A Noble Piece of Work

Chapter Seven

To the soft yellow light of a lamp, a girl lay in bed and drew. Her bent knees supported her notebook, and two pillows cushioned her neck and back against the headboard. Her pencil moved effortlessly over the pages, gliding with gentle and precise strokes, but these motions were all habit to her, automatic and thoughtless. She left her eyes unfocused, not even paying attention to her sketches. It was a technique she'd read about in a few art books: free drawing. It was meant to free a mind low on inspiration from whatever might block creativity, but so far, Nozomi wasn't sure it worked.

Was Nozomi's creativity stifled? In truth, she didn't know how exactly she felt. She knew how her body felt: her eyes stung, and her muscles ached. At times, she found her hands idly roaming her body, moving over scab-covered cuts and tender bruises. Each one was a reminder that she was alive. The dead feel no pain, after all.

Then again, perhaps she should ask Rei if that really were the case.

More than a reminder of life, those wounds were evidence of what she had been doing with it: piloting Eva to serve as the bulwark of mankind's defense against Eisheth. Since that dark day when the Russian and Chinese armies had broken into the mountain, four weeks had passed. They could've just as easily been four years as far as Nozomi was concerned. Every day was a lifetime in her eyes, and yet, as the clock on her endtable read 02:31, she couldn't bear to turn out the light and sleep. Gods only knew what images might come to her in the dark if she turned off that light.

Nozomi turned her full attention to the sketchpad, finally letting herself appreciate the drawing as a whole, and sure enough, it was something familiar to her: a large, disc-shaped object with three long spikes on its edge, each protruding parallel to the disc's central axis. In her absent-minded, fatigued state, she'd shaded in areas near these spikes like currents in the wind, emphasizing that the disc was moving—or rather, spinning—quite rapidly.

From each spike, a current of energy formed beneath the creature, coalescing into a ball, and where that ball met the Earth, the ground itself was ripped and scored, like a teacher dragging her fingernails along a chalkboard. It had made a sound just like that, too—a horrible wail of a sound, a cry that lingered in Nozomi's mind, just beneath her hearing, no matter where she went. The more she stared at the drawing, the more she thought she could hear it again.

And in an instant, she grabbed at the piece of paper, crumpled it into a ball, and threw it at the other side of the room. When she heard pensive, measured footsteps outside her room, she knew she'd made a mistake.

Sure enough, her older sister, Hikari, poked her head in the door. "Still awake?" she asked.

Nozomi nodded. Wasn't that obvious?

"Can't sleep? Or don't want to?"

Those were better questions, but the answers were complicated. Nozomi was rather sure she could sleep if she put her mind to it, but the rest wouldn't be any good, so there was little point. Hikari wouldn't understand that, so Nozomi just shrugged.

"Do you want me to stay?" asked Hikari. "I could…well, I could read to you, like we used to do."

Nozomi's eyes fluttered off her drawing pad, and looked at Hikari with a bemused expression. "That's weird. I don't remember being six years old again."

"I read to you when you were seven, too!"

At that, Nozomi could only stifle a weak laugh. Hikari had that tendency to ignore the thrust of an argument if it suited her to do so. It likely wasn't intentional on her part, but when she took a position, she held to it, often long past the point of reason if it meant enough to her.

But really, there was no point in troubling Hikari over this. "You're the one who should be resting," said Nozomi.

"Why? Because I was shot?" Hikari rubbed at her side and, to her own surprised, winced at the sensation, but she put on a brave face for Nozomi. "I'm fine now. Really."

"I mean because of your visitor tomorrow. How long has it been since you've seen each other?"

Hikari blushed. "A couple weeks."

"So get some rest; you'll need it."

"And you don't?"

Nozomi shrugged. "I'm getting by."

Hikari narrowed her eyes, scrutinizing Nozomi, but whatever suspicions she held, she didn't act on them. "Well, good night," she said. "Sleep, Nozomi."

With only a nod, Nozomi bade her older sister good night. Hikari inched the door to the bedroom shut, and Nozomi was alone again. It was for the best, really. Nozomi was too often out fighting the good fight, away from home—or whatever those unadorned accommodations in the mountain could be called. She was disconnected from the goings-on of the mountain. Tōji could've visited Hikari every other day, and Nozomi never would've known it. The call of being an Eva pilot was demanding, and only she could answer it.

RING-RING-RING! Beside her bed and under the glow of the lamp lay a black phone. As it rang, a red light blinked incessantly, as if the shrill ringing weren't enough to get her attention. Nozomi reached across the endtable, and she spread her fingers to work the soreness and pain out of her hand. She picked up the handset and put it to her ear. "Am I needed?"

"Yes," said the technician on the other end.

Nozomi looked to her writing pad, blank and featureless but for the unseen indentations from her pencil, from drawings she'd discarded and thrown away. Like those sketches of Angels that wouldn't leave her dreams, Nozomi would have to make herself a blank slate, indifferent to the heaviness in her eyelids or the aches and pains of her joints, so that a work of art could be made with her.

A work to save the world.

"I'm on my way," she said, and she hung up the phone.

#

In spotted pajama pants and a thin blue shirt, Nozomi put on a pair of slippers and treaded through the corridors of the mountain. After many weeks of living on the base, she knew her path too well. Over the last month, the damage the Russians and the Chinese had done in their invasion had been identified and cordoned off for safety, but most of it was still in a state of disrepair. Whenever Nozomi switched elevators at Level 11, she purposefully went around the perimeter of the level to walk by the staircases. There was one spot on the floor, faintly discolored from the rest, that she thought could be Hikari's blood, but it just as easily could've been any other soldier's. There was no way to know. And in theory, that place was the same as many others in the mountain, all built to specifications and standards. Nevertheless, Nozomi had visited that place many times. She'd sketched it in her drawing pad, recapturing the scene of SDF riflemen trying to protect them, of Shinji, Asuka, and her mother all pushing to get through the doorway.

Thankfully, no other battles had been fought within the mountain since that day. The children of Eisheth Zenunim were many, but they hadn't yet dared to attack Japan. Eisheth had given up being daring and ambitious in the opening week of the campaign. The Zenunim arrived on their Angel-ship to rip and tear through human armies, but that was just the first wave. Over the following days, nine more Angels descended upon planet Earth, and Eisheth brought them down upon her first target: Germany. The combined forced of Angels and Eisheth's children obliterated the German Eva and its base.

Brimming with confidence from this victory, Eisheth came after the Americans next, but Misato was prepared. She'd dispatched Nozomi and Unit-14 to the scene. Nozomi and the Americans' dummy plug Eva took down two Angels, and while Unit-15's main base in Colorado was destroyed, Eisheth seemed to think better of committing all her firepower in one place again.

After that, Eisheth had started waging a truly global campaign. Rather than challenge the might of Eva, she seemed content to steadily dissolve the free people of Earth. Hordes of Eisheth's children would rise from the ocean, swarming a city or village without warning or mercy. Their white, pasty bodies, with slithering tentacles and suction cups on stalks, inspired great fear and panic in the civilians, and their bony, five-eyed masks completely obscured their faces, obliterating all indications of emotion. They were nothing short of implacable, and many remote areas had fallen to them in days. Every last man, woman, and child would be impaled by those tentacles and dissolved into LCL thanks to the anti-AT fields the Zenunim wielded.

When mankind had the temerity to resist Eisheth in force, that was when the Angels would come out of hiding. They obliterated tanks and airplanes; anything that might hinder or halt the Zenunim's advance was fair game. When those Angels came out to support Eisheth's children, that was when Nozomi would get a call, as she had received that day.

The rest of the journey to the pilots' locker room went by quickly in the second elevator. As soon as she saw the lockers, Nozomi kicked off her slippers and started stripping down. There was never anyone else around and no one to hide her modesty from. Why bother waiting until she was in front of the locker? Why bother setting up a curtain to protect her privacy?

She stuffed her belongings in the locker, tossing them in one after another. A balled-up wad of clothes landed gently at the bottom. Nozomi piled the slippers on top of them. All that was left in her hands was her drawing pad, and that gave her pause. She opened the locker door and caught her reflection in the mirror there. Her hair was disheveled and unkempt. Her eyes looked a bit sunken. No doubt one of the base doctors would complain to her that she needed to get more rest, drink more water, and so on. She could add those suggestions to a long list of priorities.

Lastly, she looked over her body. She was no image of a womanly figure by any stretch of the imagination: flatter rather than busty, straighter in the hips than curved. These features didn't bother her; she was who she was. What she eyed more critically were the ribs that showed through her skin and the cheekbones that looked ever more pronounced and defined. Nozomi flipped through her sketchbook, and inside were almost a dozen drawings of her, almost identical in pose to the girl in the mirror. They were all her, laid bare, and they confirmed her suspicions: she was losing weight, too. She would have to draw that later—after she returned, when there was time to do so.

Nozomi laid the writing pad gently on the top shelf of the locker. Below hung her plugsuit, half-slipping off a hanger. She yanked it free, and the hanger tumbled below, but it was still within the locker, and Nozomi closed the door with her foot. After many opportunities to practice getting into the plugsuit, she was all too familiar with putting it on. Indeed, it'd felt tight at first, despite the supposed reliability of the auto-fitting mechanism. Of late, it'd felt more worn-in and comfortable, and Nozomi regarded this change with mixed feelings, but like her responsibilities, it was something she accepted. At that point, what really could be done about it? She certainly wouldn't ask for a new and fresh-feeling replacement. There was no point.

Once dressed, Nozomi made for the cage, and her body went on autopilot. She walked following those well-established and memorized routes. When the entry plug was opened for her, she clambered in to take her seat. No sooner than she was seated, the communications window on her left opened.

"Ready for action?" asked Misato.

Nozomi narrowed her eyes. The woman on the other end of the line looked conspicuously underdressed. Wearing little more than white tank-top and gym shorts, Misato seemed to be calling Nozomi from the comfort of the colonel's private quarters.

"You're still in bed," said Nozomi. "That means we have a long way to go."

"Got it in one," said Misato sheepishly. "It's just a crime to be up this early when the action is likely several hours away."

"Where's the target?"

"Hanoi. Hope you like beef noodle soup!"

Nozomi sighed, rubbing at her eyes. "Food is the last thing on my mind right now."

"It's not too late to get out of the plug," said Misato. "We can get you something to snack on for the trip over."

Why bother? The plane that would ferry her and the Eva to Vietnam was noisy and uncomfortable. The Eva's entry plug, on the other hand, was insulated from outside noise, and the pilot's chair was far easier to sleep in than anything on a plane.

"I'll get breakfast over there, I think," said Nozomi. "Which Angels are we facing?"

"Just the Eighth. Eisheth's getting aggressive. I'm hoping we can capitalize."

"I'll do my best to kill it in a timely manner and not scratch up the paint. A couple of the maintenance people were complaining about that the other day, if you can believe it."

Misato rolled her eyes. "People will complain about the most trivial things. If I were you, I might take a few boulders in my hands and rub them like billiard balls. See what maintenance think about that!"

A small smile came to Nozomi's face. No doubt the guys refinishing the paint job would have a frantic day trying to get everything in order if she did that.

"I'm glad you can still smile," said Misato. "It's tough for a pilot to do that, as much as they see. Stay strong, Nozomi. I'll see you on the battlefield."

Nozomi nodded, and the window closed. The entry plug began to fill with LCL, and Nozomi held her breath. It was better that way; trying to suck down a mixture of air and LCL tended to convince the body it was drowning. Getting it over all at once was better, though no less terrifying in those few instants.

Instead of a combat launch, Nozomi and the Eva were slowly raised to the surface, where dozens of SDF members hooked the Eva's body parts up to cables. A pair of military helicopters carried this heavy load over hill and stone to the nearby airport, where a more permanent solution had been devised. Like the Boeing 747s used to ferry the Space Shuttle across America, a converted cargo plane could lug the massive weight of an Evangelion where its legs couldn't take it. A student of modern engineering might've found this process mind-blowing and innovative, but for Nozomi, it was merely a set of processes she had no control over or say in. She was there in the Eva while workers secured her to the cargo plane, but there was nothing she could do to help them.

The trip over was numbing and dull, and Nozomi allowed herself to sleep in spurts, each long enough to get some rest, but not long enough to let her dreams carry her away. To keep from being overwhelmed by the isolation of sitting in the plug, Nozomi left the communication's line open. In half-intelligible fragments, she heard about the situation she'd soon face.

"…Hanoi falls, the rest of Indochina goes with it. The Chinese can't hold much of anything near the coast…"

"…The Russians can't help, not with the Sixth and Seventh Angels circling Moscow. They'll cede the whole of Siberia before they abandon their capital to those monsters."

"I'd cede the whole of Siberia, too. Do you think even the Zenunim would like the weather there? It's harsh."

When Nozomi couldn't sleep, she stared out with the Eva's eyes. At first, this sight wasn't so interesting. The ocean at night was calm and featureless, and even its unsettling red hue blended into the darkness. Only when the sun came up behind the plane did that bloody color become distinctive again. Still, Nozomi kept looking to the horizon for land, for some sign, any sign, that the trip might be over. When she could see nothing, she closed her eyes again, but only for a moment. Every time she did so, the mask of Eisheth Zenunim came to mind, and the giant stared back at her with all five of its beady black eyes. With that terrible image incessantly watching her, it was little wonder she didn't sleep. Instead, she just kept looking to the ocean in a daze, listening to that chatter on the radio that went back and forth between intelligibility and incoherence.

"…three hundred killed in action, up to three thousand already dissolved by the Zenunim…"

"…no sign of retreat or reinforcements. The Angel is all alone…"

"Nozomi-chan?"

What was that?

"Nozomi-chan, are you with us?"

She jolted from her seat in the entry plug, nearly falling out. "What? What was that?"

To her right was an open communications window, through which she saw the speaker: a boy in a white, buttoned-down shirt. With brown hair and dark blue eyes, he was the image of ordinary. Indeed, the headset he wore around his ear was loosely perched there, like it didn't belong, and he had to hold it firmly to keep it in place.

"How are you feeling?" asked Shinji.

Wiping at her eyes, Nozomi shrugged. "Like I know a little too well what it means to be watched all the time by an evil overlord."

"Hopefully the journey to Mount Doom will be over soon enough," he tried to reassure her.

"That would be a lot more reassuring if that didn't mean I might lose a finger in the process."

Shinji winced. "Sorry."

"It's all right, Ikari. I'm pretty sure I'm in a better position than Frodo was. He could only go invisible; I have this whole thing." Nozomi yawned. "I'll be fine. How long until we're there?"

"Two minutes. We're doing an air insertion."

An air insertion. Those never went well. It meant there wasn't time to land the plane and unhook the Eva. Perhaps the airport was gone, or the Angel out there would cut them to ribbons before any Vietnamese soldiers could start freeing Unit-14. Either way, Nozomi didn't like the prospects, but there was little choice.

The plane came out of the clouds, flying low over the Vietnamese capital, and Nozomi got her first view of the situation with her own eyes—or rather, the Eva's. The city itself was nestled among a thick canopy of trees and greenery; truly, mankind liked to carve its existence out of the wilderness, and only the work of many generations had built cities and roads and bridges. Most of the buildings were short, with only a few scattered skyscrapers punctuating the skyline. The roofs were colorful and varied: light blue, red, and green, without order or rhythm but appealing nonetheless. Nozomi would have to draw it when she returned.

