. Hyūga would follow her to the ends of the earth, after all, and were it not for that she might've questioned herself more. But Hyūga would be there with honest effort and encouragement, and that was enough to tell her that this long, arduous path for the good of mankind was right.
Though it would cost him precious minutes before reporting for his watch at the base, Hyūga took the time to prepare a second bowl of miso soup, which Misato insisted was plenty considering she'd just go to bed and catch up on sleep right after.
"Are you sure?" asked Hyūga. "I mean, if you're right, there shouldn't be much traffic on the way to the base. I may have a few more minutes."
"Mm, as far as food goes, I can't think of anything." Misato winked at him slyly. "But you can help me to bed."
Hyūga grinned, but still, he checked his watch. "I guess if we do it quickly."
Misato rose from her cushion, unbuttoning her jacket. She drew the curtains on the bedroom window, and Hyūga wisely turned off the stove. That was the other benefit in having a younger man. There was no shortage of enthusiasm on his part, and Misato knew well how to please him. A twist of her hips at the right time were all she needed to bring him satisfaction—not that she neglected her own, of course.
When they were finished, Hyūga hurriedly fastened his belt and made for the door. "Are you coming in this afternoon?"
Misato wrapped herself one of the bedsheets, running a hand through her hair. "Maybe. I've just got to get a little rest."
"A late lunch then?"
She huffed. "Eat, sleep, eat again. Acting that way is just going to make me fat. I'm not as young as I used to be, you know."
"Not a chance," he said, and with a smile, he headed out.
With that, Misato prepared to wind down for the morning. She cast the sheets aside and headed to the washroom. The adrenaline from their encounter ebbed off, and groggily, Misato fumbled for a tube of toothpaste to clean her teeth and head to bed, but before she gave herself away to sleep, she needed to consult with someone. Hyūga was her partner in all matters corporeal, but when it came to the fight against Eisheth, Misato counted on someone whose presence was more ephemeral, fleeting, and rare.
Like a genie responding to her master's command, Rei appeared, and the reflection of her red eyes came into view in the bathroom mirror. "Colonel Katsuragi."
Misato leaned forward, pushing up her lip to look at her gums. "How goes the chess match of the minds with Eisheth? Not well, I take it, given what's been happening out here."
Rei nodded. "I made a mistake. Eisheth has more human followers than I thought."
"It's disgusting," said Misato. "Lorenz and Eisheth both—how anyone could come to reject life in this way baffles me. It's natural, isn't it? Life begets life. If all life chose not to exist at all, not to interact with the world in any way except to think, what would the point be?"
"What is the point of existence with pain and suffering without end?"
Misato raised an eyebrow.
"That is how she thinks," Rei explained. "I don't agree with it, or how she uses the worst parts of human existence to further her goal of stamping it out, but her conviction is unshakable."
An implacable enemy, resolved and stern. That's who Eisheth was. Admittedly, Misato had only had these glimpses of Eisheth through Rei, so she couldn't truly judge their foe, but everything Misato had heard made it sound like Eisheth deserved a good punch in the face.
Until that could come to pass, Misato and Rei would keep fighting the five-eyed giant any way they could. That was their link, their bond, after all. For nearly two years, they'd worked together when few others even knew the name Eisheth Zenunim. Rei, in her limited capacity, provided insight and guidance into their foe, and Misato was the pair of hands to carry out Rei's will. In some ways, it was a strange working relationship. Rei popped in whenever she saw fit and was prone to disappearing at a moment's notice.
Distantly, there was the sound of a door creaking open. "Ah, Mi-chan?" called Hyūga.
Misato poked her head out the bathroom door. "Yeah? Did you forget something?"
"My watch log. It should be on the endtable; I was, ah, distracted."
Misato smiled to herself. "Well, I should hope so." She retrieved the leather-bound notebook and trotted out to give it to him, and her bouncing gave him even more to be distracted with.
"Here I thought you'd be in a nightgown or tanktop by now," he remarked.
"You can blame Rei for that," said Misato. "I ask her to drop by, and we get sidetracked."
Hyūga made a face. "If it were anyone else, I might be jealous."
"Please. I won't consider sleeping with an alien older than age three billion."
Hyūga looked around Misato, into the bathroom. "Is Rei still here?"
Following his gaze, Misato saw only the closed shower curtain. "Well, she was. No surprise she's gone in a hurry, is it."
"I suppose not." Hyūga leaned in to give her a peck on the cheek. "See you for lunch." With that, he hurried out.
Yawning, Misato turned back to the bedroom, and as quickly as she had disappeared, Rei stood there once again, with the glow of the morning sun creeping in behind her around the curtains.
"So quick you are to vanish as soon as someone else passes by," Misato mused, tossing aside the spent bedsheets. She went through the dresser drawers, and just as Hyūga had predicted, she uncovered a thin white tanktop, a pair of exercise shorts, and suitable undergarments. "I'm just going to tell him everything you tell me."
"Every time I show myself to someone, it comes with a cost," said Rei. "A cost Eisheth exacts without exception. It's the same for her."
"I feel like we get the short end of things like that, considering she'll invade Shinji-kun's or Nozomi's mind to drive them mad. Do you talk to the Zenunim, hoping to show them all that is good and sickeningly sweet about the world?"
"I've tried," said Rei. "They don't listen very well, but even a small seed of hope may make the difference."
"Good luck with that. If we want to get something done, we need to do it ourselves. That's what I want to ask you about, Rei. For Eisheth to have made a move like this so suddenly, we don't have a lot of time, do we?"
"Eisheth hopes to happen upon a world in chaos and turmoil by the time her children reach this world in force. The Chairman's support for her may do just that, and we may not be able to recover before the Five's progeny arrive."
"And it's going to be sooner rather than later." Misato lay back with a sigh. "Rei, Nozomi isn't ready. The Americans and the Germans hardly have their dummy plugs tested and usable without their Eva destroying a few city blocks! And you're telling me the Children of the Five could get here within months? Weeks?"
"It's possible," said Rei. "I can't be certain."
Misato touched to fingers to her forehead, her brow furrowing in thought. " 'It's possible,' she says. Honestly, omniscience isn't what it used to be. Go get your money back, Rei. If it keeps us from having to go through Third Impact, so much the better."
"Even God cannot know if Schrödinger's cat is alive or dead, Colonel Katsuragi."
"Maybe not, but anyone deserving of the title would have a much better idea whether He should buy cat food or an urn at the end of the day. I'm going to assume the latter is what's ahead of us, and the fastest way to avoid humanity's swift return to the juice aisle is finding and stopping Lorenz."
"You intend to go after the Chairman?"
"Cut off the serpent's head, and it dies. Let's just hope he's only a snake in the grass instead of a hydra. Can you help me do that, despite the limits you place on yourself?"
Rei stared. "He's one man. There are many who follow him—and who follow Eisheth. I fear another would just take his place."
"Then we'll track down number two and number three and on and on until there is no one left to round up. What is it you like to say? That men come out of the sea only when they can imagine themselves in their own hearts? Well, here's what I say—they can only stay out here in the world when they can imagine hope, when they see that the rest of us will not stand to be overshadowed by despair. You believe in that sort of stuff, don't you?"
"I do. What do you need from me, Colonel Katsuragi?"
"Find me a trace of Lorenz—a clue, any clue—and I'll take it from there."
Rei gave a single nod. Misato shut her eyes tightly, trying to fight off one last speck of exhaustion to say something more, but when she opened her eyes again, Rei was gone. And that was fine; she'd asked Rei for a favor, one that Rei could work on while Misato herself found rest. Really, it was an odd partnership they shared. Rei had all the appearance and manners of a soft-spoken, distant, icy girl—one Misato had been content to guide and direct in her position as leader to the Children—but Rei was so much more than that. She was more human—and more than merely human. How strange it was to work with an alien whose greatest goal was to preserve the human race and its individuality.
It was Rei who came to Misato with a warning of what was to come, and Misato remembered that day well. As daylight came in full brightness, Misato shut her eyes and slept, but her memories weren't far from her in her dreams. Remembering why she'd chosen the path she walked gave her the strength and fortitude to press on.
Some people may have found it easy and peaceful to drift within the LCL sea, but Misato wasn't one of them. To be in contact with others, to have her soul bared and exposed—it humiliated her. There are things no man should see in another. How could anyone understand it when she'd looked upon Kaji in years past and found the warmth and security she'd wanted from her father instead? She'd hardly known how to make sense of such a feeling. Anyone else would simply judge her—either for that, or for what she'd done in more recent days. Human beings could indeed be lonely creatures, and she'd turned to a boy for comfort and solace. Kaji had gone, and so had Rei. Asuka was in no state to be around either of them, so it had been just Shinji and Misato—two people alone in an uncaring world.
She'd thought to give him comfort, even if it meant surrendering her body to him. How else could they forget the losses they'd suffered together? At the tender age of fourteen, Shinji was a boy thrust into the position of being a man—of dealing with hardship, loss, and despair, and for thousands of years, men had found respite and relief through intimacy.
But most others in the LCL sea didn't see it that way. She felt their hatred, their invective. Their disapproval and horror invaded her. How could she even consider that with a child? How could she have kissed him on the lips and promised more when he returned for her, even knowing she'd be dead long before he came back?
They didn't see Shinji for the man he was becoming, the man Misato wanted to see him grow into, and for that, Misato was a loathed and despised part of the collective consciousness mankind had become. She became privy to the thoughts of others, of men and women who fancied themselves lovers of children, and their incessant thoughts of debauchery, of unseemly acts meant to defile without respect or pause, disgusted her. Others subjected her to violent, unspeakable images, the explicit wishes of what they'd wished happened to her. She felt acid burning on her skin, even though her body was no longer there. Invisible flames seared her most private places, and the only saving grace was that no one thought or image stuck with her for long. She pressed on, though, not because she had enough individuality left to exert force of will. Rather, there was nowhere else for her to go.
Until Shinji left the ocean, until the whole of the human race felt one of its number depart. From that day forward, the thoughts and minds in the ocean diminished steadily as people found hope, but where others were encouraged to go back by the specters of loved ones, family, or friends, someone different came to Misato, someone she had no special affection for.
The person-the thing-that spoke to her then separated her from the rest of the LCL sea. This dreamland was a dark place with a single wooden chair and the infinite expanse of space high above her, stars twinkling without end. Misato sat there, amid a circle of light that came from nowhere and ended just a few feet away on granular, sandy ground. The intruder in her mind stood in the circle too, lit up as if the full sun were on her, yet darkness surrounded them both.
Even in full night, the invader's stark red eyes were unmistakable.
"Hello, Lilith," said Misato, pointedly avoiding Rei's gaze. "What brings you to this corner of my mind?"
Rei stared at her. "That isn't my name."
But it was. The person before her—the image, the specter in Misato's mind—wasn't any human being. It was the avatar of Lilith, the bringer of this calamity to mankind. Once upon a time, there might've been a person with the name Ayanami Rei, but that was before Instrumentality had come. Perhaps that was why Misato could never quite come to an understanding with Rei. She was an alien trapped in a girl's body, and the girl was gone. The alien stood before Misato instead, with an agenda that was impossible to fathom.
"Many have left the sea, following in Ikari-kun's footsteps," said Rei. "Why haven't you?"
"Trying to get your body reconstituted can just be such a hassle," said Misato. "You have to make sure all your bones are in the right place, that you didn't misplace a few capillaries or shift a few organs. Seems like more trouble than it's worth, in my opinion. Shinji-kun will build up all that you tore down. My work here is done. Let me sleep. Let all the others go back, so I can be left in peace. What more can I be expected to do?"
"I don't expect anything, but there are things you can do that Ikari-kun can't, that he shouldn't be involved in. This world isn't yet safe." Rei raised her eyes skyward, taking in the stars' light. "There is a shadow coming, Major Katsuragi—a shadow I can't peer into, can't understand. I can't fight it, but perhaps you can."
