-*-

                John Biles & Rod M. Present
           A Neon Genesis Evangelion Elseworlds


                 Children of an Elder God

                          Part 5

                        "Wargames" 

                            -*-

        Misato roared through the streets of Tokyo-3 in her
car as if all the Angels were chasing her.  Asuka laughed
with delight while Shinji clung to his seatbelt, shaking.
"Faster, faster!"  Asuka shouted, while Shinji prayed for
engine failure.

        "I'm gonna have to slow down soon, or I'll drive
right through our apartment building.  I don't think the
Andersons would like that."  Misato took the corner at about
fifty miles an hour without any trouble, thanks to the
absence of any traffic.  Shinji, on the other hand, was glad
he hadn't eaten dinner yet.

        "Where am I going to be staying?"  Asuka asked. 

        "Since your guardian is staying in Germany for now,
you'll be staying with me and Shinji.  You're not old enough
to live on your own yet." 

        Asuka nodded.  "I suppose Rei lives with you too?" 

        Misato shook her head.  "She'd be riding with us in
that case.  We do have a penguin, though." 

        "So she lives with Dr. Akagi?"  Asuka inquired. 

        "No, she has her own place,"  Misato said, cutting
another corner short and beginning to decelerate.  Shinji
flew forward, thankful his seatbelt held.

        "But she's not any older than I am!" 

        "She's very mature for her age,"  Misato said. 
"Shinji's father is her guardian, and he okayed it." 

        "She's your sister?"  Asuka asked Shinji; the files
she'd read hadn't said that. 

        "No, no, he's just her...umm...ward?  No, I mean
she's his ward."  Shinji said.  "We're not related at ALL." 

        Asuka's hair whipped about as they cut into the
parking garage, making a 100 degree turn.  After shoving it
out of her eyes and mouth, she said, "So how big is our
apartment?  I've got a lot of stuff." 

        Shinji looked at Asuka's one suitcase and wondered
why she was worried.  "It's pretty big, since Misato is a
big-shot." 

        "Good." 

                            -*-

        Asuka was staring at Pen-pen, not having gotten past
the living room yet, when the doorbell rang.  Misato said,
"Shinji, go get the door.  I'll show Asuka her room." 

        He opened the door and saw a wall of deliverymen
with boxes on handcarts going down the hall and around the
corner.  "Uh...hello?" 

        "We've got some stuff for a Miss Asuka Langely."  He
looked at the delivery invoice.  "Asuka Soryuu Zeppelin
Langely." 

        Shinji's jaw dropped.  "All...that...stuff?" 

        Asuka bounded over to the door, took the invoice,
and signed it.  "That's me!  Bring it all in." 

        Box after box flooded into the room, trapping
Pen-pen against the wall and shoving Misato back into the
corner by the TV.  Shinji's neck began to hurt from
following the movements of the deliverymen, while Asuka
moved lithely through the horde, directing traffic.

        Misato finally shoved her way over to Asuka, "Did
you bring the entire contents of Germany with you?"

        "Actually, I left about a third of my stuff back in
Germany to ship later.  And I finally threw out all my old
clothing that doesn't fit any more."

        "I don't even own this much stuff, and I'm twice
your age!" 

        "Well, I have a trust fund from my parents, but NERV
has always paid all my expenses and..."  Asuka looked
slightly embarrassed.  "It didn't look like so much stuff
back home."

        Misato shook her head.  "We're going to have to send
at least half of this to storage.  Maybe more if you don't
want to sleep on top of your boxes, Asuka."

        "But...but...I NEED all this stuff!" 

        "And I need to be able to move without tripping on
all your stuff."  Misato opened one, which was full of
letters and romance novels.  "Oooh, Melody's Pirate Passion! 
You can keep this box."

        Deflated, Asuka stared at all the boxes.  "How am I
ever going to decide?"

        "Shinji, you start going through the boxes too; 
that'll be faster.  Anything with clothing, beer, food, or
good books goes over in that corner."  Misato pointed. 
"Pointless things go over there."  She pointed to the far
corner.  "Home electronics over there..." 

        "HEY!"  Asuka shouted, but Misato could no longer be
stopped.

                            -*-

        Shinji rode along in the maglev train, ignoring the
countryside as it zoomed by, lost in his thoughts.  He was
dreaming and knew it for once;  he had been exhausted after
helping Asuka move her twelve tons of junk to a storage
site, and both he and Misato had collapsed as soon as they
got home.  Asuka had still been up when he passed out in his
room.

        There was a spider spinning a web in one corner of
the train, and he ignored it.  He could see the tiny winged
insectoid it had trapped in its web, but he ignored that
too, really.  Certainly he didn't notice its disturbingly
human-like (despite being made of black chitin) head or hear
its feeble death cries.  He didn't want to see it, not after
last time, so he chose to not see it.

        As usual, that didn't make it go away.  The death
cries continued as the spider began to suck out the fluids
from the pitiful thing.  He took off his shoe and hurled it
at the spider in a fit of rage.  Just as it struck the
spider, something struck him.  Agony raced through his head,
and the darkness consumed him. 

        He awoke, tied up in the back of a horse-drawn, four
wheeled wagon. This was new to him. He'd never had a dream
like this before.  A few dozen other people were tied up in
the back of the wagon as well.  Men and women, children,
adults, and the elderly, gathered evenly from every
continent, of every color of hairs, eyes, and skin, all
alike were bound, and almost all of them slept.

        A man drove the wagon, his back to Shinji, wrapped
in a simple brown wool poncho with a hood and long brown
leather pants.  His legs ran out of sight off the front of
the wagon from the board he sat on.  His voice was deep as
he spoke.  "Don't bother trying to escape.  Even if you get
out of your ropes, I'll chase you down."

        "Who are you?"  Shinji sat up as best he could with
his hands tied behind his back and his legs wrapped pretty
well.  Looking around the countryside, there was a river to
his right and grassy fields to his left.  The river was
broad and slowly growing wider.  They rattled over a bridge
across a small tributary of the river as he looked about.
The sky was a pleasant blue, but the blue tint of the
grasses was a little strange.

        For a moment, he wondered if he was in Kentucky and
dismissed the thought.  I'm dreaming, he thought.  Of course
it's weird.  Although normally he was alone in his dreams. 

        "Just another slaver plying my trade as best I can," 
he said.  "What with the revolt of the slaves in Kled, I've
had to improvise.  Then I hit on the trick of picking up all
these fools who manage to dump themselves around here by
wrecking their own little private dreams."  He shrugged. 
"It's a lot of work, but my buyers seem to value those sort 
of people."

        Shinji blinked.  How entirely strange.  "If they're
dreaming, why are they asleep?"

        "Most of them dreamed a near-death experience and
haven't quite recovered yet." 

        "All I did was squash a spider and then..." 

        The man laughed faintly.  "You are what you eat." 

        "I don't eat spiders!"  the thought revulsed Shinji,
though he would have prefered eating a spider to pilot his
EVA over drinking LCL.

        "Tell that to the ones you killed.  And you'd best
hope none of his relatives take it poorly."  The man
laughed.  "But my spells should keep them away until we
reach Dylath-Leen." 

        "Reach what?"  Shinji looked around again, but the
landscape was still unfamiliar.

        "The place where you will be sold to
the...botheration."  The jovial voice darkened slightly.  "A
knight."

        Shinji looked down the road and saw a smudge of red
in the distance over a smudge of brown and grey, rapidly
approaching.  As the figure came closer, it became clearer,
a knight clad in red armor riding upon a huge destrier with
steel barding.  He sat back and relaxed; no need to do
anything.  The knight would handle this, and it was just a
dream, anyway. 

        "Halt!" the knight cried out.  It was a woman.  "I
have declared the slave trade ended along this road!  You
will free your prisoners!  NOW!" 

        The driver laughed.  "Little girl, what I do is
perfectly legal here.  Slaves have been brought to
Dylath-Leen by this road for millenia.  Millions have been
carried down the Skar, despite the complaints of those
lily-livered cat worshipping fools in Ulthar and Nir.  Take
your stupid horse and go back to Celephais where idiots like
yourself dwell."

        "Never!  I am the Red Knight, one of the four
champions of King Kuranes of Celephais, the Knight of
Courage, and I have sworn never to retreat from a fair
battle.  Not that I would call this fair, as one of me is
easily a match for five of you.  Now yield, or I will cast
you naked into the river.  I think the crocodiles get quite
hungry this time of year."  Her voice was familiar to
Shinji, but something about it wasn't quite right.  Although
it might have been just the fact that she was shouting from
a distance.

        The wagon stopped and the man laughed sarcastically. 
"Do you think I would travel alone if I could not defend
myself?  I have studied the Pnakotic Manuscripts and the
Book of Eibon, little girl, and learned the secrets of the
great masters.  I have seen the monastery of the Priest Who
is Not to be Named and stood in the shadow of the Plateau of
Leng."  He reached under the board he sat on and grabbed a
bottle; Shinji could see a good dozen of them under the
board, each containing swirling gasses or flashing lights. 
"Do you know what this is?"

