Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Neon Exodus Evangelion
Exodus 1: The Gathering Storm
Alone in the Dark
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
On one of the levels of Central Dogma below the main operations level and infirmary floor, there was a large gymnasium, primarily for the use of the security officers and the like. It contained an obstacle course of walls, rope climbs, pit jumps, step barriers, narrow tunnels and the like which had to be climbed over, under, through and around, usually on a timer. There were also all the usual accoutrements one would expect to find in a school gym—a basketball court, floor markings for running laps, rings, bars, etc.—and an adjacent weight-training room.
On this particular morning, the gym was empty, save for two observers on a balcony above the floor and one young boy.
DJ Croft, in boots, shorts, tank top, sweatband and leather driving gloves, stood at the beginning of the obstacle course, taking a couple of deep breaths, stretching, and otherwise preparing himself. Above on the balcony, his mother Lara and Misato Katsuragi watched (unknown to DJ, who thought he was alone).
DJ was still fairly small for his age, but, as sparsely dressed as he now was, anyone could see that he was strong—his slender body packed with wiry, hard muscles, not bulky but lithe, kept strong by agility training and light weight work (which he'd just finished as part of his obstacle-course warmup). In another life, he would have made a fine dancer or professional gymnast, or perhaps a flyweight boxer; as it was, though he had the skills of a gymnast, what he tended to use them for was something else again.
His muscles feeling loose and warm, DJ proceeded into the course with an easy lope, not looking to break any speed records, though he could muster a fairly impressive speed in a short, flat-out sprint. He ran up the first ramp this way, and, without hesitation, launched himself off the end, across a ten-foot-deep padded pit, at the other side of which was another ramp. Arching his back, he threw his feet forward, landing with ease on the opposite platform and then loping down the ramp.
The next jump was longer; for it, DJ had to reach out and catch the edge of the opposite platform with his fingers, then pull himself up and continue. The other side of the platform was a very steep ramp; rather than try to control his run down it, DJ set his feet and slid down, tumbling off the end in a tidy forward roll and coming up running. He ran to the barrier wall, jumped up, caught the top, and pulled himself over, dropping lightly down the other side (but not before looking down reflexively to make sure the floor on the other side was the same height, a lesson he'd learned rather painfully in a Transbelvian castle). Next was a ten-foot tube tunnel; it had been designed to be a tight fit for a full-grown trooper in armor with a field kit and weapon, so DJ scrambled through easily, then climbed the rope on the other side without using his legs.
This put him on a narrow catwalk, lacking handrails, high above the gymnasium floor. Since this was a training facility, the yawning chasm was filled with soft plastic balls rather than, say, stone spikes and pit vipers; nevertheless, DJ thought of it as the latter as he made his rapid way across. It kept his edge sharper to assume he was in mortal peril.
The catwalk ended a good ten feet before another down-hanging rope; DJ walked to the end of the catwalk, stopped, then jumped back a few feet and got a running start, leaping out into space, his hands searching for and finding the rope.
With a grunt of effort, he seized the rope and arrested his flight; it was attached at the floor, and so wobbled with a standing wave but didn't swing. DJ climbed down a few feet, until it was safe, then kicked off and landed "safely" on the platform a couple of feet away. The ball pit continued for another twenty-five feet, traversed by a series of small pedestals at the height of the platform he was currently on, but only large enough for one of his feet.
Backing up, he sized up the gaps, counted mentally, and then began, leaping from one to the next with long, powerful strides, skidding to a stop on the far platform just shy of going right off the edge. Now DJ found himself confronted with a stepped wall—massive foam steps with four-foot treads and six-foot risers, four of them. He made short work of this, and caught his breath at the top before sizing up the final obstacle.
It was a nasty one. The back side of the stepped wall was a slide, too steep to climb down; it ended twenty-four feet below at a sheer drop into another ball pit. The pit extended for twenty feet to the blank, padded floor-to-ceiling expanse of the far wall; there was a rope loosely anchored at the bottom of the slide. On the far wall was a narrow ledge, perhaps six or eight inches and only two feet wide; it formed the bottom sill of a doorway in that wall. Miss the rope, and DJ would go catapulting into the pit. Get the rope but be off-center and he'd crash into the wall on one side or the other of the door, then fall into the pit. Too fast, and he'd hit the top of the doorway, and fall into the pit.
Without hesitation, DJ hopped off the top and slid. His left hand flashed out and caught the rope, plucking it free of its restraint, and he swung out over the pit. He'd judged it right—he was heading straight for the doorway—but damn it he was going too fast.
Only one thing to do; he swung his feet up and let go early, trusting his momentum to carry him sidelong through the doorway, and skidded into the padded stop room on his side, crashing feet-first into the far wall like a baseball player sliding into home.
He got to his feet and dusted himself off, then headed back into the gym. Half an hour of work with the heavy bag and speed bag, and then he could pronounce the day's workout complete, have a shower and go in search of food.
"He's very conscientious," Misato remarked to Lara as they watched him leave. "A lot of boys in his position would have let their training slide a little, without you around to make them work at it, but I haven't had to even ask him about it. He started coming here the second day he was here."
Lara nodded. "I never had to bother him about it either," she said. "When he was a baby I'd put him in the gym at home so that if he cried or needed anything while I was working out, I'd know. Not long after he got walking sorted, he started trying to match me, so Mildram and I put together a smaller version of my workout setup for him to use, and kept it updated as he grew. He's always kept fit.
"Coming with me on my explorations was his idea, not mine. At first I wouldn't allow it—but when he was eight I left him at home while I checked out a Babylonian temple find a friend of mine dropped me a line on, and the little blighter got away from Mildram and beat me there." She chuckled indulgently at the memory. "So like it or not, I had myself a partner. It was either that or compete with him, and I'm not sure who'd be on top."
Misato laughed. "I know what you mean," she agreed. "He does have a way of taking charge of situations, doesn't he? If you watch us at home, it's pretty obvious who really rules the roost... and yet, he usually does respect my rules. He's got a definite problem with authority, though."
"That's hereditary, I'm afraid," Lara replied, her grin showing that she wasn't at all sorry. "As imperious as your Dr. Ikari and his lovely assistant tend to be, I don't doubt he goes out of his way to make things difficult for them."
Misato chuckled. "You have no idea." Frowning thoughtfully, she added, "By the way, why'd you hit Ritsuko?"
Lara shrugged and replied casually, "She was bothering me."
Misato rolled her eyes. "You're DJ's mother, all right."
"He's hit her?" Lara asked, eyes narrowing.
"Oh, no, no, nothing like that. DJ's never shown any violence to anyone here. It's just that Ritsuko tends to annoy him, too." She smiled. "Generally, he deals with it by either ignoring or confusing her."
Looking relieved, Lara replied, "Ah, good. That's the way I taught him." She cocked her head, looking inquisitive, and then said, "If I didn't know better, Captain Katsuragi, I'd say you care for the boy rather more than your compatriots here."
Misato reddened slightly. "Well... Ritsuko does have a certain way of viewing him as more of an asset than a person, and Dr. Ikari, well, he treats everybody that way."
"And you don't."
"I did, at first," Misato admitted. "That lasted until the first dinner we had together. He's way too much his own person for me to stay detached after that. We're... well, we're a lot alike."
"Mm." Lara nodded, thought about it for a moment, then said, "He must like you, too, or he'd refuse to live with you."
Misato hesitated, unwilling to breach such a potentially sensitive subject, but then decided there was nothing for it and asked bluntly, "Will you take him away? Ritsuko and Professor Ikari's high-handed attitude aside, we really do need his help."
"I don't know," Lara admitted. "I came in here determined to do just that, but... well..." She smiled. "I'll leave it up to him. It's his life, and anyway, if he wants to stay here, it'd be a losing proposition for me to try and make him leave. DJ doesn't do anything he doesn't want to do."
