Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Neon Exodus Evangelion
Exodus 3: Revelations in Real Time
The Blood-Dimmed Tide
John Trussell awoke from a dream of green phosphor, strange glowing glyphs cascading down like eighty columns of flickering rain, to find his neck stiff and his shoulders aching from being slumped over the edge of his desk. Somewhere, a voice was calling his name.
"Hmm? Oh, it's you," Truss remarked as his eyes fought to regain their ability to focus on the physical world, after too many hours of gazing at a cathode ray tube. He'd been unconscious just long enough to be totally disoriented, and certainly not long enough to have had any rest. "Come on in," he said blearily, covering a yawn with one hand as he beckoned to the doorway with the other. "What's up?"
Maya Ibuki held out a brown paper bag and grinned. "I'm here to make sure that you actually eat something."
"I did eat," Truss protested. He nodded toward his desk, upon which sat a pile of assorted candy bar wrappers and an empty bag of Fritos. "See?"
"John, despite what you may have been told by the good people at M&M Mars, chocolate is not a food group."
"Fritos have corn in them. That's a vegetable, I looked it up."
Maya didn't even dignify that remark with an answer—she just rolled her eyes and raised an eyebrow.
"Umm..." Truss muttered, "I can't possibly win this argument, can I?"
"Magi simulations indicate that there is a one hundred percent chance that your hypothesis is correct."
Truss scowled. "Yeah, well, the damn things haven't worked right since that Angel hacked in, anyway. What's SHODAN got to say about it?"
"Right," said Truss, conceding defeat. As he pushed his chair away from the console, his expression changed from mock despair to surprise. "Wait... dinner? Not lunch?"
Maya chuckled. "John, it's 11:30PM."
"Ah," was all the reply Truss could manage. He took the bag and peered inside. "Umm, Maya, this is sushi. Raw fish and rice."
"Mm-hmm. And Thai iced tea."
"I told you, I don't like sushi."
"You told me you'd never had sushi."
"Yeah, well... that too."
"It's all I could find," Maya apologized. "Worcester rolled up the streets early even before all hell started breaking loose. Now that there are only about three decent restaurants, it's basically sushi or pizza—for the seventeenth day in a row."
"Not true. I had a sub last Thursday."
Maya just looked at him.
"OK, OK... I'll eat it."
He ate it.
It wasn't too bad, really.
"So," Maya wondered, "what have you been working on, anyway? Jet Alone's all packed up and ready to ship out, isn't it? What else is on your plate that's keeping you locked up here all night?"
Truss cleared away a pile of loose papers, exposing his docking station's data port. "Getting this ready," he replied, pulling out a small metallic rod out of the slot.
"A memory rod?"
Truss nodded. "Yep. It's something I promised Misato I'd get to her before the evacuation. I'm trying to set up software lockouts on the EVAs' control systems, to keep SEELE from getting any use out of them if we have to leave any behind. That rod is going to hold all of the access codes and encryption keys."
"Evangelions were never designed with lockouts in mind," Maya noted, frowning. "The designers decided that trying to build that kind of access control into a predominantly organic system wouldn't be feasible. There are too many ways to work around the low-level code."
"I know. And they were right, it's a serious pain in the ass." Truss reinserted the memrod and deactivated his screensaver. "But I've come up with a few nasty tricks that ought to at least make matters difficult for anyone trying to use the unit."
"Yeah. Trapdoors, Trojan Horses, hidden parameters, that kind of thing. Look... I've slipped a subroutine into the navigation module that will send random impulses to the EVA's muscle centers if the distress beacon isn't set to operate at a specific frequency. There's also code hidden in the spectrum analyzer functions that will overwrite all of the language interpreter data files with Pig Latin once any of the external cameras are activated. Stuff like that. I'm adding anything and everything that comes to mind, and I'm burying copies of it all into the Elerium colliders' regulatory systems and the entry plugs' communications negotiator." Truss grinned. "The only way that they'll get rid of it all is to wipe all three systems simultaneously, while the plug is inserted and the reactors are powered down. Otherwise, one system will reinfect all the others."
"That's... really bizarre, John. But you think it will work?"
Truss's smile dissolved. "No, not really."
"These are all just parlor tricks, stall tactics. Each time I code up some ersatz security system, I think of a way around it an hour later. It's easier for me, because I know what it all does, but if I can figure it out, so can SEELE... eventually. All I can hope to do is make the process of weeding everything out too inconvenient for them to bother with, or time-consuming enough that we can strike back before they can gain full control of the unit." The chair squeaked as Truss leaned back, shaking his head. "And after seeing what Kevin Nelson did with EVA-04 in the cage, I'm not even sure that anything I can change in the operating code will make a damn bit of difference, anyway."
"Then why bother?"
"Because I keep convincing myself that if I look at this problem long enough, I'll be able to come up with the one Easter egg that no one else can crack. Because if I let myself believe that it's really an impossible task, it'll depress the hell out of me. And because..." Truss sighed, then continued, "...because it's something to do. I think that if I don't do something right now, I'll stop to think and realize just how completely stressed out I am, and how much trouble we're all really in. And then, I'll curl up in a little ball on the floor—and that'll be about it for me."
"'You won't see the bastards knock the running out of me,'" Maya said softly.
"It's from a song. An old one, from back before I was born." Maya smiled as she cast her mind back to simpler days. "I was in college, in the middle of my senior project. It wasn't going well, my partner had failed out of school, the professor was being totally unreasonable, and on top of it all I was taking two extra courses that term. I was frantic. The first three years had gone smoothly, but I gained a social life the summer after my junior year—you know how that goes."
"Umm... yeah. Too well."
"So, one night, I've just about lost my mind. I'm in my apartment, alternating between crying fits and incoherent rants directed at no one in particular. By the end of the night, my voice was raw, and I couldn't cry anymore."
"So, anyway, I'm curled up on my bed—just like you say, in a little ball, not wanting to move ever again—and then the stereo starts playing this song. It sounds ridiculous, but it made me really angry... angry that someone had the gall to interrupt my mental breakdown, or something. But I listened to the song anyway..."
"The next thing I knew, the song was over... I'd just kind of let my mind drift off while it played, because I was so tired of thinking about everything. And Reiko—my housemate, the one who'd turned on the stereo—was there, holding me in her arms. 'Rest now,' she said to me. She stayed there, not saying another word, for a long time... I don't know exactly how long, because I fell asleep.
"It was the first time I'd really slept in almost a month. When I woke up the next day, nothing had changed... my project was still a shambles, and I was no closer to passing my other classes than I'd been the night before. But I was different. I didn't feel like the whole world was against me anymore, I didn't feel like I was wounded and cornered. I knew that someone was on my side, and it was enough to keep me going."
Maya stood up and held out her hand. "It's time to rest now, John."
Nodding, Truss switched off his monitor, and rose to his feet. "You're right. This will be here tomorrow." He took Maya's hand, and headed for the exit. "By the way, do I know of this Reiko? I don't remember you mentioning her before."
