The following work incorporates so many ideas, concepts, characters and settings that listing them all here will just get in the way. Rest assured, I'll cover everyone in the end.
None of them are mine.
Author's Note: Despite all appearances to the contrary, this story doesn't belong in the crossover section, because it isn't one.
Now, I'll get out of the way. The lights go down, the curtain parts, and the players take the stage...
The story so far...
Gendo Ikari had hands. He stared at them, holding them up against the red sky, turning them in small circles to examine his own flesh. A cool breeze played over his skin, and he felt a familiar warmth that made his heart seize. He leaned his head forward and touched his chin to another, felt her soft hair tug at his beard. He looked down and saw Yui, his Yui, naked as the day she was born, curled against his side. She let out a soft sigh and rested her chin on his chest, meeting her gaze with his own.
"Goodbye," she said, and then she was gone.
She simply ceased to exist. His heart seized, and his breath caught in his chest. He rolled onto his side in the sand and gasped. The sea before him ran red with blood, lapping at the shore with a pink froth. He stood and stared down at himself, dumbfounded, as he was intact. He looked around in a panic, searching here and there. It wasn't supposed to happen like that. They were supposed to be together forever.
He stopped when he saw Shinji seated on a rock, gazing impassively out at the sea. Snarling, Gendo ran to him, hands poised to clamp down on his throat. When he reached him, he seized the boy by the neck and shook him, but it was like trying to plunge his fingers into marble. Shinji laughed at him contemptuously and brushed him off with a wave of his arm, forcing him into the white sand under his feet.
"I have her now," said Shinji, touching his chest. "She lives forever in me, as do they all. She and she alone will suffer loneliness, I fear. Even now Asuka and the others are drawn to the bosoms of their mothers. For Misato, the week she spent in bed with her Kaji will never end. Ritsuko and Maya will lie in bed after that first night they went for coffee together for the rest of eternity. Though Hyuga never knew her touch, he will wake up beside Misato, drenched in her sweat, every day for the rest of forever."
He fixed his gaze on Gendo. His eyes were hard. "Some, I denied entrance into the new heaven. I crushed Kiel's throat myself. They will not suffer as you suffer, though, for I merely excluded them. You, on the other hand…"
"What have you done?"
Shinji's gaze rose, and Gendo looked up at the great black orb hovering over their heads, Lilith's Egg shining in the heavens.
"You, I have perfected. Your flesh will never mortify. You will never age or fear disease. Any injury you inflict on yourself will reverse itself in a matter of hours. You are immortal, Gendo Ikari. You are eternal. When the stars go out and the universe goes cold, Gendo Ikari will remain to contemplate its nothingness forever."
"Why did you have to let me see her first? Why must you be so cruel?"
"I was not cruel," said Shinji. "That was her wish, not yours. That it flavors your suffering is incidental."
Shinji stood up, smiling, as Gendo sank to his knees. He gestured, and beside him, a pool of darkness formed. It formed into a monolith that gradually rose from the sand, and within it were stars, millions of stars, and something else. Gendo watched him step into it, and he turned.
"Where are you going?" said Gendo.
"My revenge is not finished," said Shinji. "Now that I am as the Angels are, I know the truth of their rage. They whispered the secret of the universe to me as I ascended to join them."
Shinji smiled broadly. "Somewhere, there is a man with a typewriter."
He stepped into the void, and as it closed, Gendo saw, and he screamed, for within that void, there were Earths.
When Shinji arrived at the first secure door to the labs, Ritsuko was already standing there waiting for him. He looked more haggard than he'd seen in years, almost like she used to in the old days that now seemed to distant, a memory buried under the gleaming magnificence of the Institute and Neo Tokyo. In fact, if it weren't for the long dark hair she had tied in a loose ponytail that was draped over her shoulder, he could have seen her just the same back in her old lab. The only thing missing was the cigarette.
"Ritsuko?" he said, rushing to her side. "What's wrong?"
"We can't talk here," she said, her voice low. "You need to see this yourself."
He was surprised by the lengths she was taking. She led him through the building and the above-ground facilities, down into the secure labs, and finally even deeper, down the elevator to the old cloning lab and Shinji's own private laboratory, what Asuka had jokingly nicknamed "The Fortress of Solitude", the name she'd given to his bedroom in the old apartment, so long ago.
"What's wrong?" he said.
Ritsuko was shaking visibly as she walked with him into the Terminal elevator. She didn't say anything, but hit the switch. When it reached the bottom, she shied to the back of the tiny space and hugged herself.
"I'm sorry, I can't. Kaji is with him."
Shinji touched her shoulder. "I don't understand."
"You will," she said, "Please. Go."
He blinked, and headed down the tunnel. Kaji was standing at the end of the tunnel, waiting for him. He had his cowl thrown back over his head but was in the full suit. If he'd pulled the mask over his face he would have disappeared, blended into the darkness and made it part of himself. His cloak swayed around him as he walked.
"We picked him up about two hours ago," said Kaji. "I brought him here. I thought it was best to keep him out of sight."
Shinji nodded. There was a figure sitting near Kaji's equipment on a simple folding chair. He wore a ragged black suit that was more gray than black, and long scraggly hair and a thick beard obscured his features. Kaji stopped and let Shinji cross the rest of the distance himself.
He froze. "It can't be. You're dead."
His father looked up at him. "Of course I am. I usually am. We have a poor survival rate."
"What are you talking about?"
"I'm not your father, boy. I'm his father. I've come to warn you. He's coming."
"Who's coming?" said Shinji.
Gendo looked him in the eye, and Shinji saw madness in him. His eyes were bloodshot and his lips dry, and he was as pale as a ghost. He smelled, and his hair was a rat's nest of tangles, dirt, and dust. He smirked quietly to himself, and then began sobbing.
The Infinite Shinjis
The Forces of Evil
Shinji Ikari, who has mastered the Riddle of Steel, called The Great Devourer and The Absolute Enemy
Iqarius, Primarch of the Second Legion, the Crimson Vengeance
…Suzahara Toji, Captain of the First Great Company, "The Berserkers"
…Aida Kensuke, Chief Apothecary of the Crimson Vengeance, called "The Good Doctor".
…the dying girl who waits in silent judgment
Asuka Langley-Shikinami, Queen of the Vampires
…Mari Makinami, a vampiric thrall
…Hikari Horaki, a vampiric thrall
Dr. Shinji Ikari, M.D.
The Forces of Good
Shinji Ikari, last survivor of his universe
Shinji Ikari, son of Kal El and the Last Child of Krypton
…his wife, Asuka Langley Soryu-Ikari (M.S.), a Kryptonian-Human hybrid, six months pregnant
…Ritsuko Akagi, mad scientist
…Hikari Horaki, a Cyborg
…Toji Suzahara, head of security
…Ryoji Kaji, the Bat-Man
…Dr. Rei Ikari, Ph.D, computer scientist
…Kensuke Aida, computer scientist
Shinji Ikari, son of Jor-El and the Last Child of Krypton
…his fiancee, Asuka Langley Soryu, Emissary of the Amazons
…Toji Suzahara, Green Lantern
…Rei Ayanami and Kaworu Nagisa, Ascended Seeds of Life
Shinji Ikari, Master of Magnetism and the Mystic Arts
…Misato Katsuragi, host of the symbiotic alien called Venom
…Rei Ayanami, the Living Vampire
…Hikari Horaki, Spider-Girl
…Toji Suzahara, The Boy Who Can't be Smashed
…Kensuke Aida, a ferrokinetic and technological savant
…Ritsuko Akagi, a scientist and mutant
…Asuka von Doom, a pyrokinetic of untold strength
…Mari Potts-Stark, The Invincible Iron Maiden
Shinji Ikari, Vampire Hunter
…Rei Ayanami, a dhampir
…and Toji Suzahara, professional paranormal eliminators
Allies of Evil
Megatron and his Decepticons
…Starscream, his less-than-trustworthy second in command
Megatron II, leader of the Predacons.
Ra'as Al Ghul and the League of Assassins
Allies of Good
Dr. Emmett L. Brown, Ph.D
Martin Seamus McFly, Sr.
Optimus Prime and the Autobots
Optimus Primal and the crew of the Axalon
Those damn yellow aliens
Gendo Ikari, who heralds the coming of the Absolute Enemy
An ancient hate, from the dawn of time
Evil beyond imagining threatens everything that is.
The battle for one boy's soul has begun.
There's not much you get from saving the world. For Shinji Ikari, what he got was a one bedroom apartment, a job in an office, and a whole host of bad memories. Some men look back on their teenage years with wistful remembrance or brutal regret. For Shinji, it was a mixture of both. He could go to bed each night knowing that he was a hero, a knight in shining armor who battled forces beyond human comprehension and saved the world. That is, until his head hit the pillow and a click of a chain chased light with darkness, and he was left alone to remember the ones who didn't make it. That was why his alarm clock and lamp made friends with a bottle of whisky, the holy trinity of the nightstand.
Tonight, as usual, he was lying awake, staring at the ceiling, when the phone rang. He sat up, perfectly alert, and pulled the chain for the light. He swung his legs out of bed and winced at how cold the carpet was. Later autumn was settling on the city and it was going to get cold again. He never remembered cold from his youth, only as an adult. He remembered warm festival days and holidays that were always the same, and how comforting they were, reminders that nothing changed. Now, every year the weather reminded him of the passing of time and all those days he would spend alone in the company of absent friends.
His hand fell on the phone and he saw her picture hanging beside it. He kept the first picture she ever gave him, one someone else took of her on the beach. That was the Misato he wanted to remember, not the one with the burn on her face and the blood matted in her hair. The handset of the phone creaked in his grasp.
"What?" he snapped.
He blinked. "Father?"
"Look," his father said, "I know-"
Shinji slammed the headset down so hard it nearly tore the cradle off the wall. He started back to bed when it rang again, and he choked it from the cradle.
"Shinji," said Ritsuko.
Shinji sighed, his mouth shaking from the strain, and he frowned. He leaned on the wall. "Hello," he said.
"We need you to come in to the lab."
"Why?" said Shinji. "It's over. You promised me, it's over."
"It's not an angel," Ritsuko whispered, as if someone might overhear. "It's something else. I wouldn't let him call you if it wasn't an emergency. The truth is…" she trailed off. "Just come here. Please. Come home."
"I'm on my way," he sighed.
The truth is.
