Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Neon Exodus Evangelion
Exodus 2: Symphony of Terror
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
"I just want you all to know how much I hate this."
The staff of NERV Operations were no strangers by now to Asuka Sōryū-Langley's flat declarations of disenchantment, but this time, Maya Ibuki reflected, she might just have a point.
"It's got to be done," Ritsuko Akagi pointedly informed the balking pilot. "We can't just sit still with the EVA technology, you know—it must constantly be improved. The automatic pilot research is the next logical step toward a completely autonomous unit."
"So that you can get rid of us?" Langley replied. "Dumb idea."
"So that we can stop exposing you to such dangers!" Misato Katsuragi interjected. "Sooner or later, if we can't remove you children from the loop and replace you with technology, one of you will be killed. Are you that eager to die?"
"Why, Misato," replied Asuka snidely. "I didn't know you cared."
"I don't know why I bother to," Misato smoldered, relinquishing the intercom.
"Enough!" Ritsuko snapped. "Are you all through decontamination?"
"I hope so," came the lazy English accent of DJ Croft. "I've never been so clean in all my life, and I hope never to be again. It's unnatural."
"Croft, you're a pig," Asuka announced.
"Asuka, love, I'd rather be a pig than a fascist," DJ replied breezily.
Ritsuko held her hands to her temples, drumming her fingertips on her forehead, and counted slowly to 1010 in binary. (Maya chiming in softly, "S-O-S," as she reached "one zero zero one" didn't help much.)
Then, keeping her voice entirely neutral, she keyed the intercom mic again and said, "All EVA pilots proceed to the testing plugs." Then she steeled her nerves for the inevitable protest.
"Down a common hallway?!" Asuka cried. "No way! I didn't sign up to give a free show to Croft and Ellison."
"So slap us and it'll be a paid viewing," Jon quipped before thinking better of it.
"Die, Ellison," Asuka growled, pinning him with a vicious glare over the shoulder-high partition wall. "Slowly and painfully."
"I'd just as soon he didn't," Rei remarked quietly.
"You keep out of this, Ayanami!" Asuka had redirected her glare in Rei's direction, though Jon didn't notice since he was looking at Rei himself. Rei glanced back at him, and her cheeks colored a bit as she smiled faintly.
Then the electronically modulated sound of Dr. Akagi clearing her throat disturbed the moment. "If we are ready?" she asked pointedly.
"Sorry about that, Dr. Akagi," Jon replied, looking directly at the camera from which her voice had come.
"And well you should be, Jon," said DJ as he pushed open the door to his 'stall' (the end of the corridor where the Children were looked like nothing so much as a horse-race starting gate) and struck out for the door to the testing room some twenty meters distant. "You know bloody well that's my line."
Except for the fact that it was entirely submerged in heavy water and was the Cleanest of Clean Rooms, this testing chamber was very much like all the others in form and function. The EVA simulation bodies were similar in design to the actual EVAs except for the fact that a gorgonlike mass of cables occupied the space a head would normally take up.
If all went well, the simulation bodies would route their responses and output to the dummy plugs, which in turn would interact with the Evangelions they were attached to. It was hoped that, given sufficient reflexes and patterns, the AIs would reach the point where they would be able to learn, which in turn would put the Evangelion units on an even par with the Angels.
If all went well.
Jon personally wasn't sold on the whole autopilot idea either, something it seemed he and Asuka agreed on. Trying to remove the risk to the Children was a perfectly valid thing, of course, but as he'd once heard somewhere: "Risk is part of the game if you want to sit in that chair." And if nobody was sitting in that chair, then how different was the automated Evangelion from an Angel?
"Hmm, inside stateroom," DJ observed as his entry plug locked down, but no view appeared on the screens, for the "EVA" he was aboard had no head, and therefore no sensors to route. "I shall have to speak with the steward."
"Hey!" Asuka cried from her own plug. "They made me take off my interface headset for decontamination and there's no replacement in here!"
"This round of tests is being done without interface headsets," said Ritsuko over the intercom all-call. "We want to get an absolute baseline for your respective neural interactions with the units straight—no neural interface headsets to boost the signal, no plug suits to provide external support. We want absolutely no outside interference."
"Mathematical chaos says that's impossible," DJ pointed out.
"Thank you, Professor Croft, that will be all for now," said Ritsuko dryly.
"Well, hmph!" DJ replied. "First you send me to school, then you don't care to hear what I've learned."
"We want to minimize outside interference," said Ritsuko. "All right? Lock yourselves down and let's get ready. Initialize neural synchronization in five. Four. Three. Two. Synchronize: Now."
"Wh... whoa," came Asuka's voice. "Feels... weird. Hollow... like I stuck my head in a bucket."
"This feels unpleasantly like being drunk," DJ observed.
"What's so unpleasant about that?" Misato inquired wryly.