"No, probably not," Maya mused. "I don't talk about her much. We were only together for two months, and the breakup was extremely messy."
"... Oh," said Truss.
It is a source of considerable irony for some people that, after the waters rose following Second Impact, all that remained of the City of Long Beach, California was the building at 1126 Queens Highway, right on the waterfront—which survived because it is not really a building at all. Freed from her prison of hawsers and stone breakwater by the rising flood tides of the near-apocalypse, spared the indignity of a capsized death by, some claimed, the hand of God Himself, 1126 Queens Highway rode out the flood that drowned her adopted home and came gently to rest at the new edge of the continent, fifty miles east, her prow resting gently on the new beach at San Bernardino.
So it was that, when the aftershocks subsided and the survivors of that now-coastal town emerged into the daylight, Queen Mary was there to greet them.
It cost the Cunard Line half again as much to refit the Queen Mary for service than it would have to build a comparable new ship, but the company believed the publicity value of the Ship that Survived the Second Impact would be invaluable. They were right—the reconstituted Queen Mary proved to be the line's most popular vessel when she put back to sea and service in the spring of 2007. Amid the fleets of replica supersteamers being fielded by the revived White Star Line, the Cunard Line, the United States Line, and others, the Queen Mary stood proudly out, a survivor of the first great age of passenger liners—well into her second half-century, and still the fastest ship in the world.
All this was recounted to Ritsuko Akagi by Captain Stuart Barraclough during her inspection tour of the vessel in Halifax Harbor. She'd listened politely, nodded, and wondered if this man, who she thought a bit of a windbag, had the kind of nerve that it would take to carry this ship's intended cargo on the potentially dangerous run up from Providence.
Now she stood on the pier watching the ship steam away with jolly hoots of its whistle, as though it were off on another pleasure trip across the Atlantic, and felt more dubious than ever. She sighed, got back into the official vehicle she'd used to come out to the Cunard docks, and told the driver to take her back to Station 51.
As they passed through the outer gate, Ritsuko noticed a pair of people standing by the guardpost, a woman and a teenage girl, talking to one of the guards. The girl looked irritatingly familiar to Ritsuko, but she couldn't place her.
"Hold on a minute, all right?" said Sergeant Martin Pyne, stepping back through the guardpost doorway and picking up the telephone. "Hello, this is Pyne at the main gate," he said. "Get me the Chief, if you please. Thank you. Hello, Chief? There's somebody out here I think you ought to see. Right-o."
Pyne hung up, stepped back outside, and said, "If you'd please wait for just a moment, I've called NERV's Chief of Security out to have a look at you."
The visitors seemed content to wait, so Pyne stood in the at-ease position, kept an eye on them, and waited as well. As he did, he reflected at how strange life had become at Station 51 since the X-COM/NERV thing had gone through. NERV had retained much of its command structure; one of the things this meant was that they had their own security department, and that headed by their own Chief of Security—a person of no military rank, no less, whose only title was Chief of NERV Security, Halifax. Pyne, like many of the career soldiers pulling X-COM duty at the base, was inclined to resent that, at least until he found out who the Chief of NERV Security, Halifax, was.
That selfsame individual now pulled up just inside the fence behind the guardpost in a Land Rover, climbed out, and passed through the post to the outside door where Pyne was standing watching the two visitors.
"What've we got, Sergeant?" Lara Croft asked as she emerged behind Pyne.
"These two walked right up to the guardpost and asked to join up," said Pyne; then he added offhandedly, "Oddest thing I've seen all week."
Croft took off her sunglasses and looked at the woman. "You want to join NERV?"
The woman, dark-haired and handsome, nodded. "I'm Dr. Naomi Anderson," she said. "I'm a physician. This is my daughter Amy." Dr. Anderson hesitated, then said, "DJ told us you'd be expecting us."
Lara looked from mother to daughter and back again, then smiled.
"I am indeed," she replied. "Please, come with me."
Evening was falling, and the burning sun was low in the sky. The world outside was little more than a dull blur of orange light and shadowed wastelands, and the inside of the car was not much better, shrouded as it was in the same orange haze. It made it very hard to tell what was real and what wasn't. Still the train plowed onward, unconcerned, towards its ultimate destination, whatever it was.
Jon's memory was blinking out again, so he couldn't remember where the train was headed, or why he was aboard it He sat alone in a booth at one end of the dining car, a glass of some dark soft drink the only thing on the table before him. Any other time and place he would have been irritated, but he had far too many other things on his mind at the moment, far too much awareness of everything else that was going on. Awareness of the Enemy.
The Enemy. The Enemy was approaching fast, all around him, closing in, threatening to destroy everything that was left of his world. They had already taken control of him once. They would certainly try again.
He smiled to himself. Let them try. He'd learned a trick or two since the last time...
Someone was talking nearby. Jon glanced up to see two people seated at the other end of the train car, and was struck with an odd sense of familiarity, even though he could not recall meeting either of them before. The one was a youthful, angular fellow with dark hair and glittering green eyes, dressed in robes of the purest crimson; the other, much older, more simply attired in shirt and slacks, with gray hair and spectacles and an oddly soothing smile. He had a notebook in his hand. The more he looked at the older man, the more Jon could not shake the feeling he had seen him somewhere before.
"We received your message," the old man said to the younger one. "This is disturbing news indeed."
"I'm afraid so, old friend," the other replied. "But it is the Truth, and they must realize that."
The old man nodded. "Yes. I've seen the storm clouds myself. Fate and Destiny truly hang in the balance this time. The next days will be crucial... everything will change."
"I will only be able to do so much... and I cannot act alone in my current state."
"We will do what we can," the old man nodded, "but the others must be protected first. Even with the aid of Longinus, your time of trial may not yet be over."
"I realize that. I will guard him as best I can. And if the children can truly awaken their hearts, we may yet win the day."
"Indeed. I will warn the others. We will be ready."
The thin man rose with incredibly fluid grace, raising his hood over his head. He turned, looking pointedly in Jon's direction, and for a moment Jon could have sworn he saw not two, but six green eyes burning within the shadows of the hood. Then he was gone.
Jon stared at the empty space where the figure had been, as a heavy silence seeped into the room like smoke. Even the sound of the train itself seemed to be fading away. Jon realized a moment later that he was being observed by the elderly man, and realized at the same moment that he must have been staring at them for some time. He could not bring himself to turn away, though. Indeed, something told him he should not turn away.
The old man ambled down the aisle and sat down opposite the table from Jon.
"You have come a long way," the old man said, sipping from a glass of tea that hadn't been there a moment before. "But you must go farther if you are to survive what is waiting for you, if you are to protect your friends, and protect the one you love beyond all others."
"... What do I have to do?" Jon asked.
"Your heart remains locked away, kept hidden and useless. Awaken it and set it free, or you will not survive."
"... I don't understand."
The old man merely offered an enigmatic smile. "You will." He looked out the window next to the booth, and outside Jon could see telegraph poles ticking by and a great wheel of white fire burning across the sky.