He squeezed the molding on the wall. He hated himself every time he spoke to Ritsuko. He hated himself but he could never hate her. It wasn't her fault she loved his father. It wasn't his fault that Mother, his real Mother, disappeared when he was too young to remember. It wasn't her fault that he betrayed Mother's memory by thinking of Ritsuko Akagi as his mother. It was his betrayal, not hers, and his fault. She was a good person. She was good to him.
He changed out of his pajamas slower than he wanted to, feeling the ache in his shoulder from the injury he took in the last battle. His left hand still shook when he grasped something too hard, and a jolt would make phantom pain run up his arm. He looked at the scars in his hands and rubbed them together, for his luck. He didn't cover them up with gloves. He needed them there as a reminder. He touched his fingers to the window before he left. They made a soft squeaking sound. Outside, lighting flashed and rain slashed.
He pulled up the hood of his jacket as he jogged to his car. A good job for life was his reward, and where he was Spartan with his quarters he was extravagant with his automobile. He'd been through three sports cars already. There was nothing wrong with them, he just sold them after a while, after he got tired. He sold them because, sooner or later, absent—mindedly, he'd jog to the wrong side, waiting for a phantom hand to unlock the door from within, sometimes even falling into the driver's seat, expecting the buxom Captain to be there waiting for him, gunning the engine, ready to taunt him with her erratic driving.
He started around the wrong side tonight. He'd start looking for a replacement tomorrow.
He didn't mind that he was soaked when he got in. The cold helped keep him awake as he navigated the streets of Tokyo-3, all right angles, all the same, a jigsaw puzzle city with no history to call its own. It was the dead of night and it was dark, and he almost got turned around a few times. He really was so much like her, it wasn't funny. Finally, he pulled up to a booth, flashed his badge, and a hazard-striped bar raised. He drove to the locks, the clamps fixed around his wheels, and he killed the engine while the car was dragged into the tram by an underground motor. The rain stopped and the car lurched diagonally downward, sawing into the earth.
He put his hands behind his head and closed his eyes, and fought hard against sleep. Now he felt tired. Figures.
It felt like an hour, but it could only have been a few minutes. The tram car pushed his vehicle out, he tipped the key to start up the turbines, and he started the slow drive across the floor of the Geofront to headquarters. It was sparser than it had been. The dream of building underground cities had been abandoned, and the mirrors were down, replaced with harsh lights. It was just a cave, now, with a glittering pyramid half patched with tarps and rusted metal, a derelict grave marker for mankind's hope for a better future. The future didn't better, it just got colder, part of the year.
His tires slipped in the mud a little bit, and he slowed down. He had to be careful. He finally pulled into the secure lot, which now stood open, and stopped diagonally across three spots. No one used them, so there was no point in pulling into a regular space. He jogged up to the door, pushed it open easily, and was in the cold halls of Nerv again. A waved of remembrance washed over him. At least they'd cleaned up the blood.
He put his hands in his pockets and shuddered as he walked towards the elevators. He still remembered the way after all these years, walking it by rote. In his minds eye, he saw Asuka running past him in her red undersuit, always red, her eyes wild with anticipation and determination. She was with Toji now. They tried it, they really did. Shinji had a habit of calling Misato's name at inopportune times. Saying sorry wasn't good enough to patch it up after. It never really was. He wasn't sorry. He never really was.
Try as he might, he couldn't help but see Rei, and Hikari. Hikari wasn't so lucky.
Wait, that was just a euphemism. She was dead, and it was his fault, because he let it happen. They both were. It was a good thing they built headquarters as a pyramid. It was a tomb.
He made it to the elevator, where he needed an actual key to go any further. He felt it lurch under his feet as it started up the shaft, and when he slid inside, it groaned a little, the doors squeaking. He leaned against the side wall, hit the button, and closed his eyes again. He didn't want to see in his mind's eye his younger self awkwardly standing in the elevator in a suit that clung to every part of his body with three girls whose suits clung to every part of their bodies, even if one of them was his sister.
He smiled a little. Some memories weren't so bad.
The doors opened, and a wave of familiar scents and a rush of hot air hit him. The cage was open and active, to his surprise, like the day he left it, if more cluttered. The empty cages of Units Zero and Three stood mute testament to their lost owners, the only markers they would ever have- Shinji had signed a hundred non-disclosure agreements, and the dead didn't have to sign. It was easy to sweep them away, put them up and forget about them. He wanted Hikari to have a marker at the Impact Memorial and they wouldn't even allow that. Misato was cremated and under a field somewhere with a number for a name.
Unit One was in its cage. She'd been patched up, but the replacement armor over the arm and chest had never been lacquered. Just looking at it made his shoulder and chest burn. It overmatched him by three feet, always seeming to look down through the eyes of its beetled helmet. Experimentally, he ran his hand over the chest, touching it. It felt the same as it always did. He walked around the side, to see the power back on the back had been lifted up, and there were wires trailing to it. Someone was running it through the startup sequence.
His father was as quiet as usual. He'd shaved, and his hair wasn't black anymore but silver, and crowned his head; it had started thinning on top. Shinji looked at him reservedly, saying nothing. They both did that, father and son, so different yet so alike. It was Ritsuko broke the silence, touching his cheek to turn him around.
She kiss his forehead. "It's so good to see you again, Shinji."
He wanted to hug her and call her Mom, just one time, but didn't. He never did. Something wouldn't let him.
"What's wrong?" he sighed. "You wouldn't call me unless there was something wrong."
"Come with us," said Gendo.
He sighed, and walked deeper into the cage. He teared up a little when he saw the shuttered door to the girl's locker room, wiped at his nose, and kept walking.
Ritsuko took his arm. "You're soaked. When was the last time you had something to eat?"
"I had some ramen for dinner."
"That's not enough," Ritusko chided, wiping some of the water out of his hair. "I should get you fresh clothes."
Gendo stared at the floor. "Can we have a moment alone?"
Shinji swallowed. He walked with Gendo as Ritsuko stopped, folding her arms under her chest. Her mouth twisted into a frown, and they walked on.
"She's still beautiful," said Gendo to the air. "I wonder what your mother would look like, sometimes."
"I'm sure," said Shinji.
"I can't remember her face. When I think of 'my wife', I think of Ritsuko. Do you hate me for that?"
"No," Shinji said, honestly.
Gendo nodded. "It wasn't your fault."
"Yes it was!" Shinji snapped, rounding on him. "It was my fault! If I'd-"
Gendo stopped him with a look. "It was mine. I built them. I put children in them to pilot."
He looked into the air. "Fuyutsuki told me the crash was a blessing, that it was a chance for me to start over, but by the time I had to start over it was already too late."
"I don't care," said Shinji. "I don't want to go over this again, and over and over it. What do you want?"
Gendo stopped in his tracks. "I'm going to ask you to pilot again."
Shinji sputtered. "Damn you, I knew it, I-"
"Son," said Gendo.
"Oh please," said Shinji, "don't try that, I-"
"It's not an Angel. It might be something worse, and…"
Shinji looked at him long and hard. "And the truth is, I am Iron Man."
Gendo looked at the floor. "The MAGI chamber. Come on."
The walked the rest of the way in silence. The main interface with the MAGI was holographic, a spherical room with a podium in the center. It would respond to verbal commands and gestures, and it lit up when the walked inside. The door closed behind them with a hiss.
"Play the file from this afternoon, please."
A profusion of data appeared in front of him. Shinji coudln't make much of it. He was a salaryman, not a scientist. He sighed.
"Just tell me what's going on."
Gendo coughed into his hand. "This morning, the old sensor system flared up. We picked up something in high orbit, outside the Van Allen belts, some kind of radiation. The profile is unlike anything we've ever seen before."
Shinji saw what was probably a radar screen, showing some kind of void or shape in space- it was huge, marked on the screen as eight kilometers in length, and looked artificial. It had a prow like an ancient galley, high and sharp, and the rear sections were built up into something that was a cross between a pipe organ and a castle.
"That was the first one," said Gendo. "It appeared, followed by two more and a number of smaller objects. They're currently on the far side of the planet, out of the light of the sun and moon. Their behavior since appearing suggests intelligence, or intelligent control."
"What do you want from me?"
"I want you go to up in Unit One and take a look."
"You want me to pilot a robot fighting suit into outer space. I haven't slept in three days."
Gendo looked at the floor. "Son, you're the only one who can."
"Let's get this over with," said Shinji.
Gendo nodded, and they walked out of the room together. Almost instinctively, he veered into the locker room. He wasn't surprised to find an undersuit waiting for him, sealed in plastic. He pulled the plastic apart, after worrying one of the seams with his teeth, and tore it open. The suit unfolded in his arms, and with a sigh, he started stripping off his wet clothes, using his undershirt to towel off the last moisture from the rain. He pulled the suit on, starting with the legs, then the arms, before he shrugged into the chest plate and hit the switch to compress it around his body. He was taller and a little thicker around the middle than he had been the last time he'd worn a suit like this. He felt ridiculous as he walked outside.
He blushed when Ritsuko saw him.
"Nothing I haven't seen before," she mused.
His blush deepened.
She smirked. "You're so easy… to…" she trailed off.
Ritsuko looked away with a choked sob.
"I want to go home," said Shinji. "I'll go look at your space rocks, and then it's not my problem anymore."
"Agreed," said Gendo. "I just want the feed to show the UN. They took all my cameras. We run on a shoestring."
"The empty bag the shoestring came in," Ritsuko sighed. "We used up the last string a month ago."
Shinji snickered at that, and winced.
He stood in front of Unit One, and she opened for him. The upper torso scissored forward, and lifted up as the arms folded back so he could slip into them like a jacket, while the legs split open. He got up into it, leaning on the hip plates, slipped his legs in, and shoved his arms behind him, winced as his shoulder cracked. When he wheeled them forward, the whole suit closed around him and hissed as it began pumping cold LCL around his body to cushion impacts and increase his synchronization with the system.
He felt three pulses, and then saw the outside world in a lower than normal resolution through the eyes of the Eva, transmitted directly into his own brain. He took a halting step forward, then another and another, until he was walking normally, suffused with the heady feeling of towering over his parents like children.
"How is it?" said Gendo.
"Fine," said Shinji, twisting. "The arm joints are a little stiff. The balance is odd."
"I made some modifications. Hopefuly you won't need them. Let's get you to the launch tube."
Shinji nodded, the suit grinding as it mimicked the motion, and he felt himself draw closer to it, the synchronization improving with familiarity. By the time he reached the launch pad, he was simply walking. He turned around, stepped into the clamps, and let the system seize him. He hated this part.
"Ready?" said Ritsuko, her voice chiming in his ear. He saw a feed of her at the controls.