At the visible relief on Misato's face, Lara's smile became a grin. "He does have a way of stealing away your heart, doesn't he? I never planned to have children, you know. Once, before he was born, I considered giving him up... but that lasted until the first time I saw him."
"What about his father?" Misato wondered, then looked embarrassed as she realized how personal a question it was.
But Lara only shrugged wistfully and replied, "He died before anyone knew I was pregnant."
"I'm sorry," Misato replied, realizing from DJ's age what must have, in all likelihood, claimed his father's life. It had been a hard time for Misato, too.
"So am I," Lara replied, then paused before continuing, "But that was in another country..."
Misato did not recognize the reference, but that didn't bother Lara much. She would have missed it too, had her father not insisted on a classical education for his daughter.
Thinking sober thoughts, the two women left the gym.
Showered, scrubbed, and dressed in a fresh pair of shorts and a black t-shirt with a large white '5' screened on the front, DJ ran a comb over his damp hair, slipped his feet into his Tevas and headed down to the Wedge to see if the new morale measures he'd spoken to Maya about before leaving on the previous day's aquatic rendezvous were in place yet.
They weren't, but Rei was there, reading Snow Crash with such rapt attention that DJ decided not to greet her as he sat down opposite her in the Wedge bench.
After a moment, she looked up, scarlet eyes fixing on DJ, and smiled just a tiny bit.
"DJ," she said.
"Hullo, Rei," said DJ, stretching out on the Wedge bench, head toward the windows of the conference room adjacent (often nicknamed, thanks to its floor level being three steps down from the Wedge's, the Lower Wedge), feet toward the Central Dogma concourse entrance. "How's things?"
"Fine," said Rei. "Jon and I met your mother yesterday."
"Oh yes? What'd you think?"
"She seems very concerned." Rei hesitated, then asked tentatively, "Will she take you away?"
"Not if I don't want to go," DJ replied evasively.
"Do you?" asked Rei.
DJ looked into her questioning eyes and shrugged.
"I don't know yet," he said.
Rei nodded, understanding his dilemma, and returned to her reading as DJ returned to his thinking.
Jon Ellison, meanwhile, was on his way from the commissary to the Wedge himself; he'd checked out the menu, found nothing even remotely appetizing, and so intended to find DJ and see if he was planning on going out for lunch.
He was met by someone he didn't recognize, a pretty girl about his age with auburn hair, blue eyes and a trim figure, dressed in a yellow summer dress and, at the moment, absorbed in (and confused by) a Central Dogma map.
"Hey, you," she said, waving Jon over. "Which way to the..." She squinted at the paper. "... 'Wedge'? That can't be right."
"It's right," Jon said. "Just follow me, I'm heading that way. I'm sorry, I don't think I know you."
"Asuka Sōryū-Langley," she replied, not looking up from her perusal of the map. "I'm the Second Child; I'm here to give the program some much-needed respectability."
"... Oh," said Jon, nonplussed. After a few seconds of silence, it became obvious to him that she wasn't going to bother asking him who he was, so he volunteered it: "Uh, I'm Jon Ellison... the Fourth Child."
"No kidding?" Jon nodded. "I've reviewed your battle tapes," Asuka went on. "You should really find another line of work before you get hurt."
Jon did not reply. Oh, joy, he thought, I get to be this one's marksman? Wonderful. (Ikari's duty rosters still had him listed as point to Rei's mark, but he knew of SHODAN's analysis of the situation and, frankly, agreed with it. He figured it was only a matter of time before circumstances proved SHODAN right, though given Ikari's stubbornness he wasn't particularly looking forward to the occasion.)
"I'm looking forward to meeting the First Child, her combat record notwithstanding," Asuka commented as she followed Jon down the corridor. "You three can't have survived this long on your own if you're all stumblebums."
"What gives you the impression DJ's a stumblebum?" asked Jon coolly. "He has an excellent combat record. And I understand he handled himself quite well in the incident at sea."
"He got lucky," Asuka said hotly. "His attitude is terrible. Besides," she added airily, "he gets wounded a lot. He's not going to last long if he doesn't start being careful. Even now he's not at full strength—how'd he manage to hurt his hands, of all things?"
"You've reviewed the reports on the confrontation with the Fifth Angel?" asked Jon. At Asuka's nod, he went on, "DJ rescued Rei Ayanami from her EVA before Unit 00's overheated armor could heat the LCL in her entry plug to dangerous temperatures."
"So? That's not hard with the sliding canopy hatch."
"EVA-00 is the prototype," Jon said. "Its entry plug doesn't have a sliding canopy hatch. DJ had to open the bolt-dogged side hatch by hand. He suffered second-degree burns... and saved Rei's life." Jon hardened his face and tone as he added, "So don't tell me you have a problem with his attitude."
For once in her life, Asuka Langley had nothing to say.
"Can I ask you something?" Lara inquired as she and Misato sipped tea in the commissary.
"Sure," Misato replied.
"Why did you take DJ's guardianship? I understand it was originally planned that he'd live alone."
Misato considered her answer, then decided to reply honestly. "I'm not sure," she replied. "I guess... I just couldn't imagine someone as dynamic as DJ being alone all the time. I..." She stumbled over the next few words, but Lara grinned and let her know by doing so that she needn't worry about them anyway.
"I see," said Lara with a smile. "Seems I was right then... my boy's caught himself another heart."
Misato blushed. "I don't want you to think that our relationship is... you know... untoward."
"Odd," Lara commented, "you strike me as the type that doesn't care much what other people think. Not unlike myself, come to that."
"It's not what you think of me that's important," Misato replied, "it's just that I don't want you to think DJ has behaved... improperly."
Lara threw back her head and laughed. "If he didn't behave improperly he wouldn't be my DJ," she replied mirthfully. "But I appreciate your trying to put my mind at rest, anyway." Her smile turned a little more serious as Lara continued, "You know, I promised myself once, long ago, that I would never leave DJ anyplace where he wasn't loved. That's going to be a major factor in my decision, whether to ask him to leave this place with me when I go."
Put at ease though she was by Lara's attitude, Misato still refrained from answering that obvious question, for fear that her answer would be misinterpreted.
Back in the Wedge, a shadow fell over Rei's book. Silently she shifted to the right a little, bringing the book back into the light. The shadow moved again, once more darkening the book. Rei's eyes swiveled in the direction of the shadow.
"Hi!" said the redheaded girl who was casting it. "I'm Asuka Sōryū-Langley."
Rei looked perplexed, then replied quietly, "How nice for you." Then she moved out of Asuka's shadow again and resumed reading.
Asuka looked momentarily perplexed, then annoyed, and moved to once more darken the book and cause Rei to look up at her.
"I'm the Second Child," she persisted, "and the designated pilot of Evangelion Unit 02."
Rei nodded, moved yet again, and went back to reading.
Incensed by this absolute lack of appreciation, Asuka snatched away the book and cried, "What the hell's the matter with you? Don't you have any courtesy at all?"
Without a word, her face almost devoid of expression, Rei stood up, slapped Asuka hard across the face, then took her book from the stunned girl's hand, found her place, sat down, and continued reading.
Asuka's face turned slowly crimson, all of it matching the slap mark, and, quivering with rage, she drew a hand back to counterattack; but before she could strike Rei (who was completely ignoring her), DJ darted forward and caught her wrist in a startlingly strong grip, hurting her enough to jolt her out of her anger and into a state of clear surprise. She blinked at him, startled, as, with the fiercest expression she'd yet seen on him, he growled a single word:
Behind DJ, Jon's eyes flashed a similar silent message as he unconsciously placed an almost proprietary hand on Rei's shoulder.
"Ever," DJ continued, then released Asuka's wrist and backed off a step.
"So that's the way it is, huh?" asked Asuka, bringing her left hand up to rub her bruised wrist.
"That's the way it is," DJ and Jon replied in flat stereo.
Asuka glared at them for a moment, then looked back at Rei, who sat, still reading, unconcerned and, in fact, apparently unaware of this byplay.