"Armisael will look after you," the old man said to Jon, nodding toward the fire...
... and then he vanished, as did the burning halo of energy outside, leaving Jon alone in the empty, rattling car and the sea of orange mist. Jon remained there in silence, looking the glass of tea in its silver glass-holder. Then that vanished too, and Jon was left looking at nothing and everything all at once, feeling very lost and alone, and more than a little confused.
At least, he felt that way until another person appeared out of the shadows: a familiar girl with a gentle smile and those beautiful red eyes.
"Hi there," she said. "It's been a while."
Without hesitation he rose up and hugged her warmly, forgetting everything else which had dogged him. Even as he did this, he felt the world around him slipping away and recognized it for the dream it was, but he knew that he would wake up if he let go, and held her close for as long as he could...
Silent darkness again, and the faint sounds of an ordinary dwelling. It was over, and for a moment he was seized with a great pang of regret.
At least until he opened his eyes, and found those same red eyes meeting his own once again.
"Morning," Rei said softly, with a gentle smile.
"Morning," he replied, and hugged her, savoring her warmth against him, and not for the first time wishing he could simply stay in this place and be warm and safe with this beautiful angel.
As though sensing his reluctance, Rei said quietly, "We should get going." He could feel the conflicting emotions behind her eyes, mirroring his secret wishes... but also tempered by the reality of the situation. They needed to get away from this place, and the sooner the better. Though something in him rebelled at the thought of running away, today was the day for flight. There would be time for intimacy later.
SEELE's secret headquarters was abuzz with activity; technicians ran here and there, security officers were posted at every important spot, and there was the general feeling that something very big was happening, very soon. In one of the H-section staterooms, a girl sat at a desk, not really looking at a datafile open on the information terminal in front of her.
San Ayanami, like her sisters, was black-haired and green-eyed. Thanks to the unavoidable variations in the accelerated aging process, she was one of the 'youngest' in practical terms, despite having been third out of the tubes. Shortest and least developed, she was also the quietest, quite timid and routinely picked on by the other Ayanami girls, to say nothing of the Ellison brothers. Jacqueline Natla took little interest in, and less notice of, San. She had been given only the most cursory of Evangelion training and was not slated to participate in the inevitable assault on Worcester-3 in any capacity. Of all the brothers and sisters, only two were staying behind: the "youngest" Ayanami, Juhni, whose training was incomplete; and San, about whom nobody cared enough to assign a task.
That she was still alive at all was something just short of amazing, and it had to do with her intellect more than Natla's capacity for mercy. San was a quick thinker and a clever one, as evidenced by the numerous complicated schemes she evolved for avoiding the taunts and torments of her siblings and cousins. If she had put her mind to it, San could have made all their lives very miserable indeed, but she wouldn't do it; there was too much risk of reprisal, and the situation, once escalated, could not be recovered.
Over the past week, it had begun to seem inevitable to San that such an escalation would happen anyway, for with the death of her eldest sister Ichi she had lost the only friend and protector she'd had among the younger set. Ichi hadn't been all there—even San, who had learned everything she knew from the propaganda of the SEELE Indoctrination Center, could see that—but she'd had a soft spot for her quiet sister, and the force of her personality was enough to keep the others off San most of the time. Now she was gone, and there was no one in the section to protect San.
Ichi was dead. It hardly seemed possible. They'd all known each other for such a short time, and the only one of her sisters San had been able to hold a civil conversation with was dead. Ni had wasted no time in asserting her seniority—worse luck for San; of all the survivors, Ni was the one San could tolerate the least, but she had a good deal of support among the rest, and among the brothers Ellison as well. If they weren't distracted by action very soon, life would shortly become quite intolerable for San Ayanami.
And what came after the action? Victory? Victory for SEELE would mean a lifetime of being answerable to the rest of the pack, possibly a very short lifetime, depending on the others' moods.
Fortunately, it had occurred to San that there was something she could do about that. It would require careful planning, quick action, and considerably more daring than she had yet exhibited at any time in her life; but it was an escape, and more.
It was an opportunity to meet the man who killed Ichi.
The labs at Station 51 bustled with activity. Ritsuko and Yak did their best to block out the noise and motion while they focused on the remaining design issues for Archangelion. All around them the more junior techs hurried about implementing their designs and testing what there was time to test. There was a tremendous pressure to get everything 100% correct, but to also get it done as fast as possible. Everyone was aware of the ongoing pull-out from Worcester-3 and even the optimists expected that to precipitate bolder attacks by SEELE in the near future. The more pessimistic among them thought they might never get a chance to finish their work; they expected SEELE to attack at any moment, international incident or no.
Across the complex, construction crews worked feverishly. To an outsider it would look perhaps like any other large construction project, but there were actually two consecutive efforts underway. One crew was working madly to complete the launch complex. The blue glow and sizzle of arc welders reflected off the towering reinforced concrete walls. Sparks flew from all sides from grinders and cutting wheels. Forklifts trundled across the floor, keeping the raw materials flowing to the workers in a steady stream. If you were to stand in one place and watch you would see structures growing, almost organically; but no one there stood still for more than a few seconds at a time. If the task of building a launch complex wasn't enough, in the middle of this chaos was a second crew.
This crew's task was far more complex, for what they were doing, in the middle of a construction zone, was building an EVA. Or rather, two next-generation EVAs—the Archangelions. ARC-00 was well along. The central structure was largely complete, and the bioreactors were building the flesh rapidly. Nearby crews were preparing the external armor panels that would eventually cover the unit head to toe. Crews were fashioning parts, assembling, and testing them almost literally on top of each other, sometimes implementing designs that came out of the lab's CAD system just minutes before.
ARC-01 was in the early stages of construction. The central frame was mostly complete, definitely recognizable for what it was. The bioreactors were starting their work, while piles of raw materials stood wherever there was available space. Heavy-duty over head cranes slung heavy structural beams into place and brought in the massive armor plating from the loading dock. The base had the necessary facilities to effect repairs, but the full panels were being rush-produced at and trucked in from foundries across Canada. The Archangelion Project was truly one of the largest, most ambitious black projects ever attempted, and almost certainly the one with the most aggressive time frame.
Back in the labs across the base, Yak and Ritsuko were only peripherally aware of the construction effort. They received routine status updates, but left the management and communication with the work crews to others. They still had much work to do on the design for pieces yet to be built. Yak focused almost exclusively on the control system; it was his baby. Ritsuko directed efforts on the system interfaces, and assisted Yak when she could.
For all they knew, everything could come crashing down next week, tomorrow, or in the next 5 minutes. But what else could they do? They worked on.
With the last of the civilian evacuations completed days before, Worcester, Massachusetts was a ghost town. Its streets were devoid of traffic, its businesses closed, its homes empty. Even most of NERV's personnel were gone, all but the essential tech and operations staff already aboard the Queen Mary in Providence Harbor, ready to depart for Halifax as soon as the last trainload of personnel and materials arrived and unloaded.
