Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Neon Exodus Evangelion
Exodus 1: The Gathering Storm
Inspired by Neon Genesis Evangelion
created by Hideaki Anno, Gainax, et al.
Most characters created by Hideaki Anno and Yoshiyuki Sadamoto
DJ Croft created by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Jon Ellison created by Larry Mann
Additional material and inspiration cadged from Tomb Raider by Core Design, Ltd.
X-COM: UFO Defense and sequels from MPS Labs
(whoever owns them nowadays)
and The X-Files created by Chris Carter
Written by Benjamin D. Hutchins and Larry Mann
Aided and abetted by the Eyrie Productions, Unlimited crew
and special-guest-for-life Phil Moyer
© 1997 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
HTML remastering © 2016 EPU
The streets of Worcester-3 were deserted by design, the residents of the city tucked away in their shelters as the taller buildings retracted to more defensible positions. That didn't bother DJ Croft, though; as he hunched lower over the handlebars of his motorcycle and opened the throttle a little further, he enjoyed the luxury of completely empty streets.
He wasn't on call; Jon Ellison was at the top of the rotation today. Nevertheless, as soon as the alert had sounded, DJ had headed not for the nearest shelter but rather for Park Avenue, his NERV ID getting him through the roadblock at the corner of Park and Institute before the cops piled into the shelters with everybody else.
Now, with the city effectively to himself, he popped a brief wheelie as he tore up the Interstate 190 entrance ramp on Gold Star Boulevard, around the 190-to-290 bypass, and immediately onto the ramp for S490. As he did so, a reading laser on the side of the road painted the bar code embossed on the metal plate riveted to his cycle's front fender, checked it against a database and determined that the vehicle was authorized to enter that highway. A half-mile ahead, barricades retracted, and DJ was allowed to enter the S490 tunnel. Rather than emerging on the other side of a hill or river, he came out underground, in the great cavern of the Worcester-3 Geo-Front.
For the past three or four weeks, he'd made this ride at least once a weekday, excepting days off rota like today, and most of the time he took this part at a fairly leisurely pace—not only because the speed limit here was a sensible 55 miles per hour, and the penalty for overrunning the side of the road (which would, admittedly, involved punching through or going over a Jersey barricade) was falling the mile or so to the cavern floor, but because the view was magnificent and he liked to soak it in. Some drivers couldn't handle the S490 freeway—the height and vista gave them vertigo, paralyzed them with fear. DJ was afraid of relatively few things, and thankfully, height wasn't one of them.
Today, he hunched low over the handlebars, pulled in his knees, and got as far out of the wind as he could, wringing all the speed he could get from the Twin Atlas's blaring V-twin. He would never know exactly how fast he'd been going, since he kept his eyes glued to the road at all times, but the guy he'd bought the bike from had once told him it would do 140 on a straight with a small rider.
He throttled back and eased off as he came around the great, sweeping curve to near-ground-level, then hopped the off-ramp for Central Dogma, zoomed into the parking garage and slipped neatly into the space beside Misato's blue Z. By the time the special passcard elevator had carried him to Level 1 and he'd reached the Control Room, Jon was almost ready for launch.
"They just keep getting weirder, don't they?" Misato asked, gesturing to the main viewer. On it, the newest Angel could be seen floating above the streets of Worcester-3: a massive crystalline octahedron, floating on its vertical axis, gleaming blue and almost completely featureless save for a black equatorial band. It looked to be around the same height as an average EVA, and was floating half that height off the ground.
"Synchronization complete and stable," Maya Ibuki reported.
"EVA-03 ready for launch," Jon's voice reported calmly over the speakers.
"Go!" Misato called, and Jon was hurled toward the surface.
As he popped out of the street, already raising EVA-03's autorifle, the Angel seemed to pulse, its equatorial band glowing red.
"Look out!" Misato called. Jon tried to make EVA-03 dodge to the side, but was rewarded only with a shuddering crash and an absolute failure of the unit to go anywhere.
"Control, I'm locked down!" he cried.
The Angel's equatorial band blazed, and a white-hot beam of energy lanced out, burning through an intervening building and slamming into the chest of the black EVA. In the entry plug, Jon howled in recursive agony as the heat flashed through the EVA's structure and the LCL, which had a rather low specific heat in its oxygenated state, began to boil.
"The interlock is jammed!" console tech John Trussell reported, frantically punching buttons. "Some kind of magnetic lock failure."
"Retrieve him!" Misato ordered. Maya slammed her hand down on the emergency retrieval control, and as abruptly as it had come, the EVA vanished beneath the streets.
