~*~ The team of divers made little noise as they swam through the ruins of a once-great city. Millions had once lived here; now it was home only to fish. Crack diver Eiko Kappabungi led the team, who followed her directions despite not being sure what they were looking for or why they had come. The harpoon guns they carried indicated there was likely to be danger, although the only real danger was smacking into a rock in the dark as far as most of them could tell. "Johnson, Taka, you go that way." Eiko pointed to the left entrance of the huge sprawling building they were about to enter. Once it had reached to the sky, dozens of stories tall; now it couldn't even break the surface of the water far above. "Anderson, Hino, circle around to the back. Rippongi, you come with me around to the right." They all nodded and split up, one diver in each pair carrying a substantial lamp, most of them wondering why they had to split up to enter an abandoned building. They wouldn't say anything, though. Eiko had a sharp tongue. Eiko and Rippongi were still poking around the foyer when Taka came on the radio. "Kappabungi-san, we've found a huge well. And...uh...You're going to have to see this." Eiko and Rippongi quickly swam down the long hallway to the grand central chamber of the building. It would have been impressive, once upon a time, carved of marble, basalt, and onyx, the walls covered with reliefs and squiggly letters. The ceiling was about four stories above the floor, a great dome studded with gems which sparkled in the light of the flashlights the divers used. They could only see pieces of the room; it was too big for their lights to illuminate more than bits of it at a time. And in the center, there was a great well, a shaft sinking into the darkness. The water was warmer around the well; they could feel a gentle current running away from it. Reliefs in the floor showed people being hurled into the well by ceremonially dressed priests who wore tentacled headdresses and a contorted, inhuman mask. Bits of yellow paint still clung to the masks, and a band of purple stone ringed the well for six feet. Anderson looked up at the ceiling. "Everything's so...it's too clean. It's like this place sunk yesterday. There's broken stuff everywhere, but nothing is worn or covered with barnacles or...anything. But of course, this is the really weird thing." She shone her lamp upon a statue made of limestone or some other sort of greenish rock. It was kneeling at the edge of the pit, gazing down, a look of horror upon its amphibian face, for it looked like a strange cross between a fish, a frog, and a man, for its hands and feet were webbed, its head fishlike, with bulging eyes and a receding, hairless brow, its flesh carved cunningly in the likeness of scales. Yet its form was clearly human, bipedal and proportioned much like any man. "Strange, eh?" "Yes," Eiko said. "Perhaps one of their gods." Anderson nodded. "I thought that at first. The legends do claim some contact with fish-gods, but...look closer." The light flashed on the creature's wrist. Not only could they see the watch it was wearing, they could read 'Timex' on it. "I'd almost think this was all some sort of fraud, but...what sort of conman would build a giant underwater temple in the middle of the Pacific? And then make a mistake like that?" Taka was carrying a box whose purpose he didn't know, other than the fact that it beeped periodically. He was being paid enough that he didn't care that he didn't know. NERV seemed to be big on giving orders and not explaining them. He just hoped it wasn't a geiger counter, especially now that it was beeping louder and faster. "The box is having a fit," he said. "Take it closer to the pit," Eiko said. The box had a louder and longer fit. Taka frowned. "I don't like this." Hino nodded. "This place gives me the creeps, although the night sky ceiling is kinda neat." "The what?" Taka asked. "The gems are all laid out where various stars are," Hino said. "It's a star chart." She took Anderson's lamp. "There's Polaris. Algol. Aldebaran. Betelgeuse. Sirius. Fomalhaut." The light jerked about, illuminating various 'stars'. "There's the Big Dipper, Orion, Gemini...I'd guess this shows the sky in a few months; some of these stars won't be visible much at night until fall. Especially Fomalhaut. I'm gonna take some photos...now I'm curious. Gimme the camera, Johnson." Johnson didn't answer; in fact, he had moved out of the light range of everyone else. Then his head drifted into the light of Rippongi's flashlight, neatly severed at the neck. For a moment, they all stared, then Rippongi and Anderson both brought their lamps around to see what had happened. The last transmission from the expedition was the sound of screaming. ~*~ John Biles & Rod M. Present A Neon Genesis Evangelion Elseworlds Children of an Elder God Part 8 Under the Sea ~*~
~*~ "Ready for your checkup, Rei?" Maya asked pleasantly. Rei nodded, then stripped out of her clothes and laid down on the examination table. Slowly, methodically, mechanical arms holding a dazzling set of sensor arrays moved over her body. Screens running along the wall came to life, streaming with data on her body chemistry, brainwave activity, and dozens of other details about Ayanami's body that an untrained eye would find totally undecipherable. "How's things going in school?" asked Maya, punching a few buttons and flipping through charts as she did so. "Everything okay?" Rei nodded. "And are things going well with Shinji?" Something unexpected happened. The sensors all beeped, not loud alarms, just beeps, signifying a change in Rei's body chemistry. Her body temperature was slightly warmer, and there was an increase in her blood pressure and respiration. Rei frowned, looking unsure, and averted her eyes from Ibuki's. Maya looked at the screens, then scribbled a quick note in her notepad. "Rei, what's wrong?" "Langley," she replied quietly. "Asuka? What about her?" "She was with Ikari." "With Shinji?" Rei nodded. "What do you mean, 'with Ikari'?" asked Maya. "They weren't..." "Ibuki-san," said Rei evenly, "I want to kill her." -*- "Sit down, Langely," Gendo said, pointing to a chair. Asuka sat down, frowning. "Am I going to be chewed out again?" "I want you to teach Shinji about controlling his dreams." Asuka blinked. "You do?" "Since the two of you live together, you are the ideal teacher. And I understand he is having recurring nightmares." "Yeah. Sure I'll teach him. I'm just...Anything else?" "That's all. You have one month. Possibly less." Asuka frowned. "Is something going to happen in a month?" "He must learn quickly, and some of our intelligence indicates one of the Angels may be able to influence dreams. Rei has the training to defend herself, but Shinji..." "Would crumple. I'll do my best." "You have one month, then I'll call in someone who can do a better job if you can't handle it." "I CAN handle it," Asuka said. "We shall see. Dismissed." Asuka got up and left. Gendo watched her go, then smiled faintly. That would light a fire under her feet. ~*~ "You're going to what?" Shinji said, sitting on his futon. Asuka leaned against the doorway. "I'm going to teach you to control your dreams. You need to learn." "Is this some hypnosis thing?" "No, just some mental techniques. It's easy, and you'll sleep better and have more interesting dreams." "My dreams are already too interesting." She came over and sat down. "Okay, let's get started." "Hey, I..." She gave him a look. "Okay, okay, I'll try it." ~*~ He was on the train. Again. The maglev zoomed through the Japanese countryside. Shinji did his best to do what Asuka had told him. Focus on the image of a mountain until it appears in the dream. So he had chosen to think about Mount Fuji. He could see mountains out the window, but they weren't the right mountains. He concentrated harder, doing his best to remember what Fuji looked like. The train zoomed around a mountain, turning towards the sea, whipping about so fast he nearly fell out of his seat. As it was, it turned him around and he looked out the other window. There was Fuji, looking lost in the middle of the plain. The train turned again and pulled into a station at its base. Shinji blinked. The train never, ever stopped before. He got up, went to the door, and looked out. A road led up the mountain. He thought about it and realized Asuka hadn't told him what to do if the mountain actually showed up. Climb it, he guessed, so he got off the train, which pulled away. I wonder if there's a yogi who will tell me the secret of life at the top, he thought as he started to walk up the gently sloping cobblestone road. Probably he'll just ask me how many licks to get to the center of a tootsie-pop or something. The road seemed endless; while it was an easy slope spiraling up the mountain, it was also incredibly long. Several times he passed steeper staircases and ladders cut into the sides of the mountain, but he ignored them, not feeling like going the hard way. The easy way, however, was also proving to be the slow way. He had circled the mountain at least eight times, but he still hadn't reached the top. He looked back down the mountain at the train station. It would be easier to go back down, get on the train, and leave, then even to keep going up this road. But then Asuka would laugh at him...she probably would be climbing the sheer cliff face right now, just for fun, he thought. He didn't want her to laugh at him. I'll be here all night going this way, though, he thought. With a sigh, he turned to the nearby steep staircase and began to make his way up it. Soon, he was sweating; the steps were huge, the angle was steep, and the sun had become relentless. But he was making much better time. Once he reached a high ledge, he sat down to rest. "I didn't think a staircase could be so hard to climb." He sat for a while, looking out across the countryside. Rice fields, forest, hills, and a long beach bordering the Pacific Ocean stretched out north and south to the east of him. The train track wended its snakey way through the countryside, though there were no buildings, no towns, and no human habitation. Beautiful solitude, with only the animals, the wind, the sun, and the long shadows of the western mountains cast across the land as the sun sank. As it sank. It was going to be dark soon, Shinji realized. Climbing the mountain in the dark would be dangerous, even just going up a staircase. He then realized two things. The staircase down had vanished. The staircase up was fading away as the light faded. He hesitated, uncertain whether to run up the fading stairs or stay on the ledge. Shinji hesitated and was lost. Within seconds, both staircases were gone, and he was stranded. I'm stuck, he thought. They'll have to send a helicopter to...wait, I'm only dreaming. I can just wake up. He closed his eyes and concentrated on being back in his bed. A few seconds later, he was back in bed, staring up at the ceiling. I did it, he thought. I got to the mountain! He jumped up, ran out into the hallway, threw Asuka's door open and shouted, "I did it!" Asuka, sprawled out on her futon with a stuffed cat on her face, sat up groggily. "Whu?" "I got to the mountain!" She stared at him. "Good job, Mohammed. Now let me sleep." She flopped back onto her pillow. "We can talk about it in the morning." Shinji went back to bed and slept peacefully. ~*~ "You made it partway up the mountain?" Asuka asked during breakfast. "Yeah," Shinji said. "Is that good?" "That's great!" I