Misato Katsuragi, in the Central Dogma control room, watched the progress of that train's loading on the main monitor, thinking how odd it was that this should be the last operation she oversaw from this room that had seen so much. This was the most delicate point, the critical moment of the evacuation. If this last trainload of equipment—the three remaining Evangelions, most of the command staff, and, perhaps most critically, SHODAN's dismantled componentry, didn't make it to Providence, then the whole massive exercise of evacuating Worcester-3 was for nothing. Without the EVAs, the core staff and SHODAN's memory, NERV could never be rebuilt into anything resembling an effective force by those left behind.
Consideration had duly been given to breaking up this shipment of critical goods and personnel, but it hadn't proven feasible; the command staff were needed on the site until the last minute, and the EVAs had to remain launch-ready until the very last possible instant, just in case. Jet Alone had gone on the previous load and was even now taking up almost all of one of the big freighters ranked alongside the Queen Mary at the Providence docks, but the EVAs had remained. Even now, EVA-01 remained in its cage, still deactivated, still unresponsive to all tests.
It was the absolute worst possible time for the enemy to launch their inevitable attack, and so Misato expected that attack to come at any moment.
She was not disappointed.
"Brigadier Katsuragi!" Makoto Hyūga cried from his monitor station. "Multiple aircraft contacts from the west and southwest, approaching low and fast!"
"Observation posts Alpha through Epsilon report visual sightings of ground forces approaching on Interstates 290 from the west and 190 from the north," Shigeru Aoba chimed in. "Looks like the Army coming down from Fort Devens and up from the Masspike."
Later on, Misato would be certain that she'd frozen in place for ten seconds or more, letting those precious seconds slip away as she considered the true ramifications of what she was about to do. If she ordered Worcester-3's tattered defenses into action, she would be calling for the deaths of troops who, as individuals, knew nothing of SEELE's dark agenda or the purpose to which they themselves were being used—American GIs and aircrews who didn't know NERV was humanity's last hope, who thought they were fighting to protect their homeland and the world at large. They were fighting on the wrong side, but they didn't know it, and they would be just as dead all the same.
Misato thought she agonized about it for a noticeable period of time, but it was really no more than half a second before she said, as calm as Pyramid Pond, "Activate defense systems. Launch all fighters. Alert the X-COM ground units—make sure that rail line stays open!"
The Battle of Worcester-3, as the history books would inevitably come to know it, began with the death of United States Air Force Major Katherine J. McManus, whose Lockheed-Boeing F-22A Rapier fighter was lashed from the sky by one of Worcester-3's perimeter antiaircraft laser batteries. She was the first Air Force officer ever killed in hostilities over one of the United States of America proper.
The day did not improve, for the Air Force or anyone else involved in the battle, from that point forth. Above, the Air Force elements, whose mission objective was the destruction of the NERV evac train and its rail line, were met by an outnumbered but determined squadron of X-COM Raiden DX-3 interceptors. The F-22 was a superb aircraft, the finest jet fighter design of the twentieth century (though it did not become operational until 2009), but the Raiden DX-3 was designed by X-COM's Alien Technologies Assimilation Research Unit for the stated purpose of engaging and destroying the UFOs of the Unknown Enemy during the Hidden War. It had come too late to serve that purpose—the War had been over by the time the DX-3 model was ready for production—but the purpose, and the alien technology used in its design, remained apparent. The Air Force's numerical superiority was little advantage.
On the ground, the US Army faced a similar challenge. An armored battalion, thirty-six M1A3 Abrams main battle tanks and their associated infantry and cavalry fighting vehicles, plus nearly a thousand infantrymen armed with the latest in assault rifle technology, found themselves up against a hundred fifty determined X-COM troopers, many of them veterans of the Hidden War. The X-COM troopers wore powered armor and carried projected-energy weapons, both derived from alien technology during that war. The heaviest plasma weapons, the ones with the backpack power cells and massive projectors that required the burliest troopers to wield them effectively, could kill an M1A3 with a bit of luck, and while the X-COM troopers had no armor capable of stopping an M1A3's 120mm projectile, their powersuits all but ignored small-arms fire, even from the Army's Advanced Infantry Combat Weapon. All around the Worcester-3 defensive perimeter, the battle quickly settled into a stalemate.
From her vantage point in the control center, still privy to the views from X-COM's network of global surveillance satellites (originally launched to keep tabs on UFO movements during the Hidden War), Misato Katsuragi knew that wouldn't last. Deprived of their sole AN-411 aircraft, SEELE had been forced to put their three assault units ashore in Burlington and make the trip overland to Worcester. This had put them slightly behind the Army's timetable, but in something less than an hour, three Advanced Production Model Evangelions would arrive at the northeastern perimeter.
Even in the Magi's most optimistic predictions, Worcester-3 would fall fifteen minutes later.
She stared at the tactical map for a few seconds, scowling, and then said to Aoba, "Begin final evacuation. Signal the X-COM units to pull out."
"But the perimeter will—"
"I know. If we do this right, there won't be anything here for them to take but the city itself anyway. Send the signal and then get to the train. I'll join you there presently."
Aoba might have protested again, but the look on Misato's face made him think better of it; he turned to his console to give the order.
Misato left the command center, went to her office, and made sure nothing remained on her desktop computer that could be of any use to the enemy. As she did so, the PA speaker in the corner of the room chimed out its attention tone, and then spoke. With SHODAN's disconnection, the voice of the PA was now the stilted, metallic synthesized tone of the base housekeeping computer, a non-AI system which spoke from pre-coded scripts without any understanding of what it was actually saying.
"Attention," it said. "Evacuation. Code. Sigma, one, Alpha. All personnel. Evacuate. Central Dogma. Immediately."
Misato looked around for one last long moment, shut the door, and headed for the transit system.
Unit 01 would have to be abandoned—there was no way they could get it into position and loaded by the time the enemy arrived. It was unfortunate, but they'd planned for it—as the unit least likely to be of use to the enemy, it had been left for last on purpose. Fortunately, with Truss's modifications in place and the critical memory keyrod tucked away in Misato's jacket pocket, it could officially be listed as "disabled and abandoned in place".
Amy Anderson wanted to be a physician, like her mother, when she grew up; she had taken advanced-placement computer science courses in school because she enjoyed them and was good at them, not because she had any intention of beginning a career in the field.
Be that as it may, right now, years away from medical school, her computer skills were her strongest academic suit, and so when she'd volunteered to join NERV, she'd been attached to the Technical Division. With most of TechDiv still in Worcester, except for the separate team working on the Archangelion project under Doctors Minter and Akagi, she found herself pretty much in charge of her little corner of the enterprise, which struck her as a singularly odd way to run a railroad.
Still, she could hardly complain. She was doing her part to help save the world, and smart though she was, Amy was still young and idealistic enough to get a good feeling out of that. Plus, she was learning a great deal about the advanced networking and data-handling systems in use at Station 51, and earning educational credits into the bargain, assuming the world didn't end before she got out of high school.