What a foolish thought. One doesn't simply fight shadows. One turns down the lights so that the shadows disappear. Even then, any safety gained is just an illusion. What really happens is that the shadows grow all around you until you can't tell them apart anymore.
"You've lost people close to you," Rei went on, "but Ikari-kun is still out there. He struggles to find a place in the world. Even if you can't help me against what may come, you can help him."
Misato frowned. "Why would he need help? He made the choice to leave. He's okay now, isn't he?"
"One decision doesn't define a person, nor does it change who they've been in one fell swoop. I know this, and so do you."
True enough. Misato had seen such an act once, when her father saved her from Second Impact, sacrificing himself. He'd been so distant, putting his work ahead of her and her mother, but he found it in himself to give his life for her. It would've been easy to say he was always a good man and always cared for her even when he'd spent days and weeks away. Perhaps that was true, too, yet still, Misato wasn't so quick to absolve him of the mistakes he'd made. To do differently would've been to idolize him in a way that wasn't true to his life, however flawed it had been.
It wasn't a difficult decision to make, really. That Rei or "Lilith" or whoever she was had come urging Misato to emerge from the muck had been off-putting, yes, but to be free of the sea of human despair—even to go out there with few connections and so much lost—was as good a reason as any.
"What do I have to do?" asked Misato.
"As long as you can imagine yourself in your heart, that is enough," said Rei.
"And after that, I work for you, fighting shadows?"
"You're free to do as you wish, but I hope you will help me. There is much that I see, Major Katsuragi, both in the future and the past. It is what I can't see into that frightens me."
As vague and cryptic as ever. That much was like Rei. And how could Misato imagine herself in her heart? That should've been easy. She knew how her body looked in a mirror, and with the thoughts and feelings of others temporarily at bay, she could concentrate and hold that image together.
But there was more to her than her body, wasn't there? A person can be disfigured, maimed, or—as was apt in her case—scarred and still be the same in soul or spirit. There was more to her than looks. There was determination when she had a job to do. There was silliness when she passed time at home, drinking beer by the light of dawn. There was a part of her missing since Kaji had gone, and since her father years before that. A person had to be all of these things and more. Even then, the whole picture was incomplete.
But incomplete thought the portrait of herself may have been, Misato felt something in the ground—a rumbling, a movement. Her gaze shot up to the stars, but they brightened and widened, filling the once-bleak night sky with a white glow. Was it the sky falling on her, or the ground moving up to meet the stars? Perhaps both?
Either way, as the wall of light approached, Misato held her breath in anticipation, and—
She found water instead—sickly, tinted water, tasting of blood, but water nonetheless.
"Got another one here!" cried a voice, and a life ring landed an arm's length away from Misato.
So this is the new world, thought Misato, gazing to the sky. It was blue, like always. Only the orange water and the bloody streak along the moon told her the world had really changed.
"Miss?" said the voice. "You want to grab that life ring? Or should we be on our way?"
Misato turned her gaze closer to the horizon, spotting a fishing boat as it bobbed on short, choppy waves. A three-man crew worked the deck, with one of the men holding the rope of the life ring.
"Are you always in so much of a hurry?" asked Misato, taking the orange ring in hand.
"You bet we are," cried one of the crewmen. "We're fishing for people. We get paid by the head."
"So take that ring firmly or let us move on," said the third crewman. "And if you do come aboard, don't make trouble, or this guy here will take out a cod knife and keep only your head."
An uproar of laughter came over the deck as Misato was pulled aboard. Right away, she was showered with towels and blankets to soak up the water and insulate her from the wind. Once she was on the deck, the crew hardly looked at her properly, for there were several survivors aboard already. Misato took this as a good sign: civilization had not only endured, but it was thriving. Mankind was rebuilding itself with each passing day. It was a far cry from what Misato expected—just to see a hint of organization at all was encouraging, and there was more. The white fishing boat with silver trim circled about the crater bay for a while, but as dusk approached, the boat changed its course toward shore. The sailors tied up at a lively harbor, built of fresh lumber unsoiled by the passage of time in the sea. To see hundreds of boats tied up peacefully was an inspiring sight indeed. The whole of the world hadn't gone to pieces after all.
"How long has it been?" Misato asked one of the fishermen.
"Four months since the boy came up. He was the first. You know about him, right? Most people who come out do." The fisherman glanced at her face, and a light of recognition came to him. "You do, don't you? You're that Katsuragi woman!"
Misato tightened her grip on her blanket. "What about it?" she demanded.
"If not for how you inspired that kid to fight, would any of us be here?" The fisherman cupped his hands around his mouth. "Hey, Skipper! Get a load of who we picked up? It's the Katsuragi woman!"
"Katsuragi?" echoed the captain, peering from the wheelhouse. "Then let's buy her a round, boys!"
"A round?" cried one of the deckhands. "Of beer?"
"No, soda water; yes, beer, price be damned!"
Never before had Misato been so happy to be carried around half-naked by a horde of burly, smelly men, just to be passed cup after cup of hot sake. The people in the sea hated her, but out here, among the people who'd found hope in living again, she was revered and respected—yes, even in little more than her birthday suit. Only four months since Shinji had come from the sea, and already, men could find joy and celebrate their lives. Perhaps it was a new and improved mindset from having overcome baggage, fears, and doubts by returning from the sea.
But men had only so much to do with it. Four months it had been since Shinji rose from the sea, but over thirty years had passed on Earth. The motions of the stars above were a testament to that. It'd taken that long for even one person to break through the false hope of the sea. How attractive it must've been—even to Misato, who'd thought it appalling. Yet what should've decayed in three decades remained pristine. The boats in the harbor resisted rust. The roads stayed black and smooth. It was as if the world had gone into hibernation, waiting for humanity to reappear, but even that night at the marina bar, Misato heard whispers of the truth. Sailors were historically superstitious folk, and some of the old salts by the bar would toast each other and say,
"To the ocean, to my fellow mariners, and to Lilith, may She watch over us as She has for three decades past."
What a ridiculous concept—almost as ridiculous as the profound lack of liquor in Misato's cup. "Bartender," she slurred, "more please! Please please please thank you please."
While the barman prepared more free alcohol for her, the truth of the matter became clear to her. It couldn't have been Rei who preserved the world for them. The mighty and powerful Lilith wouldn't have had need to ask for her help if she could alter nature itself to make it bend to her will.
'The time will come when my powers wane, Major Katsuragi.'
Those two red eyes stared out at Misato from the mirror behind the barman. Misato turned around, but only drunken sailors singing boisterously were behind her. Nevertheless, the image of Rei kept Misato transfixed as long as she faced forward.
"What could possibly make you so power…power…" Misato frowned, trying to find the right word. "Helpless?"
'Someone else like me.'
For a moment, Misato thought she glimpsed real worry on Rei's face, but that could've been her imagination, just like the powder blue duckling she saw waddling on the counter.
Definitely her imagination.
When morning came, a throbbing hangover wiped both observations from her mind. The sailors had been kind enough to let her sleep on their boat—with a pair of padlocks on the door, at that, just to protect her from unwanted nighttime guests, but that security didn't hold for long. By half-past-ten, a series of chants roused Misato from her headache-induced stupor.
Groggy and rubbing her temple, Misato peered out the side window of the cabin. The sunlight bored into her, and she winced, but the sight was clear enough. A crowd had gathered by the marina, with little more than an improvised barrier of traffic cones and wooden planks to hold them at bay. A small number of police officers stood guard at the barrier, but they were few and far between. Who would want to take a job as a civil servant after such a cataclysm?
But the beleaguered police, who seemed on edge and lost dealing with the boisterous crowd, were soon backed up by bigger guns. A motorcade rolled into the marina, headed by a black limousine. Men in black suits hopped out, symbolizing the authority of government in its most inevitable form. Six agents cut through the crowd, establishing a narrow lane to walk through, and four more escorted their charge past the masses. A balding man in a dark blue suit came down the path, his steps small but steady.
"Captain, may we speak with your guest?" he asked the skipper of the boat.
If the captain made any reply, it must've been silent. The door to Misato's cabin opened, and with a gesture, the man in the blue suit waved off his bodyguards, stepping inside alone.
"Well, Katsuragi-san, you've made quite a commotion," he said, putting on a smile.
"Are we supposed to know each other?" asked Misato.
The man in the blue suit laughed to himself wryly. "Probably not. I doubt we've ever met. Before the Impact, I used to be Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology."
"Yes, well, I thought so too, at the time."
"You're the Prime Minister now," Misato observed.
"Legally? No. While the Office of the Prime Minister is vacant, technically no one in his Cabinet remains in power, but the Diet has yet to reconvene. Someone must maintain order instead of allowing the country to fall into chaos. We are but a fraction of what we were, Katsuragi-san. This country, and the world as a whole, must rebuild, and to rebuild, leaders are needed."
Misato huffed. "You don't waste any time, do you?"
"I find in this world, there is precious little time to waste. Right now, there is a crowd of people outside who feel they owe you gratitude—and what's more, who feel that your coming gives them hope. That sentiment does not reside only in the hearts of people here. You are associated with Ikari Shinji, the boy who made the first step out of the ocean. To some, you are like the Apostle John to his Christ."
Misato's hand went to her neck, only to find nothing around it. Whatever this new Prime Minister's name was, he certainly had done his homework, using a comparison like that.
"If you join the government, you can make a difference. People are already predisposed to listen to you. That can make your voice be heard even when others' are drowned out."
Misato sighed. "Look, I've been out of the ocean all of what, a day? I haven't even had the chance to put on a proper pair of pants. I'm not ready to jump right back into the role of making the world a better place, noble-sounding as it may be." And frankly, she added to herself, I know nothing about you or your government.
"I understand," said the Prime Minister. "There are times I wish I could step back and leave this task to stronger, wiser, and better men. But I am in the position I am, and I know history would not look kindly on me if I left the mess to someone else, so here I am. That's why I made my case quickly, so that we would waste as little of each other's time as possible. But if you do change your mind, come to Tōkyō-2. If there's still a government to join then, that is. Whatever your path, I wish you the best, Katsuragi-san."
Nodding absently, Misato didn't see when the Prime Minister headed out. She only heard the hatch clank as it shut, and that was fine by her. In some ways, the sea was more restful. Most things didn't reach her with much clarity, and if they did, it was fleeting. Misato just wanted to sleep for a bit. Maybe for more than a bit, given the pain in her head that was like a power drill boring through her skull.
"Where's Katsuragi?" a voice cried.
"We want Katsuragi! Make her come out!"
A man's voice came on a megaphone, echoing through the port. "By instruction of the Kakō authorities, you are ordered to disperse. All those unaffiliated with the marina or its operations will be subject to fines and arrest. Please disperse."
But the crowd grew rowdy and restless. They jeered the police and shouted. Misato covered her ears with her pillow, trying to drown the noise out.
BANG! Some thing, some object, impacted the hull of the boat, and Misato fell out of the small bed in surprise.
Whistles blared. "Step back!" said the man with the megaphone. "Throwing objects of any kind will be construed as assault and vandalism! Desist!"
BANG, BANG, BANG! A barrage of objects—rocks, shoes, and more—descended on the fishing boat, and the police and fell back with their riot shields. The ruckus pulsed in Misato's ears, and then—
She bolted upright—and then thought better of it, taking cover behind the bed instead. A gunshot sounds deceptively powerless from a distance, but she'd have known that noise anywhere. There was commotion, screaming, but the single gunshot was all that rang out. Warily, Misato peered through the porthole of the cabin. One of the Prime Minister's agents kept his arm outstretched, pointed to the sky with a pistol in hand. The crowd thinned and dispersed with the police's blessing, and the Prime Minister made his way to his car.
