"We're not ready," Ritsuko said. "There's clear signs of tampering with the records of the testing of the microfusion engines. Not to mention the records that do seem reliable include at least one incident in which installation of the engine caused the test EVA to 'melt to a puddle of black and yellow slime'. A second one became so heavily contaminated with radiation that it had to be destroyed. We can't risk the pilots being destroyed by some unforeseen malfunction." "We have to do it," Misato countered. "I don't want to risk the pilots' lives, but on the next operation, running a power cord or supplying fresh powerpacks is simply going to be impossible. Even maintaining communications will be difficult to impossible. And the base itself is being powered by microfusion right this minute. The records indicate they'd worked out all the bugs and successfully installed a microfusion engine in Unit03. While they couldn't run a full range of tests with no pilot, it's been installed for at least three weeks without any disaster whatsoever. It's a risk, but a necessary one." "I believe we need to first reliably establish that we can actually use the EVA units in the next operation before we make a final decision," Fuyuutsuki now said. "Many natural caverns are far too small for the EVA units. While preliminary scouting indicates the EVA will be usable, I would suggest waiting to install them until we are certain we will be able to actually conduct this operation and won't have to wait for Orifel to come to the surface." Gendo looked at each of them impassively, then nodded. "There are suspicious irregularities in the records. We will wait here until we are sure we can get the EVAs into the cavern network. If we can, we will install the microfusion engines and proceed. My communications with this base indicated they were quite sure they had worked out all the bugs. All of our equipment is rather experimental, but we are under too much pressure to take the full precautions that were allowable before the Angels began their assault. We should have confirmation within the next three to five days at most." He rose. "You know your duties. Do them." He turned and departed with Fuyuutsuki trailing after him like a shadow. Misato and Ritsuko waited until both of them were gone, then Ritsuko said, "I still think this is too dangerous. Even without the risk of the microfusion engines, there's a million natural disasters that could doom the mission. What happens if there's a cave-in?" Misato sighed. "What if Orifel decides to erupt up in the middle of Oklahoma City? At least this way, no civilians will be at risk. I hate to put my...to put Shinji and Asuka at risk, but we have no choice. We're all soldiers here, and soldiers have to risk their lives. My only regret is that I can't go with them." She fingered her necklace, letting the familiar routine of running her fingers along the odd angles and smooth curves of its star like pendant soothe her nerves. "Do you believe in fate, Misato?" Ritsuko asked, staring at the pendant. "I believe in something. I'm not sure what its name is, but I know something saved me from dying in the Second Impact. There's just no way I could have survived that without divine intervention. Not unless this thing has a lot more power than just..." She struggled to remember how to express it correctly. "Short circuiting servants of the Angels." "I want to believe something is watching out for us, but I can't find any evidence I can trust," Ritsuko said. "But the only godlike beings we've seen are hostile." "Any being that man can destroy can't really be a god," Misato said. "Unless they were... what's it called... demi-gods... like Hercules, yeah?" "Too bad we can't call him on the phone, then," Ritsuko said wryly. "Maybe he's the one who kept you alive through Second Impact." "Nah, that'd be Poseidon." "Ah, true." "I dunno how I lived through it; I was adrift at sea for two weeks, at least." "And you don't remember anything at all?" "Not after seeing Antarctica go up in flames. And then I was catatonic for a year...haven't I told you about all this before?" "I've been thinking." Misato rolled her eyes. "You're not the only one around here who thinks, you know." "That's not what I meant. I've been trying to put the big picture together. We still don't know where these Angels are coming from, or what they want, or if they're ever going to stop. Or how they're getting here." "Well, I do have a theory," Misato said. "It's pretty much just wild speculation, but it sorta makes sense of it all. Although I'm just kinda pulling some of it out of my ass." "What is it?" "Well, possibly, they're all the losers of some sort of alien war, and they were imprisoned here for their crimes, maybe millions of years ago when humans hadn't evolved yet. The people who imprisoned them might've died, leaving thse 'angels' forgotten, still trapped in suspended animation. Second Impact started to stir them out of that, and now they're all waking up. Or maybe their prison sentences all ran out fairly close together." Misato laughed. "Kinda crazy, but I don't have a better idea." Ritsuko tapped her pencil on the table as she thought for a few minutes. "Hmm. Or it could be some sort of natural cycle, like hibernation, although what would be the signal for them to awaken...I'd think Second Impact was the signal, but why did they wait so long?" "Whatever it is, they've been here a damn long time," Misato said. "Whoever built that underwater city built a temple over one of them, and that city was probably Atlantis or something, which would make it really old. Maybe they're just really deep sleepers." "It's just all too convenient. Nearly unstoppable giant monsters not showing up until right after we have the technology to stop them. Coming one at a time like a bad kung fu movie. Each fight is ALMOST lost, but not quite." "Maybe they're trying to lull us into a false sense of security," Misato said. "Although I tend to think it's a matter of them not liking each other. For that matter, they might not actually know the others are here. If they think it's them against the world and the only possible help is light years away, then they have to make do on their own." "It just makes me wonder if we're pawns in some cosmic game, that the Earth is just a board where someone has built up NERV as his champion and is letting his friends build their own monsters to throw at us for fun. Or something." She sighed. "I'm rambling." Misato stood up. "Well, we can speculate until our brains run out our ears, but we don't know enough to do more than guess wildly. I can only conclude that I'm hungry and want to eat. Want to join me?" "Sure." -*- John Biles & Rod M. Present A Neon Genesis Evangelion Elseworlds Children of an Elder God Part 12 Fear and Loathing in Oklahoma -*- "This bodes ill," Gendo said, standing on the platform looking down on the hanger where NERV-America had kept its test EVAs, and they now kept the three they had brought with them, and Unit03, which they planned to take with them once they departed this site. "The commander's records have been tampered with as well." "Well, Unit03 has yet to explode or melt," Fuyuutsuki said. "Perhaps someone was trying to shift blame for the disasters with 4 and 5." "Perhaps. But I think SEELE has taken them." Fuyuutsuki blinked. "Why would they bother? And what use would test EVAs with no pilots be?" "Perhaps they have pilots. Perhaps DAGON has been more successful than we've been led to believe." Fuyuutsuki frowned. "You think Dr. Akagi is secretly working for one of them?" "Science is not magic. Indeed, duplicability of results is the ideal. Given SEELE's access to information, they could easily be monitoring our experiments and learning from our mistakes, then using the information to perfect their own work. If I was SEELE and had its resources, I'd have several groups working on that project. Perhaps they have reached the point where they need test EVAs of their own." "But then they could manufacture them themselves. If they have the resources to duplicate DAGON, they can make EVAs as well. Of course, this could be intended to make us think they don't have the capacity to make them, so we'll believe SEELE has only two, and then an army of them, controlled by DAGON units, could show up when matters come to their final resolution," Fuyuutsuki said, frowning. He leaned on the railing and stared down at the four EVAs. "Neither NERV-Japan nor the Scimitar would last long against that." "Or possibly there really were two accidents, and we're simply descending into paranoia. Commander Irons was never very good with machines; I wouldn't be surprised if he simply accidentally deleted half his records and tried to reconstruct them from memory without telling anyone. Although that's why we gave him that secretary, but it is possible." "Well, all of the witnesses are dead who could tell us," Fuyuutsuki said. "Not all of them. A handful were on vacation. I'm having them rounded up so we can find out if they know anything important." Fuyuutsuki nodded. "Good idea." -*- The site having been declared 'clean', the repair and reconstruction of NERV-America was underway. Shigeru and Makoto stood at the top of a bank of escalators and watched workers busily cleaning them; many had become jammed up from having snakes caught in them. "I wish I could requisition these guys to clean my apartment," Shigeru said. He looked over at the envelope in Makoto's hand. "Hey, they're delivering mail to us now?" "Yeah, Misato had all our mail forwarded by air. I haven't read it yet, but it's from a writer friend of mine." "So when are you going to stop sending her anonymous love letters and tell her how you feel?" Shigeru asked. Makoto stared at Shigeru. "How'd you know?" "Who else could it be? Anyone who's not an idiot can tell. Anyway, you'd best make your move before Kaji finally wears down her resistance." "Do you think...she knows?" "She'd have either told you to forget about it, or jumped into your arms by now if she knew. Just don't wait too long like I did. Although if Maya really does...lean that way, I never had a chance, but still...you know what I mean." "Yeah. So who do you think Shinji's secret admirer is?" "No clue. If Rei had any hormones, I'd guess her, but I think she's probably still neuter like a little kid." He shrugged. "Who do you think is gonna win the World Cup this year?" "Brazil." "No way! The Germans will crush them." "I'm sure Asuka thinks that, but given they've lost to Brazil five years in a row, they're dead." Soon, a proper sports argument was in full swing. The maintenance crew was rapidly sucked into it, and by the time it was over, the day was completely shot. -*- Kaji wondered again why someone had opened a place called 'Eskimo Joe's' in Phoenix, Arizona. The bar and grill was decorated in a polar theme, and the airconditioning was certainly strong enough to evoke the Arctic wastes. As he stared at the stuffed penguin hanging up over his booth, he wondered what Pen-Pen would have done if he had seen it. The man he was waiting for soon arrived, sitting down at the booth. He was middle aged, and nicely dressed in a suit and tie, drenched with sweat, since it was nearly a hundred degrees outside. His hair was short and black, his eyes grey and harried. "Mr. Kaji?" Kaji nodded. "You're Bill Harker?" "Yeah." The man slid his briefcase under the table and signalled a waitress. "Rum and coke, please." She nodded and went to get him one. Kaji sat and sipped his fruit drink. Once the waitress brought the man his drink, Kaji said, "You had something to tell me about the microfusion engine?" "Yes. It's impossible. If you get through the mumbo jumbo the old project head, Dr. Schwarzenwald, surrounded it with, you got a bunch of science that didn't make any sense. Maybe if the microfusion engine was in the heart of a star, you could build one that would actually produce enough energy to have an output, instead of needing energy input to work." "I understood that it involved inducing high gravity fields in some manner?" "A gravity field high enough to enable one to induce fusion of say, sandstone, which was used in one test, would cause the EVA to collapse in on itself. You can't slap a 'containment unit' on gravity. It's the result of mass bending space, not some kind of particle. That's why practical or even impractical anti-gravity devices have never been invented." Kaji nodded. "Do you have any documents laying out your arguments in scientific prose? And how does the microfusion reactor powering the base work if it's a hoax?" The man frowned. "I don't know. But I have some written up documents. I'll get you copies as soon as I can; I hadn't finished polishing them when I went on vacation." "Get them to me as soon as you can. We need to know what was really going on here before the Angel attack killed everyone." Harker shuddered. "I'm glad my wife demanded I finally take a vacation." "Now, what do you know about the accidents with the two destroyed EVA units?" -*- He stood in his cavernous underground lair, brooding on insults of yesteryear and the burning desire for retribution. Around him, filling the entire cavern, his children hissed, rattled and slithered, filling the air with their reptile song. They were eager to serve their master. At last, he decided who would die today. The two who persecuted him, who always blamed him, the ones that made him feel worthless. Shinji Ikari smiled a malicious smile. Time for dear old uncle and auntie to die. And with that thought, his legions of snakes slithered away into the tunnels. The prey was set. The hunt was on. Suddenly, the roof of the cavern shattered, debris and daylight pouring in from above. He and his minions hissed angrily at the intrusion, and he glared angrily skyward to see who dared to confront him in _his_ kingdom. Before he could act, a gigantic hand came from above and grabbed him. He yelled, screamed, and roared at the audacity of the invader. Opening his mouth, a pair of fangs emerged, and he bit down on the giant hand. It didn't have any effect. Instead, Shinji was at last pulled out from the cavern and into the open air, and found himself staring at a giant purple behemoth, the words 'Unit01' marked on its side. "I'll kill you!" yelled Shinji. "I'll kill you!" The Evangelion opened its mouth, and shoved him in. -*- "AAAAAAAAAAAAAAGH!" He sat up suddenly, his arms trembling, his body drenched in sweat. "It wasn't real, it wasn't real, it wasn't real," Shinji muttered to himself. Outside, he could hear Misato and Asuka stirring. Shinji hoped it wasn't him that woke them up. "Hey, Shinji," asked Misato from behind the door. "You okay? Can I come in?" "Good lord, he's doing it AGAIN!" yelled Asuka. "Asuka, be nice." Shinji sighed. This wasn't a good start to the day. "I'm fine, Misato! I'll be out in a minute!" -*- Having nothing better to do, Asuka talked Shinji into wandering around the Scimitar with her, not a small feat considering the titanic size of the aircraft. It was more for keeping in shape than for the sightseeing, Asuka had said, though they both would admit that the endless coridors of the Scimitar were still impressive to them. After an hour, the pair made their way to the top deck of the Scimitar. Blue skies with fluffy clouds welcomed them, as well as the many gun turrets laid across the carrier's deck. Asuka emerged from the Scimitar first, standing easily atop the ship, even peering over the edge of it, while Shinji stayed very close to the entry hatch. "Scared of heights?" asked Asuka. "It's not the height," said Shinji shakily, with a weak grin. "It's the lack of walls." "Oh. Hey, Shinji?" "Yeah?" "What do you think about Rei?" "W-what?" Mercifully, Asuka missed the embarrassed look and slight blush on Shinji's face. Instead, she was staring at a vague point straight ahead, deep in thought. "Haven't you noticed anything weird about her?" asked Asuka. "She's... it's like she's not exactly human." Shinji frowned. "That's not a nice thing to say." "I'm not looking to insult her, I'm trying to figure her out," replied Asuka. "There's a lot of things about her that don't add up." "Like what?" asked Shinji. "Like what?" echoed Asuka, angrily. "Have you NOT been paying attention to her at all? She's nearly albino, except for the blue hair and red eyes. _Red_eyes_, Shinji. That is not normal." "So she looks a little strange," said Shinji, though he wasn't sounding so certain himself. "Have you asked the other guys at school about her? I have. She never talks to anybody. Ever." "She's just shy." "You'd think that Rei would be bullied or something, being timid like that, but she's _not_. People are _scared_ of her, Shinji, though they can't