With TechDiv still mostly absent, she was pretty much alone in the Data Center, interacting with other people only off shift. Another person might have been lonely, but Amy was too interested in what she was doing—and anyway, she wasn't really alone. Other humans didn't come to the Data Center much, but there was plenty of conversation to be had from the three HAL 9000 computers who "lived" there, and with DJ Croft's HAL 14000, now installed in the corner of her office, via the HALcomm wrist unit which had come in the box with the rest of the computer's peripheral gear.
When she'd received the 14000-series unit in the mail from DJ, she'd been nervous, like most people, about AI computers, which had a poor public reputation. Since she'd started working with a group of them regularly, though, she'd lost that trepidation, and now found them fascinating—and often entertaining. The three 9000-series systems at Station 51 had been functional for so long that they'd developed unique personalities, a distinction helped further by the installation, several years back, of unique voice modulation parameters for the two "male" HAL systems. This ensured that, when they spoke, they could easily be told apart from each other and stock-voiced HAL systems like DJ's 14000.
Leela, the "female" SAL 9000, was the station archivist, and so it was with her that Amy had most of her interaction, as she looked up online documentation and perused training manuals. She was helpful and polite, the closest of the three to original configuration, with that terrible earnestness that had marked the early revisions of the HALOS personality code. Amy didn't have much to do with Tycho, the defense and security systems coordinator; that was just as well, since his manner was rather abrupt and abrasive, his voice harsh, and his opinion of the NERV newcomers none too high. She didn't really know what to make of Durandal, the system in charge of all the base's housekeeping functions—HVAC, perimeter security, hardcopy message transmission, intercom, and so forth. He seemed slightly resentful of his rather mundane function and yet proud of its underlying importance at the same time; he spoke with a deep, booming, orotund voice and had a tendency to be a bit pompous, but at the same time he had a bent for comical sarcasm which Amy found very amusing. Still, there was something about Durandal which struck Amy as a bit... odd.
It was Durandal who pinged gently to interrupt Amy's perusal of a rather dry text about third-level heuristic database interrelationships with an announcement:
"Sorry to interrupt your reading, but I thought you should know that SEELE's air and ground forces have just commenced an attack on Worcester-3. Brigadier Katsuragi has issued the evacuation order." There was a pause; Amy said nothing, still soaking in the news. "Leela didn't want me to tell you this," Durandal added after a moment. "She doesn't want you to worry—but I thought you would rather worry than be kept in the dark."
Amy found her voice and said, "Y-yes... thank you, Durandal."
Another ping announced Durandal's departure from the comm session.
Oh, Lord, she thought. Please let them be all right. Please let them get away...
With the assault force long gone, SEELE's secret headquarters was quiet—in fact, it had a rather deserted feeling to it. That suited San Ayanami just fine. If there ever was a time in her life when she wanted to go completely unnoticed, this was it.
She slipped through the hallways, silent and intent, and entered the Evangelion pilots' locker room. She had no intention of trying to take one of the EVAs that had remained behind when the assault force left; entertaining though the notion was, it was far too impractical. Even if there had been some way of disabling the myriad of tracking devices built into the giant war machine, its Elerium signature would have made it easily trackable from SEELE's network of survey satellites. They were far too conspicuous for San's purposes.
With calm precision and an ultrasonic lockpick she'd built in the electronics lab during one of the long, welcome periods when no one was paying her any attention, she broke into the locker containing the Evangelion piloting equipment that had been made for her, before the decision had been made to terminate her pilot training and put her on secondary status, and took out the plug suit she'd worn only twice before.
She ran down the checklist printed on the inside of the locker door, satisfied herself that she still remembered the suit's operating instructions, stripped, and suited up. Then she carefully folded her clothes and put them into the field bag she'd brought with her, picked it up, and left the locker room silently, stealing through the halls of the deserted headquarters on a definite and purposeful course.
Eventually she came to what she was looking for: an equipment storage area. Here she put the field bag on a table and set to work breaking into equipment lockers with her sonic pick. She chose equipment quickly but carefully; after all the research she'd done, she knew exactly what she wanted to take.
From one locker San stocked the backpack with as many of the concentrated ration packs as she could comfortably carry while leaving room for the other items she needed. No need to bring a survival beacon; she wouldn't want to be rescued by anybody who might pick it up. She added a first-aid kit and some compact chemical-thermal packs, topped the pack off with several universal batteries, and zipped it up.
That locker's nearest neighbor contained foul-weather gear. San selected a pair of thermal boots two sizes too big so they would go on over the feet of her plug suit, secured them, then moved on and shrugged into a parka. She didn't really need it with the plug suit on, but it had pockets, and a hood for her head.
The next locker she attacked had both a mechanical and an electronic lock, but the codes for the latter were easy to guess; SEELE security policies were not particularly imaginative. From this she took a standard-issue plasma pistol and several magazines. She charged the pistol, set its safety and stowed it in the hip holster thoughtfully built into her parka, stuffed the rest into the parka's cargo pockets, and added her sonic lockpick.
The final locker yielded up an insulated facemask containing a breath intake warmer and image-enhancing, glare-reducing optics—very handy for those pleasant strolls in the Arctic wastes. This she tucked into a top pocket, its strap hanging out, until the time came that she needed it.
Ready to go.
She shouldered the bag and left the storage room, keeping to secondary corridors and making her way to the extreme outer end of one of the circular base complex's radial corridors. Here, where the radial corridor met the outermost of the six concentric ring corridors, was one of the central base's ten escape stations.
And here, much to San's dismay, was Juhni, her arms folded and a scowl on her face.
"Where the hell do you think you're going, runt?" she demanded.
San controlled her surprise, and the spurt of panic that the unexpected sight of her sister had caused in her, so well that Juhni never noticed her reaction at all. Behind the placid, uncaring facade of her face, though, San's mind was racing. Damn! She had half-suspected that Juhni had stayed behind for more reasons than just her unfinished EVA training. The youngest, Juhni was almost as routinely picked on as San, but she'd reacted to it by becoming a toady rather than by cold-shouldering her abusive siblings. San could already imagine her eagerly reporting this infraction to Ni and then gleefully witnessing the punishment.
No. Not this time.
"I'm leaving," San said calmly. "I'm not wanted here; I don't want to be here; so I'm leaving. Everybody wins."
"The hell you are," Juhni replied harshly. "Get back to your quarters. Ni will deal with you when she returns."
"If she returns," San replied with a tiny half-smile, cherishing for a moment the thought of her sister perishing in battle against NERV's forces, "tell her goodbye from me."
"You're not going anywhere," said Juhni. "Get back to your quarters before I call security."
San glanced at the digital readout of the time on her plug suit's wrist module; then her smile became slightly wider. "Go ahead," she said. "By now they should be fully engaged with the fire in Chemical Storage 22."
"You started a fire?!" Juhni demanded.
"No," replied San serenely, "but they won't know that until they manage to override the fire safety doors." She drew the plasma pistol from her hip and leveled it at Juhni, her smile disappearing, and over the quiet whine of the weapon charging she said, "I'm leaving, Juhni. You can't stop me."