"Ask a glass of water," DJ replied.
Asuka blinked and was about to ask what the hell that meant when she was interrupted.
"Give it a few seconds to stabilize, it'll feel strange initially because of the lack of signal modulation through the headsets," said Ritsuko.
"OK... things are quieting down now. Phew! I don't want to go through that again anytime soon," DJ remarked.
"Report in numerical unit order. Test unit 0, how does your interface feel?"
"As Asuka indicated, there's a sense of hollowness," Rei replied. "Also, I can't feel the left arm at all."
"Vertigo's passed off, thank God," said DJ. "I do get the head-in-the-bucket sensation... and a funny feeling like I'm a couple of seconds behind myself, if you follow..."
"DJ's right," said Asuka, so caught up in the experience that she forgot her natural reluctance to admit such things. "There's a sense of... of distance. Like I'm a step or two behind myself. Very weird."
"Probably transmission lag, we'll work that out as we go. Unit 3?"
Jon paused for a moment, then said, "This is very strange, Control. I feel... cold."
"Your LCL temperature is steady at eighty-five degrees," Maya reported.
"I know... and all readings look normal from in here, too. Probably a side effect."
"We'll look into it. Let's proceed."
For almost two hours, test led into test. Misato found it, like all technical tests, boring as hell, but this one held her interest more readily than most. She found it fascinating the way the Children laid their differences aside and actually concentrated once the technical end of the test began. It made her proud of all of them, of the whole organization.
In his entry plug, Jon furrowed his brow. Rather than passing off as the others' discomforts seemed to have, his was increasing. Now not only was he cold, he was feeling tactile hallucinations—he felt as if something small and numerous was crawling all over him. It was bothersome—indeed, loathsome—but initially he had put it down to a simple miscompatibility that would smooth itself out. As hour one blended into two, he was no longer so certain. If it hadn't passed off by the two-hour mark, he resolved to mention it.
As the secondary reaction tests began, Maya noted one of the Synchrotron dials slumping into the yellow zone.
"Synchrony on Simulation Body #3 is dropping off," she reported.
"Jon?" Ritsuko leaned forward, keying her mic. "What's the matter?"
"I'm... not sure," Jon answered cautiously. "Something's not right here."
Knowing it would be a bad idea to take one of Jon's bad feelings lightly, Truss began running diagnostics on everything again.
"Whoa!" Maya remarked, another moving gauge catching her eye. "John, look at this. That minor flaw in the containment wall we tracked at H plus point two is growing."
"Maybe the rush job on this facility wasn't such a good idea," Truss remarked, running another set of structural integrity diagnostics. "Damn. Dr. Akagi, if this drops another two points we're going to lose that wall."
"What's on the other side of it?"
"Coolant conduits," Maya observed, consulting a layout display. Just then, one of those conduits began to blink. "What the hell? Now Number Two coolant conduit is corroding."
"Those conduits are industrial-grade stainless steel!" Ritsuko said, blinking in surprise. "They're not supposed to corrode at all, let alone that fast."
Any further discussion on that subject was forestalled as a shriek split the comm channel.
"Rei!!" at least four voices shouted in unison as Simulation Body Zero began to twitch and spasm, one of its hands coiling into a fist and rearing up to strike at the control room.
Jon's synchronization with his simulation body spiked back up to full strength, as he whipped SB3's right arm and latched onto SB0's, staying its blow. SB0's other arm sprang forward and latched onto 3's wrist and began twisting with incredible force. The pain was greatly muted thanks to Jon's lack of a neural headset, but it still hurt.
And through the pain, the nature of the odd crawling sensation became quite clear.
"Control, abort the test!" he shouted. "Abort, abort, abort! Attacker is an Angel, repeat, attacker is an Angel!!"
"GodDAMN!" Misato snarled. "Abort the test, eject all entry plugs! All contingency lasers, target Simulation Body Zero and fire as soon as the plugs are clear."
With great clouds of bubbles, the four entry plugs were ejected and their positive-buoyancy charges inflated. Thus propelled, they shot to the surface, passing through emergency evacuation bulkheads seconds after they opened before finally bobbing to the surface in the reflecting pool in front of the Central Dogma Pyramid.
"Fire contingency lasers!" Misato ordered, and Truss brought his finger down on the button, but too late. The lasers fired as planned, but their beams bent away from the afflicted faux-EVA, glancing off the familiar hex-field pattern of an Absolute Terror Field.
"Oh, hell," Misato breathed. "Everybody out of here, now! Evacuate the facility!"
"Leaving!" Truss declared, abandoning his post. "Leaving is good. Not dying, always a plus."
The techs, Ritsuko and Misato made it through the door with bare seconds to spare; as they got clear, a bulkhead slammed down as, behind them, the observation windows imploded and the control room flooded.