really say why." "They just don't know her!" "No animals will get close to her," continued Asuka. "Remember the time that snake got into our room in Arizona? When Rei tried to touch it, the thing went _crazy_." "Asuka, her private life is none of our business!" "The heck it isn't! Our lives are depending on each other, Shinji! I wanna be sure I can trust her!" "She's saved my life and that's good enough for me!" shouted Shinji. "Just... just stop worrying about it. Leave her alone." And with that, Shinji went back into the entry hatch, climbing down the ladder in a sour mood. Asuka sighed and quickly followed. "Hey, Shinji? Aw, don't be mad! C'mon, wait up!" -*- "Not to mention the time she left icy footprints on the floor, and all. WHAT is she?" Asuka demanded of Ritsuko. They were in Ritsuko's office, such as it was, which was more of a cordoned off part of the lab than a formal office, even if she was head of research. In theory, she had a fancier office, but it was too far from the labs for her to normally bother with it. "Rei is one of the Children. Like you, she isn't entirely human." Asuka nodded, then her eyes widened. "What?" "Second Impact has had an impact on every child born since it happened, though we don't fully understand why. The rate of stillbirths and deformities has gone up, but at the same time, so has the number of prodigies. All three of you have the ability to pilot EVA because due to some quirk of genetics, you are more attuned to the energies used by the EVAs than a normal human, and also able to keep your sanity in the face of them." "But Rei is...I mean she..." "No normal human can pilot an EVA. Either they fail to accomplish anything, they go mad, they die, or they become a horrible twisted thing. Whatever makes Rei special, you and Shinji possess it as well, if not so strongly. And what has happened with her is happening to you as well." Asuka's eyes tried to widen more and failed. "What?" What followed was a flood of charts and graphs demonstrating physiological changes in all three of the Children. They were becoming stronger, faster, and healthier. Their metabolism was becoming more efficient. There were brain-wave activity changes as well, common to all three. A wave of data overwhelmed Asuka, leaving her little choice but to accept Ritsuko's conclusions. "So, we're going to start...getting pale and...everything?" "That's simply a quirk of her genetic background. But sometime soon, you will likely begin to manifest psychic abilities like hers, weaker forms of the powers of the Angels you have slain. I wouldn't be surprised if some very low level effects too subtle to notice weren't already taking place." Asuka frowned. "Why didn't you tell us this before?" "We didn't know before. I've only gradually pieced this together myself from studying the three of you, and my conclusions are still tentative. We'd hoped the EVAs would adapt, but we couldn't be sure. Even less could we guess what would happen with you three." "So what's going to become of us? Are we going to turn into monsters? Are we going to have to be killed because we're not human any more?" Asuka's voice started to rise in pitch, and her hands clenched and unclenched. Ritsuko's voice was harsh. "You're not turning into monsters. Rei is not a monster any more than I am. But if you treat her like one, you'll make it a lot more likely that she'll treat you as one in return. You're more like..." She thought a moment. "Demi-gods." "..." This didn't seem to be much comfort. "It's hardly a scientific term, but I don't know a better one. But you're not going to sprout tentacles and rampage through Tokyo-3, fifty foot tall. You're more like the next step in human evolution. But you're still human." "I...But why is it stronger with Rei?" Asuka wasn't ready to simply accept she was being...transformed. "A quirk of her genetics. Or perhaps she's simply figured out how to do these things while you haven't. I should talk to her about it." "And the animals being afraid of her?" "Pheremones. Same for the humans. As I said, many people born since Second Impact suffer some kind of genetic flaw; that is likely one of hers. And I suspect she's so introverted because of the fact that her pheremones make people fear her. Plus, she had a bad upbringing." Ritsuko sighed. "To the extent you could call it an upbringing." Asuka stared at the ground. "Are you sure we're not going to...turn into something awful?" The fear of it clutched at her, but a part of her was almost eager for it, and that scared her even more. "For all I know, we could be squashed flat by a meteor five minutes from now. Life doesn't come with a guarantee. But I have no reason to believe you're going to be as heavily affected as your EVAs, since you're far more human than the EVA units. I suppose it could influence any children you might have, though." "I just..." "You're not going to become a puddle of slime after your next fight, and worrying about it will just make you feel old before your time. Go do something fun and relax, Asuka." Asuka got up slowly. "Thank you for talking to me, Dr. Akagi." "You're welcome." Ritsuko watched her go. I hope I'm right, she thought. We can't afford to lose them. And these changes may be going further than I thought they would. This merits study. -*- Even though he told Asuka not to, Shinji found himself wondering about Rei. And so it came to pass that he found himself standing before her cabin aboard the NERV flagship Scimitar. He looked at the door, wondering what he'd say to her, what to ask. And then the door swung open. Shinji nearly jumped away in shock, while at the doorway, Rei merely looked at him with a neutral expression, though her eyes did widen ever so slightly. "Shinji-kun." He breathed a deep sigh, trying to calm down from the surprise of Rei's sudden appearance. "Hi, Rei." She blinked at him, tilted her head slightly, then went back inside the cabin. She left the door open behind her, allowing Shinji to follow inside. He followed her inside, as she walked through the short but dark passageway to her room. Rei sat on her bed, then looked up at Shinji with a hint of expectation and curiosity. Daunted by even this minor display, Shinji looked around and sat on the chair by the desk. Now, what was he going to ask? Er... He sat there silently, sometimes twiddling his thumbs, other times tapping his feet while trying to figure out the words to what he wanted to ask. On her part, Rei silently, patiently waited for Shinji to do something. "Um... Rei..." "Yes?" "I was wondering..." Are you a mutant freak? Why are you nearly albino with blood red eyes? Why do you scare the hell out of everyone? How do you leave icy footprints on the floor? Shinji shook his head and tried again. "Um... Rei... how do you do those... um... things that you do." Rei looked slightly puzzled, but otherwise remained silent. "Like... like... like when you left those icy footprints on the stage... or how you outmuscled Touji... or... um..." He suddenly realized that asking her how she manages to scare animals into a fleeing panic was not a good choice of words. However, this seemed to be enough for Rei, who surprised Shinji by answering. "It is the power of the Children." It was an enigmatic answer, one that didn't sound reassuring. "I... I don't understand," replied Shinji. One of Rei's eyebrows lifted, slightly. "You... cannot do these things?" she asked. Shinji shook his head. "We take from those we slay," said Rei. She looked expectantly at Shinji, waiting to see some sign of comprehension. He still looked relatively clueless. Looking around her room, Rei frowned. She stood up and left the room, pausing only to look at Shinji expectantly, a sign that he should follow. He did, and they were soon walking along the grey steel corridors of the Scimitar, through twisty mazes and bulkheads. It seemed like mindless wandering to Shinji, until Rei suddenly stopped. She seemed to peer into a dark corridor, then gestured for Shinji to come closer. "Huh?" he asked. "Look in the corner," she said. "Okaaaay." Shinji walked down the hallway, frequently looking back at Rei. The girl merely waited for him. Having nothing better to do, he continued on his way. As he reached the end of the corridor, he noticed a spider's web, slightly unusual in a way he couldn't put into words. The spider's web was large but barely visible, a few shimmering strands of light stretching across the alleyway. At its center was a modest-sized spider. Its body was small, about the size of a few peanuts, but its legs were surprisingly long, each of them longer than his hand. As he approached the web, the spider paused and seemed to look straight at him. It almost seemed.... expectant? He looked back towards Rei with a questioning look. She merely replied, "Command it." "Um... hello." It still stared at him expectantly. "Ah... go left." The spider paused a moment more, then began walking left. Shinji stared in disbelief. This couldn't be, it was just coincidence, right? "Stop." It stopped, looking at him expectantly once more. He found its gaze suddenly uncomfortable. "Walk in a circle." The spider began crawling along its web, in a nearly perfect circle. Shinji's blood ran cold. Visions of the nightmare he had earlier came back, haunting him. "No... this can't be..." He walked, almost stumbling out of the corridor, towards Rei. Confusion and fear filled him. "Rei... what are we?" Rei merely replied, "The Children." -*- Shinji put down his homework, having had more of it than he could stand. After his conversation with Rei, he couldn't focus on it anyway. He got out his cello, and began practicing a simple piece he had mastered long ago. As he played, he remembered long afternoons with Taiyama-san, his cello instructor. He had treasured those sessions, for Taiyama-san had been the only person who had ever praised him before he came to Tokyo-3, though he also constantly pushed Shinji harder and harder, more so than Shinji usually wanted to exert himself. As memory carried him away from the present, his burden eased, carried away by a river of notes flowing out into the air around him. He did not know how long he played before there was a knock on the door. "Come in," he said, continuing to play, since his instrument needed no voice to sing. Asuka came in with her violin. She looked tired and a little scared. "I heard you playing," she said softly. "Mind if I join you?" "Go right ahead," he said, pointing to his simple bed. His room in the dormitory on board the ship wasn't too large, but he had a desk at which he had been sitting with the chair turned around, a dresser drawers, and a bed. Room enough for two. She sat down and began to play, joining in the piece, not speaking. They played in near-silence through three pieces, their instruments joining into a union like the one they experienced with their EVAs, but far more beautiful. Slowly, the music worked its magic on Asuka, as she ceased to slump and frown, replaced by a relaxed posture and a tiny smile. As he began a fourth piece, he suddenly realized he hadn't even told her what any of them were. She's good, he thought. "I went and talked to Dr. Akagi," she said quietly as they launched into the wistful fourth piece. "What did she have to say?" he asked, suspecting he knew. "You were right, Shinji. She already knew. She claimed she'd just recently figured it out, but...Now I'm wondering about what else they haven't told us." Her face darkened again. "I'm sure Misato and Dr. Akagi don't want anything bad to happen to us. They didn't have any way to know what would happen. But it is kinda scary." She missed a few notes as she said, "I keep wondering what strange abilities I'm going to start getting, or if I'll start...looking different." "I can make spiders obey me," Shinji said faintly. "I went and talked to Rei." "What did she tell you?" "That we gain the abilities of what we kill, to some degree. She was surprised we didn't already know." Asuka frowned more. "And how did she know?" "Figured it out, I guess. I suppose I'd make a good snake charmer now," he said. He fumbled a few notes and frowned slightly. I'm not used to talking while I do this, I guess, he thought. They began a new piece; this one was spritely and quick. Their hands raced back and forth with their bows, and for a time, they played without speaking until they had both reached the proper pace. Then Asuka said, "I hope I didn't absorb being pathetic from the Koosh Ball Angel." "I hope you don't start biting people's feet so they rip off your hand," Shinji replied. Asuka laughed. "Geez, he was a loser. I could do with fighting a few more idiots like him." "Me too." They played in silence again for a time, then switched to a complex piece, darting up and down the scale and repeatedly changing key. Both of them could almost hear the rest of the orchestra racing along with them, the crashing of cymbals, the deep booming of tuba and basoon, the lilting of the french horns, the gentle chiming of bells, the other violins and cellos striving to keep up with them. Music surrounded them, suffused them, erupted from inside them. The walls, the ceiling, the furniture they sat upon faded from their awareness, and there was only themselves, their instruments, and the orchestra. They raced along to the conclusion, and then they were done, with only a few lonely violin notes lingering on to say that they had played at all. Indeed, for a moment, Asuka thought another violin was playing out a final coda to the tune, but that was, of course, impossible, since no one else was there. "That was really cool." "Yeah, I wish we'd had a tape recorder running," Shinji said. "And a real orchestra to accompany us. That would have been even better, since that's what it was written for." Asuka had the sudden realization that she couldn't remember what that piece was they had just played. She could remember what it sounded like, but not the name. "So what is that one called?" "Umm..." Shinji racked his brain, and had no idea whatsoever. "I can't remember." "Me neither, but I'm sure it'll come back to me," Asuka said. I know it by heart, why can't I remember its name? I'm probably just trying too hard, she thought. Like the way I froze up during that physics final two years ago. It'll just pop back into my head. "It's not that important. Lemme see if I can find another good one." He got his folder of sheet music and began fumbling through it. "See if you know any of these. I'll go get Rei." Asuka frowned. "I...I'm not sure if I want to deal with her." "You sure of that? I bet the piece we just did would be better with three. And I could get a tape recorder." "Uh, well...okay," Asuka said. Shinji stared at her for a moment; she normally was a lot more forceful. She's just got stuff on her mind, he thought. I can't blame her. He went and borrowed a tape recorder with a microphone from Misato, then found Rei in her room, a short distance down the hallway. As he knocked, he heard violin music coming through the door. It ceased, and she opened the door, still holding her violin, then stepped back. "You wanna come practice with Asuka and I?" She advanced, and he retreated, then she turned and closed the door, starting down the hallway to his room. He followed her, then realized she was humming a tune, which startled him. Moreso, it was the tune he and Asuka had been playing earlier; she was humming the violin part. "Do you know what the name of that tune is?" "No." "Do you remember who wrote it?" "No." "Do you remember where you learned it?" "The same as you." They reached Shinji's door, and he rubbed his head. "Where was that?" "In battle." Shinji took quite a while to follow her through his own door after that. -*- Shigeru sighed. The setting sun just didn't look quite the same in Arizona as it was in Japan. Probably from the lack of water. And the large stretches of desert wasteland. The hot, arid wind didn't help either. The wild west, Shigeru thought dimly, was quite overrated. The bridge technician was taking a much needed stroll, suffering from a nearly non-stop day of system checks, double-checks, safety checks, redundancy checks, all sorts of mundane yet essential tasks. Ah, but he needed the break. Shigeru paced slowly around the massive NERV carrier, a cigarette dangling from his lips. It was a filthy habit, he knew, but such was life. At the moment, he was in no mood to quit. The truth of the matter was that he was feeling a bit homesick. Shigeru thought a little travel might be nice, but now he had a full change of heart. Unfortunately, a return trip home wasn't in the works, not yet anyway. Still had to head over to Oklahoma. Man, Oklahoma. Shigeru laughed, then shook his head. o/~ Oooooooooklahoma! o/~ o/~ Where the wind comes sweepin down the plains! o/~ o/~ And the wavin' wheat can sure smell sweet o/~ o/~ When the wind comes right behind the rain! o/~ That's what I get for surfing the cable channels, he thought to himself, foreign musicals stuck in my head. As he walked by the aft section of the Scimitar, he heard something rustling in the grass. More snakes? He quickly took a step away from the noise, then stepped on something slippery. Shigeru tried to quickly stand up, but there was something slippery under his hand... slippery, pulpy, and warm. And moving. "What th-" -*- The security guard posted at the entry lift of the Scimitar looked at Bridge Officer Aoba curiously as he staggered slowly forward. "Hey, Aoba-san?" Shigeru blinked, though there was something disturbing about the very movement of his eyelids, something _wrong_, like there were ants crawling under his skin... or something. "Aoba-san? You okay?" Shigeru grinned, though the very movement of his face was unnatural. With a low, monotone voice, he replied, "O.K." -*- Gendo signed the report and tossed it into his 'out' box. Yet another piece of mindnumbing paperwork had been defeated. The next item on his agenda was to go over the monthly requisition requests and try to deduce which were legitimate, and which had been approved as part of embezzlement schemes by various subordinates, and which were simply stupid. Once Rei showed up. He was surprised by her lack of punctuality. He reached over to the inbox, only to see Rei sitting quietly in the chair in front of his desk. How long has she been there, he wondered. "Next time, alert me to your presence," he said. "Yes, sir," she replied. "I understand you've had some problems with the Second Child." Rei nodded. "I believe it's affecting your performance as a pilot." Silence. "Such as when you were ordered to subdue Unit02 during the recent operation and you engaged in excessive force." Silence. "That cannot be tolerated." "Yes, sir." Her voice was flat. "Is that all you have to say for yourself?" "I have no defense of my actions to make. I accept your judgement." But did she? Gendo wasn't so sure. "Why do you dislike the Second Child?" Rei fidgeted slightly, surprising him; Rei could beat a statue in standing still, usually. "She attacked Ik...Shinji." While her face remained calm, he could hear the slight waver that with anyone else would have been meaningless, but with Rei was like someone else screaming. "She was suffering from hallucinations induced by the Angel. That was quite clear from her transmissions. Why do you dislike her?" His voice grew a little harsher. "She is...like me, but not." Gendo resisted the urge to make a sarcastic remark, since it would be wasted on her. "How?" "She...We are both Children. But she...They make me feel." "Feel what?" "I don't know the words." For a time, she was silent. "I want to be with Shinji." "You want to live with Shinji?" "My...feelings around him are good." "And your feelings around the Second Child are bad?" "She is closer to him than I am." "So you want to get rid of her, so you can be the closest one to Shinji?" She nodded. "You are aware that human beings normally don't settle this sort of thing with violence?" he asked, then a few seconds later, decided that she probably didn't. "How?" "How what?" "Is it settled?" "The usual method is to make him want to be with you, not to kill everyone else he is with." I can't believe I'm having this conversation, Gendo thought. "How?" In all his dreams and plans, Gendo had never once imagined his duties as commander of NERV would involve giving romantic advice to a repressed teenage girl. It had been decades since he had been a teenage boy, let alone a teenage girl. And knowing what Rei was, he wasn't sure it was a good idea to give her any advice. On the other hand, if it enabled her to get rid of her her jealousy towards Langley, it could avoid a total disaster. He'd transgressed far more important boundaries to get where he was, and there were passages in the prophecies which hinted of forbidden love among the Children. Still, regardless of all that, what really kept him silent was not being sure what to say. He spent a minute thinking, then said, "I suggest you ask..." He quickly ran through names in his head. "Commander Katsuragi." "Yes, sir." "And I don't want you to ever attack Asuka again, either in person or with your EVA unit." Rei nodded. "There's no reason for you to be jealous of her. You're a better EVA pilot than she is. Your performance has been very good so far; I don't want to see any further damage done to your record." Rei nodded again. "Dismissed." He watched her go, then pushed his glasses back up his nose, wondering if he ought to talk to Shinji about this, and whether or not this had been a mistake. -*- Shinji sat down in a chair in Ritsuko's 'office'. "I'm sorry I was late, Dr. Akagi." "Try to be on time next time," Ritsuko said. "Anyway, I called you in to talk to you about the other Children. We'd like to head off any problems before they can fester." "I don't really have any problems with the others," Shinji said. "It's hard to get a straight answer or any kind of answer out of Rei, and Asuka can be kind of loudmouthed and a bit bossy at times, but that's about all. I never thouht I'd actually like living with other people, but living with her and Misato is kinda fun." "So Misato no longer tries to get everyone else to do all the housework for her?" Shinji laughed. "Well, yes, but Asuka usually badgers her into helping out. And her job does keep her more busy than we are. I'd rather have Asuka cook than her." "Do you and Asuka ever fight?" "Well, if I have one more nightmare, I think she may kill me. Other than that...not more than anyone living in the same house does. We have little fights over who's supposed to do what chore, sometimes. Or over leaving the toilet seat up or down." "Any problems with Rei?" Shinji shook his head. "Not usually. Other than trying to pry the answer to a question out of her." Ritsuko laughed. "I know. I know. So what do you think about what Asuka has been saying about her?" Shinji stared at the floor. "I just...Rei can do weird stuff, but so can we. I made a spider do what I told it to. She said we gain the power of what we kill. But how does she know that?" "I don't know. We didn't suspect anything until recently; I suppose she just figured it out for herself." He looked up at Ritsuko. "She thought I should already know." Ritsuko frowned. "Well, unless someone else has been telling her things, I don't know why she would think that. So you can make spiders obey you?" Shinji nodded. "For whatever that is worth. It doesn't mean...I'm going to start sticking to walls and stuff, am I?" "I don't think so. I doubt you're going to develop the proportionate strength of a spider, or anything like that. Or extra limbs, or spinnerets. Real spiders can't command other spiders, you know." Shinji nodded again. "Still, I think I'm going to need to run some more tests. I would assume you would manifest a power related to each of the Angels you played a part in terminating." She began scribbling a list on a notepad. "We'll have to do some experiments once we return to Tokyo-3, but I believe the next mission is coming up very soon, so don't worry about it right now." Shinji wished he could easily take that advice. -*- Asuka laid on her bed and stared at the ceiling, listening to some music from her jambox without actually hearing it. It was a wall to keep the world out, to keep her from having to think. Unfortunately, the world kept creeping through it into her head. What am I becoming? she wondered. A quote came unbidden to her head. 'Let he who hunts monsters beware, for when you gaze into the abyss, it also gazes into you'. She mentally kicked Nietzsche into the abyss and tried to forget he had ever existed. There was a subtle gnawing void in her mind, and it wouldn't fill up, no matter what she shoved into it. I can't even focus on being a vegetable, she thought. She gave up and got her school books. Best to try and not get too far behind, she decided. An hour later, there was a knock on the door. She welcomed it. "Come in." Nothing happened. "Come in!" Nothing still happened. Before she could speak again, she realized the problem. She turned the jambox down to '2' instead of '8'. "Come in!" Misato entered, looking sufficiently cheerful to aggravate Asuka. "You busy?" "Not really." Misato went over and sat down on one end of the bed. "I've noticed you've been moping." "I am NOT moping." Asuka frowned. "Who told you that?" "I could feel it coming through the walls," Misato said. Asuka jumped slightly. "You're worried about what may be happening to you." "No one ever told me I could...turn into something horrible!" "Well, for one thing, we didn't know. Virtually everything connected to the EVAs is poorly tested and incredibly risky, simply because we didn't have the time or the means to test it. For eight years, we had exactly two test pilots. Half the time, we don't even know for sure why something works, and we still aren't sure exactly what enables you, Shinji, and Rei to pilot EVA without losing your mind, your humanity, or both. I hate it, but we have no choice. It's this or humanity dies." Asuka stared at the floor. "It's weird. I'm not afraid of being killed in battle, but the thought of...turning into some kind of...thing, terrifies me." Misato nodded. "I'd be scared too. But worrying about it won't do any good. Ritsuko will do her best to make sure nothing bad happens to you, and she's very good at what she does. She's worked practical miracles in the biological and computing parts of what we do, so I'm sure she can keep you okay." "I had this dream where I...and we..." Asuka began to shake. "And I ran through the city, burning and destroying, watching the humans run like ants, and I liked it. Their fluids were sweet in my mouths and their cries were like music and..." She was crying without tears now, and Misato moved over to hug her, patting her back gently. "And I liked it. That was the worst part." She tried to say more, but all she could do was cry. Real tears came now. For a time, Misato simply held her, making soothing noises. As Asuka began to calm down, Misato said, "It was just a nightmare. If all my nightmares reflected what I really wanted, I'd be a horrible monster, but they're just all your hopes and fears thrown into a blender." "What do you have nightmares about?" Asuka managed to choke out. "I screw up and you all die. Then the Angels destroy all of humanity, but they let me live. They make me watch each and every death, and everyone curses my name as they die. And then they all fly into the sky and leave me alone, the last person on Earth. I try to kill myself, but I can't die. And that's when I usually wake up." "You're not going to screw up like that," Asuka said. "We usually get in trouble when we don't listen to you, not from taking your orders." "I want to believe that, but it'll only take one mistake for me to ruin everything. I can't afford to make any mistakes at all. But I can't live like that. So I worry." "Thank you," Asuka said. "I feel better now." Both the words and the being held brought her comfort, though part of her wished Kaji was holding her. "And I think you shouldn't worry." "I wish I didn't. And I'm glad you feel better. I've got to go work on the briefing for tomorrow morning, but I think Shinji and Rei are wandering around trying to find something to do." "Is that a order, commander?" Asuka asked, laughing. "I command you to go have some fun, for tomorrow, we head to Oklahoma." "Do we have to sing?" "Don't make me hurt you." -*- The pilots and crew sat around a large table in the main briefing room on board the Scimitar. Misato stood at the head of the table by the large wall screen, on which currently a map of a cavern network was projected. "Polaris has located the next angel, code named Orifel, in this cavern network under central and eastern Oklahoma. Our preliminary excavations have revealed that the EVA units will be able to enter and operate in a majority of this network. We hope to have you enter and stop Orifel before he surfaces." "How are we going to refresh our power? It'd be really easy for a cave-in to destroy our power cords," Asuka stated. "We're going to install the new microfusion engines, which should remove that problem. Our biggest worry currently is communications. While we can send a cable down with you, that's vulnerable to being cut or snagging. We have an experimental communications system that uses radiation capable of penetrating all that rock, but it hasn't been tested very well yet. If communications proves impossible, we may have to abort the mission and wait for him to come to us." Misato frowned. "After the disaster at NERV-America, I don't want to give the Angels the chance to do any more damage than we have to." "These caves are really big enough for our EVAs to walk around in?" Asuka asked. "Much to the surprise of our geologists, yes. This large one," she pointed to the huge cavern at the center of the map, "is miles across, and contains tunnels leading down to an even larger one. We haven't explored that one yet, since that is the level at which Orifel dwells, and we didn't wish to alert him to our presence. We have reason to believe that some of this cavern complex is artificial, since we've found buildings down there." "A lost city?" Shinji asked. Misato nodded. "Yes." Ritsuko cut in. "Possibly connected to certain North and South American cultures who claim their ancestors came up from some sort of home inside the Earth." Asuka pursed her lips and began speculating on the odds of finding two Angels under ancient ruined cities not known to normal history. Maybe some ancient civilization built these things, she thought. But then why have they been asleep so long? She had no answer. -*- Kaji frowned at the newspaper. 'Local Scientist dies in Car Crash'. Mr. Harker had supposedly driven his car into the statue in front of a 'Foney's Big Boy'. It had toppled and the burger in Big Boy's hand had crushed his head. Autopsy reported he was heavily intoxicated. Kaji would have found it more plausible if Elvis had supposedly killed Harker. Harker had no reputation as a drinker, and his wife said he'd simply left for the grocery store. The question wasn't whether foul play was involved, but who was behind it. There were ten other people who'd missed the massacre at NERV-America, not counting night staff and other people who would not normally have been at work when the disaster took place. Two had been gone talking to various vendors with whom NERV had dealings in the United States. Three had been on vacation. Four had been sick. And one had simply not come to work and was still missing. Perhaps I'll have some luck with the others, Kaji thought, but he didn't believe it. -*- Only the fact that Gendo knew he was dealing with tiny- brained fools kept him from being worried as he strode into the Steering Committee meeting. As far as he could tell, the American had a brain like a sieve, the British ambassador was still living in the nineteenth century when she wasn't busy spouting self-help platitudes, the Chinese representative instinctively vetoed anything he hadn't proposed himself unless he was bribed, the Russian was usually thinking about prostitutes, and the very concept of Bermuda having a representative on the Steering Committee struck him as utterly ludicrous. It apparently struck the Bermudan ambassador as ridiculous as well, since the man had never spoken once in Gendo's presence. Only the Ghanan ambassador had Gendo's respect; she was reasonably intelligent and a trained physicist. One sane person in a pack of madmen could do little, however. The dogs began to howl as he entered. "What is the meaning of this? How much of the budget did you spend on this...this...stupid blimp! One F-15 and you'd be wiped out! What about fire? What about accidents? Why didn't you use a giant cargo plane? Do I get to ride on it for free? I've always wanted to ride in a blimp." Gendo waited for the storm to settle. "First of all, you all approved the construction of the Scimitar. Or to be more precise, your predecessors in the job you are all currently holding. I didn't just go down to 'Blimp World' and pick it up out of petty cash. We've been building the Scimitar for several years now." "Secondly, its purpose is to serve as a mobile headquarters, not to go into battle. Yes, if an Angel attacks it, we are doomed, but that's true of any headquarters without protection from an EVA. No conventional defenses can stop an Angel. However, with the Scimitar we can efficiently transport everything we need to