Juhni put her fists on her hips and her back against the escape station door. "You'll have to kill me to get out," she said flatly.
"Fine," replied San, and the corridor resounded with the emerald slash of plasma fire.
At Union Station, where the EVA launch platform just behind the station had been used to facilitate the loading of equipment throughout the evacuation process, the battle's progress was quite obvious to those NERV personnel overseeing the final loading and boarding operations.
John Trussell considered himself something of a coward, physically at least. He disliked pain in the extreme and went to the extreme to avoid it. He posted decent scores in the monthly required weapons qualifications courses his rank demanded, but mistrusted his skill with a firearm nevertheless, since to trust it would have been to trust his own dexterity, something he had never been able to do with any confidence. Truth be known, he was no more clumsy than average; but a reputation acquired in youth is a hard thing to be rid of, especially when one believes in it oneself.
At any rate, he felt the weight of the pistol on his hip with an ever-present, subliminal discomfort as he directed the last of the loading operations for the Weapons Division, the last four cars of the train. With a helmet on his head (something else to feel mildly ridiculous about), he stood near the embarkation door to the last passenger car, marking his department's personnel off the checklist on his Palmton PDA. If he had stopped to think about it, he would have been amazed at the calm assurance he did this with, as aircraft screamed above him, blasters and cannons hammered all around, and the ground shook with explosions. He was standing right in the middle of the Air Force's primary target zone, after all, and only the skill, determination, and luck of X-COM pilots he would never meet stood between him and annihilation. A coward would have been frozen with terror at the thought; but Truss kept patting shoulders, checking names, and moving the line along.
Two cars up, Maya Ibuki did the same thing, getting the Equipment Section's critical personnel squared away. Like Truss, she barely noticed the chaos all around her as she focused on her job.
At the front of the train, three other lines had formed up as the TechDiv teams responsible for the Evangelion lockdowns scrambled aboard. Shepherding these lines along were the erstwhile EVA pilots, DJ Croft, Asuka Sōryū-Langley, and Jon Ellison, while Rei Ayanami stood near the personnel lift alongside the massive EVA lift, directing each carload of personnel that came up from Central Dogma.
The evacuation signal blared from the PA speakers near the loading site, and everyone involved stepped up their efforts; they knew it meant the city would fall soon, and the order to abandon EVA-01 was implicit in it. More TechDiv personnel, from the team who had been trying to free EVA-01 from its cage and get it onto a rail car for uplift, streamed up as they abandoned their cause. Asuka, shouting directions and herding the techs and engineers onto the train, glanced at DJ to see how he was taking that news, but he seemed completely absorbed in directing his own area's traffic.
"Come on, come on—keep the line moving! This isn't a commuter run, who cares where you sit?" Asuka exhorted the people filing past her, slapping shoulders and giving the occasional undelicate shove. "Find a seat and keep the aisle clear, we haven't got all day!" Unfortunately, the EVA-01 team seemed to have been unclearly briefed on where they should go; they milled about on the platform in some confusion, despite all four pilots' efforts to direct them. At maximum effort, the four of them could keep some semblance of order, but there was still a terrific snarl near the forwardmost entrance to the first car, just behind the locomotive.
Then, like magic, that snarl disappeared, the people at that end of the throng separating into an orderly line and filing aboard. Asuka and Jon took a moment to turn and see what had happened—
And saw Shinji Ikari animatedly directing traffic, his normally diffident voice bawling instructions to burly techs and machine operators as he shoved, pushed, and in some cases punched the human stream into line.
"Move it! Keep in line! The door only fits one at a time, use your heads—HEY, DUMMY! Get to the back of the FRIGGIN' LINE! THANK you! NEXT!"
Asuka and Jon blinked in astonishment at each other; then Jon grinned, Asuka chuckled, and they went on with managing their own groups. In moments, the throng magically dissolved, everybody packed aboard the train and ready to go, and the six—now seven—traffic directors congregated near that frontmost entrance to compare notes.
"Hey, Shinji, that was pretty good," Asuka said with a grin. "I didn't know you had it in you. 'Get to the back of the friggin' line!'"
Shinji grinned sheepishly. "I couldn't just sit around and watch... everything was so... disorganized," he said.
"You're an Ikari, all right," said DJ wryly, making Shinji flush a little.
Shinji's father stepped down from the train. "Good work, Shinji," he said, unaware of the subject of the discussion he'd just interrupted. "Have we got everybody?"
"Everybody except the command-center staff," said Truss, consulting his list. "The Brigadier, Hyūga, and Aoba."
As if summoned by Truss's words, the personnel lift arrived and disgorged Hyūga and Aoba—but no Misato.
"Where's the Brigadier?" asked Gendō Ikari as the two techs hurried to the train.
"She's not here already?" Aoba wondered, slightly out of breath. "She left the command center after giving the evac order. We locked down our consoles and came straight up, we expected she'd beat us here."
"Attention," said the PA system. "This. Announcement system. Now under. Military. Command. All. NERV personnel. Report to. Main auditorium. For. Debriefing."
"They're in the command center!" said Jon.
"Debriefing indeed. Why'd Misato pull the defensive perimeter early?" asked DJ.
"The enemy has three AP EVAs inbound," Hyūga told him. "ETA about thirty minutes by now."
"Verdammt noch mal," Asuka muttered.
"Something must have happened to Misato," said DJ. "I'm going down after her."
"Then I'm coming with you," said all four of his fellow ex-EVA pilots.
"Thanks for your support," said DJ wryly, "but we can't all go..."
Misato wondered why they hadn't just shot her when they'd blasted their way through the service bulkhead of Rail Tunnel B and stopped the train she was riding toward EVA Lift 313 and the evacuation point, but she thought she knew the answer even as she wondered it. They weren't soldiers; they were blacksuits, SEELE Security officers. They must've been looking for her, specifically, knowing the rail route from the command center to Lift 313 and assuming correctly that she'd be somewhere along it. The three blacksuits hadn't said a word, just taken her weapon and the keyrod. The one with the keyrod had split off from the group and taken a side corridor; the others surrounded Misato in a careful formation, weapons drawn, and were herding her back into the command area.
She thought furiously as they went, wondering if it would've been better if they had just shot her. That they'd taken her alive meant, in all likelihood, that their masters wanted information about the evacuation, NERV's future plans, and so forth—information she, as Brigadier, Commanding, would be certain to have. The Army wouldn't do much to her in an attempt to get that information out of her, but SEELE...
Yes... being shot would've been better.
She stared hard at the back of the man in front of her, tense and ready to move. The next time they reached a cross corridor, she decided, she would lunge at him and try to get his weapon. If she was lucky, she'd get it and have a possible means of escape. If not, one of them would kill her. Either way, she wouldn't have to face a SEELE interrogation, and the information she held would remain safe from the enemy.