didn't even have to tell him, she thought. Showing some initiative for once. "You have to climb the mountain to the top. Once you do that, you'll be ready for the next step." If I can remember the next step, she thought. I hope I'm doing this right. "When you get to the top, ask the old man if he knows any good auto body repairmen," Misato said. "I need to get rid of some dents." Shinji laughed. "I have to find out how to get you to do your chores first." "Hey! I do my share of the work!" "If you define 'share' as 'nothing'," Asuka said. "Can you go shopping today? I made a list of stuff we need." "No problem. I have to go pick up some stuff," Misato said. "I have a little surprise for you tomorrow afternoon." She winked. "Ooh...I have to remember to watch the Shark Attack Hour on the Discovery Channel tomorrow...Helga is going to be on it!" Asuka smiled excitedly. "I ought to tape it." "Who?" Shinji asked. "She's a marine biologist from NERV-Germany. They filmed this a few weeks before I left; I've been wanting to see it." "Why was NERV employing a marine biologist?" Shinji asked. "She was helping develop equipment for EVAs to operate underwater. In fact, I think she was trying to build one with gills or some such weird thing." Asuka shrugged. "She had a great aquarium." ~*~ Shinji brought the mail up to the apartment when he and Asuka got home from school. They quickly sorted it. Asuka had a letter from Anna and junk mail from a credit card company, which she quickly tossed out, laughing. Misato had a large pile of junk mail and bills. Shinji had a single purple envelope with no return address. His name was typed onto the envelope. "Weird." He tore it open and found a greeting card. It showed two children playing in the rain on the front. The printed message inside stated, 'Thinking of you on a rainy day.' Shinji blinked. It hadn't rained in a week. In addition to the printed message, someone had composed a message by cutting out letters from magazines and gluing them into the letter. They spelled out a haiku. 'Here is rain for you. You make me feel these things Do you feel them too? A Secret Admirer.' Shinji stared at the card. What the...here is rain? Why would I want rain? Feel WHAT things? Is this a love letter or a missive from a lunatic? "Is it biting you?" Asuka asked. "Eh?" She got up and came around. "You're staring at it like it's going to...ooh, a love card!" She grabbed it. "Haiku. Here is rain for you? Is this some culture thing foreigners can't get?" He tried and failed to grab it. "I don't know!" "Oooh, a secret admirer! That's so romantic!" Misato surprised them both by stepping out of the hallway and saying, "Shinji's got a secret admirer?" "Yeah!" Asuka handed Misato the letter, holding Shinji at arm's length. "You're a lucky guy, Shinji!" She read the poem. "Hmm. This reads like something Shinji would write. Did you send this to yourself?" "NO!!!!" He tried and failed again to get the card back. "I'll take it around and see if I can get a confession for you, okay, Shinji?" Asuka asked, grinning. He sighed. "Whatever." She waggled a finger. "Now, Shinji, it's no fun if you give up." "You've got a weird idea of fun." ~*~ "That's MY chair!" Asuka said, pointing at the recliner, which Touji had snagged for himself. It was the only nice chair in the entire apartment. "Ain't got your name on it," he sneered. "Touji! She had it first!" Hikari said from the chair next to it. The taping had turned into a 'Shark Attack' party, and Hikari, Touji, and Kensuke had joined Asuka and Shinji. Misato was in her room, fiddling with something she wouldn't let them see which she had picked up the previous day. Asuka looked over at Shinji. "Tell your friend the moron to get out of the chair!" "Umm...she was... er... there first," Shinji said, with enough authority to not make an impression on Touji. "It ain't gonna kill her to sit on a wooden one!" Touji said. "And my feet hurt, so I need to put 'em up." "The show's starting!" Kensuke said. "Sit down and be quiet so I can hear!" Asuka fumed and sat down. "Thug." The show soon started, and soon images of people getting mauled and chased by sharks took control of the TV. Shinji asked himself why he was watching this and failed to get an answer. Kensuke and Touji started cheering the sharks on. "Be quiet!" Asuka shouted. "Hey, I can't understand their English...they're talking too fast," Touji said. "Nothing to do but cheer on the sharks." "I'm getting a beer. Anyone else want one?" Kensuke asked. "You shouldn't drink up Katsuragi-san's beer!" Hikari said. "She doesn't mind," he replied, getting up. He then frozen in place. "Uh..." "You're blocking the TV," Shinji said. "She..." Kensuke gaped and pointed. Everyone turned around and saw Rei standing there, wearing a wetsuit and carrying some diving gear. Hikari said, "Going swimming?" Misato stepped out of the hallway, also wearing a wetsuit. Kensuke and Touji stared, as did Shinji, though not so blatantly. She laughed and struck a magazine-style pose, then laughed some more. "The Children and I are going diving. The rest of you want to come along?" "We're going diving?" Shinji said. Images of shark attacks danced in his head. "I've never been diving." "It's easy to learn," Misato said. "And since you're going down underwater for your next mission, you need to know how. Although doing it in an EVA won't be exactly the same, it's a good way to start learning." "Sure!" Touji said. "I'd take up skydiving if you were going to do it wearing that!" Hikari promptly thwapped him in the head. Asuka snorted. "Ready for service, Captain!" Kensuke said, saluting. "I bet a shark will bite you," Hikari said. "No way," Kensuke said. "I'm too cool for a shark." "C'mon, Asuka, Shinji. We'd best make sure these wetsuits fit...The rest of you too." Asuka and Shinji went with her, leaving the others to bicker about who would be eaten first. ~*~
~*~ The NERV van pulled up to the beach. It had been a fairly lengthy drive, farther than the kids had thought would be needed. They were just south of the ruins of Tokyo; someone had set up a tent pavilion here, and two more NERV vans were parked here. It soon became obvious why. Maya and Ritsuko were here, fiddling with some equipment set up on a table. Maya was wearing a yellow one piece bathing suit with an incongruous labcoat over it, although the fact that Ritsuko had done the same thing with a blue bathing suit and labcoat made it look a little less odd. Kaji was stretched out, shirtless, on a beach chair, next to Shigeru Aoba, who was playing a catchy pop tune on his guitar. A fishing pole and a tackle box lay in the sand next to Kaji. Makoto was wearing a wetsuit; he was sprawled out next to Shigeru, half- asleep with a newspaper over his face. Asuka blinked. "Is this the NERV bridge beach party or something?" Misato blinked as well. "Makoto." He didn't answer. "MAKOTO!" He started up, snagged his leg, fell over and ended up in the sand, face down. Finally, he got up. "When I mentioned we were going diving..." "I thought it would be a good idea to have a party, since we all have the day off," Shigeru said. "And Maya and Akagi-san needed to test some equipment anyway, so..." Asuka zoomed over to Kaji. "You'll be my diving buddy, won't you?" "Sorry, liebchen," he said. "I have a hard enough time swimming in a pool. But I have an extra reel in the car if you want to go fishing with me when you're done." "Sure!" Hikari looked faintly disgruntled. "So much for..." She turned to Touji. "Want to be my diving buddy?" He blinked. "Who, me?" "No, the evil kappa behind you. Yes, you." Touji scratched his head. "Uh, sure." "Hey, what about ME?" Asuka frowned at Hikari. "You can...," Shinji began. "And Rei and Asuka will be partners," Misato said. Maya twitched faintly. "I think you should partner Rei with Shinji and Asuka with Kensuke. Keep them in...ummm...balance." Ritsuko looked over at Maya, amused. "They're not a math equation." Makoto came over to Misato, cleaning the sand off his glasses. "I think Maya's suggestion is good. Shinji needs an experienced partner." "Hey, I've been diving four times!" Kensuke said. "Rei has been learning since she was seven," Makoto said. "She's better than you. And I'll go with Misato so she doesn't drown." "HEY!" "You nearly got yourself caught in that reef last time, you know," he said. "I've got as much experience as YOU do!" Misato said. "And I'm the highest in rank! So there!" He sighed. "Okay, so who do you want as your partner?" "You, of course. We've got to play instructor to all the others. This way none of us is tied down with just one person." Maya laughed, and he shook his head. "You're confusing, Katsuragi-san." "Just agree with what she says, then do what you would do anyway, Makoto," Kaji said. "That's what I always do." "I'll keep that in mind." "Kaji! BE QUIET!" Misato said. The tactical commander of NERV and a NERV inspector were soon demonstrating the fine art of kicking sand at each other. ~*~
~*~ Wait for me!, Shinji thought as he paddled along after Rei. She was zooming about like a fish, completely in her element. He wasn't even sure if she remembered he was alive as she circled about him, darting along the edge of the ruins to the north. The ruins of Tokyo-1 were a little creepy, a reminder of a great failure of humanity, and the loss of millions of lives when it sank in a single night. They were well lit, for the water was shallow, and the buildings far apart here at the fringes. Many of them poked up above the surface. Moving with the tank on his back felt strange, though it wasn't too much of a burden. He wished for a moment that he was a fish, able to swim about with need for tools and fake flippers. Rei would make a good fish, he thought. She darted past him, her red eyes glinting almost cheerily. I guess she really likes swimming, Shinji thought. The pitch black wetsuit accented the pale skin of her face and her blue hair. He found it a very pleasant sight. She circled around, and paused in front of him, then beckoned him to follow her. She began to swim lazily towards one of the buildings, and he followed. ~*~ Makoto wished desperately he could speak underwater. Being able to shout would have helped. The kids had scattered all over, and it was running him ragged trying to keep rounding them up. Misato looked harried as well. I feel like we're the parents on _Six is Sweet_, he thought. He got a mental image of himself and Misato married and living in a nice little house like the one he had grown up in, and he smiled. Sometimes I envy Shinji, getting to live with her, he thought. He watched her waggling a finger at Kensuke, who had been trying to get into one of the buildings, and he laughed. We should have picked a site further away if we'd known they'd all be coming. Still, the Children would have to go into a ruins, so they needed the practice. Kensuke probably had some crazy idea about trying to get Asuka to make out with him. Makoto couldn't blame him; he'd had a few fantasies about doing that with Misato himself on times they had gone diving. At least I've got a chance to show her I'm more responsible than her ex-boyfriend, he thought. Assuming they're still ex. He had seen them kissing, and he wasn't sure what was going on. Maybe I should ask Shinji, he thought. Off in the distance, he spotted Touji going farther out than they had been told to go, so he tapped Misato on the shoulder. She blinked, followed his pointing finger, and nodded. He went after Touji (and Hikari, who