But the city itself was just a place—a place for commerce and diplomacy, government and private enterprise. That day, it was a battlefield. Tanks lined up in the streets and fired toward the river, their shells creating silent puffs of dirt and smoke by the shore. Airplanes dropped bombs on an invading horde. Beneath the canopy of trees marched the children of Eisheth Zenunim, faceless and without fear. The great weapons of the People's Army sliced and blasted through the Zenunim's lines, but they kept on approaching anyway, uncaring about the numbers they lost. Those only slightly wounded just reformed from LCL uninjured, and to keep mankind's weapons from dealing too much irreparable damage, the Zenunim relied upon a protector to cover their invasion: an Angel.

Nozomi saw it below, for it slithered over the Earth, leaving a swath of damaged trees and upturned ground behind it. It had a worm's body, divided in sections, each spinning independently of the others. How could they be connected? Nozomi couldn't say. It was eyeless and blind, but it didn't need eyes to find its prey. It had two sets of whip-like appendages, half attached to its rotating sections, half mounted around its insatiable mouth. It snatched low-flying fighters from the sky and devoured them whole. It whipped and smashed armored vehicles, slicing them clean in two.

"Thirty seconds to drop," said Shinji.

Nozomi gripped the controls of the Eva, but in that moment, a wave of fatigue came over her. Her eyelids drooped, and she let out a long breath. Better to get all that exhaustion out then, before she had to go to battle. That was the idea, at least, and it sounded good to her, in her mind. She couldn't be blamed for being tired, could she? How many of these trips had she taken, hours and hours away from home? Five? Eight? Twelve? They couldn't be counted anymore. All she could count were the Angels she'd seen killed, four in all. Each one that fell meant there was at least one less trip she needed to take. She could hold out that long. She would hold out that long. Then, when Eisheth was gone, she could sleep.

"Drop!"

When that unmistakable sense of weightlessness hit Nozomi, her eyes snapped open, and she grabbed onto the controls like a vice. There it was—the familiar feeling of adrenaline rushing through her veins. It beat back her fatigue, made her breathing natural and unhindered, and took the sting out of her eyes. She felt what the Eva felt, with the wind whipping past. She spread the Eva's arms out like an expert skydiver and guided Unit-14 to her target.

But the Angel was savvy to her. Its tendrils swatted and slapped at the sky, and with the Eva's great weight keeping it falling like a rock, Nozomi could do only so much to turn and dodge.

"Nozomi-chan, thruster rockets!" cried Shinji.

She pressed a thumb button on the controls, and the thrusters lit, shooting her past a pair of tendrils that would've grabbed her and taken her down. With limited fuel, Nozomi went easy on her rockets, firing them only when those tendrils moved to threaten her, but they were bizarre, unpredictable things. They seemed to grow as long as the Angel willed them to be. They had pointed, oblong tips that opened up like claws or pincers when they got close to her, but with clever use of her rockets, she darted and bobbed through the increasingly tangled mess of tendrils. She turned the Eva's body upright and came down feet-first just above the creature's mouth.

WHAM! The Eva's feet slammed into the Angel, driving the worm half into the ground. Rebounding, Nozomi hopped away just as quickly, sticking a landing on the ground. From the Eva's left shoulder pylon, she drew a massive, serrated prog knife and charged. She slashed and cut her way through a maze of tendrils and lunged at the creature with her knife point leading the way.

TEW! A shower of multicolored light erupted from the tip of the knife, and a wall of shimmering hexagons blocked Nozomi's path. The Angel's AT field held, and Nozomi lost momentum, stuck there with her attack that had failed, and a stationary target couldn't have been easier for those hungry tendrils. The tendrils' oblong heads pointed at her, like eyeless hunters that nevertheless stared at their prey.

"Get out of there!" said Shinji. "Run!"

He didn't need to tell her twice. Nozomi bolted, trying to put distance between her and the Angel, but a single tendril wrapped around the Eva's ankle. Caught like a bird in a snare, Nozomi wiggled and squirmed, but the Angel carried her off the ground, robbing her of traction and leverage. It grabbed hold of the Eva's limbs, one by one, and when it was confident in its grasp, it began to pull on those limbs, as a man would tear apart his dinner.

"Agh!" Nozomi struggled and strained. She clenched the Eva's muscles to resist the pull. She felt the strain in her shoulders, her elbows, her knees. They were right in front of her, undamaged, yet she felt them being bent at unnatural angles.

"Four joints beginning to fail," said a technician in the background. "She can't take much more of this!"

In the communication's window, Shinji grimaced, but a peculiar light came on in his eyes. "Nozomi-chan," he said, "are you afraid? Are you angry?"

"I'm not sure I really have time to be angry at an alien monster right now!" she answered. "I'd much rather just kill the thing than call it names. How is being angry going to help me?"

"It will. Trust me. Think of it like so: this thing is going to kill you. This thing is going to take all your friends away, your family. It's going to wipe out mankind as we know it, and it's going to start with you. Do you understand me?"

She did. She did all too well. Why else would she have agreed to be the pilot in the first place? There was danger. There was a threat, and that threat was facing her. It had dragged her out of bed too many times, and even when there was no danger, the memories of fighting these things had invaded her mind like a disease, one that couldn't be suppressed or cured. But what she felt for the Angel wasn't the rage that Shinji meant to inspire in her. She was too deadened to that, too tired for that. And with the Angel sapping her strength every second in their deadly struggle, there was only one thing she could do.

She stared at it.

She stared down the symmetrical maw of the beast, the mouth that was flanked by a dozen of those grasping tendrils. She let her eyes lose focus and glaze over as artillery shells and missiles exploded harmlessly on the Angel's AT-field. Indeed, she felt no hate for her assailant. Perhaps it was intelligent and even understood what it was doing, but she didn't care either way. She convinced herself she was indifferent to the Angel's existence, that it was insignificant, that it shouldn't be bothering her so. It was like an ant to her, and when a person is bothered by an ant, there can be only one instinctive reaction:

To squash it.

TI-OWW! Nozomi's eyes burned with fire! A great light shone on the Angel and bored into it, blasting through the AT-field. Some thing cut through the Angel's maw, and it blew open a massive hole in the Angel's throat, exposing daylight on the other side. The Angel shuddered and howled in a death wail. Its tendrils went slack, and Nozomi fell to the ground with a thud.

"Get up!" cried Shinji. "You need to finish it!"

Finish it? When had she started?

She commanded the Eva to climb back to its feet, and she spread the Eva's fingers, working the soreness out of the muscles and joints. She could still fight, and that was all she needed to do.

The Angel, though wounded, shot and flung its tendrils with a frenzy, but Nozomi dashed clear through them, going straight at her foe. It had to be somewhere—the secret to killing this thing. As it flailed, she saw her target: the Angel's core, hidden on its underside as it slithered, but it had become exposed. She cocked her fist back and punched through the Angel's AT-field, shattering it and the core it protected in a massive blow. The Angel flew back, tumbling end over end, and each bounce shook the Earth like a shift of tectonic plates.

Nozomi kept her fists high, awaiting some sudden retaliation. Her breathing was fast, and her eyes darted back and forth as she looked for her foe, but after a few moments, a technician's voice resonated through the entry plug.

"Pattern White has faded below detection threshold. Estimate with 99.99% confidence: all clear."

A lone technician's guess wasn't enough for Nozomi, not even to one part in ten thousand. She approached the fallen angel, finding it lying on its side. The tendrils were limp and unmoving. Nozomi even kicked the corpse for good measure, but there was no response from the beast.

"Good job, Nozomi-chan," said Shinji. "Congratulations."

Nozomi took the Eva around to the back of the Angel's head, and she peered through the wound that had so conveniently gutted the creature. "What on earth could've done that?" she mused.

"You did. It looks like the Eva's eyes can shoot some kind of beams. Maybe it's some kind of AT field thing."

Nozomi let out a hysterical, delirious laugh. "Eye beams? I have goddamn eye beams and you didn't tell me?"

Wincing, Shinji looked away. "It's not exactly what I was expecting. I thought you might unlock something to swipe at the Angel from a distance and penetrate the AT field. But, it doesn't surprise me. The Eva's full power doesn't tend to come out until you're in a certain state of mind."

Well, Nozomi was there. No doubt about that. She let out a weary breath, and the manic rush of adrenaline faded. Her aches and pains returned to her in a growing sensory din. Even as the technicians lowered her synch rate to the Eva, a phantom sensation of the Eva's trauma lingered. Her shoulders felt as if they'd been pulled out of their sockets and just as quickly forced back in.

"We're sending you the location of the rendezvous point now," said Shinji. "The Vietnamese will take care of the Zenunim as best they can. Good job today, Nozomi-chan. Only four more to go."

Four more to go. Nozomi could think of nothing more tiring, more dreadful, but it was what needed to be done, and she had done well; Shinji had been right to say that. Each Angel she killed meant she was one step closer to getting their nightmarish bodies and geometries out of her mind.

She set out for the rendezvous point to catch her ride back to Japan. The journey wasn't a quiet and uneventful walk, however. Even as she left, Vietnamese shells and bombs peppered the landscape in smoke and debris. Each explosion ripped through Zenunim invaders, giving the citizens of Hanoi a chance to preserve their individuality. There was still a fight to be had, but Nozomi couldn't help them. Against Angels, she was a worthy and effective hero. Against man-sized foes, she was a clumsy beast. So she tuned out those blasts, thinking of them as background music that was lulling her to sleep. As she headed for the rendezvous, she let her mind drift and wander. She needed to stay awake, but that didn't mean she had to think about what she'd done. The more she shut down, the less she felt, and the better she was able to keep the pain and tiredness out. She knew where she needed to go; the pointed blue diamond on the horizon, put there by a technician back home, would guide her to the plane. The display always kept her on track, and as long as she watched it, she could let her mind drift, and drift, and drift—

"Nozomi-chan, STOP!"

She jerked awake. "What?" she called back.

"Look where you're going!"

"I'm looking at the waypoint; it's right in front of me!"

"I mean down!"

Nozomi shut her eyes tightly, trying to fight back the stinging sensation, and she looked down. Not two strides in front of her—two long strides for the Eva—was a road. A caravan moved on that road, flanked by the People's Army. Military humvees carried not soldiers but civilian refugees, people of all kinds, so they could find safety and escape Eisheth's onslaught.

And if Nozomi had kept walking carelessly, she would've hit that road in stride, stomping all over them.

Nozomi took a deep breath, trying to force her eyes wide and open. "I'll find a way around. Sorry."

"You're not all right, are you," said Shinji, watching her worry and concern.

For that, Nozomi had no answer. She was who she was, and in the state she was, and as long as she piloted Eva, what could be done about it?

#

The trip home was surprisingly silent and uneventful. Nozomi was shut out of the control room radio loop, which surprised her at first, but she soon settled into a trance-like state, awake yet hardly conscious. It made the time pass well enough without subjecting her to the horrors of what might find her in her sleep. It wasn't until the Eva was back on Japanese soil that she recovered a modicum of awareness, enough to pilot the beast back to Hachibuse Mountain and to subject it to restraint in the cage.

When the LCL drained from the entry plug and Nozomi was freed, she found a party waiting for her on the walkway: a set of four nurses with a rolling gurney. Misato presided over the affair.

"Please come with us," she said. "We need to get you checked out, Nozomi."

Nozomi didn't mind it. The gurney was uncomfortable and lumpy, but it would do. She could stare at the ceilings and watch the lights go by with hardly a care in the world.

The nurses took Nozomi to the infirmary. They shined lights in her eyes. They hit her knees with small rubber hammers. They took blood and urine, and while Nozomi didn't mind this battery of tests, Misato seemed irritated by it.

"I don't think her kidneys are at issue here," said the colonel. "Can we get to what this is really all about?"

Away went the tongue depressors and syringes. The medical staff sequestered Nozomi in a dark room and stuck electrodes to her scalp. The wires were like a webbing, holding her in place. Not that she wanted to go anywhere.

"How do you feel?" asked Misato.

"Not great," admitted Nozomi.

"What happened out there?"

"With what?"

"The Vietnamese caravan. The one you almost smashed to bits under your foot."

Nozomi shook her head. "Couldn't have been my foot. The Eva's foot."

"The Eva's foot, then."

"It's best not to get confused about that," Nozomi went on. "I feel what the Eva's foot feels, but it's not my foot. It's not my foot."

"I'm well aware—"

"The Eva itself doesn't feel anything, though, so I don't feel what it feels."

Misato gaped, looking to the nurses in confusion. "I'm afraid I don't follow," she admitted.

"The Eva feels, but it doesn't feel." Nozomi rubbed one hand over her arm. "It feels like this, but it doesn't feel like…" She forced an exaggerated smile to her lips, straining against the weariness in her face. "It doesn't feel like that. There's a word for that, isn't there? There used to be a word for that…."

"There is," Misato said grimly. "Tell me about the caravan."

"I just told you."

"I mean, tell me why. Did you lose it in the canopy?"

"No, I don't think so."

"Did you think you would just step over it?"

"No, I'm pretty sure I was going to step on it."

"Then why?"

"I didn't see it."

"Why?"

"I was looking at the waypoint."

"Are you tired, Nozomi?"

"That's a stupid question. You people know how much I sleep."

"Why didn't you see the caravan?"

"I just told you!"

"Are you tired?"

"Extremely! I've never been more tired in my life!"

"Why didn't you see the caravan?"

"I don't know! Stop asking me that!"

"Do you think you can still be an Eva pilot?"

Nozomi shuddered, and she met Misato's gaze. "What does that mean?"

"Exactly what it sounds like. Piloting is hard. You can ask Shinji-kun and Asuka all about it. It's the toughest thing I can imagine a human being going through, and that's just for an adult. You're a child. A child being asked to do an adult's work, to take on adult responsibility." Misato gestured to the monitors, which held all manner of arcane readouts and scans. "These sensors will probably tell us in excruciating detail how your mind is no longer functioning the way it should. I don't need any of them to know that. I can tell just by talking with you. You're not well, Nozomi. Do you think you can still pilot Eva this way?"

Nozomi stared at Misato, and then past her. Eyes drifting to the floor, her mouth stayed open as she tried to find the words. What was Misato asking? Ability had nothing to do with it. She could still synch with the Eva. She could still pilot it. She'd just beaten an Angel and destroyed it, making sure it would never be a threat again. So how could Misato even ask that question?

"It needs to be done," Nozomi said at last. "So I do it."

Misato pursed her lips. "It does need to be done," she said, "but only by someone who is at her fullest."

"What does that mean? Do you think I'm crazy? If so, get a therapist. I don't mind that."

"Be serious," said Misato. "If there are any therapists within a thousand kilometers of here, they're definitely too insane to be of any help. You just need sleep, Nozomi—time to get this stress and strain off your back. I'll ask the doctors if they can get you something to help you get some rest."

"Don't!"

The force behind that outburst surprised even Nozomi, who stared in shock, as if the voice had come from someone else.

"Why not?" asked Misato.

For that, Nozomi had no good answer. She did need the rest, after all. She'd spent too many fruitless nights struggling over her sketchbook, unable to put together a sensible image that wasn't distorted in perspective or technically poor. But Misato couldn't know what came to Nozomi in her dreams. She was nothing more than a human being; she would be powerless to try to change that, so there was no point in telling her. What Misato did have the power to do was to force Nozomi to take medications and sleep, if the doctors on base advised her to.