"Yes," said Shinji. "I'll be right back."
"I know," said Ritsuko.
"If I…" he trailed off.
She looked right into the camera, and smiled.
"I love you, Mom," he whispered.
They launched him.
The jolt shoved him down, the suit grinding as it held him up. He looked up and saw the tube rushing by as he rocketed skyward, propelled by compressed air. The ride was surprisingly long and twisty. They must have been sending him through one of the auxiliary tubes, he thought absently as he fought one of the turns, trying to keep his empty stomach from boiling up around his chin. He waited for the critical moment when he saw the stars opening up and heard the patter of rain on the Eva's helmet to hit the boosters and punch it up into the sky.
The ground tilted lazily beneath him as he remembered how to work the attitude jets. He took a deep breath.
"Main boosters, max burn."
The Eva responded and he felt himself being pushed down as the Eva pushed up, thundering into the sky on a glowing plume of plasma. The rain slashed at him, blurring his vision, and he wished the damned thing had windshield wipers. It wasn't long, though, before he punched through the gray mass of the clouds, saw a flare of lightning to his left, and was above the weather, his sight finally clearing. The sky got darker and darker as he went up, until there were so many stars it seemed the sky was more light than inky black, except for the concentric pattern of voids in the night that he saw.
"Those are the objects," said Gendo.
"They're huge," said Shinji.
"Just get me a camera feed, and you're done. This is the last time."
A chill went through him. He was in outer space.
He'd seen it before. Six years ago, Asuka screamed.
Once he was out of the atmosphere he could dial back on the thrust, and relax a little, twitching the Eva's fingers. He aimed himself at the strange objects orbiting the Earth and waited for them to come into view. His breath caught. This he hadn't seen before.
The three largest of them looked like crosses between cities and ships, in outer space. They were dotted with burning fires on tall spires, and their sides bristled with guns so enormous a battleship could have fit down the bores. They gleamed in red and brass and sent a chill down his spine. The largest were accompanied by smaller, similar vessels, with many even smaller ones moving between them. Something about the middle one bothered him.
A copy of his Eva suit was attached to it, somehow, much larger than life, and ganglier, sickly-looking. Worse, it was crucified, bound to a red iron cross by thick nails driven through its palms. Blood oozed from its palms and trailed behind it in space as the ship moved. He swallowed.
"You getting this?"
"Yes," said Gendo. "Fall back. Fall back now."
"R-right," Shinji stammered, turning his legs and arms to push back with his thrusters, to regain the grasp of gravity.
A proximity warning appeared on his heads up display. He saw flares, like muzzle flares, and hundreds of small objects started streaking towards him, but not at him. He let the onboard computer focus on one, bring up a tighter view. It was hard to make out, but it was definitely a craft of some kind- a blend of a reentry pod from a rocket and some sort of church, spiraling through the void. It it was pushed by a rocket at its conical apex.
Something flew past him, much closer this time. The computer system scanned it, and identified it as an F-16, but the energy signature was wrong, and there was the obvious fact that F-16s did not fly in outer space. It lazily turned around him, and his radio crackled from a burst of static. The computer compensated, and translated.
A harsh, shrieking voice bellowed, "This is Starscream! I have identified our primary target!"
Shinji turned and hit the boosters to head back for the atmosphere.
A growling, snarling voice roared in reply to the other.
"This is Megatron! Decepticons, attack!"
Toji slept fitfully, tossing and turning in bed, grabbing at his pillow. Asuka rolled over beside him and kicked at the back of his legs with her heels, snarling something in German. He let out an exasperated sigh and opened his eyes, to see the angry red glow of the alarm clock staring back at him. It was four in the morning, and his shift started at six, putting him in that magic zone where he had just enough sleep to be groggy without being rested, and not enough time to get back to sleep before the alarm went off. As he slid his legs off the bed and sat up, Asuka made a contented noise and immediately pulled all the sheets and the blanket onto herself, wrapping her body up into a cocoon. As she turned onto her back, she started snoring loudly.
Toji got himself up and wandered into the kitchen. He had a coffee pot set on a timer to start brewing before he woke, but turned it on early and pushed the kitchen door closed. They didn't have much, and his uniform for the next day was neat and pressed, hanging on a hook by the door. Between Asuka's graduate school and Toji's rotating shifts, they didn't see much of each other anymore He was always a little surprised that she remained in Japan at all after what happened, but according to her, she had nothing in Germany, either.
He sat down at the table and turned on his tablet, and went to his homepage. His email icon was blinking but he ignored it, almost letting the tablet drop out of his hands. There was a radar image of some sort of big blotch and a headline screaming about a city-sized object in Earth orbit. He looked at the time stamp and saw that it was dated only a few minutes ago. Toji quickly skimmed the rest of the article, got up, and headed for the nightstand, where he kept his phone. It was missing.
He dropped down on his hands and knees by the bed and looked under it, then under the nightstand itself. Finally, he found the phone tucked against the wall in the corner. It had vibrated off the table, and probably woken him up, without his realizing. He saw the icon for missed calls, checked the number, and called in to the station.
A mechanized voice greet him. "All lines are currently busy-"
He stood up, looked at the phone, and snapped it closed.
Leaning over the bed, he nudged Asuka's shoulder with the heel of his hand.
She made an annoyed noise and rolled away from him. He pushed harder, until she rolled on to her back, her eyes flicking open, the lashes sticking. She fluttered her eyes until they came a part and yawned.
"I have to go to work."
"So? You always have to…" she trailed off, catching sight of the clock. "Did you get called in?"
"They called me, yeah. There's this… I don't know."
She shook her head, rubbing at her eyes. "What?"
He plucked the remote control from the foot of the bed and turned on the television. A very prim anchorwoman was reading from a script, and her hands were visibly shaking, her knuckles white where they curled on the desk. Beside her was the image from the article on his homepage. Toji turned the television up.
"…the first object appeared approximately two hours ago. Government and United Nations officials have reserved comment, but the American space agency has confirmed that the object was not detected until it reached an orbital distance of some one hundred thousand miles, halfway between the Earth and the Moon. NASA officials are claiming that the object and the smaller ones that joined it have both made corrective maneuvers and decreased in speed, suggesting intelligent control. The government has issued a state of emergency, and is urging citizens not to panic…"
He turned it off.
"Gott," Asuka whispered, clutching the sheets to her chest.
"I said, I have to go."
"You can't just leave me here!"
He looked at her, and her face twisted into a scowl, one he knew all too well, the one she made when a little too much emotion slipped out and she started hating herself for it.
"Fine," she snapped, "Go."
"I'm taking you with me."
"No," she said, sharply.
"Yes. I'm not just leaving you here."
He rushed into the kitchen, stripped out of his pajamas, and started pulling on his uniform. After he'd button his shirt and tucked it in, he went to the armoire he kept locked near the door and clipped on his badge and pulled his gunbelt around his waist. By the time he walked back into the bedroom, Asuka had pulled on a pair of jeans and a loose shirt, and was slipping into her shoes. She had her phone in her hand.
"Shinji isn't answering me."
It was like the room went five degrees colder, all at once. Toji looked anywhere but at her scowl.
"Try his family."
He went to put on his shoes, and when he returned to the bedroom-slash-living-room, she was shaking, staring at the screen of her phone. She snapped it closed and stuffed it in her pocket.
Toji nodded gravely. "What do you want to do?"
"I'm going with you, aren't I?"
Toji sighed, and closed his eyes. He was glad his gun was on his belt; he was half afraid she'd shoot him for what he said next. "Do they still have your suit?"
"Yes," she said, softly. "I don't know if… they're not answering me."
"I can get you there. It's on the way."
She chewed her lip as he did up his tie, slipped the clip into place, and pulled on his cap. "Let's go."
She nodded, and followed him out of the apartment. He jogged down the stairs, and she kept close pace behind him, almost touching his back. He stopped at the bottom of the stairs, where the mailboxes stood next to the complex door. Someone had left an old boombox sitting on the carpet, under the mailboxes. Toji knelt to pick it up, but it wouldn't budge, like it was glued to the floor.
"Wow," said Asuka. "I haven't seen one of those in years."
"Come on," said Toji, pulling her by the hand.
He jogged down the steps with his hand on his gun. The parking lot was crowded with apartment tenants, looking up at the sky. Toji weaved between them, pulling Asuka by the hand, until she dug in her heels and forced him to stop. She stared upwards, her eyes wide, her hair drifting from side to side in as light breeze. Toji took a deep breath and let his own gaze slide towards the heaven, and his jaw dropped open. There was a shadow on the Moon.
The first falling star was just a tiny flash, on the horizon. The next one was bigger and clearer, and burned brighter, lasting longer. A sick feeling flooded through Toji, like sludge building up in a drain. The streaking lights grew larger and longer, and he clearly saw one trailing vapor behind it as it angled into the city, and a moment after it crossed behind the outline of the downtown skyscrapers, there was a rippling boom and the ground shuddered under his feet. There were already more of them coming down.
Toji heard something, a strange, mechanical sound, a sort of five-note pulse that rolled around his skull and settled in his bones. Instinctively, he grabbed Asuka and pulled her around behind him. The front of their apartment complex was unmade, the front wall sliding outwards and collapsing into so much debris. Something moved inside of it, a huge humanoid form trailing streamers of dust as it shouldered a chunk of wall out of its way and stepped to its full height on the parking lot. It took a step out onto the pavement, its square foot coming down with a loud boom. Toji looked back up at the thing as it hunched forward to look at him. It was some kind of robot, blue, with an absurdly huge tape deck in its chest. Its face-plate vibrated as it spoke in a rumbling, mechanical monotone.
"SECONDARY TARGET ACQUIRED. DECEPTICONS, CONVERGE ON MY POSITION."
Toji ran. Asuka ran with him. The giant machine didn't pursue. It reached up and depressed a massive switch on its shoulder, and the front of its chest tipped forward and expelled a massive block of metal that unfolded in the air and landed as some sort of quadrupedal robot, an alien mockery of a jaguar that peeled out a snarl that sounded like a low-fidelity recording and charged, metal claws sparking on the pavement. He pulled Asuka with him rolled over the hood of a car, and was pushed a good five feet when the creature collided with it and started scrabbling over it, its claws digging deep rents in the sheet metal. He almost reached for his gun, thought better of it, and tried to get up onto his feet.
The robot-cat stopped and looked up into the air, ears spinning as if it heard something. Toji's phone started playing AC/DC's Highway to Hell. So did Asuka's, and a dozen others buried in the rubble.