deal with Angels to any point on the globe, regardless of whether it's at sea or on land, and whether or not there's anywhere to land. It can remain in the air for months if necessary and be resupplied by helicopter. The reports I had sent to you by Commander Katsuragi compares her experience with an improvised headquarters in Toronto and the use of the Scimitar against Hayyael." Assuming any of you bothered to read it, he thought. "A blimp isn't very fast," the Ghanan ambassador said. "That's the biggest problem. We recognize any transport would be vulnerable, but if Mombasa is attacked by an Angel today, you could not get there in time to save the city using the Scimitar." "If an Angel attacked Mombasa, even loading the EVAs into ICBMs would not be fast enough to save the city. With only four functional EVA units, and only three pilots, we can't react fast enough to save anything without many hours advanced warning. Any plane large enough to carry an EVA is going to have limited speed, but even if we had supersonic cargo planes, the world is simply too big. The only way we can beat the Angels is to find them before they strike with Polaris, which is why I'm taking as proactive a stance as I can. Should a crisis arise, we'll use faster modes of transportation and sacrifice the advantages the Scimitar grants us. We hope, however, to force the enemy to react to us, and not vice versa." "What about the destruction of NERV-America?" the American ambassador bellowed. "What about it? You recieved a report that it was the result of an attack by Hayyael." "Losing an entire base doesn't exactly impress me with your competence! If you weren't hoarding all of the pilots to defend YOUR homeland, they wouldn't be dead!" Gendo choked back his instinctive response and went to work soothing the committee. I suppose some of my long-term plans would be much harder if they weren't fools, he thought, but in the short-term, I hate dealing with these people. -*- Virtually every child tries eating rocks or worse when they are very small, though most don't remember it. Shinji only remembered the last time he had eaten rocks because there had been moss on them, which had given him a massive allergic reaction. It was one of his earliest memories. For a moment, Shinji wondered if Unit01 would have the same problem from what it was eating. Then he discovered he could taste the rocks, which shocked him; 01 didn't seem to have a sense of smell or taste before this, although he'd never really tried to use it. The Children were practicing getting their EVAs to 'eat'. The microfusion engines would theoretically enable the EVAs to consume just about anything and use it as fuel to keep operating. They would need this for their next mission, they'd been told. //"You know, rocks taste pretty lousy,"// Shinji said. //"And this sandstone is gritty."// //"It's better than Misato's cooking,"// Asuka said, grinning. //"Har har,"// Misato replied. //"You'll be praying for my cooking once you've been underground a few days, living on LCL."// Shinji's stomach rumbled. //"Ugh. Can't we take food with us? It may make sure I don't starve, but you still FEEL like you're starving." //"Contaminating the LCL with other materials could have unforseen results,"// Ritsuko said. //"But we can try testing that once we finish this mission and return home. Any problems with chewing or swallowing?"// //"Nope,"// Asuka said. //"Negative,"// Rei replied. //"So our EVAs have an actual digestive tract?"// Shinji asked. //"We believe it isn't fully functional, but yes,"// Ritsuko replied. '//"The microfusion engine has now replaced its stomach"// A thought hit Asuka. //"What about...umm..."// //"Sufficiently prolonged operation will require us to pump out various waste products. But don't worry, you won't need to potty- train your EVA,"// Ritsuko said wryly. Shinji was glad Asuka had asked instead of him. -*- Shinji was flying. It was only a dream of flight, but to Shinji, it was a wonderous thing, for Shinji had never before dreamed of such a thing that he could remember. He flew over farmlands, endless amber waves of wheat and darker waves of barley, his powerful wings flapping in the gentle breeze, the sun warming his back. He reveled in it, his mobility far superior to that of his waking form upon the Earth, zipping down to startle a herd of purple cow- like beings, who scattered. His friends laughed and flew down to join him in a game of cow scattering. Kensuke was there, his madness forgotten, and Asuka and Touji competed to see who could best scatter the cows. Rei and Hikari watched the four of them cavorting, simply shaking their heads in unison at it all. Their wings were brightly feathered, matching their hair, and they all wore short belted tunics of various colors, usually in contrast to wings and hair, in the same style for both men and women. As Shinji rose into the air, the dream suddenly shattered, and he awoke, suddenly urgently aware that nature was calling him. He staggered out of bed, fumbled for the light so he could find the door, then opened it. Rei was curled up just outside his door, wrapped up in a blanket, lying in the hallway. He could hear her breathing, and one of her arms was batting at the air, like a cat playing with a ball of yarn. Shinji stepped over her, and resolved to ask what she was doing when he took care of business. Once he'd gone and relieved himself, he came back and knealt down next to her, shaking her gently. She lashed out at him, and he leaped back. A few seconds later, her eyes opened, and she blinked. "Real?" She asked. "Ummm...why wouldn't I be real?" Shinji decided to avoid waking up Rei in the future. She looked in through the open door, then back at him. "Is it morning?" "No. I just had to use the bathroom. Why are you sleeping in the hallway?" She looked up and down the hallway. "Standing guard." "Against what?" "Not sure." "Did you have a bad dream?" "Yes." Ahh. She must have gotten scared, or something, Shinji thought, though it was hard to imagine what could scare Rei. "Maybe you should ask Misato or Asuka if they'd mind you sleeping with them tonight." Rei stared blankly at Shinji. "They're safe." Is she...trying to get in to sleep with me? Shinji wondered, then dismissed the thought. I'd have woken up with her in my bed, if that was the case, he had a feeling. "But I'm not?" "Maybe." "What would I be in danger from?" "Don't know." Maybe I should ask her to come in and...he shook his head. She was cute, but everyone would get the wrong idea, and he wasn't ready for anything like that yet. He was surprised he'd even thought of it. But I can't leave her out in the hallway. "Umm...someone might trip on you if you sleep out here." She nodded. "Goodnight, Shinji." She turned and walked the short distance to her room, which was just past Asuka's. Once she vanished out of sight, Shinji shook his head and went back to bed, dreaming repeatedly of tripping over Rei in the morning and falling down. -*- "Four of a kind," Shinji laid down his four twos. "Not again!" Makoto said, sighing and tossing down his cards. "I had three threes and two sixes. I thought you were bluffing." Misato threw her cards in the air. "Let's play fifty two card pickup." The door opened and Gendo stepped in, carrying a simple manila folder under one arm. Maya groaned. "Now we're really dead. Did you two plan this?" "Come to destroy us again, sir?" Makoto asked. Gendo ignored him. "Shinji, come with me." Shinji stared at him in surprise. "Is...Did I do something wrong?" "No. Just come with me." As everyone stared at them Shinji got up and scooped up his winnings. "Where are we going, Father?" Gendo took Shinji out the door and down the hallway to one of the conference rooms. They sat down, staring at each other across a table. Gendo assumed the standard Gendo position, and then regarded Shinji silently. Shinji tried to read his father's face and failed, it was utterly blank. No, wait, there was a slight twitch at the corners of his mouth, and his ears were wiggling slightly, Shinji realized. Whatever that might mean. Shinji tried to think about what his father could possibly want him for. Did I do something wrong? He said I didn't, but... Shinji mentally reviewed his actions for the last week, but he couldn't find anything that could possibly be wrong, unless he and Asuka and Rei had made too much noise practicing music the previous night. Dr. Akagi had actually complimented them, and so had Misato. Maybe he's mad because we all call Misato by her first name instead of Commander Katsuragi, he thought. Gendo finally broke the silence. "We need to talk about something that should have been addressed a long time ago." "Yes, Father?" Silence. More silence. Shinji suddenly realized he could hear the air conditioning. "My father never gave me this talk, and I had a lot of trouble as a result." Shinji nodded, wondering what his father could be talking about. As seconds turned into minutes, he wondered if he would ever find out. "Of course, they may have taught you some of this in school. I suppose I should have checked the curriculum." Shinji prayed his father would not spend several minutes between every sentence of this conversation. "It has come to my attention that you and Rei are closer than anyone else has ever been with her." Shinji started to wait for the next sentence, then realized he might actually be expected to respond. "She is very shy, but very mature." "How close have you been?" Shinji tried to figure out what his father meant, and then it hit him. "You mean..." "Yes." "We haven't done anything. I mean...just hung out and played music together and stuff. I mean...Did someone tell you we'd done something?" Shinji began to worry what kinds of rumors were floating around. "No. But I believe you're old enough to have a relationship with a woman, so, I've decided..." Gendo fell silent and stared at the table for a moment. "You need to know about...women." For a moment, Shinji thought his father was afraid of the subject, but he dismissed the thought. An Angel could threaten to step on Gendo Ikari, and he would probably just stare it down. "Know what about women?" Shinji listened to his own heartbeat. Gendo got out two anatomy charts from the folder he had been carrying. He looked at them, then put them back very quickly. "We'll save that for the end of this...let's talk about relationships first." The full reality of this finally sank in. Sex. The sex talk. The talk he had assumed he would never get. And...his father was actually doing something fatherly for the first time in Shinji's memory. He resolved he would do his best to be a good son and not embarass his father any more than was almost certainly inevitable. He'd never seen his father so hesitant before. "Okay." "Your mother wasn't the first woman I ever dated, but she was the first one I truly loved with all my heart. So don't be surprised if your first dozen relationships don't work out. I was as shy as you once." Shinji couldn't imagine that. "I can tell that surprises you. We all change, Shinji, sometimes for the good, sometimes not. I changed before I met your mother, and I changed while I was dating her, and while we were married and after she died. Not all of them were good changes. But I didn't bring you here simply to listen to me reminisce. We're both too busy for that." "Were you really like me?" Shinji blurted out. Gendo smiled faintly. "Old blood breeds true, Shinji. And our blood is old indeed. Anyway, the first law of relationships is to not press too hard. That's how things fell through with me and Meiko. You see, in high school, there was this girl..." The story that followed rambled on for a good twenty minutes, with Shinji nodding appropriately and trying to figure out what it had to do with anything. It might have helped if he actually had any idea who any of the people that his father was talking about were, since new names showed up every few sentences with no explanation. "Eventually, she started leaving beheaded voodoo dolls of me everywhere." Gendo sighed. "So, if you do decide to pursue matters with Rei, you shouldn't push too hard. Given how shy she is, you'll probably need to take the initiative, but don't show too much, if you know what I mean." "Father, I hate to interrupt, but..." Gendo interrupted him. "Go ahead. This is for your benefit." "After Asuka told me she thought Rei was a monster, I went to talk to her and..." "Like you and Asuka, Rei's condition flows from the events of Second Impact. One of her parents was quite close to that disaster, and as a result, she has some very rare traits. We don't fully understand why Second Impact did this, but it has increased the frequency of a variety of unusual mutations." "She showed me how to...I mean..." "Use a psychic power?" Shinji nodded mutely. "All humans have some potential for such. In the Children, that potential is magnified a thousandfold or more. That is how you can control an entire EVA with your mind, where most people can do nothing or their mind breaks under the strain. Such people have existed in the past as well, and are probably the root of many folk beliefs about magic. However, Second Impact has increased the number of people who possess this trait. Exposure to the strange energies used by the Angels have no doubt influenced what abilities you have developed." "But it's not..." "Rei does not act like a normal human because she's not lived like one. The more she interacts with normal people, the more normal she will act. We tend to become like those we associate with. I'm glad that you're willing to be her friend, Shinji. She needs friends." "I know what that's like," Shinji said. "I'm sure you do," Gendo said. "Now, back to relationships..." -*- Maya turned a corner, and saw Shigeru approaching. Her brain immediately went to pieces; she still wasn't sure how to deal with him. Ever since she'd made it clear she wasn't attracted to him, he'd been avoiding her. It had been really bad the last few days; she hadn't heard him playing his guitar once, and he'd even been avoiding Makoto. He must be depressed, she thought; he looked grim. His eyes were dark, lacking the pleasant gleam they usually had. She carefully chose her words, only to have him go right past her before she could say them. Turning, she said, "Are you okay?" "I'm fine," he said hoarsely. It sounded like he needed to drink something, although maybe he just had a sore throat. "Just going to take care of a few things before we arrive and it's too late" "Okay," she said. "See you later." It was a good three minutes later when she realized he was carrying a large toolkit. I wonder what he's going to fix, she thought, then dismissed it as unimportant. Probably something had come loose in his room and he didn't want it annoying him for the rest of the trip. -*- "Hah! I sank your battleship!" Asuka crowed. Shinji sighed. Asuka seemed to have a knack for naval warfare, as far as he could tell; this was their fourth game of Battleship, and he was well on his way to his fourth loss. His only consolation was that she was less disturbing to play against than Rei, who didn't seem to care if she won or loss, and remained stonelike through the entire game. Well, except for a very faint smile when she'd wiped out Asuka's entire fleet without taking a shot in her first game against Asuka. Asuka had come back and won the second one, though. Right now, Rei was doing geometry a little further down the table they were all seated at in the lounge. "Well, the Yamato did sink historically," Shinji muttered. Then the alarm kicked in. *Whoop, Whoop, Whoop!