So Nozomi said nothing. As a nurse injected her with a syringe of clear fluid, Nozomi hoped in vain that her sleep would be dreamless—or at best, that she would forget whatever images might come to her.

But that was truly a futile wish.

#

No sooner than her eyes closed did Nozomi find herself in a different place: the pilots' locker room. It was dimly lit; a single overhead light cut through the darkness, and even then it was irregular and intermittent. In this conception of reality, someone must've slacked off at tightening a bolt somewhere, for the light overhead, mounted on a long string from the high ceiling, tended to wobble and revolve at the slightest disturbance. And contrary to the laws of physics, once that light began to sway, nothing could bring it to a stop. The result: a constantly shifting sense of light and shadow, bringing with it disquiet and uncertainty.

Not that Nozomi expected her dreams to be roses and daffodils, but the scenery could've stood to be less dreary.

Then again, Nozomi had to question whether these dreams were really hers at all, for when she opened the door to her locker, she turned the mirror to herself—and to a figure in the darkness behind her, lit only sporadically by the overhead light. The figure had Hikari's look and face, but that appearance was nothing more than a lie. Hikari could never look as stone-faced and sinister as the impostor in the mirror. Hikari always had some twinge of worry on her brow if she were unsettled, or a happy smile when she was carefree. Even when she was putting on airs as a class representative or a responsible big sister, she could never be so overbearing in her gaze.

No, the only being who would bother invading Nozomi's dreams was Eisheth Zenunim herself, and Nozomi regarded her with callous indifference. She had no intention of baring her body to that creature, so she settled for staring at the intruder in her mind instead. "What do you want?" she asked curtly.

"You're unwell, Horaki Nozomi," said the impostor, the image of Hikari that wasn't Hikari at all. "Do you know that?"

Nozomi rolled her eyes. "I do actually. I've been feeling pretty crappy, as a matter of fact." She nodded at the plugsuit in the locker. "The uniform's getting more comfortable, but it's still a little tight in the rear. Leaves a bit of a friction burn, but a little moisturizer fixes that. So that's all you are to me, you know? An irritated spot on my ass."

Eisheth stared at her. "You have no such spot."

"And you have no sense of figures of speech, but it's okay. I don't hold that against you. I'd hate to be accused of despising you for something petty like that. Forcibly dissolving people like they're nothing more than LCL balloons? That I do hold against you."

The overhead light creaked as the suspending cable rubbed against its mounting. The beam left Eisheth, and she disappeared in darkness, which put Nozomi on edge. Knowing her, she could reappear anywhere, and at any time—usually a time and place most calculated to unsettle her prey. Nozomi turned the locker door to follow the path of the sweeping light, to no avail.

"You're on edge," said Eisheth, invisible to Nozomi's eyes. "You watch for threats even from the safety of your mind. It's very human of you—to be afraid."

"Yeah, well, you know how evolution goes. If twenty thousand years ago, two monkeys were walking the African savanna and spotted a lion, and one of them ran and the other didn't, well, we might just be descended from the monkey who decided to run."

The beam of light swept along the row of lockers behind Nozomi, and for a few moments, Eisheth was lit up again. The light continued to precess, blanketing Eisheth in light and then shrouding her in shadow, each phase lasting a few seconds as she spoke.

"It's a necessity for you, yes, because your flesh is weak. All Lilin are weak. Even my children are weak, but my strength sustains them. The bodies of Lilin take damage and fail. Katsuragi Misato knows this. Lilith knows this. They use Eva to fight because they know this, but they can't bring themselves to trust what they can't talk to, what they think isn't alive. That's why they use you. Eva have no weaknesses on their own; you are Eva's weakness, Horaki Nozomi. You tire. You feel pain. You can fail. Your flesh will fail you. It's already started to. Look for yourself."

Puzzled, Nozomi turned the mirror away from Eisheth and to herself. The girl in the reflection was no more than a withered shell of a person: her hair had thinned, showing a reddened, irritated scalp; her lips were cracked and shriveled; and her eyes seemed altogether too big for her shrunken and bony face. Her hands were skeletal, and her skin seemed to sag around the bones.

Wham! Nozomi slammed the locker shut. "That's not me!" she cried. "I'm still healthy; I'm still alive!"

"No, Horaki Nozomi. You're killing yourself. You will kill yourself or someone else piloting Eva. My children—and the others'—are too many. If not your body, then your mind will slowly break instead. It is breaking, isn't it?"

Nozomi spun around, but Eisheth wasn't there. Though the overhead light swept across the darkness, Nozomi couldn't see her, and the creature's voice—its imitation of Hikari—echoed through the whole room. Locating her by ear was impossible.

"Come with me to the sea," said Eisheth. "Your flesh will never fail you there."

"Don't even pretend to think you can convince me to give up and join you!" Nozomi shouted at the darkness.

No answer. There were footsteps, but Nozomi couldn't hope to locate them. Was Eisheth walking just behind the light, sticking to shadow in the place where she could always hide herself? Nozomi wasn't sure, but she put her back to the wall of lockers behind her. All else being equal, it seemed unlikely Eisheth would pop out of one of those metal cages to surprise her.

"If you can't be persuaded," Eisheth said at last, "then you'll be broken, and I will break you. I will not let the poison of reckless individuality taint paradise."

The footsteps ceased, and the lights came on full brightness in the locker room. Nozomi's eyes stung from the sudden change in light level, and she rubbed at them gingerly. With only one eye open, she checked down both ends of the row of lockers, but Eisheth was nowhere to be found. Instead, a voiceless, penetrating thought entered her mind, one too stubborn to be shut out.

'The only choice you have is how many others I must break to get to you.'

Nozomi turned, and the five-eyed giant's gaze transfixed her. Gone was the illusion of Hikari. The muscular, ill-proportioned giant stared her down instead. It was smaller than a giant really ought to be—man-sized rather than building-sized. But the image was no less striking. The bony mask on its face had markings directly etched into its structure, and the giant's five beady eyes focused on Nozomi, convergent in their gazes.

The giant approached her, and Nozomi's legs felt as heavy as lead. The white, pasty body of the creature rippled.

It was inviting her.

It wanted to merge with her.

And all Nozomi could do was stare at those five eyes, uncertain which to look at and which to avoid, until the mask enveloped all her view.

#

That mask stayed in her mind, and she captured it well in her drawing pad. Every slit for an eye, every irregular, bubble-like feature near the top, and even the five-sided shape that connected all the eyes. In her waking moments, Nozomi couldn't help but stare back at that sketch, as if she could somehow glare at Eisheth and force the giant into submission.

But this stubborn defiance seldom turned out well. For one, it's hard to win a staring contest with a pencil sketch. More than that, Nozomi had the nagging feeling that, whenever she looked away from the sketch and back again, the eyes were pointed in different directions than she remembered.

"Is something wrong?"

And that tended to distract her from reality.

In a spacious, well-furnished office sat Nozomi, cradling her drawing pad with her knees. Across from her was the occupant of this office, who labored over myriad reports, graphs, and figures, which were scattered over the fine, hand-crafted cherry desk.

"When I was studying with my tutor, before I came to Tōkyō-3, I liked to organize things," said Shinji. "It helped relieve boredom, and I kept telling myself that I would be saving time for later, to do something I enjoyed. I didn't have any idea what that would be, but the organizing became habit." Shinji gestured to the piles and piles of papers on his desk. "But now, I'm constantly surprised by what new data and intelligence is shared with me. I think I'm on my fourth time trying to get everything sorted."

Nozomi stared.

"I'm sorry, I thought—" He smiled sheepishly, chiding himself. "I thought the mess could be distracting."

Nozomi shook her head. "Only thing doing any distracting is Five Eyes," she said, and she turned the pad around to show Shinji the sketch.

Leaning forward, Shinji peered at the drawing. "Ah, that's—that's very accurate," he remarked. "You do, uh, a good job capturing your subjects. Keep it up?"

"Right now, I think I'm doing too well." Nozomi flipped pad over and thumbed through sketches until she found a blank page. "It's nice to be able to capture real life, but I get the feeling the time I spend on my own probably shouldn't be wasted dwelling on reality."

"Don't feel bad. I used to have dreams like yours. They were hard to shake."

"What were they about?" asked Nozomi.

"Anything. Everything. Sometimes, Ayanami would be there. Sometimes Asuka, or Misato-san. They were conversations I really didn't want to have, but I needed them."

Nozomi looked back to her sketchbook. "Don't think I need any of this right now. Did they ever go away?"

Shinji shook his head.

"So you just have to live with them," Nozomi concluded. "There's no getting away."

Shinji opened his mouth for a moment, but then he frowned, and he sat back in his chair, thinking intently. That was one of the things Nozomi liked about Shinji: he took most matters seriously, treating them with thoughtfulness and respect. That was his public persona, at least. Privately, he could show well enough that he was still just a kid, only two years her senior. One time, at dinner with Shinji and Asuka, Nozomi caught Shinji switching rice bowls when Asuka wasn't looking—a sneaky retaliation for Asuka stealing food from his plate a few moments before. But when it came to issue of real gravity, Shinji put on a different face: the one that was always polite, always apologizing, and always dedicated to fulfilling his obligations.

For those reasons (and her own general boredom with life on the base), Nozomi made a point to visit Shinji in his office for an hour or two each day when she wasn't out on a mission. According to the meticulous reports Shinji filed with Misato, their usual topics of conversation included news of the war, analysis of the most recent mission, and other practical matters.

That's what the reports said, anyway. Officially. Shinji was no master tactician, though, and the prospect of whole countries and continents being overrun by Eisheth's children didn't make for good casual conversation. More often than not, the topic turned to coping with the stress of being an Eva pilot. In that, Shinji had plenty of experience living with that stress from day to day, as well as what it meant to succumb to it. No doubt that was why his brow had creased so as he pondered Nozomi's remark. He knew too well that his words could shape her outlook for days to come.

"There is one way," he said at last. "You can put those thoughts and memories out of mind. It's good to have something to take your mind off things when the missions are over. I don't think I had anything nearly as crucial to me as that drawing pad of yours is to you."

"What did you have?" asked Nozomi.

Shinji sighed. "Schoolwork? I guess there is some value in having a different kind of work to distract you. There were other things, of course. Asuka, Misato-san, and I were living together at the time, so we would spend the evenings watching TV while working. One time, Asuka and I were home alone, and we—" A look of horror crossed his face, and he scrambled to collect himself.

"So that was your first time," Nozomi concluded.

"Well, yes, but—I mean, no! Not that!"

Nozomi raised an eyebrow.

"Anyway," he went on, "there were other things to do back then. I used to play the cello in my spare time. I'd been practicing ever since I was quite young. I don't think I had any great talent for it—I still don't—but it helped me think about something other than what was on my mind, so for that, I think it was good for me. I'm sure it's nothing compared to what you're able to do with your artwork, though."

"I wouldn't say that." Nozomi shrugged. "The nice thing about music is that you can play a piece over that you know well and not have to think about it. I guess I could draw something I've drawn before, but what's got me blocked is that I don't feel inspired. I can't imagine anything new, anything exciting to put down on my pad. All this…" She held up her pad. "Most of it is just stuff that's around me that I don't feel anything for."

"It's life on this base," said Shinji. "It's suffocating. In that sense, you have it harder than I did. I still went to school. I saw friends there—Tōji and Kensuke. I think things only got really bad when they had to leave the city for their safety."

"I remember that. Hikari was just devastated; we lost a lot. I saved a couple of my sketchbooks, but that's all."

Shinji nodded. "That's what we need to do for you."

"Do what, go rescue art from our apartment? We got most of what was ours when SDF moved us out."

"I mean we should do things. You and me and Asuka—that would be a start, but maybe we can get a few visitors to the base. Friends of yours from your neighborhood or your school. Tōji's been by a few times, to see your sister."

Nozomi huffed to herself, shaking her head with a slight, but knowing smile. "And she practically walks on air when she's around him. Those visits have definitely done something for her mood. But Hikari was always good at making friends. Everybody likes her, even when she's in her full class-rep mode. She cares about people."

"You care about people, too, or you wouldn't be a pilot."

"That's not the same. I mean she likes to hear about every little thing a person did since the last time she saw them, even if that was just a day ago, just a few hours ago. I tried that for a little while, but when people ask you in return and all you can say is that you were slaving over a sketchbook, trying to figure out the fine detail necessary to draw a stream of ants as they take apart an apple core and bring the pieces back to the nest, people tend to look at you a little funny. Humanity as a whole? Civilization? I think that's all great. We make our mark on the world, on the universe itself, and that's good. But I don't get along well with most people."

"I like to think you and I get along well enough."

Nozomi rolled her eyes, amused. "You're not most people. I thought you'd have figured that out by now."

"You might be right," Shinji conceded. He pulled out a file folder from his desk. "That said, I know there are other kids your age that you spend time with, aren't there?"

"I think we've established that looking at my file while you're talking to me is cheating," said Nozomi. "Unless I get a file on you, too."

"Asuka tells me I play by the rules too much," he said in a good-natured tone. "Let me see here. Yes, that's right, you were in Art Club, weren't you? Didn't you have some friends there?"

One would think so, but Nozomi found the reality of Art Club a touch more complicated. Even considering her usual preference to work alone, Nozomi had been surprised by the club's tendency to splinter into solo projects. Despite the club leader's best efforts to hold school exhibitions or sell reproductions of the club's work, trying to get any kind of collective effort together was like stripping the bristles from a brush, one bristle at a time.

"Well, it's not healthy to isolate yourself," said Shinji. "Trust me: I know that pretty well."

"I've got my family. I'll be fine."

"Who in your family did you talk to when you were so exhausted that you couldn't sleep, couldn't draw, and couldn't tell the difference between Vietnamese forest and two military vehicles?"

Nozomi looked at him sidelong. "Have you been taking lessons from the Colonel for that line?"

"No." He pursed his lips, thinking better of himself. "Well, maybe a little. And I could be wrong. I'm often wrong. When I was asked to be a pilot, I did it to please my father. I told you that, right? I kept pushing myself in the hope, however dim it was, that Father would recognize what I'd done for him. In some ways, I'm still waiting for him to come back and say those words, but I know he might not. It's his choice.

"But you and I are different, and I'm glad for that. Really, I am. You don't pilot for any one person the way I did. That's a good thing."

"I don't know if that's really any better or worse," said Nozomi. "Like you said, we're just different people."

Shinji sat back in his chair with a thoughtful expression. Resting his elbows on the armrests, he tented his hands and tapped his forefingers together as he considered what she'd said.

"You might be right," he said finally. "You might be right after all."

#

Nozomi knew Shinji wouldn't leave that matter alone, but she didn't put much thought into what he might have planned. Since the death of the Eighth Angel outside Hanoi, Eisheth had become even more cautious, attacking targets quickly and retreating before an airlift could deliver Nozomi to her destination. While this gave Nozomi something of a reprieve, she couldn't really take advantage of the downtime to rest. Her naps were short and unsatisfying. She stared at her sketchbook for hours, and even when she could muster the will to put a few lines down on the pages, she found herself questioning the proportions, the arrangement of the lines, their thickness, and so on. It was like her brain had lost the ability to see a human face as a whole, instead focusing on all of the individual pieces. So Nozomi was reduced to flipping through pages of her old sketches, trying to recapture what was missing.