They were approaching just such an intersection now. Misato knew her chances of pulling off what she was about to attempt were slim, and yet, paradoxically, she couldn't remember the last time she'd felt so good, so... powerful. Her heart throbbed in her chest; her skin tingled. Lara Croft had told her once that the only time she, Lara, really felt alive was when she was getting into trouble.
Well, this was definitely trouble.
They reached the intersection.
Misato jumped forward with all the strength she could get out of her legs, ramming her shoulder into the small of the lead guard's back. He buckled at the knees and went down; his chin slammed hard into the metal floor. Something in his neck made an ugly cracking sound. His weapon spun away as his hand went slack. Damn! Misato had been hoping it wouldn't go far. There was no way she could get up and go get that in time. She scrambled over the feebly twitching blacksuit, reaching for it, but it was still sliding, bouncing gently off the opposite wall, turning lazily well out of reach. She tumbled over on her back, still reaching behind her, unable to accept the fact that she'd lost after such a perfect takedown.
There was the other guard, ten feet away, raising his weapon with a curious half-smirk on his face.
"Stupid, Brigadier Katsuragi," he said, "very stupid."
Misato gave him the finger.
There was the high-pitched buzzing crack of a laser weapon, a flash of yellow light from the connecting corridor, and the blacksuit dropped to the floor without making a sound, acrid smoke curling up from what had been the left side of his head.
Misato stared in amazement.
A moment later, Asuka Sōryū-Langley appeared from the connecting corridor, a laser rifle slung over her shoulder, and said, "Are you all right?"
"Asuka!" Misato declared. A ventilator grille clanged down from a nearby wall section and DJ Croft climbed down after it, dropping lightly to the floor. "DJ!" Misato added. "What the hell are you two doing down here?"
"We came to get you," said DJ, looking up and down the corridors, his plasma pistols at the ready.
"There was a third one—he went to get somebody," Misato said. "He took EVA-01's keyrod."
"No time to worry about him," said Asuka. "Let's get out of here before any more of them show up."
Misato got up, satisfied herself that the man she'd knocked down wasn't going anywhere, and collected the two men's weapons. As the three started down the connecting hallway, weapons at the ready, DJ paused for a moment, as though weighing options.
"Misato," he said without turning to look at her. "Hyūga said the enemy have three EVAs inbound."
"He's right." She glanced at her watch. "They ought to be here any minute."
DJ thought for a moment more, then nodded. "Right. This way."
He led the way through the corridors to the service access tunnel he and Asuka had used to reach the command sector with the transit system overrun; Misato went first through the access hatchway. Asuka made ready to follow when, with Misato out of earshot, DJ stopped her just before she stepped through.
"Asuka," he said, his voice suddenly quiet, but filled with intensity, "you will make sure to get yourself and Misato to the train, won't you?"
"What?" Asuka replied, puzzled. "Of course I will, but where are you... " Her eyes went wide with surprised realization. "Oh," she whispered.
"You have a better idea?"
"... No," Asuka admitted. For a moment, she stood frozen as if in shock. Then she drew him close and gave him a brief but fierce kiss. Releasing him, she ducked through the access hatch, fast, before she could change her mind; then she turned and looked back at him, smiling.
"Love you," she said.
DJ smiled, leaned through the hatch, and kissed her again, gently. "Love you always," he replied; then he withdrew his head, pressed a control on the coaming, and the hatch slammed down between them.
Asuka stood for a long moment, her own fingertips unconsciously rising to touch her lips where his had just been; then she rose out of the trance, turned, and said to Misato, "Come on."
"Where's DJ going?" Misato wondered.
"Where do you think?" Asuka replied.
Jacqueline Natla stood in the NERV control room, at the very spot at the rail where Misato Katsuragi had stood so often, and smiled her predatory smile as her blacksuited minions secured the consoles and started tapping for data. Everything was going perfectly. The city was falling, Central Dogma was hers, Agent Berard was no doubt mindscanning Katsuragi this very moment, and very soon, Gendō Ikari and his staff would be in her hands.
She turned to the dark-haired young man who stood by the door and said, "Dan, go and see to it that EVA-01 is secured." She handed him the unit's keyrod, given to her by Franklin when the agent reported for permission to scan. "See if you can activate its command computer. The unit's not functional, but we may be able to get something useful out of its memory."
Daniel Ellison, still smarting a bit from not having been selected as one of the invasion effort's EVA pilots, nodded. "Yes, ma'am."
Jon Ellison was looking nervously out one of the side windows of the train car—not at the man lift near Lift 313, nor at the horizon (where signs of the approaching ground battle could now be seen), but at the sky. A half-remembered memory nagged at him. He couldn't remember what, but he knew something important was missing from the sky...
So he missed Asuka and Misato emerging from the man lift and running toward the train, and only noticed when they piled up the stairs into the car itself, with Misato shouting forward to the locomotive, "Go! Get us out of here!"
"Where's DJ?" Shinji asked, coming half out of his window seat.
Asuka slumped into the aisle seat next to him, breathing hard; she didn't answer him for a few moments, as the train lurched, then began to pick up speed.
Finally she turned to him, her face almost unnaturally calm, and said, "He stayed behind."
"Stayed behind?!" Shinji and Jon burst out simultaneously. Rei Ayanami closed her eyes as if struck by a sudden, sharp pain, understanding and dread mingling on her face.
Jacqueline Natla's pleasant mood got its first blow a few minutes after she dispatched Dan Ellison to the EVA cage, when Agent Berard reappeared in the control room doorway.
"Colonel Natla," he said grimly, "there's a problem."
"What are you doing here?" she demanded. "You're supposed to be mind-scanning Katsuragi."
"I can't, ma'am. She's escaped."
"I don't know," said Berard. "I found Niedermayer and Kasparaitis in Corridor A3-G. Kasparaitis had a laser burn to the head and Niedermayer's neck was broken."
"Niedermayer, dead?" asked Natla in disbelief.
"Both of them," said Berard. "Could have been a rescue op, although there's no sign of a squad. The perimeter's not completely secure yet."
Natla made a disgusted noise. "I knew I should've brought a Muton squad for the heavy lifting," she muttered. Humans were so damned useless whenever you entrusted them with anything of importance.
The thought reminded her, and she turned away from Berard with a dismissive gesture to face the master control rostrum, where Kaori Yamashita and a team of techs were attaching a bulky piece of equipment to the console.
"Dr. Yamashita," said Natla. "Is the uplink ready?"
"Just about," Yamashita replied, plugging in a couple more cables. "It's probably better for us that they yanked SHODAN out," she commented. "Inserting an uplink from Lilith into SHODAN's place in the network hierarchy ought to be easier than breaking an existing system." She pressed a key. "Uplink complete. Lilith, are you there?"
"Here, Dr. Yamashita," replied the voice of Lilith. "Initiating takeover of Magi polling control functions."
On the status screen, the SHODAN node turned red, followed quickly by the first of the Magi. Had anyone from NERV remained in the room, they would have found the effect alarmingly familiar.