Unit One tumbled out of the sky, trailing vapor behind it, and landed in a crouch with a loud thump. It stood up, joints grinding, raised its hands, and swept the robot-cat off the hood of the car with a too-bright blast of its hand repulsors. The helmet clanked and unfolded, revealing Shinji's face inside.
"Get up!" he shouted, "Get the hell out of here!"
Toji didn't need to be told twice. He was on his feet, pulling Asuka up. She was bleeding from her leg and had a cut on her forehead. He put his arm around her under her shoulders and hauled her along with him, half carrying her for the street. He spared a glance over his shoulder. The robot-cat and Shinji grappled, rolling over the already pulverized remains of the car it had torn up. The giant was already launching something else from its chest. They had to get to Toji's car, and they had to do it fast.
He shoved the keys in Asuka's hand. She looked at him, dazed.
"What are you doing?"
"Get out of here. I'm going back to help."
"Our friends and neighbors are back there. I can't just leave. Go, Asuka!"
She looked at him, eyes wide, and accepted the keys, then jogged to his car. She pulled the door open and looked at him a final, sad time.
"I really do love you," she said.
"Go!" Toji shouted, turning back to the din of battle. Asuka started the car, and the gears snarled as she pulled out in a hurry, tires squealing. Something rocketed over Toji's head, some kind of metal bird. In a rage, he pulled his sidearm and fired at it wildly, probably missing, and ignored him, winding between the buildings after Asuka as she fled. He turned back to the apartments, putting his hand over his mouth against the dust.
Something was wrong. A fog clung to the ground, some kind of heavy, cloying mist, and it rolled forward, up to his knees, then up to his shoulders, until all he could see were flashes and the sound of some strange alien weapon firing. He ducked, worried about a stray shot, some tiny part of his mind insulted that everyone was ignoring him now.
There was someone in the fog. He stopped, holding his gun in the low ready position, aimed at the pavement. A figured darted in his peripheral vision, and then moved closer. He saw her and aimed his gun, but his hands started to shake and he couldn't focus on the sights anymore. Hikari stalked out of the fog, putting one foot in front of the other and swaying like a runway model. Her hair was down and she was older, taller and filled out, but it was her and he'd know her anywhere. His gun drooped down to the ground.
She smiled, and her eyes locked on his. Her irises were red, deep, dark red, the color of freshly spilled arterial blood, and they were intoxicating. His gun clattered on the ground and he couldn't feel himself dropping it. His arms fell to his sides, and a kind of peace, a contentment came over him. He couldn't take his eyes off of her. She was so beautiful, more real than real, the idealized Hikari Horaki who only lived in Toji's mind, sauntering up to him in her school uniform- now to small, the hem of her skirt perilously high on her thighs, her crisply pressed white shirt wrinkled, as if from sleep, and pulled down off one shoulder. Her soft, cool hands cupped his cheek, and she leaned closed to him, resting her head on hist chest. She smelled like thick, flowery perfume and something else, a cloying, metallic smell.
"Her or me," she whispered, "Who do you love more?"
His mouth formed the words of his own accord. "You. Always you," he said in a quiet monotone.
Hikari traced her fingers down his neck, watching his Adam's apple bob as he spoke, and sighed. "I know. I'm sorry."
He barely felt her fangs in his neck.
The wheel creaked under her fingers, but Asuka didn't hear it as she nudged the car a little to the left and then swung hard to the right, jamming on the gas to power int he turn, the back end slipping a little bit. There was nothing behind her but chaos and and screaming fear tore through her, rising from her stomach to force its way through her eyes as tears. She blinked them away and tried to focus on the road. She wanted to spin the car around and head back and drag Toji away, wanted to do something, wanted to make him leave when he didn't need to stay. Shinji was there, and whatever the hell was going on was her problem. It was over, she was done, she quit.
-Help me, Asuka!-
-I can't! The Commander-
-It's violating my mind!-
She shook her head as she swerved, the wheel jerking under her fingers. She bit her lip and made another sharp turn, the wrong way up a one way street. Every time the headlights flashed in the lenses of a parked car, she shuddered a little, and her heart tried to skip a beat. A shadow passed over the car, and she heard a kind of screech, high pitched and mechanical sounding, like it was a recording. The screech went high pitched, like whatever it was going into a dive.
There was a loud crash, the tinkling of shattering glass, and the roof dented in beside her. A burnished metal beak broke through the metal, squealing against it, and then drew back, pulling the roof with it. She swerved, the impact driving the car into a spin, and futilely jammed the brakes. The thing crawled down the windshield, metal talons biting through the glass, and began tearing into the hood like a raptor driving its sharp beak into its prey. It looked up at her with glassy yellow eyes, and then neatly bit down into the hood and came back up with a tangle of wires and tubes. The car sputtered and died.
She heard a tiny voice whisper, this way.
Asuka kicked the door open, got onto her feet, and sprinted. The mechanical bird climbed up on top of the car and watched her, its wings slowly moving up and down. It didn't give chase. She slowed to a jog, looking around in confusion. A dense fog was rolling between the building, pooling around her ankles. It grew thicker and heavier still, until the buildings were barely outlines. Something moved in the mist, a tall shape that drew up beside her. She stumbled to the side and threw her hand over her mouth, stifling a cry.
She was tall, taller than Asuka, and moved with a languid, catlike grace. Coppery red hair streamed down past her waist, and her skin was as pale as milk. She wore a long white gown that flowed around her legs as she walked. Her arms rose, and her hands settled on Asuka's shoulders. They were cold, as if she'd spent a long, frigid night outside. Goosepimples rose up on Asuka's arms and legs.
"M-mother?" she stammered.
The woman stroked her hair, and she felt calm, her terror fading into reassurance.
"No," the woman said softly, "I'm not your mother."
Asuka gasped as she was pulled into an embrace, and to her surprise, hugged the red-headed woman back, leaning into her.
"I keep looking, but I never find her," the woman said. "Come with me, and we'll find her together. You'd like that, wouldn't you?"
Asuka nodded into her chest. She looked up.
Her eyes. Her eyes were red, like blood, the whites perfectly white, like polished stone. Fangs curled her lips into a frown, and her breath stank, coppery, of blood. Asuka tried to push away from her, but she was too strong, her arms like iron, and her body no longer soft but like stone, and cold like stone. She panicked and pushed back, beating into the woman's chest, but was dragged along anyway.
"It won't be so bad," she mused, picking Asuka up off her feet. "Once I turn you, you'll thank me."
Asuka rammed her knee into the woman's stomach, but managed only to send a lance of pain running up her leg. She gasped and thrashed, trying to break loose. The woman, the thing, picked Asuka up over her shoulder in a fireman's carry, softly singing a German lullaby to herself as she walked through the fog.
Shinji landed a stone's throw ahead, the lights on his armor making him a mass of glowing mist. He stood up and the suit whirred, and as he came forward Asuka struggled again, trying to break free. Shinji turned and raised his hand, opening up his fingers to expose the emitter on his palm.
"Put her down," he boomed through the suit's speakers.
"You won't hurt me," the thing purred, taking a step forward. "They never hurt me."
"Try me," said Shinji.
"Okay," the thing hissed, "I'll put her down."
Asuka screamed as the creature grabbed her around the waist, spun her around, and lifted her over her head. There as a whine and a heavy thump as Shinji blasted it in the chest. The world spun crazily, and the wind blew out of Asuka's lungs as he caught her, dipping to reduce the impact as she hit the hard metal skin of his suit. He lowered her to the ground and she had to lean on him, pain lancing up her ribs. He looked around.
In the mist, the creature cackled.
"You should have let me keep her. She'd be better off."
"Are you okay?"
She nodded, out of breath.
His helmet unfolded, exposing his face. "Let's get out of here."
He chewed his lip. "Asuka…"
"Where is he?" she snarled, pushing back from him.
"He…" Shinji trailed off. "He didn't make it."
She was surprised by how she reacted, some tiny part of her mind stunned by it. She swayed on her feet a little, and made a pained, struggling cry that made Shinji wince, the servos in his suit whirring as it mimicked his motion. He took a step towards her with his hand out.
"Asuka, I'm sorry, I… he was my friend, too."
Asuka just stared at him. Her mouth fell open, and snapped closed with a click.
"We have to go," said Shinji.
"The car's totaled. That thing ripped the engine out."
He looked around, visibly confused. He lifted his hand to scratch at his head, thought better of it, and shuffled on his feet, a ton of steel and composites and artificial muscles standing there awkwardly like a schoolboy, his gauntlet whirring as he opened and closed the fingers on his right hand.
Asuka looked at him. "What the hell is going on?"
An alarm went off in his suit and his helmet snapped closed. She felt it, a kind of build up, like the funny almost-feeling of hairs standing up from the presence of a strong electrical current. The fog blasted away, pooling around a central point in the street. Light flashed, a profusion of colors that hurt her eyes and made her turn away, covering her face with her arms. She stumbled as thunder rolled over her, so loud it hurt, and Shinji grabbed her to keep her on her feet. A sudden cold washed over her skin, and she could hear a faint crackling as a thin layer of frost formed on everything around her, and her next breath came out as steam in the chill air.
Where there'd been an empty space in the street, there now stood three hulking figures, overmatching Shinji's Eva suit by nearly a meter. Hunched forward, they were in heavy suits of powered armor with massive helmets, except for the central figure. Racks of trophies- helmets, polished skulls, and strange tokens, stood from their backs on polished spines. The plates of their armor, some strange material that wasn't metal or ceramic, was lacquered a deep red and trimmed with dull brass. The central figure stomped forward, lifting heavy gloves that made a terrible rasping sound as long blades slid down the backs of its thick fingers and locked into place, moving like claws. Unlike the two behind it, it wasn't wearing a heavy, snouted helmet.
It was Toji.
Except, it wasn't Toji. His features had been expanded, remade to inhuman proportions, something almost equine, a mockery of himself. One side of his face was a ragged, badly stitched scar, running up into a bald spot on his head. She barely knew him, and didn't know him at all when he cried in a guttural snarl, "Take them!"
"Asuka," Shinji shouted as his helmet snapped shut, "Run!"
She didn't have a choice. Not-Toji's claws cracked and sparked as they were wreathed in red lightning, flashing and casting feverish shadows across the pavement. He took a swipe at Shinji and the claws crackled across his AT-Field, but the energy spread, pressing out across it, warping it, and it drove Shinji backwards. The other two stepped forward, one carrying a gigantic, boxy gun fed from a belt of shells as big as her fist, the other carrying a huge hammer in one hand and a sword in the other, both aglow with witchfire. Shinji dodged another stroke of Not-Toji's claws, barely getting out of the way. He blasted back with his gauntlet emitters, but the shots just rocked the armored giants backwards, barely slowing them.