"Life signs are strong and stable, he's in no danger," Truss reported, looking over the med scanners. "He's unconscious, though. Probably a good thing."
"Get him to the infirmary as soon as EVA-03 is locked down. Engineering Section, I'll want a repair estimate on the EVA as soon as possible. Tactical, keep me posted on what that Angel's doing. DJ... you'd better suit up, I don't think Jon or EVA-03 will be up to dealing with this one after this."
DJ nodded and headed to the locker room.
"Unit-03 recovered!" Maya reported as EVA-03 came to a stop and the gates closed.
"Eject the plug!" Ritsuko snapped. "LCL emergency exhaust! Hurry!"
The back panels of EVA-03 opened and the entry plug popped out of its housing. Immediately, four jets of burning hot LCL spouted from emergency exhaust ports on the plug's upper quarter and the main hatch slid open, sending a huge gout of steam into the air. An autoloader quickly moved into position, extracting the seat from the plug's interior and transporting it over to the catwalk, where a medical team waited with a gurney. With all speed they unstrapped the unconscious Jon and loaded him onto it.
Misato hurried over to check on his condition. His exposed skin was scalded, and blood oozed from his nose and mouth; Misato tried not to think about what the boiling LCL might have done to Jon's innards. As the medtech whisked the unconscious pilot away, they passed DJ as he came out onto the catwalk, adjusting the throat tab of his black-and-green plug suit.
"He looks bloody awful," DJ remarked, tabbing the wrist control and wincing slightly as the plug suit contracted around him.
Misato nodded. "We can't launch you; it'll be expecting another EVA. You wouldn't be able to get off the platform before it nailed you, too, even if the release didn't jam. Go on standby."
Nodding, DJ turned and left the bay. He was a little irritated at being all dressed up with noplace to go, but he could see Misato's point, and he didn't relish being boiled alive any more than Jon had.
Supremely unconcerned with the drama playing out below the surface, the Angel continued to cruise inexorably forward, until it had reached the center of the city. It then deployed a large, pointed probe - which looked rather like an oversized drill bit—from its nadir vertex. The glowing tip of the probe descended to ground level and, without preamble, bored into the ground, tearing up anything in its path.
"What do we have so far?" asked Misato after an hour of probing and feinting attacks against the Angel.
"Anything that comes within one kilometer is immediately attacked and destroyed," Truss reported. "It will respond to any attacks regardless of range; the Type-12 positron rifle we deployed fired one shot from two and a half klicks out and then was obliterated."
"It's the most powerful one we've encountered so far. You can see the phase space being affected." To demonstrate, he played back video footage from their earlier attempt to knock down the Angel with the Type-12 positron rifle, a weapon similar in nature to the one the Angel itself wielded. The T12 fired its beam, which spanged off a dark hexagonal distortion in the air.
"Both offense and defense are almost perfect," Misato sighed. "The thing is like a floating fortress. Close combat with EVAs is out of the question, then. What's the status of the enemy probe?"
"It's reached the first defense barrier. We estimate that it will break through all 22 and reach the Geo-Front about six minutes after midnight tonight."
"Ten hours... what's the status of the EVA-03?"
"EVA-03's chestplates and defensive armor were completely melted. Fortunately the control center wasn't damaged. The unit can be repaired within three hours; unfortunately Jon will not be combat ready for at least another 24."
"00 and 01?"
"01 is fully prepared for combat. 00 is operational but there are still feedback errors, so reliability is questionable, both of the unit and the pilot. Rei's never faced combat before; we don't know how she'll react."
"Hm... I think I have a plan."
Gendō Ikari gazed emotionlessly and expressionlessly at his Operations Director, fingers steepled before him, for several minutes before reiterating the gist of her just-proposed plan, to make sure he'd heard it right.
"Long-range fire from outside the target's defensive perimeter?"
"At the moment it's the best possible strategy," Misato replied, nodding.
"What did the Magi say?"
"Two for approval, one for approval with conditions. Chance of success is 8.7 percent. SHODAN concurs with their analysis but gives us 11.73 percent."
"But better than nothing."
"No reason to reject this plan. Proceed with it."
"Maya, what've we got for long-range weaponry that might make a dent in that thing?" asked Misato as she returned to the Control Room.
Maya turned in her seat and reported, "Nothing in-house. The positron rifle we've been developing for the EVAs isn't ready for prime time yet, and since it's based on a Type 12, I doubt it's got the striking power at range that we'll need. Nothing else even comes close."