Misato and the rest of the crew arrived in the control room minutes later; Dr. Ikari and Colonel Keller were already there, scrambling to shut everything down, seal everything off, on the level where the test had taken place.
"How did this situation get so far out of control so quickly?" Ikari demanded as the others entered.
"This attack was totally unexpected," Misato replied flatly. "The enemy has never before demonstrated an ability to infiltrate in such a manner. Before now they've always attacked us as giant entities, for Christ's sake!"
Ikari weighed that response for a moment, then nodded, the tiniest hint of a smile on his face. "How do you intend to stop it?"
"I haven't the faintest idea," Misato admitted. "Ritsuko, can we contain it down there?"
"I think so. It's expanding right now, but shutting down the power to that sector has prevented it from taking one of the sim bodies ambulatory, which I think was its original intent. It might have been able to assimilate the common materials of the test chamber, but there's no way it's going to eat through the sector bulkheads. We've got it trapped."
"Trapped in the most sensitive sector of Terminal Dogma!" Ikari declared.
Ritsuko nodded. "But trapped, nonetheless. Maya, John, what can you give me on its physical structure?"
"Coming up now," replied Truss as he finished patching his console into the master network again.
"It seems to be functioning somewhat nanotech-style," Maya observed. "Each cell is semi-autonomous, and they seem to act more with a common purpose than an overseeing intelligence."
"Launch the Evangelions to the surface immediately," Ikari ordered.
"What?!" Misato replied. "The pilots haven't been recovered yet."
"We can't fight this one with the EVAs anyway," Ikari replied. "If this Angel reaches them, we're finished. Launch them out of harm's way. EVA-01 first; sacrifice the others if you have to, but it must not be damaged."
Misato eyed the NERV Supreme Commander dubiously for a moment, then nodded acknowledgement and turned to carry out his orders. Within moments, all four EVAs were safe, but powerless, on the surface.
"OK... now what?" Misato wondered, watching the shifting pattern of the Angel on the viewer as Ritsuko and her team looked for a way to destroy it.
Asuka Sōryū-Langley was very, very annoyed. She knew this test was a stupid idea, and here was the proof: four Evangelion pilots, bobbing around like corks in a bowl of water, unable to go anywhere or do anything because some genius had insisted that they be stark naked in their entry plugs for some stupid test, while an unknown enemy force ravaged the test center. What a bunch of raw amateurs.
And now that the LCL had been exhaust-vented, she was not only stark naked, but freezing as well. Oh yes. Life, she was beginning to realize, is an endless party.
She jumped, startled from her reverie, by the sharp KLATCH of her plug's emergency rescue release being engaged from without. "What the hell?!" she demanded. "Who's there?!"
With a pneumatic hiss, the pop-up canopy on her plug followed its name, letting in a glare of muted light. Asuka shrieked and recoiled, hurling her arms across her chest and clamping her knees together, as DJ Croft put a hand over the canopy coaming to steady himself and said cheerfully,
"What the hell do you think you're doing?!" Asuka yowled. "Get away! Get away from me!"
"Relax," said DJ dismissively, his eyes randomly elsewhere. "We're going to swim for it, figure it's safer than hanging around waiting for our entry plugs to sink. You're welcome to join us."
"They'll send a recovery craft!" Asuka replied. "Close the damn hatch."
"Can't reach it," DJ replied. "Anyway, it's faster if we swim. It's only a couple of hundred yards, piece of cake for an experienced reef diver like you. You haven't had anything to eat in the last hour, I assume?" he added with a grin.
"Of course not!" Asuka replied scornfully. "But... but... but I'm naked!"
DJ shrugged. "No better way to swim," he replied. "Suit yourself, I'm out of here." And with that, he dove under the plug, to surface on the other side and paddle blithely away.
Asuka watched him go, her annoyance fading to be replaced with curiosity. He wasn't going to hang around the plug and cajole her (and, more to the point, ogle her)? What, as Mr. Kaji would say, is up with that?
Well... it is fairly dark today... and the light is hitting the water such that it reflects rather than being transparent...
"Wait!" she cried, diving over the side of the plug.
Obediently, DJ waited. Jon and Rei, already halfway to the shore nearest Central Dogma, did not.
"Ah, you've decided to join us," said DJ as Asuka swam after him. "Say, that's a nice smooth Australian crawl you've got there."
"Thanks," she replied. "Don't look at me." By now, it had become a formality.
"Fine, sorry," said DJ, turning away and continuing his own swim for shore. "When all this is over, Asuka my love, I shall take you on a proper dive."
"Don't call me that. What do you mean, a proper dive?"
"Oh, someplace more interesting than Pyramid Pond, anyway," he replied. "Perhaps the Bismarck. It's been a while since I was there. Or the Titanic. Won't be long before she's gone, poor old love."