So desperate were these people for hope that they would destroy the very thing they sought if it meant their voices would be heard, and the only way the government of Japan could control them was by the threat of a loaded gun.
That dark hour Misato witnessed did more to convince her of what needed to be done than any speech Rei or the Prime Minister gave her.
As the shadow over Earth took shape—shape in the form of Eisheth Zenunim—Misato came to trust in Rei. This alliance was begrudging at first, but they had worked together for too long to let any suspicions linger. It made sense to Misato, anyway. Rei would do what was best for her children, and while Shinji would not publicly speak on why he left the ocean, in private he was adamant: Kaworu and Rei had spoken to him there, had given him the perspective needed to find value in living again. If she deemed it best for her children to live, Rei would do all in her power to keep it that way, to fight Eisheth's coming with all her strength.
A pity that strength was largely tied up in arcane rules Rei and Eisheth had agreed upon, rules in place wherever their influences overlapped. How could anyone agree with Eisheth on anything or negotiate the terms of battle with such a foe?
"It is a better alternative than reducing existence to uncertain nothingness," Rei had said once. "That, or Eisheth and I would fight endlessly for eons, with neither of us able to aid or instruct our children. What would you do then if Eisheth's children came?"
If those were really the consequences, Misato would just have to take Rei's word for it. But while Rei purposefully kept herself limited, the burden fell to Misato to get the job done on planet Earth, and get it done she would.
After a good day's sleep, the first order of business was to see to the well-being of the country. As Japan went, so went Asia, and in turn, the world. Being one of the three nations with an Eva carried that weight and power, a weight that others in the region weren't too happy with. The Chinese, the Russians, the Koreans (North or South) must've been ecstatic to see Keel's goons run amok through the capital. It would speak to Japanese weakness, and that Misato couldn't allow.
Well-rested and settled in her mind, Misato journeyed back to National Square to make her intentions known: she would meet with the Prime Minister and give him her recommendations as far as how to deal with the threat of Keel Lorenz and his band of nihilistic lunatics. He would be wise to heed her advice. The Diet was a fickle and capricious body, liable to throw out the Prime Minister and elect a new one at the drop of a hat. Misato's displeasure with a decision could be enough to catalyze such a motion, though she was loathe to actually bring herself into any political arena. Politics was the domain of liars and cowards, nothing more, and though she practiced it when she needed, to, that didn't mean she enjoyed it.
That Minister of Education who'd come to her, wishing to get out of the job soon and relieve himself of responsibility—he'd had the right idea, and to his credit, the Diet had overseen his ouster by the next spring.
In general, though, most affairs were best left in the hands of the civilian government anyway. It let her focus on the bigger picture, but when she spoke up on the coming of Eisheth, she expected to be heard and listened to.
"Where is my go board?"
Not ignored for the sake of a strategy game.
In the mansion on the northern edge of National Square, the Prime Minister's staff and aides boxed up files and papers. Prime Minister Sakurai himself, a beady-eyed man with a goatee and silver glasses, rifled through the drawers of his desk, seemingly oblivious to Misato's presence.
"If I'm going to spend my time entirely underground, I must have my go board," he insisted. "My daughters would be utterly lost without it."
Misato did her best to stand tall and be proper while Sakurai's aides wove around her with stacks of binders and folders. "Sir," she said, "don't you think you're overreacting?"
"Absolutely not!" he cried. "The city is not safe, and I will not make myself an easy target for this Lorenz or Eisheth or anyone else! You thought you could steal that mountain from me, Katsuragi, but I will not be left here to die!"
Misato averted her gaze and sighed. Here she was, trying to give him advice to save the world, and he was preoccupied with saving his own ass instead. Still, there was one part in his statement she could latch on to. "If we can find and detain Lorenz, his followers will crumble, sir. Finding him should be this country's number one security priority."
"On that we agree, Colonel Katsuragi," said the Prime Minister. "But what more do you want? You've already been in pursuit of him."
"Under the authority and restrictions that membership in SDF comes with in a time of peace. I urge you, Prime Minister, to grant emergency powers in this time of crisis."
Prime Minister Sakurai paled, and his expression soured considerably. "Out," he muttered.
"Excuse me?" said Misato.
"Out!" he said, louder. "Everyone, out!"
Stunned, the half-dozen aides in the room shuffled out as quickly as they could, and Prime Minister Sakurai rose from his desk, pacing. He went to a window and poked at the blinds. They were shut, blocking out the sunlight, but he pulled at a slat, letting a touch of light through. "Do you know, Colonel, the caliber of bullet this glass is rated to handle?"
"I don't, sir."
"Neither do I, but I suspect it's very high. Yet still, my advisers recommend that I keep the blinds shut, for even though we have security details keeping a watch on everything within two hundred meters, no one can guarantee my safety. I want to be safe, Katsuragi. The people want to be safe. That's why I'm preparing this office's belongings to go to Hachibuse Mountain. That's an easy decision because it comes at no loss of liberty. The worst that will happen is people consider me a coward for abandoning the capital. That is a risk I'm willing to take. What I'm not willing to do is send this country to a state of panic with emergency measures. That much is right out. We are not at war, Katsuragi. Not yet."
"With respect, Prime Minister, we have been at war from the day Eisheth set her gaze upon this world."
The Prime Minister sighed. "Damn that monstrosity. Space is so vast and empty. You'd think there'd be enough room for five-eyed beasts from outer space to leave us alone."
"I wish that were the case, sir, but as it is, her agents walk this earth freely. I don't enjoy the thought of inciting fear, but Eisheth is already doing that. The SDF is legally an arm of the police. For the purposes of ensuring the security of this nation, you have the power to charge us with any appropriate mandate that does not abridge the basic rights of Japanese citizens. I am not asking to abridge any rights. I'm asking only to be able to pursue a threat to our security with the full force of my command, in conjunction with any local authorities."
"Local authorities who may be in this country or abroad," the Prime Minister corrected. "I will not authorize any action overseas without the written permission of appropriate counterparts in those nations." Even this concession seemed to weigh on the Prime Minister, and he rubbed his eyes to get the weariness out of his body. "Beyond that, do what you must, Colonel Katsuragi, to neutralize the threat. I've not even gone to the mountain yet, and I'm already tired of sitting in hiding."
With the Prime Minister's assent, Misato would've agreed to anything he wished. Sure, he was being awfully skittish with this retreat to the mountain complex, but agreeing to his request, his demand, had bought her the power needed to track down Keel wherever he might be. Putting up with the Prime Minister for a few days would be well worth it, in her opinion.
For most of the afternoon, Misato oversaw the transference of the seat of government to the mountain. The screening of the documents, electronics, and personnel was laborious. If even one microscopic tracker entered the base, someone would know where the Eva was being housed. Eisheth would've liked nothing more than to zero in on Nozomi and the only place of real resistance to her might.
All day, Misato fielded requests for space from the Prime Minister's staff and her own subordinates. Such were the benefits of sitting atop the chain of command. Other people got to do the grunt work. Misato had to actually use her head to solve problems and make decisions no one else would be accountable for. Heavens forbid she actually use her rank and strategic training to command forces in the field. Signing forms and stamping paperwork with her approval had to be 90% of her job.
"Careful," said Hyūga, poking his head into her office. "If you stamp those forms any harder, you might break through the desk."
Misato put her stamp away, sighing. "Aren't you supposed to salute when you enter the presence of a superior officer?"
Seeing no one else around, Hyūga touched a finger to his forehead and made a small, casual salute. "I brought you something," he said, revealing a sandwich wrapped up in plastic. "Since you didn't have time for lunch."
Misato simpered. "You're a lifesaver, Makoto-kun."
"That's not all I've brought you."
Raising an eyebrow, Misato eyed the closed door. "Oh really?" she said. "Is this a personal visit?"
Hyūga grinned. "Not that. I have some intel from Bluebird."
From Rei. Giving her a codename made the hints and information she supplied to Misato no different from other sources of intelligence, and it meant Misato and Hyūga could talk about Rei's findings even among people who weren't entirely in the know.
Hyūga handed over a file folder for Misato to read over. "Bluebird's discovered a group of the Chairman's holdouts near Kakō. They're using it as a short-range transmission base. The Chairman isn't there, but there's a chance some of his people may know where he's gone."
"Do we have people in place?" asked Misato. "It needs to be surgical; we need as many kept alive as possible. They may be just crazy enough to blow themselves up or melt themselves rather than be taken prisoner."
"I've put nearby GSDF teams in position; they're just waiting your approval."
Hyūga produced another form, and Misato stamped it at once.
"Can you get me a flight?"
"Helicopter's on the pad, waiting for you."
Misato rose and kissed him on the cheek. "Hold the fort while I'm gone. I'm going to get some truth out of these bastards."
Military helicopters aren't known for their comforts, and to help keep their bearings and resist motion sickness, members of SDF are taught to watch the earth, so the brain can correlate its movements with those of the body. That suited Misato fine, for she could see the gradual changes in the landscape as she left Tōkyō-2 for her destination: Kakō, the crater, the place where Rei's Black Moon had risen from the earth and left a great void for the ocean to claim.
From the air, the areas around Kakō still showed the scars of Third Impact. Where there were trees, they were young and fledgling. Smaller, rural roads were washed out in places, waiting for enough free workers to clear them. Given how things were progressing around the country, that could take the rest of the decade. Here was man, feebly trying to rebuild, yet before he could finish, Eisheth would come to wipe all his work away.
Not if Misato could help it.
The helicopter touched down near the northern face of Mount Hakone, for on the other side there was only water for miles to come. On this inhospitable terrain, there were few signs of civilization. That must've been what attracted the followers of Eisheth—the seclusion gave them freedom to associate and meet without fear.
By the time Misato arrived on the scene, the action had already wrapped up. Followers of Eisheth lay face-down on the mountainside, their hands bound behind their backs with plastic ties. Their base of operations had been a cave—sophisticated in its construction, with overhead lights powered by gasoline generators. They'd slept and eaten in this hideout for months, no doubt, and used it to plan their operations of terror. Blueprints for buildings told of their desire to eliminate hard targets, and whiteboards inside the caves showed drawings of explosive devices of all shapes and sizes—some small enough to conceal in a closed fist, others large enough to destroy a car.
For people so devoted to a better quality of human life, their capacity for violence couldn't be underestimated.
The prisoners themselves were, as expected, uncooperative. They carried no identification and said nothing, looking on mute while SDF took their fingerprints and saliva. The code of silence and loyalty to Eisheth would prove unbreakable. Misato had seen it too many times. They would just melt themselves into LCL at the first sign of coercive methods.
"Major," said Misato, approaching the local commander, "would you mind if I have an opportunity to interrogate a suspect?"
"You're welcome to take a crack at one of them," said the major, "but I must insist that we record the session. It's as much to verify statements and collected intel as to protect the prisoners from undue harm, ma'am."
"Not to worry," said Misato. "I'm not planning undue harm to anyone's body."
As night came over Japan, a caravan of military vehicles transported the prisoners to Camp Takeyama, headquarters of the Eastern Army out of Yokosuka. The base had been but a small cog in the Japanese arsenal prior to Second Impact, but Yokosuka sat between the two ruined cities of old Tōkyō and the former Hakone. With impact craters on either side, one could only wonder how long it would be until Yokosuka sank into the sea as well.
Given the time of night, Misato didn't take long to survey the décor. She barged right into an interrogation room and let the fluorescent lights sting her eyes. The locals quickly fetched her one of the malcontents—a kid, unshaven, with disheveled brown hair and blue eyes. If not for his stronger jaw, he could've been Shinji, based on age and appearance. Instead, he was Shinji's antithesis, and the light of recognition sparked in his eyes as the guards sat him down before Misato. He slumped in the bare, angular metal chair with his wrists bound before him, and he eyed his own reflection in the one-way mirror.
