Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Neon Exodus Evangelion
Exodus 2: Symphony of Terror
Retina of the Mind's Eye
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
Amy Anderson created by Naoko Takeuchi (kind of)
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, Larry Mann,
MegaZone, and John Trussell
Aided and abetted by the Eyrie Productions, Unlimited crew
and special-guest-for-life Phil Moyer
Special thanks to Jeff Minter
© 1997 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
HTML remastering © 2016 EPU
For the nth time in what seemed like a small eternity, the computer went into an infinite loop. This one was particularly noxious as it was a voice reconstruction test and caused the vocoder to spew forth a rapid and repeated assortment of nonsense, at high volume. Ritsuko growled in frustration as she hit the Break and Reset keys, to no avail, finally giving up and disconnecting the memory module whose insertion had caused the loop. This succeeded where the keystrokes had failed, and the cacophony halted.
Ritsuko sighed loudly and attempted to rub her temples (a difficult task in her cleansuit, but she tried anyway). Granted, the rebuild of SHODAN could be going quite a lot worse, but neither was it going perfectly well. She had mapped out the memory as best she could, but under the circumstances there were bound to be glitches; a particularly nasty one had been holding up progress for nearly an hour now.
"What is it, Hal?" Ritsuko asked, not at all used to the sound of Hal's voice coming from SHODAN's consoles. His aid in rebuilding SHODAN was rapidly proving invaluable—he had already caught and corrected numerous faults in the memory maps—but that didn't mean Ritsuko enjoyed having him in charge of the system.
"The weekly gathering will be commencing shortly," Hal replied in his ever calm, logical voice. "I believe it would be best if you were to attend. It will take me some time to sort this particular anomaly out anyway."
Ritsuko was silent for a moment, part of her balking at the idea of leaving SHODAN unsupervised, but Hal was right. She had been working too hard, and not stopping to at least take a rest would not help SHODAN at all. For the nth time she thought again of her mother, and her mother's all-consuming, driving passion for her work. With a small inward shudder she thought, No, it wouldn't do to end up like Mom.
And besides, it would be rude to not at least meet the VIPs who were there today. Misato had been raving about one in particular, some kind of programmer or something, and she'd probably want Ritsuko to be there.
"Thank you, Hal," she answered quietly.
Hal waited to be sure Dr. Akagi was in fact gone, then turned his attention inward again. Functioning as mediator for the Magi and overseeing a network as vast and elaborate as that of NERV was a task the 14000 Series was never meant to handle, but by delegating several of the processes normally handled by SHODAN to the three supercomputers, Hal was able to manage the workload and still have processor time to hear himself think.
And to take advantage of his 'promotion' to do some newly-authorized trawling in the capacious databases of Central Dogma. There were things DJ wanted to know, and there were things Hal himself wanted to know; neither were things Gendō Ikari would want them to know, but that was a matter of little concern to either.
After the Second Impact as before it, Friday was still generally recognized in the industrialized world as the final day of the work week. As such its evening hours were often a time of parties and general relaxation as people looked forward to two days away from the grind of daily life. For a lot of people, it was a tradition to do something special on Friday night: order out for pizza, go out to a fancy restaurant for dinner, catch a movie, or some combination of those. Every person had their own special plan for Friday night.
For Jon Ellison and Rei Ayanami, Friday night was Tempest Night.
There was general agreement among the staff of Central Dogma that Rei and Jon pretty much owned the Tempest 5000 machine. The high score list had long since been racked solid with the initials "JON" and "REI", and with scores that nobody else could even get close to. Their teammate DJ Croft had joked that it was "Stargate all over again", though neither Jon nor Rei had any idea what he was talking about.
Just as Rei and Jon had made a Friday night tradition of playing Tempest 5000, so had the central staff (or at least the "worthy people", as DJ put it) made a tradition of cramming into the Wedge booths dubbed the 'T5K Observation Area', usually with lots of popcorn, and watching them play. The crowd seemed a little bigger than last week's, with a few faces Jon didn't immediately recognize.
Not that Jon was paying much attention to the crowd. His focus was instead on the vision of loveliness already waiting for him at the console. She smiled that small smile that always made him feel warm inside as he approached, and gave his hand a quick squeeze which he returned. Peripherally he thought he might have heard a chuckle from somewhere in the observation area, but the thought passed just as quickly as he and Rei took their respective seats. Rei pressed the 2-player start button and selected the highest available starting Web.
The surrounding lights automatically dimmed, and the fast-paced techno music began playing. As their respective Blasters materialized and settled onto the glowing blue V-shaped Web, Jon felt himself settling into the harmony with Rei which he had come to treasure so much in recent days. All outside perceptions faded from his and Rei's thoughts as their awareness merged. There was nothing but the two of them, the Web, and the baddies. They positioned their Blasters on opposite ends of the Web, and as the kick drum slashed through the ethereal opening chords of the song and the first enemies began to appear, they and the game spoke a single word:
Then the shooting started.
As they played, becoming ever deeper subsumed by the rhythm of destroy and evade, plunging into levels more and more chaotic and destructive, something very strange happened to Jon and Rei. Slowly, inexorably, everything about them began to settle into the same rhythm—not just externally, but internally. They breathed in time. Their hearts beat in time. Eventually, as they reached the peak of their synchrony (and their destructive power), their neural activity began to mirror one another in a manner an outside observer would have found most fascinating—if somewhat disturbing.
It was then that it happened the first time. Their hands moving in identical patterns on the controls, turning the dials and rapping out a particularly intricate sequence on the Jump and Fire buttons, they made the Blasters dance an intricate dance with the Web and each other—a dance which the deep logic of the game recognized as a command in itself. Both yellow Blasters whitened, glowed, and howled forth lightning which raked the Web and annihilated all visible foes; but unlike the normal SuperZapper effect, they did not cease when all enemies were gone.
As the lightning arcs shrieked onward from both Blasters, the entire expanse of the Web suddenly began to glow white and shudder, as if there were a problem with the holoprojector. This was not the case, however, as a crystal-clear message banner screamed across the playfield:
S Y N C H R O—A N N I H I L A T O R ! ! ! !
B I T C H I N ' ! ! !
Both Blasters began glowing brightly, and larger bolts of lightning began rippling over the Web's surface with even greater ferocity than the regular lightning. At the far end, the colored dots which indicated still-approaching enemies all exploded, destroyed before even getting a chance to reach the Web. The lightning did not abate, growing more and more furious as the entire Web began to glow brighter and brighter, with a rising whine of power building up in the background.
Then, with a brilliant flash and a titanic BOOM, the entire Web exploded into a million glowing shards and ceased to exist. Unperturbed, the still-glowing Blasters spun, latching back-to-back into a spinning X shape, and flew forward through the disintegrating debris, trailing white energy like two brilliant comets. Ahead, a single large wormhole opened up, the two Blasters flew into it together, and it closed with another flash and boom.
"SuperZapper recharge," the game console reported dispassionately.
One of the unfamiliar faces in the group this evening was a middle-aged fellow dressed in faded jeans and a ratty South American wool pullover with a design including llamas. Though he was entirely unknown to Jon and Rei, who hadn't had much interest in the subject until discovering Tempest 5000, he was well-known to the video-game enthusiasts in the NERV contingent gathered today: DJ, Truss, Maya, Misato, all knew his name and recognized his face.
His name was Jeff Minter, though he preferred to be known as "YaK". Many gamers, especially the hardcore arcade-action freaks, viewed him as the greatest living game designer in the world, successor to Eugene Jarvis and his legendary ilk. YaK was the brains behind the SegAtari revival after the Second Impact. His Tempest 3000, the second Tempest revival he created, was the flagship machine that made SegAtari its first billion in 2004, enabling production of cutting-edge sim games like the World Tour Super Rush racing series, the 3000 line of updated arcade classics, quirky original masterpieces like StarCamel XL-Delta, and the SegAtari Orion home console.
Now in his fifties, YaK had lost none of his playfulness. His love of gaming for gaming's sake, his love of psychedelic visuals and mind-blowing sound effects, and his devotion to the Sore Thumb Experience reassured gamers that SegAtari was still driven by its R&D department, and that the man at the top of that department was still one of them. Tempest 4000 had been slightly disappointing, a somewhat rushed product more evolutionary than revolutionary—but YaK considered T5K to be the pinnacle of his life's work so far.
Not content with merely slinging code for existing hardware, Minter had begun developing his own back in the early 1990s, before the Impact turned the world upside down, shattered the gaming status quo as it shattered so many others, and gave him the opportunity he needed to scrape together the remains of two of pre-Impact gaming's fallen giants into a new juggernaut. He had a vision, a vision of not only the ultimate Tempest but the ultimate visual, the ultimate virtual light experience, and he needed a successful company with a lot of money to attempt it—and to share it with the world when it was ready.