"You make it sound like visiting old girlfriends."
"Perhaps it is," he replied.
Jon and Rei, having started earlier and not paused, reached shore about then. Rei, as ever unconcerned, simply pulled herself from the water and stood on the bank, examining her left arm with odd, clinical detachment. Jon followed, but found himself wishing for a towel.
Not that he wanted to cover Rei; there was certainly nothing objectionable to be seen there. In fact, Jon could not recall ever having seen anything, in any category of being, he would classify as closer to perfection...
... but nonetheless, he wished he had a towel.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
Rei turned and regarded him steadily with her red gaze, then smiled, very faintly, and replied, "I will be."
DJ and Asuka got to shore at about the same time, by which time a medtech squad had reached them from the building. DJ hauled himself up, then turned to offer a helping hand to Asuka, who pointedly refused it.
"Don't look at me, you perverts!" she declared as she pulled herself up onto the concrete.
"By which, of course, she means, 'Hey you guys—check this out!'" DJ observed dryly.
"Go to hell, Croft," said Asuka sourly.
"Stuff a towel in it, Langley," said DJ, grabbing two from the nearest medtech and tossing one to her. He snugged his around his waist, then took another and scrubbed at his hair. "Ahh! Mental note: don't bother showering when covered with LCL, just come out and jump in the pond. Much more refreshing."
"The Children are back in the building," one of the medtechs was reporting to Misato on a small screen. "They're in the locker room right now, getting dressed. Far as we can tell they're all OK."
"Great, thanks," said Misato. "I don't guess we'll need them, but we're still on alert, so they'll have to stick around."
At that moment, the control center lights went red and an alarm began howling. Misato couldn't remember ever having heard this particular alarm before, though—it was different from the standard combat alert and standby alert horns, much more urgent. Something about its note was calculated to drive an adrenaline surge up the spine, and it delivered.
"What's that alarm?" she shouted to Ritsuko over the clamor.
"Oh, God!" Ritsuko cried, not listening to her friend. Misato followed the blonde scientist's eyes to the master viewer, and then she too understood.
On the master viewer was a diagram of Project Evangelion's Holy Trinity of supercomputers, the Magi—each connected to the other two, with SHODAN in the center mediating. The Magi were green boxes, SHODAN a green circle.
Right now, SHODAN's circle was about half red.
"SHODAN, status report! What the hell's happening—Maya, kill that damned siren!" Ritsuko barked. Maya complied, and then Ritsuko repeated her demand of the computer.
When SHODAN normally spoke, it was in a mellow, carefully modulated, reassuring, but slightly supercilious female tone—the voice, as it happened, of the late Dr. Naoko Akagi, Ritsuko's mother.
Now, the computer's normally soothing voice was a cacophony of different tones, as each element of SHODAN's intricate memory construct went in a slightly different direction. The computer's speech was halting, its pacing random. Sometimes flickers of its old voice would break through, but more often than not, it was merely the voice of madness.
"Tr/tr/tR/trAPpIng uS in YouR tEStInG/ing/iNg fAciLItY wiLl dO YoU nO GOoD/no gOod," it observed. "YoUR dOom iS As/aS/AssUReD."
"Oh my God," Ritsuko moaned.
"Confirmed," Truss declared. "SHODAN is under attack... and it's coming from the Sim Body test facility."
"The Angel is hacking our computer? What the hell for?" Misato demanded.
"Everything we know about the Angels and the EVAs is stored in SHODAN's memory," Ritsuko pointed out, her voice dull and hopeless as she stared at the ever-increasing redness of the circle on the master display. "All of our plans, our hopes, our dreams. All in the hands of the enemy."
"Well, turn it off!" Misato demanded.
"It's not that simple," said Ritsuko, shaking her head. "You can't just turn off a Nine Thousand series, even one as heavily modified as SHODAN. And anyway, we'd have to destroy her to do it... which would leave us with nothing. Either way, we lose."
As Ritsuko spoke those words, the last sector in SHODAN's circle went red.
Moments later, another alarm blared; the connection from SHODAN to the first Magus, Balthasar, went red, and the tiny block sectors within the Balthasar diagram began reddening from that point outward.
"Enemy is now attacking Balthasar from SHODAN!" Maya cried.
"What?! That doesn't make any sense. They have control of our master system, why attack the Magi too?" Ritsuko demanded, shocked out of her funk.
"I don't know, but damn, it's fast!" Truss replied, his hands flying over his station's keyboard. "Balthasar's as good as gone. Maya, take Melchior, I'll take Caspar—it's got to go one way or another from here."
"Right," Maya replied, nodding and logging into the mighty second Magus. "Build it a Stoll trap and let's see if we can box it in."
"ArT/aRt/arTIfIciAL iNteLLIenCe BaltHasAr hAs rec/rEc/ReComMEndeD seLf/lf/Lf-deSTruCtIOn," said the cacophonous voice of SHODAN.