        "A bottle," she said, moving her lance to a ready
position.
    
        "Through my arts, I have trapped a nightmare within
this bottle,"  he said.  "Here, have one." 

        He hurled it at her, and she instinctively drew her
sword and swatted at the bottle.  Shinji was impressed by
her speed.  Then the bottle shattered and the mist enveloped
the knight, who began to scream.  The smoke obscured her,
but he could hear the sound of metal being struck and every
so often, the mist parted slightly and he could see a black,
slimy tendril that looked like a rotting vine leaking pus.

        The first glance nearly made him sick up, and he
closed his eyes, trying to blot out the horrible agonzied
howls of the knight, who was now cursing in some foreign
language.  Make it stop! he thought.  I don't like this
dream!  I don't want to be here!  I don't want to watch her
die, whoever she is. 

        He opened his eyes, and he saw the spider again, the
one from the train, now spinning its web under the board
around the jars.  It's your fault, he thought.  You got me
into this.  Shinji was not given to rage, but he was getting
mad now.  He wiggled around over the sleeping people, trying
to get to the spider.

        Up above, the slaver was laughing.  "Not so mighty
now, eh, 'Knight of Courage'?  You scream awfully well for
such a loftily-titled wench.  I see what courage amounts to
in the end.  Nothing but a rushing into suicide.  It matters
naught, for the Crawling Chaos will laugh at us all.  He
would laugh at me if I had lost, but the joke is on you."

        Shinji ignored him, focused on spider-slaying.  Some
part of him was sure that if he hit it, either the dream
would end, or at least it would change.  Not that hitting it
would be easy, but it was easier than trying to do something
about the knight.  Finally, he got to where he could strike
at it.

        Time seemed to slow, the mocking laughter of the
slaver becoming deeper and dragged out, the clumsy hip and
waist driven kick unable to outrace a snail.  The spider
scampered out of the way up its web onto the top of the
bench, and his kick collided with five of the bottles.  They
shattered, apparently extremely delicate. 

        In an instant, black, purple, and bilious green
mists enveloped the wagon, the slaver, and Shinji.

        The wagon dropped away, and he plunged at ever
increasing speed into an endless void.  Seconds later, it
proved to not be endless as he struck the bottomless sea of
LCL that filled much, maybe most, perhaps virtually all of
the void.  It ate at him as it rushed down his throat and
into his lungs and stomach, drinking him as he drank it.  He
could feel himself ebbing away, being replaced by little
bits of LCL.  Soon, there would only be a lump of congealed
LCL that looked like Shinji instead of Shinji himself.

        Mockeries of his form, of Rei's form, of Asuka's
form, of nearly everyone in NERV and people only dimly
remembered from his youth.  But each and every one of them
was wrong, scaly or tentacled, with melted twisted limbs or
gills or a second mouth in their stomach, naked and
horrible.

        He screamed, and more LCL rushed in.  With a supreme
effort, he shouted at the universe for help.  But the
universe did not care, and the mockeries closed in, tearing
out chunks of his flesh.  LCL replaced the missing chunks,
forming shiny almost-flesh, bilious and flabby.

        Something shook him hard, then harder, and a voice
tried to whisper something to him.  It was Misato.  He
shouted.  "Misato!  HELP ME!" 

        "Wake up, Shinji!  It's just a dream." 

        And suddenly it was just a dream, and he was awake,
his body slick with sweat.  Misato knelt by him, still
shaking him.

        "I...how did you know I was having a nightmare?" 

        "You screamed for help so loudly I'm surprised our
neighbors haven't come running by now."

        The door slid open, and a bleary eyed Asuka stuck
her head in.  "What the hell is going on?" 

        "Shinji had a nightmare,"  Misato said.  "And I
heard you screaming too."

        "I was NOT screaming,"  Asuka said.  "I've never
talked in my sleep or screamed.  Ever."  She tried to come
in and banged her head on the doorframe instead.  "Ugh." 

        "Nothing wrong with having a nightmare,"  Misato
said.  "I once dreamed I was in world with no beer."  She
shuddered.  "It was horrible.  I had to drink water.  Flat
water."

        Shinji wondered how water could go flat.  As Misato
began to ramble on, he slowly relaxed.  Her blather was
soothing, and sometimes funny.  When he finally slipped back
into dreams, they were quiet and pleasant, and utterly
forgotten by the time he got out of bed in the morning.

                            -*-

        "Yeah, we'll be in the same class,"  Shinji said. 
"There's only one class per grade because there's not very
many people our age in Tokyo-3."

        He and Asuka were walking up the hallway to their
classroom.  She yawned.  "You don't do that every night, do
you?"

        "What?"  He paused, his hand an inch from the
handle. 

        "Scream and wake us all up." 

        "No.  Generally my dreams are pretty boring."  He
opened the door and stepped inside, Asuka close behind him.

        "Good.  I hate being woken up in the middle of the
night." 

        Touji and Kensuke waved, and most of the heads
turned to see who it was.  A second later, Asuka came into
sight and everyone stared.  "Hey, he's got a girl with him," 
someone said.

        "A cute girl," someone else said. 

        "The new Eva Pilot,"  Touji said. 

        Kensuke and Touji were over by them in an instant,
followed a few seconds later by a tide of humanity.  A
rather small tide, but it was disconcerting nonetheless.
Asuka smiled and waved and said hello to three dozen people,
quickly learning their names.  The only really hard part of
it was trying to sort out who was shouting what.

        Shinji, on the other hand, got dragged aside by his
friends.  "Showing her around the first day?"  Touji asked. 

        "Or is it something more?  I saw how she was hanging
on you yesterday,"  Kensuke said, grinning. 

        "It's nothing like that!  We're just living
together,"  Shinji said.  A second later, he wished he had
kept his mouth shut.

        "Shinji, you SLY DOG!" roared Touji. 

        "You know, she seemed pretty fond of him from the
start," noted Kensuke, pushing his glasses up.

        Asuka clenched a fist, strongly fighting the urge to
clobber them both this instant.  "Idiots!  It's not like
that!  I was just trying to make Kaji jealous!"

        The boys seemed to ignore her claim entirely.

        "You're faster than my uncle,"  Kensuke said. 
"How'd you get her to move in with you?"  He got out a pad
to take notes.

         "She was ASSIGNED to live with me and Misato," 
Shinji said.

        "Who?"  Kensuke asked.  "Wait...that woman at the
docks?" 

        "Red jacket?" asked Touji. 

        "Reeeeally short skirt?" asked Kensuke. 

        "Long hair?" asked Touji. 

        "Shapely legs?" asked Kensuke. 

        "Killer body?" asked Touji. 

        "Er, I guess," said Shinji, embarrassed by their
behaviour. 

        "Aah!  I envy you!" cried Touji. 

        "Yeah.  You're a lucky guy, Shinji,"  Touji said. 

        "So, these two always this idiotic?" Asuka whispered
to Shinji.  He shrugged in reply.

        "I thought you were living with your Dad. Isn't he
in charge of NERV?"  Kensuke asked. 

        "Misato is my commander,"  Shinji said. 
"Father...he...I haven't lived with him since I was five." 
He stared at the ground, not wanting to think about it. 

        "So what is she like?"  Touji asked. 

        "Does she walk around the house naked?"  Kensuke
said.  "I gotta envy you." 

        "Completely irresponsible,"  Shinji said.  "We have
nothing to drink in our house but beer and..."

        Touji shook his head.  "I think you're the only guy
on Earth who would ever complain about that."

                            -*-

        As she worked out the math problem on the board,
Asuka was surprised at its complexity.  Not that it was more
than a five second challenge for her; it was that the other
students were expected to be able to solve it.  She hadn't
had a class with students her own age in years;  she was a
good four years (more in some subjects) ahead of them
intellectually. 

        They didn't look smart, and some of them, like
Touji, lived up to that in some subjects, but they all
seemed to have at least one area where they WERE a match for
her, or at least close.  Touji had a knack for geometry, for
example, and had solved the problem that had stumped even
her, which given his usual behavior (after knowing him for
four hours, she was quite sure she fully understood him),
she would never have predicted. 

        Rei was also quite intelligent, though she did much
better in the sciences and math than in the literature
course they had in the morning, where she might as well have
been dead.  Asuka was already wondering what went on inside
Rei's head; no one could really be so passive. 

        Much to her embarrassment, Asuka suddenly realized
she'd lost her train of thought from thinking about her
classmates instead of the problem she was doing, and her
hand had started to doodle part of the nightmare she had had
the previous night.  Quickly, she erased it, feeling
irritated with herself that she had fallen prey, even in a
dream, to her old fear of...whatever it was.  The thing that
had haunted her dreams for a time when she was a little
child. 