It was one such day, as she lay in bed looking over her old art, that the wall-mounted phone rang.

To her surprise, Nozomi welcomed the distraction. In the Eva, she had a sense of purpose and direction. She didn't have to be creative. She just had to get the job done.

"Am I needed?" she asked as she picked up.

"Not where you think," said Shinji. "Meet me at the security station on Level 2. You have a visitor."

"Who?"

"You'll see."

Nozomi narrowed her eyes. "You orchestrated this, didn't you."

"Why would you think that?"

"Because you're a terrible liar, Ikari."

"I can live with that if you meet me on Level 2."

Well, when he put it like that, how could she refuse? So once again, Nozomi put on her shoes to traipse about the corridors of the mountain base, sketchbook in hand. While Shinji's involvement didn't surprise her, Nozomi did have to strain to think who he might've asked to visit her. There weren't any obvious candidates, but someone who'd watched her might draw some erroneous conclusions. After all, before Nozomi had been chosen, Misato had had some surveillance on her, as well as a thorough background investigation—not that middle school girls tended to have a lot of background if they hadn't committed crimes. So the question remained: who in Nozomi's life had Shinji chosen?

But the answer to that question wasn't forthcoming, and Nozomi had other obstacles to worry about. The way up to the surface was somewhat tricky. The Russians had done great damage to the upper levels of the mountain as they'd broken through the defenses with their N2 weapons. Level 1 was all but annihilated, and the elevators didn't work above Level 3. Nozomi took the stairs to the security station, passing walls with burn marks and bullet indentations.

"There you are," said Shinji. "Come inside."

Inside Nozomi went, eyeing a large bank of monitors with a tangled bundle of cables running from them to the wall. The room had once been office space, but with the destruction of Level 1, the security station had to be hastily reassembled. Clearly it was still a little rough around the edges, but they had all the essentials working. There were cameras watching the elevators, sensitive corridors around the Eva's cage, and even the civilians' mess hall as they feasted on pre-packaged rations.

"What am I looking for?" asked Nozomi.

"Here." Shinji pointed out a corner monitor, which showed a single room with a large mirror taking up most of the wall. A boy paced in the room, appearing to chat with one of the guards. "Corporal, can you put on audio for this room?" asked Shinji.

One of the security people obliged, and the sound came on.

"You know, I've never been impressed with SDF uniforms," said the boy. "They seem to me like cheap imitations of American military uniforms. We're Japanese, aren't we? Shouldn't we have something unique for ourselves? You know the first thing I'd do? Get you out of those green uniforms. Don't you think they're hideous? I'd go for something brown, personally. Dark brown and dignified. That's unique."

Nozomi would've known that voice anywhere. It chattered away like a machine gun, and each word carried with it the same piercing quality to it: confident and all-knowing. Such an attitude could only come from her Art Club leader, Sasaki.

Nozomi turned to Shinji, incredulous. "You brought him here?"

"It took some effort to track him down," Shinji explained. "There were records of his family being taken to the South Tōkyō-2 refugee camp, but it turned out they'd actually moved on to Suwa instead. If not for that, I would've had him here a day or two ago."

That much didn't surprise Nozomi; there were camps all over the countryside as people abandoned the city in fear. Tōkyō-2 had been Eisheth's prime target for some time, and while she'd shied away from attacking Nozomi and the city head-on, popular sentiment was that it was only a matter of time until the Zenunim came crawling through the city streets. Those who had the means to do so got out of town and took up residence with family in remote villages. For the rest of the city's inhabitants, there were some loosely organized refugee camps set up nearby. The conditions, by all accounts, were not spectacular, however, and just thinking that some of her classmates could be staying in such places gave Nozomi a sinking feeling.

"Why did you bring him here?" she asked Shinji. "We're not particularly close."

"You've been having trouble with your art. I thought having another artist around might help."

Nozomi shook her head. "He does ancient, archaic stuff. Fan painting and calligraphy. Not saying there's anything wrong with that, but we do totally different things."

"Ah, is that so." Shinji frowned, rubbing his temple in thought. "I'm sorry. I may have made a mistake then. Well, we can show Sasaki-kun back home. That's not too much trouble. I'll just go apologize to him for bringing him here on my mistake."

Nozomi looked to the monitor, where Sasaki paced about some more, scrutinizing the metal chair and the table construction. He was, without a doubt, someone who could find something smart-sounding to say about anything, especially things he knew nothing about. But he did know some things about art, and it wasn't entirely true that he would be unhelpful to her. Sasaki liked going to the younger artists in the club and giving them tips, something Nozomi had found irritating, but she was stuck, wasn't she? This was no time to be stubborn.

"Corporal, will you walk with me to the interview room?" asked Shinji.

"No, wait!" Nozomi interjected. "That's all right. I'm sure we can work on a few things."

"Are you sure?"

Nozomi nodded.

"In that case, Corporal, will you escort Nozomi-chan to the interview room instead?"

A pair of SDF members led Nozomi down the hall, giving Nozomi all too much time to think about what she would say to this boy. If she outright asked for his help, she might never hear the end of his suggestions and ideas. Then again, she might not need to ask at all. Shinji had talked to Sasaki already, so in all likelihood, the damage was already done. There was nothing left to do but let the SDF guards open the door to the interview room, where Sasaki was drumming his fingers on the back of a chair.

"Ah, there you are, Horaki," he said, nodding. "You know, you look a bit thin."

"Nice to see you, too, Sasaki," she said dryly. "Are you done talking this soldier's ear off?"

Sasaki sized up the SDF guard in the room. In truth, Sasaki didn't look half as unusual as he acted or spoke. He was taller than Nozomi, but only by a few centimeters. He had brown hair, rather light in color, more like Hikari's than Shinji's. What stood out about him was his eyes—amber in hue, like the sap from an ancient tree.

With a final squint, Sasaki finished eyeing the guard. "I don't think I'm finished," he said. "The guard clearly still has both his ears. Can't you see that?"

Nozomi sighed, shaking her head. If he kept trying to be clever like that, she would get a massive headache, and she was too tired to deal with that. "I see you're as witty as ever."

"I'm glad you still think so." He clapped his hands in excitement, and the sudden noise shot pain through Nozomi's head. "Well now, Horaki, aren't you going to show me around?"

"You want me to do what?"

"Give me a tour. I'm a guest here, right?"

"So am I."

"You're less of a guest than me."

The boy always had to have the last word. "All right," said Nozomi. "Come on. But you're not going to see anything super classified, you know."

"You mean the girl who's the Eva pilot can't pull a few strings?"

Nozomi sighed again, but thankfully, Sasaki seemed to know better than to push any harder. Of all the people Shinji could ask, he had to go and find Sasaki. Well, there was a reason Sasaki was the leader of the Art Club. He had a persistent, invasive personality. He was extremely aggressive about recruiting, particularly in mooching members from the Calligraphy Club. "Why limit your horizons to just calligraphy?" he'd argued once. "You can do that in our Art Club and more, so why not join us?"

As if the idea that someone might only want to do calligraphy was utterly alien to him.

Still, as much as Nozomi found his personality off-putting, she tried mightily to keep things in perspective. For someone who'd taken on the responsibility of keeping the club afloat, Sasaki was very well-suited to the task. He was tireless in his pursuits, and as such, Nozomi reminded herself that people like Sasaki could do good things in the world, things that she herself would never be inclined to do. That the two of them didn't get along so well was less a comment on his personal flaws as a natural result of their incompatible personalities.

"So, Horaki, do you have one of those skintight suits with you? I would've liked to see one of those."

As Nozomi gritted her teeth in horror, the thought occurred to her that she might well be justified in seeing more flaws in him after all.

"I always thought Ikari-san's was the best," Sasaki went on. "The two-tone look is just more visually interesting. Didn't you think so, too?"

At that, Nozomi relaxed. Perhaps that was Sasaki's one redeeming quality: while he could be brash and insensitive towards people, there were certain lines he knew better than to cross. To him, Nozomi was another artist, like he was. That she was a girl as well was mere happenstance to him, no more remarkable than or worthy of scrutiny than any of her male peers.

And thus far, despite Sasaki's rather presumptuous insistence that she give him a tour, Nozomi had found the boy's company a passable distraction. He nitpicked and criticized anything and everything in his sight: from the color of the lights and how it might affect mood to the geometry of the walkways and corridors and whether it conformed to his particular visual aesthetics. Nozomi didn't see the point in criticizing details he was powerless to change, but Sasaki disagreed.

"I know I can't just tell SDF they need to warm up the color of their lights," he said. "But I can look around and see how it makes people look sadder just to be under it. I mean, look at you, Horaki. You not the most happy-go-lucky person in the world, but you look way, way sadder under this light than you would at school, or in the sun."

Nozomi stopped in her tracks, her mouth agape. Horaki kept walking for a couple steps before he even noticed.

"What?" he asked.

"You think I look sad?"

"A little, yeah. Nothing I'd really worry about. It's just the lights, though. I'm pretty sure of that."

I'm not, thought Nozomi.

"You know, you didn't answer my question," he said. "You've gotta tell me about your suit. It's green, right? Like the Eva?"

Nozomi blinked. How had the conversation turned back to that so quickly? "Green and black," she replied, catching up. "There's a little white trim, too, but you can't see it. That's all in the restricted area. Well, more restricted than these first few levels, anyway."

"That's too bad," he mused. "You must have a sketch of it, though, right?"

His eyes went to the sketchbook that was tucked under Nozomi's arm, but she shied away.

"You were always sketching things in club," he said wistfully. "Miike's missed you a lot. She said your creativity inspired her. I didn't see why. With me still around, she could get all the creativity she wanted by osmosis, plus my words of wisdom from Sōtatsu! 'Paint a character of something you strive toward for the day, once in the morning and once at night. If you improve your technique, then you're one step closer to your goal.' Tell me, who but Sōtatsu could've come up with something so brilliant?"

Nozomi was pretty sure that seventeenth century artist hadn't come up with it, either. It was Sasaki's habit to come up with off-the-wall ideas and techniques and attribute them to Sōtatsu to make them seem legitimate or wise.

"Are you saying you couldn't have come up with it?" she countered.

"Well, perhaps I could've, but Sōtatsu thought of it first."

Perhaps it was the only way he could be modest. Whatever the reason, Nozomi wasn't interested in deciphering it, or in puzzling out Sasaki's way of trying to help her. "Look," she said, "I know Ikari told you I'm having trouble with my work. Why don't you go ahead and tell me what bright idea 'Sōtatsu' had for this kind of problem? Do you think yourself so great and knowledgeable? Do you think you can solve me like some project or puzzle you know the answer to with total certainty? Get real, Sasaki. You're not as smart as you think you are."

Sasaki frowned like a stern father figure chiding his daughter. "Come on, Horaki. I would never give out advice about artist's block like there's only one good way to get around it. Everyone's different. We all have our own ways of doing things, of making art. I mean, look at you and your sketchbook. You do things with pencil and paper that I didn't even think were possible. It's like the real, living world can be captured and put on those pages when you're the one who's doing it. It's amazing."

That was hardly the reaction she'd expected. She'd ripped into him, and here he was acting calm, even complimenting her. The boy made no sense, and Nozomi fell back on the only reaction she could muster. "You come off insincere when you try to flatter people," she said.

"It's not empty flattery if it's true. I'm not saying I can't do something just as spectacular with my painting—"

"Of course."

"…but I am saying that I won't pretend to know what will inspire you. I don't know what that is. Still, I know some things you can try. They might help; they might not. I can't guarantee anything."

Nozomi pursed her lips, considering the offer. Sasaki was right to downplay his help. Painting and drawing had some common principles, but a painter had to consider dry, practical things like what kind of paint he used, or what material he painted on. Someone like Nozomi, who preferred to sketch an draw, had similar issues with pencils, but in practice, the decisions they made required completely separate knowledge to make.

But though she'd already rejected his help out of hand, he'd persisted. And not without reason. Looking at a canvass and not being able to see a painting come to life on it was a horrible, empty feeling. Sasaki had gone through such a block before, and Nozomi was feeling the same way about her sketchbook. As often as she'd used it to remember important moments of her life, there was so much she preferred to forget now. Each battle with an Angel took a little more from her.

And she was tired of that. She needed to build herself back up, and though Sasaki was a flawed person and a flawed artist, she wasn't too proud to hear him out.

"All right," she said. "I'm listening."

Sasaki didn't disappoint. For the rest of their time together that day, Sasaki rattled off all manner of unusual tricks for breaking through an artist's creative block—from drugs-induced meditations to fasting to non-stop exercise meant to work the body and mind to exhaustion, so that all the intellectual cruft that had accumulated with time could be cleared away.

Sasaki couldn't say too long, though. As evening neared, a pair of SDF members found Nozomi and Sasaki on Level 10, wandering aimlessly as they talked about pencil diameters and art exhibits crafted from trash on Mount Everest. If nothing else, Sasaki was knowledgeable about the art world, more tuned into it than Nozomi was, and she could appreciate that insight from him. Sasaki, too, seemed to enjoy her tales of piloting Eva and her sketches of the Angels. They were, in his words, "a harsh dose of reality," which he thought Nozomi excelled at capturing.

"But I hope you're able to lose yourself in something else," he went on. "I really do, Horaki. You're too good an artist not to find something like that. You'll be fine. But on the off-chance you need more insight from yours truly, I gave Ikari-san my contact information, as long as the phones to the camp stay working."

"Is it bad out there?" asked Nozomi.

"It's not something you should worry about. You do what you have to, and the rest of us will manage. If nothing else, I can get used to making art from trash, too. That's educational, isn't it? Maybe I'll show those guys from Everest a thing or two."

Nozomi rolled her eyes, but this time she managed a smile to go with it. "I'm sure you'll try, Sasaki."

He smirked, and with that, he went with the SDF guards to the elevator and back up the mountain. When he was gone, Nozomi took out one of her pencils and flipped to a blank page on her sketchpad. If nothing else, she could render that sly smile faithfully, and for once, she viewed his overbearing confidence not with disdain, but with a tinge of warmth instead.

#

Based on Sasaki's advice, Nozomi tried a new approach to her artwork. So often, she'd prioritized faithful recreations of what she'd seen in life, but Sasaki had pointed out something quite sensible: "An artist has the freedom to embellish what he sees," Sasaki had explained. "Maybe the things you've seen lately aren't that inspiring, but you can make them that way. You can make the skies brighter, you know? You can put smiles on people's faces when there'd only been worry. You can paint a picture of humanity beating these aliens, even though it hasn't come true yet, because with those images, people might be inspired to strive toward that goal."

Of course, there was no guarantee that any one work of art could lift people up so high, but Nozomi was willing to give it a chance. She could draw something for other people, with an audience in mind, just as she'd done for Shinji once.

With that idea in mind, Nozomi found a small breakthrough, enough to get her drawing something new and interesting. She chose the city of Hanoi as her subject, but instead of the damaged city that was the site of a battle, she decided to draw it pristine and intact. It was the way that city should've been, with all its colorful undulating roofs, with traders and merchants haggling in the streets, with office workers making their way home on bicycles and scooters. It was a big project, for the city had stretched out below her eyes—below the Eva's eyes—for miles and miles, but she worked on it diligently, one street at a time, whenever she had the chance to sit down and draw.