Asuka bolted. She ran, without even really picking a direction, just to run. The world was going crazy, nothing made any sense, and beneath it all was the ringing truth trying to claw its way to the font of her mind. Toji was dead, or worse. She skidded to a stop, nearly falling, when a black sedan slid to a stop in front of her, and the door fell open. Ritsuko was inside, gesturing for her.
Asuka didn't argue. She climbed inside, and Ritsuko dropped a plastic bag on her lap. Asuka took one look at it, and knew what it was.
"Hell no!" Asuka screamed, throwing it in the back seat.
"You have any better ideas?"
"I told you, never again!"
"Shinji can't handle this by himself. We need you, Asuka."
She looked at Ritsuko, ground her teeth, and climbed over the seat into the back of the sedan. She stripped her clothes off with practiced ease from multiple trips like this, and easily slipped into her undersuit, whipping her head to get her hair out of the collar before she hit the compression switch. She sat up on the seat, meeting Ritsuko's gaze in the rear view mirror.
The car rolled to a stop, and she got out, and pressed the switch on her other wrist. She waited, forcing herself to breathe steadily. She felt her old self, the Pilot, crawling back up from the depths of her mind. Her fists clenched, and she looked up to see the Unit Two streaking overhead, turn in a tight circle, and drop down, landing in a crouch on the pavement. It stood up and scissored open. As if she'd just left it, she grabbed the hip pivots, jumped, and twisted herself into place, slipping her arms inside to bring the suit into a closed position. She winced at the LCL circulating around her body.
"Computer," she said, her voice wavering, "Spin the reactor up to maximum and give me all available power to primary weapons."
Her HUD flickered to life with readouts from the emitters on her gauntlets, the rocket launchers on her shoulders, the wrist-mounted machine guns, and the guided missile system mounted on her back. Unit One was the test type, sleeker and faster than it needed to be. As Asuka stomped in a slow circle and headed back for Shinji, she bore down on her enemies in a war machine.
Shinji was beginning to realize he had a problem. He was used to tearing his way through fights. His main tactic had always been deflecting the enemy's attack with his AT-Field and closing to use his gauntlet emitters or a palette rifle, sometimes the progressive blades he could deploy from his wrists. In times of trouble, he could rely on some deep reserve, something inside himself that drove him to a frenzy. He tore some of the angels apart with his bare hands. Now, he was slowly losing ground to these things.
The beast that wore Toji's face circled him, holding his claws out to the side. Energy scintillated over them, claws wreathed in lightning. The others moved around him a slow circle, the one bearing down on him with its enormous belt-fed gun while the other hefted a hammer with a head as big of his chest; it looked like it was made out of bones and barbed wire, flexing around some sort of creature, and he could feel it crackling with energy. His onboard computer was going crazy trying to identify the energy signature.
"Toji?" he said.
Not-Toji sneered at him, taking a thudding step forward. "Silence, worm."
"Yeah, that's not really an option."
Shinji charged, hoping to shoulder past and get enough clearance to take off. For his all his bulk, Not-Toji moved with astonishing speed and grace, ducking to one side, and raked Shinji's back with his claws. They didn't skim over the AT-Field but instead merged with it, the energy feeding back to make a great rippling boom, and Shinji was knocked sideways. He crashed into a parked car, rolled over it, and hit a wall. Not-Toji followed after him, sparks flying as his claws sliced through the wreckage like butter and he parted it to pass through. Shinji forced his way to his feet. A red damage indicator appeared in his HUD.
"Toji," said Shinji, "What the hell happened to you?"
Not-Toji stopped. "I am the eightfold path."
"Computer," said Shinji. "All available power to repulsors."
He stood up, aimed both hands at Not-Toji, and loosed a full strength blast. The energy met his raised claws and there was a resounding boom that knocked them both back, Toji half snarling, half screaming in pain and fury. Shinji hit him again, forcing him back, and skirted to the side. He made it past Toji just in time to take a blow from the hammer to his flank. The big hammerhead swirled around, the surface rippling and moving like a living thing, and it crashed through his field and sent him spinning around. He landed on all fours, saw a red profusion of damage warnings running up a wireframe schematic of the suit, and was gripped by panic. The giant with the slung gun brought it to bear on him, and the gigantic bolt cycled with great clack-a-clack.
He managed to get out of the way of the first shots, the deafening blasts muffled by the suit's onboard systems, and got across the street. He crouched, put his field up to maximum, and weathered the hits, the shells exploding as the struck his barrier, peppering his surroundings with shrapnel that shredded steel and blew out all the windows. The computer, helpfully, informed him that he was under assault from 70mm mass reactive shells of unknown construction.
His heart nearly skipped a beat as a blip appeared on his screen. Unit Two was online, and the tracker put Asuka on fast approach, moving at ground level. He got up, keeping his field pointed towards the oncoming fire, and ran towards Toji and the hammer-bearer. He couldn't take many more of those shells and maintain his field. Asuka's face appeared on his heads up display, a twisted mask of fury.
"You killed Toji!" she screamed at no one in particular, sounding so much like her old self it made Shinji shiver in his suit.
She came around the corner, stomping along with a full weapons array mounted on her back. She put her arms out and used tiny repulsor bursts to steady herself as the missile pods on Unit Two's crimson shoulders stood up, the protective sheathing popped off, and she fired streaking unguided projectiles right at him. He ducked, just in time for them to skim past him, dropping his field so that they sailed downrange and slammed into the gunner. The fire ceased and the huge gun slammed to the ground. Asuka put one foot forward to pur herself in a heavy bracing position and the guided missile on her back lifted up, twisted to aim, and fired. It roared away from her, rocking her back, and streaked towards the now disarmed armored giant. There was an ungodly cracking sound as it planted in the thing's chest and then, it exploded.
The backwash almost rolled Shinji off his feet. He had to raise his field to hold back the wave of pressure and shrapnel, dropping to one knee. The armored giant was in ruins, crashed through a random apartment block. Shinji got up just in time to dodge Toji's berserk charge, a howl of rage preceding him, so loud he could hear it through the suit. Asuka answered him with both barrels on her wrist guns, peppering with gunfire that pattered off his armor like hail and did virtually nothing to slow him down. He made a ponderous turn, swinging his head from Shinji to Asuka as if unsure which one to kill first.
"The female is mine."
"Asuka!" Shinji screamed, "Look out!"
Toji charged at her with sickening speed while the hammer-bearer came down on Shinji. He had to roll out of the way of a downstroke. The hammer shrieked like a living thing when it buried itself in the pavement, and the asphalt turned red hot all around it, the head sinking into it like soft clay. The armored giant tugged it out and spun it around, and Shinji had to hit his boot jets to get out of the way, almost slamming into the florist's shop behind him. He tried to keep an eye on Asuka, who charged at Toji like a madwoman, screaming. She charged, jumped, and put both gauntlets in Toji's face before hitting him with a blast form her emitters. He swiped her away with his claws, lightning clashing when they met her field. A warning popped up on his screen, and he saw the damage to Asuka's suit. Long, charred tracks had been gored out of her side, and her now empty rocket pod tumbled through the air and clanged on the ground.
Shinji ducked inside the hammer swing and put both hands on the haft to arrest its movement. Even from within the arc, he was pushed back several feet, his boots digging furrows in the ground. The head of the hammer snapped at him, bony claws reaching out from within its mass to slash through the air at him. He fired a point blank blast straight into the haft, but it held. The armored giant grabbed him with its free hand and yanked him bodily through the air, slamming him down into the ground. He rolled out of the way just in time to avoid a smashing stroke into the ground.
He got up in time to see Toji duck behind Asuka. Her weapons had all run dry, and she was firing wild, almost random blasts, and missing. He ducked behind her and with a flick of his claw, cut through the cables on the back of her legs. She sank to her knees, grinding the servos in her joints as she tried to get back up. Toji rumbled, and Shinji realized he was laughing as he walked behind her and casually flicked her onto her side. He rolled with a blast from her repulsors, and put his enormous foot on her chest, pinning her to the ground. He could hear her armor cracking, and a wireframe of her suit appeared in his HUD, red lines of damage spreading through it like veins. Toji raised both of his claws, then froze, his face twisting as he composed himself, his deep scar turning white. His claws retracted, and he grabbed Asuka's suit by the throat and hauled her up off the ground.
"I have her. Bring us back. Order an apothecary to my position to retrieve the geneseed of Brother Eizak."
A readout appeared on Shinji's screen- some kind of energy buildup. Shinji ran towards him, dodging a hammer blow, and seized the huge pauldron of his armor.
The world went mad. Colors flashed in his eyes until he pressed them shut, and he heard voices in his mind. He felt something, some sort of presence, even as he was assaulted with whispers offering hope and salvation or jibes and mockery. Voices urged him to die, told him that Asuka was already dead, and he should grant her the final mercy; cackling whispers told him of the futility of life, reminded him of his many faliures. He thought he heard Misato somewhere far away, calling him, calling him home.
Then it was over.
He fell backwards onto decking- it wasn't metal, it was the same material as Toji's armor. For a bare second, he thought he died, and he was in hell. He was lying on some sort of pad in a vast space, surrounded by more armored giants, although these were smaller, clad in the same hues of blood and brass. A hundred heavy guns, their bores as big as fists, bore down on him, and he froze. The hangar was so big there was mist clinging around the roof, and there was something moving in the mist. Off to his left, there were a number of enormous, boxy flying craft with stubby wings, proportioned for these things rather than humans. Smaller creatures that he took to be ordinary human beings scurried this way and that in purple robes, their faces hidden, always looking away from the giants. Besides their guns, they were armed with blades, swords, spears, and what appeared to be weaponized chainsaws, as long as a man is tall. Shinji got up on one knee.
One of them approached him. Over his armor, he wore a plain white robe, flecked with a rusty colored substance. On his left gauntlet, he wore an elaborate, deadly looking contraption of needles and blades, and mechanical arms rose up over his shoulders from the pack on his back. In place of eyes, he had flat lenses, stitched right into his face and held in place by livid scars. It took Shinji a moment to recognize him.
"Kensuke?" Shinji croaked.
"So," Not-Kensuke sneered. "This one delivers himself to us."