"Look, I'm sorry I grabbed your book," she grudgingly admitted. "It was rude."
Rei glanced up, then went back to reading.
"You're a strange one. Why won't you be my friend?" Asuka said in a way that made Rei want to do otherwise.
"If I'm ordered to, I will," Rei answered, and returned once more to her reading, leaving Asuka again annoyed.
"Hmph," Asuka remarked, turning away and walking across the Wedge. "Frigid little bitch," she murmured to herself, loud enough that DJ heard; he flushed and took a half-step, but Jon's hand on his forearm restrained him.
"She doesn't know that this is Rei's way," said Jon softly. "She's taking it personally. She'll come to understand."
DJ sighed, seeming to deflate slightly as the tension drained out of him.
"I suppose," he said, plopping back down on the bench. "I hope," he added. Then he brightened and said, "Any word on our morale gear, Jon?"
"Tomorrow, according to Maya."
"Excellent. I must remember to give her a big wet kiss of thanks."
"You're sure that'd be rewarding her?"
"Why's everything have to be about her?" replied DJ with a grin.
Ever so slightly, Rei rolled her eyes.
That afternoon, after an uneventful day of harmonics testing and boring dissertations on the importance of the project, DJ returned to the apartment on Lee Street he'd started thinking of as home, plopped his backpack down in the corner of his room, and sprawled out on his bed, hands behind his head, contemplating the ceiling.
"Good afternoon, DJ," said Hal pleasantly. "How was your day?"
"Oh, same old, same old," DJ replied. Then, perking up, he sat up and said, "Hey, any results on that database search I set you on?"
"I've completed a search of all the NERV databanks to which I could gain access," Hal replied. "The information you requested was not available in any of them."
"Not available??" DJ replied. "You mean to tell me Rei Ayanami's birthday isn't on file in any of NERV's networked systems?"
"Not even SHODAN has Rei's birth date on file," Hal replied. "She informed me so herself."
"Doesn't have it on file or won't give it to you."
"SHODAN informed me that such information is a matter of public record—she provided me with yours, Asuka Sōryū-Langley's, Ritsuko Akagi's, Misato Katsuragi's, Maya Ibuki's, John Trussell's, Otto Keller's and Gendō Ikari's. I asked in order to test just such a hypothesis," Hal explained. "H.A.L. computers are incapable of falsehood. SHODAN does not have Rei's birthdate on file; nor does she have Jon Ellison's."
"That's pretty weird," DJ replied, not bothering to voice his doubt about SHODAN's veracity. It would only provoke a rather lofty and tiresome speech from Hal about how no H.A.L. computer had ever perpetrated a falsehood or made a lookup error.
"I can conduct an expanded search on other computer systems, but I don't think there's much chance of success," Hal continued. "I have already checked with the United States Social Security Administration and the Department of the Interior. As far as their public datasystems are concerned, Rei Ayanami does not exist."
"Definitely weird. Keep on it. Hack restricted systems if you have to, but only if the risk of disclosure or damage is minimal. All right?"
"Very well, DJ," Hal replied mildly, entirely unperturbed that he'd just been asked to violate the law. "I will inform you of any results. Is there anything else?"
"Mm... no. Oh, yes, there is one other thing. I've been informed today that Asuka Sōryū-Langley will be coming to live here with us. I assume you've already read her personnel file?"
"Good. Add her to the access database at access level three. Oh... and don't talk to her unless she talks to you first, for a bit... I want to see how long it takes her to realize what the sensor heads are."
"That's cruel, DJ."
"I know. Do it anyway, please?"
"Right. What does the old recipe randomizer give us for dinner tonight?"
"Szechuan-style wok-fried beef and vegetables, with a side helping of vegetables and not beef for Rei."
"Right. I'd better toddle off to the kitchen, then... be a dear and pop the recipe up on the kitchen monitor?"
"Already done, DJ."
"I couldn't live without you, Hal."
DJ laid out helpings of the evening's steaming, savory dinner before everyone gathered at the table, giving extra flourishes to the unveiling of his special vegetarian version for Rei, then distributed appropriate beverages and took his own seat, chuckling with anticipation as he cracked open the evening's first Guinness and prepared his chopsticks for action.
"Hey!" Asuka burst out, distracted from her confused contemplation of the plate of food DJ had put on the floor by the type of beverage he had. "You're drinking beer!"
DJ blinked. "So I am," he replied, and went on about his business.
"Are you going to let him drink that?" Asuka demanded of Misato.
Misato shrugged, taking a drink of her own Guinness. "Are you going to try to stop him?" she replied.
"What about you?" Asuka demanded, turning to Lara. "You're his mother."
"So I am," Lara replied in an uncanny imitation of her son.
"You're letting him drink?"
"He's a big boy," Lara said, popping open her own beer.
"That's disgusting," Asuka declared, pouring herself a glass of milk.
"Judge not," said DJ, "lest ye be judged yourself."
"I'm beginning to see where you got your bad habits, Fifth Child," said Asuka. "You obviously weren't raised right."
Misato glanced sharply up, expecting to see Asuka on the receiving end of the same sort of flash of temper that Ritsuko had reported receiving from Lara; but Lara simply shrugged mildly and said, "I did the best I could with what I had. Your parents obviously didn't do so well in the 'manners' department themselves."
Asuka colored, but fell mercifully silent.
The rest of dinner was uneventful, until just toward the end, when the second refrigerator opened and Pen-Pen emerged to consume his evening meal. Asuka froze, eyes wide with a combination of mystification and faint fear, as the bird ignored her completely, wolfed down his food, and returned nonchalantly to the refrigerator.
"Wah... wah..." Asuka tried to say.
"Problem?" asked DJ calmly.
"There's a penguin in the refrigerator," Asuka said, meeting his amused gaze with a look of blank confusion.
"Yes, I know," said DJ.
"Why does he go in there?"
"Why do you go in there?" replied DJ.
"To get a glass of milk—but that's not why he goes in there."
"Of course not!" said DJ scornfully. "Penguins are birds, they can't drink cow's milk. Think before you ask these questions, Asuka! Twenty points higher than me, thinks a penguin will drink milk?" Shaking his head sadly, DJ went off to get ready for a bath, and it wasn't until he was safely in his bedroom that Asuka realized she'd been had.
Jon and Rei went back to Apartment 3-F after DJ emerged, endured a withering glare from Asuka as she brushed past him to her own room, and said goodnight to his mother. Having taken her leave of DJ, Lara went next door as well, where Jon and Rei were putting her up in their spare room (Misato and DJ's having been taken over by Asuka). Jon was first in the bath there, so Lara sat in the living room for a while in fairly companionable silence with Rei, both of them reading.
At length, Rei put down her book and said softly, "Dr. Croft?"
"Please," said Lara, "call me Lara."
"Lara," said Rei shyly, then paused before pressing on: "Will you take DJ away?"
"Everyone seems to be interested in my answer to that question," Lara observed wryly. "I'll tell you what I told Misato: I can't make him do anything he doesn't want to do. If he wants to go, I'll take him back to England with me; if not, I won't make a fuss about it."
Rei's relief was not as transparent as Misato's, but Lara caught it anyway, and smiled. "I've seen enough evidence that this place, however strange and dangerous it is, meets my requirements," she added.
"Pardon?" asked Rei, looking quizzical.
"Never mind," Lara replied, waving away the question. "It's nothing... a private joke. Let's just say I'm glad he has friends here."
Rei nodded. "He's a good pilot," she said.
"And a good friend?" asked Lara, her smile inquisitive.
Rei's cheeks got slightly pink as she replied softly, "... Yes." Then she looked mildly startled as she realized that she hadn't said it alone; turning, she saw Jon, a towel snugged around his waist, finishing a nod. He'd apparently heard their last exchange.
Lara's smile was gentle as she said, "Good. DJ likes to pretend he can get by on his own sometimes, but... well, nobody can live without friends."