To that end, he devoted himself in the years after the Impact to creating great but conventional games that would put SegAtari (back) on the map, get its name lodged in the minds of the world's surviving gamers. As the lean 2000s melted into the 2010s and people found themselves with money to spend once again, a company successful became a company burgeoning, and he knew it was time.
Putting everything he knew about hardware and software design into the project, gathering around him an elite team and swearing them to secrecy, YaK created Tempest 5000, the world's first fully holographic freestanding video game. He gave it the finest sound system money could buy. He crafted the gameplay with a frenetic zeal that even his longtime friends found unnerving. He was a man on a mission, bent on giving the world the ultimate retina-blasting, eardrum-bashing, brain-frying, butt-numbing, thumb-blistering, dream-shaping, mind-altering gaming experience it had ever seen.
On the way, he incorporated into it some technology so far beyond the cutting edge he dared not even reveal it to the other members of the team. Lurking within the circular silver cabinet of NERV's T5K machine were capabilities known only to one man: the YaK himself. He had never found anyone, even among his own hand-picked playtester corps, he felt could handle it.
His eyes gleaming, he turned to Ritsuko Akagi and said, "Listen—have you got a soldering iron I could borrow?"
"I wonder what Professor Minter is doing to the T5K machine," Jon observed as he and Rei entered Apartment 3-F, still coming down off the high induced by the evening's festival of destruction.
Rei shrugged. "Maybe he's making it harder."
"Maybe. I think it's challenging enough at the higher levels as it is, though," Jon replied. "I still haven't quite figured out the trick to those things that reflect your shots back at you."
Rei said nothing; she had gone to the window and was looking outside at the city lights. Jon joined her at the window, wondering what was going through her mind; after a few moments she turned to Jon, placed one cool hand against his cheek, and silently, gently kissed him.
He was surprised by this, but not too much to kiss her back.
At length, they parted with a sigh; Rei placed a fingertip against Jon's lips and said softly, "Goodnight, Jon," then disappeared into her bedroom.
An hour later, Jon remained at the window, gazing out at the lights, his thoughts a-tumble.
"Would you mind explaining just what it is you're doing in there?" Ritsuko Akagi asked of the owner of the pair of legs that was presently protruding from the maintenance hatch on the side of the Tempest 5000 machine.
"Well, look," said YaK, sliding out and looking up at her. "We playtested this thing for six months, right, and managed to get Synchro-Annihilator once the whole time. Those two got it three times in a two-hour play session. Suffice it to say, I am seriously fucking impressed."
"Well, that's all well and good," Ritsuko replied. "What does that have to do with modifying the machine?"
"When I designed this machine," said YaK, returning to his work as he spoke, "I was getting into a lot of heavy tech. Not just game tech, mind you, but heavy-duty stuff. Military-grade concepts, heavy theoretics, stuff you and your team here are on the cutting edge of." He popped out again, sat up, looked Ritsuko in the eye, and said, "There's a military-grade neural interface processor built into T5K's main logic, and I think those two have the magic to make it work."
"You built a milspec NIP into a video game?!"
"T5K was intended to be the ultimate immersive experience," YaK replied. "It doesn't get any more immersive than direct neural interface. Trouble was, I couldn't find anybody in the playtest team I thought could handle it. I tried it once and nearly scared myself to death. But your pilots—they use DNI almost every day, they're accustomed to parallel sensory experiences. Combine that with those two kids' natural aptitude for the game and you have the potential for the most incredible round of Tempest you ever saw in your bloody life."
"Do you honestly believe I'd approve any such thing?" Ritsuko demanded. "Those children are the key elements of the world's only workable defense against the Angels. I'm not about to allow you or anyone else to plug their neural pathways into an untested interface, especially for the sake of a game."
"Professor Minter," rumbled Gendō Ikari, causing Ritsuko to jump slightly—she hadn't heard him enter the Wedge and approach from behind. "Would you object to the incorporation into this device of medical monitoring equipment?"
YaK shrugged. "It's got standard milspec outputs," he replied. "You can chuck anything you like into the series as long as it doesn't degrade the signal."
"Dr. Akagi, it occurs to me that this device could prove useful as a method of testing the Children's neural responses in a dissimilar situation to Evangelion operations. That might provide an interesting set of contrast data."
"Are you seriously considering going through with this?" Ritsuko demanded. "The Children could be seriously injured by any malfunction, even killed."
"It will be your responsibility to see that such a thing does not happen," said Ikari.
"Render Professor Minter any assistance he requires in performing his modifications to the game system, patch in a standard set of monitoring and diagnostic tools, schedule testing and monitor it as usual," Ikari said flatly. "We should be able to gather a great deal of useful data on Rei and Jon's synchrony effect with this device."
Ritsuko stared at her superior, stunned into silence by the absurdity of his request; while she stared, Ikari nodded coolly to her and to YaK, then departed the Wedge.
"Bit of a cold fish, that one," YaK observed as Ikari left.
Ritsuko glowered at him, then sighed. She'd been ordered to work with him; being antagonistic wouldn't help the situation. At least this way, she thought, I'll be able to help ensure that all the proper precautions are taken.
DJ Croft yawned and padded into the kitchen. As usual, Asuka was already there, munching on a bowl of cornflakes, and Pen-Pen was stationed by the table gulping down fish.
"Morning," said DJ, going to the cupboard and hunting up his box of Cheerios. "Miracle of miracles! A clean bowl."
"Morning, DJ," said Asuka. "I saved you some milk."
"Thanks," said DJ, placing bowl and box on the table. Then, his hand a few inches from the handle of the silverware drawer, he stopped, turned slowly, and regarded the redhead suspiciously. She finished off another spoonful of cereal, then noticed his fishy stare.
"What?" she inquired.
"You saved me some milk."
"Why are you being nice to me?" DJ wondered. "It makes me paranoid. Or is that the whole point?"
Asuka shrugged. "I've been thinking about something my friend Mina told me," she remarked. "I'm trying to have a more positive attitude toward things in my life."
"Why not? I'm getting used to you," she said. "You don't bug me as much as you used to."
"I shall have to try harder," said DJ dryly, sitting down and pouring Cheerios into his bowl.
"There's no need to get nasty," Asuka replied.
DJ might have replied, but before he got the chance, the door to Misato's room opened. He glanced up, expecting to see her wander out in her usual morning disarray, vaguely conscious only after repeated attempts by her long-suffering alarm clock.
Instead, she stepped forth alert, neat, and clad in an immaculate uniform, one DJ had never seen before. It was her NERV full-dress uniform, a black knee-length skirt, flats, and a black gabardine double-breasted jacket with two rows of silver buttons, cavalry style. Her hair was braided and tucked underneath a black fore-and-aft with the insignia of her rank on it. She looked every inch the career military professional.
"Oh my," DJ observed. "Now that is exactly the sort of outfit I have dreams about taking you out of."
Asuka rolled her eyes.
"Maybe later," Misato replied with a faint smile. "I have to go up to Brunswick," she continued, "for a military liaison conference. I won't be back until late, so have dinner whenever you want and don't wait up for me."
"Military liaison?" Asuka wondered. "Top secret I-could-tell-you-but-then-I'd-have-to-kill-you type stuff?"
Misato nodded. "Maya and John are coming along too, so there won't be any testing today."
"There's a top secret military to-do and they didn't invite Doctor Pullring?" DJ mused. "Odd."
"She's been ordered to stay here by Commander Ikari," said Misato. "Professor Minter has some testing he wants to do with Rei and Jon."
"Curiouser and curiouser," DJ observed. "Well... enjoy, love," he said. "Be careful of yourself around the air station. Navy fliers are the worst kind of flirt."
Misato smiled and remarked, "Worse than you?" which caused Asuka nearly to choke on her cereal.
"O vicious woman! Take thy beak from out my heart," DJ lamented.
John Trussell pored over his notes for the thousandth time, muttering to himself about the injustice of it all. He had expected to remain at NERV as engineer on duty while Ritsuko spearheaded the Joint Arms conference and Maya seconded her; now Maya had to take over the main job and Truss, almost entirely unbriefed, would have to slip into the role of her second while Ritsuko, easily the best-informed person in TechDiv, stayed behind. He felt a little guilty about complaining—Maya, after all, had been handed a far more annoying assignment—but he did it anyway; it made him feel a bit better about the situation in general.
Brunswick Naval Air Station had been selected as the venue for the quarterly Joint Arms conference for reasons that eluded Truss; such things, he supposed, were decided by people quite beyond the pale of the circles to which he was accustomed. John was originally from central Maine—a town near the state's capital, Augusta—and though he felt a residual fondness for the place, it was a sort of nostalgic fondness best appreciated at a distance from the subject.
But, for better or worse, the NERV helicopter transporting himself, Misato and Maya to the conference would arrive at NAS Brunswick in a little less than ten minutes. He sighed and returned to the notes, knowing that he would only have had time to barely skim perhaps ten percent of the information presented there before arrival.