"What about the rail-transportable particle beam cannon the Army's working on over at Fort Devens?" asked DJ from the depths of the current issue of Popular Mechanics.
Slowly, everyone in the room stopped what they were doing and turned to stare at him.
"What?" he asked innocently.
Meanwhile, in the infirmary, Jon floated unconscious in a Model 33 automatic life-support unit. The last word in automated medical systems, the Kohler Model 33 suspends its patient in a bath of High-Oxygen Liquid Environment, the same stuff used for deep-ocean armored diving suits. The Hi-Ox is medicated per patient requirements, and every aspect of the patient's life signs and biochemistry are automatically monitored, adjusted, and compensated for according to the baselines established in the patient's file, if there is one, or by the mean human baseline if that is not the case. (In Jon's case, being a NERV operative, he had a quite extensive baseline file in the system already.)
Presently, the circulating Hi-Ox was drained away, drawn by gentle suction pumps out of the patient's lungs and replaced with slightly overoxygenated air.
Jon came to a few moments later, as the top of the unit popped open with a gentle hiss and a team of orderlys came to move him to a regular bed. Ritsuko Akagi hovered nearby; as the orderlies gently put Jon into the nearby bed and made him as comfortable as possible, he thought back to the events that had led him to be here.
"Embarrassing," he observed, wincing as the effort of speaking grated on his dry throat.
"Don't worry about it; there was no permanent damage to either of you," Ritsuko replied. "There was a wiring fault in the gantry system that caused the release mechanism to fail—there was nothing you could have done about it. Breathe regularly, try not to talk much. We force-grew you a few new layers of epidermis, so your skin will be tender for a bit, but your lungs are undamaged. You should be fine in another 24 hours."
Jon nodded and settled back against the pillows as she left him to himself. He felt no pain; the residual effects of the various chemicals circulating with the Hi-Ox still kept him from feeling the tenderness of his new skin.
He sighed. A fine EVA pilot he was turning out to be.
It was a rare pleasure for DJ to watch Misato in full officious swing, her NERV plumage on full display as she brandished executive orders, pushed Army officers about and generally had the time of her life throwing NERV's weight around. The Army technicians were more than happy to help them out with the conversion of their experimental particle cannon prototype to an EVA-operable weapon; they just liked to play with their big toys, never mind the official circumstances, and they had tremendous respect for the EVA techs, whose toys were widely acknowledged to be the grandest of all.
The brass above them, on the other hand, was furious at this upstart agency's gall, just showing up on their doorstep, so to speak, and demanding a weapon they weren't even supposed to know was under development. What right did they think they had to do something like that, they wanted to know? These questions were answered with a polite but pointed recommendation that they read the NERV Charter a bit more carefully next time, and by late afternoon, the Project EVA tech types were bundling up their shiny new EVA weapon and preparing it for air transport to Mount Wachusett, designated jumping-off point for what had been codenamed by SHODAN, in one of those quirky moments that made some people wonder about the computer's long-term reliability, "Operation Gabriel's Horn".
Meanwhile, back in the infirmary, Jon had been floating between periods of unconsciouness and wakefulness, and was at a gray point between the two when he heard the room door slide open, followed by the sound of a wheeled cart and footsteps. Turning toward the source of the sound, he opened his eyes and tried to focus.
"Rei..." he said when he determined who it was, the sight helping to bring him up to a more wakeful state. He spoke quietly, still mindful of Dr. Akagi's advice to avoid talking too much or too loudly. He properly noticed the cart, as well as the food tray atop it.
"Dinner," Rei said simply, noting his look. "I also came to tell you the schedule of Operation Gabriel's Horn. I... thought you might like to know."
Jon nodded silently as Rei pulled her ever-present little red notebook from her pocket, flipped it open to a central page, and began reading, mechanically: "1730 hours, DJ Croft and Rei Ayanami report to the cage. 1800 hours, power up EVA-00 and EVA-01. 1805 hours, launch, proceed to staging base and wait for further orders. The operation starts at midnight."
Jon sat up slowly, groggy but conscious of the fact that he had no clothing on. "I hope it goes well," he said, keeping himself covered with the sheets. "Sorry I can't be of help."
"We will do our best," Rei replied.
"Haven't made a good impression," Jon sighed, resting his chin on his knees.
"Hm?" Rei asked, cocking her head to one side.
"Two combats, damaged both times. Not a good track record. All that simulator time... you'd think things would go better."
"Some circumstances are beyond control," Rei replied evenly. "And damage is expected regardless."