Misato caught one of the guards as they were leaving. "Don't I get some information?" she whispered. "Name? A profile? Favorite postage stamp?"
The guard shook his head. They didn't know anything. For all they could say, this kid popped into existence from nothing, the creation of the same five-eyed god he served.
"My," remarked Misato. "Is Eisheth getting her recruits from high school these days?"
The teenager said nothing.
"When I was in high school, I was played soccer during the day and tried to sneak boys into my room at night. I didn't have any great cause to fight for. Things are different now. Just to walk around each day, you have to decide you want to be here. Maybe we all decided too fast."
The teenager raised an eyebrow. "If even you doubt the worthiness of your cause, you're doomed to fail, Colonel."
And if it only takes two lines to get you to open your mouth, you're just as arrogant as you look. "You don't have doubts?" asked Misato.
"So if someone said that it's good to doubt once in a while, to think critically and objectively about what you're doing and why, you'd say what?"
"That I have thought about who I choose to follow. I came back into this world on Lilith's promise, and she hasn't delivered. She is the false god, and only Eisheth can bring all people back to the sea."
"Some violence is necessary to see that happen," said Misato. "Not all people will go back to the ocean willingly."
"It would be worse to do nothing," said the boy. "That's the only justification—the only one that matters, the only one we need."
"Then that is what I think you should start looking at more closely, young man. People are dying out there thanks to what Keel Lorenz has stirred up. What does setting fires and shooting guns do to help bring Eisheth's paradise to Earth? You can still be loyal to the goal of bringing all people back to the sea without supporting his brand of mayhem. That is a goal I…can grudgingly respect." Misato balled her fists and shivered, but she pressed on. "What Lorenz is fostering is irreversible harm. People can't return to the sea once they've been dead for long. Help me find him. Help me stop him. This is in both our interests. The harm he's doing is greater than the good."
The boy held his head high, sneering. "Eisheth has chosen Lorenz as her voice on Earth. He acts with her blessing, and her will is unerring."
Stubborn and devout. That's what this kid was. He would not listen to reason; his belief in Keel and Eisheth were too strong. Children tended to be worse than adults in that way. Their beliefs tended to come about from indoctrination rather than reason, and as such, they would shrug off any persuasive argument.
Still, Misato wasn't nearly done with the boy just yet. "Do you wish to enter Eisheth's paradise? To hear her harmony in the sea?"
"It's the reason you fight, so that her paradise will be more comprehensive, more complete."
"And if you couldn't go there, what would you do?"
He scoffed. "You can't harm me, Colonel. This body is only a shell. It's malleable. I will turn to LCL and escape all the tortures you'd subject me to."
"Why not do that right now?"
The boy narrowed his eyes, saying nothing.
"You'd be all alone," Misato observed. "Left to the prison of your own memories and fears until Eisheth comes to liberate you. Am I right?"
"She will liberate us."
Misato touched a knuckle to the one-way mirror and tapped. Thus far, this discussion had gone roughly as she'd expected. The followers of Eisheth detested individuality. It was the one thing they hated and feared. And if Misato couldn't reason with them, she would use that fear instead.
On cue, two SDF guards brought in a tall, narrow metal tank. A square window on the front showed the contents: a deep orange liquid that went up to the top of the tank.
"This is a person," said Misato. "One of your friends. A follower of Eisheth who wouldn't talk and preferred to melt himself rather than be questioned. We gathered up his LCL with a vacuum cleaner and keep him here. I don't think he'll be reintegrating himself for some time. The metal of the tank is very sharp, very confining."
"Is this supposed to scare me?"
Misato chuckled, tilting the tank to and fro to make it shake. "Why, yes, it is supposed to scare you. This is the future of your existence if you decide to escape us by reverting to the stuff Lilith made you from. You will be all alone, confined to a tank much like this one. Let's say Eisheth does win; let's say she comes to save you. How long will that take? Do you think you'll last mentally, all alone in a prison like this one?"
"You think a few weeks of captivity is enough to make me betray what I believe in?"
Misato grinned, and the boy realized his mistake, scowling.
"I'm saying nothing more," he insisted, turning his head away.
"Don't speak then. Just listen. We want information. We're going to talk you around in circles. We'll probe at your mind, at the very things you consider true, and if you tire of that existence, then this tank is the thing you'll have to look forward to. We can't allow people like you to go back and forth between LCL and flesh and blood at will. If you decide to escape corporeal existence, this is all that awaits you." Misato touched her finger to the window into the tank. "Do you know what I think of people who would do that? Who would choose to go back to this? They're scum. All of you, you're scum. You don't even have the courage to die; you would choose to hang around, doing nothing with your lives. There are some people who would leave people like you in these tanks for all eternity, but that's not a permanent solution."
"And what is?" asked the boy.
"Each of these tanks has an emergency switch," said Misato. "It releases a chemical into the LCL that interrupts any electrical impulses traveling through organic material. Without those complex interactions, the mind dies, and the soul quickly goes with it, unless you're there to capture it and save it. Well, we have no interest in doing anything like that. Why don't you have a look?"
The boy surged against his restraints, but the bolted-down chair kept him in place. "No! You can't!"
But she did. Misato threw the switch on the side of the tank, and across the window seeped a black fluid. The once-clear and uniform LCL started clumping and settling out of the solution as bloody red masses.
"I thought you said you wanted to avoid bloodshed!" cried the boy. "You're a monster! You're everything we hate about this world!"
"I'm only doing the same as you," said Misato coldly. "I'm willing to kill because I think it would be worse not to. You would use intimidation to frighten people into following Eisheth; why shouldn't I do the same for my cause? Maybe you'll realize now you're no better than the rest of us. Killing for a cause is killing all the same. Whatever you believe, know this: we will get the truth out of you, boy. We will do it, and if you resist, if you try to escape, we will put you in a tank like this one. You'll be all alone, and once you've gone mad from that existence, I will personally destroy your immortal soul."
The boy looked on in horror, his mouth hanging agape.
"Now then," Misato went on, her voice high pitched and sweet, "would you tell me where Keel Lorenz is?"
Within twenty minutes, Misato had the information she wanted. She needed only have it verified by the testimony of other prisoners. She delegated this task to the locals with specific instructions.
"Put a tank like that one in each room," she said. "Put on a show, and make them think about the eternal lives they want to be leading."
"But Colonel," asked one of the officers, "is that real LCL from the ocean? Or does it not have any human souls in it?"
"Gentlemen, really. It's a colloidal suspension with orange food coloring. You just add some more solute to the mix, and it all settles out. Don't let them know that, though. If word gets out, no one will be frightened by it."
"Ma'am," said another officer, "is this really ethical? This is more than threatening someone with death; it's worse than eternal damnation. This is the total destruction of a man's soul. There are procedures, guidelines—"
Misato stared down the man, silencing him, and the question of the morality of what they were doing didn't come up again. Sure, maybe they weren't supposed to threaten prisoners with grievous, permanent bodily harm. There was no real threat while they were human beings anyway. As long as they didn't retreat from the interrogators and turn themselves to goo, there was no issue, at least in Misato's mind.
Regardless of the exact methods, the results were clear and unequivocal: Keel Lorenz had fled the country, just as Misato had predicted. His hideout was in his native homeland, the German state of Hesse.
And Misato would go there to deal with him.
In the dead of night, Misato returned to Tōkyō-2 with the intel and an outline for a tentative plan. She would take a squad of men with her to Germany and offer assistance to the local authorities, assistance they would be wise to take her up on given the advantages she could bring to bear. Who else had Rei's knowledge at her disposal? Who else knew the extent of Keel's crimes the way she did?
"Not everyone will see it that way," Hyūga cautioned her when she returned. "We have enough problems here at home. How will it look to have Japanese forces running around the globe?"
"It's a global problem we're facing; the problem doesn't end when you reach the seas around Japan," argued Misato. "Eisheth is coming. Her forces will be here in a matter of weeks, and if someone like Keel Lorenz is around, he will mobilize people to fight alongside the invaders, not against them. It's time to dig out the infection and destroy it. Lorenz's thinking is a sickness, nothing more. I'm going to track him down, and I'd like it if you were there with me."
Hyūga scoffed. "Not exactly what I had in mind for a date, but I suppose it'll have to do. Let me go clean my rifle."
Now that was exciting. The prospect of seeing Hyūga in safety glasses and with a sight to his eye was very attractive. It gave Misato something to look forward to on this trip.
But plans had to be made, and paperwork demanded signing. She's only been awake for twelve hours, so despite the time of night, Misato guzzled down a can of coffee and went to it. She sifted through proposed travel arrangements, selected personally the members of her strike team, and detailed the arsenal of weapons they would take with them. Misato fully expected Keel to be armed to the teeth, so she followed a simple maxim: one only carried too much ammunition if it couldn't be fired fast enough to be used in battle. One only took too many grenades if there wasn't enough space on one's belt to keep them at hand. And though the mountain was quiet overnight, there was a steady stream of new reports from the war room—new details of intelligence from Keel's followers, leads that the German authorities were pursuing in search of the madman, and so on. Thus, it was no surprise when a knock came to Misato's office door. "Yes, come in!" she called out.
In walked Shinji, dressed in a fuzzy plaid pants and a short-sleeved white shirt. "Good evening, Misato-san."
"Evening? Maybe morning. What are you doing up?"
"I could ask you the same thing."
Misato shrugged. "Paperwork. It never goes away."
Shinji nodded, peering over the desk, even as Misato pulled some of the forms away, given their sensitive nature. Shinji sighed instead, putting his hands in his pockets. "I'd settle for some paperwork right now. It'd make for a good distraction."
Putting down her pen, Misato studied the boy before her. He was older, yes, and his face had lost some of its rounded, childish shape. She'd seen photos of Gendō and Yui when they were young, and Shinji'd started to resemble his father in countenance, though not in attitude. On the inside, he was still a deliberate, conscientious person, prone to worrying over things rather than attacking them recklessly. That was more like Asuka's style.
Misato pointed an open hand to the chair across from her. "Have a seat," she said, collecting her papers. "How are you holding up, Shinji-kun?"
"I'm okay," he said. "I've walked all around the base a few times now. It's quite a bit to traverse, so it's good exercise. It keeps me from thinking about things too much."
"What would you think about?"
"Being stuck here, sitting around all day, waiting for Eisheth to come."
"You're helping Nozomi," said Misato. "She's doing well, isn't she?"
He nodded. "She is. She's really taking to the obligation. She understands the responsibility. I've been teaching her what I can, and she has a good support system thanks to her family. She even gets visitors sometimes. I think she'll do well. I just don't feel like I'm doing enough. If I did more, I wouldn't have to stay here every day."
"You're doing exactly what's needed of you. Focus on Nozomi. It won't be long now."
"You think so?"
Misato nodded grimly.
"I see," said Shinji, his gaze growing distant. "It all could end so soon. There were things I wanted to do before Eisheth's children came. Now it feels like there's not enough time." He chuckled sardonically. "I can't even marry Asuka. Girls can get married at sixteen; boys can't get married until eighteen. Did you know that?"
"I could ask the PM to introduce a bill to the Diet," offered Misato. "It really is discriminatory to have that kind of double standard."
Shinji shook his head. "I wouldn't have it done for just me. Asuka's a little cynical on marriage anyway. It would cause more trouble than it's worth."
"It's just a word," said Misato. "What the two of you have wouldn't change magically because of it. See your friends, Shinji-kun. Even if they can't come by the mountain and submit to procedures, we can set up video conferences. We can do all in our power to keep you safe while giving you the ability to maintain contact. Human bonds—those are what will empower us to defeat Eisheth. They're just as important as helping train Nozomi."
"That feels selfish somehow, to try to find happiness for myself when doom is hurtling through space every second."
"Then give other people hope, too. Go on the radio; go on television and the Internet. You're fighting this fight with me, aren't you? Your voice can make a difference."