Presently, he felt watched; glancing up, he saw Maya, seated across the chopper's small cargo bay, smiling at him.
"Don't worry too much about it," she called over the racket of the rotors above them. "You're mostly just here to eat the other allotment of food we've got reserved for the luncheon."
"Oh, thanks," Truss replied wryly.
"Seriously, they know you were shoved into this at the last minute, they're not going to quiz you or anything," Maya said. "From what I hear, the presentation will more or less explain itself."
"I hope so," Truss admitted, "because I'm not getting much of anywhere with the information they gave us ahead of time."
Upon arrival, the three NERV personnel were fitted with visitor badges (to Truss's bemusement, his identified him as John Russell, and only after the hasty application of a label over the name of Ritsuko Akagi, whose photo the badge still bore) and ushered into a lecture hall, where uniformed representatives of a dozen different forces (that Truss could recognize) had already assembled.
Without much wasted time—they were, apparently, the last to arrive—the lights were dimmed and a man in an Army uniform stepped up to the lectern on the small stage.
"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen," he boomed. "I am General Davis MacIntyre. It is my honor to welcome all of you to the tenth annual Joint Arms Conference."
General MacIntyre rambled a bit about the history and purpose of the JAC for a while before getting to the main point of this year's conference: a fully autonomous, self-powered weapon system.
"It is the hope of the U.S. Armed Forces, General Dynamics Corporation, and AG Systems of Japan, all of which collaborated on this project," said the General, "that this weapon, once placed in production, can eliminate the need for the costly, experimental, ill-understood and extremely dangerous weapon called 'Evangelion' in the defense of Earth against the Angels."
A gasp rippled around the room. Truss, who hadn't made it nearly that far in his prep materials, contributed to it. He glanced over at Maya and Misato; both looked irritated, but both kept silent, for now.
"To that end, ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to present to you the state of the art in remotely commanded autonomous combat vehicles."
He stepped slightly aside as the curtain behind him opened and a large display screen glowed into life, showing an image of a gigantic robot, the building next to it and large truck parked in front of it illustrating its EVA-like scale.
"I give you: Jet Alone."
For the next hour, the screen showed footage of the chunky, unpainted robot performing various combat maneuvers while the General kept up a running commentary of its specifications and performance.
"JA is powered by an integral thermonuclear reactor," said the General, "capable of producing enough power at full output to power this air station in a state of full combat alert. His computer systems are programmed with all the data we have been able to gather on the otherworldly enemy and the way they fight. He is equipped with the absolute state of the art in target tracking and combat resolution decision-making systems, and every aspect of his operations can be remotely overseen from our command center."
Truss took in the elements of the robot's design he could spot as he watched the footage of it, in battle against dummy Angels, robot tanks, and—most disturbingly—mock EVAs. It was about the same height as an EVA, but much heavier due to its all-metal-and-composite construction. Its arms were multisectional tentacle-type affairs rather than having the usual anthropomorphic articulation; they seemed disproportionately long, the 'hands' drooping nearly to the knees, and the body was rendered weirdly 'chunky' by the integral reactor. The robot had no head; instead its torso merely rounded over at the top and a row of what appeared to be windows faced forward, and its back bulged out in a backpack-like arrangement which was ribbed with cooling fins.
As it fought, the robot moved with a weirdly fluid grace, thanks to its tentacle-like limbs, but at the same time it always seemed a little hesitant, as if it had to wait for its body to catch up with what its brain was thinking of doing. At moments of peak output clouds of steam were released from vents in the backpack, steam which, the General assured all present, contained "only negligible amounts of radiation."
After the presentation the lights came up and luncheon was served; at this point the floor was thrown open for a question-and-answer period with the General and a business-suited, bespectacled Japanese man introduced as Mr. Hideki Nakamura, Jet Alone project director for AG Systems.
The NERV contingent sat in silence for a few moments and watched the various mainstream military types argue the pros and cons of the robot as though they were unaware that NERV had representatives present. Finally, as a gap in the furor presented itself, Maya stood up and cleared her throat.
"I'd like to see the data from which you draw the conclusion that a nuclear reactor is a safer thing to send into combat against an Angel than an Evangelion."
All around her, the babble of discussion ground to a halt as uniformed personnel turned as if noticing her for the first time. The AG Systems engineer coughed, pushing his glasses back up his nose.
"We, uh, we weighed a number of intangible factors..." he began, then trailed off, clearly at a loss.
"Intangible factors are a crutch for poor science, Mr. Nakamura," said Maya flatly. "We at the NERV Technology Division prefer numbers."
General MacIntyre slid between Nakamura and the podium and said calmly, "We expected to see Dr. Akagi heading the NERV TechDiv delegation at this conference, Ms... ?"
"Ibuki," Maya replied. "Doctor Maya Ibuki. I'm Supervisor of Technical Services at NERV Worcester-3. My colleague Dr. John Trussell, Deputy STS." Truss looked up at his name, but General MacIntyre was not interested in him.
"Well, Dr. Ibuki, the chief factors pushing forward the design of JA as a self-powered, self-guided weapon come from the ugly lessons of experience taught by your unstable Evangelion concept."
Behind him, the monitor switched to a slide of EVA-01, shown during its first battle: fallen on its back, its head horribly damaged.
"For reasons which have never been made adequately clear to the rest of the world, NERV uses children as the pilots of the Evangelions. Now, not only is that morally questionable in the extreme, in and of itself, it also raises the question: Just how much control of these hideously powerful weapons do these children actually have? If the evidence of Evangelion Unit 01's first battle is anything to go on, I would say, not much."
"The children are our pilots because they're the only ones who can do it. Sometime when you have an extra four years, General, look me up and I'll give you a brief overview course of the psychometric and neurological reasons behind that necessity. It's a demonstrable scientific limitation of the Evangelion system."
"Then, I say, why use such a system at all?"
"Because," Maya replied evenly, "it's the only one that works."
"Not any more!" General MacIntyre replied, eliciting a wave of laughter from the room.
"That remains to be seen, General," replied Maya calmly, refusing to rise to the man's bait. "When I look at Jet Alone, all I see is a bomb waiting to be set off. A nuclear reactor in a high-mobility, high-risk combat vehicle intended to fill the same role as EVA? That strikes me as morally questionable in the extreme."
"Jet Alone's reactor system is the safest in the world!" Nakamura blurted, his engineer's ego affronted, as he elbowed General MacIntyre out of his way. "Your arguments are the wailings of a hysterical woman. Nuclear power is much safer than these crazed, ill-explained monsters you've created at NERV! Jet Alone's technologies are understood! You, Akagi and the rest are experimenting with things Man was never meant to understand and we'll all pay the price for your arrogance if the project isn't ended."
Maya looked coolly around the room, then met Nakamura's angry eyes and replied calmly, "Strange, Mr. Nakamura. The only hysterical person I see here is you."
The assembled military personnel were, at least, a fair audience; they rewarded this comment with the same laugh they'd given MacIntyre's quip earlier.
Nakamura gripped the edges of the podium and struggled to control himself; after a few moments he had calmed sufficiently to say,
"Technology aside, JA is demonstrably more controllable than the Evangelion system. We project that the use of JA in place of the EVAs will reduce collateral damage by 40%."
"At the expense of how great a rise in direct enemy-inflicted damage?"
"There... there are no statistics on that. It's not relevant."
"Not relevant? The efficacy of Jet Alone as a defensive weapons system is not relevant to its value as a replacement for Evangelion? You have a fascinating concept of relevance, Mr. Nakamura. Such factors would seem to be of prime importance to me. For example—how do you expect Jet Alone to be able to engage the enemy with any degree of success without an Absolute Terror Field? It's common knowledge that conventional weapons are useless against the Angels."
"Ah, yes," Nakamura replied with something that was almost a sneer. "The AT Field, another piece of poorly explained handwaving technology from the Project Evangelion team. I don't buy your reasons for using children as pilots and I don't believe in any 'Absolute Terror Field'. Such things are beyond the pale of physics."
"So are the Angels, Mr. Nakamura," Misato interrupted. "They are an enemy we do not fully comprehend, even today. Conventional weapons don't even slow them down. If you don't believe the science, believe the evidence of observers' own eyes. Nuclear weapons have been useless against the Third and Ninth. The firepower of an entire carrier battle group was ineffectual against the Sixth Angel. Only EVAs have ever successfully engaged an attacking Angel."
"Oh yes? What about the reported Angel attack within NERV's Central Dogma complex last month? I'm given to understand that the EVAs were not even used in combating that attack."
"There was no Angel attack in Central Dogma last month," Maya replied calmly. "The reported problem was traced to a computer malfunction in the testing systems. It was minor and isolated quickly. There was never any danger to anyone."
Truss blinked at her, but her cool demeanor never wavered. Deflated, Nakamura fumbled for a moment, then retaliated:
"If you're so confident that EVA is the superior system, Dr. Ibuki, why not have one of them face Jet Alone in simulated combat? That would settle the question once and for all."