        It had a single lidless red eye, and a body of
winged shadow, a formless shape, a crawling mass of black
tendrils, a thousand forms united by one thing, a mocking
voice and a contempt for her.  Okay, two things. 

        She dismissed the nightmares from her mind; Dr.
Himmelfarb had taught her to master her dreams long ago.  In
her dreams, she was the knight before whom no threat could
stand, and she'd show them no Angel would stand before her
either. 

        She had broken free of the nightmare last night and
prepared to deal with its maker, only to be torn from the
dream by Shinji screaming.  Now she was a little groggy,
which irritated her.  With a shake, she cleared her head and
went back to work. 

        The problem soon lay prostrate before her on the
board.  The teacher nodded.  "Very good, Asuka.  You can go
to your seat.  Shinji, I want you to do the next one." 

        She noticed Rei's gaze following Shinji as he went
to the board;  she seemed more alert, and a little tense as
if she expected the chalk to suddenly become the next Angel,
which seemed strange since it wasn't her problem to solve. 

        As she sat down by a girl named Hikari, the class
president, she kept an eye on Rei as well as watching the
board.  Shinji did a competent job, although he froze up for
a few seconds partway through it, then finished yawning and
did the last bit. 

        Rei immediately relaxed, looking pleased in a way
that was hard to explain.  Was that a small hint of a smile
Asuka saw?  She wasn't sure at all.  As Shinji returned to
his seat, Rei's impassiveness returned.

        There's something weird about that girl, Asuka
thought. 

                            -*-
       
        She ate lunch with Hikari, wishing the school had a
cafeteria with decent food instead of having to eat rice and
pickled vegetables out of a stupid looking box.  "So what
does your dad do?" she asked Hikari. 

        "He's a labtech on some secret NERV project he can't
tell us about.  It has to do with genetics, I think.  Just
about everyone in our class has parents working for NERV. 
And if they don't, they're doing some kind of support
service, like running a grocery store so the NERV people
have food to eat.  Company town, basically." 

        Asuka nodded.  "NERV-Germany is like that.  All my
friends there had parents working for NERV too." 

        "Do you miss them?" 

        "I miss Dr. Himmelfarb, and some of my instructors,
but..."  She blushed.  "I didn't have too many close friends
my own age." 

        "Well, I hope things will be better here!" 

        "Me too." 

                            -*-

        Physical education was another story from the other
classes.  Most of the other girls didn't have a chance
against her; they were doing running today, and she left
them all behind her.  Well, she left almost all of them
behind her.  When she turned back from looking at the others
who were eating her dust, Rei was jogging alongside her,
barely even breathing hard.

        Asuka pushed up her speed, and Rei matched it. 
Asuka grinned.  A real challenge.  Such things were rare for
her.  "Wanna make a bet?" 

        Rei blinked and turned her head to look at Asuka,
but said nothing. 

        "The loser has to...to..."  Asuka racked her brain,
trying to think of something appropriate.  She had no idea
what would embarrass Rei, or if anything would embarrass
her. 

        "We're done,"  Rei said, suddenly stopping, faster
than Asuka believed possible. 

        The horde of other female students was closing in,
but the two of them had completed their circuit of the track 
a good half lap ahead of the others.  The coach said, "Excellent. 
Interested in trying out for our track team?" 

        Asuka came back once she managed to stop, started to
say something, then had her attention caught by the
spectacle of the boys trying to do pull ups.  They were, to
put it simply, failing to cover themselves with glory. 

        More precisely, most of them were not doing very
well.  Touji had finished already, and so had two other
boys, but Kensuke was struggling with his third pull up and
Shinji was moving at a snail's pace.  Most of the others
were either flopped out on the ground or likewise putting
more effort into getting one pull up done than many people
might have to put into breaking a chair to pieces with their
bare hands. 

        Hikari came over to Asuka.  "Wow, you're fast!" 

        "And they're pathetic," she said, pointing at the
guys.  "I could do twenty of those in the time they're
taking to do five.  Not to mention the way Shinji is
slacking off." 

        "What?"  Hikari asked. 

        "He's GOT to be better than that.  They wouldn't
make anyone an EVA pilot if they can't even manage some pull
ups."  She started to walk over towards Shinji.  "I think
I'll challenge him to a little contest later; maybe he just
needs someone to light a fire under his feet." 

        "I dunno if that's a good idea; he..." 

        "It'll be fine.  They want us to be physically fit,
and I'm sure he's just trying to fit in.  He's got to learn
that if you're good, you have to let people know it.  And if
they feel inferior, well, it's their problem, not yours." 

        Hikari started making measuring gestures around
Asuka's head.  Asuka blinked.  "What are you doing?" 

        "Making sure your head can still fit through
doors." 

                            -*-

        Standing naked in a big metal tube as multiple
kinds of invisible radiation bombarded him and little
machines detected everything about him was not Shinji's idea
of a fun time.  Especially when two women his own age were
in tubes next to him, and two more women were watching him
while operating the machine. 

        He wasn't totally naked; he did have little white
patches stuck to his body at various points, most of them
not too embarassing (like his wrists), with wires running
from them.  Those didn't bother him too much.  It was the
other ones, the ones he couldn't figure out why they really
needed to know, that bothered him. 

        He could hear Asuka shifting uncomfortably, which
was a little reassuring.  Rei, on the other hand, could as
well have been dead as alive.  Finally, he said, "Are we
done yet?" 

        Ritsuko checked off a box on a clipboard.  "Almost. 
I see you've gained two pounds, Shinji.  You may be needing
more exercise." 

        Asuka cracked her knuckles.  "I'll see about that." 

        Ever so slightly, Rei's eyes narrowed.

        Shinji tried to figure out why he had said yes when
Asuka had challenged him to some sort of...actually, he
wasn't quite sure what she had challenged him to, since she
had slipped into German when she said it, and he hadn't
really wanted to know.  He'd only said yes because everyone
had been egging him on, not that they'd known what he was
agreeing to either.  "I guess it's probably because Misato
doesn't have anything healthy to eat."

        Ritsuko nodded.  "I'll tell her to buy you healthy
food.  How she keeps her figure, I can't understand. 
Although at least she doesn't eat pizza four times a day
anymore.  I'd get up in the morning and trip on a pizza box
and nearly bust my head."  She ticked off another box on the
chart.  "Rei, come with me once you've got some clothing on. 
Asuka, Commander Ikari wishes to speak with you once you get
dressed.  And Shinji, I believe Maya wanted to talk to you
about something."  She gave Maya a quizzical look, and Maya
simply smiled. 

        "Okay,"  Shinji said. 

        "The synchro rates are up for all of you, which is
good.  Overall, I'm pretty pleased,"  Ritsuko said, smiling. 
"I shall have to send Dr.  Himmelfarb a copy of your records
for this test, Asuka.  I believe she'll be pleased too." 

        "So what am I up to?" 

        "You've gone up three points, while Shinji and Rei
are up six since their last test." 

        "What exactly does the Synchro rating mean,
anyway?"  Shinji asked. 

        "The higher it gets, the less delay there is
between you trying to make your EVA do something and the EVA
actually acting.  Beyond 100% synchro, the EVA could
actually react faster than you could normally get your body
to react to your thoughts.  You have to achieve at least a
50% synchronization to create an AT-field.  The danger is
that the more synchronized you become, the harder it is to
distinguish between EVA and yourself.  Currently, Asuka has
a 62% ratio, Shinji has a 68% and Rei has a 86%." 

        "I guess you've been training a long time,"  Asuka
said.  "It's taken me forever just to get to 62." 

        "Umm...I just started a few weeks ago." 

        Asuka boggled.  "WHAT?"  That just wasn't possible. 

        "He's got quite a knack,"  Maya said.  "He had to
fight an Angel the first day of his training." 

        Asuka felt her brain beginning to melt.  "He beat
an Angel with NO training?" 

        "Umm...I've seen a few Godzilla movies,"  Shinji
said.  "And Rei was fighting it too.  She really did most of
the work."  He fidgeted nervously.

        "We shared the kill,"  Rei said quietly.  "He did
his best." 

        "Anyway, we need to get you all moving,"  Ritsuko
said.  "Commander Ikari dislikes waiting." 

        "You've got to let us out first,"  Asuka pointed
out.  Maya laughed. 

                            -*-

        Gendo looked up at the knock at his door.  "Come in,
Langely." 

        Asuka came in, wearing her school uniform.  She
walked over to the desk and saluted.  "Reporting as ordered,
Commander." 

        He blinked, though he continued to frown, and
briefly saluted back.  "I've called you here to review your
performance against Amaliel." 

        She nodded.  "Yes sir." 

        "Are you familiar with the concept of obeying
orders?" 