Toji boomed laugher, holding Asuka's limp form in his gauntlet. "Take this thing out of my sight."
A pair of the armored giants seized her by the arms and carried her off, and Shinji got up to follow, until Toji's claws slid out, ready to ignite with their strange, feverish energy.
"You sit down," he boomed.
Shinji willed his helmet open, and looked around. The air was cold, and tasted of dried blood. He swallowed. The armored figures lowered their weapons and all moved to the side, almost in unison. On the far end of the hangar, a door opened, tall and wide enough to admit a bus through it. Shinji's jaw dropped. A silver robot, the tallest he'd seen yet, ducked under the door and strode into the hanger. It was the biggest he'd seen yet, and he was instantly terrified of it. Machine though it was, it was alive, its shining silver face twisted in a cruel sneer beneath an angular, domed helmet. Its right arm sported a huge black cannon that buzzed with barely contained energy.
It wasn't alone. At first, Shinji thought he was seeing himself, but the design of this armored suit, with its horned helm and black and purple livery, was more angular, more feral, like a suit of knightly armor somehow converted to a mobile suit. The wearer gathered awe around him like a cloak. Everyone and everything in the room seemed to focus on the single figure, striding towards Shinji. In his hand, he carried a long sword, the blade made out of translucent red material. He slung it on his back, sheathing it in a fur-wrapped scabbard, and reached up to remove his helmet. The giant looked down at him in contempt, and Shinji was looking back up into a scarred, long-haired, older mirror of his own face.
"Who-who are you?"
The giant smiled, coldly. "I am Iquarius. We are the Crimson Vengeance!"
Like a thunderstorm, the armored giants around him slammed their fists into their chests and repeated the name, like a chant.
Another figure moved through the door. He was the mirror image of Shinji himself, virtually identical, but younger, and dressed in a simple robe. His skin was chalk white, and his hair was silver, almost like Kaworu's had been, his eyes a deep crimson. Shinji saw into those eyes, and was instantly terrified, his guts rising up into his throat. He had to force down a mouthful of vomit. His doppleganger walked up to him and stood in front of him, looking down into his face.
"There is nothing unique about this one. Kill him."
Shinji grimaced, and his helmet snapped closed. He jumped out of the way just in time to avoid a slash from Toji's crimson claws, rolled, and fired his repulsors at the titan in the mockery of his own armor. The giant Shinji simply waved the bolts away, amused. He looked at Shinji, as if delivering the barest iota of concentration, and he flew through the air, his armor suddenly coated in a thin layer of frost. He was pinned to the ground by an invisible force.
"Asuka," he croaked.
His father answered him. "Shinji, I'm sorry," he panted. He sounded hurt. "I didn't want to do this. Computer, activate the Thanatos Protocol."
A synthesized female voice spoke in his ear. "Thanatos Protocol engaged. Spatial distortion drive online. Diverting power from subsystems. Multiversal slipstream jump in three seconds."
"Dad!" Shinji screamed, "What's happening?"
"Goodby, Shinji. I'm so sorry."
Asuka woke up with her face pressed into a cold floor that was somewhere between stone and metal, cold and stinking of grease. It felt like slate when she ran her fingers over it. She groaned. A lance of pain ran up her side and her leg, and her head was pounding. Someone gently put soft arms around her and lifted her into a sitting position. Her vision was blurred, and she had to blink a few times before she could see.
It was like a hall of mirrors. She was everywhere. She started screaming.
"No, no," the one holding her whispered, pressing Asuka's head into her chest. "Don't, they'll punish us."
She finally composed herself, sucking in a series of ragged breaths. She was surrounded by dopplegangers or clones or something, half a dozen identical copies of herself. Well, not identical. There were differences. The one sitting across from her was leaning on the wall, her head lolling dully to one side. Her right eye was a scar- it had been sew shut vertically, the sutures running from her forehead down her cheek. Another one, sitting next to her, stared into space; her arm ended in a bandaged stump. Some of them were in sun dresses, others in plug suits.
"What is this place?" she croaked. "Am I in hell?"
The one holding her rested her chin on Asuka's forehead. "Maybe, I don't know."
"They killed Toji. I think they killed Shinji. What the hell is happening?"
She looked up at the one cradling her. She had worry lines around her mouth, and crows feet at the corner of her eyes. Her hair was streaked with gray. She looked distant and vacant at the memory of Shinji's name. She leaned into the wall, holding Asuka, and stifled a sob.
"I lived with Shinji for thirty-six years. After he killed the Mass Production series, he proposed to me on the spot," she said wistfully, gazing at nothing. "Misato threatened to kill Commander Ikari if he didn't sign the papers. We had two girls and a boy. The oldest looked like you. Like me."
Asuka shivered. "I don't understand, what-"
"They didn't take anything from me, because I'm too old. The others, though, they're spare parts. He won't let them kill us- the big one, the one they call the Primarch. He won't let them hurt Asukas, but he makes his doctors cut things away. He's trying to fix her."
"Who?" said Asuka.
"His Asuka. I heard him screaming at that thing that has Kensuke's face. His voice, it… it hurts. It hurts the air when he screams, it's like reality is afraid of him."
Old Asuka went on. "They killed Shinji. He was my husband. He was the light of my life. I knew it that night he kissed me the first time." She snorted in amusement. "I said I was bored, I wanted to try it. He put his hands my hips and we bumped our noses together and started giggling, and the way he made me laugh just made it all go away. That Toji monster cut off his head."
Asuka choked up. "Gott, they-"
"My children," she sobbed quietly to herself, "They took my children."
She shook her head. Tears slid down her chin and landed on Asuka's hair. "I don't know. They won't tell me."
The one with the missing eye turned towards the bars at the end of their cage, then slithered away on her rear, skittering with her arms and legs, trying to pull the one-armed one with her. A shadow fell over them, and Asuka slowly turned to look.
Shinji was standing at the bars. He was in an immaculate white suit, his patent leather shoes polished to a high mirror shine. He'd grown his hair out and kept it in a loose ponytail, and he had on a pair of gloves, white cotton gloves like his father wore. Exactly like his father wore. He put on hand in his pocket, and sneered. His eyes were cruel, like someone else's eyes, and fixed right on her.
"So, we have a new arrival."
He nodded at someone out of sight.
"Bring her. Let's see what she can do for us."
Waking to the sound of a monotone beeping, Shinji sat up, shaken by the shuddering servos in his armor. He shook his head and winced when the helmet didn't move with him. He tried to will the helmet open, but it refused to budge, a refusal tone buzzing in his ears. He had to struggle onto his feet and make exaggerated motions to keep his balance. He looked around and realized his HUD was reduced to a blinking cursor in the lower right hand corner of his vision.
"Great," he mumbled. "Computer, status report."
A profusion of characters slid off his screen as the system went wild and performed a memory dump before the usual icons appeared one by one in his peripheral sight. The status display was a Christmas tree of red and yellow lights, blinking icons directing him in particular to his side, left leg, and gauntlet. He'd taken a pounding from those monsters, and now he was… he wasn't sure where he was. He tried to open his helmet again, and again was refused.
"Computer? Where am I?"
"Atmospheric conditions not suited to supporting human life. Internal air filters engaged. Current location, unknown. Time, unknown. Gravity equal to earth standard, atmospheric pressure within tolerable limits."
"Great," he muttered, "I'm not even on Earth. Thanks, Dad."
He had arrived in some sort of a cave, by the looks of it. He took a few steps forward, stopping to probe the wall beside him. It curved up gently, and was made of some sort of brown-black resin, so hard he couldn't peel any of it back. His boots clicked on the floor as he walked, stopping now and then to wrangle himself before he lost his balance and fell over; the suit wasn't compensating for him anymore.
"Computer, tell me about the jump drive."
"The prototype spatial distortion drive uses the energy output of a super solenoid engine to create a miniature singularity, permitting the construction of a temporary theoretical space that acts as a bridge between universes."
"Can I get home?"
"The coordinates for the origin point of the first jump have been stored. Executing the jump is not recommended until the drive has spun down."
"Wonderful," said Shinji. "I'm stuck here."
He saw light at the end of the tunnel, and the walls began to spread out and widen. He walked into a much larger structure, a cavern of enormous size that could only be the Geofront. It began to sink in. He was in another universe.
The cavern roof, high over his head, was striped with long veins of some kind of mineral that cast off its own light, or else some sort of bioluminescent lichen. His suit compensated, bringing up the light levels in his vision so that he could see, while adding in a thermal overlay. The world was cold- it was almost freezing. He walked on, his boots crunching on thin layers of resin, spread over the cavern floor. He looked around, and found himself in a world silent save for the sound of his own breathing and the movement of his suit. For all the vast size of the Geofront, he felt as though walls were crushing down on him and started heading for the nearest structure.
If there were no people here now, there had been at one time. The ruins of the pyramid dominated the vast floor of the cavern. The top had been sheared off, exposing in the internal metal superstructure, jutting up like bones from a decaying carcass. The whole surface was covered in thick layers of resin, shining in the dim light. He headed for it; there would at least be shelter, maybe a defensible position.
He had to force open the doors. None of his override codes were working, although there was power. The suit detected sulfur and he and saw thin trails of steam leaking from some of the vents in the halls. The geothermal power system must have been working, although not very well, as the lights flickered and half of them were out. Some of the doors were cut off by thick strands of resin layered over one another, like a spiderweb. He was beginning to get a little nervous.
He found the access stairs to the cage level and headed down, leaning on the wall to keep from toppling down. He considered jumping from landing to landing, but from the looks of things, his flight systems were down and trying to control the boosters manually was a spectacularly bad idea. It took him the better part of an hour to hobble down to the cages. He pushed the doors open and stepped in, and froze.
The thing in the first cage wasn't like any Eva he'd ever seen. It was a hundred, maybe a hundred and fifty meters tall, slumped against the side wall of the cage. He couldn't understand it; looking at it made him dizzy. It had to violate the square-cube rule, for one thing. Looking at it, Shinji couldn't help but wonder how the hell it managed to maintain its shape. The armor superficially resembled his, like they were distant cousins, but under it was the remains of some sort of creature- a massive skeleton and bits of decayed, gray flesh, like whale blubber. The suit readout said the bones were made of an unknown composite material laced with carbon fiber and iron.
The chest was what bothered him. The creature's chest armor was torn off and its ribs bowed out, as if something had torn free from its body and escaped. Further ahead, there was a bridge leading to another cage, but it was damaged. At some point, the cages had been flooded with LCL, but it had drained, and it was a long drop to the floor below. Without his boosters or his AT-Field, he wouldn't survive it, even in the suit. He had no choice but to back up and continue on.