"It's good to see you sketching again," Asuka said one day. "You seem more like yourself lately."

Nozomi nodded, but her eyes stayed on the sketchbook. There were some features of the river that she wanted to finish, and there was no telling when she would be interrupted. Out of the blue, Misato had called her, Asuka, and Shinji to the conference room. Nozomi expected some kind of tactical assessment, but to that point, Misato was running late, leaving the three of them to amuse themselves.

Shinji peered at Nozomi's drawing. "It's very good," he said. "I'm glad Sasaki-kun was able to give you some help."

A sly look came to Asuka's eye. "Oh, it had to do with that boy, did it?"

"Please," said Nozomi, dismissive. "The last thing you want to do with him is give him credit. If you tell him about this, he'll start claiming he's a co-artist on the piece, or that he should be."

"You're just being stubborn," said Asuka. "It's no crime to say that he helped you out. I've been there before."

Nozomi frowned. Really, that wasn't it. Had Sasaki helped her? Sure, a little bit. That didn't mean he needed to be encouraged, or that Shinji should invite him to the base again for future collaborations. She'd gotten over the hump. If she had problems in the future with her art, then maybe she would give Sasaki a call.

That said, it might be nice to have him visit just to get him away from that refugee camp for a while.

The door to the conference room opened, and with a briefcase in hand, Misato made for the projector without breaking stride. "Good morning," she said. "Sorry I'm late; was trying to mediate a meeting between our brass and the Chinese. Regrettably, we don't want to use the Eva to help them, and they don't want our help anyway." She sighed. "Stubbornness will be the end of humanity, I tell you. Anyway, let me show you what's going on."

Misato set a laptop beside the projector. Hyūga wasn't far behind, and he took care of the display cables and power while Misato got started.

"In just a second, Makoto-kun will have a map of locations Eisheth has attacked in recent days. We think we've discovered a basic pattern to her attacks, and we're hoping to thwart it with some preemptive positioning."

Asuka leaned forward. "You're going to deploy Nozomi somewhere, even before an attack is in progress? It's risky. She could end up way out of the way of where Eisheth's going."

"That is a risk," Misato admitted, "but we have little choice, I think."

The projector lit up, and an image faded into view. As Misato had said, it was a map, with numerous cities on the mainland highlighted in red. Mostly, they were Chinese and Russian towns, and an extensive legend pointed out the strategic significance of each city: military, transportation, industry, agriculture, or something else. In that, Eisheth seemed to be an equal-opportunity offender, and Nozomi couldn't discern a strong pattern to the attacks.

"I know, you don't see much; it's just a whole bunch of red on a map," said Misato. "I didn't realize it either until I looked at the bigger picture. Makoto-kun, if you would?"

The image zoomed out gradually, and sure enough, the pattern became clear. Eisheth's attacks had been concentrated mostly on coastal areas, with a strong grouping near the Asian coast around Japan. Further away from the home islands, Eisheth's attacks had focused on progressively larger and more important cities: capitals and other seats of government, like Hanoi. At those longer distances, only one or two cities had been attacked per country, not enough to cripple whole nations, but enough to keep them distracted with their own problems.

"She's isolating us," said Nozomi. "She's left Japan untouched so far; now, she's attacked everyone around us, putting all the other countries on the defensive, so when she comes for us, everyone else will be too afraid for themselves to give us support."

Misato winked. "Got it in one. You just figured out in one minute what took a room full of generals and their adjutants weeks to realize. Of course, it's always easier to find a pattern when you know it must be there. Now that we know, we can try to counter it. Eisheth has focused the bulk of her efforts on the Russians and the Chinese, knowing they would be less inclined to accept our assistance. There are two major powers left in our cozy corner of East Asia: the North and South Koreans. Now, no one I know is terribly confident Kim the Younger will welcome a Japanese-controlled Eva into his country, but the South Koreans are more amenable to the idea, and so far, they've not taken a lot of heat from Eisheth. That, we think, is about to change. Makoto-kun?"

Hyūga rose, and the image on the projector screen changed to some kind of false-color map. The lands of East Asia were dark, but the oceans ran red with density gradients and currents.

"This map tells us the concentration of LCL by volume in seawater," he said. "While the Zenunim have the uncanny ability to reconstitute themselves from LCL, they still need enough LCL to put together an army. Essentially, their ability to travel through the ocean is limited by how fast they can move LCL in high enough concentrations. There's a distinct hot spot of LCL near Seoul, much denser than the surrounding ocean. We think it's clear that Eisheth is planning an invasion of the Korean Peninsula. As we speak, the South Koreans are improvising facilities to house Unit-14 and make repairs, if it turns out necessary to keep you there for a prolonged campaign."

"Let's not worry about the long term," said Misato. "We'll see what happens if we can get there before Eisheth gets wind of this and launches her attack. We'll fly the Eva out as soon as a plane can be made ready. Shinji-kun, I won't be asking anything new of you, but Asuka, I might ask you to take turns in the control room with Shinji-kun to make sure we always have a pilot on the line ready to guide Nozomi in battle."

"About time!" said Asuka. "Even if it's just support, it's good to have a piece of the action for a change."

Nozomi turned her eyes back to her sketchpad with a yawn. How easy it was for Asuka to get excited. Nozomi saw only an unfinished drawing that she would have to leave behind.

#

As she'd done so many times before, Nozomi went about transforming herself from solitary middle-school artist to Eva pilot. She stripped off her clothes and donned the plugsuit and left her sketchpad in her locker for safe keeping. She took her position in the entry plug and waited listlessly while technicians hitched her up for flight. She coasted over a bloody red ocean, with only intermittent whitecaps giving features to the flat, glassy sea. At least it was daylight; that helped her stay awake. She watched the clouds race across the horizon, going places she could hardly dream of.

Perhaps it would be good to spend time in South Korea, to see a new place and meet new people. Life in the mountain could be very repetitive, and the lack of natural sunlight might be affecting her mind—as if sleep deprivation and stress weren't doing that already. Maybe all she needed to wake up was some kimchi soup; surely there was plenty of that where she was going.

WHAM!

The plane rocked and lurched, and Nozomi tumbled out of the pilot's seat. "Hey, hey!" she cried. "Can anyone hear me? Something just happened out here!"

A communications window opened to the left of the pilot's chair, but the contents were fraught with static. Shinji's concerned face flickered in and out of view. "What's happened?" asked Shinji, his voice distorted and warbling.

"I don't know!"

"Colonel," came another crackling voice, a technician's, "signals detected near Unit-14's position. I'm reading…Pattern Red? Pattern White? Pattern Green?"

"Make up your mind!" cried Misato. "Which is it?"

Did it matter, really, any which way? Whatever the blood type of the creature, Nozomi knew what her foe must be. She took the controls of the Eva, and ahead of her, over the water, she first glimpsed the enemy: an airborne Angel. Shaped like a delta wing, it was covered in eyes—human-like eyes. Where it flew, it left a trail of pink energy that lingered, thin and solid and reflective, like a ribbon. The Angel maneuvered elegantly, like a stunt pilot at an airshow, with the trailing energy ribbon as a decoration.

But that ribbon was far from harmless. The Angel came about, turned its wingspan perpendicular to the ground, and made straight for Nozomi's plane.

CRUNCH! Nozomi craned the Eva's head upward, trying to see, but she couldn't make out much. There were smoke and debris trailing beneath her, and the craft started losing altitude.

"Thrusters!" cried Shinji.

Yes, yes, she knew where the thrusters were. Hadn't they been over this? But when she jammed the button to light them up—

"No, wait!" cried a technician. "The flight restraints haven't released yet!"

Nozomi tumbled and spun, rotating end over end. A piece of aircraft hull, attached to Nozomi by cables, threw off her center of gravity. For the first time, she saw the damage to the airplane as the sky spun past her: cut clean in two, the plane was a flaming hulk that fell to the ocean.

The thruster rockets sputtered out, and Nozomi clawed at the tethering cables, but they were small, light, and elusive. They slipped out of the Eva's hands, and she fell. LCL sloshed about the entry plug, and it was all she could do to hang on to the controls.

SPLASH!

They said LCL would cushion her against sudden movements, but there was only so much that could be done when a creature the size of a building landed suddenly from several thousand feet up. The red ocean water was no more hospitable than a bed of solid rock, and Nozomi's body hurtled out of the pilot's chair, striking the entry plug wall with a dull thud.

"Nozomi-chan!" Shinji's voice was tense and pleading, despite distortions and static. "Nozomi-chan, are you with us?"

Nozomi blinked, and she put a hand to the back of her head, cradling a bump from the impact. "I'm not dead yet," she said flatly. "Maybe tomorrow, but not today."

"Get back to the controls! The Angel is coming!"

She climbed back into the pilot's seat. Her eyes wouldn't come to complete focus, and she blinked repeatedly to try to clear them. Her plugsuit's gloves were stained with traces of blood, but the LCL all around her slowly ate at the blood drops, dissolving them.

That would make a really nice sketch, thought Nozomi.

But there was no time for that. She shook her head to push back the fog in her mind, the throbbing pain in her head, and the aches and pains that made themselves known throughout her body. She looked out with the Eva's eyes. She was sinking. The Eva was sinking, thanks in part to the piece of aircraft hull that was still attached to her back. She took the cables in hand and guided them to the Eva's mouth. She might not have been able to break them with her hands, but jaws that could rip flesh from a whale were more than up to the task. The Eva's teeth snapped the cables, and the section of hull floated away, and Nozomi's gaze followed it.

"Nozomi-chan!"

Nozomi shut her eyes tight, shaking off her disorientation. "Sorry. I think I need to get out of here, right? Before I sink to the bottom of the ocean?"

"Might be a good idea," said Shinji.

"Where's the Angel?"

"Circling overhead."

Then she would have to come out and attack all at once. To do that, Nozomi drew the Eva's prog knife and lit the booster thrusters. A stream of bubbles came out from below, but the push of the rockets was real. Good thing Misato had had the foresight to anticipate an underwater battle. Nozomi had to wonder just what else they were insane enough to prepare for. Zero-G combat in Earth orbit? Hand-to-hand battles in the photosphere of the sun? Maneuvers in the lava of an active volcano?

Amusing as those thoughts were, the imminent battle took Nozomi's attention again. Through the red ocean rose Nozomi and Unit-14. The view above grew brighter with each passing meter of water, and Nozomi raised the prog knife overhead. The tip of the blade cut through the ocean surface, and Nozomi flew with it. She zoomed toward the many-eyed flying Angel, turning the whole of the Eva into a rocket-propelled spear.

WHAM! She smashed into a pink energy ribbon, a supernatural, narrow barrier that somehow hovered in midair until it faded away. Nozomi's rockets shot her away, out of control and tumbling, but some auxiliary thrusters on her hands and ankles helped her steady herself.

"That is just not fair!" she muttered. "This is blatantly against the laws of physics!"

Shinji sighed sympathetically. "Tell that to them."

She would, with the tip of that knife if she had to. Nozomi flew after the airborne Angel, but the creature was speedy and elusive. It turned at right angles on a dime, and its energy ribbons put constant obstacles in Nozomi's path.

"Goldenrod, Goldenrod, this is Violet Six," said Misato. "You are authorized to fire. Fire, fire, fire!"

A pair of fighter jets zipped overhead. They came around, leaving white contrails from their wingtips, and deployed two missiles bound for the Angel.

KA-PAM, PAM! Two fireballs erupted, but they were blocked and held at bay thanks to the Angel's AT-field. The explosions did little damage (if any at all), but they served a vital purpose: a distraction, something to make the Angel hold still while Nozomi closed in.

SCREECH!

She caught the Angel unaware and drove her knife into it's body with all the force her rockets would muster. She cut one of its hundred eyes in half, and all the others stared at her, their glares angry and penetrating.

But then they looked away from her, to the water, and Nozomi's heart went cold. She followed the hundred eyes' gazes to a frothing, restless red ocean.

There was something in the water.

And like Nozomi had done, it wanted to come out.

It was an eyeless, slithering creature, like some kind of water-borne snake. It came at Nozomi with an open mouth, but it had no tongue or throat. Its maw was pure darkness that would extinguish all it swallowed. It leapt from the ocean, jaws wide, and snapped at Unit-14, catching the Eva by the leg. Nozomi pushed the rockets to full power, but that jaw clamped shut and dragged her downward, to the ocean, once again.

SPLASH!

"Structural damage to left knee," said a technician. "Lateral collateral ligament torn, medial collateral ligament sprained. Cruciate ligaments—"

"You don't need to tell me!" cried Nozomi through gritted teeth. "I know!"

"Nozomi-chan, fire the foot thrusters," Shinji instructed. "They might make the Angel release you!"

A jet of air bubbles and rocket exhaust blasted into the Angel's maw. It cried out with a reverberating wail and let go of the Eva's leg. It hung limp and weak beneath Nozomi, but she managed enough control of it to break through to the surface again.

"And to think, I haven't had so much time to swim in years," she muttered.

"Fourteen, this is Goldenrod," came a stern, gruff voice over the radio. "You have another hostile Cross approaching, bearing Two-Seven-Zero."

Nozomi looked to the west, and with the glare of the afternoon sun over it came a third Angel: a four-legged creature with a small central body. Its feet were large and disc-like, and it walked upon water with only a moderate splash on each step.

"Great," said Nozomi. "What's that going to do to me?"

The walking Angel's central body glowed brightly, and a cone-shamed field of energy shot at Nozomi. She crossed her arms, bracing herself as a blast of heat assaulted her. The energy field evaporated the sea water behind her and raised a fog of hot steam.

Three Angels. Three Angels at once, all hoping to rip Unit-14 to shreds. It was profoundly unfair. Shinji had never had to deal with anything so lopsided as this. The odds weren't just against her; they were nigh-on insurmountable.

"Nozomi." In the comm window on her left, Misato came into view next to Shinji, looking dour and stern. "The Eva's at a disadvantage fighting over water, and against three Angels, I have no choice but to order a retreat. We'll muster every resource we have to protect you and the Eva on your way back to safety. Goldenrod Flight will try to keep you covered; we've asked South Korean ships to try to lend aid. Maybe this was Eisheth's plan all along: force us to be proactive and ambush us in a position of weakness. Who knows. All I know is right now, this is the only play we have left."

So she would run away. She would run for her life and leave the fighting to others—to those brave SDF pilots up there, who had missiles that could hardly scratch Angels; to South Korean sailors whose ships would be snapped in two like toothpicks at the slightest touch. And that was okay, wasn't it? How much more could be expected of her? How much more could they ask her to do? To move to Korea and leave family behind? To fight at all hours of the day and night, to exhaustion and paranoia? To feel pains that weren't her own, to see impossible creatures that had no business existing, and whose haunting cries stuck in her mind?

You will kill yourself or someone else piloting Eva. If not your body, then your mind will slowly break instead. It is breaking, isn't it?

Nozomi shook her head violently, trying to keep the thoughts and memories out.

You tire. You feel pain. You can fail. Your flesh will fail you. It's already started to.

And she saw the proof of that in the entry plug. Her blood seeped from her head wound, making strangely beautiful swirls and patterns in the LCL.