Jon exchanged a glance with Rei, then nodded again. "Yes."
The plug-out focus test on EVA-00's neurosystem wasn't going well, and the staff in the control room was already starting to tire of their workday after only an hour and a half of the job.
Ritsuko Akagi studied the data being displayed on the master screen and frowned. "0.08? We can do better than that."
"It is within the safety margin," SHODAN noted, "but only by a margin of 0.01."
"What do you think we should do?" asked Maya.
Ritsuko considered for a moment, then sighed. "Abort the test, clear all circuits. We'll do it again."
Maya sighed and started flicking switches. It was apparently bent on being that kind of morning.
Thirteen levels up, Misato Katsuragi was fast reaching the same conclusion. Her entire day, as far as she was concerned, had been ruined at 9:15, with the news that Ryoji Kaji had been reassigned to Worcester-3 and would not be returning to Germany, Japan, or the pit of Hell that spawned him.
And now, just as she was entering the elevator to head down to the control room, she heard his voice at the end of the corridor, calling, "Hold the elevator, please!"
Eyes narrowing, Misato thumbed the →← button hard and repeatedly, praying to the great god Otis that he wouldn't make it.
Just as the doors slid shut, he reached the elevator, and, sticking the clipboard he was holding into the gap, he tripped the safety mechanism and made the doors reopen.
"Phew!" he said, putting on his charmingest smile. "I almost didn't—"
He was cut off as a small blur not immediately recognizable as DJ Croft sprinted around the corner and crashed into him, knocking his papers flying in a great conical spurt down the cross-corridor.
"Oof! Sorry, Kaji, didn't see you there!" DJ cried breathlessly, ducking into the elevator and surreptitiously banging the →← button. "Awfully sorry, I'll buy you a car or something, well, no time to hang about chatting, you'd best be picking up those papers!"
The doors closed and they were away, safe, sound, and without Ryoji Kaji.
"You little shit!" Misato declared, trying (and failing) to keep her face severe. Then she relaxed and let the grin she really wanted to wear break through, and added, chortling and ruffling his hair, "That was terrific."
"Was it? Thanks," DJ replied with a modest smile. "I had to come up with it on the spur of the moment, and I figured shooting him was probably socially inappropriate."
Misato considered for a moment, and then said, "Yeah, I suppose so."
"So... you, uh, come to this elevator often?"
She chuckled. "All the time. Going my way?"
"If you're heading for the control room, I am," DJ replied. "I have some extremely critical Ritsuko-and-Maya-watching to do."
Since Dr. Ikari had stuck to his guns about the rotation planning, Jon and Rei, as Evangelion Combat Team No. 1, were off-duty. Being of similarly unextravagant tastes when it came to personal entertainment, both were at home engaged in quiet pursuits. Rei was sitting on the couch reading Philip K. Dick's We Can Build You, while Jon sat at the kitchen table playing chess with Hal via the remote terminal installed there.
The sliding door the building superintendent had grudgingly allowed to be built (with a little persuasion from NERV's authority) between apartments 3-D and 3-F opened without preamble, and Asuka Sōryū-Langley entered. Neither Jon nor Rei acknowledged her presence, something she had not yet accustomed herself to; she stood in the doorway at odds with her expectations for a moment, then slid the door shut a little more pointedly than was strictly necessary. This caused Rei to look up, nod slightly, and return to her reading, while Jon, in the kitchen and engrossed in planning his next move, did not hear at all.
"Queen takes pawn," said Jon.
"Bishop takes Knight's pawn," replied Hal after a momentary pause.
"Well, this is an exciting spot," Asuka grumped, plopping down on the couch at the opposite end from Rei. "What do you guys do for fun around here?"
"We're having fun," Rei replied, not looking up from her book.
"Oh, how silly of me," Asuka replied, rolling her eyes. "I should have spotted that immediately."
"Rook to King One," said Jon.
"I'm sorry, Jon," said Hal. "I think you missed it. Queen to Bishop Six; Bisop takes Queen; Knight takes Bishop; Checkmate in three."
Jon frowned at the screen, then said, "Mm... you're right. I resign."
"Thank you for a most enjoyable game," said Hal pleasantly. "Would you like to play again?"
"Not now, thank you, Hal."
"You just lost to a computer?" Asuka remarked.
"Yes," Jon replied.
"Way to go, Kasparov." By invoking the name of the pre-Second-Impact grandmaster who had demonstrated such terrible sportsmanship after his epic loss to the original HAL 9000 in 1998, Asuka launched a tactical nuclear strike on Jon's chess-playing ego.
He failed to ruffle, saying only, "If you would care to play against me sometime, I'd be interested in seeing how good you are."
"Chess?" Asuka replied, scowling. "Most boring game in the world. No thank you."
"Um... was there something you needed?" asked Jon.
"Or are you just looking for people to annoy?" Rei added softly from behind her book.
"Well, I can see this was a wasted trip," Asuka grumbled. "I was just looking for something interesting to do, but I can see that this is definitely not the place to come for that."
"OK, Ritsuko," Maya reported. "We're ready to try again."
"Do it," Ritsuko replied. Maya pressed the test-initiate control, and she began intently watching the readings and wishing Truss didn't have the afternoon off.
As they crept toward the break-even point, the consoles went dark. As, for that matter, did the room, and the test chamber with the EVA in it, and everything else in sight. For a couple of vertiginous seconds the control room was plunged into absolute pitch darkness, before the reddish-amber, battery-powered emergency lights kicked in and filled the chamber with a bloody gloom.
One and a half levels shy of the control room level, the elevator abruptly, shudderingly stopped, and the lights went out, eliciting a cry of consternation from both Misato and DJ—Misato because the unexpected stop startled her, DJ because his lurking nyctophobia spurted to the surface of his mind for a moment before the knowledge that he was not alone in the small room could push it back down. DJ Croft knew few fears, but a cave-in in an abandoned Inca gold mine several years before, which had cut him off from light, air and the reassuring human contact of his mother for several hours, had left him uncontrollably afraid of being alone in small, dark places.
He resisted an urge to cling close to Misato; it would be difficult and embarrassing to explain, however pleasant and reassuring it might be. Instead he swung his pack down off his back and fished around in it for a battery torch, but before he could find one, the emergency lights came on, bathing the room in a red glow which was very like that of his darkroom's safety lamp back home. This made him feel more at ease, and he willed the tension out of his shoulders and neck.
"What the hell?" Misato wondered.
"Blackout?" DJ inquired.
"Yet it seems to be happening."
"But what could cause the power to go out in a place like this?"
"Ritsuko probably did something wrong during the EVA-00 test."
In the control room, all eyes were on Ritsuko.
"It... it wasn't me," she protested.
Rei Ayanami looked up as her reading lamp flickered once, then died completely. Cocking her head inquisitively, she turned the switch a couple of times; then, from the kitchen, Jon reported, "It's not the lamp, the power's off."
"Local grid failure?" Asuka wondered. "Americans can't build anything right."
"I'm afraid it goes a bit further than that," Hal reported calmly. "I've lost all contact with NERV Headquarters."
"Hal? You're still operational?" asked Jon. From Asuka's perspective in the living room, she couldn't see the wall-mounted console unit he was talking to; it looked to her as if he was conversing with the oven.
"I have six hours of internal battery backup power, assuming judicious usage of power-intensive resources such as crystal-memory search and graphic rendering. I will need to switch to standby mode soon, to prevent data loss in the event that I completely lose power."
"Oh. What do you mean, you've lost contact with HQ?"
"I maintain a connection with the NERV Headquarters network at all times. That link failed at the same time as my external power feed. This should not be the case; the power grid and telecom network are two separate services. However, I am unable to contact SHODAN or any of the Magi. The network links are functional, but the machines are not responding."
"None of them? That's impossible!" Jon protested. "Dr. Akagi never allows more than one of the Magi to be taken down at a time for maintenance, and SHODAN has run continuously since Headquarters was built."