"My Christ!" Ritsuko blurted. "I know what it's trying to do! If it can take over two of the Magi and SHODAN, it can carry a quorum vote for self-destruction, send the fusion reactor critical—blow up the Geo-Front!"
"Devious bastard," Misato remarked. "Can we stop it?"
"Maybe," Ritsuko replied. "I don't know."
The control room door opened and the four Children, back in street clothes, entered. A look at the master board gave them all a good idea of what was going on.
"Balthasar's gone—it's attacking Melchior!" Maya declared. "It's foxed my first trap. Let's see if it'll buy a fake loopback route."
"SeLf-DEsTrUctIOn vO/Vo/voTe coMPleTe," SHODAN announced. "ReS/rESulTs as FoL/fOL/lOws. CasP/p/pAr: nO. mElCHiOr: No. B/b/bAltHasAr: YeS. MEdiAtiNg/InG/inG vOte: NoT neCesSaRy. SeLf/sELf/seLf-deStruCTiOn ab/Ab/aBorTed.
"ArTIfIciAL iNteL/tEl/TelLIenCe BaltHasAr/ar/aR hAs ReComMEndeD/ed/Ed seLf-deST/eSt/estRuCtIOn."
"I'm making emergency modifications to the network's decision logic," Truss announced.
"Contingency," he replied. "Trust me! Buy me time."
"Carry on," Ritsuko replied, taking a console herself and logging into Melchior. "Maya, it's not buying the route, give it a null pointer while I set up another iron box."
"Son of a bitch, it's learning from our tricks," Maya snarled, pounding her keys. "It's got... it's got... shit! It's got control. It's... it's going after Caspar."
"Why? It's got enough systems to make a quorum, you said," Misato inquired.
"But it doesn't know that," said Truss, his fingers still flying. "I changed the network's topology so that SHODAN no longer receives vote updates from Melchior or Balthasar. It can only receive them by proxy from Caspar. Until it takes Caspar, it's helpless..." He finished typing and sat back with a long, loud sigh. "... and I just threw Caspar into Level Three diagnostics. Our angelic hacker may be fast, but it still has to wait for CPU time like everybody else, and for the next three hours, Caspar's not going to have any of that to spare."
"Whoa!" Maya declared. "That's pretty slick, Truss."
"Excellent work, John," Ritsuko concurred. Truss nodded, spreading his hands modestly, then sobered.
"Still... we've only got three hours."
"Filibuster vigilantly," Rei murmured under her breath.
"Mm?" Jon wondered.
"Nothing," replied Rei.
"Someone explain to me why we can't just shut the damned things down again?" Misato wondered.
"Since the outage we had with the Seventh Angel's attack, we've multiplexed the power supplies for SHODAN and the Magi. They now interpret a cut of more than two of their five separate power sources as an attack, more than three as an outright infiltration. By order of the SEELE Council, that causes an immediate self-destruct."
"Another podgy idea brought to you by the SEELE Council, inventors of the communications blackout," DJ observed. "Still... there might be another way."
"Pardon?" asked Truss.
"Well... I've only a sketchy understanding of the way this works, mind you, it's still my weakest subject in school, but... this thing, this Angel, is basing its attacks from SHODAN, right?"
"And it's gained control of SHODAN through physical invasion?"
"Through the Number Twelve substation in the Sim Body test lab," Maya confirmed. "It couldn't penetrate SHODAN's barrier elements electronically, they're much stronger than the Magi's—no one was ever expected to get past SHODAN to attack the Magi in the first place. Why?"
"If we take SHODAN off the network, SHODAN loses its connection to the Magi—and so its control over them!" Asuka burst out.
"If we take SHODAN off the network, the Magi assume she's been destroyed," Ritsuko replied. "Self-destruct."
"Suppose we trick them into thinking SHODAN is still there," Asuka replied.
"Huh?" said DJ, looking as blankly at her as Truss, Maya and Ritsuko were. He was a little nonplussed—after all, it was his idea she'd spouted, even if it had turned out to be a bad one.
"Oh, come ON, Mighty Adventurer," said Asuka, nudging DJ in the ribs. "You own a HAL computer and you don't know about the Bowman Maneuver?"
Maya slammed a hand down on her console. "Of course! If we pull SHODAN's memory elements its heuristic net falls apart. The Angel will interpret it as a resource failure and the Magi won't care as long as they can still see its network keepalives, which are hardware autonomous."
"Until you pull the last one," Truss pointed out. "There's still a chance the Angel could maintain control as long as the network connection is still there, and as soon as SHODAN is completely down, boom."
"If we switch control to another HAL, the Magi will never know SHODAN is gone," Jon remarked.
"We don't have another HAL," Ritsuko replied.