She shut her eyes tight. The giant's words and thoughts had to be resisted. She couldn't let that false Hikari's stare ensnare her. "My thoughts are mine," she insisted. "My thoughts are mine; my thoughts are mine."

"Nozomi?"

But what were her thoughts? Were they reasonable? Were they coherent? Wasn't she stuck in a mental fog, as thick and unending as the steam that surrounded her? She'd given so much to be the Eva pilot, and why? She'd never had enthusiasm for the task. She did it because she thought it was right, because they needed someone to do it, and if no one did, then all humanity would be lost.

It was her burden to bear.

It couldn't be trusted to anyone else.

And if she relinquished that burden, nothing good would come of mankind.

She looked up, through the steam and fog. Fighter jets banked and turned in three pairs. They lobbed bullets and missiles at the Angels, knowing well that these measures would prove futile. They did it for Nozomi. They did it because Misato ordered them to, but they were vulnerable. The airborne Angel flew rings around them, and a jet fighter scraped its wing tip against the deadly energy ribbon. The aquatic, featureless Angel dove deep and came up with its jaw gnashing, trying to catch a plane to crush it whole. The walking Angel followed a fighter and its wingman, and its heat beam melted an oncoming missile before it could do any harm.

How could Misato ask her to leave? How could she condemn these men and women to die? It ran completely counter to what Nozomi had been trained to do. It was what Eisheth wanted—for her to admit the weakness of humanity, and of flesh itself.

And there was no way she would consider giving in to that fiend. Nozomi lit the thruster rockets on her back and under her feet. Never mind that they were low on fuel; she would have to make do with what she had.

"Nozomi, what are you doing?" Misato demanded. "I've given you a direct order."

"Do I look like I'm in some kind of military?" asked Nozomi. "I'm not retreating. I'm not going to be the one who walked away while these people up here were sent to die."

"Planes don't mean a damn thing to the enemy we're fighting. You think Eisheth wants to take out a few jet fighters? There's only one main target here, Nozomi, and that's—"

Nozomi jammed a button on the controls, and the comm window flickered out. She had a job to do. Misato was only distracting her.

WHOOSH! The airborne Angel zipped by, and its energy ribbon cut into the water, suspended without floating or sinking. The ribbon emanated from the Angel's pointed tip of a head, and thus it used it as a weapon in deadly charges. How could Nozomi attack that thing with any force?

The water beneath her frothed and bubbled, and Nozomi found her answer: perhaps she shouldn't be the one attacking at all.

She pushed the thrusters to full power, staying low not to expose herself to the energy ribbon. The frothing water followed, and the silhouette of the aquatic Angel grew brighter and brighter. That was good, but she needed to get the airborne Angel's attention, too.

"Okay," she said to herself, "take this!"

She hurled the prog knife at the airborne Angel and watched it clink harmlessly off the Angel's AT-field. The jet fighters fled for the horizon, but the Angel turned, locking its hundred eyes on Unit-14. Misato was right about one thing: the Eva was Eisheth's real target, and Nozomi was going to use that.

With a sudden burst, the Angel made a beeline for Nozomi, who stood her ground, hovering with thrusters that began to sputter and fail.

"Just hold on," she muttered, her head bobbing up and down with the Eva's altitude. "Hold on!"

The airborne Angel banked, and the tip of its nose glowed with a brilliant white hue. Below, the aquatic Angel erupted from the ocean, jaws open to devour Nozomi whole.

But that was exactly what she'd been looking for. Like a gymnast, she flipped end over end and fled. The aquatic Angel gnashed its maw in frustration, just in time to catch the pink energy ribbon instead. The ribbon cut through its AT-field like a cleaver, bisecting the snake-like creature in one go. The two halves fell to the ocean, and the last Nozomi saw of that Angel was its pasty white innards, which were uniform and featureless as much as the outside was, save for one red circular anomaly—the Angel's core, cleanly bisected.

One down.

KA-WHEE! Nozomi's skin went aflame in pain. Caught in the withering gaze of the walking Angel, Nozomi fell to the water under the penetrating effects of the Angel's heat beam. The Eva's armor felt like a massive branding iron that never cooled and never relented, and it was all Nozomi could do to use the ocean as protection, letting the Angel vaporize gallons upon gallons of seawater instead.

As long as that walker could blast her with heat from afar, she could do nothing to it. The only solution was to get close enough that she couldn't be ignored.

On the last remnants of her thruster fuel, Nozomi swam toward the walker, and with one last burst, she leapt atop one of its wide, disc-like feet. The walker's head glowed with heat and fire, but it dared not attack her and hurt itself in the process.

"That's right!" cried Nozomi. "Not willing to shoot off your own foot to get me, are you? Are you?"

The Angel lifted its foot off the water, and like a stallion sensing an untrained farmhand circling near it, the Angel kicked violently. Nozomi hurtled through the air, her thrusters weak and ineffective. She was no more than a clay pigeon for the Angel to shoot out of the sky.

KA-WHEE!

And shoot her it did. It bathed her in that oppressive heat, and Nozomi bit down on her lip until she drew blood just to bear it. Even when the heat beam relented, Nozomi was far from safe. The airborne Angel swooped in, and though Nozomi twisted and contorted the Eva's body to avoid it, she could hardly move fast enough.

"Ahh!" Her right arm went numb, and there was the persistent feeling that someone or something had just ripped the bones right from her shoulder socket. It wasn't real, of course. She knew that mentally, but her body didn't know the difference. How could it?

For the third time, Nozomi fell to the water, and this time, there was no getting back up. The thrusters were depleted. On one lame leg and a severed arm, there was no chance of maintaining control in flight anyway. Her sense of the Eva's body dulled—perhaps Misato had ordered it, but she couldn't say. The pull went down to a persistent, throbbing ache, and she let those sensations wash over her. There would be no more Angels where she was going. There would be no more haunting visions of them that took up every waking moment, no more visits by a thing that looked like Hikari but clearly wasn't. She'd given everything she'd been asked for.

And at last, as the red ocean waters went dark around the Eva, as increasing pressure pushed on her from all sides, Nozomi closed her eyes willingly, knowing she could sleep without dreaming for the first time in too long.

#

There is, of course, a fundamental problem with seeking relief from life's experience by welcoming death—one typically can't enjoy that relief, or at the very lease, one can't know that such enjoyment would come at all. In some circumstances, the unpleasantness that comes in life may be enough to justify this deed, but certainly, a person in chronic pain could never expect to feel release from that pain in death.

So when Nozomi did find herself enjoying the peace and quiet of a dreamless slumber, she knew she wasn't dead. She couldn't be. She was keenly aware she was alive and asleep, lucid despite her body's stillness. She was in a dark place, more a spirit than a human being. Was this Limbo—a state between life and death, heaven and hell—that she would wait in until salvation came for her? Or did she stand on the bank of a dark river, straddling the line between the underworld and Earth? Such were the teachings of Shinto, and Nozomi had to imagine its dark underworld, called Yomi, would be similar to the pitch black place she found herself in.

But there was something else in that place—a sound, a beating. It was the pulse of life, the beating of her heart within her, and if she should wish to return to the world, she should embrace it, shouldn't she? She should make the beating vibrant and strong, yet Nozomi hesitated. Though she'd made this choice before—when she emerged from the ocean, as so many others had done—this time the situation was different. The last she remembered, she'd been sinking into the red ocean. Surely the pressure had started crushing the Eva, and her entry plug along with it. Gods only knew what had become of her body.

Did it matter?

The question gave her pause.

Did it matter if she'd been crippled or maimed? Was that enough to shut the beating sound out, to make her push away the pulse of life that called to her?

No, it wasn't. As much as she hated the feeling of fatigue taking hold in every cubic centimeter of her body, of sweat and oils on her face that just wouldn't come clean, of phantom pains and jolts and belonged to the Eva's body and not her own, the pulse of life called to her, a constant reminder her burdens, her responsibility.

And so, she listened to the sound. She made it grow louder and louder, and it took on a different tenor. The low drumbeat was joined by other sounds: a high-pitched beeping in the same rhythm, the sound of a heart monitor. From the darkness, sensation came to Nozomi's limbs. No longer was she a formless spirit. She was a human being, with fingers and toes, lips and a nose.

Her eyes opened, and it was light.

She lay under a clear, cylindrical barrier, which held her inside a tube. The backing of the tube was a hospital bed, and she was clothed in a flimsy medical gown. The light stung her eyes, and her fingertips tingled with numbness. She pressed her hands to the cylinder, feeling only a dull, inert sensation. She couldn't even tell if it were cold or hot.

"Don't press too hard," said a voice. "You might jeopardize the pressure seal."

The voice rang in her ears, making her wince. Above Nozomi loomed a woman, whose features were distorted by the curve of the plastic barrier, but Nozomi would've known that uniform, those ribbons, and the two cherry blossoms for her rank insignia anywhere.

"You're alive," said Misato. "Surprised?"

Nozomi shut her eyes as she struggled to sit up. "A little bit," she admitted. "How did you get to me?"

Misato held on to a chair, swaying with the room as it tilted. Nozomi couldn't see what was outside, but she could feel her weight shifting in the tube. "Sorry," said Misato. "You're on a South Korean ship; we had to do a little underwater rescue."

That explained the drab decor—the gray walls with exposed rivets and hand-turned locks for hatches.

"The two surviving Angels headed for land after you sank," said Misato. "They seemed content to leave you for dead. Foolish, in my opinion, but it may be they had no real way to attack you once you went to sufficient depth. In that, you might actually be lucky after all."

"The Eva survived?" asked Nozomi.

"If you can find the Titanic on the ocean floor, it's not much more difficult to rescue an Eva," Misato said with a chipper smile. "Those entry plugs are designed to take quite a beating. They're shielded well enough to come down from orbit and survive." She paused. "Well, it'd survive the fall, but the landing might be another matter. Still, pretty impressive, isn't it?"

"It is," said Nozomi.

Misato's expression hardened, turning icy and cold in a heartbeat. "But you didn't know that, so what the hell were you thinking trying to take on three Angels at once?"

"What you asked me to do when you said I should be a pilot," said Nozomi with a shrug.

"I asked you to retreat."

Nozomi shook her head. "You asked me to watch people throw their lives away and die. How does that make any sense? The pilots of those planes are armed with nothing better than pebbles, and they're throwing them at brick walls hoping to make a scratch!"

THUD! Misato slapped the wall of the hyperbaric chamber. "That's their job!" she roared. "When they have no missiles, they'll use bullets. When they have no bullets, they'll use sticks and knives. When they have none of those, I expect them to spit on our enemy until Eisheth herself is defeated! Why? Because that's what's in their power to do! Those pilots—all the men and women serving Japan right now—may be the metaphorical equivalent of gnats compared to Angels and Eva, but that's what they signed up to do, and they'll do it to their last dying breath. And I don't hesitate to ask that of them. Do you know why?"

"Because you don't care what it takes; it has to be done," said Nozomi coldly.

Misato's mouth hung agape; she looked at Nozomi with profound sadness, even pity. "No," she said earnestly. "We fight because, if we can attract even a fraction of Eisheth's attention, it's attention that isn't focused on you. That is our job, Nozomi: to fight for you, to die for you, if we must. The Eva is too important. You are too important."

"I know that. You've told me the Eva is important since the moment you recruited me. It's the key to defeating Eisheth, the weapon too precious to trust to a soulless clone."

Misato's expression softened. "It is all those things," she said, "and I know you must feel the great weight of that burden on your shoulders, but it's our honor and privilege to fight at your side, whatever way we can. Don't deprive me, or the soldiers who fight under me, of that honor just because we pursue it at great risk to ourselves. We're in this together, Nozomi—all of us, all humanity—and no one fights Eisheth alone. Not even you. When people forget that basic truth, we're all weakened for it."

Misato placed a printed photograph on top of the chamber, where Nozomi could see but not touch. In the image was the Eva's armored head and face, mostly intact but damaged. One of its eyes was awash with blood leaking into the space around iris. The beast looked wounded, and its other eye was only half-open from the pain. Nozomi could survive the great pressures of the ocean floor thanks to the entry plug, but the Eva's was practically naked against those depths. Missing an arm and virtually crushed, it was a wonder the Eva had stayed alive with Nozomi falling out of consciousness.

"You'll have plenty of time to learn that lesson," said Misato. "Eisheth got what she wanted. Japan's Eva is out of commission, at least for now."

Nozomi looked away from the photo, bitter and cynical. "So all of Asia falls behind us," she said. "We're helpless now."

At that, Misato let slip a cocky smirk. "We're not beaten yet. We may have our backs to the edge of the ring, with no place to go, but we haven't been forced out."

But they were on the defensive; that much was certain. Once Nozomi had been taken down, the Angels and the Zenunim had moved on the Seoul, neutralizing any military resistance and liquefying the civilians.

With the majority of resistance in South Korea neutralized, Eisheth would start looking toward her next, and last, target: Japan. Not only was the Eva crippled, but Nozomi was in no great shape either. Once the South Korean ship docked at the Port of Kokura, Nozomi was taken by helicopter back to Hachibuse Mountain, but she was to stay under medical supervision until cleared. In a sense, she'd traded one prison for another. While she'd lay in her hyperbaric chamber, at least she could see the walls of her cage. Confined to a hospital bed in the mountain infirmary was worse, for she could see all the activity as little more than an observer.

And she saw much. Every day in the infirmary there was a new face, someone she hadn't seen before. The head doctor would introduce herself to the newcomers and give them a tour. "We're adding two hundred beds in preparation for casualties, as well as three MRI machines and quarantine facilities in case of biological or chemical attack," she would say. "We're striving to make this base the foremost SDF medical facility in the region, but that starts with the people, like you."

The spiel was so well-rehearsed that Nozomi knew to stop listening to the head doctor at that point, for she would soon walk out of earshot.

The only breaks in the boredom were thanks to visitors. Hikari spent a great deal of time with her, in a reversal from what Nozomi had done when Hikari was still recovering from her gunshot wound. As expected, Hikari's protective, sheltering instinct couldn't be suppressed. "Katsuragi-san is right," she'd said once. "It was reckless of you to try to fight under those conditions. You have to protect yourself, Nozomi. You can't put everything of yourself into being the pilot. Do you remember when Asuka came to live with us for a while?"

Nozomi had nodded.

"She was so exhausted. It wasn't that she needed to sleep or anything like that. She was exhausted up here." Hikari had tapped her temple with two fingers. "You could see it a little in her eyes, and I see it in you, too."

"I'm not going to strip naked and lie down in an empty bathtub, if that's what you're worried about."

That had kept Hikari quiet for the rest of that day.

Kodama had been more supportive. "You took on responsibility and embraced it," she'd said. "I'm proud of you, little sister, whatever else happens. It takes a person of strong conviction to make such choices. I'm glad you can make them yourself."

She'd even allowed a slight smile to come across her face—a rarity for Kodama, who always seemed serious. Yet Nozomi couldn't take full solace in Kodama's praise. Kodama was in many ways the opposite of Hikari: devoted to cold logic and rationality, to self-sacrifice, in contrast to Hikari's more sentimental nature. Kodama had praised Nozomi for the choice she'd made because it appealed to Kodama's sense of personal responsibility, but would an objective person say she'd done what was right? Or had she taken on too much of the burden all on her own?

She'd asked that question to another of her visitors: her father. The dogged reporter had thought on the matter for a time before answering.