Touji was outpacing). ~*~ Asuka frowned slightly. Why do I feel so... uncomfortable? I like to swim. She had a vague feeling of lurking doom, as if the water...didn't like her or something. Which was ludicrous. Kensuke tapped her on the shoulder. She turned, wishing she could talk without drowning. He pointed and she looked. A large school of iridescent fish were swimming in and out of the broken doors and windows of a nearby former store. They were beautiful and apparently quite unafraid of humans. For a few seconds, she and Kensuke simply watched them. The ruins, in Asuka's mind, changed from a haunted place to feeling more like a sort of giant aquarium. She almost expected to see an abandoned diving suit nearby, or to look up and see a giant hand dropping flakes in the water. She grinned and gave Kensuke a thumbs up. ~*~ Kaji sat up and went to his car. "You should be out in the water, Rits-chan. I don't think I've ever seen you be at the beach for more than ten minutes without jumping in." "I have no intention of swimming," Ritsuko said, gazing at the sea with a bit of a longing look, like she was denying herself candy. "Maya and I are here to do work, unlike you. We're just suited up since we'll likely have to get wet." "Playing with that sonar thing again?" Shigeru asked, coming over to look at it. "Something's interfering with it," Maya said, "But yes. We've planted some drones that are going around, testing it. It's called Hypersonar." She glared at the monitor, which kept fuzzing out. "You used to love to swim," Kaji said. "I remember the time you went topless at that one beach." Everyone swiveled and stared at Ritsuko, who caved in on herself slightly. "So did Misato...everyone was like that!" "Sempai! That was daring!" Maya said, smiling. "Better not tell Makoto," Shigeru said. "He'd die because he missed that." Kaji began walking down to the shore with the toy he had gotten out of the car. "This won't interfere with your test, will it?" "I don't think so," Maya said. "In fact, you can use it to help us!" ~*~ It's creepy, looking at all these sunken buildings, Touji thought. He glanced over at Hikari, who was looking at a shop front window. Somehow it survived intact, and some decade and a half old dresses were still standing on mannequins in a store. He shook his head; leave it to a girl to find dresses in a sunken city, he thought. She'll want to try them on next. He looked down the street and saw a shape move through the next intersection. It had been gray with streaks. Somehow familiar... a really BIG fish. Then it circled back, and he recognized it. A shark. He poked Hikari in the shoulder. She turned around, looking irritated, so he grabbed her and started swimming. She would have yelled at him if they could speak. Then she noticed what was following them, and she started swimming as well. No way we can outswim this thing, he thought. We've got to split up or take cover or something, he thought. He pointed to a building, and they swam through the door, then slammed it. Touji was breathing hard. Gotta warn the others somehow, he thought. He waited for the thing to try to ram down the door, bracing himself against the metal. No shark. After a while, he looked out through a crack. No shark. He waved for Hikari to move back, then stuck his head out. No shark. They headed out into the street and looked around. It was gone. They stared at each other, then started heading back towards the beach. A few seconds later, Makoto swum into sight, and a game of underwater charades began. ~*~ Soon, a stream of would-be divers erupted from the water, fleeing up onto the shore. Touji shouted, "Shark! Shark!" Maya giggled. "Uh huh. And a wolf too, I'm sure." Kaji shook his head. "No wolves around here." Shigeru said, "Can't fool us!" He started playing the theme song from Jaws, laughing. More people came out of the water. Misato did a quick head count. "We missed Rei and Shinji!" "Damn it," Makoto said, turning around. "I'll find them." "You stay here, I'll go." "Better I risk my life than you. You're the tactical commander; I'm just your assistant," he said. They stared at each other. Finally, Misato said, "We'll both go. They're my responsibility." He nodded. "Well, if I can't persuade you to stay, then let's go." ~*~ Shinji stared at the kanji painted on the side of the building he and Rei were next to. Some of it had eroded, but he could still read some of it. 'The Yellow Sign rises in place of
. The stars move. The time of has ended. After winter, summer, after summer, winter. All is ' The end of the 'message' was eroded beyond recognition, except for a strange scrawled sigil, an eye of flame in the heart of a five pointed star. Rei had pulled him over to it, but couldn't tell him why. He turned to her questioningly, and she stared at him. Her right hand rested on the sigil, her left drifted freely. Then it came around, and pulled his right hand over to touch it. For a moment, he felt a strange thrill, as if the wall had tried to jolt him. She guided his hand along the contours of the sign. The wall was pitted and eroded, but the sign remained vibrant, and seemed even brighter, somehow, where they had touched it. Just as they were about to trace over the eye, he saw the shark. It was a fair distance away, swimming languidly towards them. He jerked back and pointed. Rei turned and saw the shark and began to swim towards it. Maybe she DOES think she's some undersea princess, he thought. He wanted to run away, but he didn't want to leave Rei to face it alone. He compromised by not moving, placing his hand on the oddly comforting sigil. A few seconds later, Makoto came round the corner, then turned to wave off the way he came. He came over to Shinji, pointed at the shark, then gawked as Rei swam up to it and poked it in the eye. It tried to swim away, and she grabbed it. Misato came around the corner just in time to see Rei swimming towards them, dragging the shark by the tail. It thrashed about, so she stopped and broke its tail. A black fluid leaked out of a rip in it, and began to rise slowly, feathering out into rivulets of dark liquid. Shinji stared at the liquid. It wasn't LCL, it was... Misato stared at the shark, then at Makoto, and they both nodded, then sighed. ~*~ "KAJI, YOU DIE!" Misato stormed out of the water. "Where the hell did you get a mechanical shark, anyway?" "You'd be amazed how much weird stuff is stashed away if you can find the right storage room in NERV," Kaji said, dropping the remote control. "You didn't have to break it." "It could have been hostile," Rei said, dumping it on the beach. "I think it's funny," Asuka said, laughing. "I think we should throw Kaji out in the ocean without his swim trunks," Hikari said. Misato grinned. "Perfect." It was fortunate that Kaji could run quickly. ~*~ Ritsuko and Maya had taken over the beach chairs somewhat later, while most of the assembled company were swimming, except for Asuka who was cooking dinner with help from Shigeru. Pleasant, though unfamiliar smells were drifting towards them. Maya said, "I guess the next step is to build the EVA sized units." "And to field test those. And to build a larger version of the mechanical shark to use as a hunting subject." Ritsuko sniffed the air. "Been a while since I last had sauerkraut." "Is that what I'm smelling?" She looked over at the grill. "Where did Asuka find that thing, anyway?" "Aoba-san brought it. I think he planned to make some okonomiyaki with it, but Asuka had other ideas. Now, how she knew he would bring a grill...don't ask me." Ritsuko shrugged. "I won't complain." "Are you sure you don't want to swim?" "Yes," Ritsuko said. "I don't like brine." Her voice took on a bit of a sharp edge. "And I can swim all I want back at the Geofront anyway." She looked at Touji and Kensuke, who were having a race. "I'd just get in the children's way, anyway." Maya blinked, then frowned. "I knew I had forgotten something." Ritsuko cocked her head. "You have children you forgot about?" Maya laughed, as did Ritsuko. "No, Rei came in for her checkup and..." "She's not starting to degenerate like DAGON subject 32 is she?" Ritsuko frowned. "You should have told me before." Maya shook her head fervently. "No. It's not physical. Not directly. I mean...the machine pretty much told me about part of it, but...She has a crush on Shinji, and she's jealous of Asuka." Ritsuko stared intensely at Maya. "Are you sure?" "She said she wanted to kill Asuka. And the feeling comes on whenever Asuka touches Shinji." Maya frowned. "With most children her age, I would be sure she is exaggerating, but...Rei doesn't exaggerate." "And you didn't tell me this?" Ritsuko fought to keep her voice low. "What did you tell her?" "I forbade her to kill Asuka. And that Shinji would be very unhappy if she did that. So would everyone else. The creepiest part was that she didn't understand why she wanted to kill Asuka. She can't quite understand she has a crush on Shinji." "Are you sure that's it?" "Why else would she care? And just asking about him caused her to have a physical reaction. Of course, it could be that she just doesn't understand her own feelings about Asuka either." "Or it could wreck everything," Ritsuko said. "I wouldn't care if Rei simply hated Asuka, though I'd rather they all like each other. But if Rei has actually reached the point of saying that...This could be disastrous. She's losing her balance." "Well, I think she'd be better off if she wasn't so passive, but...better passive than homicidal." "I will talk to her. I have a few ideas for things that might help. It may simply be jealousy. I hope you're right. Do you have any idea how the boy feels about her?" Maya tapped her cheek thoughtfully. "I don't know for sure, but I think he does like her. Just look at how comfortable he is around her." She pointed out at the playing children. "I think they've all gotten more comfortable with her." "She needs human contact," Ritsuko said. "But it's also dangerous to her, I think. We all have monsters lurking inside us; I fear Rei's may devour her if we handle this poorly." Her voice wobbled slightly. "And if she goes out of control..." "What can I do, Sempai?" "You can start by never forgetting anything this important again." Maya blushed. ~*~ Makoto picked up his mail. Most of it was junk mail, but one letter came in a purple envelope and smelled faintly of lilacs. He blinked and sat down at the table to read it after hanging up his wetsuit in the bathtub to dry. 