Jon said nothing.
"You're alive," Rei continued.
"EVA-03 is functional."
"That is all that matters."
Jon's pause was longer, but he answered the same way, because he knew that she was right. "...... Yes."
"I have to go now," Rei said. "They're waiting for me."
"Mm," Jon nodded, pulling the cart closer so he could reach the food tray more easily. Seeing that he had the situation under control, Rei turned to leave. She was halfway through the door when he called out to her. "Rei?"
Rei was silent for several moments. "... Farewell," she finally said quietly. And then she was gone, the door closed.
Jon watched the closed door in silence for some time, pondering her parting word.
DJ yawned and looked at his watch: it was 23:30, half an hour to "the operation", as Misato kept calling it. Well past his bedtime. He'd never really had a hard-and-fast bedtime imposed; though Lara Croft could not be described as a particularly lenient parent, she had never been one to impose arbitrary restrictions, preferring to let DJ learn for himself why some things were important. In this way, DJ had come to his own conclusion that the necessity of rising early made it best to get to bed at a reasonable hour of the evening. It was a rare night that he wasn't in bed by ten.
Below him, on the mountainside, the techs were scrambling to finish the last of the connections, linking the giant sniper rifle they'd made of the Army's particle cannon mechanism to the vast banks of transformers and other electrical substation-type equipment they'd emplaced here. The scope of the electrical feed they were providing for this operation boggled the mind: in order to power the rifle DJ would use to attack the Angel, NERV would have to black out a sizeable chunk of one of the most densely populated areas on Earth, from upstate New York across the whole of Massachusetts, as far south as Washington, DC, and as far west as Buffalo, New York. The only areas that would have externally-provided power in that zone for the duration of Operation Gabriel's Horn would be the massive pumping stations that kept the walled city of New York from being inundated by the swollen Atlantic Ocean, for if they failed, seventeen million people would drown.
It was a sobering thought.
He went outside the tent he'd been napping in and stood on the metal scaffold that some thoughtful soul had erected between the two inactive Evangelions, sitting with knees drawn up and arms crossed over them in the gloom like giants lost in contemplation of the city below. Klieg lights swept here and there, checking the transformers, illuminating the gleaming shape of the diamond-like Angel which still hung unconcerned over the darkened city. In the distance, he could see the gleaming surface of Lake Oppenheimer.
DJ heard footsteps beside him; glancing over, he saw Rei, changed like himself back to street clothes for the wait. He nodded a greeting; silently, she returned it. Both stood and watched the city for some time, until Misato and Ritsuko came up behind them.
"It's time," Misato said. "You should get ready."
"DJ," Ritsuko said, "you'll be the gunner for this operation, since your sync ratio with EVA-01 is higher. Rei, you'll stand by with the blast shield and cover him if the Angel returns fire."
DJ resisted the urge to point out that this had been explained to them at least forty times by now; instead he merely nodded and headed back to the tent.
"I'm only to protect EVA-01?" Rei said—not in a tone that carried any resentment or surprise, but merely as if she wanted to be absolutely sure she understood.
"That's correct," Ritsuko replied.
"I understand," said Rei. She proceeded into the other side of the divided tent.
DJ sat on the bunk and unlaced his boots, watching Rei's silhouette where the light on the other side of the tent threw it against the fabric divider as she undressed. He was feeling uncharacteristically serious, heavily weighed upon, rather maudlin, really—his eyes were sad, rather than mischievous or lecherous, as he watched her slim shadow against the lighted nylon, shrugging out of her bra, bending to slip off her underpants.
He sighed, removed his own clothes, and climbed into his plug suit, still watching Rei's silhouette as she did the same. Inactive, her suit hung in baggy folds, making her shadow look like that of someone wearing a radiation suit with the helmet off.
Not for the first time in the past few months, but probably for the most keenly-felt, DJ wished for his mother; but all he got was the sound of the evening wind blowing against the tent, and he began to realize that he might very well never see her again.
The realization washed over him like a wave coming up a beach, and he flinched as if struck, his knees buckling and dropping him onto the camp bed as his eyes filled with long-held-off, hot tears.
Why in God's name am I here, he wondered, and not looking for my mother?
"What's wrong?" came Rei's voice through the wall, and he realized with a start that he must have said part of it out loud. "Why are you crying?" Rei continued.
DJ wiped at his eyes and coughed. "I... I just realized. I might never see my Mum again..."
"You won't die," said Rei softly. DJ looked up and saw her silhouette suddenly shrink and smooth out into the familiar slender curves that were so unmistakably Rei.