He had to smash through some of the resin to get down to the command center. Everything inside was dark. There were claw marks on the floor, deep gouges that ran together in odd patterns, and what looked like faded, dried blood on some of the consoles. One of the chairs had been melted into slag by some kind of acid. He walked around the room. Everything was cold and dead, frost layered over the keyboards and warning lights. He was about to turn and leave when he saw a blinking LED in one of the corners.
He touched the console and it hummed to life.
"Computer, give me a connection and tell me what's on here."
"Unremarkable text files and garbled Evangelion operating data. There is a video file. Would you like me to play it?"
"Let's see it."
His breath caught. Misato appeared on his screen. Behind her, the command center was in a shambles. There were bodies. He tried not to look at them, but he recognized Maya. Misato was carrying the camera, pointing it at her face. She slumped down against one of the consoles, breathing hard.
"I don't know if anyone is left," she gasped, "I don't know if anyone will find this. This is my fault. I should have burned it. It got Ritsuko first, she… oh God, it killed her being born… a few hours, all the eggs…"
She coughed, and blood dribbled down over her lips.
"Can't kill them, they just keep coming… doesn't matter, dead already. Destroy this place, stop them, can't let them out, I-"
She made a pained grunt, and her eyes went wide as she grabbed at her chest. The camera fell and spun across the floor. Her legs kicked and she let out a gurgling scream, followed by a sickening crunching sound. Shinji closed his eyes and willed the video away, breaking the connection with the console. He took a few steps away and raised his hand to scrub at his eyes before he stopped himself, staring at his armored gauntlet.
"What the hell happened here?" he whispered.
A blip appeared on his HUD, and he whirled. Something was moving, but he couldn't see. He caught a glimpse of something dark drop from the ceiling, land with a crunch, and skitter behind a console. He moved around beside it, looking for the apparition, but saw nothing. Tensing, he waited, listening while the suit scanned for sounds and movement. He turned, and he saw it.
Hunched on one of the consoles was a man-sized creature, vaguely insectoid. Its bunched, too-thin body was all black chitin, and a long tail swept behind it, curbing into a long, barbed hook. Its head was elongated, its skull smooth and glossy black, ending in an oversized mouth. It caught him in its eyeless gaze, hissed, and leapt at him. Instinctively, he raised his gauntlet and blasted it back. It crunched against one of the consoles, smashed open like an insect, and thick yellow gore ran out of the cracks in its exoskeleton, hissing and smoking as it melted into the floor.
A hundred more movement blips appeared on his screen.
"Computer," he said, breathless. "Emergency jump."
"A jump is not recommended until-"
"Override!" he shouted as more of the creatures came at him in a wave. "Just do it!"
"Anywhere but here!"
The strategium of the Shikinami was heated to uncomfortable levels by burning braziers. The structure was vast, large enough to hold hundreds of Astartes on polished black floors in concentric circles around the central platform, dominated by massive table made of highly polished wood from some nameless planet that the Legion took from a force of the Eldar xenos a thousand years before. The table was perfectly round, having no head, but all eyes were directed to the massive presence of the Primarch, turned away from the others in contemplation, head bowed, massive hands linked behind his back over the rich fur cloak of a wolf of Fenris, a gift from the Russ himself, now stained with dried gore, blackened runes charred into its surface. Beneath it he wore a heavy cloak of purple wool over a black body glove.
The others gathered in conference around the table behind him. Towering over them all was Megatron, his lieutenant, Starscream, milling about at the foot of the dais. The giant machine's silvery carapace had been etched with runes, and around his neck he wore on a chain of spun gold a medallion bearing the halved skull of the Cult Mechanicus, fringed in points that formed an eight pointed star. Between the two giants, the others seemed small. There was nothing remarkable about Doctor Ikari save for his presence, and the way that Asuka Shikinami clung to his shoulder, sniffing at his hair and breathing her hot, coppery breath into his ear, her thralls Hikari and Mari standing behind her. Doctor Ikari meticulously sharpened a long, thin knife, called a Liston knife, with a whestone, remaining silent while the others boomed.
"My Deceptions have crippled the human infrastructure," Megatron boom, shaking a massive fist. "We have already begun converting their energy reserves into energon cubes. My Predacon subordinates report that the humans have taken well to being herded into working for their new masters."
Doctor Ikari sat up. "I examined their version of Asuka. I haven't taken anything from her yet, but she's as rude as the others."
The Primarch's equerry, Suzahara captain of the First Great Company, the Berserkers, was a giant overshadowed only by his lord and master, even in his purple ceremonial robes. His words were twisted into sneering, frothing barks by the scar on his face. "We have already begun the selection. The worthy of their male children will bolster our ranks, to replace our fallen brothers. These mortals fared no better in resisting us than their predecessors, but we lost nearly nine full squads of battle-brothers in the assault."
One among them drew their gaze when he spoke softly, one among them could bring a Primarch close to something called fear. Silver-haired, the pale image of a god cast in marble, Shinji Ikari spoke in a bare whisper, his words radiating power that made the air around him ache.
"He escaped me," he said quietly. "You let him escape me."
"The drive technology he used to evade us is unprecedented," said Megatron. "Even the Cybertonian Space Bridge pales in comparison."
"You would be outclassed by 'apes'," Doctor Ikari said idly, his eyes on the edge of his knife.
Megatron loomed over him, the sound of his fusion canon spinning up rolling through the chamber like thumber. "You dare address mighty Megatron in that tone, you sniveling primate?"
Doctor Ikari looked at him and gave him a wan smile. "I find your rudeness less than endearing."
"Enough", the Primarch boomed, his voice a quiet thunderclap that slapped all the other voices out of the air. "I want this world ready to be left unattended in three days, Suzahara. See to it."
Suzahara slaped his chest, and retreated.
"Our next target," the Primarch rumbled, quietly.
"I am open to suggestions," said God-Shinji, leaning his head on his fist. "They will all fall. The order matters little to me."
Doctor Ikari leaned forward. "I have been going over the information you provided. The probes have returned a great deal of data. I believe if we begin moving further afield from our collective experience, we will begin encountering subjects that will better suit the Primarch's needs."
Iquarius turned slowly, fixing his mighty gaze on Doctor Ikari, who flinched and pushed his glasses up his nose. "One of them… there is a universe where many of the Children are altered humans, that the locals call 'mutants'. Their Asuka is an exceptionally powerful one, able to generate nearly limitless energy from an extra-dimensional source."
"Limitless energy," Megatron rumbled, touching his fingers to his chin with a soft click.
Doctor Ikari ignored him.
"There are others. One is a human-alien hybrid, again of immense power."
"Mutants," the Primarch said quietly, his words settling on the room like ice. "Mutants and xenos."
"It may be the only way."
"I know which universes you mean," said God-Shinji. "We are not ready."
"I beg to differ," the Primarch boomed.
God-Shinji looked at him flatly. "The Kryptonian's universes would be able to resist us. Our grand purpose is not slaved to your personal ambitions, Primarch, always remember that. Yet, the other, I think, would provide better sport for us all, and their division would lead to their downfall… but something occludes my senses, some sort of intrusion into their universe. There is something… a hammer. Powerful sorcery stands against us."
"Then it will be countered with sorcery of our own," said the Primarch. "I am prepared to do all that is necessary."
Doctor Ikari managed to huff.
"What of you, my dear?" he said, turning to the vampire on his shoulder.
She drew back her lips in a grin, baring her fangs. "One throat is much the same as another to me."
"And you?" said God-Shinji, turning to Megatron.
"You had me at 'infinite energy'."
"Then it is decided," said the Primarch. "All of you, leave me."
He waited until he was alone. God-Shinji, the one who had come to him and first whispered of other worlds and the hopes they contained, was the last. He gave the Primarch a withering look, a weighing look, perhaps the only being in the universe that could, besides the False Emperor. He too left, leaving him alone in his chamber. He strode out, pulling open a pair of doors of hammered iron, and closed them behind him. He was alone in his meditation chamber, the roof open to the stars, the void held back by a thin layer of armorglass. Within, the only light was from the stars and the Moon and the false Earth, a small circle in the distance, and the glow from the stasis tube.
Within the stasis field, lit from its glow and wreathed in light like an etheric being, Asuka lay on a bier, her glorious copper hair flowered around her head. Sometime soon, her heart would beat for the last time, the final time, and she would be lost for him forever. So he kept her trapped here, imprisoned between ticks of the clock until his army of monsters brought him what he needed to bring her back, to hear her voice again. He would not fail her again. Every free moment he spent with her, praying silently to gods he despised to save her, cursing the whims of fate for his birth as a living god, unable to have the one thing he truly wished, for all his strength.
The girl lay in silence, unable to draw another breath, and left him alone in failure and grief.
Shinji's eyes blinked open.
"Great," he said, "Now, I must be dead."
He sat up. He'd been pulled out of his suit, somehow, and was lying on a strange bed made out of some kind of foam, just big enough for him to fit on it. The foam pad rested on a lintel of pure white stone, polished to a high shine, and the walls matched it. There was no window, and the light came from everywhere at once, with no apparent source, and cast no shadows, which made him feel a little uneasy when he put his bare feet on the cold floor. He was dressed in a simple garment that amounted to a very long white shirt, made out of a soft material that wasn't any cloth he'd ever felt before. But for its softness, it reminded him of metal. He too a few paces towards the door, the only other feature in the room besides the bed. When he stepped away from it, the bed itself sank into the floor, gradually sinking until it slid below floor level and a slab of stone covered it and rose up until it was flush with the floor, absolutely seamless. He ran his bare foot over it, and couldn't tell it had been there at all.
Maybe he really was in heaven. In which case, he'd walk through the door, and Misato would be standing there in her yellow shirt and her cutoff shorts, a little tipsy, ready to fall on him just like she had that night a million years ago, when he gave her his heart. When he went through the door, though, he was confronted by a long, gently curving hallway, exactly the same as the room where he'd woken up, but for the dimensions. The ceiling was much higher, and it went on so far the gentle curve obscured the end, if there was one, in both directions. After he turned to look, he turned back and saw the door to the room was gone. Typical.