        She frowned back at him.  "Yes." 

        "You chose to disobey the orders given you during
your battle with Amaliel, despite being told multiple times
to only capture him."  His voice was harsh. 

        "He bit my hand off!" 

        "You still have two hands." 

        Asuka stepped forward, then stopped herself.  "How
the hell was I supposed to CAPTURE him with only ONE hand? 
And you KNOW what I meant!" 

        "A stump can generate an AT-field as well as a
full hand.  You could still have followed your orders.  Even
without that, you still could have simply battered him
unconscious, rather than dismembering him.  They're still
finding small pieces of him scattered about the docks." 

        "Easy for you to say when you're sitting behind a
desk instead of RISKING YOUR LIFE!" 

        "I think you rather conclusively demonstrated that
Amaliel was no real threat to an EVA even when it is piloted
by an idiot." 

        This time Asuka couldn't stop forward.  She lunged
ahead and pounded both fists on the desk.  "I AM NOT AN
IDIOT!" 

        "You have been training for eight years to pilot
an EVA.  Shinji made fewer mistakes on his first day, going
into battle with the first Angel, than you did against what
will probably be the weakest Angel any of you will face. 
Most importantly, Shinji didn't endanger the future of NERV
through disobedience.  We could have learned a lot by
studying Amaliel, things which might make the difference
between the survival and destruction of humanity.  I do not
need petulant children who go berserk when they scrape their
finger." 

        "HE BIT MY HAND OFF!" 

        "After you wasted time playing around with him. 
Pointlessly abusing the weak is pathetic.  I do not want
someone piloting EVA who wastes time and cannot control
themselves.  This is your warning.  Do not do this again if
you wish to pilot EVA.  You can be replaced." 

        She narrowed her eyes.  "I know how hard it is to
find another pilot.  It could be months or years before you
find another pilot who can stay sane!" 

        He frowned.  "Who told you that?" 

        "Dr. Himmelfarb." 

        He reached up and pushed his glasses back up his
nose.  "And what other classified information did she tell
you?" 

        Asuka suddenly realized she'd likely gotten her
foster mother in trouble, which made her even more angry. 
"How should I know?  She didn't go around saying, 'oh by the
way, I'm going to tell you things you shouldn't know'!  I
just asked her one day why there weren't more pilots and she
told me." 

        He stared at her, and she felt her anger wavering,
his eyes black pools behind the shining glass, like an
undertow sucking her in.  She glared back at him, shoring up
her willpower with anger, and the feeling that she was going
to collapse faded. 

        After a long, hostile silence, he pursed his lips. 
"If your willpower was backed by discipline, you would be
very valuable.  I see Dr. Himmelfarb must be getting soft
in her old age." 

        She slammed the desk with her hand again.  "Dr.
Himmelfarb is a decent woman, not a rat bastard like you who
can't even be bothered to take care of his own child!" 

        His voice had been calm before, despite brief
bursts of anger, but now he let loose a torrent of words. 
"I am not running a day care center!  I don't have time to
coddle children!  This is a WAR, and you are a soldier!  You
will learn to obey, or you will be court martialed and
punished!  If we fail, HUMANITY DIES!"  Now he was pounding
on his desk.  Luckily, it was metal, and neither of them
could do more than annoy it. 

        Asuka wilted.  "I...it..." 

        He leaned forward.  "There is NO room for error! 
This time you got away with your errors because Amaliel was
truly the Angel of Weakness.  But against one with real
power, against the ones you will face in the days to come,
such stupid, petulant, childish behavior will get you
KILLED.  And it will get Shinji and Rei killed as well.  And
if we fall, humanity falls.  It will make the Second Impact
look like a picnic!" 

        Asuka stepped back.  "I...I didn't..." 

        "You will obey, or you WILL be sent to play with
your toys like the child you are.  Do not fail me again. 
Dismissed."  He sat down hard. 

        She stormed out, cursing to herself in German. 

        He watched her go, then shook his head.  "I should
have taken more care to insure the quality of her
upbringing, but I never expected Himmelfarb of all people to
produce someone undisciplined."  He frowned.  "And what else
does she know that she shouldn't?" 
          
                            -*-

        Shinji sat down by Maya, feeling much happier now
that he had clothing on.  "So what did you want to talk to
me about?" 

        "That story in the newspaper.  Did you see it?" 

        He blinked.  "There's a lot of stories in the
newspaper, you know." 

        "The one about you and Rei.  Did that bother you?" 

        "Not as much as all the teasing I got from it.  I
dunno how whoever did it even got that picture."  He relaxed
a little more.  He had been afraid he was going to be chewed
out or told some bad news. 

        "I'm glad you and Rei get along.  She really needs
a...friend...her own age." 

        She does make me look like I'm extroverted, Shinji
thought.  "She's been a lot of help to me, and I'm really
grateful.  And even though she can be kinda creepy
sometimes, she's a nice person." 

        "Just nice?"  There was a touch of insinuation. 

        "Huh?" 

        Maya seemed slightly disappointed.  "You play the
cello, right?" 

        Shinji nodded.  "It's very relaxing." 

        "Rei plays the violin.  You ought to invite her to
play with you some time.  She's very good." 

        "All we need is another violin and a viola and we
would have a..." 

        "Hmm.  I think Asuka also plays the violin.  I'll
see about finding you a viola player.  Now THAT would look
good in our next press release."  Maya smiled.  "Heroic Eva
pilots stage Tokyo-3 concert." 

        Shinji blushed.  "I'm not that good." 

        "You said that at the poker game, too." 

        "I was the only one sober." 

        "Next time we'll get you drunk too, then." 

        "Ack." 

                            -*-

        Kaji walked into Commander Ikari's office just as he
pushed his glasses up his nose.  He needs to tape those
things in place, Kaji thought.  "You called for me, sir?" 

        "I understand you've done some work for the German
branch drafting wargames."  He sounded irritated for no
apparent reason. 

        "Yes, sir.  You want me to design one for the
Children?" 

        Commander Ikari pointed to the chair, and Kaji sat. 
"Exactly.  We plan an operation in northern Canada."  His
voice was starting to relax. 

        Kaji blinked.  "That's gonna take a damn long
extension cord." 

        "We have battery packs we wish to test.  They're
just to tide us over until the S^2 engines are ready.  They
will have a half-hour operating time."  By now, he was all
business again. 

        Kaji frowned.  "That's still not very long." 

        "We will have a mobile recharging center, but not
as mobile as we would like.  That's why we need to plan this
wargame; they have to learn how to use their power wisely." 

        "No berserker rages like at the docks." 

        Commander Ikari nodded.  "Exactly.  Against the
less intelligent Angels, such mistakes can be overcome, but
they will likely become more cunning as this progresses.  We
must become more cunning, faster.  How soon can you prepare
the wargame?" 

        "I'll talk to Ritsuko-chan and get right on it." 

        Commander Ikari blinked, then nodded.  "Good. 
Make it so." 

                            -*-

        Maya looked up as Ritsuko entered.  "Why are you
frowning?" 

        "This data isn't correct.  Something has gone wrong." 
She perched on the back of the chair by the bio-test lab
monitoring equipment, rapping the results with a pencil. 

        Maya came over and stared at the brainwave pattern
charts.  "What's wrong?" 

        Six charts, each a week apart, were swiftly flipped
past her.  "Note the first four are identical except for the
synchro waves becoming more regular.  But these last
two...since the battle with the Cherubim, there have been
some irregularities here and here."  She pointed to two
spots.  "Hypothalamic activity and...hmm." 

        She flipped through two more charts from another
pad.  "And slightly enhanced hormone levels.  Perhaps it's
just a phase of puberty, but it could also be a sign she's
going to start having seizures like subject #34 did.  I will
NOT be pleased if we lose her." 

        Maya nodded.  "I think she'll be fine, but I will
keep an eye on it." 

                            -*-

        Shinji still wasn't quite sure how he had ended up
agreeing to a swimming race with Asuka.  She looked good in
her blue one-piece, but he didn't think he was trying to
show off for her.  He'd never tried to show off in front of 
a good looking woman that he could remember, anyway.  So it 
couldn't just be some macho thing...Shinji wouldn't know macho
if it chewed off his leg.  A lot of it probably had to do with 
the fact that agreeing to it had been the path of least
resistance, since she had been in an incredibly bad mood
after her talk with his father.  And he did enjoy swimming. 

        Asuka shook a finger at him, frowning.  "Now, don't
you DARE slack off on this like you were before!  Or I'll
kick your verdamnt ass!" 


        He blinked.  "Uh...okay."  Slacking off on what?  He
turned to Ritsuko, who had joined them at the pool and even
changed into her swimsuit.  "Are you gonna race too?" 

        "I'm just here to play lifeguard, while I wait for
some test results to be collated for me," she said.  "And my
shift is almost over, so I may do a little swimming later." 