'Dear Makoto, I have finished the first draft of 'Forbidden Love in NERV', the story I'm writing about a romance between two fictional EVA pilots, inspired by the stories you told me. I will be in Tokyo-3 in a few weeks; I'd like to drop you off a copy to look at. I need help making the action scenes more realistic; I don't know much about how things operate. Or at least so they SEEM realistic. Most people don't know much about how you run things either. How are things going with you and Misato? I suggest you start a secret admirer type thing if you haven't made any progress. See if she finds that exciting. You can always cut it off without losing any face if she doesn't respond, and it just might get you where you want to be! Anyway, I hope to see you! Give me a call at 555-975-9066, or you can email me at Akane@Ozaka.Net. Well, I'm going parachuting. See you! Hugs and Kisses, Akane Toshiba' She writes fast, he thought. I suppose she'll want to write Asuka into it. And the shark. He laughed, putting down the letter. Going down to face the shark together was the closest thing to a romantic moment he'd managed to get with Misato-san, although the other times they'd gone diving had been nice too. Kaji didn't help himself with the shark stunt. Misato-san was REALLY mad. No one had been hurt, but... Hmm, he thought. Secret Admirer...I need to find out what kind of flowers she likes. Although I probably should send flowers and beer instead of chocolate... He laughed and started making plans. ~*~ Shinji came out to the kitchen to get a drink of water before bed while Asuka was showering. Misato had changed into a set of actual pajamas; he hadn't realized she had any. And she was wearing her amulet. With a start, he suddenly realized the amulet was identical to the glyph that had been painted on the building. "That...there was something like that where Rei beat up the shark." Misato blinked. "Something like what?" "Your amulet. There was some freaked out message about winter and summer and rising signs and something. And a thing like that." "Weird. Continuing your dream training tonight?" He nodded. "Climbing the mountain." "I had to go down a staircase," Misato said. "Ever down into the dark." He blinked. "You've done this?" "I used to have horrible nightmares after...Second Impact. I was there, you know." "WHAT?" He stared in surprise. "In Antarctica?" "I was the only survivor. I still can't remember most of it. But the dreams were awful. Ritsuko taught me how to stop them in college. I mostly dream about food and friends and driving now. What do you dream about, Shinji?" "Riding on a maglev train." "And?" He looked embarrassed. "That's the happy one. The other ones get disturbing, but...I think this mountain thing may actually work." Asuka stuck her head into the room. "Of course it will! Because I'M the one teaching you. Now, go take a bath so you can go to bed and dream your way up the mountain." "I didn't go fishing with Kaji and get fish stink on me like you did," Shinji said. "And I already took a bath. I'll be fine." "I do not smell like fish!" Asuka started chasing Shinji around the apartment while Misato simply laughed. ~*~ The ledge had an occupant when Shinji returned to it in his dreams. A spider had made a web in one of the corners, and sat in the middle, waiting for business. The pattern glistened in the sunlight, the pattern of Misato's good luck charm, of the glyph on the wall in the sunken city of Tokyo-1. She had told him it was supposed to bring good luck and ward off evil spirits. A good sign, I hope, he thought. He stared at the rock face; the staircase was still gone. This wasn't much help. I can't climb this, he thought. Now, if I had wings, I could fly, but... There had to be...ahah, he thought. This is a dream. I ought to be able to MAKE a staircase like I made the mountain. He closed his eyes and tried to think of a staircase, imagining the one in his apartment building. When he opened his eyes, there was a tiny model of his apartment building lying at his feet, along with a tiny toy model of Misato's car. Something buzzed in his ear, so he swatted at it. It dodged, buzzing around his head, a tiny winged annoyance, which he started chasing around the ledge. A few seconds later, a thick stand of webbing shot down where he had been standing. Shinji looked up. A spider the size of a horse was perched just below the next ledge on a huge web it had spun. It stared at him with multifaceted eyes. Its eyes grew, or perhaps the universe shrank. Dozens of reflections of himself hovered before his gaze, swallowing up the universe. They danced and sang and ran and burned and pillaged and killed and howled at the moon, growing more and more alien as he looked at them. They were around him, a sea of Shinjis. Shinjis in plug suits, Shinjis in school uniforms, Shinjis dancing half-naked and daubed with paint, Shinjis wearing masks of bone and wood and metal. They sought to tear him apart, to devour him, tugging him in a million different directions; there was nothing in all the universe but himself, and every Shinji was insane. He had failed. He was going to die. He couldn't fight this many of himself. No one could. The cold black pit that lurked inside him began to grow, chilling him, leaving him unable to move, to act, to do anything but suffer. A few months earlier, he would simply have died, unable to find the strength to fight back. Even now, it was, perhaps, only chance which saved him. One Shinji carried a spear and wore a mask of cleverly carved wood that depicted some sort of snarling bestial face with eyes dyed red. He knew the mask; one of the priests in his dream of the sacrifice in the forest during the mission against Salgiel had worn it. And the spear he carried... Shinji howled with anger as his mood suddenly snapped. I would never do something like that! NEVER! "You're not me! NONE OF YOU ARE ME!" He leaped at his other self, ripping off the mask and pummeling his face until he collapsed, then he launched into the other Shinjis. One by one, they popped like balloons, and as they fell, crumbled into threads; they had been made out of webbing. He stood on the web, confronting the spider, hanging over a great chasm in a subterranean cave. Shinji pulled out a knife he hadn't known he had, and charged. The web bounced under his feet, trying to catch him, but unable to hold him. The spider leaped at him, and the knife came down. It popped like a balloon, and with it, the cavern popped. He was back on the ledge, and now the huge spider kneeled at his feet. Shinji blinked. "What the..." The knife was gone back to wherever it went from. He patted the spider on the head, not sure what to do. "Uh...good boy." It jumped up like a dog, ran around him once, then began to climb up the long thick ropelike webstrand which ran down from the next ledge to this one. Shinji blinked again, then began to shimmy up the rope. It was easier than he expected, less tiring than the stairs had been, and soon he reached the next ledge, a broader one. He sat down for a rest. Next time, I'm gonna dream every ledge has some food on it, he thought. ~*~ The next day, Shinji had other things on his mind, like the three people bearing down on him at high speed. I hate soccer, Shinji thought, looking around desperately for someone to pass to. He spotted a reporter...Megumi something or another...at the edge of the field, taking pictures. Now what's she up to, he wondered. This took just long enough for a kid named Youta to steal the ball from him. "Hey!" Shinji ran over, but Youta passed to another kid, and soon the other team scored. "Whadya zone out for?" Touji asked Shinji while the game raged around them. "That reporter's here again," Shinji said, pointing. But now she was gone. "I ain't seeing nothing," Touji said. "Rei didn't do nothing to ya, did she?" "Huh?" "No magic whammies?" "What are you TALKING about?" "Dunno. I wouldn't be surprised if she did magic on the side. She's..." *Whack!* Luckily, touching the ball with your head is legal in soccer. This doesn't make it feel good, though. Touji fell down. "Take it, Shinji!" Shinji blinked. The ball was at his feet, and the five man line of the other team was boring down on him, while his three other teammates yelled at him to do something. He kicked wildly, the ball soaring over the wave of humanity, zooming down the field, and bouncing into the net while the goalie was still trying to accept that Shinji had actually managed a kick like that. The onrushing horde paused, turned, stared, then turned back and stared again. "How the hell did you do that?" one of them asked. "I... uh... used my foot." Shinji said. "I just got lucky." "I wish I had your luck," the guy said. I wish I didn't, he thought. Except when it's like this. He smiled a little smile for the rest of the game, although his luck didn't hold out. ~*~ Asuka charged down the field with the soccer ball, having broken through the pathetic defense of the opposing team. Hikari loped along beside her; they had left the rest of their own team behind as well. Only one thing stood in the way of her scoring. Rei was the other team's goalie, and she was good. Rei's team had scored five goals to Asuka's team's two, and the reason was that Rei had stopped a good dozen shots that might have scored. Asuka had a simple plan. Drive forward, set up for what would look like a shot by herself, but instead pass to Hikari and let Hikari take the shot at a different angle. Ideally, Rei would move to block Asuka's shot. Time seemed to slow down. Asuka moved in, and Rei responded by moving over. Then Asuka twisted her leg around and passed instead of punting. Hikari spun slightly and took the shot. And Rei was over, positioned perfectly to block Hikari faster than Asuka could blink. Her leg reared back to kick the ball, even as the ball left Hikari's foot. As time continued to slow, Asuka knew the ball was going to come right at her. It was still possible to take the kick with her head and bat it in, though it would hurt like hell and maybe not even work. It was a stupid gamble; she took it. The ball arced up towards her forehead, and as it struck her brow, she wondered why Rei hadn't simply caught it and gone for a longer kick. The pain was incredible, like being slammed with a hammer, but the ball arced off and zoomed into the net, rolling off Rei's shoulder as she tried to intercept it. Then Asuka fell to the ground and passed out. ~*~ She woke up in the school clinic with Rei and Hikari seated nearby watching her. Hikari said, "Are you okay?" "I'm fine." Her head didn't even hurt. "I can't even feel it." "You shouldn't have done that!" "I do what I have to do to win," Asuka said. "And I feel fine." "Rei, you shouldn't have kicked it at her head!" Hikari said. "She knew the risk." Rei's voice was calm, her face expressionless. "Rei, that..." Asuka shook her head. "She's right. I'd have done the same thing if she'd been charging me. It wasn't like she wanted to kill me or something." Rei started slightly. Hikari laughed. "True. So when are you going to wear that dress you bought, Rei?" Rei asked, "When should I?" "..." Asuka said, "Well, you can't wear it to school, but some time when you want to impress someone, you ought to wear it." "Like Shinji," Hikari said, smiling slightly. Asuka nodded. "Yeah, we could all tell Shinji liked seeing you in it. Hmm...I've been wanting to do a date with Kaji. We could set up a double date with him and me and you and Shinji. Sound good to you, Rei?" Here's where she just stares at me, Asuka thought. "When?" "Next weekend?" "Okay." Rei turned and left. Hikari watched her go. "She's weird." "I guess Shinji has weird tastes. Maybe he just likes her body. She is cute, although I'm better looking than her." "All hail goddess Asuka, Norse Goddess of Love," Hikari said. "Will you carry me to Valhalla on your winged horse now?" "Anyone you want to ask out, Hikari? We could make it a triple date." Hikari blushed. "Well, maybe." I don't know if taking Touji on a date with Asuka would be a very good idea, though, she thought. "I'll think about it." "Don't think too long! You gotta show a guy how you feel; if you wait for him to make up his mind, you may wait all your life." Asuka jumped off the bed. "Let's go, even if it is just back to class." ~*~ Later that day, Asuka said, "You're pretty good at the flute," as she listened to Hikari play. "But you need to take up the viola so we can have a string quartet." Hikari finished her piece, then laughed. "Why don't you take