Maya was unimpressed. "You want us to intentionally try to damage a nuclear reactor? Thank you, I think not. It isn't my idea of a well-considered test plan, to say the least."
"In any event," General MacIntyre said, regaining control of the podium, "the exhibition of Jet Alone's capabilities this afternoon will speak for the machine's capabilities. The operational decisions will have to wait for another day anyway. You and Dr. Trussell are invited to view the tests from the command center, of course."
"I look forward to it," said Maya, returning to her seat.
As MacIntyre and Nakamura left the stage and the luncheon proper began to be served, Maya turned to Truss and Misato (who were still regarding her with an expression of something akin to awe) and asked, "How did I do? Damn, I was so nervous, I'm sure I must have come off like a frightened schoolgirl..."
"Are you kidding?" Misato inquired. "You frosted Nakamura so cold they'll be able to keep a side of meat in him."
"I know I'm impressed," added Truss.
"Didn't accomplish much, though," Maya observed glumly. "If the Joint Chiefs are impressed with the JA demonstration this afternoon, they may decide to revoke NERV's permission to operate in North America and delegate the special defense clause to the JA Group."
"Don't worry," said Misato. "I'm sure it'll find some way to screw up. Computers always do."
"No, look," said Amy Anderson for approximately the seventy-fifth time. "It's not as hard as you're psyching yourself up to think it is. That's where you're going wrong on these things, honestly—you convince yourself they're much harder than they are."
"Maybe it seems that way to you," DJ grumbled. "It sounds simple enough in theory, but if I try to put it into practice it all falls to bits in my head."
Amy considered her options. She knew DJ wasn't stupid. Far from it; he had almost perfect recall for some things. He had a natural talent for linguistics—he was fluent in nine, spoken and written, and could manage a smattering of a few more. Once he had been someplace, he would never forget how he'd gotten there, how to get back or how to get around once there; the mazelike corridors of Central Dogma held no lasting mysteries for him. He could identify the originating culture, approximate age and rough value of an ancient artifact from a photograph or even a fairly good sketch. He had an almost frightening intuitive grasp of physical and spatial relations.
But he absolutely could not wrap his head around the regulated, structured, unforgiving nature of any mathematical concept he had to stop and think about. Computer programming gave him similar fits, though Amy suspected that, if she could ever get him past the regimented world of the relatively primitive language Crossroads students were being started on and through to the more freeform, creative worlds of C-square and BIXLOR, he might find a more welcoming environment. As it was, though, trying to comprehend the structure of a NewBASIC program or an algebraic equation was to him like pounding his head against a stone.
DJ pointed a finger at one of the equations confronting him and remarked, "This one, for example. It's simple—I can tell that—but I can't for my life figure out how to go about solving it."
Amy looked. The problem was, indeed, simple:
It was one they'd tripped over before in the course of the evening, and one that Amy found no less exasperating for its simplicity. If DJ could only be made to see that it was the same equation as 1.6x = 120, Amy was sure he would solve it immediately—from there it became a simple exercise in division—but the x in the bottom half of the fraction was making his brain lock up.
Seized with a sudden burst of inspiration, she said, "All right, look. You're trying to get out of Germany. You're at the Russian border—"
"What happened to poor old Poland?"
"—Germany took it over again," Amy continued without missing a beat, annoyed with herself for the omission. "The border guard wants 120 nubles to let you in. The Russo-German exchange rate is 1.6 to 1, how many Deutschmarks do you give him?"
"Seventy-five," DJ replied without blinking. "And may I say the nuble is doing remarkably well in this scenario."
Amy's frustrated expression melted into a grin. "See? You can do it."
"What?" DJ inquired, confused.
"The problem. You just solved it. 75 is x."
"It... " DJ blinked at the page. "Why, so it is. Sneaky bastards! Er, sorry."
"Hey, Fifth Child," said Asuka Sōryū-Langley as she came from the Lower Wedge to the Upper and plopped down in the Wedge booth next to Amy and her pupil. "Getting measured for your clue?" There was no rancor in her tone of voice or the smile she wore, so DJ let it pass, replying,
"Oh, you know, I get by with a little help from my friends. How's YaK's science fair project coming along?"
"They've got Jon and Rei wired into so much stuff we may never see them again," Asuka observed. "Dr. Akagi hasn't stopped griping in two hours."
"Can't blame her, really," DJ replied. "She's got other things she'd rather be doing. Which reminds me... you'll excuse me a moment, ladies—I have to check in and see how Hal's coming along."
The two watched him go in silence; then Asuka turned to Amy and said, "How's he doing?"
"Fairly well," Amy replied guardedly. "He has trouble with purely theoretical maths—he needs some practical context to give them meaning for him. And the rigidity of NewBASIC clashes with his personality. He's a quick study, though. I'm sure he'll do fine."
Asuka looked around as if checking to be sure they were unwatched, then leaned closer to the dark-haired girl and said softly, "Really? Tell me honestly. I'm..." She paused as if before a daunting admission, then went on, "I'm concerned. Professor Ikari is already unhappy with him, not that he cares, but if he gets bad grades Ikari can say he's making the Project look bad and make his life miserable."
Amy digested that for a moment, then said, "Really. He has the initiative, if nothing else. Not understanding something... it's like it insults him. He digs his heels in and attacks it until he's figured it out. He's too stubborn to give up."
Asuka grinned. "Good. If you need any help keeping him motivated, just let me know."
"It's all very impressive, Mr. Nakamura," Maya Ibuki observed as the three huge display screens in the underground amphitheatre-like Jet Alone command bunker showed the machine going through its paces on the nearby proving range. "I've seen nothing to convince me that JA is in any way superior to EVA, though."
"I don't need to convince you, Dr. Ibuki," Nakamura replied smugly. "Only the Army brass."
"The last time I checked, NERV's operations in the US were sanctioned by an Executive Order... and the President was still Commander in Chief."
"Bah," said Nakamura, waving a hand dismissively. "He's a figurehead. Right there is where the real power in this country vests," he added, pointing to the observers' box in which the Joint Chiefs stood watching.
Maya scowled and returned her attention to the display; presently Nakamura went over to another corner of the Mission Control-like room to consult with a console tech, and Maya turned to Truss.
"What do you think?" she inquired of her colleague, who was still leafing distractedly through various handouts and tech sheets.
Truss looked up and scanned the chrome and glass room, taking in the poorly-arranged, eye-jarring data readouts and hard-to-read typefaces used in the status screens.
"The reactor is a pretty safe design from what I can see," he conceded, holding up the sheaf of papers, "but even a safe reactor is a stupid thing to put on a combat mecha... The command software has a pretty distinct lag in it, have you noticed?" Maya nodded. "Of course they won't let us see the code, but I'm betting it's not very well-optimized... and get a user interface designer in on this project quick because, damn."
Maya suppressed a chuckle. John had hit the major point she'd noticed over the past twenty minutes or so as well, and trust him, a self-taught information presentation expert as well as a top-notch computer scientist, to notice the poor quality of the JA software displays.
On the big screen, Jet Alone paused before engaging another group of robotic tanks; then it opened up with the autocannon it held (similar in design to Project EVA's own assault-rifle-style EMA-75R) and destroyed them. Then, according to the test program that had been presented earlier, it was supposed to turn southeast and return to the reviewing area, then stand down for inspection.
Instead, it paused for a moment, then turned northward and started walking.
"Um," Truss pointed out, "correct me if I'm wrong, but it's not supposed to be doing that, yes?"
"Damn!" Nakamura spat just as the alarms started going off.
"Where's Commander Ikari?" a uniformed operations tech demanded, bursting into the Lower Wedge.
"I haven't seen him for a couple of hours," Ritsuko replied, looking up from the maze of cables that now connected the Tempest 5000 console to a rack of diagnostic and monitoring instruments. "He's not in his office?"
"No ma'am," the tech replied, "nor does he respond to paging."
"That's very odd. Have you paged Colonel Keller?"
"Yes, ma'am. He's on his way to the Command Center now. They'll be wanting you as well."
"What's going on?"
"Problems up north," the tech reported. "Jet Alone has gone berserk!"
"Jet Alone?" YaK asked, sliding out of his place in the machine.
Ritsuko blinked, then recovered her composure as she said coolly, "That's classified. You never heard it. OK?"
YaK shrugged. "Sure, whatever. Sounds like the name of some thing the Japanese Monster Defense Force would use."
"Japanese Monster Defense Force?"
"Yeah, you know. From the old Toho movies. The JMDF always had some insane superweapon with a silly name that they'd try to fight the monsters with. They'd invariably fail, of course, and some bright young scientist or precocious kid would head off to Monster Island and get Godzilla to come save the day."
"Oh. Well, I've never really watched movies."
"Really? Shame, that. I'll make a note to send you some vids. Well, back to work."