        Asuka said, "Give us the go signal."  She seemed
just a tiny bit calmer. 

        Ritsuko nodded.  "Ready."  The two got into diving
positions.  "Set...Go." 

        They both dived over the edge into the water in
fine form.  While Shinji was not a graceful swimmer, he was
fast, faster even than he expected.  The water felt warmer
than most pools; he wondered if it was heated. 

        The race was a dead heat, with each of them
alternately pulling ahead just a foot or two, then falling
behind.  He got a substantial five foot lead at one point,
only to lose it when he crashed clumsily into the wall at
the far side of the pool while Asuka lithely bounced off it,
then pulled ahead for a while.  She grinned as she bounced off
the wall and swum past him, finally looking more like he was 
used to seeing her. 

        By the time they finished the first lap, Shinji was
getting into it.  He was doing a lot better than he had been
doing in physical education today.  Maybe my legs have
gotten stronger, but not my arms, he thought.  It was
certainly fun, whatever the reason. 

                            -*-

        Rei walked down the corridor, heading for the
elevators so she could leave the Geo-Front and go home.  She
walked in silence, content to be alone. 

        Then the screaming started, a woman's voice crying
out incoherently in terror.  It cut through Rei's head like
a knife, and she fell to her knees, blocking her ears and
closing her eyes.  She could feel her heart speed up and her
breathing got heavier. 

        Part of her had known this would happen; it always
happened sooner or later.  But normally, it wasn't this bad. 
Something must have gone more wrong than usual this time. 

        It took a good three minutes for it to pass. 
Finally, her body eased and the screaming died away.  Rei
stood back up, dusted herself off, checked her pulse, and
resumed her trip. 

                            -*-

        Kensuke looked over at the geometry homework.  "Man,
how can you figure those proofs out so fast?" 

        Touji shrugged.  "It's a knack."  They were over at
his apartment, working on their math and literature
homework.  "I wish we could have gotten Shinji to do the lit
stuff for us.  What are those tests he's taking, anyway?" 

        "Just a routine physical, I think,"  Kensuke said. 
"Show me how..."  He trailed off as a stabbing pain ran
through his head.  "OW!" 

        Touji was clutching his head as well.  "Damnation! 
Where's the aspirin?" 

        "You too?  And this is your house!  How should I
know?" 

        The pain began to fade.  "I can't remember where
Dad keeps it." 

        Kensuke looked around.  "What WAS that?" 

        "Stress homework, I guess.  I mean, stress from
homework." 

        "I guess." 

                            -*-

        Shinji pushed off the wall again, giving it his
best effort.  Still, Asuka pulled ahead of him again; she
was clearly more used to doing this sort of race than him. 
He pushed himself harder, wondering why it was so important
to win this; normally, he wouldn't have put out this much
effort.  Something...he felt the need to win, for once. 

        Then he heard the scream.  A woman was howling in 
agony, her voice an incoherent wail that ran up and down 
a full octave of agony, cutting through his concentration.  
He floundered and dipped completely below the surface of 
the water.  The screaming only got worse, which made
no sense.

        His body tried to curl up into a ball, but he
fought it off, trying to struggle to the surface, but he
couldn't think through the scream.  His head felt like it
had icepicks jabbing into it.  He saw Asuka clutching her
head as well, and then his vision faded to black as the pain
caused by the scream forced him to flee into unconsciousness
to escape. 

        What remained of his will knew this was a bad idea,
but it wasn't consulted.  The darkness swallowed him up. 

                            -*-

        Gendo clutched his forehead, his eyes closed, as he
sat at his desk.  He stood and frowned.  "Not good at all." 
He rubbed his temples, then got himself some aspirin from
his desk.  A few pills later, he reached for the phone to
make a call which would not be enjoyed by its recipient. 

                            -*-

        Prince Shinji kneeled before the throne of his
father, King Gendo of Tokyo-3, who sat on his great basalt
and onyx throne, his gloved fingers pursed to form a
triangle.  "You have done well so far in your twelve labors,
Shinji, but a single task remains before you complete these
tasks and recieve the greatest reward of all." 

        Misato, Ritsuko, Asuka, Kaji, Maya, Makoto, Touji,
and Kensuke stood to one side, robed in white greek robes,
moving in unison as they asked, "And what reward is that?" 

        "The greatest reward that any mortal could
recieve,"  King Gendo said.  "You will become a god." 

        Shinji's eyes flared.  "A god?" 

        "A god?" the chorus asked. 

        "A god.  But this task...it will be the hardest of
all."  He paused.  "Are you ready?" 

        "I'm ready," Shinji said.  Normally, this would not
have had much appeal for him, but it was a dream, and oft
one acts strangely in dreams. 

        "You must move all of Princess Asuka's
possessions to her new room without help from any other
human.  By sunset." 

        The sun was two thirds of the way down.  Prince
Shinji ran.  Soon, he was covered with sweat.  It seemed
impossible to move all of Princess Asuka's possessions; she
had a million boxes of clothing and cheesy novels.  Just as
he was about to give up, Pen-Pen came around the corner.  "I
can help you, but it will cost you." 

        It was a dream, so this didn't bother Shinji.  "I
will pay any cost to become a god!" 

        "When you become a god, you have to take me with
you so I can become the god of penguins." 

        "Sure." 

        Pen-pen clapped his hands and a horde of penguins
erupted from everywhere and began hauling boxes.  Soon, all
the boxes were moved, and Prince Shinji stood before the
king.  "I have done all you asked.  Now I ask to become a
god!" 

        "Ritsuko, take him to the vat of becoming." 

        Ritsuko stepped out of the chorus as they all
said, "The vat of becoming?  So that is the secret!" 

        Ritsuko led him to a great spiral staircase, and he
descended after her, deeper and deeper into the dark. 
Slowly the spiral staircase became more and more crude,
electric lights becoming gaslights becoming torches,
becoming phosphorescent moss.  The chorus followed, singing
something guttural and gloomy. 

        At the bottom, crude runes adorned the archway
hacked from the primal rock.  Passing through, they came to
a great underground lake which bubbled and seethed, a great
ocean of LCL.  It rippled and sometimes formed tendrils
which reached skyward, then fell back in on themselves. 
Ritsuko said, "The great vat of becoming." 

        "That's not a vat.  It's a pool." 

        "The great vat of becoming!"  the chorus repeated
excitedly. 

        "Where a man becomes a god." 

        He began to back away.  "I don't like it." 

        The chorus grabbed him.  "Where a man becomes a
god." 

        "Let go of me!" 

        His clothing was ripped from him, rough fingers
bruising his flesh, and then naked, they lifted him like a
sacrifice.  They howled incoherently now as they ran towards
the lake, while Ritsuko chanted and shouted in a deep voice
not her own.  "Come, Lords of the Outer Realms!  Come and
recieve this one into your number!" 

        They hurled him into the lake as he screamed, and
the lake rose up and pulled him under.  It suffused him,
leaking in through his pores and sphincters, eating away at
him and replacing him with itself.  He became LCL and it was
him.  And the black fluid became a void, and around him, all
was filled with the idiot flautings of a dozen mindless
tentacled frog-things, which capered and played a dance for
the beings who capered about in a great circle, ringing
something behind him.  The part of him that was still his 
'real' self knew something horrible was there, but the god 
Shinji turned to gaze upon its master, giving a great 
incoherent cry of soulless joy. 

        At the last moment before he would have gazed upon
it, the void cracked open, and there was light.  And the
light burned away the darkness, the void, the gods, and the
dream. 

                            -*-

        Shinji stared up into Ritsuko's face.  "What...what
happened?" 

        "You nearly drowned."  Ritsuko glanced over at
Asuka, who turned and stared off at the walls.  "Asuka
pulled you out in time, and I was able to save your life." 
She frowned.  "Why didn't you get out of the water if you
were so tired you were going to black out?" 

        "Because...I...uh...I was surprised I passed out. 
Someone screamed.  Or something.  And then...whammo." 

        Ritsuko frowned deeply.  "Who screamed?" 

        "Not Asuka.  Some woman.  I think.  Or that might
have been part of the dream."  I must have dreamed about
falling into the vat thing because I was starting to drown,
Shinji thought. 

        Asuka blinked.  "I didn't hear anything.  My head
hurt like hell right about the same time you went under,
though." 

        "I heard a scream." 

        "Come with me, Shinji, and I'll run some tests.  We
need to make sure there's nothing wrong with you.  You too,
Asuka, just in case." 

        "More tests?"  He sighed and stood up from where he
had been lying on the ground.  "I guess passing out again
would be bad." 

        "Passing out while piloting an EVA would be a
disaster,"  Ritusko said, handing him a towel.  "Let's get
going." 