He walked for a while, having nothing better to do. There wasn't a bathroom, either. The floor sloped up a little, or else he was just dizzy from fatigue. He felt like he'd been sleeping for days, but still felt a hazy edge of tiredness around all his senses, hanging there and taunting him back to sleep. He sort of hoped he'd just end up in another featureless bedroom so he could lie down, and if he was lucky, never wake up. It was beginning to sink in on him what he'd seen. He'd gone from a fitful sleep before a day of make-work to the end of the world and the death of everyone in a few hours. It was like one of his nightmares of Third Impact come to life. Now, this place made him wonder if he wasn't dreaming after all.
The walls spread away from him at last and the ceiling arched even higher, into some kind of dome. The gently curving walls ran off in either direction, apparently forever, or else the full circle of their curve was so immense he couldn't see the sides. What he saw then made him sink to his knees, wincing as he hit the hard floor. He stared in dull uncomprehension, unable to fully grasp what lay before him. There was a tree.
Or rather, he had seen imitations of trees, temporary earthly approximations of what a tree was, sculpted crudely from wood and leaf, pale mockeries of what stood before him. The tree was a thousand miles high if it was an inch, somehow so close and so far that his mind struggled to comprehend its position at all. Its bark was gleaming silver and its leaves were gold, veined in blood. It went on forever into the sky, stretching into an infinity so that if he traced the branches, he ended up back at the beginning, staring at where they emerged from the shining trunk. The leaves were alive with light, the whole thing creaking and gently groaning as it swayed in an invisible breeze.
He forced himself to his feet. Through the branches and the endless, interlocking leaves he saw glimpses of the sky beyond, but there was no sky. It wasn't like looking into a void into darkness, it was like looking into pure, distilled nothingness without pattern or meaning, like going blind. He had to tear his eyes away from it, fearing he'd just spend the rest of his days staring at it. He focused on the trunk as he moved forward, rubbing at the sides of his head.
"Hello?" he called. "Is anyone here?"
Something stood in front of the tree, a tall glass dome about the size of a person. He moved towards it, focusing on it, and froze. Within the dome was a replica of the tree, not just a replica but an exact, perfect replica. Even the delicate swaying of the branches was the same. He walked around it and around it, until he saw. One of the branches was withering, the silvery bark turning tarnished, the veins of red to decaying ichor, the shining curling on itself and rotting into gossamer strands of dead brown. The disease was spreading, moving from leaf to leaf, and the whole branch was shuddering. Above him, he heard the tree itself groan as the diseased branch swayed. He put his hand on the glass, and a wave of immense sadness rolled through him. He put both hands on it, staring into it, and a tear slid down his cheek. He felt a presence behind him, and wheeled.
Standing before the tree were three yellow aliens.
They looked at each other, and at him.
"I have many miles to go before I rest," said the first alien.
"But I have promises to keep," said the second alien.
"He is the one," said the third alien.
Shinji rushed towards them. "What the hell is going on? Who are you? Where am I? What is this thing?"
One of the aliens gestured up at the tree, curling delicate fingers. "Do we need to explain?"
"Yggdrasil," said Shinji, staring up. "From Norse Mythology."
"The world ash is a myth," said the second alien. "This is reality, and reality is dying."
"It is being murdered," said the third alien.
They stared at him in silence for a time. "By you."
He looked at them, his hands curling into fists, and shook with rage. "I didn't have anything to do with this! I was minding my own business! I was living my life! It was over, it was done, I was free!"
The aliens were unimpressed by his display. "It is never over. The Last Conflict has begun, and unless Shinji Ikari is stopped, the whole of creation will wither and die."
"In time he will find the core world," said the second alien. "He has nothing but time."
"Core world?" said Shinji.
The aliens looked at each other. They walked past him, ringing the glass dome, and placed their hands upon it. Shinji followed them, hanging back. They stared into it, speaking to the air, not really to him.
"In the beginning there was one," said the first alien, "and the one became many."
Shinji scratched his head.
The second alien spoke. "In a moment of supreme despair, Shinji Ikari created Instrumentality."
The third alien traced an invisible figure on the glass. "The Instrumentality is an aleph, a point which contains all other points, a single branching core from which any place and anywhen can be accessed."
The first alien spoke again. "When the aleph came into being, reality forever changed. An infinite array of Shinji Ikaris were born, lived their lives, all permutations on the original, all variations on a theme."
"In one world," said the second alien, "the fugue produced a bitter note, a monster who discovered darkness within himself, a creeping hate that whispered to his being and led him down a bleak path. He took what did not belong to him and gazed upon the might of the Tree, and was broken by it."
"Now," said the third alien, "he would undo all, to remake the aleph itself and recast the world in his image."
The aliens turned in unison. "This cannot be allowed to happen. The Tree must be preserved at all costs. He cannot be allowed to escape."
The third alien faced him. "Imagine a world dying as you have seen, every world, everything that will ever be, being tortured into oblivion together."
"What do I do?" said Shinji. "How can I stop those things?"
"You will not be alone," said the first alien.
"Not all of you are doomed to evil," said the second alien.
"You will travel the branching infinity of reality," said the third alien, "and you will assemble the greatest team of heroes ever gathered, so mighty they can be brought together only once, and together you will overcome the final enemy."
"Has been repaired. We will give you what you need."
Shinji clutched his head. "Who are you?"
"We are the last line of defense," said the first alien. "It is our mandate to protect the Tree. That is all you need know."
There was a mighty rumble, and the entire tree swayed, the trunk shaking to its roots, the tremor rolling under his feet. Shinji nearly fell, stumbling to the side, and the aliens looked up in concern. He stared into the tree, and could swear he heard a tiny voice, whispering.
You have been reading…
The Crisis of Infinite Shinjis
Chapter One: One Night, On Earth
After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said, Come up hither, and I will shew thee things which must be hereafter.
Martin Seamus McFly, at this time not yet having appended the Senior to his name, stood in the driveway of his parent's home in Lyon Estates, a subdivision in Hill Valley, California, in the year 1985, having recently arrived from a point in space, not far from the Hill Valley Courthouse and its historical clock, and from a point in time thirty years in the past, having made that jump in a DeLorean coupe modified with a great deal of gubbins and artifacts of science, not least among them the flux capacitor, the invention of a certain local eccentric by the name of Dr. Emmet L. Brown. The very same man who was now pulling into his driveway, in the very same car. Sort of. It still disoriented him a little to remember seeing himself, in that car, driving into a flash of light and vanishing, the double memory of the event giving him a strange sense of deja-vu.
The Doc pushed open the gull-wing door on the DeLorean, parked jaggedly in the driveway, and rushed up to Marty in a striking confusion of clothing, what looked like a plastic jacket over a bizarrely patterned shirt, a pair of glasses on his head that appeared to be a solid piece of metal with earpieces and a cutout for his nose. Marty sensed immediately that there was something deeply wrong. Brown always had a kind of bubbly amusement to him, a sense of wide-eyed wonder that permeated everything he did, no matter how dire the situation seemed. He took Marty by the arm.
"Doc? What's wrong?"
"I've just come back from the future. This is bad, Marty. There's something wrong with the future!"
Marty blinked, and followed the Doc to the DeLorean.
"Quickly, get in. We may not have much time."
"Doc," Marty said flatly, "you have a time machine."
He gave Marty a worried look. That was enough to prompt him to pull open the gull-wing and slip inside, almost sitting on a pile of newspapers. He pulled them out from under him as he flopped in the seat. At first, he thought he was seeing himself, but that wasn't possible. The paper was dated 2015.
"Martin McFly junior? Arrested?"
"It gets worse," said the Doc. "I went into the future to see what would happen to Hill Valley in the year 2015, but I arrived just in time to see your son getting arrested."
"Doc," said Marty, "I thought you said I shouldn't know too much about the future…"
"I don't think that's possible anymore," the Doc said, pulling the door closed as he slipped into the seat.
Marty hurriedly did the same, flopping the papers on his lap. "Doc, give me a straight answer here."
Brown looked at him as he turned over the DeLorean's engine and the car coughed to life. "I went into the future several times. First, I had the car hover converted-"
Brown shook his head. "Listen. I went back several times, to install the hover conversion and the fusion drive, and to gather the data we would need to change your future and prevent that," he tapped the newspaper with his gloved finger, "from ever happening, but something changed."
"Changed? Did you change the future?"
"I'd have to change the past to do that, and I've secluded myself since I started making the trips."
He backed out onto the road, the car lurching as he put it in gear. Doc was never good on the clutch.
"We're going back. You need to see it."
"I may have gone insane."
"May?" said Marty. "Doc, you don't have road to get up to eighty-eight."
He reached down beside the shift and pulled a lever, and the car lurched, and unevenly began to rise into the air, tilting from side to side. Marty's eyes flew wide and he grabbed the side of the seat to steady himself, staring out the window as the car lifted up. Doc swung the wheel around and the car made a tight u-turn in the air, and he floored it. Marty fell back in the seat as the DeLorean rocketed forward, and a bright nimbus of light formed around her nose. He pressed his eyes tightly shut.
When he opened them, the car was still flying, skimming low over a beach. Rain pattered on the roof, and lighting flashed in the distance. Doc tilted the wheel and brought the car down, gradually bringing it to a stop on oddly clean white sand. Marty immediately threw the door open and jumped out, almost spilling the papers.
"Doc," he said quietly, "I thought you said-"
"Yes, that the time machine travels through time, not space. There isn't supposed to be a beach here."
Marty took a few crunching steps across the sand, and froze. The ocean water was red, as red as blood, lapping up on the sand in thick waves. The sun was occluded by red-tinged clouds, a storm that went on forever, from horizon to horizon in every direction. Except for the quiet whisper of the soft rains, there was absolutely no sound other than the gentle lapping of the waves.
"Where are we?"
"Hill Valley," said Doc Brown. "What matters is when, when are we."
"Did you travel to the end of the world or something?"
"I think I may have," said the Doc, "but look at the time circuits."
Marty turned back and ducked under the gull-wing, and his jaw dropped. "That can't be right."
"It's right. Today's date is August 12, 2011."
Marty stood up. "But you said you'd been to 2015-"
"I have," said Brown, shouldering him aside. "I went back, and it was like this. As far as I can tell, something happened a few days ago that caused…" he threw his arms wide, "this to happen, but the date keeps moving. It walked itself back from 2015, 2014, like the event is falling backwards through time."
He pulled up a newspaper and held it out for Marty to read. "It has something to do with this."
Marty curled his fingers around the newsprint and skimmed the headlines. The paper was from the year 2000, but looked new. It should have been; as far as he was concerned, it hadn't been printed yet. Worldwide disaster. Coastal tsunamis. Earthquakes, sudden rise in sea levels, massive explosion in Antarctica.
They were calling it Second Impact.