"Nevertheless, none of them are responding, and my diagnostics indicate that this is not the fault of the link hardware. I am also unable to raise DJ or Misato's HALcomm units, which indicates that the signal relay network is down."
"Something must be wrong," said Rei.
"Guess we'd better check it out," Jon agreed.
"Right!" Asuka said, standing up and grinning fiercely. "But before we go out into a crisis situation, our group needs a leader—and naturally, that'll be me. Any objections?"
Jon opened his mouth to say something, but Asuka cut him off: "Can it, Ellison."
Disgruntled but silent, Jon closed his mouth and looked at Rei. The message exchanged between them was clear (if completely missed by Asuka): It isn't worth the trouble of objecting.
The three EVA pilots left the apartment in varying states of emotion. Asuka was excited and pleased to have her first opportunity to demonstrate that the Children could get along just fine in an emergency without their dipsomaniac den mother or Croft the Mighty Adventurer; Jon was apprehensive and wished that there was some way of gently curbing Asuka's enthusiasm; and Rei felt merely a faint annoyance and an overlay of concern, a hope that everyone underground was all right.
Deep down, all of them shared a quiet dread, a feeling that an inevitable worsening of the situation was hanging over them.
"What's happening?" Gendō Ikari asked as he entered the control room.
"Unknown, sir," Ritsuko replied. "As near as we can tell, what's happening is... impossible."
"Worcester-3 was designed to be entirely self-sufficient if need be," said Maya. "It's theoretically impossible for the primary, secondary, and tertiary power systems all to fail at the same time."
"In other words, this was a deliberate action by someone," Ikari said, his tone betraying no emotion.
"They must have tripped the breakers," Maya observed, "though how anyone unauthorized could get access to the power-system switchroom I don't know."
"Studying this place, judging our strengths and weaknesses?" Ritsuko wondered. "Or some kind of elaborate, stupid prank? I knew it was a bad idea to build this place under a tech-school town."
"OK, first crisis," Asuka observed as she, Jon and Rei made their way down Gold Star Boulevard. "It's two and a half miles to Central Dogma via the S490. That will take us around half an hour—much too long. We need a faster method of transportation. So get your passcards ready—we're going to commandeer the next car that comes along!"
Five minutes later, there had been no cars.
"Hmph! Where the hell is everybody?" Asuka wondered. "Don't they know there's a crisis situation happening here?!"
"Yes," Jon pointed out calmly. "That's why they're not here—they're staying home like the alert instructions tell them to."
"What a negative attitude you have," Asuka said scornfully. "Someone will be along."
As they walked past Harr Dodge, Jon decided enough was enough; he picked up a large rock and heaved it through the glass door to the deserted dealership's showroom, then, as Asuka squawked indignantly, stepped calmly inside and selected a set of keys from the pegboard in the manager's office.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?!" Asuka demanded as Jon, ignoring her, unlocked the Avenger whose keys he'd selected.
"Finding a faster method of transportation," he said calmly. "Get in."
Asuka sighed, then said, "Fine. You drive—consider it your punishment for acting without my permission."
Jon rolled his eyes, sharing a glance with Rei:
That means she doesn't know how to drive.
John Trussell was hanging around the Jim Dandy laundromat next door to Boomers Pizza, waiting for his clothes to dry, when the power went out. He reacted with a speed and decisiveness which might have startled anyone who knew him: instantly he removed his still-slightly-damp clothes from the dryer, stuffed them into his laundry bag, and darted into the street, fumbling for his keys. He knew full well how impossible it was for the power to go out in Worcester without somebody turning it off, and that NERV would certainly have been informed of any plans. That it was happening anyway was a sure sign that something worse was afoot.
And there it was, too, crawling over Airport Hill with a spindly decisiveness that stopped just short of being utterly terrifying: a gigantic, black, spider-like thing with four very tall legs and a round pod-like body slung low at their crux. Misato was right, Truss reflected as he started his car; they were getting weirder-looking every time.
The power failure kept Asuka, Rei and Jon from gaining access to HQ through any of the usual methods; though they had easily reached the Geo-Front by crashing their commandeered ride through the wood barricades blocking the S490, the passcard readers in the Central Dogma garage weren't working and the elevators were powerless. They wandered the garage for a little while, finally coming across one of the maintenance hatchway doors, the sort which slid, but had a crank behind an access panel off to one side in case of just such an event.
"Ah good, a manual door," Asuka smiled. "OK, Ellison: make yourself useful!"
Jon silently shelved the remark which wanted to emerge, and focused instead on turning the crank. It was a wearisome business, the gears being reluctant to move and the door taking its own sweet time to actually do anything, but he finally got the thing open.
The three children descended into the dark.
"Maintenance and Repair reporting no luck getting any of the power supplies on line," Maya reported. "They have no idea what the hell's going on."
"Damn it all," Ritsuko murmured. "Where the hell is Misato?"
"Last time anybody saw her, she was getting on an elevator on Level G-13. That wasn't too long before the power went off; she's probably stuck in the elevator."
"Damn! With the power off we can't even launch the EVAs on their own batteries; they're stuck in the cages and there's no way to get the entry plugs into them."
"Have the M&R work crews report to the EVA cage," Ikari said. "We'll open the doors and seat the plugs manually. Where are the pilots?"
"Unknown," Maya reported. "DJ was getting on the elevator with Misato, so wherever she is, they're probably together. The others were all off-duty. Presumably they've noticed that something's going on by now, but getting here's going to be tough for them."
Ikari considered this gravely for a moment, then said, "They'll be here. Rei won't let us down. Get the crews to the cage; I'm going down to supervise the operations."
DJ and Misato had been sitting side by side in silence against the back wall of the elevator for several minutes before DJ spoke:
"Where'd they dig up that Ryoji guy, anyway?"
"I wish I knew, so I could send him back," Misato said ruefully. "The guy gives me the blues just looking at him."
"Hm," said DJ. He rummaged in his pack, taking out a small silver rectangle, which revealed itself momentarily to be a harmonica.
He blew a couple of experimental puffs, orienting himself to the instrument again, and then began to blow a fairly standard blues-rock line. After a few bars, he paused and sang a line in a comically gravelly impression of a bluesman voice, then blew a few bars, then sang another line. Misato was at first perplexed, then pleased, by the music, and sat back to take it in.
It was a pretty standard blues tune, based on the basic pattern laid down by old-time bluesmen like John Lee Hooker, but it was obvious DJ was making the lyrics up off the top of his head—it was a lament by an unnamed man who loved an unnamed woman, only to have her stolen away by Ryoji Kaji. The lamentor then went on to delineate exactly what he thought of Kaji, in detail.
"You really shouldn't talk about people like that..." Misato murmured during the middle harmonica solo, trying not to laugh.
"What will he do, sue me for definition of character?" asked DJ, missing only a few beats in the bridge before going back to his bluesman voice. The ending of the song detailed how Kaji did the lady wrong and abandoned her, leaving her distrustful of men and more unattainable than ever before, and lamented the injustice of a world in which men like Kaji roamed free to ruin the chances of everyone else.
The way DJ exaggerated the last few lines of the rap and drew out the traditional "wa-waaaaaah" put Misato over the edge, and as he noodled about with the ending, changed keys a few times, and then wrapped it up just as her giggles subsided.
Coming down from her fit of laughter, Misato succumbed to her desire to scruffle his hair, pulling him closer by her side, putting an arm over his shoulders and leaning her head against his.
"You're a good kid," she said with a smile.
"I try," he replied, stretching out against the wall and doing what can only be described as "basking".
Asuka studied the fork in the passageway for a moment. "I think we should go right."
"To the left, in my opinion," Rei replied.
"Hey, who's the leader here anyway?!" Asuka growled, then leveled her gaze at Jon. "What's your opinion, Ellison?" she asked pointedly. Jon looked back at her for a moment, then glanced at Rei, and Asuka knew right then she wasn't going to get a favorable answer. "Never mind!!" she snapped. "To the right!"