up the viola? I found a piece for flute, viola, violin, and cello that Mozart did." Asuka stuck her tongue out. "You want to stay for dinner? We're having some of the fish Kaji and I caught. Kaji will be here in a few minutes to help me cook it." "To stand around and watch you cook it, more likely," Hikari said. "Men are like that." "I'll make Shinji help if I have to." She shrugged. "Kaji has other talents." "Like chasing other women." Asuka frowned. "He..." She sighed. "Yeah." "I think you ought to find someone our age," Hikari said. "Just about every guy in our class wants to ask you out, you know." "Kaji's better than any of them." Hikari began digging through her flute music sheets. "He's gonna break your heart." "He is not!" "At least if you're gonna date someone twice your age, find someone responsible," Hikari said. "Like maybe Katsuragi-san's assistant or the guy with the guitar." "You don't even know their names! How can you tell they're responsible?" Asuka waved her arms about; she was getting aggravated. Pen-Pen came over and looked at the music Hikari was about to play, then shook his head. Hikari blinked. "How smart is this penguin?" "Smarter than Shinji sometimes," Asuka said. From his room, Shinji shouted, "I HEARD THAT!" ~*~ Misato plunked down the mail just before they were going to eat. "Hmm. Two anonymous purple envelopes. One for Shinji, one for me." Kaji laughed. "Someone's in love with you AND Shinji?" "How'd you know about..." Shinji asked. "Asuka asked me to help her figure out who sent you that card." Shinji ground his teeth and opened the card while Misato opened hers and oohed and ahhed over it. This one showed Dorothy asleep in the poppy fields. On the inside was printed, 'Dreaming of you'. The poem made of snipped letters read, 'You make me forget Why it is that I exist You make me feel good. A Secret Admirer' Asuka tried to grab it, but Shinji sat on it. "Asuka!" "Hey, I'm just trying to help you!" Kaji tapped his chin. "Let's see...it's a bisexual bad poet. That rules out Pen-Pen." Misato and Shinji thwacked him in unison. ~*~ Shinji knocked on Rei's door. After a long pause, he heard footsteps, and she opened it, staring at him. He said, "Hi. I...uh...wanted to ask about why you took me to see that thing on the wall. Do you know what it is?" "Katsuragi-san wears one. I thought she had put that there for us to find." Shinji nodded. "Did you understand it?" "The seasons." That part had been pointless, but comprehensible, he agreed. "I guess it was just a coincidence. Misato didn't know anything about it." "There are no coincidences." Her voice was level, making him wonder if she was saying there had to be some meaning to it. "So you think it means something?" "It meant something once." Silence. "Umm...have you done the math homework?" He glanced around, feeling silly standing in the doorway. "No." "Wanna...er...do it together?" She looked at his hands. "You don't have books." "Well...we'd need to go back to my place." "Wait." She closed the door, and he heard her footsteps recede. Then they drew closer again, the door opened, and she came out, carrying a briefcase, which she was in the process of closing. He caught a glimpse of something that looked like 'Vogue', but he assumed it couldn't possibly be. For a moment, he had a mental image of Rei hiding in the dark under the sheets of her bed, reading Vogue by flashlight and giggling to herself, then carefully hiding the magazine and faking emotionlessness when Akagi-san came in to check on her. He laughed loudly at the thought. Rei glanced over at him, but said nothing. As they walked, Shinji began to feel curious as to what exactly he had glimpsed. I suppose I could ask her, he thought. Somehow, he just couldn't quite do that, though. He tried to think of something to talk about. "How many more Angels do you think there will be?" "Ten." He blinked. "Just Ten?" "Yes." "Why?" "I don't know." They walked in silence for a while after that, then Shinji blurted out, "Do you really have an issue of Vogue in your bag?" "Maya said to study it." "..." ~*~ "So who do YOU think Shinji's secret admirer is?" Asuka asked Rei as the three of them rode up the elevator to get into their entry plugs. They were on their way to do some special training in their EVAs. "A secret," Rei replied. "Well, DUH!" Asuka shouted. "Can we discuss SOMETHING ELSE?" Shinji asked. "Okay, who do you think is Misato's secret admirer?" Asuka asked. "I don't know, but she sure is enjoying it," Shinji said. "There's a lesson for you, you know. You should LIKE having a secret admirer," Asuka said. "I didn't say I didn't like it! I just don't want you reading my mail!" "Do you... like it?" Rei asked. Shinji blushed. "I never had one before. I never thought that..." He blushed more. "It is kind of nice." "o/~ First comes love, then comes marriage o/~" Asuka began to sing. Shinji simply quietly wilted. ~*~ The underwater exercise went well, although Asuka managed to snag Unit02's cord on a sunken telephone pole in the ruins of Tokyo-1 at one point and unplugged herself. Unit01 stepped on a shark without noticing, which got a few laughs once they loaded the Unit into the transport, as it was still embedded in his foot. They returned home, and slunk contentedly into bed, exhausted. Shinji went to climb the mountain some more, while Asuka had other business on her dreaming mind... ~*~ The Red Knight threw a few more logs on her fire, then got back up to finish brushing her horse, which was tethered to a nearby tree. She was passing through a light forest which ran up and down the thinly occupied hills between Zakarion (her destination) and Thorabon (her starting point). Thorabon was a dying sea port along the coast of the Southern Sea, east of Dylath- Leen, where she had recently made herself not welcome by burning all the slave traders' ships in the harbor. Loathsome half-human things had leaped from the burning boats, confirming her suspicions about the black galleys which came to port in Dylath-Leen, accepting only humans in return for the wines and cloths and spices and gems they brought there in trade. They would think twice about returning to Dylath-Leen. On the other hand, she would also have to think twice, as the locals had not taken kindly to this. Indeed, there was some risk now of war between Celephais and Dylath-Leen. She needed to return home and warn King Kuranes. Thorabon had been no help in that regard; the city was vanishing, fading away bit by bit. Once it had been a place of wonders, of buildings made of shining crystal which would accept no paint but took on the colors willed into it by their owners. Great galleons of the same crystal, mined in the hills, had sailed forth to all the cities of the Southern and Cerranian seas. But one day, the city had begun to fade, and nothing could restore it. Buildings vanished, and with them their inhabitants. Thorabonian crystal everywhere began to vanish, stripping wealthy homes of windows and glasses, devastating its fleets, and even slaying its king when the balcony of his palace faded away beneath his feet. Only a few desperate people remained, trying to find some way to save their city or unable to afford to leave, a village huddling amongst the fading wreckage of greatness. So she had turned north, to cross the infertile lands that lay between Thorabon and Zakarion, a city of sages too wise for the waking world, it was said. Knowing the waking world as she did, she could believe it. It was a region of gently rolling plains, covered with short grass tinged with brown due to a lack of water. A few trees with thin trunks and deep, wide roots clung to the land, doing their best to shade it with their leaves. Asuka took off her helmet and shook out her hair, then began to comb it. She sat by the fire, having finished brushing her horse (with a seperate brush of course). She gazed up at the stars. I wonder how long Shinji's going to take to climb that mountain, she thought. I wouldn't mind having a travelling companion. Although maybe I can hook up with Anna again once I get back to Celephais if she's finished her quest. Her stomach rumbled. She got up and got her bow off her horse, stringing it. Time to shoot me a rabbit or even a squirrel, she thought. An hour's tramping about caught her a rabbit and finished the job of the sun going down. It was dark, and the stars came out, not the constellations of Earth, but familiar to her now, for she has passed much time in the strange world that Dr. Himmelfarb had taught her to enter, and which she now strove to teach to Shinji. The hardest part was getting in, whether it be to find the ninety nine steps of dream from the cavern of eternal flame, or to swim across a river full of piranha, or to climb a mountain. A true Dreamer had to be determined in order to find the place where dreams were reality. And yet, in time, it grew harder for even the most determined dreamer to enter. Asuka had no idea why. Doktor Himmelfarb had a very hard time, though Asuka still ran into her sometimes. Not since her arrival in Tokyo-3, though. That time had not yet come for Asuka. I ought to teach Hikari too, she thought. She'd like this, I think. I just have to make sure no one EVER teaches Touji. A shape blurred across her sight, drawing her out of her thoughts. There was something among the trees, its shape blurred by rapid movements. Something with red eyes and a faint blue halo above those eyes. The haunter of the dark, she thought. She had fought it once, long ago, when it had stalked her dreams. By defeating it, she had won her way into the Dreamlands. Doktor Himmelfarb had warned her it would not stay dead, that one day it would likely come again. She had beaten it before, but she feared it nonetheless, for it could take a thousand forms, some of them horrible beyond measure, but others quite innocuous until one realized one had placed one's head into the lion's mouth. She slung her bow over one shoulder, and drew her sword, an onyx blade forged for her by the smiths of Ilek-Vad after she had defeated a great sea beast that had threatened the city upon the great glass cliffs and the labyrinths of the Gnorri, the sea-dwelling allies of the people of Ilek-Vad. Fire flickered along the blade, lighting a circle around her with its comforting, warm glow. The shape blurred away from her into the darkness of the half-moon lit sky. It was flying with great bat-like wings. She remembered the wings, the eyes, the tail with a stinger that had injected a poison that had nearly killed her in their last confrontation. She had been unarmed then, a panicked child, saved only by her strength of will and the lessons she had been taught. She felt she was no child now. "Come and fight me! Don't skulk in the darkness, you bastard! I am Asuka Soryuu Langely, the Red Knight of Celephais! I've whooped you before and I'll do it again!" She felt a gust of cold air, but her sword flared brighter, the warmth dispelling the cold air, the light shoving back the darkness. "FIGHT ME!" The red eyes stared at her from above, then settled to the ground far away. They closed, and vanished. She ran about for a while, trying to roust the thing out, but it was gone. She spent the rest of the night fruitlessly on edge, but it never returned. ~*~ Kensuke, Touji, and Shinji lay in a field on the outskirts of the city goofing off when they were supposed to be studying, watching the clouds drift by instead. "I envy you, man," Kensuke said. "Why?" Shinji asked. "I think deep sea diving