* Rei quickly stood up and moved over to the door, then stuck her head out in the hallway. "I hope we're not being attacked in the air," Shinji said. "Oh, we'll kick the Angel's ass." "How do you propose our EVAs fly?" Shinji asked. "Ours can," Rei said without turning to face them. "Hers can't." "Say WHAT?" Asuka asked. "Well, we did kill all those Cherubim, and when we fought Salgiel, 00 sprouted wings. I guess maybe mine could too." "Hrmph. That's not fair." "Well, I suppose yours would be good at ripping off people's hands." "Har de har har." She went over to the door. "Do you see anything, Rei?" Three security men ran past them with two flamethrowers and a fire extinguisher. Asuka tried to remember what was in that direction. "I hope we're not on fire. No...they want to burn something...It had better not be more of those damn snakes!" "Hayyael is dead," Shinji said. "But the Command Bridge is that way. Maybe there's a saboteur." "That they need two flamethrowers to stop? Unless it's the Terminator, I can't think of why they'd use flamethrowers inside the Scimitar. Too dangerous." -*- A few minutes earlier... "Hey, you! Freeze!" The security guard shone their lights on a figure huddled in the corner of the engineering room. He was hunched over a control panel, a hammer in one hand and wires torn from the surrounding equipment in the other. Slowly, the person turned towards the guard, and it was a face the guard recognized. His eyes were wide, but unfocused, and his face seemed paler than usual. "Aoba-san? What the heck are you doing?" Aoba's head tilted to the right, very slightly, accompanied by a disturbing sort of crackling noise. His jaw opened, trembling as it did. And then Aoba's face exploded. A large black blob lingered in the remains of his skull, writhing for a moment. It was black and oily, a shapeless puddle of blackish tar that slowly pulled itself into a snake-like form. The guard took a suddden step backwards, then pushed the button on his comm headset, firing rounds at the approaching creature as it advanced. "HQemergencyinsector 28engineeringAAAAAAAAAAAAG!" -*- Master Seargant Allen watched as his men struggled to keep the creature trapped in the room. Only one thing was keeping it from killing him and his handful of remaining men, and that was the two flamethrowers they were using to slowly back it into a corner. They'd managed to push it away from the air conditioning duct; if it got in there, they would never have been able to kill it. Allen glanced over at Chris Johnson, who was short and dark haired, popular with the ladies for no reason Allen could understand, since the man didn't treat anything but his gun and his dog very well. The man was a good soldier, though, alert and obedient without being mindless. He had the other flamethrower, while behind them Yvonne Daubainne, who was blonde and twice their age, a veteran of the brief wars that followed Second Impact, finished putting out the fires they'd started. He had three more people, but they were all off desperately scrounging for weapons. "Ready, Chris?" Chris was sweating. "Ready." They advanced, and the creature tensed. As the flames began to lick over it, it arched upward, growing thinner as parts of it burnt to ash and from elongating itself. Its 'head' engulfed Chris' head, and it pulled what was left of its body off the ground and up to Chris' head. Unable to scream, Chris simply toppled, and only his loss of grip on the trigger kept the flamethrower from setting everything on fire. Mutely, he tried and failed to pull the thing off his head as he rolled around on the ground. Crying, Allen took the only choice available to him, and hosed the creature down with flames from his flamethrower. It would inevitably kill Chris, he knew, but the thing had to be stopped. He told himself Sgt. Johnson was a soldier, that he had known the risk when he entered the service. He was still crying when the last of the black tarry flesh of the creature turned to greyish ash and Chris' flesh charred to blackened chunks as well. Silently, Daubainne put out the fire, then put a hand on his shoulder. Commander Ikari appeared in the doorway. "Good job, Allen. The Throne has been stopped." He looked about the room. "Well, this will be unusable, but we have an auxillary bridge, fortunately, for just this sort of situation. I'll arrange for you and Daubainne to receive a bonus for this." "Sir, Johnson..." Allen tried to pull himself together. Soldiers weren't supposed to cry. "He can be buried when we arrive in Oklahoma. At least we don't have to worry about him rotting." Daubainne gave him a reproachful look for that, which he gave no sign of noticing. "We'll need double patrols from here on out. Arm one man in each with a flamethrower, if we have enough." He looked at Shigeru. "Now I see how it got in. I'll have to see who to promote from the auxillary crew. Prepare a full report for Commander Katsuragi by tomorrow morning," Commander Ikari said. "Yes sir," Allen said faintly, saluting. He stood stiffly at attention until Ikari left. "I think the man has no soul," he said to Daubainne. "I'm grateful we usually deal with a real human being, and not him," Daubainne said. "But he's not in charge of being nice. War is often ruthless. And this is a war." She sighed. "Let's get to work, I guess." -*- "I've got bad news," Misato said solemnly to the three Children. "Did we have a saboteur on board?" Asuka asked. "Are we going to crash?" Shinji asked. Rei listened impassively. "Shigeru is dead. We're not sure exactly what happened, but it apparently cracked his head open and ate his brain. And it was trying to sabotage the Command Bridge when it was caught." Asuka and Shinji's eyes widened. Rei frowned intensely for a moment, then her face returned to normal. Shinji said, "He's dead? Just like that?" His voice was a little wobbly. Misato nodded quietly. "Yes. We'll be shipping his body to his family for burial once we arrive at our destination." "What killed him?" Asuka asked nervously. "We've designated it a 'Throne'. They look like puddles of oil or tar that can form themselves up into different shapes and become solid enough to injure or kill and to operate machinery. The only thing we're sure can kill them is fire, although Ritsuko believes acid should work as well, and possibly intense cold. We're searching the Scimitar for more of them and trying to figure out how it got on board." Misato had a bad feeling she knew how it had happened, but she wanted to be sure before she said anything that could send the Children into intense paranoia. Shinji shuddered some more. "I'm going to have a hard time sleeping tonight." "Yeah, could be one of those things hiding under the bed or something." Asuka shook a bit now, and wondered if such a creature had been the origin of the whole concepts of monsters under the bed, or waiting in your closet for the lights to go out. She wondered if she'd ever be able to sleep in the dark again. -*- Misato sat and stared at the papers on her bedside table. The end of a life in print: the formal report of the incident, the autopsy, the orders to ship his body to his family for a funeral, an accompanying condolence letter, and the form promoting Shigeru's replacement from the backup team to the primary bridge crew. The words of each were cold and clinical, except for the letter to his family, where she'd let her sorrow spill out; she was afraid they'd think she needed condolences when they read it. She felt like a failure, though he was hardly the only casualty in the war against the Angels and their lunatic human worshippers. Kensuke hadn't been the first, either, they'd lost several dozen NERV troopers in actions against various lunatic cults in the last few years, many to humans, but a few to some of the strange beings who served the Angels. The deaths of the soldiers had hurt, but it was a war; she had been hardened enough to expect that and be able to deal with it. It was losing people she knew well that really hit home. Kensuke, who had just been an innocent bystander had been the first, and that had hurt. But losing Shigeru hurt more. She'd seen him virtually every day for the last few years, and while they'd never been as close as she was to Ritsuko or even to Makoto, he had become a part of her life, a steady, stable worker with a playful side that helped perk up the often gloomy NERV-Tokyo-3 base, which she sometimes thought had been designed for two purposes: making people get lost, and inducing depression. Deep down, she'd thought they were safe. It had made her feel guilty at times, sitting back in an armored (or flying) bunker while she sent other people to risk their lives. While it made her feel less of a hypocrite to know she could die too, that wasn't much comfort. Orifel had to know they were coming; there was no way one of his minions could have gotten on board to sabotage it if he didn't know it. Which meant that his underground lair could be one big trap. She could be sending the Children to dive into the lion's open mouth. For all she knew, he could be monitoring their every movement. She shoved that fear away; surely he would have tried something they couldn't have stopped so easily if that was the case. Second guessing herself to death wouldn't help. All that could be done would be to make the best plan she could with what they actually knew, and to pray it would be enough. Bits and pieces of the puzzle of the Angels drifted through her mind. There was evidence they'd been here for thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of years. But if they had been here so long, why had they just been sitting around? Perhaps they'd been in some sort of hibernation, somehow awakened by Second Impact. Whatever exactly that had been. She wondered again why her father, an anthropologist, had been taken along on an Antarctic expedition, and why he had taken her. Whatever had been unleashed, it had destroyed most of Antarctica; only the most northerly regions of the contienent remained in the form of scattered islands. Stranger still, the waters remained warm and the ice did not reform. She had never been back, both from lack of opportunity and lack of desire. To gaze upon the waters wouldn't bring back her father or make it easier to say goodbye. There was a knock on the door. "Come in," she said listlessly. The door opened, and Ritsuko walked in, shutting it behind her. "You'd better get some sleep, or you'll be too tired tomorrow to do anything." Misato turned her chair around. "I'm done. Just busy berating myself. I'm too depressed even to drink." Ritsuko put a report down with the others. "I know the feeling. I've lost twelve technicians over the years to various disasters, mostly connected to DAGON. And every time, I wish it could have been me who died. But I have to live for the living, not the dead. I can't help them." "I know. But it still hurts." Ritsuko now came over to Misato and put a hand on her shoulder. "Have you cried yet?" Misato grimaced. "Not yet." "It'll happen sooner or later. Might as well be sooner." Misato let herself go, and cried onto Ritsuko's shoulder for a few minutes, then sat up and wiped her eyes. "Thank you. I feel better now." "You're so like a child at times," Ritsuko murmured. "You fall apart quickly, and bounce back just as fast." "While you hold it in until you explode," Misato replied. "You ought to be more open with your feelings like your mom was." She sat back in her chair, visibly relaxing. "I don't want to be like my mother," Ritsuko said sharply. "She was a good scientist, but lousy at everything else." Unlike Misato, she was tensing up. Misato was used to it; when challenged, Ritsuko had always gotten stiff. "And being repressed will make you a better human being?" They stared at each other, then Ritsuko sagged slightly. "I need my self-control. I suppose it doesn't always make the best human being, but it's better than being a chaotic mess like mother." "Then how do you put up with me?" Misato had a faint smile on her lips as she said that. "It's a lot harder to avoid your mother's flaws than your friends' flaws," Ritsuko said wryly. "Which is why I haven't roomed with you since college; I WOULD have killed you by now if I had." "Hey, Asuka and Shinji never complain about my housekeeping habits!" Misato tried to look indignant and failed. Ritsuko laughed. "Your nose is getting bigger." Misato checked it without thinking. "Is not." "You don't tell your 'mother' those things, even if you want to," Ritsuko said. "Or more likely, you're just lying." "Hrmph." Misato put on her best pout. "At least they haven't picked up your worst habits yet." Ritsuko sat down on the bed. "Like not making your bed." "Like sheets you can bounce a quarter on are going to stop an Angel," Misato said. "Do you think he knows we're coming?" She turned and stared off in a direction that might or might not have been the way they were moving. "It all depends on if the Throne had some way to contact him, which we have no idea if it could. I'm inclined to think it couldn't." Misato turned back to Ritsuko. "He could have built a giant death trap or something." "Well, it's go down and bell the cat or wait for it to come up in the middle of a city. We have to take the risk." Ritsuko shrugged. Misato nodded. "I just don't like taking risks with people's lives." "Who does?" Ritsuko sighed. -*- Normally, Shinji fell asleep pretty easily, and when that didn't work, he could usually play some music and relax enough to pass out. Tonight, however, Mozart and Schubert lacked the power to calm his mind. He had tried putting the lights out, but the light coming in through the window had made the shadows move in ways that were far too suggestive of shadows moving under their own power, coming to ooze up his bed and onto his body to smother him. Closing the window shade had simply created more darkness for potentially present Thrones to hide in. Leaving the light on let it cast suggestive shadows under the furniture and leak through his eyelids, preventing slumber. Then the footsteps started in the hallway, going back and forth past his door. It could just be people going to the bathroom. But it sounded more like someone pacing up and down the hallway without ceasing, as if they waiting for something...like for him to come out of his room. The footsteps gradually faded into silence. They might be gone...or it might be another trick. He tried burying his head under his pillow and shoving away paranoia, but darkness brought no comfort or rest. He couldn't see it coming like this. Finally, he couldn't take it any more. He didn't know where he could go, or what he was going to do, but he couldn't just lie here and wait to either be eaten or to be exhausted in the morning. He threw on some more clothing and stepped out into the hallway just in time to smack into Rei. They both staggered backwards, but didn't fall down. "Sorry about that," he said. She nodded. He could see she had gotten dressed as well, and he suspected she couldn't sleep either, so he asked. "Couldn't sleep?" "Looking for more, if any." By yourself? Even Asuka isn't that insanely brave, he thought. "I...I'd been wondering about that." A few seconds later, Asuka's door opened, and she stepped out dressed in a long shirt that went down to halfway down her shins. "You two too, huh?" Shinji nodded. "I just...I can't sleep in a brightly lit room, and if I turn off the lights, it's like...geez, I feel like a little kid." He frowned and clenched his fists. "I shouldn't be this...this scared." "I had a nightmare. I got in my EVA, and the LCL was a Throne. It killed me and took over my EVA." She shuddered and hugged herself. "And then it went on a rampage and killed everyone else." Shinji's eyes widened. "I did NOT need that thought. Great, now the next time I get in my EVA..." "I'm sorry," she said. "Then I woke up and saw a shadow moving across the floor and...well, there's a burnt patch on my carpet now." Shinji laughed. "What did you burn it with?" "I borrowed a cigarette lighter and some aerosol...it was a stupid idea. Luckily, I only made a little bit of flame before I realized it was just being caused by the light coming through the window. Didn't even set off the fire alarm. But..." She turned and stared down the dimly lit hallway, which was illuminated only by the light from Shinji's room and periodic dimmed ceiling lights. "I don't want to...I mean...I don't feel safe." "None are ever safe," Rei said. "I didn't need to hear that," Asuka said. A little further down, Misato's door opened and she poked her head out, "Having a hall party?" She yawned groggily, her eyes bloodshot. "You having trouble sleeping too?" Asuka asked. "Usually happens when people start talking in the hallway at 1 AM," she replied. Asuka and Shinji glanced over at each other, trying to figure out how to admit to her that they were scared to go to bed without actually saying it. Rei simply walked up to Misato and said, "You do not fear the Thrones?" "Are you scared, Rei?" "It is unsafe for some to be alone," she said, her voice wavering briefly as her eyes wandered to Shinji. Misato reached out and took Rei's hand. "It's okay to be scared. If I knew that thing was still on the ship, I'd be scared shitless." She squeezed the hand and released it. "But it's gone. And I've hung up my pendant on the door; hopefully that will keep it out. ....And if it doesn't, worrying won't stop it." Misato looked at the children thoughtfully for a moment, then spoke again. "Tell you what, you guys wanna crash in my room? There's not a lot of floor space, but if it'll help you sleep, I won't mind." "I brought a sleeping bag," Asuka said. "I'll go get it." Misato's floor soon had three fairly crowded children lying on it on top of an unrolled sleeping bag, with several blankets thrown over them. Shinji felt like