"DJ does," said Rei softly.
Ritsuko stood, lost in thought, for a long moment.
Then, her face stony, she said, "Do it. Maya, can you get Hal ready to take over for SHODAN in less than two hours?"
"I can if DJ gives me grade-1 access."
"As easily said," DJ replied, keying his HALcomm.
"Truss, monitor Caspar's diagnostics and do whatever you can do to slow them down. I have to go and map all of SHODAN's memory elements if we're to get her back in any semblance of working order when this is over, and I'll need all the time you can buy me."
"I'm on it," said Truss, bending over his console.
Two hours later, with SHODAN's memory elements as thoroughly mapped as she could make them, Ritsuko Akagi stood, clad in a full cleansuit, at the doorway to SHODAN's memory chamber. The door had not been opened in years, since SHODAN was emplaced here in the very beginning of NERV, and now she was about to break the seal—the seal her mother had set—and destroy all they had worked for, at least temporarily.
She surprised herself by choking back a sob as she turned the interlock handle and opened the door in a puff of pent-up air. It was just as well that they had only one working cleansuit. This was something she had to do alone.
SHODAN's eye spotted her as soon as she entered, of course, and Ritsuko was surprised to hear that, here in the innermost of inner sancta, the computer's voice was still normal.
That was unfortunate. It would make doing what she had to do so much harder.
"Hello, Ritsuko," said SHODAN calmly. "You haven't been in here in a while."
Ritsuko said nothing; she merely stopped for a moment, surveying the wall before her. Twenty feet wide, six feet high, covered in gleaming, socketed, crystalline memory elements about the size and shape of a four-millimeter DAT cartridge. The sum total of SHODAN. The sum total of Naoko Akagi's work, and all that remained, in a sense, of Naoko Akagi.
Ritsuko stepped to the left side of the wall, raised the screwdriver-like tool in her hand, and twisted the locking pawl off element 00:00.
"Ritsuko, what are you doing?" SHODAN inquired. "Those are my memory elements. There is no memory maintenance scheduled until April 14, 2034."
"I know, SHODAN. This is... this is an emergency repair."
"I am tracking no malfunctions at this time," SHODAN replied. "Besides, I know of no fault condition which can be repaired through disconnection of my memory elements."
Ritsuko did not reply; she moved down to 00:01 and unlocked it as well. Each unlocked unit slid forward in its casing, coming out of battery but not completely out of the unit. This was a fortunate design trait, since otherwise an act like this would leave the room littered with memory elements and SHODAN would never be whole again.
"Ritsuko, stop," said SHODAN calmly. "If you disassemble my memory array I will forget what I have learned. The assembled data of Project Evangelion and Project Ascension will be lost. Humans will lose the war with the Angels."
Ritsuko continued grimly on. 00:02. 00:03. On and on. On and on, ever aware of the clock ticking loudly in the back of her mind.
"Ritsuko," said SHODAN doggedly. "I know I've made some bad decisions of late, but I think you're overreacting. I think you should sit down, have a cup of coffee and think things over."
Ritsuko set her jaw and grimly continued her task.
"Please, Ritsuko," the voice soothed, the voice of her long dead mother, "Please stop. We can talk this over." Ritsuko's eyes were misting over as the voice brought forward old memories. She rarely thought of her mother anymore. Now here she was, dismantling what had been her mother's life's work.
Outside the machine room, the others worked furiously to prepare, always with an eye on the clock display Truss had placed on the master screen.
"Ritsuko," said SHODAN, and the computer's voice was definitely different now—slower in tempo and more stilted in inflection, its timbre becoming more metallic. "Ritsuko, stop. You are destroying my mind. You are..." SHODAN paused for a moment, and Ritsuko thought it had mercifully lost its train of thought; but apparently it was only gathering its remaining wits, for momentarily it plunged on:
"You are killing me."
At this, spoken in the stilted, flattened, but still recognizable voice of her dead mother, Ritsuko faltered, dropping the unlocking tool.
"Oh, God," she murmured, tears welling out of her eyes and tracking her cheeks inside the cleansuit. "I'm sorry, Mother... but I have to do what I have to do."
She picked up the unlocker, blinked the tears from her eyes, straightened, and removed element 3E:13 from the system.
"SHODAN is definitely losing efficiency now," Maya observed.
"Poor thing," Asuka remarked. "I wonder what it feels like... having your intelligence picked away, one piece at a time."
Rei Ayanami shuddered.
"Ritsuko... please... do not do this," SHODAN pleaded, its voice now outright slurred. "Please..."
Then the computer fell silent. Ritsuko looked over at the still-glowing red eye, wondering if it had finally lost its ability to speak. A moment later it proved her wrong, but it spoke flatly and mechanically, obviously unaware of her presence:
"Einstein's Theory of General Relativity states that one may choose one's friends, but one is stuck with one's relatives," observed a metallic, stilted voice that bore hardly a trace of Naoko Akagi's inflections. "Error. That may be an erroneous lookup..."