is cool. I bet you'll probably meet a mermaid or something," Kensuke said. "Or find some golden treasure. I wish I could pilot an EVA." "I wish you could do it for me. LCL is disgusting. And we'll probably end up stranded on the ocean floor," Shinji said. He idly tied a long stalk of grass into a circle, then began to weave a second stalk into the first. "I wish I got to live with a babe like you do," Touji said. "Yeah, but you'd be living with Asuka too," Kensuke said. "I wouldn't mind, but I think you two would kill each other." "Naah. I'd get Shinji to go out with her so she'd focus on him while I got Misato," Touji said. Shinji laughed. "I don't think Misato dates people our age." I wonder if he's Misato's secret admirer. He laughed. As long as he isn't mine... "Hey, a man can dream a noble dream!" Touji said, shaking his fist at the sky. "It'd beat living with my dad the prick anyway." He snarled. "Bastard won't even go see my sister. Says she's already dead." Shinji blinked. "What?" "Mom was like that for a while before she died, but I mean...she and Mom didn't get hurt the same way." He sighed. "Mom just breathed in the wrong chemicals. She died a lot faster than my sister. I mean...Miki's been in the hospital a lot longer than it took Mom to die." Shinji sat up and frowned, feeling guilty. "She's still in the hospital?" "Yeah. She hasn't come out of her coma fully, except to babble sometimes," he said, sighing. "But the doctors say she should recover." "I'm sorry," Shinji said. "It ain't your fault," Touji said. "Just beat the hell out of the next Angel for me, okay?" "I will." Shinji said. ~*~ Asuka pirouetted on the deck for Kaji as the sun was setting. She was wearing a white sundress with red tongues of flame dotting it, and a matching white hat. "How do I look?" "You missed a step," he said, laughing. "I meant the dress!" "It's very nice, though not too practical for deep sea diving," he said, leaning back on his deck chair. Several crewmen stared at both of them and grumbled, then moved on. She came over and sat down on the one next to him. "Do you think we're ready for this?" "Nope." He said. She frowned. "Then why are we going?" "You'll never really be ready. Not when we can't be sure what we're fighting or where they come from. The universe is a large scary place, and we're really tiny. We can't even be sure if the rest of the universe obeys the same laws as ours. Certainly the Angels you've fought so far...we can't explain how they do what they do." Now she felt a little worried. Usually he was much more confident. "Do you really think we're going to lose?" "I fear we will lose. I hope we will win. You're carrying the weight of the world, Asuka. If you die, there's no one to replace you. Not yet. And there's no way of knowing how many of these things there are, or if they'll get lucky and nail one of you." He turned to face her. "Gertrude would never forgive me if I let you die." "I'm not going to die," she said. "You...you'd miss me if I died, wouldn't you?" "Of course I would. I'd only have Misato left to tease for one thing; Rits-chan won't take my bait anymore." She'd hoped for him to say something more romantic than that. "I'd miss you a lot if you died." "Let's not give the universe any hints, okay?" he said. The sun finished setting, and the red sky faded to darkness. One by one, the stars came out, and Asuka settled down to watch them and listen to the sea. I wonder what Rahab will be like, she thought. That was the name of their next target, the Angel of the Sea. Probably going to be a great white whale, she thought. She drifted off into a nap, dreaming of Shinji's father as Captain Ahab. ~*~ Diving in an EVA had several advantages. No worries about the bends, for one thing. The pressure in the entry plug would never change and an EVA could handle the outside pressure with ease. No need to stick close to an aircord or anything. However, they did need power, which effectively was the same thing. There was a cable for each of them, and a fourth one which held several powerful explosive charges; EVAs weren't likely to fit through any doors they found, and they hadn't come to do archaeology. Another advantage was that EVAs could carry BIG lights. Each of them had the largest headlamps in the history of the world. It was like having a portable sun. They could see the ruins as they descended into it. It sat at the base of a mountain, spreading out along three roads away from the plaza that sat at the point of the mountain's base directly below a building that perched halfway up the mountain on a small plateau. A great gully ran through the city that must have once been a river. The buildings were of stone, with odd gaps between them in some places. The gaps were not ruined buildings, simply empty spaces with no coherent pattern. The buildings themselves were made of many kinds of stone, from basalt to granite to a handful of buildings faced with marble. Most were only two or three stories high at best, though near the plaza some rose as high as ten stories, interconnected by now broken walkways above the level of the road. Asuka said, "Hey, Rei, is this your underseas kingdom?" Shinji laughed. "Rei is from Atlantis, not Mu." "Mu?" "I don't see any cows," Shinji said, laughing. Asuka frowned. _Someone_ was showing a bit more spine than usual at _her_ expense. "Don't make fun of me! What is Mu?" "In the nineteenth century, a man named Colonel Churchward claimed to have deciphered a set of tablets which told the story of a continent named Mu in the Pacific Ocean, which had once held a great civilization, then sank into the ocean. He was generally laughed at because of two reasons. First, his method of translating them basically involved a lot of mysticism since it was a supposedly dead language, and secondly, he couldn't produce the tablets." "Sounds to me like he made it up." "Well, unless he built this city too, he must have known something." "There are other writings besides his which speak of Mu," Ritsuko said over the comlink. "While this city may or may not have ever been part of a kingdom named Mu, it does show there's some truth to the legend. Indeed, it's possible that Atlantis and Mu are simply both distorted versions of the same truth--this city, whatever it may be named." Rei pointed at the building on the mountainside. "Looks Mayan." It was a huge step pyramid, taller than the EVAs, though not by much, sitting on a small plateau, most of which it occupied. They couldn't make out much detail from this distance. "Maybe Mayans colonized this place before it sank," Asuka speculated. "Or vice versa," Shinji said. "I wonder how old it is." "Thousands of years," Misato said over the comlink. "The sensor feeds we're getting indicate you need to climb the mountain to that pyramid." "Right," Shinji said, and they started down one of the broad streets to the plaza at the mountain's base. "I can hardly believe this place is real," Asuka said. "It's at least as advanced as the Egyptians or the Aztecs or the Maya or Incas. Just look at the architecture. But if it's thousands of years old, it must predate them. When we're saying thousands, how many thousands do we mean, Katsuragi-san?" Misato consulted someone off screen. "Older than any known civilization." "Wow!" Asuka said. "This must have been the first human civilization then. What kind of people lived here?" "We have no clue," Misato said. "Probably they looked just like us, though. It's not THAT old." "The temple looks sort of like the Mayans. Maybe they came from here," Asuka speculated. Shinji looked about as they crossed the great plaza. "Reminds me too much of Tokyo-1. I wonder if people will wander through the ruins of Tokyo-3 one day and wonder what we were like." "Don't be gloomy," Asuka said. "This place is really neat!" Rei, who was lugging the explosives said, "How many charges to level the temple?" "Try just one," Misato said. "We can't just destroy it!" Asuka said. "Unless you want to get out and swim, we don't have much choice," Misato said. "They probably sacrificed humans if they were really like the Mayas or the Aztecs," Shinji said. "It looks just like that one in our history books." "Whatever. I guess we blow it up," Asuka said. ~*~ The building was tougher than it looked, but two charges levelled it. Clearing the rubble took a while, but since they had power from above, this wasn't a problem. They also had power packs with them for an emergency. Finally, they found the huge well which had once sat at the heart of the temple. Infrared sensors indicated the water welling up out of it was warmer than the surrounding ocean water by a good twenty degrees. "Go to Hypersonar," Misato said. "Why?" Asuka asked. "Just do it," Misato replied, frowning. She started to say something, then heard something the pilots could not, frowned more, and said, "Conserves the flashlight power, and we need to make sure it'll work in the confined space of the shaft. You're going to have to go one at a time. The Angel is down below. Do not turn on your lights under any circum- stances without a direct order." Misato wasn't happy giving these orders; they had come down from Commander Ikari, who she suspected had censored the report they had gotten from the divers before passing it on to her. Why fight in the dark? It made no sense. Not for the first time, she was certain Commander Ikari knew something he wasn't telling. More precisely, that he knew far more about the Angels than he was telling. How had the divers known where to look? And why was it so important for the Children to fight Rahab in the dark? Did he get stronger with light or something? "Are we gonna have enough cable for this?" Shinji asked. "As long as they didn't dig a half-mile shaft, yes," Misato said. "Our readings indicate it isn't much more than five to eight hundred feet down." "Why is it just sitting here?" Asuka asked. "We believe it isn't fully functional yet," Misato said. "It hasn't left since we found it." "I'll go first. Shinji, you go second. Rei, you go third." Asuka switched on her Hypersonar, as did the others. The ocean turned into a black void with shapes outlined in green with distance markers by them. "Can I turn on infrared too?" "Affirmative," Misato said. Asuka gritted her teeth and swallowed, then relaxed. "Let's go." ~*~ The shaft dove three hundred feet and let out into a huge cavern that would have been vast and impressive under most conditions, extending hundreds, maybe thousands of feet, lacking the stalactites and stalagmites that one normally finds in caves, the walls polished smooth. Two things reduced its impressiveness. The first thing was that hypersonar made everything look like a cheesy late seventies video game. The second thing was that the EVAS were so big the cavern shrunk in comparison. Asuka dropped down into the chamber first, progressive knife in hand. She wished they had been able to take better armnaments, but most weapons work poorly underwater. It would likely do the job anyway. Assuming she could find the enemy to hit him. Feh, she thought. The ceiling was low, which bothered her; it was going to be hard to move in here without whacking her EVA's head into the ceiling frequently. To make matters worse, she could make out a huge shape on her Hypersonar which occupied the far end of the cavern. Hypersonar couldn't handle it well; it was too complex, a tangle of tubes and arms and legs and spheres and bulbous malformed hunks of seemingly pointless flesh, all mounted around a large