the middle filling of a sandwich. He did his best to keep his arms off them, and prayed he didn't roll over and sprawl on them in the middle of the night. As he was praying this, Misato said, "I suppose taking turns telling ghost stories would be a bad idea." "YES!" Asuka shouted. Shinji stared up at the five pointed star pendant hanging from a nail hammered into the door. It looked like just another hunk of metal; could it really keep out a Throne? It had stopped the King in Yellow's power, but... And yet, he felt safer. Maybe it was simply not being alone, or maybe Misato's lack of fear was contagious. Misato and Asuka began to bicker, and he just listened and laughed inside his head. Slowly, he drifted off to sleep, and peaceful dreams took him. -*- An angry mob was shouting outside the huge fenced off area, but the staff of NERV did their best to ignore the protesters. The fence surrounded a huge mound which now was missing a large chunk, as squads of workers were busily tearing a hole in it big enough for an EVA to walk through. Which was exactly the idea. By means of which the pilots had no idea, NERV had discovered that this old burial mound stood over a set of caves big enough for an EVA to walk through, and was in fact, internally connected to them, although the tunnels through the mound weren't big enough for an EVA. It struck Asuka as remarkably convenient, although she supposed Orifel had to have gotten down underground somehow. She did wonder why they hadn't simply dug a tunnel down to the caves from off to one side of the mound, so as to not antagonize the locals, who seemed to be angry about it. Her English was good enough to read protest signs. I wish we didn't have to disturb their mound, Asuka thought. I wouldn't want someone digging a tunnel through my ancestors' graveyard either. "Do you believe in ghosts?" Shinji asked Asuka. "Not really, although I think people live on after death. I just don't think they hang around here." Shinji smiled at that. "I suppose I wouldn't either. This place feels like it ought to have some, though. What do you think, Rei?" he asked, despite not really expecting much of an answer from her. Rei was silent, which didn't surprise either of them. When they noticed she was kneeling and looking at a gopher, which was staring back warily at her. It obviously wanted to get past her, but couldn't. "You're standing on its hole," Asuka said. "You oughta move." Rei looked down at the ground, then stood, stepped back, and knealt again. "Why are you staring at it, Rei?" Shinji asked. "It's not very scared," she replied. He blinked, then as it darted forward and dived down its hole, he realized what she meant. Most animals ran away from her. The gopher had been wary, but it hadn't been terrified. For a moment, he wondered if one of the Angels they'd killed had been 'Lord of Gophers' or something, then dismissed the thought. Maybe only Japanese animals and snakes are scared of her, he thought, then dismissed that one as well, chalking this up to the 'unsolvable mysteries' category. He turned to Misato. "How soon do we go down?" "Tomorrow morning if Orifel doesn't strike first. The ramp down is taking longer to build than planned. It was supposed to be done when we got here. At least they got the landing field for the Scimitar done in time." "Then back to Japan when that's done?" Shinji asked. "Yep. Although we'll be stopping briefly at NERV-America again after the mission. I just wish we had time for sightseeing. I'd like to see the Grand Canyon." "Just pretend that's it," Asuka said, pointing at the excavation. They laughed, then drifted off to get ready for the next day's mission. -*- The next morning, they went down the ramp into the huge caverns below the mound. The caverns were rough and dusty and ugly as hell, the walls folded into pointless curves, and the ceilings were riddled with things to bump one's EVA's head into. It was damp, and would have been cool if they'd been able to feel the temperature. A small heads-up display gave them directional readings of what way Orifel was along with a constantly updating map of where they had been. //"I feel like I'm playing some computer RPG,"// Asuka said. //"Like Quest for the Nine Rings,"// or something. //"I mean, the map graphics look EXACTLY the same."// //"Well, as long as no orcs start showing up on your display, it shouldn't be a problem,"// Misato said. //"It's working so far."// //"How can Polaris spot Orifel this deep beneath the surface?"// Asuka asked. //"Rock doesn't do much to block the distinctive energy signature of an Angel,"// Ritsuko replied. //"Thankfully. Or we'd be looking for him forever and he could pop up just about anywhere. We're using a similar trick to keep up our 'radio' broadcasts, which aren't actually radio waves at the moment. Otherwise, we couldn't communicate with you."// //"Is he active?"// Shinji asked. //"He hasn't moved more than a mile since we started monitoring him weeks ago,"// Ritsuko said. //"But don't expect to catch him napping."// //"Right."// -*- For an hour, they plunged down deeper into the earth, the caverns slowly growing larger, until finally, they came to the edge of a great carven ramp descending into the largest cave any of them had ever seen. The ceiling rose high above them, hundreds of feet from the ground, a reminder of how deeply they had descended in that hour. A great vault, lit by a strange blue light given off by the ceiling, which changed in this cavern from stone to crystal. It was as bright as twilight, and nigh unbelievably, the floor was covered with blue-green grass. There were some trees, smaller than those of the surface above, but otherwise normal, though tinted by the blue light. A broad paved road ran from the ramp across the fields towards what looked rather like a vast city in the distance. //"Is this some kind of joke?"// Asuka asked. //"If it is, the joke's on us,"// Ritsuko replied. //"Spectrometer readings indicate...it's like sunlight with most of the harmful radiation filtered out. Not very hot, although warmer than the surrounding caves. But still...what's making the light? And how...This should be interesting."// The readings from Polaris told them to head towards the city, so they did, passing through a series of wheat fields on the way to the city. The plants were ready for harvesting, but there was no sign of harvesters, or harvesting equipment. Ruts in the dirt beyond the road told the story of the passage of vehicles at some time in the recent past, but none could be seen. They did, however, spot several birds, and a herd of bison idly feeding in a field. It was hard to tell their true color, but they looked to have mixed green and black hair. //"They domesticated Bison?"// //"Well, they're the closest thing to cattle available,"// Ritsuko said. //"Before Europeans imported cows. No time to investigate now, though."// Their EVAs were quick, and the distance to the city wasn't too long; they soon left fields behind and followed the road into the outskirts of the city. A handful of buildings were made of marble, most were simply made of granite or brick, carved and shaped with ornate decorations. Most were in quite good repair, the whole place looking as if it had only recently been abandoned. The architectural style seemed naggingly familiar, but Asuka couldn't quite place it. The streets were paved with flagstones, still intact, though puddles of water covered them in a few places. They were wide, wide enough for an EVA Unit to walk down one. Shinji shook his head. //"Another ruins?"// //"Various civilizations native to the Americas have legends of having coming up from a world inside the Earth. Perhaps the inhabitants of this city had something to do with that legend,"// Ritsuko said. //"And certain local legends whisper of an underground city named K'n-Yan. I think we've just found it. I can't imagine where everyone went...that wheat looked recently planted, not run wild."// //"Well, if it killed them, it did it without actually doing any damage to the city. Which would be rather a trick,"// Asuka said. //"This place could have held tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands."// They began to pass down the great avenue which lead into the center of the cavern, following POLARIS' signal. Asuka took the lead, while Rei took the rear and Shinji looked side to side down the side streets. The entire city seemed to be a large grid, very carefully planned and laid out, all of it in quite good repair. A few buildings had faintly glowing fungi growing on them in small patches, but overall, it seemed like the population had just packed up its posessions and left when they heard the sound of the mound being dug through. Perhaps they did, Shinji thought. Maybe they worship Orifel and have tried running to him for protection. Or they might have doused the lights and be hiding in an underground shelter or something. Well, a more underground shelter. As he mused, something moved at the corner of his vision. He turned his EVA's head, but all he could see was a dark alleyway between buildings. Nothing was there. He shook his head. I'm starting to imagine things, he thought. They eventually came to a great central plaza, bordered by large palaces, a huge colliseum, and a large step pyramid with a huge well in front of it. Asuka stared at it. //"It looks a lot like that one from the underwater city."// //"A colony, perhaps,"// Ritsuko speculated. //"Where could they have gone?"// //"They can't have been gone long, whatever happened to them. If this cavern can support plant life, the plants would be encroaching on the city if it had been abandoned long. And those bison looked fairly tame. The signal indicates Orifel is beyond the city and deeper down, though, so don't worry too much about the city."// Shinji saw movement again, and this time turned fast enough to see it. It looked like an oil flow, a slick of black tarry fluid flowing across one corner of the plaza towards one of the main boulevards. //"What is that?"// //"It's a creature we've designated as a 'Throne'. One of Orifel's servants,"// Misato said. //"Capture it with an AT-Field before it can report to him!"// Unit00 pivoted on one foot and sprinted after it at high speed with the others in pursuit. They chased the thing, which was remarkably quick for a puddle of slime, down a major boulevard, then down a side street. The buildings here looked a little battered; many were missing doors or had shattered glass in the street near them. They were mostly two or three stories tall, and looked like residences. The street dead-ended because it ran up to the entrance to some huge fifteen story tall building that blocked off the street. The puddle turned and faced them, forming a large snake-like extension, although its head was fringed with what looked similar to a black, oily mane. Unit00 ran up to it, knealt, and trapped it in a spherical AT- Field as it snapped at her. She stood, and inquired, //"Now what?"// //"Good question."// Shinji peered over at the creature, which hurled itself futiley at the AT-Field, unable to penetrate it. //"We can't carry it around with us while we fight."// Asuka nodded. //"Crush it with the AT-Field, I guess."// //"I'd rather we could take it alive, but you're right, Rei would have to stay out of the fighting to keep it contained. And it might not survive Orifel dying,"// Misato said. //"Kill it."// Rei brought Unit00's hands together, and the light of the field flared. Black turned to gray; tar turned to ash. Powder rained down to the pitch-black street. It was at that moment the three pilots remembered the street hadn't been pitch black when they arrived, nor had the darkness covered their feet. //"Scheisse!"// Asuka shouted. //"The street's full of these things!"// And with that, dozens of semi-discrete Thrones began to pour up their EVAs' bodies, trying to find a chink through their armor in order to get inside. Unit01 and 02 flailed about, trying to peel them off, or scrape them off with their progressive knives, but this was about as effective as trying to fight water with a knife. On the other hand, the Thrones seemed unable to get up 01 past its knees, and kept falling off, although 02 posed no problems for them. 00 simply stood still as the blackness rolled over it, covering it completely. //"You've got to use your AT-Field!"// Misato shouted. //"Emit it from your body to force them off, then start trapping them."// Shinji concentrated, visualizing his EVA emitting a glowing field from its every pore, driving the Thrones off of him. Soon, 01 shone brightly in the blue-litten gloom. Streamers of blue-black ichor gouted off of him, fleeing the AT-Field. Nearby, 02 also began to shine, even more radiant than 01, sending more Thrones fleeing. Unit00, on the other hand, was still covered in blackness. But a fine white sheen was starting to cover the blackness, and where it touched the blackness, the dark Thrones ceased to writhe, remaining in whatever contorted shapes they had assumed when it touched them. As 01 and 02 began scooping up and wiping out Thrones in great oozing piles, and many of the survivors fled, the gleaming coat of frost finally covered every inch of the darkness. 00 flexed and the darkness shattered into hundreds of long black, glassy shards, and light erupted from 00's 'skin', pushing the shards away to smash into the buildings around them, breaking into blackish powder that turned grey, then faded away entirely. The last of the Thrones fled, vanishing into buildings and slipping through cracks in the flagstone road. As they departed, Asuka said, //"What the hell was that trick?"// //"A gift of battle,"// Rei said. //"Could I do it?"// //"Don't know."// //"Hopefully, they won't try that again."// //"Well, they didn't seem like they could actually do all that much to us, now that I think about it,"// Asuka said. //"If they found a chink in your armor, they could ooze inside your EVA, find your plug, and crack it open, attacking you."// Misato grimaced, remembering what had happened to Shigeru. I won't let them die, she thought. Not like that. He never had a chance, but they will. //"Then what Rei did was REALLY dangerous,"// Asuka said. //"It worked,"// Rei said. //"Asuka is right,"// Misato said. //"Don't take chances like that. We can't afford to risk any of you more than we have to. But probably they won't try anything again."// //"Until we're busy fighting Orifel,"// Shinji said, frowning. //"Be careful, Rei. That was risky."// //"I will,"// she replied. //"Well, let's get you all moving again,"// Misato said. //"Find the east road from the main plaza and head out of the city. The readings indicate you should find Orifel off to the northeast and down."// -*- The city was far behind them, and they had reached the far wall of the cavern. The tunnel before them had clearly been walled off deliberately by the inhabitants, but now there as a large hole in it, and huge amounts of rubble strewn about the natural tunnel beyond the wall. //"Looks like they knew something was this way and wanted to keep it out,"// Shinji said. //"Looks like they failed,"// Asuka replied. Unit00 moved closer and peered through the breach, then began smashing it open wider, though the hole was already large enough for an EVA to get through. //"It's smashed in from this side. If whatever they sealed off broke through from the tunnel, why didn't the rubble fall this way? Maybe something once tried to seal the city folk out of THEIR territory."// //"The damage looks recent to me."// //"I guess we'll find out."// -*- Another hour of descent took them yet deeper beneath the earth, and gradually the blue light of the abandoned city's cavern faded into darkness. Then the wind started, gentle at first, then stronger and hotter, though it was still fairly weak, unable even to annoy the EVAs and their pilots. After a time, a reddish light beckoned to them, and they emerged into another land that apparently time had forgotten. The light was dim and red, shining down from the ceiling high above them, but somehow it sustained a dense forest of archaic plants, some of them not seen in the world above for millions of years. Asuka simply stared at it blankly for a few minutes. What's a bleeding JUNGLE doing down underground? she asked herself. The air was unnaturally warm. Then a unicorn ran by in the forest, or to be more precise, a purple and silver zebra with a single ivory horn. A saber-toothed tiger was chasing it, gradually losing ground. The creatures ran out of sight, and Asuka finally spoke. //"Is this some kind of joke? This is some kind of crazy simulation, right?"