"You know, all I can think of now is a sports story," he'd said at last. "Can you believe it? As much as I tried to get out of there, that's what comes to mind."

That didn't bother Nozomi. To her, sports and politics were merely two different things, and neither was inherently superior to the other, despite her father's aspirations. "Go ahead and tell me," she said.

Nodding, Horaki began. "I remember, maybe three years ago, I was covering a baseball game at Kōshien. It was a scoreless game through fourteen innings. One of the teams had gone through four pitchers and was hoping for a continuation the next day, which would give them a chance to rest—the tournament had a rule that after fifteen innings tied, the game would be stopped, so it was a sensible strategy. The other team, however, had used several pitchers in the previous game, so they had little choice but to keep the starter out there all game. Fourteen innings he threw, over two hundred pitches! Even as he was visibly faltering, the manager didn't dare remove him. He'd kept the other team scoreless for so long, how could you?

"I remember the look on that boy. He was absolutely fearless. Even in the bottom of the fourteenth, when the other team had men on second and third with one out, he was just so determined. You could see it on his face; he decided, on that mound, in no uncertain terms, he wouldn't let either of the next two batters put the ball in play. He would strike them out and end the inning without even a hint of a threat.

"The first batter fought hard. The pitcher got him down two strikes early, but the batter kept fouling off and fouling off pitches until the count ran full. I remember keeping a tally on my notebook: eighteen pitches in all. The pitcher finally struck him out on a changeup in the dirt. It was his best pitch; no one had even put it in play all afternoon.

"The last batter gave him a different fight. He was looking for the changeup. He belted one down the left field line, but it sailed just outside the foul pole and into the stands, a long strike. A high fastball zipped by for strike two. All the pitcher had to do was get one more strike, and the inning would be over; his team would escape. No one else could help him there. He was in the best position to keep his team alive. There might as well have been no one else on the field but him, the catcher, and the batter. The fielders didn't matter. The runners didn't matter.

"So he went to his best weapon, the changeup, and he threw it low, where the batter couldn't possibly get a good swing on it. He was right. The batter swung right over it, but he threw it too low. It was in the dirt, and it skipped away from the catcher. The batter ran for first. The runner on third dashed for home. The pitcher came to cover the plate, but the throw was too late. The runner scored. The batter reached base, despite striking out, and the pitcher's team lost.

"Was he wrong to go for the strikeout? I've read some statistics. Every time a batter hits the ball, there's a strong chance he'll reach, almost thirty percent or more. It was too much of a risk, I guess, to let them put the bat on the ball."

But all in all, the pitcher was right, wasn't he? Why take the risk of giving the batter a pitch to hit when he could strike the batter out instead and not leave the outcome to chance? It was the better choice to try to make that pitch. He just didn't do it right.

"Sometimes," Horaki went on, "you have to realize that you're imperfect when you try to gauge your own limitations. It's not just about doing what you set out to do. You have to be honest with yourself in saying you can do it at all."

A point well made. Perhaps Nozomi had overestimated what her body and mind could take, but in her mind, she'd lacked any other choice. She wasn't like the pitcher, who had a whole team of fielders, or other pitchers, that he could've relied on. No one else could pilot an Eva.

With no conclusion to put her mind at ease, Nozomi spent the rest of her time in the infirmary sketching and listening to half-intelligible conversations or the rhythm of her heartbeat on the EKG. Running around in circles, trying to think of what she should or shouldn't have done, would get her nowhere, and there was no point in answering that question when the Eva was too wounded to be piloted again for days, maybe weeks.

To Nozomi's surprise, the advice that would snap her out of this mental malaise was yet to come. She had one more visitor, one she didn't expect, who came to her on the second day of her stay in the infirmary. It was the boy with amber eyes and a knowing smirk, the Art Club leader, Sasaki.

"Who let you in?" asked Nozomi. "Ikari?"

Sasaki shrugged, and he took the chair next to Nozomi's bed, turned it sideways, and sat parallel to her, watching her from the corner of his eye. "I guess you could say that. I expected to hear that you'd had a breakthrough with your work thanks to me, not that you were laid out in a hospital bed after some disaster."

Rolling her eyes, Nozomi turned toward the other side of the bed, sketchbook in hand. "Yeah, well, the world doesn't revolve around you. I've been a little busy; haven't really had time to try anything new."

"That's not what Ikari-san said."

She glared. "So you did talk to him."

"Of course I did. He's the only one who can say straight up what's going on with you. You definitely don't. Horaki, why do you think I recruited you to the Art Club?"

"Because you need at least five students to stay an official club?"

"No!" He looked around, surprised by the loudness of his own voice. "Well, maybe a little, but forget that. Even if we had fifteen or twenty people in club, I would've gone after you. You're a lone wolf, you know. You do your own thing. I get that you want to do things that way, but do you realize how wasteful that is?"

"What I do with my art is my business."

"But there are people who can learn from you! Everyone in the club learns from you. You rattle off insights into perspective and shading like it's all obvious. Chidori's been quietly sticking to your side just hoping to learn something from you by proximity. Haven't you noticed that?"

Nozomi couldn't say she had. The Chidori girl was quiet and shy, so it could be that she wanted something from Nozomi but was too timid to say it out loud. Still, Nozomi would've noticed if that girl had been hovering near her during club, right? Or had she been too absorbed in her sketches to pay attention?

"You didn't, did you?" Sasaki went on. "I thought so. You know, Sōtatsu always had a collaborator—"

"Oh, here we go," groaned Nozomi.

"…a collaborator in Kōetsu. They created the Rinpa school together. They achieved great things that neither one of them could've accomplished on his own."

"So you're saying I should have a partner, that I can't do art well enough by myself."

"It couldn't hurt!"

"And that partner should be who? You?"

"Why not?"

Nozomi scoffed. Really, the gall of that kid. He was utterly clueless to how he came off, wasn't he? Well, Nozomi would do him the courtesy of explaining things to him, in no uncertain terms.

"Don't take this the wrong way," she said. "I like your work, Sasaki, but I wouldn't work with you. My art means something to me. It's a personal endeavor. It helps me become a better person. Your art, Sasaki, is an avenue for you to be a better person than everyone around you. Tell me: why the hell would I want to learn to be like that?"

He opened his mouth to argue, but Nozomi's watchful eyes silenced him, and he sat fuming in the flimsy metal chair, with only the beeping of the EKG to break the silence between them. His expression was unreadable. He seemed angry, but he didn't dare look back at her. At last, the tension left his body, he closed his eyes, and said,

"Why do you think I want to learn from you, Horaki?"

It was a weary, tired question, one that begged her not to answer aloud.

"Maybe you're right. Maybe I'm not the one who should be your collaborator, your partner, but if you keep striking out on your own, you'll be alone for the rest of your life, and that's sad. Maybe doing art for yourself is good enough for you. I can't imagine what it would be like if I couldn't share what I do. I see what you do with your sketches, Horaki. You keep them to yourself. You hardly ever show them to people unless asked. What you can do is too beautiful to be kept hidden, away from sight. You could be using them to meet other artists or impress people you care about, but you don't. You stay alone. But maybe you like things better that way. I don't know."

With that, he rose, and he let out a deep breath, collecting himself.

"Take care of yourself. Whatever you want to do, just take care of yourself."

And he walked out the infirmary door.

Puzzled, Nozomi looked to her sketchbook, flipping idly through the pages. There were so many drawings there, and she'd shown only a fraction of them to anyone else. They were akin to her private thoughts and memories, and as much significance she attached to them, no one else would see those drawings the same way. In many ways, art was her personal compulsion, something she'd refused to share with others. Sasaki was quite right about that.

Moreover, she'd done the same with being an Eva pilot. She'd taken up the mantle of being the Sixth Child, knowing there would be no others, that she had to do it on her own.

Why did she refuse to admit Sasaki's advice had helped her draw?

Why did she ignore Misato's orders, knowing that the fighter pilots could help her escape to safety?

As a single, solitary human being, Nozomi had run into the very limits of herself: of her body's ability to withstand stress, of her mind's capacity for creativity. Eisheth was right in that sense. A human being could succumb to pressure so easily, breaking down in the face of adversity.

But humans have always been social creatures, and they'd come to dominate planet Earth as much for their ingenuity as their capacity for cooperation. An jet airliner is the work of many men. A city is built by generations. No one person, even if he lived forever, could accomplish those feats alone.

It was as Nozomi pondered these thoughts that her last visitor came to her bedside. This time, it was Captain Hyūga, who was quiet of step and held a clipboard.

"Pardon me for intruding," he said, "but there's a situation."

Nozomi huffed. "I don't think there's any piloting to do; the Eva's only what, halfway pieced together from becoming spaghetti?"

"Eisheth has a force of her children and Angels heading for the home islands. You can spend your time during the coming battle here, or you can come with me and make a difference. Your call."

That wasn't a difficult choice. Nozomi detached the sensors on her chest and sat upright. "What about the doctors?" she asked. "Am I cleared to leave?"

At that, Hyūga suppressed a grin. "Do you think they would dare oppose the Colonel if she asked?"

#

After a brief stop for clothes, Nozomi and Hyūga headed to the control room, but the way down was crawling with SDF personnel. Clerks raced up and down the stairs with papers and messages. Chefs and kitchen staff traded knives and aprons for fire protection suits and extinguishers, patrolling the halls for damage control. Armed parties circled each level in groups of four. These ramped up preparations told Nozomi enough: the target was Tōkyō-2. With all of Japan's neighbors wounded from Eisheth's attacks, the five-eyed giant was going for the kill in one shot.

"So, tell me this doesn't mean what I think it means," said Nozomi, eyeing a group of SDF members with riot shields.

"I'm afraid it does," said Hyūga. "Eisheth is throwing a party, and all of Tōkyō-2 is invited. Unfortunately, our gift for the host has been damaged in transit."

"And it's too late to make another."

"Yes, but not too late to borrow one." Hyūga swiped his key card at the entrance to the control room, and when the reinforced steel door slid open, he let Nozomi lead the way. The screens of the front three monitoring stations tracked a military aircraft—a cargo plane—that carried an Eva on its back. It wasn't Unit-14; this Eva had a different color scheme: predominantly blue, with orange and silver decorations, particularly on its fins.

From her chair in the center of the control room, Misato watched Hyūga and Nozomi out of the corner of her eye. "You two are just in time," she said. "Unit-15 is making a grand entrance. Wouldn't you agree, Major Freeman?"

"Yes, I would, Colonel Katsuragi," said a man beside Misato. He was dressed in some unsightly military fatigues, decorated with a bizarre, pixel-like pattern of greens and browns.

"Did you just come out of some low-resolution video game?" mused Nozomi.

The major chuckled softly, gesturing at his uniform. "It sure isn't meant to be easy on the eyes."

"Major Freeman will serve as our liaison to the Americans and Unit-15's control team," Misato explained. "Eisheth's bringing the fight to us, so we make our stand here, at Tōkyō-2. She's not just going after the city and the mountain to cripple our counter-offensive. We think Eisheth's goal is Unit-14. She wants to finish what she started over the Pacific, and we can't let that happen. It's all or nothing now."

"So, what do you want me to do?" asked Nozomi. "Pilot Unit-15?"

Major Freeman shook his head. "There's no time for that, I'm afraid. We're not even sure you would be able to sync with Unit-15, certainly not at a battle-capable level right away."

"We could reconfigure the core," Misato insisted.

"And put the fate of planet Earth in the hands of a single little girl?" Freeman looked to Nozomi apologetically. "No offense, but the rigors of combat have broken grown men. There's a reason we're trying to protect Unit-14 right now, isn't there? That's what my superiors are concerned about."

Nozomi shrugged. "So we're trusting the fate of planet Earth to a mindless clone instead. That's reassuring."

"We've gone to great lengths to train the Eva and the dummy plug to react predictably to certain interface stimuli," said Major Freeman. "We want to win this war. You've fought the two Angels that are coming. You know how they operate. Give us the benefit of your experiences with them. I'll relay any weaknesses or tactics you identify, and we'll have Unit-15 do the rest."

So that's why they needed her: to be a glorified encyclopedia with two ears and a mouth, so they didn't have to bother searching through databases or flipping pages to find the information they needed. Well, that was fine. Without the Eva to pilot, what else would she do? All she had left were words. She was nearly as helpless as those tank operators and fighter pilots. Without the Eva, she was just a girl in a world much bigger than her.

Throughout the next half-hour, preparations for the attack commenced in earnest. Unit-15 landed at an airstrip outside the city and began to patrol the perimeter of town. Tanks rolled through city streets. Missile launcher trucks took positions at major intersections, and jet aircraft swarmed overhead.

All this Nozomi saw on the extensive setup of monitors in the control room, but the limited angles and constantly-shifting viewpoints made it clear how little Nozomi was actually seeing. She had windows into the real world, but the frames had a tendency to get in the way.

"It's hard to get used to, isn't it." That came from Shinji, who took a seat beside Nozomi and Misato. "You're used to being in the pilot's seat and seeing everything. From here, you can do only so much."

"So it's just guessing," said Nozomi. "You don't have all the information, so you have to try to figure out what you're not seeing."

Shinji shook his head. "I don't see it that way. There's no seeing what only the pilot sees. I've been trying, on Misato-san's advice, to see what the pilot doesn't see. Then I can be useful. Then I can make a contribution that doesn't make me unneeded."

"How could you ever be unneeded? You were a pilot. You know what you've done for people."

"Two years ago," he said. "That was all two years ago. What am I doing now?"

A rhetorical question, and the point was well made. Even someone like Shinji couldn't afford to rest on his laurels. It was the story of humanity, wasn't it? That yesterday's warriors had to step aside for younger, more able men and women to fight instead? Even if this position for Nozomi were temporary, she benefited from the change of perspective.

And needed to reap those benefits quickly; the battle for Tōkyō-2 was soon to begin.

It started with the airborne Angel, the mammoth delta wing creature with its devastating energy ribbon trail. Its only weakness? The core that sat just behind the angled nose, a slightly raised bump that resembled a cockpit or a bird's head. It would be impossible to reach directly with that ribbon in the way.

Predictably, the Japanese SDF fired on the Angel with missiles, but the Angel spun its turning, twisting ribbon around like a shield, deflecting most incoming fire. The Angel used its own body as a weapon, overtaking jet fighters and plowing through them like a pair of scissors through a horde a paper cranes.

"Well?" asked Major Freeman. "Surely you came up with some way to attack that Angel."

"It's flying around two hundred meters in the air," said Nozomi. "Do you have an Eva-sized cannon? You could launch it like a circus performer. Otherwise, I don't see what else you can do unless it comes down."

"And until then?" asked the major.

"Wait for the walker."

The walker Angel wasn't far behind. Slow and deliberate, it stomped into the city, smashing tanks, vehicles, and buildings underfoot with its wide, disc-shaped pads. When the SDF fired upon the walker, it just lifted one of its feet up to shield itself, deflecting all fire harmlessly.

"When I was fighting them, I tried to go after the walker," said Nozomi. "If you can get its beam attack to hit the flying Angel, maybe it'll be stunned long enough to kill it."

Major Freeman got on a headset and started translating Nozomi's idea for the American operators on the other end of the line. How they could think to direct the beast's anger in a specific way or at a particular target Nozomi couldn't say. It struck her as no different than trying to pin a red cape on someone when there's a frustrated bull nearby.