sphere which might have been an eye, but which was featureless to hypersonar. It had no infrared signature at all. "That's the Angel!" Misato said. "Our sensor feed from you is heading up the scale." "It looks like old, rotten spaghetti," Asuka said. "Just like Oscar used to make." Rahab, the Angel of the Sea, charged across the cavern, its hundreds of tentacles, tubes, and limbs flailing about, and Asuka charged it as Unit01 dropped down. "You call this 'not fully functional'? Shinji, draw your knife and move left. Rei, move right when you get down. I'll take the middle." "Good plan," Misato said, slightly irritated. "Produce an AT- Field as you strike. Force your way through the limbs to the center; you'll spend all day hacking at him otherwise." This was easier said than done. Up close, Rahab was one big smear on Hypersonar, and you couldn't see him on Infrared at all. While they could swat things aside on touch alone, soon, each of them was effectively snared in a sea of limbs which tried to crush them. His AT-Field was strong, but it was the sheer weight and strength of his extremities, combined with the problems of trying to navigate through them which was holding them back. It was hard to keep from being tangled completely and immobilized. Asuka was sure she had sliced a good two dozen tendrils, tentacles, tubes, arms, and even one thing that had resembled a leg. "We need to use our lamps! It's like fighting two dozen perverts in the dark! I can't even tell what direction I'm facing and..." Unit02 smacked into the ceiling. "Request denied," Ritsuko said. "We have reason to believe that using light against this Angel would be a bad idea." "It's trying to cut my cord, but I'm afraid to strike or I may hit it myself!" Shinji said. "I can't tell the difference in this mess!" "Absolutely not," Ritsuko said. After a few more minutes of fighting, Asuka couldn't take it any longer. Her left leg was immobilized and despite hacking up dozens of tentacles, she wasn't gaining any ground. Hypersonar just wasn't hacking it, she thought. I need light or I'm going to die. She clicked her light on. He was a nightmare, looking as though someone had sewn together thousands of random body parts of various sizes into a huge throbbing mass with a single eye in which danced a cold blue flame. She could now see the pain in her EVA's left leg was from a huge mouth which had bitten down on it. His flesh was multicolored, greens and browns and tans and reds and harsh purples, and many of his limbs flailed about apparently mindlessly. I'll go for the eye, she decided. Then her EVA wouldn't move, and her eyes widened. "MOVE!" she shouted, but it moved only in slow motion, ever slowing. Something was wrong. ~*~ Back at the bridge, Ritsuko cursed. "You idiot! Anything that can see Rahab will..." She sighed. "Maya?" "The Angel's AT-Field is invading the three EVAs. At this rate, they have about three minutes before it's too late." "You didn't say we'd get paralyzed just LOOKING at it!" Asuka shouted over the comlink. "You wouldn't be in trouble if you hadn't disobeyed orders!" Misato yelled. "And someone didn't TELL ME THAT!" "You have to generate your own AT-Fields," Ritsuko said. "And drive out the energies invading your EVAs. Otherwise, you'll be rendered immobile and it will likely eat you or worse." Shinji winced and began to concentrate, as did the others, and soon the bridge sensors showed a struggle of pure energy was in progress between Rahab and the three EVAs. The tentacles ceased to move, as the battle became one of will and power rather than physical might. Asuka found herself thinking about Kaji. I love you, she thought. I can't die...I have to come back to you! Not to mention I have to show that bastard Touji I'm not so weak I got killed by just LOOKING at the Angel. And Shinji. I have to finish his lessons, and he's counting on me! And Hikari...I'd miss you if I died. Thoughts of her loved ones (and a few hated ones) sustained her will to struggle.
Shinji found it hard to focus at first; efforts of will didn't come easily to him; paralysis did. The void opened before him, and he saw the Earth from space. It was a tiny marble, just one of millions, doomed to die when the Sun swallowed it. Humanity was just a crawling fungus upon its surface that one day would die. That day had come; somehow he could see the horrors rising from the deeps, crawling from the cracks of the earth, descending from the sky, all come to reclaim the world that once was theirs. The stars were right, and they sang the fall of mankind. How could one man stand against that? If he had been alone, he would have likely failed. But he could see Asuka and Rei's faces on his monitors, and he didn't want to fail them. They were counting on him. Asuka wouldn't give up, and neither would Rei. Misato was counting on him too, and his friends...he could hardly believe he had friends. His life had changed more than he could imagine since he had come to Tokyo-3, changed for the better, despite the bad parts of it. He didn't want to die. He wanted to live. He was going to live. I refuse to die, he thought. The image of humanity's doom hung before him, and he denied it. We're not going to die! I'm not going to die! We beat all the other Angels and we WILL BEAT YOU!!!! Shinji snarled, and then his Eva's arm began to move, followed by its legs. Slowly, it began to press forward. Asuka's EVA was beginning to move as well, and so was Rei's. They shoved forward, hacking through the flabby, pustulent flesh, ignoring the gore that repeatedly showered the three EVAs. "Its AT-Field is wavering," Ritsuko said. "Asuka, use your feeding tendrils." "That's disgusting!" Asuka shouted. "Shinji, use your claws and bite it. You can chew through it faster than you can use your knife," Misato said. "Ditto for you, Rei." Rei seized one of the tendrils, and ice began to spread up it to the central tangle of body parts which formed what passed for Rahab's torso. Shinji reluctantly forced himself to make his EVA bite a pulsating arm, then began to rip his way forward at a much higher pace. It felt disturbingly good to just shred his way through the repulsive thing, and he could almost taste its vital fluids. He would have spat if his spittle wouldn't have ended up on him. His body quivered with nervous energy as his EVA sliced and bit and rended and chewed and fed upon Rahab. Unit02 sprouted the facial tendrils, and where they struck, the limb soon lost all its color and crumbled to gray flakes, then dust. At random intervals, large veins pulsed visibly under 02's skin, and Asuka felt a horrifying euphoria. What her EVA was doing repulsed her, but it also brought a faint pleasure she tried to reject. ~*~ Back at the Geofront, Maya frowned. "Asuka and Shinji's synchro rates have fallen slightly." Misato shuddered. "Can you blame them?" She couldn't see clearly; they weren't accepting visual signals from the Children, just Hypersonar, but it still looked awful. She fingered her necklace nervously. "Angel AT-Field has fallen to fifty percent," Shigeru said. "I'm surprised it hasn't actually severed their power cords yet," Makoto said. "Let's not give it any ideas," Misato replied. ~*~ Much of what was left of Rahab was covered with ice and dripping with its own gore. Unit00 slashed its 'torso' with mandibles, Unit01 was eating one of its...legs?, and 02 moved forward, sinking its feeding tendrils into the huge eye. A shriek erupted through the cavern, shaking the walls, and Asuka's monitors suddenly filled with a flurry of images, her ears filling with sounds, her nose with smells, all her senses overloading. For a moment, the Earth floated before her as seen from space. Then she saw a vast continent, and a volcano. Pink scabrous creatures, winged crustaceans flew down and built a city, mining the local area for rock, and silencing the volcano with a machine. They built a city to guard the cave where Asuka slept. One day, they were gone, and much later humans came and dwelt above her, worshipping her. She howled; these were not her memories, not her senses, not her, but she could not resist them, could not fight them off. Much of it was utterly alien to her and incomprehensible. Angled time. The smell of a dying world. Twelfth dimensional spheres. A music which permeated the universe. A universe dying as the atom which contained it was crushed in a cyclotron. An ever surging, constantly changing blasphemous mass surrounded by a court of idiot gods and mindless flautists playing a tuneless symphony. And over and over, snatches of the words of the priests in a language she refused to know, but which overwhelmed her, forced itself upon her. They spoke now, on the last day before her home sank beneath the waves, calling out the final prophecy of their time supposedly in her service. She had always ignored them, a buzzing annoyance, along with the stupid people dropped down the great well. They had talked of her wrath, her desires, her hopes and fears for their land, but they had meant nothing to her any more than one would care if the termites in ones walls worshipped one. She had simply waited for the Day of Return. And yet one day... ~*~ "The priests of Ythogtha have destroyed us all," Zar-ya said, as he looked out across the land and watched the rising waves of waters devour it, watched the great cracks in the land consume it, watched the people flee up the mountain towards the temple. He was an old man, pale skinned and white haired. "We have gambled and lost." "Great Ghatanathoa is watching over us!" Yarke-shu was dark skinned and young, with bright yellow hair, an humble acolyte of the temple. "He will save his faithful ones!" "He cares nothing for us," Zar-Ya said. "We have only pretended to speak in his name, used his power for our own personal gain. Have you not studied our histories? He did not save those who built this temple and this city from destruction. He will not save us." "That...that is blasphemy!" Yarke-shu was shocked. "We are his chosen! We have closed down all the other temples at his command! He...he has to save us!" "The Gods care nothing for men," Zar-Ya said. "Only the weak Great Ones who live now only in dreams have any caring for mortals, and they cannot touch this world; they are but a shadow. The Gods, the universe...it does not care if we live or die. We have gambled, and we have lost. Now we pay the price." "NO! It is not possible!" Yarke-shu paled as much as he could, which wasn't much. "We have served him well, given him blood and lives! Are you saying we slew those people for nothing?" "Perhaps it appeased his lust for blood...if he lusts. We know nothing of him save that to look upon him is to die. Only one thing comforts me as I gaze upon the wreck of all there is." He stared out across the railing and watched some people huddling in the wreckage of one of the banned temples, the temple of Cuthag, the fire god, trying to light fires in the hopes their lord would notice them. No chance of that. If he did notice them, it would likely spell their deaths. "One day, he too will die. I have seen it." "That is not possible! The Gods cannot die!" "All things die. On the day of Oracles, I have taken the sacred drug Leri, as you would have one day. I have travelled the curves and angles of time, dodging the hounds that guard its ways, and I saw the day...the day that the Slaying Gaze would be no more. Destiny cannot be escaped. When I saw that, I knew one day Mu would be destroyed. But I knew that the one who abandoned