Shinji's brow creased. "Would that really help? Or would that just make things worse? Have you seen the letters I get, Misato-san? Do you know the hate that is thrown at me every second of the day?"
She could imagine, and in deference to Shinji, she said nothing more on that matter. Long had she hoped that Shinji would speak up in support of the fight against Eisheth, but Shinji shied away from the public eye. It was hard enough for him to stand with her on stage as Rei appeared to lay down the truth for humanity. Shinji had done a great thing in choosing individuality versus the unfeeling collective, but he was still a child. Symbolically, he had led mankind from the ocean, but how much more could be asked of a boy still in the throes of puberty, still uncertain of what kind of person he was and what he would become?
That was the problem with some people—they expected Shinji to be heroic, to be infallible. They wanted him to act as a paragon of virtue and hope. Shinji may well have believed in such things, but he was sensitive to others' criticism, too. Perhaps, for someone squarely in the public eye as he was, he had shown himself to be too sensitive, but as a young man still trying to find his place in the world, could he really be blamed?
Misato sighed. Blame had nothing to do with it. Eisheth was coming whether they liked it or not.
With Misato's silence, Shinji calmed down, talking to himself. "I guess it would be good to see some friends. Hikari-san and I have spoken a little. We could invite Tōji by the base; I know she would like to see him, too. Has Ayanami been in contact with you, Misato-san?"
"She hasn't been in touch with you?"
Shinji shook his head meekly. "I'd thought we were friends, and she says she watches over me, but she only does it from the shadows. I know she must be so busy, but—" He stopped, wincing. "No, I don't know that. I don't know what she does. She fights Eisheth, right? How? In what way? Can you explain it?"
"All she's told me a lot of mumbo jumbo about the speed of light and quantum mechanics and so on. But that's basically it, yes. She and Eisheth are constantly in conflict with each other. Without Rei to hold her back, Eisheth would've taken planet Earth a long time ago." Misato leaned forward, lowering her voice. "I don't think that's what keeps her from speaking with you, Shinji-kun."
"Rei was very fond of your father, but I think in the end she realized how evil he was. The only person who proved himself worthy of her affections, of her loyalty, was you."
Shinji nodded. "She didn't used to show it very much, but I've seen it. Ayanami is wise. She thinks about thinks a lot more deeply than I do. She was quiet, but I enjoyed our quiet times together, and I think she did, too. That's why I considered us friends."
"I think what you shared together is very important to her, too. I think that's why, even after your father brought her back again, she retained something. I think that's why she loves you."
His eyebrows shot up in surprise, but they didn't stay there for long. Looking serious, Shinji said, "You think so, too."
"You don't sound surprised."
"I'm not. I guess I just hoped it wasn't so. Then I wouldn't feel guilty about it."
"Guilty about what? Following your heart? I don't think Rei blames you for that. Honestly, it's not much to worry about. I'd rather have the opportunity to have differences and problems with people, just for the joy of finding resolution and understanding. The differences between us make us strong. Don't you think so, too? Isn't that why we're here?"
"It all sounds good in theory," said Shinji, "but do people outside this mountain really believe in it? Are there enough of them who will stand and fight when Eisheth's children arrive?"
Misato rose from her desk, circling around to crouch before Shinji and catch his eyes. "We just have to do our best to see that there are. Every single person will believe something different, Shinji-kun. In the same way, just as Asuka loves you in her own way, as Rei loves you in hers, I love you, too, Shinji-kun. The bonds between us all are battle-tested and not easily broken. Even if they aren't exactly what we'd like them to be, they give us strength. Remember that."
With those bold words, Misato kissed Shinji—just once, an innocent kiss on the cheek, as a mother would give to a son. Right then, Shinji was not an adult. Rather, he was a child looking for guidance, and Misato comforted him accordingly. This was the nudge she could give to put him on the path toward manhood, and when he found that path again, the kiss she'd give him then needn't be so chaste.
But that time would have to be another night. "I think I can get to sleep now," he said weakly. "Thanks for talking to me, Misato-san. Good luck."
"Be safe, Shinji-kun."
The door to her office shut, and Misato took her seat once more, returning to reports and forms. The journey she'd soon make to Germany was exactly for that sort of thing—for boys looking for guidance from the women in their lives, for children trying their hardest to grow and be adults. That kind of growth could never happen in the LCL sea.
But Misato felt a slight draft, and she knew right away she wasn't alone. She liked to keep her office dark, but the glow in front of her surely didn't come from any monitor or screen.
"Why did you say that?" asked Rei, her eyes impassive and cold.
"It's the truth, isn't it?" Misato sat back, studying Rei like a specimen under a microscope. "Honestly, I don't understand what you think it serves to keep such distance from Shinji-kun. It hasn't protected him from Eisheth. If you hope not to intrude, that's meaningless. Friends intrude on each other. If they didn't, they would be strangers. If you hope not to mess up his life, you shouldn't be afraid. Shinji-kun is happy, but you being there too will make him happier. Isn't that what you want?"
"Then what's the problem?"
Rei averted her gaze, utterly silent.
"You'd best figure that out," advised Misato. "The time will come that Shinji-kun will move to the fore. I know it's coming. You won't be able to avoid speaking with him forever. Is he your friend, Rei, or isn't he?"
"He is. I want to be Ikari-kun's friend."
"You already are."
Rei looked away, her gaze betraying great uncertainty. "We fight this war because of him. I'm afraid for what might happen to him—more than I fear what would happen to the rest of humanity. How can I say that? How can I tell him that?"
"It's no sin to care more about your friends and loved ones than a faceless, nameless group of people. Shinji-kun knows that, too. Even without him, wouldn't we be fighting this fight?"
"Yes. But I don't know if I'd be willing to go as far."
Rei's eyes narrowed slightly, but she said nothing to answer that question. "Why did you tell Ikari-kun this now?" she asked again.
"Because you were doing nothing on your own. It's exasperating, and it made me feel guilty every time I had to lie to Shinji-kun and tell him his search for you was fruitless. You weren't going to do anything about it; you would've let Eisheth's children arrive before you addressed the matter. So, like a nosy aunt from out of town, I've intervened. You're welcome. Now, whatever happens, you won't have the guilt of having said nothing to Shinji-kun before the coming of the end."
Rei gave a slight nod, still preoccupied with what was on her mind. It was a gesture more of deference and respect than true agreement. To Misato, the matter was utterly simple, but Rei had a complex mind. Billions of years of existence could do that to a person, no doubt. In a lot of ways, the relationship between her and Shinji wasn't as simple as Misato had painted it, but emphasizing the difficulties would do neither of them any good. As far as she was concerned, they were both people, and people resolve nothing without communication. While Rei kept avoiding Shinji, no communication could be had.
Were it not for Misato's action, they would both be unhappy, suffering in silence. Left to their own devices, nothing good would've come from their brooding.
Sometimes, a firm, decisive hand was needed to deal with issues that others would not tackle. That was the role Misato filled—a role she'd taken on because no one else would.
The flight to Germany departed by mid-morning, but with the plane flying west, it was like time slowed down—or even stood still. Misato slept little on the way, and she considered this a blessing. Sleeping too much on long flights tended to give her severe jet lag. Napping in spurts, on the other hand, gave her a chance to reset her internal clock every so often, which lessened the shock. At least, that's how Misato felt about it.
Others in the strike team passed the time as best they could. The transport plane was sparse and lacking in luxuries. Only thick, heavy combat gear helped keep the cold out, and the team sat among their own crates of weapons and ammunition. Some of the men played cards. Others read from dusty paperbacks or scribbled on number puzzles printed in magazines, ones used too often to pass the time, where the answers had already been penciled in and needed erasing. At least with a puzzle, one could always assume the previous user had been wrong.
But after half a day in the air, the team's destination loomed on the horizon. The mountainous terrain of southern Germany raced below, and Misato watched it fly by, interspersed with cloud cover. Blue sky with clouds over the quaint and beautiful German countryside. Really, it must've looked to anyone on the ground like a perfect day.
"Colonel!" One of the pilots peered out from the cockpit. "Message for you from Veitschöchheim."
Misato unbuckled herself from her seat and adjusted her radio-equipped helmet, following the copilot to the front of the craft. She tightened the chin strap and gave the nod to the copilot to connect her. "Katsuragi here," she said.
"It's good to hear your voice, Misato," said the man on the other end of the line. "Your German still gives you away. It's the vowels; they're too crisp, too clean."
"If you like, we can discuss these matters in Japanese instead."
The man laughed heartily. "No, I don't think so. Learning languages is a skill for young, ambitious men. And women, of course, like you."
"Are you saying you're no longer young, General Guttenburg? I could've sworn you weren't a day over forty."
"You flatter me, truly."
"I haven't even begun to flatter. What brings this word from the Chief of Staff of the Federal Defence Force? We're still at least half an hour from landing. Is Bavaria nice at this time of year?"
"Nice enough. I have some word for you from our end as we've been tracking down the terrorist and criminal Keel Lorenz. As we speak, the Federal Border Guard has dispatched their most able counter-terrorism unit, GSG-9, on a high-security mission to the Odenwald District of Hesse. The exact location of their mission is meant to be secret, but I have it on good authority that their target is hiding out near the district capital, Erbach. We thought you might be able to mobilize some satellite assets to start monitoring the area. Our coverage is a bit spotty, particularly when it pertains to German soil—concerns over domestic surveillance and all that—and the Americans have become increasingly paranoid about borrowing time from them."
"I'll put in a good word with the PM," said Misato.
"Excellent. I knew it was best to ask that of you before giving the rest of the news."
"Are you holding out on me, old man? Here I thought you wouldn't keep anything from an old drinking partner."
General Guttenburg sighed. "Misato, the Federal Border Guard insist on having full jurisdiction over this matter. You're being informed solely as a courtesy, and two Air Force fighters will be escorting you the rest of the way to Veitschöchheim."
"Why on earth would you do that, General? Do you think we're likely to deviate from our course?"
"You're famous for your unconventional tactical maneuvers. Is is only a precaution. When Lorenz is apprehended, we can share in the interrogation, and the federal government will be willing to see him tried for all applicable crimes against international law, as well as crimes internal to Japan. You have our word on that."
"How gracious of you," remarked Misato. "The people of Japan surely appreciate that."
"I hope they do. See you soon, Misato. Veitschöchheim out."
Misato gestured to the copilot to cut the line. "I liked him better when he drank himself under the table on scotch. They used to sing drinking songs about him in Frankfurt. He's become too responsible in his old age."
She sighed, shaking her head. It was easy to blame Guttenburg, but at the same time, he'd proved quite useful. In asking for Japanese satellite coverage, he'd given Misato several details of the situation. Perhaps that was his intention—a show of good faith in Misato, despite the skepticism of his superiors in ordering a fighter escort. Perhaps it was even more than that. If something went awry on the ground, Misato had the advantage of already being in motion, already being in the air.
"Lieutenant," she said, "figure out how far Erbach is past Veitschöchheim. I don't want to be fending off German Air Force jets for more than a few minutes."
"Good." Misato stepped back from the cockpit and turned aside. "Rei."
The specter of Rei spoke from Misato's back. "Colonel Katsuragi."
"Can you monitor the situation in Erbach? It'll take time to get a satellite into position."
"If I observe the operation, I must permit Eisheth to do the same. If I report what happens to you, Eisheth will report the same to the Chairman. That does not give us an advantage, Colonel Katsuragi."
"Before Second Impact, GSG-9 was one of the best counter-terrorism units in the world. Before Second Impact. There are precious few skilled soldiers still around. We are one of those groups, and if something goes wrong on the ground, I want to know about it and be able to assist—with the German government's cooperation or not."
"You have so little faith in them?" asked Rei.