"I'll protect you," Rei continued, and then she left the tent.
As he pressurized his own plug suit, DJ realized that Rei was right: he wasn't worried that his mother wouldn't come back. He was worried that he wouldn't be there to welcome her when she did.
He shook his head, ran his fingers through his thick dark hair, and left the tent as well.
Rei was standing on the catwalk, silhouetted again but this time by the full moon, which hung blue-white in the sky. Bathed in moonlight that washed every remaining trace of color out of her already near-white skin and silvery-blue hair, she looked more like a beautiful ghost than ever, and DJ shivered momentarily, though the night was warm.
She glanced back as she heard him approach, but said nothing; they stood on the walkway for a moment and looked up together at the moon.
"Hey, Rei... " he said softly.
"Yes?" she replied.
"Why do you do this?"
She considered for a moment, then replied, "It's where I belong."
"Er?" said DJ.
"I belong to the EVA project," she repeated, though the rewording did nothing to clarify the situation to DJ.
"Something to do with an obligation?" DJ hazarded, trying to get a handle on what she meant. "To Dr. Ikari?"
"To all people," Rei replied, and DJ thought he understood.
Nodding, he put a hand on her forearm and said, "You're very strong, Rei."
She shrugged. "I have nothing else."
Looking slightly wounded, DJ protested quietly, "That's not true."
"It's time," Rei said, forestalling any further discussion. "We have to go." She walked toward the hatch on the side of EVA-00's extended entry plug, then paused before climbing in, half-turning.
"Goodbye, DJ," she said, and then she entered the entry plug, dogging the hatch behind her.
As he entered EVA-01's rather more modern entry plug (which had a sliding hatch directly over the seat rather than EVA-00's rather X-1-like side hatch), DJ felt as if someone had opened a window and let a chill draft into his soul; as if he'd just been privy to a prophecy that one of them wasn't going to make it through the night. The thought frightened him, not least since Rei had already assured him that he was not going to die.
EVA-01 powered up and synchronized smoothly, and as it took up a prone sniper's position at the giant rifle, DJ watched EVA-00 assume a crouching position a hundred yards or so forward, a bit down the slope of the hill, and ready the makeshift blast shield Equipment Section had cobbled together. DJ noticed with an ironic, wry smile that the black, winged shape bore a distinct resemblance to a decommissioned National Aero-Space Plane hull.
"DJ, are you receiving?" Ritsuko's voice sounded in the plug.
"Loud and clear, Ritsuko, my love," DJ replied.
"Remember that, thanks to the Earth's magnetic field and rotation, to say nothing of atmospheric forces, the beam from your particle cannon won't go in a straight line. The computers will compensate for most of that, but you have to keep it in mind. That's why it will take several seconds for the rifle's fire-control system to compute a firing solution—and that's why you're the gunner: your higher sync ratio should give us the best chance of obtaining the extreme precision we need."
"So the fact that I've handled a rifle's nothing to do with it? Ah, well. I suppose it was too much to ask that I be allowed to think I have some actual useful skills," replied DJ wryly.
"Just do what the manual says and don't try anything fancy," Ritsuko warned him. "You can't compute the trajectory needed for a clean hit—the fire-control computer can. All we need you to do is pull the trigger. Rei?"
"Yes," Rei's voice quietly replied.
"If the Angel returns fire, cover Unit 01 long enough for DJ to get to cover, then retreat along the escape path loaded in Unit 00's navigation system. Our best guess is that the blast shield is only good for twelve seconds or so of sustained fire, based on the damage the Angel did to Unit 03 earlier."
DJ watched the operational counter tick down, and when it hit zero, Misato's voice rang out: "Commence the operation! DJ, we're about to hand you all the electrical power in the northeastern US - I'm counting on you to make this shot."
"No pressure," DJ replied, shaking out his hands and taking a couple of breaths. Granted, his breathing was hardly going to disturb EVA-01's hold on the rifle, but it was important to him to do it right, and that meant handling it the same as if he were making a long shot with his own rifle at the range back in the woods behind Crofthenge.
"This is Evangelion Unit 01—Lucifer," DJ announced calmly. "Ready to proceed."
"'Lucifer'?" Ritsuko inquired.
"Unless I miss my guess, we're about to bring our friend over there some very serious light," said DJ.
Despite the tension of the situation, Maya Ibuki smiled and jotted down a quick note before returning to her close watch over EVA-01's status indicators.