us to our fate would perish as well." "No!" Yarke-Shu screamed. "He will come! He will save us!" "Three of his fellows, beings like himself, will slay him, three Gods masquerading as men. They will come in the visage of man, the ultimate insult. They will smite him with the power of the Gods, and steal away his might. On the very eve of his freedom, on the verge of triumph, he will be destroyed just as we have been smitten on the day of our victory. I will die with his deaththroes in the eye of my mind, and I will die content to know his turn will come in time." "BLASPHEMY!" Yarke-Shu screamed. "You must be thrown to him! It must be you who brought down his wrath!" He drew his sacred knife and charged. ~*~ Asuka did not see the end of that tableau, for she remembered she had lost interest with the end of the prophecy. She screamed. "I AM NOT THIS MONSTER! GET OUT OF MY MIND!" Her brain swam with names. Ythogtha, Illisia, Toriak, Knn- Yrr, T'yui'oik-H'al'sha, Yuggoth, T'yog, Zanthu, Idh-yaa, Tlaloc, Ghatanathoa, Ghadamon. They might have been people or places or names, she could not remember. She did not want to remember. They were not her memories! They were not! She called forth her deepest resources. Berlin in the summer. The Wagner festival. Goethe's house. Anna. Dr. Himmelfarb. Her parents. NERV-Germany. They faded in and out of her sight, and then soldified, the alien images popping one by one. And then it was over. There was nothing left of Rahab but currents of pus and gore floating through the water and massive gray flakes of flesh quickly dissolving away into the water which took on a dismal tinge. A ripple ran through the cave outwards from Rahab's remains, and when they struck the explosive charges, they went off. The water boiled and that part of the cavern collapsed, cutting off their com lines. More importantly, their power line went out. While they each had a backpack, they were now down to thirty five minues power, while trapped in an underwater cave with no explosives. ~*~ At the Geofront, the remote transmissions went blank. A comline from the boats kicked in. "Something severed the cables, we think," Kaji said. "They won, DAMMIT!" Misato shouted. "They beat him! Who's the...WHO MADE THOSE EXPLOSIVES?" "Some armnaments company," Makoto said. "I can look it up." "Find them. Kill them," Misato said grimly. "MAGI estimates there's only a one percent chance they were actually slain. Probably their cables were simply cut," Shigeru announced. "If their backpacks were not damaged, they have enough power to try to dig their way out." "Maybe," Misato said, crumpling up sheet after sheet of paper into tiny balls. "If they're dead," she rubbed her eyes to avoid crying. "They can't be dead. They have to live. They HAVE TO!" "DAGON is not yet ready," Ritsuko said. "We cannot afford to lose them." "And we could if it was?" Misato said fiercely, glaring at her. "This is a war. They're soldiers. Soldiers die. Right now, they're the only soldiers we have, but if we didn't need them...I like them. But I'd watch them die a thousand times to keep humanity from being destroyed. And one of these days, likely one of them WILL die. Are you going to let that break you, Misato?" Ritsuko's voice was intense. "This is a war. A commander who collapses when someone dies isn't much use to those who lived." "I'll do what I have to," Misato growled. "And so will I. I intend to fight to the last and stab the Angels in the eye with my mechanical pencil as they eat me if I must," Ritsuko said. "Let us hope it doesn't come to that." ~*~ "SHIT!" Asuka said as she peeled her EVA off the wall; they'd all been flung into them when the explosives went off. Shinji looked around. "There's some tunnels going further off from here...this whole cavern complex is HUGE. Maybe we can find a way out." "We have to try. Lead on, Shinji," Asuka said. Shinji quickly played eenie-meenie-minnie-mo with the various tunnels, then picked the largest one. Fifteen minutes later, it seemed like they had been wandering forever. Then Rei pointed down one of the many cavern forks. "Lights." They saw tiny lights off in the distance. "It can't be people," Shinji said. "Maybe the crabs came back," Asuka muttered, remembering the vision. It disturbed her...that thing couldn't have been here when the city was built, could it? Why the hell would the aliens put it down at the bottom of the sea, anyway? Well, I suppose it would keep people from finding the thing before it was ready... "Crabs?" Rei asked. "Nothing. Let's follow them." For five minutes, they followed the lights, and then the nature of the caverns changed. There were signs of workmanship, as if the caves had been widened, and blast marks. The last two minutes took them through a great carven hallway, completely artificial, finally issuing out through a great arch to one side of the mountain. The lights had vanished by that point, and looking around, there was nothing which could obviously give light. "What the...what made those lights?" Shinji asked. "Let's not question luck," Asuka said. "Let's go find the temple; the cables should still be there. We can...umm...climb them if nothing else." ~*~ "Something's pulling on the lines," Lt. Hamnes, a young blond from Germany, said to Kaji. "Should we reel it in? It seems...to be tugging in morse code. S. O. S." "Do it," he said. "We've got to get them to the surface before their power goes out." "Is everything to do with NERV this weird?" Lt. Hamnes asked. "Often it's much stranger," he said. "But we've won this time." "How many of these damn Angels are there? And when are their makers gonna come back for them?" Hamnes asked as he punched in commands to the computer operated cables. "When the stars are right," Kaji muttered. "Don't give me that astrology shit," Hamnes said. "My damn grandmother hated my last girlfriend because she had the wrong sign." Kaji simply laughed. ~*~ Asuka nearly crushed Kaji to death once she got out of her entry plug. "That was...awful!" He hugged her loosely. "Yeah, I know. But you all made it back okay. So how was your underseas kingdom, Rei?" "Wet." She stared at them in confusion as they all began to laugh hysterically. ~*~ As the boats headed back to Tokyo-3, that evening, Shinji found Asuka staring out across the water. "What are you looking at, Asuka?" "Shinji...when it died...did you see anything?" "I got a big gusher of green-gray pus in my face and a wave of nausea. That was about it. And a sort of...I did see a lot of scary stuff about how pointless humanity was when we were trying to break its AT-field, though." He sighed. "Do you think...do we matter?" "Of course we do," Asuka said. "We're made in the image of God." A memory of her vision struck her, and she shuddered slightly. Gods in the visage of men... "He tried to pull that 'You don't matter because the Universe is real big and you're real small' bullshit with me too. Who gives a flying...We're here, and that's what matters. A big universe just gives us a bigger playground. We'll walk among the stars one day," she said. "If we don't die first," Shinji said, standing by the railing and watching the gentle waves. "We nearly died." "But we didn't. So how did you overcome what Rahab was trying to make us believe?" "I...I didn't want to let you and Rei down. To let my..." He hesitated, part of him fearing that saying the words would make them cease to exist. "My friends needed me. You all...you matter to me." He blushed, though only slightly. Mercifully, Asuka either didn't notice it or didn't comment on it. "You matter to me too, Shinji." She thought a moment. "Have you ever heard of...a god named Ghatanathoa? Or Ythogtha? Or..." She couldn't quite remember the other one. "Nope," he said. "Although it sounds vaguely familiar. Why do you ask?" "I had a..." I must have just tripped out, she thought. It made no sense...and yet...the temple was clearly built to sacrifice to the thing that lived under it. But it couldn't be that old if aliens made it. Something was fishy. "It was nothing...don't worry about it." ~*~ Shinji found it hard to breathe as Misato hugged him. "Urgle..." She let go. "I'm glad you all made it back!" she said. "We thought we'd lost you." They walked from the docks towards her car together, her and Asuka and Shinji. "I need to talk to you later, Katsuragi-san," Asuka said. "That's fine," she said. "But right now...how does a nice juicy steak dinner sound? I feel like celebrating." "Sounds great!" Asuka said. "Can we bring Kaji?" "This is just going to be a 'family' outing," Misato said, winking. "Can I have a raise in my allowance, then, 'Mom'?" Shinji asked, laughing. "NERV already pays you a hundred thousand yen a week," Misato said. "And I NEED my salary." "They do?" Shinji asked. "Yes. It goes right to your bank account." "I have a bank account?" "Did you read all the stuff I gave you?" "Umm...I read the 'Welcome to NERV' brochure and the one on Penguin Care..." A moment later, after a little thought, he said, "So I have money?" They reached the car. "Get in the car. I'll tell you about it on our way home." "I... I have money?" ~*~ Kaji pulled up in front of Rei's building. "There you go." "Do you live alone?" Rei asked him as she picked up her clothing bag. He blinked. "Yes." "Always?" "No, I lived with my folks growing up, and I've had roommates a few times. I lived on Misato's couch for a semester. Well, when I wasn't...anyway. Tired of living alone?" I always wondered why they made the poor kid live by herself, he thought. Rei started to get out of the car. "I do need sleep." He blinked. "I meant...you want a roommate or something?" Maybe Misato would have room for her, he thought. Kids need someone who can at least fake being a parent. Then again, maybe Maya would be a better choice in that regard. She turned back to face him. "Something. Thank you, Kaji- san." "You're welcome." He watched her walk into the building. She shouldn't be alone, he thought. Maybe she could move in with Maya or something. Or Misato, although Misato's apartment was already holding three. The girl shouldn't be living alone at that age; it could lead to trouble, he thought. Especially if certain rumors were true. ~*~ "It's a pity we can't just skip the next one," Fuyuutsuki said. "It's a pity we can't FIND the next one," Gendo said. "They could turn him loose almost anywhere." "Anywhere that people won't notice a few monoliths." "Space them widely enough...they could already be in place for all we know," he said. "And POLARIS won't feel anything until they use them." He stroked his chin idly. "And there's the Rei situation." "It was bound to happen eventually. But compared to DAGON, she's still a success," Fuyuutsuki said. "I suspect DAGON will never work in time. It took years to properly train Rei to maintain her balance. And even that may not be enough. The DAGON subjects have days at best. Only the ones whose functions are too minimal to be of use to us survive." "And now she risks losing it. We will have three weak links instead of two. Until DAGON succeeds..." "IF DAGON succeeds." Gendo frowned at Fuyuutsuki. "When DAGON succeeds, we can reassess, but until then...she must be made to lean towards her human side, if she cannot be kept balanced. Because if she leans the other way..." "We could easily end up with one pilot or none instead of three," Fuyuutsuki said. "How do you propose to do this?" "I must think on this," Gendo said. "It is far easier to destroy innocence than to create it." -*- - end part 8 - -*-