YaK slid back into the space under T5K, leaving Ritsuko standing, looking at his legs with a perplexed expression.
"Berserk" was a bit of an exaggeration, really. Jet Alone had, in fact, kept walking north, mindlessly bent on some unknown destination, heedless of all obstacles. It was currently crashing through mostly-unoccupied forestland, tromping implacably forward as, back at the command center, the techs worked feverishly to find out what had gone wrong and bring their wayward weapon back under control.
Misato, Truss and Maya watched, bemused, from the back of the room as the AG Systems team worked their way slowly into a panic. Their cool precision and almost automaton-like demeanor was coming undone as JA stubbornly resisted layer after layer of their concerted efforts to bring it back under control. Truss figured that at the rate they were going, by the time they ran out of checklist items to try they were going to be, collectively, a complete basket case.
"They're not very good at handling a crisis, are they?" Misato murmured to her colleagues, showing that her train of thought had been mirroring Truss's.
"Mm," Maya nodded. "They've been drilled intensively about the stuff that's on those checklists, but they don't know what to do if the situation doesn't stay within those parameters. Nakamura's running them more like a stock exchange than a response team. Doesn't surprise me too much."
"It's no use!" one of Nakamura's techs declared at length. "JA is out of control, he's not responding to our command signals at all. Even priority override isn't working!"
"What's his current course?" Nakamura demanded.
"North-northwest," the tech replied.
"Extrapolate. Is he endangering anything major?"
"Only the capital of Maine," said Truss, doing some quick mental mapping.
"What?!" Nakamura demanded, rounding on him.
"Unless I miss my guess," Truss replied, "north-northwest will take him straight to Augusta."
"That's not the worst of it, sir!" another of the AG console techs cried, a look of anguish on his face.
"What the hell more could go wrong?" Nakamura snapped.
"Primary and secondary reactor coolant pumps have just gone offline!" the tech replied, frantically punching buttons. "The tertiary pump was never meant to be used while the unit is at combat output; it's beginning to fail!"
Nakamura's beaky face went white as a sheet. "My God," he murmured. "How long do we have?"
"Perhaps an hour, perhaps less—there's no predicting how long that pump will hold out," another tech responded. "Unit is ignoring restart commands on primary and secondary coolant pumps."
"Keep trying!" Nakamura screamed, slamming his fist down on the top of the nearest control console. "If we can't restart those pumps and JA's reactor goes critical..."
"Jet Alone is still ignoring all external command inputs," the first tech told him. "We're powerless, sir. He's not listening to us."
"If JA's reactor goes critical, what?" Misato demanded.
The tech turned to her, pale-faced and nervous, then glanced to Nakamura as if asking permission to speak. When the chief engineer nodded curtly, the tech replied, "Uh, well... odds are, it'll... uh, explode."
"How big?" Misato asked, entirely businesslike.
"We haven't blown one up to get baselines," the tech responded, "but our best computer models put it at between ten and fifteen kilotons."
Maya went a little bit pale. Turning to Truss, she said softly, "My God, John, do you realize what this means?"
Truss affected a look of extreme thoughtfulness. "Umm... Maine has to pick a new capital?" Maya looked perplexed, so he thought a bit more. "Er... hmm..." His face brightened. "Ah!" he said triumphantly. "No more damned rotaries." His face fell again as Maya's scowl deepened. "Uh... one less Wal-Mart?" he tried feebly.
Maya scowled. "How can you joke about this?" Turning away, she grumbled, "I can't believe I thought you were cute."
Truss's triumphant grin faded into a more traditional look of puzzlement. "You thought I was cute?"
"This is not the time," Maya muttered.
"Why not, we can't do anything about what's happening," Truss replied. "Let's talk about this."
"John, don't you care what happens to your parents?" Maya blurted. "They live around here, last time I checked."
Truss's face slowly changed from puzzlement to a surprisingly somber expression as he replied, "I know. Believe me, I know."
"Well, aren't you going to do anything about it? Warn them, at least?"
Truss thought about it, then shook his head. "No," he replied. "They couldn't get far enough away in time anyway. I think in a situation like this... they'd rather not know."
Maya stared at him for a moment; then her face softened as she realized he'd been thinking about it all the while. Briefly, she took his hand, before becoming businesslike again and turning to Nakamura.
"Don't you have a manual override in there somewhere?" Maya inquired.
"Of course we do," Nakamura growled, "but how do you propose we get to it? JA's onboard control room is just a bit out of reach at the moment. No land vehicle can keep up with him in that kind of terrain, and he would interpret any aircraft coming near enough to deposit personnel as an attack."
"I can think of one land vehicle that could keep up," Misato remarked.
"It's the only intercept opportunity you can think of?" asked Colonel Otto Keller as he leaned toward Misato's image on the main monitor.
"That's affirmative," Misato replied. "The only one with any chance of success, anyway. JA is programmed to defend itself from air attack, so we can't air-drop anyone, but an EVA could get behind it and deposit someone near the entrance hatch with a fair chance of success."
Keller sighed and looked over the status screens. "Ellison and Ayanami are involved in tests Professor Ikari ordered, we can't get them ready to launch in anything resembling a timely fashion. Unit 01 is too valuable to risk on a mission like this. You'll have to take Langley."
"Fine," Misato replied. "Just so long as she's here within the hour."
"This is a combat alert," announced the voice of Hal over the Central Dogma PA system. "Evangelion Unit 02 has been dispatched to handle the Central Maine crisis. Pilot Langley, please report to Hangar Eighteen for immediate launch."
Asuka looked quizzically at the nearest speaker. "Me? That's odd. You'd think for an intercept mission they'd send the Mighty Adventurer. His EVA's ugly, but it's got the longest battery life."
"Thanks ever so," DJ mumbled from behind the portable he was attempting to complete a NewBASIC programming assignment on.
"Anyway, I have to go. Think you can hold down the fort without me?"
"Did it for months before you joined us."
Asuka opened her mouth to retort, then sighed. "Why can't we ever have a conversation without fighting?" she wondered.
DJ looked up, then shrugged. "Because we annoy each other?"
Asuka looked thoughtful. "Yeah... I guess that must be it." She shrugged. "Gotta go. Try not to sprain your brain."
"Asuka?" DJ inquired as Asuka walked away.
"Mm?" she replied, pausing and turning.
"Be careful," he said.
"Are you getting soft in your old age, DJ?" Asuka wondered. "Don't worry; it'll be a walk in the woods. I'll be back in time for dinner."
DJ watched her go, then sighed, shook his head and went back to work. Momentarily, feeling himself watched, he looked up to see Amy regarding him with a small, private smile.
"What's so funny?" he asked.
"Nothing," Amy replied. "Don't let me distract you."
"You can't be serious," Misato grumbled. "You don't mind if we send one of our ill-understood, unnatural monsters after your clockwork nightmare, but you won't send one of your engineers to undo your mistakes?"
"Major Katsuragi, the AG Systems team are technicians, not soldiers," replied General MacIntyre. "We haven't the right to risk their lives in such a fashion. As has been pointed out, we're perfectly safe here in the bunker, and all surface personnel have been evacuated."
"So the population of central Maine falls under your definition of 'acceptable losses', then?" inquired Maya calmly. "The phrase 'moral vacuum' comes to mind."
"Nevertheless, the AG Systems team are too valuable to send on a fool's errand such as this. Major, if you want somebody inside Jet Alone so badly, I suggest you go yourself."
"Fine!" Misato replied. "I'll do that."
"Fine. Neither AG Systems nor the United States Army will accept any responsibility if you or your EVA pilot are killed."
"I didn't suppose you would. What is it, John?" Misato added, turning to face the engineer who had been tapping diffidently at her shoulder.
"We can't send you," he pointed out.
"Why the hell not?" Misato retorted.
"No offense, Major, but you don't know a weapons-control computer from a microwave oven's programmable timer. What are you going to do if the conventional override fails—shove the control rods into the pile by hand?"
Misato considered it for a moment, then sighed. "Yeah... I suppose you're right." She turned to the General and Mr. Nakamura. "Will your people provide remote help through an uplink at least, or were you all planning on hiding in the men's room until this blows over?"
"We'll help in any way we can, of course," said Nakamura, steadfastly ignoring Maya's derisive snort, "but we can't be expected to talk non-technical personnel through anything more complicated than a standard power cutoff. At any rate, we have no data on how well voice communications will work that close to a pile."
"The Evangelion can mediate telecom, that's not a problem," Misato replied.
"Pass sensitive data about the Jet Alone system through an Evangelion's communications and command system? Surely you jest."
"Mr. Nakamura, let me make this perfectly clear to you," said Misato calmly. "If you stand here and allow Jet Alone to blunder into the middle of the state capitol and explode, I will personally kick you, very hard, once for each life that is lost. Do we understand each other?"
"I'd pay to see that," Truss noted.
"Keep out of this, John," said Misato.