                            -*-

        Asuka would never join the great chefs of Europe,
but she was better than Shinji and Misato combined, and
Shinji was glad she had decided to cook dinner.  In fact, he
hoped she'd take the job permanently.  He and Misato dug
into the sauerkraut and sausage as if it was manna from
heaven. 

        "You like it?" she asked. 

        "This is great,"  Misato said.  "But where'd you
find all this food?  I mean, I didn't have anything to make
this and..." 

        "Kaji took me shopping.  Dr. Akagi said we need
good food so Shinji doesn't get fat." 

        "Hey!" 

        "It's what she said.  She said you had nothing but
garbage in your fridge and..." 

        Misato frowned.  "Garbage, eh?  She's the one who
lived on chow mein take out for a year." 

        "You sure that wasn't you?"  Shinji asked, thinking
about the infinite supply of cup ramen in the fridge. 

        "Hrmph." 

                            -*-

        'The Invasion of Earth' was a fairly simple wargame. 
Its creators had simply copied the paranoia that had
prevailed just after the Second Impact and turned the common
fear that it was the first step of an alien invasion into a
game.  Given the current situation, it didn't seem as
paranoid an idea to either of them as it had in 2002 when it
came out. 

        They'd flipped a coin; Shinji was the aliens.  The
game designers had gotten a little silly, naming the alien
races after various thinly disguised German noble houses. 
(It was a German game).  The only one Shinji recognized were
the 'Zopplin' who looked like gondala-less blimps. 

        Shinji was winning, although he was sure it was pure
luck; he'd chosen his strategies mostly on aesthetic
grounds.  The dice just seemed to love him; he couldn't roll
less than a ten on two dice if he tried. 

        He rolled and actually got a seven, which was the
worst he had done the whole game.  His pile of four
'Hindenborgs' died horribly, and Asuka cheered.  "FINALLY!" 
It looked like the Russians had once again turned back an
invasion.  Shinji had made three efforts to take Moscow, but
had been turned back every time.  However, in the interval,
he had overrun Africa and the Middle East.  Things weren't
looking good for Asuka's forces, although Europe and Asia
still held fast. 

        He shrugged.  "There's more Hindenborgs where those
came from."  He had turned northern Iran into a Hindenborg
breeding center.  They were tough on attack, but poor on
defense, and Asuka had beat off the first two waves by
taking advantage of that.  However, she'd gotten so obsessed
with it, she kept not noticing his attacks elsewhere until
it was too late. 

        "Not anymore."  She played a 'Nuclear Strike' card
and blew up the Hindenborg breeding center, flicking the
counter off the board.  "You know, I'm surprised they
haven't tried nuking the Angels." 

        "They did,"  Shinji said.  "The day I arrived in
Tokyo-3, they nuked the first one, but he got better. 
Akagi-san says it has something to do with them being made
of material that obeys different physical laws or
something."  He shrugged. 

        "What...so they can't be hurt by Earth stuff?" 

        "I guess."  He stared at the board, trying to
decide what to do next. 

        Asuka frowned.  "Then how can an EVA hurt them? 
It's made out of Earth stuff.  Right?" 

        "Maybe they used Moon rocks?"  He scratched his
head.  "Maybe Misato knows." 

        Misato looked up from watching Sazae-san on the
TV.  "What?" 

        "How can EVAs hurt an Angel if a nuke can't?" 
Asuka asked. 

        "A nuke CAN hurt an Angel.  The problem is that
Angels are incredibly hard to kill.  They partly exist in
another dimension, or some such rot.  You'd have to ask
Ritsuko for the details.  EVAs can kill them because they
can generate an AT-field, which disrupts the one that holds
the Angel together." 

        "Like the way the one Rei and I killed kinda
popped like a bubble once we used our AT-fields on it
enough." 

        Misato nodded, getting up to get a new beer. 
"Exactly.  The difference is that the Angels innately have
an AT-field, while an EVA makes one with technology." 

        "So what is an AT-field?"  Asuka asked. 

        Misato opened the fridge.  "Some kinda
forcefield-like thing.  You could ask Ritsuko, but I dunno
if you'd understand the answer.  I didn't.  I know what it
does, and that's enough for me." 

        Asuka nodded.  "It's still my turn, right?" 

        "Right." 

        In the end, the game Earth was assimilated by the
Hindenborg.  Resistance was futile, much to Asuka's
displeasure. 

                            -*-

        Gendo looked at Ritsuko's report in his office as
she sat nearby.  "So the latest test subject got out of
control." 

        "We had gotten as far as an actual plug test.  The
subject merged with the LCL and began to transform
into...well, we never found out for sure, since we aborted
the test."  She frowned.  "Which I was not informed of." 

        "You were busy," he said.  "And testing these
subjects is not your primary responsibility.  It should have
been routine at this point." 

        "We've lost a lot of potential pilots to their
first plug test.  Just the first contact with LCL either
killed them or destroyed their minds.  It's hardly routine." 
She pursed her lips.  "I'd like to be kept informed of the
next test." 

        "So you can do what?  Watch in horror?  What I
really want you to work on is to determine why more than the
usual number of people sensed...something when this
happened.  We can't allow a recurrence of this." 

        "I know.  All three of the Children felt it, but
Asuka only felt it weakly.  I have some theories, but
nothing concrete yet." 

        "Get to it." 

                            -*-

        "Did you do the homework for math?"  Touji asked
Shinji.  Shinji, Touji, and Kensuke were eating lunch
together. 

        "No, I got caught up in this silly wargame with
Asuka.  'The Invasion of Earth'.  By the time I won, we didn't
have time to do all our homework.  Misato got mad at us." 

        "She's got 'The Invasion of Earth'?" 

        "Yeah." 

        Kensuke nearly drooled.  "You've got to let me come
play it some time!  I started learning German because I got
sick of waiting for someone to translate it into Japanese!" 

        "It's not mine; you have to ask Asuka,"  Shinji
said, then shoveled rice into his mouth. 

        He ran across the yard and fell to his knees before
Asuka and Hikari, who were eating lunch together.  "You have
to let me come play Invasion of Earth with you!  I'll do
anything!" 

        Hikari said, "Get a grip!  You look like an idiot!" 

        Touji nodded.  "She's right, you know." 

        Asuka laughed.  "Sure.  I'd be happy to." 

        "Woo woo!  I'm in heaven!" 
          
                            -*-

        Shinji answered the door.  "Hi, Kensuke.  Here to
play with Asuka?" 

        "Sounds kinky,"  Misato said from the living room. 

        Kensuke, who was standing next to Touji, laughed. 
"Something like that." 

        Shinji let them in, then yelled for Asuka.  "Hey,
Asuka, Kensuke's here for the game." 

        Asuka came running out with the box.  "I won't lose
this time." 

        "Shinji really beat you?  I thought he made that
up,"  Kensuke said, grinning. 

        "Hey!"  Shinji exclaimed.  "I did win!" 

        "The dice cheated in his favor, so I exiled them and
got some more from another one of my wargames,"  Asuka said,
putting the game down on the table.  "You don't need this
for homework, do you, Shinji?" 

        "I'm going to practice my cello, so no, I don't need
it." 

        "You play music?"  Touji asked.  "Can you play 'Fly
Me to the Moon'?" 

        Shinji blinked.  "Who composed that?" 

        "Umm...Frank Sinatra?" 

        "I don't know any non-classical music.  I suppose I
could try to fake it if you hum it, but..." 

        This soon proved to be a mistake. 

                            -*-

        A little while later, Touji was watching TV with
Misato, while Shinji continued practicing a cello piece he
actually knew.  After the fifth mangled version of Fly Me to
the Moon, Misato had threatened to throw the cello to the
moon.  Kensuke, the defender of Earth, was hard at work
trying to fight off Asuka's alien hordes.  He wasn't doing
too well.  Asuka was only gloating a little. 

        Then the doorbell rang.  "Go get it, Touji,"  Misato
said.  "I have to make sure I don't miss when these two
people kiss." 

        It was Kaji and Ritsuko.  Kaji blinked.  "Is this
Misato-chan's place?" 

        "Yeah.  Uh...come on in."  Touji preceded them into
the living room.  "There's some...hey, you two were at the
docks, right?" 

        Ritsuko nodded.  "And you're Shinji's friend Touji. 
I'm Dr.  Akagi Ritsuko.  Nice to meet you." 

        "You can just call me Kaji,"  Kaji said. 

        Asuka spun in her chair.  "Kaji!"  She ran over to
him and glomped onto an arm.  He looked faintly embarrassed. 

        Ritsuko simply smiled, while Misato snorted. 
"Stray cat follow you home, Ritsuko?" 

        Kaji looked over at the table.  "Ahh, 'The Invasion
of Earth'.  A fun game.  It's hard for the humans to win,
though.  Not very realistic." 

        Misato snorted again.  "Oh, you think it would be
easy to throw off an assault by vast alien hordes?  Going to
criticize my..." 