"The slimy snake just keeps slithering away, into the dark where no one can find him until he strikes again. No, I'll believe Lorenz has been dealt with when I'm looking at him down the barrel of a gun."
Silence. Misato glanced back out of the corner of her eye, but Rei was gone.
Rei wasn't the only one concerned about this course of action, however. Misato shared her plan with Hyūga, who had grave reservations of his own.
"If we deviate from the flight plan, it will cause an international incident," he advised. "Eisheth is coming; this is a time the world should be unified in opposition to her."
"Nobody's looking for unification," argued Misato. "Look at what happened yesterday. We find blueprints to the Russian and Chinese embassies in Lorenz's hands, and they decide to blame us instead? They accuse us of planting evidence to try to paint ourselves in a better light? We hold an Eva; the rest of the world is unhappy about it, even though we'd go to every length to defend as much as we can. That kind of division is what Lorenz and Eisheth sow. We have to stop them before it all gets out of hand."
"I don't disagree, but in opposition to Eisheth, we stand for all that is good about humanity, all that is good in this world. The cost of doing this will be high. It might be too high."
"Then we're the only ones who should pay it—us, and no one else. That is what leaders do, isn't it?"
Hyūga nodded grimly, saying nothing more. It was in this tense silence—silence being relative with the ear protection needed to shut out the engine noise—that the strike team soared over Germany toward their destination. Misato ordered the men to check and recheck their weapons. Their ammunition and supplies would go with them by parachute, the same way they would go. The air base at Veitschöchheim loomed ever closer, and Misato grew anxious.
"Rei," she said, "what's the situation?"
Rei appeared on the bench, beside Misato, staring across the center aisle of the craft. "The Germans have accepted my help, but the battle doesn't go well. Many civilians are in danger, caught between the German counter-terrorist force and the Chairman's. They have rockets, grenades, and mines. They are heavily armed and well-prepared for this kind of assault."
"We're going in, then," Misato decided, adjusting her headset. "Lieutenants, fly us past the base. Make straight for Erbach; circle back to land when we've been deployed."
"What about the fighters, Colonel?" asked one of the pilots.
"Tell them we're having problems with the control surfaces. They'll buy that for a few minutes. If we can buy ten more after that, we'll be in Hesse."
"They won't believe that for long," warned Hyūga.
Misato nodded. "I know. Let's hope it's gets us far enough."
With that, the strike team watched and waited. The countryside rolled past beneath them. The fighter jets pulled back as the pilots gave their fabricated explanations, and for a time, they were patient. Misato counted off the minutes on her watch. Every minute the fighters gave them allowed miles and miles to pass by. One minute past the air base. Two minutes, then three. Four minutes, then five.
"Colonel, the fighters request that we reduce speed while continuing to troubleshoot our control problems," one of the pilots reported.
"Tell them the throttle's stuck, too."
"They're bound to be wondering what does work on this plane."
"Well, that's a silly question. The radio works just fine."
Even then, the German pilots weren't going to believe their ears for very long. Five minutes out from Erbach, they grew impatient, and a stream of machine gun rounds zipped past the nose.
"Colonel, they're firing warning shots!"
Misato left her seat, grabbing the handholds on the ceiling for support. "Put me on with them."
"You're on, Colonel."
There was a click of static. The aircraft rattled with turbulence, and Misato swayed on her feet, but the handholds above kept her steady as she worked her way toward the rear of the plane.
"This is Lieutenant Colonel Katsuragi," she announced over the radio. "I'm given to understand your federal police forces are experiencing heavy resistance against Chairman Lorenz. We are on our way to provide assistance. This aircraft will return with you once we have been inserted."
"Negative," said one of the German pilots. "Our orders are to bring you to Veitschöchheim at once."
"And if we refuse?"
"We will disable or destroy you if we must."
Misato popped the release on one of the weapons crates, finding a set of long, slender, metallic tube. She took the tube and stood it upright, retrieving a pointed canister from the crate as well. This canister was the same diameter as the barrel.
"Our countries are friends," she intoned. "We're merely providing the assistance your government is too stubborn to accept. Do you think Keel Lorenz cares who comes after him, be they Japanese or German? We are all equally damned in his eyes."
"We have our orders. This incursion into German airspace will no longer be tolerated. Stand down or be fired upon."
Misato took the loaded weapon upon her shoulder and harnessed herself to the ceiling of the plane with a metal clip. She pressed a button on her helmet, cutting off the microphone. "Open the cargo doors!"
One of the men scrambled to the hydraulic controls, and Misato took position at the top of the ramp. Outside, the two fighter jets gave chase. A deafening wind blew into the plane, but Misato raised her voice over the din and lined up one of the jets in her sight.
"You stand down," she cried, "or you will be fired upon. A shoulder-fired missile at firing on targets at a similar altitude can go three times further than its stated range. Back off to fifteen kilometers, or we will wipe you from the sky if even a hint of gunfire crosses our path."
In silence, the two German fighters pulled back, one sliding left, the other right. Splitting up made it harder for Misato and the pilots to keep the fighters in view of the cargo ramp. Even the fifteen kilometers of spacing she'd bought would buy only a little time. Supersonic jets could cover that kind of distance in seconds, but if the threat of Misato returning fire made the Germans pause, then her ploy would be worth it, and she shouldn't waste any more time.
"Everyone, line up!" she cried. "Get ready for drop!"
The aircraft shuddered, lurching to the starboard side. Bullets riddled the fourth engine, rendering it a smoking heap, and smoke trailed out the windows.
"We're going now!" ordered Misato. "Launch the ammo, then let's go!"
The men rolled crates of weapons and munitions out the back of the aircraft. After a few seconds, the crates' automatic parachutes deployed, slowing their payloads' descent. When the last of the cargo was launched, Misato issued one last check of the cabin and gave a nod to the squad leader.
"You heard her!" cried the sergeant. "Move out!"
The members of the strike team deployed one at a time, with the sergeant, Hyūga, and Misato bringing up the rear. The two men went ahead, and Misato stepped off the struggling cargo plane, into the cold air.
It was a strange sensation to fall—one Misato never grew truly accustomed to no matter how many times she did practice jumps. When she first left the plane, there was a momentary feeling of weightlessness, but the wind quickly pushed on her, whipping by faster and faster. The Earth rushed toward her from below, yet from that height, its movement could hardly be noticed at all.
Holding her body level with the Earth slowed her descent, and Misato looked up, trying to find the German jets. One trailed the cargo plane while the other circled on its strafing runs, but when the transport turned back for the air base, the two jets broke off their attack, falling into formation side-by-side. That was a small comfort, knowing that she and the rest of her men wouldn't be shot out of the sky.
As the Earth loomed large beneath her, Misato pulled the cord on her parachute, and her harness yanked her upward with a painful jerk. With her descent slowed, Misato focused on the terrain below her. The Odenwald was a mountainous forest, with only sparse openings to land clear of foliage. Misato pulled and pushed on the strings of her parachute to steer clear of the woods, but the many of her men weren't so lucky. Several came down in the trees, and the crates of munitions had crashed through the woods like bowling balls from God.
Misato touched down in a clearing, and not three steps later, she was already rattling off oders. "Get some brush to try to cushion the fall! If anyone has to be cut loose and can't get a hold on the tree, we don't want them breaking bones on the way down."
"Getting down from a tree is the least of your problems, Colonel Katsuragi!"
A team of men in black combat fatigues closed around Misato's forces, watching closely through their rifle sights.
"Throw your weapons aside and get on the ground, hands on your head," ordered one of the Germans.
Boom, boom, boom. A series of explosions rippled through the valley. They were distant, but the vibrations on the ground could be felt readily, even through combat boots.
Misato held her hands in the air but stayed upright. "Is this really the time to be arresting us?"
"You're as much intruders in this country as Lorenz's followers are!"
"But the difference is that I want to be on your side."
"You think you can brazenly parachute into our country, without permission, without consent, and join up with us like nothing's wrong?"
"Yeah?" Misato narrowed her eyes. "You don't have to be happy about it, but really, why waste energy trying to hold us when Keel Lorenz is the real threat."
Boom, boom, boom. A plume of smoke rose over the town in the distance.
"You see?" said Misato. "Even now, they're trying to destroy civilization, trying to take everything to nothingness. Do you really want to hold me and my people more than them?"
The German commander scowled, but he made a frustrated, short gesture to his men, and they lowered their weapons. "You work under our authority," he said. "No funny business, Katsuragi."
"None at all," said Misato, winking. "Promise."
Together, the Germans and the Japanese pushed through the forest toward the town of Erbach. Historic in its design, Erbach was a testament to the old Germany. It was like a snapshot from the nineteenth century: pure white building faces with steep, pointed roofs and cobblestone roads. In its time, Erbach must've been quite quaint, a mix of old style in a modern city, but that time had long since passed. As the combined forces approached, it became clear Erbach was in no great shape. Dilapidated buildings stood empty and unused, missing singles and with stains on their front faces. The cobblestone roads were rutted and irregular.
It was no surprise to Misato: the human population was a quarter of what it had been at its peak. There weren't enough people around to maintain all these villages and towns or to keep even great cities standing. So much hope had been lost. So many souls still drifted in the sea, unwilling to come out. Left to their own devices—even with the hope Shinji had given them—they chose that mindless existence.
In town, GSG-9 made their base of operations at a restaurant overlooking a fountain park. Maps and radio sets were laid out over wrought iron tables, with white umbrellas to shade them from the sun. There, Misato and her men met with the group commander, a gruff, blue-eyed man with a blonde mustache named Schwarz.
"Help save this town from Lorenz, and I'll be the first to recommend you and your men medals," he told Misato. "Whether that comes before or after you're shot for violating German soverignty isn't my decision."
"I'll worry about my last words before the firing squad after we get Lorenz," said Misato. "What's the situation?"
"Two streets up and across the canal, Lorenz and his followers have taken hold of a church," said Schwarz, circling a square plot on his map in black pen. "The church has a clock tower, which they're using as a sniper's perch. Two of these bridges here have been trapped with mines; the third has been blown up so many times it's impassable. In addition to the church, Lorenz's people have used the adjacent tourist center and the old castle as points of cover. The church staff and the tourist center employees are all hostages. Our plan to liberate them is as follows: both the church and the tourist center lie next to the canal. We can insert divers upstream and have them scale the buildings from the water. In addition, we can set fire to the clock tower to eradicate enemy snipers and use that opening to approach from the cover of the nearby buildings on the far side."
"You can't do that," said Misato. "As soon as you burn incendiaries on that clock tower, they should kill the hostages and start making their escape."
"They won't be escaping anywhere. There's nowhere to go. If that sniper perch is still usable, we won't be able to approach from any other vector. We only have so much diving gear. There's no way we can get the right amount of manpower in place with just the aquatic approach."
Misato pointed out the canal bridges. "Are there more crossings further back? If so, get some vehicles, barge in from this direction. Use this wall of the tourist center to find cover from the clock tower and keep them distracted. You should be able to approach with force from the opposite side."
"It's suicide," said Schwarz. "I won't put any of my men in that kind of jeopardy."
"Then we'll do it ourselves. Give us a vehicle, and we'll give you the distraction you need."
Schwarz pursed his lips, studying the map. "Fine. But if we start taking fire from the clock tower, we're taking it out, distraction or not. Don't screw up, Katsuragi."
"Not in the habit of it."
The Japanese SDF team loaded themselves into three armored vehicles. Since few of the men were comfortable driving left-hand drive vehicles, Misato herself took charge of the lead car, having spent significant time in Germany before. Misato and her men waited five blocks away from the church, guarding their vehicles until the time of operation came.
"Commanding officers shouldn't put themselves in the line of fire," complained Hyūga. "If Eisheth finds out you're on the battlefield, she will waste no expense to get to you."
Misato smirked. "I'm counting on that."