On cue, Unit-15 charged into the city, making for the walker. It used buildings as stepping stones, gaining elevation, and it leapt in attack, bound for the Angel's central body.

WHAM! But it slammed into one of those wide, disc-like feet instead.

KA-WHEE! A heat beam cut through the skyline, melting buildings and asphalt, but the Eva scampered away. It climbed on the exterior of a tower and leapt again, this time landing on a thin, fragile knee joint of the Angel.

KA-WHEE, KA-WHEE! Sporadic shots cut through the city, but Unit-15 was faster. It skipped and jumped from the Angel's body to the street and back again, constantly evading danger.

"Show us the line," said Misato to her technicians. "It's no good being a living target if we can't use this to bring the other Angel down."

Three technicians worked feverishly at their consoles and constructed a three-dimensional, shimmering representation of the flying Angel, the walker, and Unit-15. The model was very fluid, and whenever the Eva jumped or ran, the image was a little slow to keep up.

"Get Unit-15 to dance around the northwest leg," said Misato. "Then we have a chance."

Major Freeman relayed this information in English to his superiors. The Eva circled the walker, jumped high, and—

KA-WHEE!

The heat beam swatted it out of the sky, as well as the flying Angel behind it.

"Good shot!" cried Misato, pumping a fist.

But while the airborne Angel faltered, the walker wasn't fazed. It ambled to a gap in the skyscrapers, and a bright light shone from its body.

KA-TCSH! The monitors went to static, and the mountain shuddered.

"No communications, Colonel," reported one of the technicians. "All antennas report no signal."

Misato pounded a fist on her armrest. "Of course not. We've just had our eyes gouged out. All right, let's break out the emergency protocols. Set up the mobile command post. Major, take a handheld. We'll get Nozomi and Shinji-kun to safety. I'll send a team to get you to the mobile command. If we have any other insights into the Angels' tactics, or if we can reestablish communications from here, we'll contact you."

"You're not going to be able to do a damn thing," said Freeman. "You're blind down here."

"He's right," said Nozomi, rising. "Either Ikari or I should go, too."

"Outside? In the open?" Misato shook her head. "I can't do that. I won't allow it. That could be a death sentence."

"So what? If there's even a chance what either of us knows might help us beat Eisheth back, we need to do it. It should be me. You can always pilot the Eva with a dummy plug if you absolutely have to. Ikari is irreplaceable, and I know more about how these Angels fight." She stepped up to Misato, looking the colonel straight in the eye. "I'm not piloting now, so it's my turn to put myself at risk, even though I may not be able to do anything. I'd need the help from your people to protect me. It'd be a chance for them to find some honor in this. Isn't that what you want for them?"

Stumped, Misato looked to Shinji for support, but he shrugged.

"She can be stubborn when she wants to be, too," he said.

With a sigh, Misato nodded then, motioning to some guards. "Fine," she said. "Go out there and hold this city. Hold it to protect every last man, woman, and child within it; to defend all the places they call home—"

"And all the beer in our fridge that you haven't had a chance to drink yet," said Hyūga.

"Right!" She blinked. "Hey!"

"Don't get carried away," Hyūga reminded her. "Whatever happens to Tōkyō-2, it won't come easily." He looked to Nozomi and Major Freeman. "Both of you, please come with me. We'll establish the mobile command."

The destination was a vehicle bay on third level of the mountain base. A modified personnel carrier, with visible antennas and seat-mounted monitors, formed the basis of the mobile command. Two other armored vehicles, full of SDF riflemen, would protect Hyūga, Freeman, and Nozomi.

"Oh boy," said the leader of the security contingent, the wiry and sardonic Sergeant Ishikawa. "It must be my lucky day again."

"Why do you say that, Sergeant?" asked Hyūga.

Ishikawa shrugged. "Maybe it's just being around here that makes my life interesting."

Three vehicles left the mountain on a side road, with Hyūga's mobile command vehicle in the middle of the pack. In the front row of the command vehicle was the driver and an Eva control technician. Two SDF riflemen took up the middle bench, with Hyūga, Nozomi, and Freeman in the back. Hyūga handed out radio headsets to each of them.

"Reestablishing uplink with the Americans, Captain," said the control technician.

"Very good," said Hyūga.

The monitors in the mobile command vehicle flickered to life with various text commands and diagnostic information. It was nothing Nozomi understood, however, so she cast her gaze out the window instead. Most of the vehicle infrastructure obscured her view, and at best, she saw a pink energy ribbon streaking across the sky, or an invisible heat beam rippling through the air with optical distortion as it melted through steel and earth. How terrifying it was to see only part of the battle, never knowing if a stray attack might destroy them any second.

Nozomi expected to see chaos and mayhem outside, but what she didn't expect was the dissonant serenity of it all, the soundlessness of what was happening outside the vehicle, drowned out by the roar of the engine revving.

And most dissonant of all was the image of Hikari standing on the side of the road. She watched Nozomi with the coldest of gazes, a look that foretold death and punishment if she could exact it.

Eisheth was watching.

"Captain," said the driver, "I think we have a problem."

Nozomi's eyes went forward, and she saw what the driver was afraid of. The flying Angel loomed in the distance, and it turned an edge to the ground, going for the kill.

"Evasive maneuvers!" cried Hyūga.

"This is a humvee, sir; it doesn't come with evasive maneuvers!"

"Then turn the wheel to the right and hit the gas as hard as you can!"

The vehicle swerved off the road, skidding downhill. Nozomi's body flew against her seat belt and against Hyūga's beside her. The vehicle spun, losing traction, yet the oncoming Angel stayed steady in the distance, coming into view whenever the windshield turned to the north. The energy ribbon tore up the earth, cutting down trees and kicking up rocks and soil. The pink glow of its deadly ribbon grew, until—

There was a blur of gray metal and fire and—

PAM! A fireball erupted, with two white trails of smoke coming out of the Angel's side. The flying Angel lost its balance, tilting over and slamming into the ground, and Nozomi watched the Angel slide past to the vehicle's left. A shower of dirt and debris bombarded the vehicle's windows, but the tires held, keeping it upright.

"What was that?" cried Nozomi. "What just happened?"

"I think that was a plane," said Hyūga.

They had nothing to touch the Angel; bullets did nothing, same as missiles. But a plane might be enough to change things. Even if it couldn't do damage, it might just make a difference.

But it was a life that was gone. Snuffed out to try to stop Eisheth, and for what? For Nozomi to survive until the Angel made another pass? It was senseless. And if you looked out the windshield at the scene outside, at the clouds in the sky or the uprooted trees, you might just think it was a disaster that had passed, that life would go on in spite of it, but it wasn't so. The true disaster had yet to come. The flames of the destroyed plane attested to that. The broken energy ribbon from the airborne Angel would do more damage, wreak more havoc, before this day was done.

Broken?

Nozomi's eyes turned to the energy ribbon. Yes, it was broken, intermittent. There was a conspicuous gap before it tilted and followed the path of the Angel to Nozomi's left.

The ribbon was the Angel's defense and offense. Without it, the core was easily seen and accessible. The impact of the plane had stunned the Angel, enough to break its concentration and break down its ribbon.

And that was the key to defeating it.

"I need to talk to someone!" said Nozomi, pulling on Hyūga's uniform. "I know how to beat it!"

"Are we online?" Hyūga shouted to the forward cabin.

The monitors of the vehicle flickered to video, with footage of Unit-15 doing a fatal dance around the walker in the midst of the city streets.

"If you can hit it hard enough, you can stop that wake it creates," said Nozomi. "The Eva can finish it off then."

Hyūga smirked. "There should be plenty of men out there waiting to give that Angel a few body blows. Corporal, get us to safe distance." He touched his hand to his headset radio. "Capital Fire Support, this is Violet Five. I have some firing instructions for you…."

At the same time, Major Freeman got on the line with his superiors, relaying Nozomi's instructions to the American forces, and when he was finished, he gave Hyūga a nod.

"Execute on my mark," said Hyūga. "Three, two, one, mark!"

Boom! A heavy artillery piece fired in the distance. The flying Angel, once sent to the ground, reared up like a snake and put the flat of its belly to the shell, blocking the damage with its AT-field. That was the Angel's weakness: it could defend itself with the AT-field or propagate its dangerous offense with its ribbon, but it couldn't do both at the same time.

Boom, boom, boom! A barrage of fire converged on the Angel, bombarding it from all directions. It turned and spun, unsure where best to defend itself, and that was the key to bringing it down.

The ground rumbled with an Eva's footsteps, and Unit-15 charged at the Angel, lowering its shoulder to break through the AT-field and smashing the cockpit-like core. With a shrill shriek, the Angel fell to the ground, sliding down the mountain, its thousand eyes turning directionless with their gazes.

But any rejoicing over this victory was put on hold when a white-hot glow in the distance began to dwarf the light of the sun.

"We need fire!" cried Hyūga into his radio. "Fire on the last Angel; disrupt its shot!"

A rippling wave of heat cut across the ground, turning rock into soft lava and magma instead. Trees combusted and went ablaze, and water turned into a haze of steam. The heat beams turned and swept over the city wildly as the Eva and Angel fought on the southeastern side of Tōkyō-2.

The driver of the mobile control vehicle turned the wheel all the way to the left and began the climb back up the mountain to the road. Even on safe ground, the residual heat from the Angel's beam made the interior of the vehicle uncomfortable. Nozomi dabbed at the sweat on her brow, and if she were suffering, so was the vehicle. The engine strained, whining painfully, and—

POP! The vehicle lurched, and pieces of molten rubber were strewn over the landscape.

"The tires are melting," observed Hyūga. "It's too hot out there."

Nozomi went for a door handle and stuck a foot outside, but Hyūga caught her before she could touch the ground.

"I wouldn't," he warned. He took the cover off a notepad and hurled it outside. It hit the ground and went aflame on contact. "Go to the roof," he instructed.

Easily said. Nozomi was a thin, nimble girl, but the outer surfaces of the vehicle offered little in terms of handholds, and the metal was quickly heating up like the ground outside, too. The roof was uncomfortably warm to the touch, leaving her skin tingling climbed atop it. Little wonder the tires had given out first. Expanding air made them so vulnerable, and without tires, the wheels began to sink into the ground. The vehicle shifted in place, but Hyūga and Freeman came up, too, trying to find space around the array of antennas on the roof.

"Oh great," said Freeman, flicking a nail at one of the antenna leads. "This is quintessential Japanese engineering, isn't it. Relentlessly efficient; there's not a square inch of this rooftop that's not being used. Never thought you might need to take refuge on the roof of this car, did you? Didn't plan for that contingency, did you?"

"We try to save space where we can," said Hyūga. "I know this might be a foreign concept to a American and his waistline."

Freeman glared, but he said nothing more.

"Do we still have radio contact?" Hyūga called down to the cabin.

"Yes, sir!" said the controller.

"Get us a helicopter for evac, now! Or we're going to be like a metal crouton in a boiling rock soup."

"Why don't we just get one of the other security vehicles to drive us out?" asked Nozomi.

"They're all going to have the same problem," said Hyūga. "The ground is too hot and too soft to get any kind of traction. If the tires don't give out, they'll spin out instead as the ground turns to slush."

And any four-wheeled vehicle would have that problem. The earth was fundamentally impassible in this state, and there was little any of them could do about it. Every human being needed to put something in contract in the ground to get moving: a foot or a hand or something else.

That wasn't unique to human beings, either. Nozomi looked to the north and west, where Unit-15 kept on circling the walking Angel. It wasn't always successful in this endeavor; more than one wide-angle heat beam caught the Eva at point-blank range, and it was all the dummy plug could do to manifest the Eva's AT-field and hold the heat at bay. Still, the damage in the city was stark, as the heat beams would just go around the Eva and melt everything in their path instead: buildings, cars, streets….

Including the very streets the Angel walked upon.

"Major Freeman, can you get the Eva to hang out near the Angel's feet?" asked Nozomi.

"That seems more than a bit dangerous," said Freeman. "One wrong step, and those feet will crush Unit-15 like a bug."

"I'm hoping to give the Angel the same problems we're having," said Nozomi, who gestured to the unstable, soupy ground around them.

At that, Freeman understood, and he relayed the information to his command unit. More of the vehicle's complement took refuge on the roof and the hood, just in time for the thumping of helicopter rotors to be heard in the distance.

"All right," said Freeman, "let's see what this tactic of yours can do."

The ground rumbled, shaking with each step of the walker Angel. Unit-15 darted up and down, jumping from one disc-like foot to another. The Angel's footing began to falter, and as its heat beams began to soften the ground, bits of molten rock stuck to its feet as it walked, like soft tar from a newly-paved road.

"We're getting blasted by that heat ray," said Freeman, who listened carefully to the information coming in from his headset. "Armor's failing; skin and muscle are taking damage. How did you deal with it, Horaki-san?"

Standing atop the roof of the stranded control vehicle, Nozomi stared into the distance, toward the battle of Angel and Eva. The Angel's heat beams spawned streams of fire from the underbrush wherever it looked, but despite the vicious, searing heat of the Angel's attack, the Evangelion pressed on. There was nothing else to do, after all.

"You just have to take it," said Nozomi, wiping a hot piece of ash from her skin. "The Eva has to keep going, even if it hurts."

Freeman nodded knowingly, and he put the microphone of his headset away.

The heat beams ablated Unit-15's armor, blasting it away in bits and pieces, but the Eva let out a horrendous yell, climbing up the Angel's immobile legs. It reached the central body and found a gap in the Angel's firing arc, opening the enemy to a relentless pounding. The Angel tried desperately to dislodge Unit-15, moving its central body around, but with its legs stuck in the hot, soft ground, there was no chance.

All it took was one colossal punch, and the Angel shuddered and fell. Hyūga and Freeman took their headsets off, admiring the view. A helicopter approached from the distance, promising the stranded group salvation, but truly, salvation had already come: the Angels in Asia were defeated, and only two remained elsewhere in the world. While the innumerable Zenunim loomed, for one day, the people of Japan could relax and rejoice. It was a victory borne of cooperation: between America and Japan, between military forces and Eva.

That, Nozomi realized, was mankind's strength. Alone, human beings were weak and frail, but they were seldom truly alone. When one man's physical strength fails, another can pick up the load. Every man is a piece of the continent of humanity, after all, according to Donne.

And Nozomi resolved to capture that solidarity, to depict it in her work as a reminder to herself. Never again would she take on a burden and challenge alone, for she was surrounded by people who could support her: her sisters, Kodama and Hikari; her father; Shinji and Asuka; Misato and Hyūga; Sasaki; and more. She drew each of them, one at a time, standing together outside the gate to the base with the countless support staff of the mountain, the soldiers and pilots who'd fought along side them, and anyone else she could find a name and a face to go with. They all mattered to this fight, every single one of them.

Without their support, she would be nothing, and mankind would have no reason to resist Eisheth, to refuse joining her and her children in the sea.

But for at least one more day, the city of Tōkyō-2 stood strong, a bastion against Eisheth's nihilistic gaze.


Next: Though Eisheth's Angels have been defeated, her children are countless in number, and they add dejected and listless human beings to their ranks. With mankind on the brink of annihilation, Rei faces a difficult decision: how much will she sacrifice to see humanity saved? Coming soon: "The Many Eyes of God"

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