Jon glanced at Rei, who rolled her eyes.
Truss noted with some surprise that the barricades into the S490 freeway were already broken when he got to them, but didn't have much time to dwell on it as he sped into the Geo-Front with all the speed he could wring out of his battered Ford. Whoever did that was almost certain to get lost in the labyrinth if they were unauthorized anyway—and maybe even if they were authorized, what with the computerized direction-giving terminals being offline.
"I think we went the wrong way," Jon remarked quietly, trying to keep the 'I told you so' edge out of his voice. "This passage is leading upward."
"Shh," Asuka said. "Don't distract me."
Jon pantomimed strangling her, which elicited the tiniest of snickers from Rei. Asuka, not looking back, mistook it for a cough.
They trudged for quite a while in silence, Rei not caring to say anything and Jon not quite daring as he became more and more convinced that they were going the wrong way.
Presently, up ahead, they spotted a faint light. On closer examination it proved to be a doorway. "There, now what did I tell you?" Asuka said, looking quite pleased with herself. "Follow me!" Rei and Jon followed, but at a few meters' distance. Presently they arrived at the door, and Asuka flipped the emergency release switch and kicked it open.
They were rewarded with a nice view of the surface again.
Followed in the next instant by a thundering crash as one of the Angel's spindly black legs slammed down into the street only a few feet away. Asuka was thrown off balance by the impact and landed squarely on her rear. The leg arced back up into the air and out of sight, and a moment later the Angel's body swept into sight a little farther away down the road. Asuka instinctively backpedaled as the thing seemed to glare at her out of the numerous eyes along its surface, scrambled to her feet and slammed the door shut again.
Heaving a sigh of relief, she found herself confronted by the even gazes of Rei and Jon. For a moment embarassment threatened to color her face, but she fought it down.
"A-hem We visually verified that there is an Angel!" she declared. "Now we have to do something about it! Let's go!"
As she marched off, Rei and Jon followed, exchanging yet another private, knowing glance.
At length, as the Children tramped through what began to feel like an endless maze of corridors and passages, Asuka grew bored with the silence and decided to start what, on her planet, apparently passed for a conversation.
"The two of you," Asuka said with a snide air. "You're the favorites, aren't you?"
Rei did not reply; confused, Jon said only, "What?"
"It's obvious you're Ikari's favorites. He doesn't like Croft's attitude any more than I do."
"DJ is very dynamic," Rei observed quietly. "It unbalances the linear-minded. Makes them hostile."
Asuka nodded, glad that Rei agreed with her, and wondered why Jon was coughing so violently.
"Are you all right, Ellison?" she asked. "It's not that dusty in here." She frowned and added crossly, "You'd better not give me whatever you're coming down with."
"I don't think you have to worry," Rei said, which seemed to send Jon on another coughing jag. Asuka was so annoyed at the possibility of catching some kind of cold or flu that she completely forgot the fact that they hadn't answered her original question.
Before long, they came to a wrecked door.
"Looks like this passageway is totally blocked," Jon observed, taking in the wreckage of the door.
"It can't be helped," Rei replied, pointing to a nearby corridor feature. "We'll have to force open the grate and move through the air duct." That having been decided, she and Jon both set about searching through the debris for a suitable implement.
Asuka, long past trying to argue with either of them, just watched in silence as they worked. These two are scary, she thought. She stops at nothing to accomplish her goals... and he's always right there next to her...
Jon came up with a piece of metal bar, once part of the door mechanism, a couple of feet long that looked like it would make a decent prybar. Moments later, Rei discovered its mate on the other side of the door, and the two took up positions on either side of the grate. Almost as one, they wedged their ends of the bars under the sides, and, without speaking or counting, heaved against them—once, twice, again, until, with a sharp SPANG of parting bolts, the grate popped free and crashed to the floor.
... Why do they all have to be so weird? Asuka thought.
With a final heave from the work crew and a solid clunk, EVA-03's entry plug dropped into position.
"Units 00, 02 and 03 are ready," one of the workers reported.
"Excellent," Ritsuko nodded. "Standby to cut the hydraulic lines on the lock bolts."
"Er, we still don't have any pilots, though."
"Don't worry, I'm sure they'll be—"
At that point, interestingly enough, a nearby ventilation grate gave way and Asuka toppled out with a shriek, landing in a heap on the floor. Jon tumbled out right after her, narrowly avoiding landing right on top of her, and then Rei jumped down, landing neatly on her feet.
"—here any minute," Ritsuko finished, with a slight grin.
"How are the EVAs?" Jon asked as he stood up and brushed himself off.
"They're ready for you," Ritsuko replied.
"How will we launch without the power, though?" Jon wondered.
"The same way we prepped the EVAs: by hand. We've fitted all the EVAs with emergency batteries." Indeed, all three units sported large battery cells on their shoulders. "You'll each have three additional minutes of power."
"Right, let's get moving. The Angel's right on top of us by now."
By now, Asuka had completely forgotten to assert her "leadership".
"Cut the lock bolts," Ikari ordered. Using fire axes, the workers severed the hydraulic lines, sending fluid cascading in all directions. As the pressure dropped, the lock bolts slowly retracted away from the EVAs. "Good, now move the binders manually." As the crew quickly scrambled clear, the three EVAs extended their arms and pushed the heavy machinery aside.
"We're all yours, Dr. Akagi," Jon said.
"Good," Ritsuko nodded. "Move out."
"God, I look so uncool!" Asuka lamented as the three EVAs crawled through a corridor, 02 in the lead, followed by 00, with 03 bringing up the rear. "What a rotten way to make my combat debut."
"It can't be helped," Jon answered through the comm channel. "Combat is rarely under ideal circumstances."
"Oh hush," she grumped. "Just don't do anything to disturb me, either of you!"
"Oh, believe me, I won't," Jon replied with faint annoyance. Rei said nothing. They reached the end of the passageway, and Asuka vented her own irritation on the door which blocked their path, kicking it several times until it gave way. It opened into a vertical shaft which, according to the information they did have, would take them straight up to the Angel, directly underneath it in fact. Bracing legs and arms against the walls, they began climbing up.
With the power to the air conditioners and circulators cut off, the complex had been getting progressively warmer and more humid. In most of the open areas this was hardly noticeable—a kelvin or two higher, a percentage point more humid, as the output of the relatively small number of people diffused over a relatively large volume.
In the stopped elevator, though, it was getting decidedly stuffy. DJ had dealt with this by the simple expedient of removing his shirt and stuffing it into his backpack, then sprawling on the tiled floor and letting the material leech excess heat away from him. Misato, perhaps more mindful than usual of proprieties thanks to the nearby presence of DJ's mother, did not feel she had that option; instead she sat huddled in the corner, still wearing her jacket (since she could feel that her shirt was by now plastered quite revealingly to her body with sweat). That shirt was now no further help at all, and perspiration ran annoyingly down the hollow of her back.
"You know," DJ observed, noting her overdressedness, "you could take off your jacket."
"Probably not a good idea, under the circumstances," she replied.
"Your shirt's wet, eh? Y'know," he said with a grin, "it wouldn't be the first time my poor innocent eyes have been subjected to that kind of thing. Mum and I have swum more than a few out-of-the-way waterways in our travels."
Misato considered this for a moment. "I suppose you're right," she conceded. As she removed the jacket, she felt paradoxically nervous and awkward—as if she were not much more than DJ's age again, disrobing for the eyes or hands of a date. This is ridiculous, Misato, she chided herself, finishing the removal with quick, almost angry motions.
"Tch," said DJ, taking in the sights below. "That shirt's not doing you any good at all. You might as well off with that, too, unless you're shy."
Misato hesitated, feeling that same awkward nervousness flood over her again, and cursed, wondering at its source. Damn Kaji... after all he'd done to destroy their relationship, did the sight of him still have the power to affect her this way? Or...