His eyes going wider, Hyūga took a deep breath and adjusted his goggles. "This is going to be fun."
"You don't know the half of it." Misato adjusted the earpiece on her combat radio and pressed the large side button on her handset. "Delta Base, Delta Base this is…" A puzzled look came over her, and she released the transmit button, turning to Hyūga. "What's a good call sign?"
He shrugged. "Violet?"
"That's too obvious."
"I thought you wanted to be obvious."
Misato pursed her lips. "Point." She depressed the transmit button once again. "This is Violet Six. Standing by for your signal."
Hyūga pressed a button on his watch, setting the time. "Tango is in two minutes. Let's get the vehicles running."
Misato nodded, and she piled took the driver's seat, starting the engine. On her right, Hyūga looked down at the profound lack of a steering wheel, helpless.
"I can never get used to this," he muttered.
"It has been a while since I drove on the right side of the road," said Misato. "And I am pretty erratic on the road even in Japan."
Hyūga gulped. "You think you'll get us killed before Lorenz gets to us instead?"
"It's a possibility."
"Ah well." Hyūga checked his watch. "Sixty seconds."
"Are you sure you want to be in the front seat? It's safer in the back."
"This is where I want to be."
Misato smiled, saying nothing, and for one quiet minute, the two of them stared out the windshield of the transport. In that minute, pigeons crawled across the street, pecking at the dirt between the cobblestones. A bank of clouds rolled in front of the sun, casting the town in shade. But for their armor and weapons, no one would know a war was taking place on the streets of sleepy Erbach. There could be parts of the world where no one at all thought of Eisheth Zenunim and the threat she posed.
But that wasn't this day. "It's time," said Hyūga.
Misato nodded. "Let the games begin."
She pressed her foot to the gas, leading the convoy through the streets of Erbach. The grand castle museum loomed large, with a tower of its own and a collection of trees at its back. At the castle's front was a small parking lot—an open area with direct line of sight to the tourist center and the church steeple.
Misato turned the corner into the parking area, and when the steeple came into view, she jammed on the accelerator, charging hard for the tourist center's north wall.
BANG! The windshield shattered, and a bullet cut through the bottom of the vehicle. Misato swerved, turning her head away from the bits of glass, but she kept going forward, bringing the vehicle to a halt. The tourist center was bent into an L-shape, and the convoy took cover by the inside corner.
"Let's go!" cried Misato, banging on the metal partition to the back compartment. "Move, people!"
Misato's men poured out of the vehicles, scanning the windows of the tourist center and the adjoining town hall. As a precaution, they fired smoke grenades inside, straying into the sight of the church steeple only long enough to launch the grenades before ducking back to safety.
Misato spun, using the frame of the vehicle for cover, but she spotted in her sights Rei, who pointed to one of the open arches of the tourist center.
"Incoming!" cried Misato.
Keel's followers used the pillars between a pair of arches for cover. Bullets peppered the brickwork arches, but the holdouts hid themselves well, and one of them rolled a small, round object under the armored vehicles.
"Grenade!" shouted a man.
The SDF team scrambled away, and—
KA-BANG! The explosion shredded one of the German vehicles, crumpling it and lighting it aflame. Smoke rose over the scene, and wounded men fell on the sidewalk. Most of the injuries were to their legs, as only the shrapnel at low angles could pass freely under the three vehicles. With the commotion in the Japanese ranks, Keel's forces pressed the offensive, coming out from cover to move around the smoking cars. Misato's men fought a retreat toward another archway, this one by the old castle. Keel's men, on the other hand, were unwilling to go far under the cover of smoke, lacking the protection of their sniper above.
"What's the matter?" taunted Misato, with a spray of rifle fire toward the tourist center building punctuating her displeasure. "Where's your resolve? I thought you people would do anything to see mankind return to the sea!"
"Colonel, contact on our flank!"
A group of four ran to the back edges of the arch, and Misato did the same. Sure enough, there was someone down the road, watching them from a distance. Misato knew those bright blue eyes, which contrasted against the girl's red hair.
"Asuka…?" she muttered. She blinked twice, shaking her head, but the image stuck. She couldn't be here. "Eisheth," Misato corrected herself. "Watch yourselves! They're trying to come at us from both ends of the street!"
Hyūga touched the button on his radio. "Delta Base, Delta Base, this is Violet Five. Current position in jeopardy. Requesting assistance."
"Violet Five, Delta Base. Oxcart is heading up the mountain."
Hyūga grimaced, turning to Misato. "They don't have anything. Schwarz is about to insert."
"Well, we have plenty!" said Misato. "Take cover!"
A second force came from the road past the castle, headed by the invulnerable, ghostly Eisheth Zenunim. Behind them, more of Keel's holdouts converged on the SDF's position under the arch, but thankfully, a cry came out that promised relief.
"They're coming up from the canal!"
Misato smirked. Now they knew they were in trouble. "Clear our flank!" she said, and with only a few men covering the front, the men brought heavy weapons to bear on the rear. Rockets and grenades hurtled down the street, forcing Eisheth's followers to the alleys. With the enemy on the ropes, Misato's men advanced, checking each nook and cranny of the road before moving on to the next. The undisciplined followers of Eisheth and Keel fought hard, never surrendering, and a few dared to light grenades and charge at Misato's men rather than surrender. They painted the walls of nearby buildings in their own blood.
"Cut through here," said Misato, pointing out a path. "We can get to the church this way."
The SDF team swept through the alley, coming in sight of the white church. The tall steeple ran red with blood from a killed sniper, and the German forces moved to evacuate hostages from both the church and the tourist center. The rescue effort wasn't without bloodshed: many of Keel's men lay dead in the pews. A gunman slumped halfway into the central aisle, with his arms spread in mockery and imitation of Jesus, but there was more than the blood of the guilty among the pews. A pair of dead German soldiers in armor sat side-by-side near the church's main door. A child, with curly blonde hair and bright blue eyes, stared into space, oblivious to the hole in her chest.
There was, sadly, no perfect operation in this business, but the carnage still sickened Misato. Shattered stained glass testified to the ruthlessness of the firefight, and that glass could never be repaired. It could only be replaced.
"Where's Lorenz?" she demanded, trotting up and down the room. "I don't see him."
"He must be fleeing with the others," said Schwarz, kicking the shoe of a dead gunman. "They managed to bail out before we could fully surround the building. We'll sweep them up."
Bang! A muffled gunshot reverberated through the church's walls. The combined forces of Germany and Japan tensed up, but most looked about, trying to locate the source of the sound. Misato couldn't place the noise—the resounding echoes confused her—but she spotted an open door, leading beneath the church.
"Basement!" she cried out.
A barrage of gunfire erupted beneath the church, and both Misato's men and Schwarz's gathered at the top of the stairs before charging in en masse. Misato and Hyūga joined them at the rear, and the group descended into darkness. The basement was a wet, dark place, smelling of mold and rot. The men turned on their rifle flashlights to see by, knowing that these beacons could make them easy targets, too.
Relics, crates, and boxes filled the church basement, and among these priceless possessions, the followers of Eisheth and Keel Lorenz snuck about, firing indiscriminately toward the unprotected stairwell. Two German officers already in the basement scrambled for cover, exposed and outgunned.
The man in front of the strike force raised his hand, bringing the group to a halt. From his belt, he took out a cylindrical canister with thin metal handle. Misato covered her ears and shut her eyes tight, and—
KA-WHAM! Even though her eyelids, the light outside glowed.
The vibrations of the stun grenade faded, and the strike force barged into the basement in force. The followers of Eisheth, though dazed and blinded, fired wildly toward the stair. Bullets riddled the walls and carpet.
And one struck Misato squarely in the chest.
Hyūga caught her, keeping her from falling, and Misato forced herself to cough to get herself breathing again. Getting shot even with a ballistic vest was like taking a hard punch from a professional boxer. Hyūga lowered her to the floor, trying to find cover behind a dusty grand piano. He opened her combat vest, finding the smushed bullet lodged in the material above her breastbone.
"I told you commanding officers don't need to put themselves in danger," he said, tossing the spent round aside.
Misato smiled weakly. "Some things you just have to do yourself. Even if it makes you feel like you got hit in the heart with a baseball. Really, shouldn't you be a bit more bashful about ripping my vest off so quickly?"
That drew a stifled chuckle from Hyūga, but with bullets zipping past, he kept a close hold on his rifle, kneeling over Misato to protect her. The firing grew sporadic, and at last, a call went through the darkened room.
Wincing, Misato forced herself to her feet. "Is he here? Where's Lorenz? Do we have him?"
All around the room, members of the strike team checked the faces of the dead, to no avail.
"He's not here," said Schwarz. "My men will sweep back out to check the perimeter around town. You stay here, Katsuragi, and get checked out. You may have a broken rib."
"I've been hurt worse."
Schwarz nodded grimly, saying nothing, and with a flick of his wrist ordered his men back to ground level of the church. Misato resented being told to stay put, but more than that, the situation baffled her. Keel was an old man; he couldn't have escaped undetected, not on the street. These followers of his—why would they stay in that basement just to be found and killed? Did they think they could hide out unnoticed?
Or had they gone there for a reason?
"Search this room," said Misato. "Pick it apart. There must be something here, something they didn't want us to find."
The men opened up crates and examined relics, but the true prize wasn't anything in the room.
The men crowded around a pair of parallel seams in the floor, with a bronze-colored handle at one end. Misato pulled on the handle, and a piece of floor came with it, revealing a tunnel underneath the church.
"It's a trap door; they used it to escape." Misato touched one of her men on the shoulder, getting his attention. "Alert Schwarz. Tell him the tunnel seems to run to the north; they may have escaped to another building or even out of the city. We're in pursuit. Everyone else, you're with me!"
By the lights of their rifles, the SDF ventured into the cramped, musky tunnel. The dozen men went single-file, as that was all that would fit. Misato kept an eye on her compass, trying to keep a good bearing, but counting steps and watching angles would only give her an educated guess of how far they were going and where they might end up. The men trotted at a steady pace, like cadets on their fitness trials, for what had to be the better part of two kilometers. Only then did they reach the end of the line.
"Colonel…" whispered one of the men in the lead, hovering under a trap door.
Misato gave an approving nod. Another SDF member inched the trap door open, and the first man rolled a flashbang grenade into the room above.
"Go, go, go!"
The SDF barged into the room above, forcing two armed, dazed men to the ground amidst a collection of cooking pots and soiled dishes.
"Clear here!" reported one member, flashing his weapon light up a flight of stairs.
A car motor rumbled, turning over as it started.
An old, boxy white car backed out from in front of the house, tires screeching as it spun around. Misato's men raced out, bringing their weapons to bear.
"Fire!" cried Misato.
Bullets shattered the back windshield, and the driver slumped over the steering wheel, leaning on the horn.
With the shooting over, a man rose from the back seat. He extended his hands through the window, and two SDF members went to the passenger side rear door to get him out. They dragged him out by both arms and held him in front of the car, presenting him to Misato, who grinned with righteous satisfaction. At long last, the criminal, the betrayer of all humanity, Keel Lorenz, stood before her in defeat. Grungy and scraggly he was, wearing a dirty, old gray coat and unshaven stubble. Nevertheless, he held his head high, watching Misato with a grin.
"So you've finally found me," he said. "I'm impressed. I hoped to hide out here, in the old country, until Eisheth came to bring her liberation, but this will do fine, too. There's too much work to do to go in hiding. I see that now. You will try me for the deeds I've done, and I will admit to them because they're just. People will heed my words, and they will welcome Eisheth's coming. The crimes I've committed will be forgiven; even the most idealistic among you will soon understand that death is better than this existence, and what death I've brought to others is but an expression of mercy."
Hyūga huffed, eyeing Keel between the sights of his rifle. "You're a damned fool, Lorenz. No one will listen to the ravings of a madman, least of all yours."