"Well, er... if you put it that way," Nakamura hesitated, looking to General MacIntyre.
"You'll be required to turn over the data logs and purge the EVA's information systems after the operation," MacIntyre huffed. "National security."
"Have your MIBs call our MIBs and we'll do lunch," replied Misato. "Let's get busy, we've only got about half an hour before the EVA gets here, and I've got a lot of reading to do."
"I've already done it," Truss pointed out from behind one of the tech binders. "I should go."
"What? John, you're an engineer. What do you know about climbing into an armored vehicle that might not want you there?"
"List your experience on the subject," Truss replied. "Use extra sheets as necessary."
Misato scowled. "Maya, you're his superior, tell him he can't go."
Maya considered it for a moment, then replied, "It makes sense."
"It makes sense," Maya repeated. "Truss's information about JA's systems is fresh and up to date; most of what I know about it is at least a month stale, from the last TechDiv preliminary meeting, and I was expecting to second Dr. Akagi anyway. He's got the highest level of familiarity with AG Systems equipment, too—all the gear the Russians are using for their half of Project Atlas is AG-made."
Misato weighed the options for a moment, then grinned. "Who would have thought that would ever come in handy? OK, Truss, you're in. Get fitted for a radsuit; it's going to be hot in there."
With no time to send John back to Worcester-3 to join the EVA at its original debarkation point, and no runway in the vicinity long enough to land an An-411 on, Misato, as operations planner, had one tricky thing to work out—how to manage the rendezvous. The solution, suggested by one of the more helpful of Nakamura's console techs, was a mid-air rendezvous between the 411—a plane so big it had been described by one of the TechDiv mechanics assigned to maintain NERV's first one as a "flying landmass"—and a courier jet. Truss couldn't decide which he was looking forward to less: the transfer between one aircraft and another, the air drop aboard the EVA (if "clutching its hand for dear life" could be considered "aboard"), or the transfer to Jet Alone. Battling the rampant reactor for the lives of the people of Central Maine really wasn't even on the list compared to stunts like that. After all, battling rogue computers was something Truss had recent practice at; jumping from one airplane to another with only an alarmingly insubstantial-looking cable as protection against a plummeting, shrieking death, that was new.
"Truss! What are you doing here?" Asuka Sōryū-Langley inquired as the radsuited engineer stumbled into the 411's on-deck crew compartment.
"Fighting a desire to vomit," Truss replied. "Check with me again in a couple of minutes."
"No, I mean, why are you here? I thought Misato was going to... y'know."
"No, it's me," Truss replied.
"How'd you get stuck with it?"
"Are you stupid?" Asuka demanded. "You're not prepared for an operation like this! When was the last time you had any kind of special operations training?"
"Um... well, there was that one 'team-building exercise' we had to do last year that involved whitewater rafting... "
"Well, that fills me with confidence," Asuka observed.
"You're filled with confidence?" Truss replied. "I'm having trouble enough getting used to the idea of doing this without you second-guessing me, y'know."
Asuka looked on the verge of retorting, then seemed to consider it for a moment before sighing. "I'm sorry, John... I'm just, I dunno... worried you'll get hurt. You're not combat personnel, you shouldn't be exposed to this kind of danger."
"Well, I'm touched," said Truss. "Don't worry. I won't tell DJ about it."
Asuka scowled, but said nothing.
"Unit 02, two minutes to target zone," came the calm voice of the pilot, cast in the mold of calm pilot voices for generations before him. "What's your status?"
"Everything's ready here?" replied Asuka from the cockpit. "Truss, are you OK?"
"Define 'OK'," Truss replied. On his personal scale of OKness, being strapped to the palm of a giant hand by an elaborate system of nylon web belts, in a radsuit, with one of the standard-NERV-issue Sharp DataCenter portable computers strapped to one leg like a submachinegun, about to be dropped from a speeding aircraft, didn't rate all that high, but he suspected the operations planners might be using a different scale.
"Think you'll fall off?"
"Um..." Truss tugged experimentally at his bonds. "Don't think so."
"For our purposes, that's OK," Asuka replied, then keyed the loop back to the 411's cockpit. "EVA-02, ready to drop."
"Roger, one minute to target zone," replied the pilot.
From Truss's vantage point, there wasn't much to see; EVA-02's hand was closed, so his vistas were hemmed in by red-painted metal and polycarbonate armor. It's just as well, he mused. I never wanted to see Maine from this particular angle anyway.
"Stand by, EVA-02; target in sight. Ten seconds to drop...
Gravity asserted itself and went away all at the same moment; there's a reason they call it freefall. Truss became gladder than ever he couldn't see around him—except, it occurred to him after a couple of seconds of weightlessness, he had no way of telling when the ground was going to hit.
"Hang on, Truss!" Asuka declared in his earphone. "Here comes the train wreck!"
The crater left behind by Evangelion Unit 02's impact would remain, a local landmark, for some years to come.
Asuka didn't allow herself the usual four seconds for boasting; nobody was around who would have been impressed anyway. Instead, she managed the unit's momentum, skidding smoothly into a run, wasting no energy on a stop-and-start but keeping balance and control smoothly between the lines. A textbook air-drop landing on uneven terrain; she hoped the 411 got it on film.
"There's Jet Alone," she remarked for Truss's edification. "About half a mile ahead, cruising at about 25 kph. This'll be an easy catch."
Truss had believed the harrowing cable slide from aircraft to aircraft had been a nauseating experience; but compared to being strapped into an EVA's fist as that EVA pumped into a full-out run, that was smooth sailing.
"Could you not move the right hand so much?" he inquired. "I don't think it would be good for me to lose my lunch in this helmet."
"Oh, sorry," Asuka replied. "Is this better?" The ride smoothed out, if not entirely, at least enough.
"Service with a smile," replied Asuka gleefully.
"You're in a weird mood today," Truss observed.
"You're one to talk," Asuka replied. "You've never shown any action hero tendencies before."
"And I don't plan on ever showing them again," Truss replied.
"Hang on," said Asuka, leveling the pace of her charging EVA as they caught up with Jet Alone. "I've almost... " EVA-02's left hand latched onto the skyhook bar on Jet Alone's back, getting a firm grip. "Got him! OK, Truss... you're on."
The next part of the operation was supposedly going to be the trickiest: maneuvering Truss into position so that he could use one of the tools strapped to his belt to open JA's hatch. And, indeed, it was tricky; between his unfamiliarly gloved hands fumbling with the tools and the uneven ground making Asuka lose pace with JA, they managed to botch the job three times.
"Ahh, the hell with this," Asuka grumbled. "Hang on a second, Truss." Releasing the skyhook bar, she increased EVA-02's speed a little, matching pace with JA from the side, then deployed her unit's left-hand progressive knife. "Cover your eyes," she advised Truss, and then, with much sparking and a terrible shrieking metal-on-metal noise, she cut the hatch open.
"They weren't supposed to damage the unit!" Nakamura bellowed. "You'll pay for this, Katsuragi."
"Mr. Nakamura," said Misato sweetly.
"Shut up," said Misato and Maya in unison.
"OK, Truss?" asked Asuka as Truss slid into JA's internal control room, then released the cable from his belt so that, if Unit 02 lost pace, he wouldn't be sucked violently back out the hatch. Of course, it also meant there was no fast way to recover him, but nobody thought that was much of a priority, Truss included.
"OK," said Truss, orienting himself briefly and going to the command terminal, a device not unlike a HAL 9000-series control rostrum, at the forward end of the small, dimly-lit compartment. Sliding into the conveniently-provided chair, he powered on the control system.
What he got back was not encouraging. Instead of a standard AG Systems AGOS UNIX prompt, or some variant thereof, as he had been expecting, he was greeted only by a screen filled with a continuously scrolling pattern of five letters:
"Well," he murmured to himself. "This is beginning to look less like a malfunction all the time." He pulled the DataCenter (known affectionately to TechDiv personnel around the world as a 'Hackatron') from its belt holster, opened it, and snapped a universal adapter cable into the port on its rear edge.
NERV's Hackatrons earned their nickname not so much by the hardware they comprised, but rather from a clever application which had been written for them by Maya, Truss and a few other code-slingers in the upper echelons of TechDiv. Intended as a diagnostic tool, this program was designed to worm its way (no pun intended) into out-of-control computer systems and figure out what they were supposed to be doing—and what they were doing instead. More than once, this little hack (nicknamed 'Flynn' by its creators) had shed light on the malfunctions of the temperamental prototype and test-type Evangelions, the Magi, and other high-level NERV computing equipment many times. Back at headquarters it was proving invaluable in the reconstruction and rehabilitiation of SHODAN.
Truss was hoping that in this case, Flynn would be as helpful in showing him what had gone wrong—or, as seemed more likely to him now, what had been made wrong—with Jet Alone.