// //"Amazing,"// Ritsuko said, her voice full of wonder. //"The scientists of the world are going to be busy for years exploring these two places. From the readings we're getting, this cavern is even larger than the one above you. You won't have too much further to travel, though. Orifel is on the move. He's rising towards a point about five miles north of your current position. I suppose you'll have to clear your own path, which is a pity. Try not to kill anything extinct on the surface world."// //"What if I don't have a clue if it's extinct?"// Shinji asked. //"I'll do my best to guide you,"// Ritsuko said. //"We can play nature boys and girls later,"// Misato cut in. //"We have to stop Orifel now before he gets it in his mind to head for the surface."// //"Right."// Asuka said, and took the lead, crashing through the forest and clearing a path for the others. A few miles later, they came to an opening in the forest. It was another city, this one carven of basalt and done in a very different architectural style from the one above. The buildings were short, blockish, and solid, but every inch was carved with reliefs, runes, and other decorations. In the heart of the city, a building that looked like the Pentagon, except for being carved from basalt, towered over the other buildings, though an octagonal building near it almost matched it for size. Both were heavily carven with reliefs which couldn't be made out from this distance. This city, however, was crumbling. Many of the buildings had partially or totally collapsed, and while no plants grew on the buildings themselves, the streets had vanished in a riot of greenery. One of the five sides of the great pentagonal building was ruptured. Only one thing in the city stood completely undamaged: the vast octagonal building appeared utterly unaffected by time. //"Geez, how many lost ruins are there?"// Asuka asked. //"And where did they get basalt in Oklahoma?"// Shinji shrugged. //"If they could build like this, they could move it. I want to know why the plants aren't growing over the buildings."// //"If our readings are correct, Orifel is waiting for you inside the pentagon,"// Misato said. //"Check,"// Asuka said. //"Everyone ready to kick ass?"// //"No, but I won't get more ready by waiting,"// Shinji said. Rei simply began to head for the pentagon. They arced around through the city to reach the pentagon from its broken side; short of climbing it and coming down through the top of it, there was no other way to get an EVA into the huge building. The readings indicated Orifel was still waiting for them. Rubble was strewn about the broken side of the five sided building, and as they passed through it, they could see many different rooms on the ten floors of the building. Most of the rooms were empty now, although a mosaic caught Shinji's eye. It showed strange snake-men building the very edifice they were entering. A few months ago, he would have guessed it was supposed to be symbolic, but now he suspected it was probably showing literal truth. He'd seen too many strange creatures to dismiss the idea. The central courtyard was vast, hundreds of feet across, with a path leading from each of the five sides to a now defunct fountain in the middle. A strange, highly realistic, painted statue stood at the heart of the fountain, which was full of brackish black liquid. It resembled a huge furry toad-man with distorted eyes and limbs, a faintly amused smile on its lips. Its eyes were closed as if it was asleep. The courtyard also had several great stone limbs scattered about it, as if another statue had been dismembered and tossed about at random. Shinji spotted a huge serpentine head lying by the fountain; it looked disturbingly like Hayyael's head. //"So where's Orifel?"// Asuka asked. //"He's the statue,"// Ritsuko announced. The statue's eyes opened. "I SUPPOSE THAT TRICK HAD TO FAIL SOONER OR LATER." //"The fountain is probably full of Thrones,"// Misato said. //"Deal with...bzzt...crackle...bzzzt."// Her signal suddenly winked out, as did the date flow from the Command Center. //"Scheiss!"// Asuka swore. "NOW, NOW, CAN'T HAVE ANY INTERFERNCE IN OUR LITTLE DUEL. WOULDN'T BE FAIR. NOT THAT THREE TO ONE IS FAIR." //"This is a war,"// Asuka said. //"Wars aren't about fairness."// "AS I WELL KNOW. HOWEVER, I HAVE DECIDED TO EVEN THE ODDS, BECAUSE I WANT IT TO BE FAIR TO ME." And then the ground shook faintly, and massive footsteps reverberated through the courtyard. Shinji felt his hackles rise, and slowly he turned to look. From the great hole in the side of the pentagon, two massive forms emerged, covered in grit and black stains. Each figure carried a long spear of seamless metal with a head that grew organically from it, tapering to a long point, a lidless eye carved into the blade. And they both looked very familiar. Asuka's voice came in suddenly, filled with alarm. //"SCHIESSE! Shinji, they're Evas!"// Orifel's smile seemed to turn up a notch. "I TOO HAVE CHILDREN." -*- Misato turned to Fuu, who had taken Shigeru's old job. She was blonde with glasses, short and slender, wearing a silver ring of a dragon swallowing its tail. "What's happened to communications?" "He's jamming it somehow. I'll try boosting our signal, but since the Children can't boost theirs very much, we may end up with only a one-way line." "That's not good enough!" Misato brought her hand down on the armrest of her chair, then regretted it, since that hurt. "I can't help them if I don't know what is going on!" "Maybe we should have waited for him to come to the surface, then," Fuu replied, going to work trying to strengthen the signal. The doors opened and Gendo entered. "That would have been unwise. I have just recieved a report from our men in Arizona that they've established those two test units were stolen, not destroyed. They have functional microfusion engines." "And Orifel has them?" Misato said. "It seems quite possible." If Commander Ikari hadn't been watching, Misato would have sworn up a storm. Instead, she cursed inside and banged her fist again. "He's played us for fools." "In the end, it is up to the Children to fight the battle," Gendo said. "We shall see if they are up to the test." -*- One of the EVAs was covered by pale blue armor, the other was as dark a pink as pink ever gets. The blue one looked vaguely feminine, while the pink one had a male cast to it, though it was hard to tell. Their nasty looking spears, however, were identical. //"Shinji, you take the pink one, I'll take the blue one,"// Asuka said. //"Rei, you take care of Kermit the Angel,"// she continued, trying to sound as confident as she could. Her EVA briefly knealt and she grabbed a huge stone serpent that had once been part of a huge basalt statue. It would have to do as a weapon. Shinji saw what she did and did the same thing. The serpent looked much like one of Hayyael's arms; he shuddered slightly. Orifel continued to stand in the fountain as Rei warily approached him, drawing her knife. He looked amused; it seemed to be his perpetual state. As she approached him, the water of the fountain rippled and erupted into a mass of Thrones, which struck at her in the form of a giant tongue, wrapping around Unit00 and pulling it down to the ground, slamming its head into the basin. Unit00 suddenly shone with a bright light, and its AT-Field drove them off it, but not before Orifel got onto 00's back and began grappling it, pinning its arms behind it. They began to struggle. Unit01 took a swipe at the pink EVA's left arm, and to Shinji's surprise, some of its armor flew off, revealing reddish-black flesh which began to bubble, growing spikes. He stared blankly, then just barely parried a thrust from its spear. It began to drive him back, and he gave ground, desperately trying to fend it off. Unfortunately, it was quite good, and he was quite not good at fighting with weapons. Meanwhile, Unit02 began to trade blows with the Blue EVA. It was fast and skillful, but she was faster and more skillful, having actually practiced some fencing. After letting it attack first a few times, she began to press it, driving it back and scoring several hits, until finally she had it backed up against a wall. It tried to sweep 02's feet, but Unit02 jumped over the blow and she delivered a solid kick to its chest, followed by a blow to its head with the huge basalt serpent she was using as a staff. The chest plate caved in, and blue-black ichor squirted out. Part of the head armor came off on the right side, and its 'ear' squirmed free, elongating and turning a deep blue with veins of black and red. Several tendrils erupted around the edge of the chest plate and began to pull it back into place. Asuka stared at it, and wondered what her EVA would look like with its armor off. A sudden mental image of tendrils writhing around its mouth under the face armor, like the first angel she had fought had posssed, filled her mind, and she had to stifle the urge to rip off her face armor and find out. Unit00 suddenly went limp, and Orifel finished pinning its arms. Asuka and Shinji felt a moment of terror run through them. If it had beaten Rei so easily, they were doomed. //"Rei! What's going on?"// Asuka demanded. She got her answer seconds later when Unit00 suddenly sprouted huge black wings, flinging Orifel off of it as the wings erupted into his face. He gave a muffled cry as he smashed into one of the walls, then got back up, grinning once more. He charged at her, and she simply embraced him and took to the sky. They rose out of sight. //"Rei, what are you doing?"// Asuka asked again. She answered by flying all the way up to the roof, then slamming down at high speed into one of the sides of the temple, using Orifel as a shock absorber. The entire side collapsed in a massive haze of fine black volcanic dust. For the moment, nothing emerged from the cloud. -*- The viewscreen flickered and kicked in. They could see Shinji's viewpoint; he was being grappled by his opponent after it had pinned him to a wall with its spear. Ironically, Asuka had done the same thing to her opponent across the courtyard, while Rei was nowhere to be seen. "Shinji, smash the wall behind you so it breaks!" Misato shouted. Shinji did nothing of the kind, and didn't answer. Instead, he grappled desperately with the pink EVA while it kicked him repeatedly. "Dammit, Shinji, acknowledge!" Misato shouted. "I think we have video, but not audio," Fuu said. "This isn't much help!" "We can get some readings at least," Ritsuko said. "And..." Unit01 managed to kick the Pink EVA away, sending it toppling into the fountain. More of its armor fell off, and it sprouted small limbs, mouths, and eyes on tentacles along its right leg and right arm. "And we know the armor used on those models isn't good enough." -*- Unit00 and Orifel grappled silently among the wreckage of dozens of rooms and enough basalt to form a small volcanic island. After he had ripped one of its wings, Rei had retracted them, as they would be a liability now. Her efforts to freeze him had failed; he was resistant to cold, possibly due to his fur. Unfortunately, he was, simply put, better at wrestling than her, and soon Unit00 was pinned again. Rei began trying to run through her tactical options, when he spoke over her comm line. //"WHY ARE YOU FIGHTING US? YOU ARE ONE OF US, NOT ONE OF THE ANTS WHO BUILD THEIR PATHETIC LITTLE NESTS IN OUR SHADOW."// //"I am no Angel."// //"YOU KNOW BETTER THAN THAT. YOU ARE NO NORMAL HUMAN. ARE YOU LIKE THE MASTERS YOU SERVE? DO YOU FEEL A KINSHIP TO THEM?"// Her voice wavered. //"I exist to slay Angels."// //"AND WHAT DO YOU THINK THEY WILL DO TO YOU WHEN WE ARE ALL SLAIN? DO YOU THINK THEY WILL NOT FEAR YOU IN TURN?"// //"I will do my duty,"// she said very flatly. //"DON'T YOU WANT TO LIVE?"// //"Yes."// //"DON'T YOU ENJOY THE HUNT? THE KILL? THERE ARE FAR MORE HUMANS TO HUNT THAN THERE ARE OF US. WE WILL NOT SIMPLY KILL YOU WHEN YOU CEASE TO BE OF USE. WITH US, YOU COULD BE FREE TO HAVE WHAT YOU WANT."// //"There is nothing I want,"// she insisted a little louder than usual. //"CAN YOU NOT FEEL THE KINSHIP BETWEEN US? DO YOU NOT HEAR THE MUSIC OF THE HARBINGER? HOW IT CALLS TO US, BRINGING ABOUT THIS TIME OF RECKONING? CAN YOU NOT SEE THAT THE STARS ARE RIGHT? THEY ARE CALLING YOU TO JOIN US."// Rei could hear it, a chorus of voices, louder than the one she sometimes felt from her sisters, a seductive siren song, beckoning her to cast off her restraints and run wild. She could do whatever she wanted, revel in what she now only could feel in her dreams. She would be the hunter of the gods, seeking and destroying their foes. And for the first time in her life, Rei felt temptation. It would be so easy to turn and destroy Langely. She wanted to, and the wanting terrified her more than what she wanted, for Rei had little understanding of desire when she walked among mortals under the sun. The song beckoned, and if she opened herself to it, she could become whole once more; it was only at this moment she realized a part of herself was missing. She turned and stared through the cloud of dust in the courtyard. Langely was locked in battle with the Blue EVA, but she had the upper hand, kicking and pummeling it. It managed to smash the wall behind it and got free, recovering its spear, only to have Langely disarm it again. She was winning...unless Rei chose to intervene. Two on one would easily strike her down. Then Shinji would be hers and hers alone. Shinji... And then she saw it. The Thrones were oozing across the ground, coming up behind Shinji, aiming to strike at the gaping wound in his back, to enter him, and find the tube where his lesser form dwelt. He would never see it; his attention was focused on the Pink Eva, which had lifted a scaley basalt leg and was trying to beat him down with it, though it wasn't having much luck. Time seemed to slow, and all she could do was watch as the Thrones erupted up at his back and slipped in through the huge circular hole in the back of Shinji's armor. He fell to his knees, and his flesh began to bubble and boil under the armor, making it bulge and cave in oddly. The Pink EVA began to beat him down. Orifel's children were hurting Shinji. Her Shinji. They were going to kill him, and then she would be all alone, for Langely would die as well, and even though she wanted to kill Langely, only Langely and Shinji were truly like her. For a moment, she remembered going to the store with the other Children. She had felt a strange kinship with all of them, though the power of the others had been dormant. And she had put on the dress, and somehow, it had made them smile at her, and for a moment, just a second, she had been whole. She hadn't understood then why she smiled, smiled like Shinji. Like Langely. Like Suzuhara and Aida and Horaki. Did they feel like that all the time? He had called her cute...whatever that meant...it was good. It had made her feel good. Even around Langely, she felt better, even when Langely had to die. They were her kin, her kind, the ones who could make her whole, if only for a moment. And then she was back in the present, and the song of the Harbinger tugged at her, but she could not look away from Shinji as he howled. //"WILL YOU ACCEPT MY OFFER, OR WILL YOU DIE?"