A hopeful sentiment, but it was also one that could prove to be misguided. There were people who would listen to someone like Keel. Misato knew that well. The dead driver with a bullet hole through his head was one of them. The men who took children and parents in the church—people who still had the temerity to ask God for guidance and strength—spoke to that. And given a platform for his madness, Keel would speak his mind for even more to hear.
And Misato couldn't allow that. Not one more soul could be exposed to Keel's cynicism and Eisheth's madness.
"You're right," said Misato. "This death I bring to you is mercy, too, but for mankind, not for you."
Keel's eyes went wide in fright, and he pulled against the SDF members who held him, but Misato put three bullets in his chest, splattering his blood on the white paint of the car.
The cancer of mankind died that day, and as Rei and Eisheth looked on, ever-silent with their steady gazes, Misato lowered her rifle and relaxed. The job was done, and she wasn't sorry for it.
Unwilling to admit that Japanese forces had worked openly on German soil without their consent, General Guttenburg and Federal Defence Force claimed Misato had been invited to join them instead. It was a calculated move, designed to save face, but only the most politically naÏve were fooled. Still, in the interest of good relations with the Japanese, the German government allowed Misato and her men to return home.
As for the murder of Keel Lorenz, that was wrapped up nicely. As far as anyone on the German side knew, he had been found with a gun in his hand, recently fired yet oddly clean of fingerprints, save for a pristine set of his own. It was improbable, yes, that in the heat of battle he wouldn't have smudged them in some way, but this oddity went unqestioned. How that gun got there, and whether it was truly his, was the topic for a more in-depth investigation, which no one really wanted anyway.
Thus, Misato and her men escaped Germany with measured wishes of goodwill. They would never be allowed in the country again after the stunt she'd pulled, but it was a small price to pay. She rode home confident she had done the world a service. She might not be hailed as a hero, but she had done what was needed, even if no one else saw it that way.
Hyūga didn't. For the twelve hours it took to return to Japan, Hyūga was conspicuously silent and aloof. He didn't approve—that was Misato's conclusion. He just stared out the window instead, watching the clouds below. Hyūga was no innocent child. He knew tough things might need to be done. Perhaps what bothered him more was that Misato had been the one to do it. In a way, he used to look up to her. That'd changed somewhat as they'd grown closer, but remnants of that feeling lingered between them.
Well, if Misato's deed on the streets of Erbach had taken her off that small pedestal, perhaps it was for the best. Misato was no saint. She knew that well, and Hyūga should quickly learn that, too.
The flight back to Japan even less restful than outbound one, and as the plane touched down on the runway, Misato looked forward to sleeping in her own bed. What a surprise it was, then, that when the cargo doors opened at the rear of the craft, someone was waiting for her.
"Colonel," said the Prime Minister, stiff as ever in his Western-styled suit, "may I have a word?"
Misato saw no harm in that. It was unusual for Prime Minister Sakurai to be so hands-on. And without his usual bodyguard entourage, no less. That he ventured from the mountain at all was, perhaps, an encouraging sign. Maybe he was feeling safe enough to leave again. Maybe he was developing a semblance of a spine.
The Prime Minister and Misato walked along the edge of the runway, with the PM in no hurry, it seemed, to get down to business. Misato trailed behind him, silent, and at last, the Prime Minister sighed. "I thought you might have something to say for yourself," he muttered, "but I see now you're perfectly content with what you've done."
"What were you thinking? Going to Germany and spilling blood on their soil? Without their permission?"
"Officially, there's a law in Tōkyō-2 forbidding singing in public baths. Saying something is 'officially' so doesn't mean anything in politics, Colonel."
"With all due respect, sir, most people should be banned from singing in public baths."
The Prime Minister scowled. "You have never respected me, have you? No, I know you haven't. You've always thought I was inadequate for this position, incapable of dealing with the responsibility it entails."
"Leaders do not hide, sir," said Misato. "I respect that you've been concerned for your safety—we as people descend from those who were wise enough to be afraid of danger—but leaders exist to inspire and give hope. Running to the mountain to stay in the shadows didn't do that."
"I see. Well, you are not alone in that belief, Colonel. The House of Representatives has brought a motion of no confidence against me, and I expect by this time tomorrow, it will have passed. They believe I don't have control over this country any longer. After the chaos that erupted in the capital, and now with you gallivanting around the world at will, invading international borders at your prerogative, they believe you can't be reigned in, either." He stared into the distance, into the glare of the setting sun. "I think they are quite right."
The Prime Minister left Misato there, by the side of the runway, and wandered toward the sunset until it was quite dark. Misato let him be. As incompetent as she'd thought Sakurai, having the lower house of the Diet throw out the Prime Minister now was worse. Sure, the government would continue to function, at least for the ten days while a new Prime Minister could be chosen, but how could anyone new integrate into the job when Eisheth's coming was so close?
But the ouster of Prime Minister Sakurai was only the beginning. Come morning, the streets were awash with people—some protesting Sakurai's removal, others charging that the political system itself was flawed, a relic of postwar occupation, totally inadequate to the times Japan faced. Others still pushed for their favorite candidates from the Diet, but in the splintered post-Instrumentality landscape, there were nearly as many candidates for the premiership as there were sitting members of the Diet itself.
Regardless of what the people wanted, the only thing the protesters could be unified in was their willingness to walk the streets. Misato watched them from her bedroom's wide window as the days passed. How small the people were below her. Their clothes and their hair blended together into a sea of color, a moving wave punctuated by signs and banners. Why weren't they safe? they asked. Why weren't they protected by their government when Keel's followers set the city ablaze?
Misato was helpless to answer them, and as far as the diet was concerned, she was anathema, a political kiss of death even to be seen in the same room with. She was the person they couldn't control, whom they'd just as soon remove from her post if it weren't for her notoriety, her fame.
"Anyone in your orbit may be bossed around by you," said one member of the House of Councillors over the phone. "That's an easy way to get passed over for the new PM's cabinet."
Misato had no love for the political realm, but to be completely shut out of it rankled her. The choosing of the new Prime Minister was too important to have no say in, and the resulting uncertainty in Japan's future drew the interest of its neighbors, too. For every day the Japanese people marched in the streets, like misguided sailors to Eisheth's siren cry, the Chinese and Russians grew anxious. At last, on day six of the legislative deadlock, with record crowds gathering by the barricades around National Square, the two foreign powers made their announcement.
"With continuing upheaval in Japan, we and our Chinese brethren have become increasingly concerned," said one Russian admiral, speaking from the deck of an aircraft carrier. "Japan has been tasked by Lilith with an enormous responsibility—to safeguard all of Asia with its Evangelion when Eisheth Zenunim comes. But we can't know when she'll come, and every day, Japan descends further and further into political turmoil. Already, there is talk of rebellious former cabinet officials urging the House of Representatives to dissolve itself. People take to the streets and no longer work. It is a festering pool for sympathies toward Eisheth to foment, and we will not allow it. We can't allow her to gain more of a foothold in Japan and threaten the security of the Eva. Japan has one week to gets its affairs in order. If not, Russia and China will take the Eva by force, to keep it out of enemy hands."
Misato threw the remote at the television on seeing that press conference. "What a joke!" she cried. "They just want the Eva for themselves, and they're willing to use any pretext to justify it."
"Probably," said Hyūga, "but I bet they really do feel exposed and vulnerable. After all, we have the Eva. They don't. That said, I expect they'd just fight each other for it if they somehow managed to wrench it from us. They'll do as much damage to each other as they'll do to us if we don't have a stable government by the end of the week."
Misato's expression darkened. Such petty feuding would weaken all three nations—Japan, Russia, and China. More than a group of misbegotten followers, bringing about strife between three major powers served Eisheth well. And while Japan had sat on the precipice for some time, none of it would've been possible without Misato's reckless flight to Germany and her single-minded pursuit of Keel Lorenz. The rules she broke to get to him, the trust she violated—they combined to spell doom for the sitting premier. And why?
Because she'd never trusted him. She'd never believed in him. She never had faith in others, like the Germans, to successfully apprehend Keel on their own.
She doubted others could stand up to Eisheth, for she held the same doubts about herself.
Such power Misato held, yet for so long she'd stayed in shadows while others lived. Shinji found comfort and companionship in Asuka. Rei explored the mysteries of the universe with powers unimaginable to human minds. Misato had brought Hyūga into her life, but was it truly as an equal partner in her effort? No.
And Kaji? He was gone. Her father was gone. And there were people out there who'd moved on from their regrets, but Misato had just run away to her work instead.
She moved closer to the television, sitting so near the screen that she could make out the individual pixels, but there was no comfort in seeing their true nature. "Makoto, this is my fault, isn't it," she said flatly.
Hyūga sighed, taking a dish rag to another bowl. "Who knows? Truth is complicated. Maybe, even if we'd done nothing, this kind of uncertainty was bound to come. But we can't undo what's been done. Keel Lorenz is dead, and we were the assassins that put him down. Now, all we can do is deal with the consequences."
Actions have consequences, and the world keeps moving forward, with us or without us.
"If I go on trying to take the lead on this, I'm going to make mistakes," said Misato. "You'll tell me when I do, right?"
Hyūga looked up from the dishes, a serious look on his face. "As long as you're not too proud or too stubborn to question yourself, yes."
The man may have needed glasses, but he was far from blind.
A week passed with the two houses of the Diet unable to agree on a new Prime Minister. The House of Representatives held a series of runoff votes to select the new prime minister on their own, but neither the Chinese nor the Russians were willing to wait that long. "The Japanese government thus far has shown no ability to agree on a new leader," said one Chinese general, "and even if they do make a selection, the new leader will be ineffective and unable to maintain order. We do not wish to occupy Japan, but we will not allow the Eva to be exposed to sympathizers of Eisheth."
These words from the Chinese echoed through the war room, with a translator's hasty interpretation dubbed over the original Mandarin. All over the monitors and screens, reports of Chinese and Russian naval movements came in, along with radar returns of increased air patrols.
Many hours Misato had spent in that room, into the wee hours of the night with coffee she could no longer taste. When her eyes could no longer see straight, she'd just listen instead.
At last, at dawn of the thirteenth day, the reports came in: Chinese and Russian naval forces had engaged a combined American and Japanese patrol. Two planes were destroyed, and an American destroyer was scuttled to keep it from the enemy. War had come, and mankind risked destroying itself before Eisheth ever set foot on Earth.
From the head of the war room table, Misato took up a black corded phone. She pressed a red button at the edge of the base, and a high-pitched tone played over the loudspeaker in the room.
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is the Colonel," she said, her voice echoing through the loudspeaker. "At this time, the Prime Minister, in his acting capacity while the Diet deliberates over his successor, has authorized SDF to take full, unrestricted action against our foes. It is with regret that I say our enemies aren't the children of Eisheth—not today—but instead are our fellow human beings. We may be forced to take the lives of our brethren, lives that would be better served fighting against Eisheth instead. But we can't change what others choose to do. We can only choose our own paths. Lilith has tasked us with being the keepers of the Evangelion, and that is what we will do. We will protect it, and we will keep it safe until such time as Eisheth Zenunim arrives on Earth. We will not yield, and we will not give up. I say this because I know you; I know all of you. I chose you because you were prepared for this task, and the time to fulfill that obligation is now. You have my trust, and I know all of you will serve well. As Sun Tzu once said, you are my beloved sons, and now, we walk into the deepest valley together."
Misato put the phone on the base, and the slight hiss of the loudspeaker went out. Thus came the beginning of the end—not with a roar, but with a whisper.
Next: Japan is at war, and while good men and woman go to defend the country, Asuka struggles to find a way to contribute as a scientist. Coming soon: "A Polyp in a Cluster of Sea Stars"
For notes and commentary on this chapter and others, visit my blog at westofarcturus dot blogspot dot com