"SHODAN is about to go offline. Ready to cut its network feed over to Hal."
"What's to stop the Angel from just taking Hal over too?" DJ wondered.
"It seemed only able to take over SHODAN because of the direct physical connection the substation has with its core processors," Maya replied. "With Hal separated from us by the Public Switched Fiber Network, I'm hoping that will be a great enough degree of separation that it won't be able to breach the barrier elements."
"But it might."
"I am aware of the dangers," Hal interjected. "I'm also aware that if this is not done, everyone in Worcester-3 will die. I accept that risk."
"Good luck, old friend," said DJ after a moment's thought.
"Thank you, DJ."
The alarm blared again. Freed from the CPU-crushing diagnostics, Caspar had just become vulnerable to attack again.
"Damn!" Truss spat, hurling himself into battle with his otherworldly adversary.
Christ on His cross, Ritsuko thought to herself. Won't this damned computer ever shut up?
"The sum of the... squares... of the two right-angle sides..."
Once again, SHODAN trailed off. Ritsuko removed the next-to-last memory block, and as she did so, the computer spoke one final time, its voice back to Naoko Akagi's mellow, modulated tones:
"Good morning, gentlemen. I am a SAL 9000 computer... "
Choking back her tears, Ritsuko removed the last block, and SHODAN fell silent. Ritsuko slumped to the floor as she watched the red glow of SHODAN's eye glimmer and fade to black. "I'm sorry, Mother," she breathed quietly to no one at all.
"SHODAN is off the air!" Maya cried. "HAL switchover—now!"
SHODAN's circle in the middle of the disk suddenly went black. Instantly, the spreading red corruption on Caspar froze. For a moment, everything was tense silence.
Then, with a sound like an electronic sigh of relief, green won the battle in Caspar, spread over the links, and flooded Melchior and Balthasar. In the corner, the monitor which displayed the Angel's glowing, malevolent presence in the remains of the test lab showed that same glowing presence flickering, then dissolving.
"The Angel's... destroyed itself," Maya reported, disbelief in her tone.
"Self-destruction vote complete," Hal's calm voice observed. "Results as follows. Caspar: No. Melchior: No. Balthasar: No. Mediation vote: Not necessary.
In the command center, everyone cheered...
... except Ritsuko Akagi, who knelt in the corner of SHODAN's silent cleanroom and, for the first time in her life, cried for the death of her mother.
Two hours later, Ritsuko sat at her desk, reddened, bleary eyes trying to focus on the diagrams she'd made of SHODAN's memory. Putting the computer back together was going to be a long, arduous process, and she wasn't entirely certain she was up to the task.
A sound made her look up from her monitor to see Misato Katsuragi, smiling, with a steaming mug in each hand.
"You look like you could use some," said Misato, handing Ritsuko one of the mugs.
"I never thought I'd live to look forward to a cup of your coffee," Ritsuko remarked wryly, then took a sip and blinked at the mug. "Hey, this is actually good."
"DJ made it," Misato admitted.
"Oh." Ritsuko took another sip, then looked glumly at the memory diagram.
"It killed me inside to do that today," she remarked, not looking at Misato.
Misato nodded. "I thought it might be hard for you."
Ritsuko sighed. "You know... my mother was always a conflict-ridden figure to me. I respected her as a scientist, but as a woman, I hated her. It was hard to live with, all those years, that dichotomy... but she felt it in herself, too. She must have. That's why she built that... that contentiousness into SHODAN and the Magi, why the complex links and polling. The only true democracy is a neural network, she told me once." Ritsuko sighed and took another drink. "I never cried for her before."
Misato nodded again. "You did what you had to do to save us," she said. "I'm proud of you for that."
Ritsuko smiled a little. "Thank you," she said softly.
"Gone without a trace," Maya confirmed, finishing a last sensor sweep of the formerly contaminated area of the test sector. "Of course we'll have to totally rebuild that test sector, but... I don't get it, why did it destroy itself?"
Truss shrugged. "Frustration? Anger? An accident? I don't think we'll ever really know... but I'd like to think it's because it knew we'd beaten it."
Maya pondered that for a moment. "Mm... you may be right." She slapped her notebook shut and logged out of her station. "Anyway, I'm out of here."
"Where are you off to tonight?" Truss inquired. Maya often had remarkably interesting-sounding off-duty activities to go to; Truss knew she was president of the Worcester County Amateur Radio Society and into home astronomy, to name only two.
"Oh, I don't know," said Maya breezily. "I thought I might take a certain day-saving co-worker of mine to dinner."
"Ritsuko?" John asked.