        He shook his head and went over, hovering over
Kensuke.  "Any aliens capable of travelling here in vast
numbers would have technology that would make N2 bombs look
like cherry bombs.  And they'd probably have the resources
of dozens of worlds.  It would be like Monaco versus Russia
in a war to the death.  Still, it is a fun game.  The trick
is to build up your biotechnology so you can plague the
aliens to death." 

        "Thanks!" Kensuke said. 

        "Hey, whose side are you on?"  Asuka fumed. 

        He put a hand over his heart.  "I am but a humble
knight who fights in the defense of humanity, as are we all
here in Tokyo-3.  I live for nothing less than to give my
life for the three fair princesses gathered here." 

        Ritsuko laughed heartily, while Asuka blushed and
Misato rolled her eyes.  "Mind if I grab one of your beers,
Misato?"  Ritsuko asked. 

        "Go right ahead.  Heck, get everyone a beer.  Even
Shinji." 

        "Hey, I don't drink!"  Shinji said.  "And even if I
did, I can't drink and play the cello at the same time." 

        "Touji can help you." 

        "Only if I get one for myself." 

        "Naturally." 

        Touji rubbed his hands together.  "Okay, Shinji,
time to get you hammered." 

        The doorbell rang again.  Touji got it again.  It
was Maya and Makoto, and hovering behind them, Rei. 
"Hello?" he asked, since he didn't know either of the first
two, and didn't notice Rei immediately. 

        "Hi!"  Maya said.  "We heard there was a party over
here." 

        He blinked.  "What, did you get a psychic message?" 

        "Kaji told us." 

        "Right.  Come on in." 

        Rei trailed a few feet behind the other two.  Makoto
made a beeline over to Misato, while Maya went over to
Ritsuko.  "Hi, commander.  Up for a poker game?" 

        "Sure!  I'll crush you both and get my money back I
lost to...hey, Shinji, lose the cello.  It's time for me to
win back your big hoard of money." 

        "Uhh..." 

        "We're going to teach Rei to play poker,"  Maya
said.  "I think she'll be a natural." 

        Rei didn't look so certain as she frowned slightly. 
"Perhaps." 

        "Do you have any money to bet with?"  Misato asked. 
Rei shook her head.  "Shinji, loan her a stake." 

        "Hey!" 

        "Can I play?"  Asuka asked, clinging to Kaji's arm
again. 

        "Hey!  I haven't crushed you yet!"  Kensuke said. 

        "Why don't you devastate the poor pathetic
Earthlings first, then you can join in,"  Kaji suggested. 

        Asuka nodded, and went to the table.  "Prepare to
be annihilated." 
    
                            -*-

        An hour later, she and Kensuke were still going at
it, while most of the others were descending into a drunken
haze.  Shinji and Rei had most of the chips between them for
two reasons.  One, they were the only completely sober
players.  Secondly, Rei had the ultimate poker face. 

        Misato sobbed.  "My pair of threes should have
taken that!" 

        Maya nodded.  "You're evil, Kaji." 

        After taking a swig of another beer, he stared at
her.  "Me?  Rei's the one who won that round!" 

        "You bluffed me." 

        "I folded the second I saw my cards!" 

        "Yeah, so I thought it meant I had to get lucky
this time." 

        Shinji sighed.  "We really shouldn't play when
you're all drunk." 

        Ritsuko waggled a finger at him.  "Pish posh.  I'm
not half as drunk as Misato." 

        "I'm not half as think as you drunk I am!"  Misato
shouted, then fumbled with her cards.  "Has anyone got a six
higher than a spade?" 

        "This isn't go fish,"  Ritsuko said.  "And it
definitely is not...I'd better not remind you of that." 

        "Of what?" 

        Kaji groaned.  "Not the strip go fish game." 

        "Woo!  That was fun!  Yeah, let's play that!" 

        "Let's not,"  Shinji said. 

        "Do it!"  Touji shouted, his face red from a little
too much beer. 

        "Not with the kids watching,"  Kaji said. 

        "Awww,"  Makoto said.  "Let's put them to bed,
then." 

        "That's it!  All Children must go to bed together,
now!" 

        Asuka and Kensuke watched as the drunken adults
herded Shinji, Touji and Rei off to Shinji's bedroom, then
started having a loud fight over whether or not to play
strip go fish.  Kensuke whispered, "I wonder if we'll ever
go mad like they have." 

        "Hey!  We missed two!"  Misato said.  "Kaji, put
them with the others." 

        They were soon herded into Shinji's room.  Touji
had passed out just a few seconds earlier.  Shinji said,
"I'm glad this doesn't happen every night." 

        "I sure hope not."  Asuka sighed.  "Maybe tomorrow
we can finish the game, Kensuke." 

        "I think I'd better go home."  He forced Touji to
mostly wake up.  "Have a good night," he said, dragging off
the half-conscious Touji, which wasn't easy. 

        This left the three Children staring at each other. 
"So you play cello, Shinji?"  Asuka asked.  "I play violin. 
How about you?" she asked Rei.

        "Violin,"  Rei said. 

        "We should play together some time,"  Asuka said. 

        "That's what Maya was saying to me,"  Shinji said. 
"Do you need someone to walk you home, Rei?" 

        "Maya wants me to stay until she leaves." 

        Shinji blinked.  "Oh, she lives by you?" 

        "Yes.  Two doors down." 

        "Oh, right.  Uh, so...what are we going to do?"  He
thought for a moment.  "So what did Father ask you about?" 
It made her pretty mad, whatever it was. 

        "Your dad's pretty pissed off at how my first fight
came off,"  she said, thumping the wall with her fist. 

        "He is?"  Shinji asked.  "But you won." 

        "He wanted me to capture the damn thing!  But we're
here to kill those monsters!  You can't hold one of those
things captive."  She clenched her fist in anger.  "I don't
care what he says, I did what I had to!  I couldn't capture
the damn thing with only one hand anyway!" 

        Shinji backed away from her.  "I'm sure you
did...what you had to.  Father holds everyone to a very high
standard." 

        "He went on and on about how..."  She ground her
teeth.  "Damn it, I've been training since age five to pilot
EVA!  This is why I'm alive!  He can't take that away from
me!" 

        "He threatened to fire you?" 

        She punched a hole in the wall, which wasn't hard,
given it was flimsy drywall.  "If something like that
happened again, yes.  But he can't replace me!" 

        "Well, he could get another pilot, I'd think." 
Shinji said. 

        She shook her head, then got a wicked grin.  "He
yelled at me for knowing this, but I think we all have a
right to know.  We're the only three people who've survived
the first time they tried to pilot an Eva, and they've tried
dozens, maybe hundreds." 

        Shinji's eyes widened.  "They WHAT?" 

        "Dr. Himmelfarb told me about it.  Most people
don't actually die, they just go mad, but..." 

        "No one told ME anything about that!" 

        "Some just fail," said Rei.

        Asuka blinked.  "I thought everyone who tried either
succeeded, died, or went mad."

        "Dr. Akagi and Commander Ikari did not die," replied
Rei, calm and icy as ever.

        Maybe Rei did go mad slightly, Asuka speculated. 
Maybe she wasn't always like that.  "They tried it?" 
Wait...Rei knows? 

        "Long ago."  Rei's red eyes unfocused slightly. 
"Years."

        "I could have died!  They said it was safe!" 

        He didn't tell his own son, but he told Rei? Asuka
thought.  Or maybe someone else told her...or she may have
just seen it, since she lived here.  Or maybe he just wanted
an excuse to yell at me.  Bastard. 

        "It was an emergency," Rei said. 

        "I..."  He sighed and sank in on himself.  "Well, I
guess I did live, so...Did Misato ever try it?" 

        "Don't know,"  Rei said. 

        The door opened and Misato stuck her head in. 
"Shinji!  C'mere, you gotta give me a loan.  I'm wiped out." 

        It soon became obvious that most of them were wiped
out, in one sense or another. 
         
                            -*-

        When dawn cast the first rays of light into
Misato's living room, it looked like the aftermath of some
sort of gas attack, unconscious but still breathing bodies
strewn everywhere.  Rei was the first to arise and bathe,
and by the time she came out to the living room, she saw
Kaji was up.

        "Hello, Rei." 

        "Hello." 

        The microwave dinged and he extracted two boxes of
ramen, passing one to her.  "Breakfast for you.  Then you'll
have to help me wake everyone up." 

        "It's Saturday." 

        He grinned.  "I know.  We've got a wargame
scheduled.  This is a perfect test...the Angels won't
necessarily wait for a day when we're all at our best to
attack." 

        She sat down with the ramen.  "True." 

                            -*-

        About a half hour later, the three Children rode
together in the elevator that always took them to where they
would enter their plugs.  Rei was watching the floors go by,
while Shinji gathered his thoughts and Asuka fidgeted.  "So
how do these things usually go?" she asked. 