All around the mountain, all over the Northeast, the lights went out. In DJ's room back in the apartment, Hal switched to battery backups and automatically went to low-power mode, ready to effect a total shutdown, if the power didn't come back on before his six-hour battery life was exhausted.
The Angel seemed to notice that something was happening; it didn't move, but the energy circulating in its equatorial trench seemed to pulse for a moment, then visibly slowed in its orbit.
On DJ's scope, the changes were obvious, as the two red lines moved closer and closer to crossing, seeming to go ever slower as it became more apparent to him that his target knew it was under attack. He closed his ears to the sounds of the control-van crew interpreting their readings on the Angel, because what they were learning from that, he could see plainly in front of him; it was getting ready to shoot him.
The lines crossed. DJ pulled the trigger. With a crash so loud DJ's brain interpreted it only as a high-pitched squeal, the particle cannon hurled the entire last ten seconds' electrical output of the northeastern United States at the Angel. It formed the source of the brightest light ever generated by Man, a bolt of artificial lightning whose temperature was nearly three times that of the surface of the Sun.
At the very same moment, the Angel produced a comparable bolt of its own. The two pulses of energy darted out along opposite halves of the same trajectory, and just before they met in the middle, they twisted, curving around each other as the electromagnetic forces of like-charge repulsion built up exponentially with every millimeter of closing range. Tearing free from the interference patterns, they rushed forth again, their trajectories altered—the Angel's shot blowing a sizeable chunk out of the side of Mount Wachusett, DJ's flying right over the city and disappearing in the distance.
"Shit," DJ muttered, watching the red TOO HOT indicator. The instant it went out, he jacked the bolt on the rifle, popping the smoldering, blown fuse out of the chamber and replacing it with a fresh one, and the charging cycle began again.
"DJ, look out, it's recharging faster than—!" Misato's warning cry began, but before she could complete it, the Angel had fired again.
Unit 00 surged to its feet, bracing up the shield, instants before the beam slammed into it; still visible above the shield from DJ's higher elevation, the target was almost lost in the glare from the thrown-off energy. As EVA-00 struggled to hold the melting shield upright, DJ saw the beam rifle's charging light flick off. He gritted his teeth, eyes narrowed, staring at the slowly converging X-lines and willing them to go faster. Instead, the targeting computer bogged down as the magnetic interference of the sustained firestorm going on in the foreground forced it into a constantly recalculating loop. Then, overwhelmed with the unforeseen computational demands, it crashed, and the targeting lines vanished as the scope went dark.
"Unit 01, abort, abort, abort!" Misato cried. "The fire control computer's crashed, you won't be able to make a second shot!"
"Rei, get out of there!" DJ cried, bringing EVA-01 to its feet, the rifle coming away from its mounts and trailing the still-attached power cable. "The computer can't work out the shot, it's over, we've lost!"
Rei did not reply; EVA-00 remained still. DJ screamed for her to answer him as the shield warped, buckled, and disintegrated, leaving EVA-00 directly exposed to the hellish fire of the Angel's particle beam.
All thoughts in DJ's brain ceased with the knowledge that, if he did not do something →RIGHT NOW← Rei Ayanami was going to die. Without thinking, without operating the manual controls, without doing anything but doing it, he brought EVA-01 fully upright, snapped the rifle up to its shoulder, patched the sensor suite atop the rifle back into the Evangelion's own sensor system, and took manual aim.
Ritsuko's cry that it couldn't possibly work was drowned in the pounding of his pulse in his ears. As the moment stretched long and thin, he murmured, "Wake up! Time to die," and fired.
The beam lanced out, streaked over EVA-00, and plunged straight through the heart of the floating Angel, blowing a great chunk out of the diamond's back side and bringing the whole thing crashing unceremoniously down into Institute Park.
As the brightness of the Angel's beam snapped off like a blown light bulb, EVA-00, its orange armor sagging and smoking, stumbled, then crashed face-first to the ground. DJ dropped the particle beam rifle and skidded EVA-01 down the side of the mountain on the soles of its feet, knelt it at the fallen prototype's side, latched onto the armor plate over the entry plug, tore it off, and extracted the plug manually. Then he shut his EVA down, ejected his own entry plug, and climbed forth, hacking and heaving the LCL out of his lungs into the night air as he stumbled toward the smoking Unit 00 plug, which lay across the palm of EVA-01's outstretched right hand on the ground before him.