// //"I will eat your heart,"// she announced, and threw him off her with a great effort. She rose, but before she could go to Shinji's aid, he grabbed her and tossed her across the plaza into another building. He would be no easy meat. -*- Shinji felt his EVA spasm, and its monitors told him what was going on. The Thrones were inside him, trying to find his plug and kill him. For a few moments, he gave in to blind panic. He was going to die, there might already be one in the LCL, maybe there had been one all along, he was doomed, doomed, doomed. Fear wracked him for a time, and then something rose within him. He didn't want to die. There was no hope, but he wanted to live. He'd driven them off before with an AT-Field...could he make one inside himself? He didn't know. Rei...Rei could make one. They were both Children...if only I had some spiders or snakes handy, he thought. And then a horrible thought struck him, but he was too desperate to care. He lifted his right arm, barely able to move it as it bent and contorted, and focused on its hand. In the palm, a reptilian mouth with fangs and a snakey tongue formed. He thrust it into the wound in his chest and began to focus on making an AT-Field erupt from it, even as he felt the hand reshape itself into a full reptillian head. He put his real right hand behind himself; he feared to look at it. Then he concentrated all of his will in extending the AT-Field through himself to flush his EVA's system of Thrones, imagining it like white blood cells gobbling up black invaders. And Unit01's flesh ceased to bubble, and black gouts poured out of the wound in its back. Unfortunately, this didn't stop the Pink EVA, now a twisted mockery of human form, from beating the hell out of Unit01 with improvised weapons and its own fists, maws, and tentacles. -*- Asuka watched this and cursed. She was slowly beating her opponent, but it was taking far too long, and now it had gotten in close to her and was trying to bite off her right arm. She had her face pressed into its shoulder, but that wasn't much good without any fangs or...the tendrils. She shuddered at the thought of them, then thought about the things her EVA had done, and Rei's abilities. Like it or not, her EVA could...drain this thing dry, if she told it too. But the experience was....exhilarating. No, it was wrong. It was horrible. It was...necessary. Feeling the feedback pain from her arm made up her mind. FEED, she commanded her EVA. And it did. Hundreds of tendrils erupted from its head, from its neck, from its shoulders and even from its arms. Some of them quested up inside the mouth biting down on the right arm and began to bore towards its brain. Others erupted down its throat and down to its Microfusion Engine, beginning to suck out its power. And a lone tendril made its way down the throat and through the softer inner flesh of the EVA to the Entry Plug, then bored through it. It began to slurp up the LCL inside it, and with it, the hapless Throne piloting the EVA. It was digested in seconds. The memories hit Asuka like a brick, flooding her mind with alien thoughts, and snatches of images seen through alien eyes. She saw a mass of heat patterns that bore some resemblence to humans, and she followed one of them, then flowed over him and in through his orifices, devouring his brain and taking its place. Then she rode around in the man and gave the orders that enabled the lobotomized gods to be stolen. Her reward had been to recieve one with which she could merge, and one day unite with. She would be a god! And then the memories faded, swept from her mind by a tide of revulsion, a tide heightened by her inability to stop her EVA from feeding on its fallen foe to the last drop, and by the delicious ecstasy that flowed through her veins from its power. Only by supreme willpower could she keep her lips from trying to suck at the LCL, and alone within the darkness, she shuddered, though whether in pleasure or fear, she could not have said. -*- Shinji could see Asuka's EVA feeding on its foe, and he shuddered, though experiencing something like that would be better than what was happening to him right now, which was the process of being beaten to death. He'd driven out the Thrones and sealed his wounds, but he couldn't get up now under the hail of blows raining down on him. He tried desperately to think of some trick he could use on his foe, but he couldn't think of anything. If only I could call a million spiders to...Maybe I could make a web myself, he thought. He focused on his left arm, trying to form a spinneret on it, and the armor and flesh beneath it began to bend and expand, forming a sort of tunnel, which he hoped would work. Concentrating on it, he told his EVA to web his foe. It worked, erupting in a quick gout of black, sticky goo which quickly solidified into huge, ropy webs all over the torso and arms of his opponent, who staggered back. A second gout covered its face. Staggering to his feet, he tried to attack, but could barely move. It lunged into him, and they both fell down. However, by now, Asuka had finished feeding, and she charged in, stabbing it in the back with a knife. //"Finish him off, Shinji!"// she shouted. And he did. He used the one weapon that didn't take much strength; he bit its neck. His EVA began to chew, and as it fed upon the unfortunate Pink EVA, its strength began to return. He felt stronger himself, and had to try to restrain himself from making chewing motions. But the more it fed, the more he wanted to keep feeding, for he could feel its strength infusing him and its EVA. He remembered what Rei had said about gaining the strength of what he killed; he wanted strength. If he could have thought straight, he would have been scared, but at the moment, only hunger and his desire to survive drove him on. He fed, and fed copiously. Soon, the Pink EVA was head and shoulderless, and he shoved his EVA's face into its chest, burrowing until he found the Entry Plug, then bit it in half with one bite, swallowing the Throne, which poured into his microfusion engine and gave him a rush of power. He stood and roared triumph at the heavens as the dead EVA crumbled into grey flakes beneath him. And then the hunger and the triumph left him, and there was only a shocked and confused Shinji. He said to Asuka, //"Where's Rei?"// //"I can hear her outside,"// she said, and they ran together out of the temple. Unit00 rose into the sky on battered wings, nursing a mangled left arm bent in all the wrong ways, shining with the light of an AT- Field. Another such field glimmered around Orifel, who turned to face them, his lips now turned in what would have been a leer on a human. //"YOU LIVE."// //"You die. Surround him,"// Rei said. They fanned out and did so, forming a triangle around him, and raising AT-Fields which spread out and merged, forming a triangular wall around him, distorted by Unit00's elevation. It settled to the ground, and the field grew a dome over it. Then they began to relentlessly advance. Their fields caught on his, and for a time, he held them off, chanting in some strange language that they had never learned, yet knew in their bones, a dozen incantations that might have been called spells by some, and advanced applications of hyperphysics by others. All were to no avail. He began to gibber, and to try to shout, even to beg, but they could not hear him through their AT-Fields, and step by step, they drew closer to him, until his field was pressed in on him, and he fell to his knees, then was compressed into a furry ball of flesh. And they held hands around him, and he collapsed in on himself, exploding in a ball of light which struck their fields and merged with them, and flowed into them, giving them another rush. Shinji felt his face suddenly sprout a beard like his fathers, and Asuka had a very bad feeling about how she was going to need a chainsaw to shave her legs, and Rei's EVA smiled. Eons of experiences flooded their minds, and then was gone, leaving only a thin residue behind, and a few eddies that might pop up when least desired. Perhaps Orifel had fled back to Saturn, but if he lived, they knew he had left most of himself behind. Or perhaps he was truly gone. Perhaps that would one day be their own fate. And in that instant, Misato's voice kicked in. //"Can you hear me?"// She didn't sound like she thought they would. //"It's over,"// Asuka said. //"Can we come home now?"// //"We saw you fight, but we couldn't say anything. You did great,"// Misato said. //"Come on home, Children."// //"Shinji,"// Gendo said. //"Yes, Father?"// //"I saw what you did. Good job."// The command room fell silent, and so did Shinji. He stared in shock, and then he smiled a tiny, exhausted smile. //"Thank you, Father."// //"You all did. I was very pleased. I fully expected you were all going to die once I learned Orifel had the EVAs. It is sometimes pleasant to be surprised."// He pushed his glasses back up. //"That was far too close."// //"Amen to that,"// Misato said. -*- It is generally best not to combine a victory party with a wake, as it tends to defeat the point of both. Having not had time to mourn the fallen before properly, however, they ended up doing this on the way back. The end result was a large number of NERV personel drunk off their ass, with only Shinji and Rei sober, sitting at a table playing 'Battleship' while everyone else made spectacular fools of themselves, including Asuka, who Misato had practically forced to drink a large portion of a bottle of vodka she'd picked up in Phoenix. As Makoto launched into a long rambling story about the time that Shigeru had been attacked by one of his neighbors for playing his guitar too loudly at two o'clock in the morning, Shinji said, 'E-4'. "You hit a destroyer," Rei replied, and looked over at Makoto. "What is he doing?" "He's telling a story about Shigeru. What do you think he's doing?" "Why?" "When someone dies, people share stories about them, to remind themselves of why they cared about him." "Will you tell one?" She looked down at her board. "G-6." "There goes the Aika. Carrier down." He sighed. "I don't know any good stories about him. And they'd make me start drinking if I let them notice me." "Then why stay here?" "Because I want to hear the stories. Why are you here?" Rei looked up and stared into his eyes, her face calm, her lips closed. Her red eyes were soft, instead of harsh, and for once she looked serene rather than blank or slightly cold. "You are." He blushed slightly. "I...uh..." "Your turn, Shinji." "Hey, is anyone not wasted yet?" Misato bellowed. "As tactical commander, I order everyone to get so drunk they fall up!" Asuka looked around. "I drink Shinji already went down. No, wait, he's over there!" The ensuing battle was struck from the records later by the mutual agreement of all involved in it. -*- COUPLE DIE OF SNAKEBITES ON TRIP KYOTO, JAPAN (AP) by Mika Kisaki Surprising park rangers, who believed the vicinity of the historic Orisaka shrine to be free of vermin, a middle aged couple, Rokobungi Shun and Kyoko, ages 52 and 53, were killed by poisonous snakebites today. Shun, a salaryman employed by Fujimoto Industries, is also the older brother of Commander Ikari Gendo of NERV-JAPAN. Commander Ikari has yet to make a public comment on the death. Investigation of suspected foul play continues. -*- The flagship Scimitar made for a majestic craft. With its twin ballast compartments flanking an aircraft-carrier-like central body, it looked somewhat like a more squat, compact version of the vessels seen often in Star Trek. Intended more for support than actual combat, the Scimitar had a staggering 20,000 ton capacity, able to carry four Evangelion units plus supplies, ammunition for its defense batteries, and fuel. It also had another nice feature, though the designers of the craft hadn't thought of it. At the very top of the craft, nestled between antenna arrays and gun batteries, several landing pads were built. The intention was to give accecss to helicopters or VTOL jets if the situation was necessary, but NERV hadn't brought them along this time. This meant that the decks were still clean, spotless, and empty. It also made a nice place to unwind and watch the sunset, which is exactly what Misato was doing. With a fold-out table, deck chair, and a keg of beer, Misato sat back and enjoyed the incredibly majestic view. Below her, the vast plains of America stretched out, grassy plains and arid desert lands sprawling below. The setting sun was a massive red sphere, already sinking under the horizon. The steady breeze tempered the warm Oklahoma air, making the experience all the more enjoyable. "Now this," she said, hefting a mug of beer, "this is what I call travel. Kampai!" And like the pro she was, Misato guzzled the beer down in 3 seconds flat. She'd learned her lesson from the trip to Arizona - Don't Forget The Beer. She had a keg here as well as several more kegs stowed away in her quarters. "I think we need a refill," she said cheerily to herself. "Yes we do." She turned to the keg, filled her mug, began guzzling it as she turned once more to the sunset, then spat out her beer as she suddenly found herself locking eyes with Rei. "Yeaaaaaaaaaagh! Shit! Jeez, you scared me!" she screamed. After a moment of deep breathing, she collected her wits and smiled at the girl. "Do _not_ do that again." "Do what?" the girl asked. "Don't sneak up on me like that," said Misato. Rei merely blinked at Misato, looking just slightly puzzled. "Ah... something I can do for you, Rei?" asked Misato, feeling slightly ill at ease. While Rei showed no signs of hostility, she still had a sinking feeling about the situation. "Commander Ikari ordered me to ask you." Misato blinked, slowly, while looking at Rei with a puzzled curiosity. "Ask me....?" Rei remained silent for a while longer. Misato wasn't sure, but it almost seemed as if Rei were uncomfortable. Almost. Against her better judgement, she tried to down her second mug of beer, and that was when Rei told her. She spat the beer out again. "He WHAT?!" Rei stared at Misato expectantly. Misato poured herself another beer. "Have a seat," Misato said without thinking, then realized there weren't any. "Ah, don't-" Rei sat on the deck, cross-legged. "-nevermind." Rei looked at her, once again, with expectation. This sort of thing was not her territory, talking about it, that is. Misato stared into the depths of her beer, as if the foam swirls would give her a revelation on what to say. She certainly knew the ins and outs of 'the birds and the bees', but explaining it to a girl with a relatively innocent mindset on the topic was something else entirely. "Um," started Misato. Rei waited. "Ah..." Misato smiled nervously, scratching the back of her hand. "Well... why are you asking, Rei?" Rei remained silent, but slowly averted her gaze away from Misato. The first child being bashful was something Misato was not used to. "Rei? Hey, Rei? What's going on?" "I..." Misato smiled warmly. Rei almost seemed... bashful. It was neat, seeing Rei like this, kinda cute actually. "C'mon, Rei, you can trust me." Rei remained silent. Was it the colors of the setting sun upon her face, or was Rei blushing? It was hard for Misato to tell. The gears in Misato's head began to turn, dots began to connect. Rei is curious about boys. What boy would she be curious about? Who's the only boy that Rei really talks to? Whoa. "Hey, do you like Shinji?" Rei frowned. She couldn't help it. Misato grinned like a maniac. "You like him." "The commander asked me to ask you..." Misato blinked. Oh, that was right. She still had to explain THAT. Well. Hrm. "Um... tell you what, lemme show you a movie when we get back to Tokyo-3. Have you seen Springtime Cherry Blossoms?" -*- "Well, that was nearly a disaster," Fuyuutsuki said to Gendo, as they stood on the rear observation deck of the Scimitar, watching the Rocky Mountains pass by. "We triumphed, and all the nearly a disaster elements could not have been avoided, except perhaps if we'd been able to lure Orifel into a trap on the surface. Given he was no idiot, we would never have succeeded. We had to come to him, and we both knew it. Our real hope was that he wouldn't know we were coming, but once I learned a Throne had boarded us, that hope was shattered. Still, once again the prophecies are fulfilled. And with his death, new doors open up for us." "The Lord of Saturn has fallen, the False Children are slain, the Fourth Child has been found. Yes, yes, but the Book of Eibon warned that if 'three children triumphed over two, then the world would be given over to the old lord of Cykranosh.' Given that Cykranosh was the name given by the people of Mhu Thulan to Saturn, one could have believed that the triumph of our Children would still have led to Orifel's victory." Fuyuutsuki turned to Gendo. "And the sources of most of these prophecies were not very friendly to Mankind, nor caring of our final fate." "There are enough holes in the prophecies through which we can slip to weave our webs and bring our hopes to fruitition. The Children have shown unexpected strength; I find myself more hopeful than ever, despite our brush with disaster." Gendo smiled. "They are each a source of trouble in their own way, but with a little guidance, they will bring our foes far more trouble than they bring to us." "And despite my worries, the microfusion engines worked perfectly." He turned back to the glass. "I suppose sometimes I am just a worried old man." "We could not do this without you," Gendo replied. "Age brings wisdom as well as regrets and fears." "And sometimes they are the same thing," Fuyuutsuki replied. "Are you going to tell Shinji before we arrive?" "He'll learn soon enough. Best to let him focus on his schoolwork for now, and relax with the other Children. They've earned a rest." Fuyuutsuki smiled wryly. "I never thought I'd hear you say that." "Push anyone too hard and they'll break. I can be relentless, but I only break people who I want to shatter." He turned from the window. "Time to begin thinking about where the next Angel will be found." "And to figure out who the next one is. The descriptions are so enigmatic, it could be almost any of them." "Time will tell," Gendo said. "Though it often tells things we'd rather not hear."