        "We haven't done a wargame before," he said. 

        "I just wish we were going out to do battle for
real," Asuka said.  "I feel like a knight suiting up for
combat.  The red knight for my red Eva.  Emperor Frederick
Barbarossa risen once more."

        Shinji blinked.  Red knight...That must be why I
dreamed about a red knight.  "I suppose I'd be the purple
knight, then." 

        "It's the color of royalty. Since you're the King's
son, after all."  She laughed.  "Prince Shinji, son of Bad
King Gendo." 

        Shinji shivered.  He didn't want to be the King's
son.  Not after the dream he had had. 

        "And Rei...blue...blue...A princess from the kingdom
beneath the sea." 

        Shinji wasn't sure why, but it seemed very
appropriate.

                            -*-

        Shortly afterwards, the children were ready for the
wargame.  Kaji stood on the bridge by Misato and Ritsuko and
the rest of the staff.  "Operation Sleigh Ride will now
begin."  Kaji paused for Misato to laugh.  "The backpacks
attached to your EVAs will enable you to operate for up to
thirty minutes, possibly more if you conserve energy,
without the power cord.  Your next mission, once you're
ready for it, will likely involve operation in the
wilderness, away from any ready source of power." 

        He gestured and Makoto punched up the operational
map onto a large screen.  "This is the forest near Tokyo-3. 
We've rigged a mobile radio transmitter.  Your job is to
track it and catch it before your power supply runs out. 
Once we complete this first test, we're then going to do a
game of 'tag' once the power packs recharge.  This should
simulate hunting an opponent more effectively, since any
real foe will be rather larger than the mobile transmitter. 
Misato, you're in charge.  Turn loose the hounds."  He
grinned and stepped aside. 

        "Alright, let's get this show on the road." 

                            -*-

        Five minutes into the forest, they hadn't seen hide
nor hair of anything that might have been the transmitter,
although the directional display in the lower left corner of
the vision of each EVA indicated they were still moving
towards it.  "So what does this thing look like anyway?" 
Asuka asked, batting away branches which got in her way. 

        "It's strapped to a motorbike,"  Misato said. 

        Asuka frowned.  "How're we supposed to spot a
motorbike with our heads stuck in the treetops?" 

        "It wouldn't be much of a test if it was easy, now
would it?"  Misato said.  "Shinji, report." 

        The trio had split up somewhat to triangulate;
their positions could be seen at the bridge on the big area
map.  Shinji was several hundred yards west of Asuka, while
Rei was several hundred yards east of her.  "I'm still
reading north by northeast."  Then a few white flakes
drifted down from the sky past him.  He looked up and saw
clouds where there had been blue sky minutes before.  More
flakes began to drift down.  "What the..." 

        "What is it?" 

        "Snow,"  Asuka and Shinji said in unison. 

        "What about you, Rei?" 

        "The clouds are unnatural in appearance; the snow
should not exist." 

        "But you see it?"  Misato asked. 

        "The temperature outside my EVA is too warm for
snow, but my sensors are showing it,"  Rei's voice was calm. 
"I believe something is sabotaging my visual sensors." 

        Shinji said, "How can you tell what the temperature
is?" 

        "Sensor display 2,"  Rei said. 

        The snow, or whatever it was, was getting more
intense, though visibility was still good.  Shinji now
noticed it was vanishing as soon as it hit the ground. 
"This is seriously weird." 

        "It's part of the test,"  Misato said, glancing
over at Kaji.  "You'll likely have to hunt your next target
through a snowstorm." 

        "The snow is simulated by Magi and fed into your
visual perceptions the same way your sensor displays and
other things not really being seen by your EVA is."  Kaji
said.  "Originally, I planned to simulate the Angel as well,
but it ate up too much of MAGI's processing capacity.  If we
can refine the code, we may do that eventually." 

        "Is this crater being simulated too?"  Asuka
asked as she stepped between two trees to the edge of
multiple overlapping holes in the ground, some of which were
full of bits of charred wood, rock, and metal.  There was a
tire stuck up in a tree by her head, the word 'Goodyear'
still visible. 

        Misato blinked.  "Crater?" 

        "There's a bunch of craters, some rubble, bits of metal..." 
Unit02 bent over and picked up a bumper.  "Most of the
license plate on this is gone, but I can read the bumper
sticker, 'Boldly Going Where No One Has Gone Before'. 
Someone bombed a Star Trek fan, it looks like." 

        "It's not important for this,"  Misato said. 
"Keep going."  She turned to Kaji.  "What the...oh, ah." 
She turned back to the screen, leaving him to boggle for
once.  "Keep going." 

        Shinji said, "It's getting hard to see through all
this white stuff." 

        "Snow is like that, you know,"  Misato said
impatiently.  "Rei, report." 

        "Target is north by northwest, northwest by west, 10
degrees north of west...5 degrees." 

        "Asuka, it should be coming right at you!"  Misato
said.  "Shinji, move east." 

        Asuka looked around.  "I don't see anything."  It
was getting harder to see through the 'snow', but she kept
staring.  "It's moving around...trying to go between me and
Rei, I think.  Rei, come west!'

        She moved to intercept, as did Rei.  Several trees
got plowed under as they sped up.  Shinji circled around as
best he could.  Continued reports of shifting directions
came in, and finally, Rei and Asuka charged right at it, as
they finally caught sight of the man on a motorcycle with
the transmitter.  He paused, caught like a deer in
headlights. 

        "Rei, watch and wait, Asuka, close in."  Misato
commanded. 

        Asuka closed in and the man turned and drove right
at Rei.  Unit00 dropped to one knee to go for a grab while
Unit02 chased him towards her.  Then at the last moment, he
suddenly turned and roared north, leaving Unit02 to crash
into Unit00, unable to stop in time.  They both went
tumbling through the trees, knocking a gash in the
undergrowth. 

        Misato sighed.  "Shinji, start moving north.  Rei,
move north by northeast.  Asuka, go straight after him." 

                            -*-

        Two more near-misses ended with the three of them
herding the NERV motorcycle man into a small clearing with
the EVAs closing in.  With 3:20 still on the timer, Unit00
successfully grabbed the cycle.  "Mission complete." 

        "We did it!"  Asuka said.  "Chasing that thing was
like trying to catch a cockroach without killing it." 

        "Don't pat yourself on the back too soon,"  Kaji
said.  "You have completed the mission.  But can you get
back to Tokyo-3 before your power gives out?" 

        Shinji groaned and had his EVA do a quick
calculation.  "No.  If we run, we'll burn power faster.  If
we walk, we won't make it." 

        "The EVAs have a five minute internal supply," 
Asuka said.  "With that, we can make it." 

        "Very good,"  Kaji said.  "Likely during the real
operation, you'll have to power down to just life support
after you make the kill on the next Angel until we can find
you and bring a backup pack." 

        "How are we going to get out to the middle of the
wilderness on only thirty minutes power?"  Shinji asked. 

        "We'll fly you in and airdrop you.  Risky, but it
will be necessary,"  Misato said.  "I'm still planning the
operation.  Anyway, return to base while you still can." 

                            -*-

        "Report, Commander Katsuragi,"  Gendo said.  He,
Misato, Kaji, Ritsuko, and Fuyuutsuki were seated around a
small conference table. 

        "The battery packs performed as expected, the
Children worked well as a team under my guidance, although
given the minimal danger of the exercise, I can't make any
promises for a real combat situation."  Misato passed a
report across the table to Gendo. 

        "Any trouble from the second Child?"  Gendo asked. 

        "She performed adequately, obeying all orders to the
best of her ability." 

        "Good.  Dr. Akagi?" 

        "Maya is continuing to refine the 'snow' code.  We
hope to eventually be able to simulate almost any
environment in order to facilitate such exercises in the 
future. The battery power caused no physiological problems 
to the EVAs.  While not an ideal replacement for the S^2 
engines still in development, I believe the packs will 
function quite well.  We have one down in sector 8 which 
we're exposing to extremes of cold to make sure it won't do
anything surprising."

        "Inspector Kaji?" 

        "Until the Angel simulation code is ready, this is
likely as good a field exercise as we can manage.  The fact
that the battery packs take so long to recharge prevented
carrying out the second exercise; I'd tend to recommend
having several backups available during an extended
operation.  They could be parachuted in, thus enabling the
Children to carry on a several hour long operation, and
making it easier to get them back to civilization
afterwards." 

        Gendo nodded.  "Fuyuutsuki?" 

        "The inspector's recommendation is within our
budgetary limits.  And I've received visual confirmation of
the next Angel near Hudson's Bay." 

        "Commander Katsuragi, draw up a plan of operations
immediately.  The instant we get enough battery packs, I
want to move out against our next target." 

        "Yes, sir." 

                            -*-
                      - end part 5 -
                            -*-