"Rei!" he called, though she couldn't possibly hear him with the power off and the hatch closed. He cursed copiously as he wrenched at the heat-expanded dogging handles on the prototype entry plug's hatch, not noticing as the palms of his plug suit gloves burned away and his flesh sizzled against the hot metal; then, with a squealing, tearing cry, the hatch gave way and popped free, drenching him anew with an outpouring of LCL, which some part of his mind noted was alarmingly hot, though not scalding. He hurled the hatch aside without a thought for the layers of his skin he was leaving on the handles and climbed through the opening into the plug, his mind's eye filled with nightmarish images of what he might find.
Rei was slumped in her seat, her eyes closed, but she looked unharmed; as DJ splashed through the remaining LCL to her side on his knees, put a hand on her shoulder and called her name, she stirred, opened her eyes and looked at him.
"Are you all right?" he asked hoarsely.
She nodded, and DJ broke down, his eyes filling with tears as he wrapped his arms around her and hugged her close.
"Why are you crying?" she asked softly, offering no resistance to his embrace. "Do your hands hurt so much?"
"What?" He sat back a little and looked at his hands, noticing for the first time that they were a mixture of black and angry red, burned to the second degree at least. Even now that he saw the extent of the injuries, though, he felt no pain; only an overwhelming sense of relief. The battle was over and they were both still alive. The strange sense of prophecy he'd felt had been cheated.
"No," he whispered, "I hardly feel them... I just... I was so afraid of what I might find when I got that hatch open..."
Rei took his hands gently in her own, surveying the burned and blistered flesh of his palms. Then she did something he would never have expected her to do: slowly, deliberately, almost ceremonially, she kissed them gently, one after the other. It was a gesture devoid of passion or romance—more like a benediction—and it renewed the strange sense of awe DJ tended to feel around her.
"This is the second time I've hurt you," she murmured, a tear escaping from one of her own eyes. "I'm sorry."
"It's all right, it's all right," DJ replied, the full significance of what she'd said eluding him in his relief as he enfolded her in his embrace again. "You need never apologize to me, Rei, never. And please... don't say you've nothing else. Not as long as you've me and Jon." He chuckled weakly through the still-flowing tears and added wryly, "And don't say goodbye any more, it makes me so bloody maudlin."
She placed her hands behind his shoulders and softly replied only, "Yes."
From Jon's vantage point, such as it was, the operation was little more than a blackout, followed by loud weapons fire and explosions, and then the sound of cheering as the Angel had been knocked out. The power came back not long after, but the unidentifiable sense of dread which had been gnawing in him did not leave, nor did the word Rei had spoken on her way out.
Did she believe she was going to die? The thought had lodged in his brain and played havoc with his guts, only becoming further entrenched by his attempts at denial.
Keeping one ear open, he heard fragments of conversations as people rushed back and forth outside his room. They never lingered in the area long enough for him to get whole sentences, but the fragments he got started to slip into a pattern that filled him with dread.
"... shield buckled..."
"... melted clean through..."
"... completely reconstructed..."
"... second-degree, maybe third..."
"... total loss..."
"... told her to abort, but... "
"... lucky we didn't lose both of them..."
Jon turned away from the door and went to the window on the opposite side, as far from the corridor sounds as possible. He didn't want to hear any more, he couldn't bear it. His mouth was dry, and he could feel his heart pounding. Could it be? Had Rei been killed as she seemed to foresee? He struggled not to believe, but only made himself wilder.
He was looking out at the night-darkened Geo-Front cavern, easily visible with the lights in the room off. He'd almost worked himself up to a proper panic, when the door slid open, startling him. He was initially reluctant to turn around as the anxiety tore at him. What would he find when he turned around?
Well, only one way to find out: slowly he turned to look.
And palpable relief flooded him as he saw her lovely face.
"Rei," he whispered, slumping visibly as the nervous tension that had wound him to a fever pitch drained away. "You're all right."
She nodded. "Thanks to DJ."
At his quizzical look, she explained how DJ and EVA-01 had pulled the entry plug from her disabled unit before conducted heat from Unit 00's slagged armor could heat the LCL to dangerous levels and break down its oxygen-carrying capabilities—how he'd very probably saved her life.
Jon's reply was simple: "Thank God for DJ, then." As his compatriot had an hour or so before, Jon gathered Rei into a hug, whispering over her shoulder, "When you told me 'farewell'... and then I heard that Unit 00 had been so badly damaged... I was afraid you'd been killed. You seemed convinced that you would be, when you left. It scared me."
"Embarrassing," she said quietly. Whether she was talking about the way the battle had gone, or about the nature of her parting words, he didn't know, and frankly didn't care.