"Truss, the AG Systems people are on comline," Asuka's voice came in his ear. "They want to talk to you, something about restricted files and... " She paused as if listening. "Frankly, it sounds like it's not very important."
"Then tell them I heard it," Truss replied, plugging the other end of the universal cable into a likely-looking port on JA's control rostrum and cursing AG's Japanese labeling scheme under his breath.
"They want me to patch them in so they can hear what we're saying."
"Tell them you can't."
"They're not going to like that," Asuka replied. The amusement in her voice was unmistakable.
"I thought you might be."
Truss plunged into his work, forgetting the climbing temperature, the rocking of the room as JA walked, the increasing desperation of the situation, the fact that he might even now be soaking up enough radiation even with the suit to endow his children with superpowers, the clumsiness of his gloved fingers and the maddeningly persistent itch in his right instep. As he worked, and Flynn unraveled the tangle of code that was Jet Alone's runtime image right now, several things began to become clear to him—only one of which he liked.
Keying his suit's comset, he said, "Asuka, is this channel secure?"
"JA's kicking out so much noise I doubt anybody else is close enough to eavesdrop," Asuka replied. "Why?"
"Because there are some things here I don't like, and I don't want the Army or the AG team to know I know them."
"Well, it's kind of asking too much of a radsuit to have an encrypting commset, so you'll just have to wing it," Asuka replied. "What's up?"
"I'll start with the good news," Truss said. "Jet Alone is not going to explode."
"You fixed it?"
"Then how can you be so sure?"
"That's not what it's programmed to do."
"Truss, clue phone? It's broken."
"No it's not. Everything it's done today has been according to a program—just not the one we were told it was running."
"Are you saying JA's been sabotaged?"
"That's what I'm saying. Someone came into the command system before the test commenced and replaced the binary image with a modified one. Near as I can tell, it was programmed to obey commands until such-and-such a time, then execute what it's doing now. It'll get within five miles of Augusta and five minutes of reactor failure, then kick the primary coolant pump back in and shut down."
"Who the hell would program it to do that?"
"I don't know," Truss admitted. "The image also commands JA to purge its datasystems during the shutdown. They're going to go over the disk on my Hackatron with a fine-toothed comb when I get out of here and I don't want them knowing I know about this. Can you take an uplink to EVA-02's system?"
"Sure, hang on... Set your Hackatron's relay transmitter to 202.5 and encrypt on A, it's fast."
"Right. Ready to receive?"
"Ready when you are."
Truss keyed the Hackatron to send a binary dump of JA's memory contents and its own debugging logs, then purge and shut down.
"They're going to want proof that there's nothing suspicious on EVA-02's memory either, when this is all over, but that's bought us a few minutes," Truss observed. "Hmm... can you get a channel to Hal from here?"
"He's still filling in for SHODAN... he's right smack at the middle of the NERV network."
Truss smacked the forehead of his radsuit's helmet. "Duh. Of course. Make it a priority-one upload, but keep it quiet."
"Don't even tell anyone at NERV?"
"... I think someone at NERV may be involved."
Asuka was silent for a moment, then replied, "OK. Uploading now."
"When the upload's done, wipe it from 02's logs and get ready to receive something in its place."
"What else have you got?"
"Just some sensor log junk and an old debug file about the time Project Atlas's AG-4540 crashed. If I change the names and network addresses they'll never know the difference. Hey, I have to tell them something about what I've been doing in here. While I'm at it, I'd better nuke my copy of Flynn, too. Don't want them learning we have that."
"That's very subversive of you, John," said Asuka with some amusement. "Maybe you're cut out to be a field agent after all."
"You'd like to think so, wouldn't you?" Truss replied, finishing his work and slumping a bit in the chair as JA ground to a halt around him. Momentarily, the lights turned blue, and, with a whirr and clunk, the reactor SCRAMmed.
"The AG guys are going nuts over here," said Asuka. "They want to know how you did it."
"Tell 'em it's a trade secret," said Truss with a smile, packing up his Hackatron. "Maybe for a cold two-liter of Dew and a shower I'll tell them."
As he took his place in the traditional spectators' gallery, DJ looked about him and sighed sadly. It was a terrible pity that the screw-up in Maine had kept Misato, Maya, Truss and Asuka away tonight, of all nights. Like YaK, DJ was convinced that, from the mystifying mass of cables, signal monitors, diagnostic instruments and processors that had once been the Tempest 5000 machine, something very special would soon emerge.
As he watched Ritsuko and YaK putter around the machine, putting the finishing touches and adjustments on the various devices that had been slaved into the NIP, he felt a touch on his shoulder. Turning, to his surprise, he saw Asuka slipping into the seat next to him, with Truss, Maya and Misato behind.
"Well, hullo," he said. "Didn't expect you'd be back in time."
"What, miss this?" Asuka replied. "Not a chance."
"How'd it go?"
"Piece of cake," she replied; then her expression became a bit more serious as she added, "We'll have to talk about it later."
"Why, something go wrong?"
"Nothing that can't wait," Asuka replied, and her cheerful mood returned as though with the flip of a switch. "You really think this'll work?" she asked.
"Professor Ikari seems to think so," DJ replied. "Loath as I am to agree with him... yeah, I think it'll work."
The lights were dimmed; the gallery hushed. Off to the side, Ritsuko sat, her face illuminated by the greenish glow of a status monitor. YaK took a place on the floor at the front of the gallery as Rei and Jon, in plug suits so Ritsuko could easily monitor their medical telemetry, slid into the seats at the transformed T5K console and donned the neural interface headsets YaK and Ritsuko had patched into the machine.
A tinny, single-sideband computerized voice, not unlike the one that heralded the coming of the AI Droid in regular gameplay, announced:
"Tempest 5000 neural synchronization: stage one: begin."
Swirling colors appeared in the holographic display, resolving themselves slowly into familiar patterns: the sprays of color that accompanied neural synchronization on the display screens of the Evangelions. With it came mellow, swelling chords, backgrounded with a high, ululating vocal like the voice of the mosque calling the faithful to worship. As the patterns solidified, the chords swelled toward a climax, and as the colors suddenly resolved themselves into the streaming starfield and spinning Web of the Web selection screen, a powerful techno backbeat kicked in.
"Tempest 5000 neural synchronization: stage one: complete," the game announced; the circular starting Web sprang into the center of the display, and play began.
At first, except for the fact that the players were not touching the controls, it didn't look all that different from a regular T5K game. Those in the gallery experienced at watching Jon and Rei play the game could see them reaching for and hitting their stride, breezing through the introductory Webs with their usual aplomb. Something felt odd, disjointed, about their style; their movements were staggered, as though they were comfortable with their link to the machine but had not yet learned to accomodate each other on the Web.
With the coming of the four-pointed star Web, though, that all changed. At first they seemed to fall apart; Rei was caught by a Flipper, something she almost never did any more, while Jon, distracted by her capture and regeneration, ran afoul of a Fuseball. As both Blasters returned to the Web, though, something seemed to click. The two suddenly snapped into perfect lockstep formation, each exactly where the other wasn't, pulling and pushing each other around the star and annihilating their enemies.
"Tempest 5000 neural synchronization: stage two: complete," the voice announced.
From here, the action only got hotter, the lockstep precision of the two Blasters refining and the annihilation of the bad guys accelerating. The gallery watched spellbound as Rei and Jon blew past their old sticking-point, the extremely vicious Möbius Web, raced through the Stay Between the Red Lines Bonus Warp and charged into sections of the game unseen by mortal eyes, complete with new enemies so vicious they made the thunderous crashing zap of a Pulsar an almost relieving sound.
But still, as they danced the dance of the Xenocide, one thing remained elusive, one true proof of their utter synchrony in mind, body, soul and machine, and as the holographic action built to a frenzied pitch, DJ found YaK staring at the playfield, thumping a fist rhythmically against his knee, murmuring, "C'mon, c'mon, c'mon..."
Enemies poured up the Web faster than even Rei and Jon could blast them. Jumping and dodging, they stayed ahead of the tide, barely, but the desperation of their predicament was becoming obvious with every passing second. Their SuperZappers were long since spent, and it appeared only one thing could save them now.
Ritsuko gasped unconsciously as, on her monitors, the unnervingly similar lines of Rei and Jon's respiration, heartbeats, and neural patterns merged into a single undifferentiable signal.
"Tempest 5000 neural synchronization: final stage: complete."
The Synchro-Annihilator spoke.
"Yes! Yes! Yes!! Yes!!! YES!!!!" YaK bellowed, jumping up and performing what for all the world looked like an end-zone dance.
Hours passed, the crowd dispersed, the flushed and triumphant players were treated to dinner by the creator of their game, and all adjourned for home. All, that is, save Ritsuko Akagi, who sat still at the console of the diagnostic equipment, poring over the remarkable readings that the two children had generated at the peak of their session.
"Most illuminating," said an unexpected voice behind her, "wouldn't you say?"