Or was it DJ himself?
"I'll keep my hands to myself, promise," said DJ, his grin never flagging.
"What about your eyes?" Misato asked.
"Oh, come now," he replied with a wink. "I've got to have some fun in my life."
She considered it for a moment, then decided, Well, what the hell? It's not as if he's going to get too far even if he does try something... right?
Not giving herself any more time to think it over, she reached down, tugged the tails of the t-shirt out of her shorts, and pulled the sodden shirt off over her head, dropping it on top of her jacket. Then, clad only in shorts, shoes and bra, she met DJ's gaze, curious to see his reaction.
It was an interesting one. He looked her over openly, clearly appreciative of her beauty and this opportunity to see it more plainly, but yet there was nothing of that animal gleam in his eyes that she hated to see in the eyes of men—the gleam that always crept into Kaji's eyes when he looked at her and kept his eyes from fully succeeding in their quest to melt her resistance. What was in DJ's eyes was no less sexual, but it lacked that sinister gleam—it was frank, unconcealed admiration, and it had...
... it had respect. That's what was missing from Kaji's look, from the looks of strangers. Respect and kindness and friendship...
Misato shook her head, trying to clear it of the entirely improper imagery that had chosen this line of thought to follow into her mind. Don't be crazy, she admonished herself...
It was only then that she realized what else she had bared to DJ, and, gasping, she moved her hand to cover it, much too late.
"It's all right," he said softly. "I'm not exactly fresh from the shrink wrap m'self, you know. As an old friend of Mum's likes to say, it's not the years that get you, it's the mileage. Looks like that one hurt like a right bastard when you got it—I don't blame you for not wanting to talk about it, but please, don't feel you have to hide it from me."
She looked a question mark at him, her hand slowly dropping back to her side.
"It's part of you, after all," said DJ with a shrug, "and to me, that makes it beautiful."
Misato smiled, meeting his eyes again and not caring that he could see the tears in her own, and prayed that the day's end wouldn't see him leaving her life forever.
Rei noticed it first, as orange droplets of something began falling past her field of vision. One hit the shoulder of her EVA, and was followed by a burning sensation; she glanced up to see the pauldron starting to melt. "Incoming!" she said quickly.
"Taking evasive," Jon echoed instantly, already sliding back down the shaft toward the corridor.
"Huh? What are you—WAAUGH!!" Asuka started to snap, then shrieked as a stream of acid plowed into EVA-02, which promptly lost its grip on the walls and fell, smashing into 00, which in turn plowed into 03 and sent all three tumbling back down the shaft. Thinking quickly, Jon shoved EVA-03's hands and feet against the walls hard, sending up showers of sparks for a few seconds before bringing the three of them to a stop. Emergency batteries, jarred loose by the impacts, fell further down the shaft, along with their autorifles. They spared no time to consider this problem: EVA-00 shoved 02 back into the corridor and leaped in after, with 03 close behind, narrowly avoiding a massive deluge of acid from above.
"The target's trying to invade HQ directly using a strong solvent," Rei observed from the relative safety of the corridor. Presently the acid flow subsided, as if the Angel were waiting for them to make a move.
"I have an idea," Jon said, peeking around the corner. "We need a three-element formation. Someone has to run a recovery operation, get down to the bottom of the shaft and retrieve one of the autorifles. Up here, Point will block the Angel's attack long enough for Recovery to get a rifle to Mark; then Mark will terminate the Angel. Any objections?"
"None," said Asuka, trying to rally her flagging 'authority'. "Ayanami, you're Point; Ellison, take Recovery."
"Asuka," Jon said evenly, "We don't have time for posturing. Your EVA is damaged; your visual sensors and targeting system may be unreliable. I'm supposed to be marksman anyway, and you're supposed to be point. You can either be Point, or take Recovery. Decide."
Faced with such a bald-faced, even-tempered refusal of her ersatz authority, Asuka waffled for a moment; then her resistance crumbled as the truth of Jon's statement cut through her anger.
"Fine," she replied, trying not to sound as grudging as she felt. "I'll take Point; my unit's still got one side with undamaged armor, but the damage to the front may slow me down. Ayanami, you're Recovery."
"Roger," Rei replied quietly.
In less time than it took to describe it, the plan was in action, then over. Asuka, without any further complaint, used the back of her EVA to block another attack while Jon swung his unit, shoulders and feet braced, into position; then Rei tossed up a rifle, Jon caught it and swung it to bear, Asuka dropped out of the way and Jon unloaded the rifle into the Angel's exposed underside. Thankfully, this one didn't explode; it merely sagged on its legs, toppling into the shaft and making the EVAs scramble to avoid being carried to the bottom and crushed by it.
"Target neutralized," Jon reported, a smile spreading across his face. Finally, a combat had gone well for him.
"Damn it!" DJ cursed, teetering precariously on Misato's shoulders as he tried to get the elevator car's ceiling hatch open. "The bloody handle's jammed, and my hands are still too tender to force it. Give me something to pad my hand with, will you?"
The nearest thing to hand, given that Misato couldn't go very far without having to put him down, was her shirt, which she'd hung over the open emergency-phone door to dry a bit; taking it, she handed it up. DJ folded it over a couple of times and wrapped it round his palm, then set to the lever again, grunting and cursing.
"No use," he observed finally. "This's just a waste of time, the bloody thing is jammed fast and I can't shift it. We'll have to—"
Just what they would have to do, Misato would never know, for just then the power came back on, the lights blazed on, and the elevator jerked into motion. This caused an inevitable chain of events:
—DJ, who had been looking right up at the ceiling, flinched away from the bright light;
—Misato's already unstable balance was disrupted further by his and the elevator car's sudden motion; and
—They crashed to the elevator floor in a bruised and painful tangle.
Moments later, the doors slid open on the Control Room level. DJ, face-down on the floor, groaned painfully and lifted his head to see a trio of shocked faces looking down at him: Ritsuko Akagi, Maya Ibuki, and his mother.
"Hullo, all!" he said cheerfully. "Care to join us? The lift floor is lovely this time of year."
Misato sat up, shook her head, and focused on their observers, then realized she was sitting on the floor of the elevator with DJ sprawled face-down in her lap and her shirt clutched in his hand with his mother looking on, and flushed a brilliant shade of crimson all the way to the cleft of her collarbone.
Ritsuko still stared, not knowing how to interpret what she was seeing, as Lara and Maya both realized what had happened and simultaneously dissolved into gales of laughter, stumbling in tandem back to the far wall, putting their backs to it, and sliding helplessly down as their legs gave way.
Unaware of this excitement, Jon Ellison pulled on his sweater, ran a brush over his hair, and then left the changing room for the Wedge. Rei was there, and amazingly, she wasn't reading a book. The new 'morale measures' DJ had requested some time ago had come in while Jon wasn't paying attention, and Rei was trying one of them out.
Jon surveyed the Lower Wedge, which was really a conference room behind the Wedge proper. Unlike the "Upper" Wedge, the Lower Wedge was rectangular, not wedge-shaped, and did not have fixed booths. Instead, it was an open room about thirty feet by twenty, and had a conference table and a few smaller tables with chairs. It was called the Lower Wedge because its floor level was four stairs lower than that of the Upper Wedge. The wall dividing it from the Wedge was retractable, save for the segment in the middle which formed the two main Upper Wedge bench booths (there were windows here providing a view between the two rooms), and unless there was a special conference or something similar in the Lower Wedge, the walls were rarely closed.
To install the 'morale measures', the Services staff had removed the conference table and a couple of the smaller tables plus their accompanying chairs, reshuffled the rest of the room's furniture, and converted most of the room into a small video arcade. Ranked along the righthand wall were eight seats, each on a motion control gimbal and fitted out with steering wheels and shift levers. At either end of this arrangement were pairs of similar stations that had faux motorcycle shells instead of driving seats. The whole thing was apparently one massive linkable game; not being a video game maven himself, Jon didn't know what it was called, and was too far away to identify it.