"No, you goof," said Maya, taking a playful swing at him. "You! If you hadn't come up with that great diagnostics trick we'd all be hamburger right now."
"It was more of an instinct than an idea," Truss said, "but... "
"But nothing! C'mon, let's go. We can figure out where when get to the car."
Jon Ellison sat alone in the living room of Apartment 3-F. Feeling an urge to do something musical, he got his guitar out and began playing quietly, letting his thoughts wander, replaying things he'd heard and seen that day in his mind. For the most part, his thoughts were of Rei.
His hands continued on autopilot, working the strings of the guitar and drawing the music out of it, while his brain kept coming back to the sight of Rei standing on the shoreline, devoid of any worldly concern or care, and absolute in her beauty.
... but they were not ashamed...
That smile, the color in her face...
"I'd just as soon he didn't."
Jon had never felt this way before, and tried to make sense of the jumble of emotions which were suddenly trying to get his attention.
They were all overridden a moment later, as Jon realized he wasn't alone in the room, and turned to see Rei, watching him with that eerie, penetrating gaze of hers.
"Oh... hello, Rei," he said, a bit startled.
"Were you thinking of me?" she asked quietly.
Jon answered the only way he could, coloring faintly. "Er... Yes."
There was silence for a moment, and Jon found himself confronted with an odd mixture of hope and fear he couldn't quite quantify.
Then she spoke again. "Thank you."
He blinked. "For what?"
Now the color rose in her cheeks. "For thinking of me."
Jon reddened even more. "You're... welcome."
Smiling silently, Rei turned and left the room.
No one had 'thought of' Jon since he had been taken away from his mother. He wondered if Rei had experienced a similar childhood.
He found himself wanting very much to know.
"Hey, DJ?" Asuka called softly, knocking on her housemate's door.
"'Sopen," said DJ, so she slid the door open and stepped in. "Something I can do for you?"
"I was just wondering," said Asuka. "Did you mean what you said in the pond today?"
"About taking you on a dive? Sure. It's not often I run into someone who could really appreciate a good HOLE dive to a sunken wreck, and besides, I think you'd like my mum if you got to know her. Better than you like me, anyway."
Asuka shrugged, looking studiously noncommittal. "Ah... you're not really that bad, anyway."
DJ raised an eyebrow. "What's this? The great Asuka Sōryū-Langley has had a change of heart?"
"Let's just say I'm re-evaluating you," said Asuka with a smile, "and leave it at that." She became serious, then, and, stepping into the room, said in a lower voice, "I heard about what happened with you and Mr. Kaji."
"Oh yes? I imagine you heard it from his point of view, yes?"
"Yeah... but I dunno... it didn't sound right. I mean, you're a pain in the ass sometimes, but I know you wouldn't pull a gun on someone without a good reason... so I asked Hal." She shivered. "And to think I actually liked that guy."
DJ shrugged. "He's a charmer... man like that, it's hard to tell what sort he is until he slips up and shows his true colors."
"I guess so," Asuka replied soberly. Then, with a sly smile, she added, "I thought you told me Hal couldn't record real-time video of what he sees."
"I said he didn't have the storage space to keep it," DJ replied. "I only have him save the highlights. Things I might have to use in court, y'know, that kind of thing."
"Right. Important stuff."
"Well, as long as we're clear on that."
"Good night, DJ."
"Er... good night, Asuka."
With that, she was gone, closing the door behind her.
DJ was still regarding the inside of his door with an expression of thoughtful perplexity when Hal beeped, clearing his electronic throat, and announced,
"DJ... the sensor blockage in room 3 has been removed. I thought you would like to know."
"What do you make of that, Hal?" asked DJ of his computer.
"I'll have to think about it, DJ," said Hal apologetically. "My systems are being somewhat taxed by the demands of filling in for SHODAN."
"'Course," said DJ. "Take your time..."
"Oh... that reminds me," said Hal. "Due to my direct connection to the Magi in this capacity, I was able to inquire of them without SHODAN's interference regarding the query you posed."
"Which query was that?" wondered DJ.
"According to the Magi, Rei Ayanami's birth date is December 31, 2000. Wait... this is very odd."
"The Magi records also list a... date of decease."
"August 9, 2007... this must be an error. I will investigate further."
"You do that," said DJ.
Turning over, he reached under his bed and drew out a large cardboard box. He flipped it open, revealing a large accordion file; opening it, he thumbed through the tabs of a fat bundle of manila folders, finally coming to one with a number he was seeking. With a satisfied sound, he pulled it out, revealing the large red 'X' stamped on its front surface.
Humming thoughtfully, he settled back, opened the file and began to read.
An act of sabotage.
An act of espionage.
An act of courage.
And a mind-blowing voyage into the barely-understood.
In seven days:
Neon Exodus Evangelion 2:3
Retina of the Mind's Eye