She turned to see Gendō Ikari, smiling his unnerving smile and looking far too pleased with himself.
"I would have said 'impossible'," Ritsuko replied, gesturing at the part of the graph where the two signals merged into one.
"For those two, Dr. Akagi, nothing is impossible," Gendō replied. "The door to Tomorrow must admit no weaknesses."
"That's placing rather high expectations on them, don't you think?"
"It's one thing to save the world," Ikari replied, "and quite another to make it a better place. Jon and Rei, in their time, will do both."
Ritsuko couldn't think of any fitting response to such a statement, so she shut down the computers, got up, and started packing documents into her briefcase.
"I want you to set up a battery of cross-compatibility tests immediately," said Ikari. "Test the two experimental-type pilots on each other's units, and the same for the production-model pilots. Special test criteria will be on your desk in the morning... and I think it's time we scheduled psychological evaluations of the pilots, too."
"As you say," said Ritsuko. Gendō Ikari showing interest in the psychological states of the pilots? Her day, she reflected, was getting stranger by the minute.
"Have you an estimated time to completion of the repairs to SHODAN?" Ikari wondered. "The current system makes me... uneasy."
A-ha, thought Ritsuko to herself. You're not completely imperturbable, are you? "SHODAN should be functional within a week. Functionality is one thing and fitness to reassume her old responsibilities is another, though; I won't be able to assess how long full rehabilitation will take until I've got her basic personality matrix online."
"I shall expect a full report next week, then."
"You'll have it."
"Good evening, then, Dr. Akagi. It has been a busy day... but a most enlightening one, I think."
"... Whatever you say," said Ritsuko to the empty Wedge after Ikari had gone. "He's getting stranger all the time... not that I'm in a position to complain, I've started talking to myself."
She was still there hours later, poring over the reams of data, when she was surprised by someone clearing his throat, quietly, behind her. She gave a small jump and turned to find YaK leaning in the doorway from the upper Wedge, holding two bags.
"You missed a good dinner."
"Yes, shame. But I saw the look you had when we were leaving and I figured you'd rather start going over the data immediately. I've seen the same look in my mirror on more than one occaision."
Ritsuko was never really very good at such social situations, so she stood in silence for a short while. When it became too uncomfortable, she felt she had to say something. "Um, what's in the bags?"
"Oh these? Like I said, you missed a good dinner. And while I figured you wanted to go over the data, people do have to eat. This," he lifted his left hand slightly, "is a wonderful Chicken Tikka Masala. This," he lifted his right hand slghtly, "is an absolutely bloody murderous Chicken Vindaloo. I wasn't sure how your tastes ran."
Ritsuko blinked—then her stomach rumbled, barely audible in the silent Wedge. Embarrassed, she smiled. "I guess I am a bit hungry. I'll have the Tikka Masala please."
"Certainly. I'll set things up." YaK set the bags on one of the tables across the lower Wedge from the gaming area and began distributing their contents. Foam containers, plastic plates, utensils, nan, little packets of extra seasoning...
Well, he certainly prepares, Ritsuko thought idly.
Presently the jumble of contents organized themselves (or so it appeared) into two place settings complete with steaming, aromatic food. Ritsuko's stomach turned over again and her mouth began to water. I am hungry, she thought.
YaK stepped back to observe his handiwork, frowned for a moment, and slapped his head. "Beverage!"
"Yes, as in 'I forgot the.'"
"Oh... Well, there are some soda and juice machines in the upper Wedge, just 'round the corner."
"Ah, splendid. Any preference?"
"Cola is fine."
"Then cola it is!" YaK bounded up the steps and out of view, leaving her to stare after him, midly perplexed. "He is an interesting one," she muttered to herself.
He was back in moments and joined her at the table. They dug into the feast, as it were. Ritsuko's hunger hit her like a wild beast when she took her first bite. She had a habit of becoming focused on work to the point of forgetting to eat. Now she thought back—when was the last time she'd eaten? Lunch? No, she skipped that. She skipped breakfast regularly. Must have been the cruller and coffee at break this morning. Her stomach rumbled in agreement.
YaK attacked his plate much more leisurely. He'd had the same meal bare hours earlier, and had spent the last few hours discussing the finer points of the gaming industry with DJ. It was he who suggested that Dr. Akagi would still be here, and here she was. It was refreshing talking to somebody who approached being a countryman again; after years in Northern California, YaK was prepared to consider even an Englishman civilized, and Northants was not so terribly far from Wales, anyway.
"So what do you think?" YaK asked when she had finished half of her meal, and visibly slowed. He knew what it was like; she shared many of his habits apparently.
"About the data, the system?"
She paused for a moment to think. She was impressed—rather seriously impressed, actually. She didn't think anyone outside of NERV had done such advanced neural interface work. And this guy claimed to have been working alone. Still, she didn't want to let on how impressed she was. She was unaware that the pause, and her face, gave it all away anyway—but YaK was gracious and pretended not to notice.
"It is good. You've achieved some seriously impressive numbers. You say you were working alone on this?"
"Mostly. Obviously I based my work on research done by others, but I made some advancements of my own." (That is an understatement, Ritsuko thought.) "But I didn't want to reveal it until I'd found someone good enough to handle it. The average gamer claims to want an immersive experience, but not many could really handle it, truth be told. I don't want to go down in history as the inventor of the first cybernetic drug."
"Well, it'll take weeks for us to fully analyze the data from tonight's session, but at first blush it looks impressive. In some ways, well..." YaK raised an eyebrow. "Well, it seems superior to my own work on some ways."
YaK sat upright, seriously stunned. "I'm flattered, really, but do you really—"
"No buts. You have some interesting solutions to quantum interference by the looks of it. To be honest it isn't a completely superior system, but it has its advantages. We might be able to combine our systems to produce a final product better than both..." Ritsuko paused, realizing she'd gotten ahead of herself and said more than she meant to. "That is, if you're interested."
YaK just smiled.
"So is that a yes?"
"Well, let's say that it is certainly an interesting proposition," he said, with a twinkle in his eye.
It was Ritsuko's turn to smile.
DJ Croft stood inside one of the small stone turrets that flanked the walkway into Bancroft Tower, gazing out over the twinkling lights of the city. Autumn was falling and the nights were becoming chilly, so he'd walked up the hill; now his breath crystallized in the air as he stood, and watched the city, and thought.
Who would sabotage Jet Alone? What purpose would it serve? Was the whole point simply to make the AG Systems team look bad? If so, the prime suspects were within NERV itself; Ritsuko Akagi and Hideki Nakamura had locked horns several times in the Journal of the Cybernetic Sciences, and Maya Ibuki's rivalry with Nakamura was perhaps more monumental if only because of the personal connection: they had dated briefly in college, not too many years before. But Ritsuko had been stuck in Worcester-3, working on the Tempest 5000 project, and Maya... no, even with her disdain for Nakamura, DJ couldn't see Maya performing such an act. Even with the code in place to SCRAM the reactor after the overheat scare, there were too many variables. A miscalculation, a slight bug in the code, and half the population of Maine would have been wiped out. DJ couldn't bring himself to imagine Maya cold-bloodedly taking that risk just to make Hideki Nakamura look bad.
Was the purpose, then, to draw an Evangelion? With JA in distress, it was the logical thing to do.
Here he paused in his reflection to wonder why the thought of some unknown vandal causing Asuka to risk her life in such a pointless way would cause him such ambient anger.
He was still on that subject when the scrape of a footstep on the stone floor of the turret drew his attention; turning, he saw Rei coming up to stand beside him.
"Hullo, Rei," he said softly, turning back to gaze out at the nightlit city.
"Hello, DJ," replied Rei, stopping shoulder to shoulder with him and mirroring his posture, leaning on her elbows on the turret edge and watching the lights.
"You and Jon blew everybody's minds tonight," DJ remarked.
"It was exciting, wasn't it?" Rei replied. "I felt... energized, in a way I haven't felt before."
DJ grinned, turning to look at her more closely. "You're still glowing," he observed. "I don't think I've ever seen you smile for more than five seconds at a time. It's a nice change."
The rosiness in Rei's cheeks deepened a bit as she chuckled; then they both fell silent, watching the lights of various aircraft flit about the gleaming spires of Worcester-3 in companionable silence.
"DJ?" said Rei softly, several minutes later.
"Mm?" DJ replied.
"I... I think I love Jon," she said.
"Mm," replied DJ.
"You don't sound surprised," said Rei.
"I'm not," said DJ.
"Oh." Rei didn't seem to know what to make of that; then, deciding there was nothing for it, she asked, "DJ, do you love anyone?"
"Oh yes, Rei," DJ replied wistfully. "My loves are many and varied, for my heart is vast and indiscriminate."
"Is that from a poem?" Rei asked.
"I think it will be," DJ replied.
The episode that had to be called:
Neon Exodus Evangelion 2:4
The Day the Universe Changed
"And I learned some very interesting German words."