There were also other, smaller games at hand; in the corner was a standard upright cabinet, playing an eyecatch for some 3D fighting game, and next to it along the back wall was a two-seat machine for what looked to be a mecha combat simulator. There were some conventional games, too—a pool table sat in the far left corner, away from the wall for easy walkaround play, and next to it was an air hockey table.
The centerpiece of the whole affair, though, was fittingly in the center of the room, and for a moment Jon had thought, upon first glimpsing it, that it was some kind of briefing tool, not a game.
It was a silvery-white, low disc, two feet high and about five feet across at the base. Two seats were attached to the front, slung low and angled up a little bit so that the players sitting in them would not obscure a standing person's view of the playing field. That playing field was not a screen, but a freestanding hologram, projected out of a holoprojector built into the depression in the center of the disc. Across the sides of the disc was printed the game's name:
Rei was sitting in the left-hand seat. Her left hand controlled a small metal dial, similar to the sort you still occasionally saw on high-end analog stereo equipment for the volume control, and the fingertips of her right were splayed over three large buttons. Above her, the holo-image showed, against a swirling starfield backdrop, a strange tube-like construct with numerous flat faces, like a strange irregular prism section with the ends removed. From the far end, various and sundry objects—red bow-tie like things, balls of pulsating multicolored lightning, and things stranger than that—appeared in the distance and began coming up the lanes formed by the facets of the tube.
At the near end, a yellow claw-looking construct, a lane wide, its arms pointing down the tube, slid around the lip of the tube at the command of the dial under Rei's left hand, raining red death down onto the ascending enemies as her index finger held down its assigned button. There were four more of those claws ranked in the upper left corner of the holofield—Jon knew enough about arcade games to know that they must represent extra 'lives'.
Presently, as Jon watched, the action got more intense, but as Rei blasted enemies, some of them would not fully distintegrate, and as she intercepted their wreckage before it could fly out of the tube, the yellow claw she played got more and stranger abilities. It could jump 'up' off the edge of the tube; its weapon became more powerful and faster-firing; shortly it acquired a little sidekick (to the accompaniment of a pixel-shattering banner, A.I. DROID!—each power-up spawned a short-lived banner identifying it when grabbed) which floated above the tube and helped it fight.
The action became more intense, but Rei seemed quite capable of handling it, and Jon wondered where and when she'd played before. Shortly, the enemies ceased coming, and as Rei destroyed the last one, her claw began flying down the tube, the 'camera perspective' keeping up so that the tube passed by out of view and the claw flew through open space.
Then a wormhole opened up before it and, trailing blue radiance, the claw dove into it; it sealed behind the claw with a flash and a booming roll of thunder, and then, accompanied by another disintegrating banner message, a voice not unlike that of SHODAN announced,
The pattern of the starfield's movement changed; another playfield appeared. This one was shaped differently—it was not a tube but an open construct, rather resembling, to Jon's mind, a piece of paper folded to resemble a long-division sign when viewed edge-on. With that same blue-trailing warp effect, the yellow claw popped out of a wormhole and settled onto the edge of the playfield as enemies began creeping up the other end.
Entranced, Jon watched the pyrotechnic action through three more increasingly hectic levels, until finally the enemy overwhelmed Rei and destroyed all her claws. Twirling the dial, she entered 'REI' in lieu of initials.
She got up from the seat and turned to go; noticing Jon, she smiled ever so slightly.
"It's fun," she said. "You should try it."
"Does it have a two-player mode?" Jon asked. "You can show me how to play."
"OK," Rei replied, resuming the left-hand seat. As Jon sat down, the game's eyecatches cycled to the score list, and Jon noticed that Rei's last game had been the number-8 high score.
"Number 8? Not bad," said Jon.
Rei shrugged. "Considering I've never played before, I suppose," she said.
Jon gaped for a second, but decided not to comment; it was obvious that she didn't know enough about the subject to realize how unusual it was for a beginner to score so well.
After two hours, flushed and exhilarated with the feeling of having made it a fair way along the learning curve of the game, Jon left the Lower Wedge to get a drink. He'd never thought of video games, especially of the 'shooter' variety, as anything other than largely pointless reflex testers—and certainly there was a large element of that to T5K, but there was also more to it than that. Especially in cooperative play with Rei—he could feel their natural synchrony ebb and flow as they played. It was an experience he would probably not be able to describe to another person if asked, but he was already coming to treasure it.
As he headed for the vending machines in the corner of the Lower Wedge, he noticed Asuka, sitting as far away as a person could sit and still be in the Wedge. When she saw Jon she got up and made to leave entirely.
"Hey, Asuka," he called to her. She turned, fixing him with a scowl, and he went on, hoping to mollify her, "If it's any consolation, I had to get bailed out on my first mission too." Though for rather different reasons, he didn't add.
Asuka said nothing, merely stomped out of the Wedge and began making plans to avenge her hurt pride.
Jon sighed. As he got his soda, DJ came up, hands in pockets, and asked, "What's with Langley? She just stomped out of here like she just found out her magic mirror doesn't think she's the fairest of them all any more."
Jon sighed again, more ruefully this time. "She's had a bad day. In the Angel encounter she had the kind of bad luck that marked my first couple of attempts."
DJ shrugged. "Well, it's like my Mum always says... shit happens."
"Asuka doesn't seem to think it should happen to her."
"Poor dear," said DJ sardonically. "C'mon, let's go break in the rest of those lovely games. I notice you and Rei have already given the T5K machine a good thrashing."
"It's an excellent game," Jon admitted.
"Wait 'til it hits general release next month," DJ said with a grin as they headed back toward the Lower Wedge together. "It'll blow the doors off every other shooter on the market now."
"It hasn't been released yet?" Jon inquired.
"Nope," DJ replied. "We've got the first non-test-article production machine, Number 005."
"How did you manage that?"
DJ made a dismissive gesture. "Mum knows the bloke who programmed it. Bloody genius, he is—we should invite him out sometime and show him we're putting his baby to good use."
Two hours later, DJ and Rei sat on the wall at Bancroft Tower, the Corley pinging quietly in the background, and watched the buildings of Worcester rise from the ground and begin twinkling in the gathering twilight.
"Ah," said DJ, smiling. "The lights of the city..."
"Mankind fears the darkness," Rei observed, "and scrapes it away with fire to survive."
DJ's smile faded, and he nodded soberly, realizing from his perspective as an accomplished, albeit amateur, historian, that she was right. Man counted fire as his greatest discovery not because it gave him advanced metallurgy, better tools, weapons, infrastructure... but because it enabled him to keep the demons of the dark away.
"I have to go back to England for a while," DJ said after digesting her statement for a moment.
Rei glanced at him, a trace of worry in her eyes. "Will you come back?"
"As soon as I can. I found out this afternoon my grandfather's made another custody attempt... Mum's flying back as we speak to take care of the preliminaries. I have to go to the hearing, but as it's not for nine days I'll have time to take a liner over. I think this time I'll try to demonstrate my self-sufficiency and try for minor emancipation rather than putting Mum through the old custody-fight-with-Sir-Henshingly ordeal again... what with NERV and all, I stand a good chance of winning it."
"What if you don't?"
"I'll come back anyway," said DJ with a grin. "They haven't built the manor house that can hold DJ Croft."
Rei smiled, then surprised him by reaching over, squeezing his hand, and quickly releasing it.
"Good," she said softly. "We need you here."
"I need me here, too," DJ replied quietly. He didn't elaborate, and Rei didn't ask.
NERV has a unique opportunity.
DJ takes an unexpected journey.
Asuka learns a science lesson the hard way.
Rei keeps her own counsel.
And Jon shows a little more of what he's made of.
In seven days:
Neon Exodus Evangelion 1:8
Journey Toward the Center of the Earth
"I'm a natural-born unfastener and that zip calls to me."