"You're alive," he replied softly.
"... Yes," she answered.
"That's all that matters," he continued, and hugged her more firmly, not even noticing the tenderness of his new-grown outer layer of skin anymore.
"...... Yes," she repeated, smiling ever so slightly.
DJ was right; she did have something else.
The door opened again; Jon looked up to see DJ, back in street clothes and with his hands bandaged more heavily than last time.
"Oh, sorry," he whispered.
"No, come in," Jon said, beckoning. DJ entered, closing the door behind him, and went to join them, somewhat startled when Rei and Jon reached out together and drew him into their embrace as well.
"Thank you," Jon whispered to DJ, who hadn't the faintest what he was on about, but nodded and replied "You're welcome," anyway.
As the three separated, DJ placed his pack on Jon's bed, opened it, and fumbled about inside with his rather clumsy bandaged hands, eventually coming out with a scroll-like roll of paper. "Here, Rei... Hal and I made this for you, but I didn't have a chance to give it to you before all the excitement started."
Rei took the paper silently, and, followed by Jon and DJ, went to the head of the bed so she could switch on the reading lamp there and look at it. Slowly, carefully, she untied the ribbon that held it in its roll and spread it out flat on the bedside table, like an old-fashioned map.
It was a sheet of heavy, plasticene material, not really paper at all (the sort of durable, color-holding material that softback books had been covered in for the last twenty years or so), about twenty inches by ten.
Printed on it was a picture of Rei, but not as she had ever appeared. She lay on a stone bier (its sides covered with hieroglyphs), dressed in elaborate and beautiful court robes, her bejeweled hands folded funereally over her chest, her face perfectly composed at rest, eyes closed. On her head was a golden pharaonic headdress, complete with the blue lapis stripes. Only two things dispelled the initial impression that this was a picture of a dead ruler laid in state: the pillow under her regal head and the ever-so-slight hint of color in her cheeks.
REI AYANAMI, said the caption in a stilted, hieroglyph-like font. QUEEN OF THE NILE.
"The setting was Hal's idea," said DJ as Rei turned the picture up to look at the papers attached underneath it with a paper clip. One was a sheet torn from a sketchbook with a fairly good pencil sketch of a sleeping Rei, from the same perspective as the finished image—it must have been done in the infirmary, she decided, noting the obvious outline of an infirmary gown. The other was a printout explaining the meaning of the hieroglyphic writing on the bier in the finished image.
"It... it's beautiful," Jon murmured. "You say you and Hal made this?"
DJ nodded. "Sometimes when I can't manage to get a camera into someplace Mum and I are exploring, I'll take a sketch pad instead. Then when I come out, I'll scan the sketches into Hal and let him color, shape and render them to make them look more realistic. Sometimes he embellishes—he's quite creative for a computer. Making fanciful images like this on the side is kind of a hobby of ours."
Rei carefully rolled the image and accompanying notes back up and tied the ribbon around them again; then she turned and said softly,
"Thank you, DJ."
DJ smiled. "It's the least I could've done for my guardian angel."
She blushed; it would be some time before he knew the full reason. In response, he merely smiled, touching his forehead like a salute.
"I have to go," said Rei after a few quiet moments. "Dr. Ikari wants to speak to me about today's action."
"I'll see you tomorrow," Jon said. "Dr. Akagi wants to keep me here for the rest of the night—such as it is—for observation, but she'll let me go home tomorrow."
Rei nodded and went to the door.
"Say, Rei," said DJ as she reached it.
She turned, hand on the doorknob.
"Yes?" she replied softly.
"Why'd you stand your ground when the shield broke up? Did you hear Misato telling you to cut out?"
"I heard," Rei replied. "But if I had let the beam pass, it would have hit the charging transformers for the particle beam rifle. The rifle was charged. It would have exploded. You would have been killed."
"You would have sacrificed your life for mine?"
Rei fixed him with an even gaze from her deep red eyes, one he couldn't read at all, though it seemed to stare right past his own eyes, straight to the place in the back of his head where his feelings lived, and play a brief toccata on them.
"Because you belong to me," she said unequivocally; then she turned and left the room, leaving two astounded young men staring after her.
At length, DJ turned mystified eyes to Jon and said, "Did you understand that?"
Jon shook his head. "If I figure it out... I'll let you know."
A familiar face welcomed with joy.
A familiar face met with dismay.
An auspicious first impression.
And the most violent sea battle since Jutland.
Join us in seven days for:
"Wonderful girl! Either I'm going to kill her, or I'm beginning to like her."