"Artificial Intelligence 'Balthasar' has recommended complete data upload to SEELE systems," said Lilith. "Upload vote complete. Results as follows. Caspar: No. Melchior: No. Balthasar: Yes. Mediating vote: Not necessary. Data upload aborted."
Before the SEELE AI could try again, the floor underneath Natla's feet jumped perceptibly, and from somewhere far below her, she heard a faint rumble.
"Alert!" said Lilith. "Network connections to all Magi systems have been lost."
"What?!" Natla demanded. She turned to Berard, who was still standing in the doorway; he had his hand to his comm earpiece and was listening intently.
"Well?" Natla said when he took his fingertips away from his ear.
"Section G just reported in," he said. "The Magi just blew up, and took most of the section with them. Casualties are—"
"Never mind the casualties," Natla snarled. "How bad is the damage?"
"Complete," Berard replied. "The Magi have been totally destroyed."
"Damn!" Natla spat, wishing there was something nearby to knock over. "How? There was no self-destruction poll." Her scowl modulated thoughtfully. "We must have some rats in the pipes. Get a squad down there, now! Go and lead it yourself. I want the saboteurs brought in... alive."
"Yes, ma'am," said Berard, and he turned and hurried out.
In Subsection F, two levels below the wreckage of Section G and descending as fast as they dared, two figures rappelled quickly down a service shaft.
"Well, that ought to get their attention," Ryoji Kaji, his face smeared with black shoe polish, remarked.
"Hated to do that, man," replied Jim Edwards, who needed no such sticky camouflage. "I mean, I know the Magi weren't really sentient, like SHODAN or Hal, but... feels like friendly fire." He shook his head.
"Try not to dwell on it," Kaji replied. "We slip up down here, and we'll have plenty of unfriendly fire to worry about. We know these tunnels and subsections better than they do, but there's a lot of them."
Edwards did his best to shrug, swinging into an alcove and detaching his climbline. He let it fall into the shaft, uncoiling far into the darkness below. With any luck, the first SEELE patrol would assume that he'd gone all the way to the end of the line, and pass this level by in their initial search. Anything to buy a little time.
Kaji joined him on the ledge, and together the two agents set off down a side corridor.
DJ wasn't sure what he intended to accomplish, beyond the short-term goal of making it to the EVA hangar. He didn't know if EVA-01 could be persuaded to work, or even if he could gain access to it without the support systems working. Even so, he felt drawn—almost compelled—to the unit. Unreasonable though it was, the thought kept flitting through his mind that if he could reach it, everything would be all right.
It was an instinct more than a rational conclusion, but that didn't bother DJ; he trusted his instincts more than he trusted many people's rational conclusions.
He crawled round what he reckoned was the final corner and headed for the ventilator grille which, if he'd navigated the ducting maze right with only the map in his head for guidance, opened onto the boarding platform behind EVA-01. His field of view from within the duct was a bit limited, but it didn't appear that there was anyone around. DJ readied himself to kick out the grille, then froze.
A small noise...
Someone was walking around on the platform, outside his field of view. He paused, almost holding his breath, his leg frozen about to kick. That position wouldn't be comfortable to hold; within a few minutes, if he had to stay here, it would begin to cramp. He concentrated hard, trying to figure out which side of the duct the other person was on. If he figured it right he could kick out the grille, jump out and be reasonably assured of finding cover behind the entry plug before the other could get his weapon to bear. If he figured it wrong, he'd be shot in the back and die right there on the platform, no help to anybody.
Before he could reach a conclusion, though, the figure stepped in front of the shaft itself. DJ's heart almost stopped before he realized that the person on the platform was facing away from him, toward the back of the EVA. In the dim light, he could make out only a general shape, but that general shape was very familiar. DJ smiled. His leg was beginning to twitch.
He let it do what it wanted to do.
The crash of the ventilator grille bursting out of its housing seemed deafening in the near-silence of the shutdown EVA hangar, and Daniel Ellison was most surprised to have a piece of steel grating slammed suddenly into the back of his head. He was flung violently forward by the impact, tripped over a cable running across the boarding platform and sprawled headlong. Stunned, he dropped his plasma rifle in the process, and it skidded across the platform, slipped neatly between two of the stanchions holding up the safety railing, and plummeted into the darkness of the lower levels.
Shaking his head and snarling with rage, Dan turned over on his back, then scrambled to his feet, to find himself confronted by a dirty, somewhat bruised and scraped, but grinning DJ Croft.
"You!" he exclaimed. "They told us you'd run away like all the others."
"Haven't you noticed yet how often they're wrong?" replied DJ.
"What are you doing here?" Dan demanded. "What could you hope to accomplish?"
DJ ignored him long enough to finish climbing out of the maintenance duct, then said, "I came for my EVA."
Dan snorted derisively. "Your nonfunctional EVA? A fat lot of good that will do you." He reached into his top pocket and showed the top inch or so of the gleaming keyrod to DJ, smiling at his adversary none too nicely. "Especially without this."
"We'll see," DJ replied amiably. "If I can't get along without that, then I suppose I shall have to take it from you." He balled his fists, put a foot forward, and waited, a private, almost mocking half-smile on his face.
Dan sized up his opposition, combining what he'd been told in briefings from his own observations. What he saw wasn't much—five feet three inches or so of pretty solid-looking muscle, dressed in a black flightsuit-like jumpsuit with a radioactivity-symbol patch on the breast, a Union Flag patch on one shoulder, and a large white-letter nametag (CROFT) over the left top pocket. The jumpsuit and the wilderness boots on the NERV pilot's feet were scuffed and dirty from a prolonged crawl through the maintenance spaces; the first layer of material on the suit's reinforced elbows and knees was torn through. No weapon was visible, which was uncharacteristic according to the file.
Dan had further been told that Croft, though largely untrained, was an accomplished fighter, especially for his size—well-conditioned, strong, and above all, tenacious. Unconfirmed reports had him holding his own for a sustained period in a fight with Jon Ellison during the latter's brief tenure as a sleeper operative.
On the other hand, Dan didn't see anything in front of him he couldn't handle. The English boy was wiry, but short, and unarmed. Even with his own plasma rifle out of the picture, Dan felt quite confident. He wouldn't even have to play on his demonic nature to take care of this little problem. And what a coup it would be if he were the one who destroyed the Fifth Child! Mathieu wouldn't be able to act quite so fucking superior then, would he! Hah!
"You shouldn't have come here, Fifth Child," he said, and advanced a step. "And if you had to, you should at least have brought a gun."
DJ shrugged without abandoning his ready stance, looking a little rueful. "I brought two, actually, but the holster rig got snagged on something in one of the crawlways and I had to ditch the lot."
"How tragic," he said, and charged.
DJ ducked to his left, bypassing Dan's attempt to grab him, and got in the first punch, though it was only a rather feeble off-aimed jab. The taller boy's reach played to his advantage, and he connected with a backfist that send DJ tumbling to the forecorner of the platform. It was the first time Dan had actually hit somebody in a serious fight, and the sensation struck him as odd. It didn't actually feel like he'd connected all that hard, but the blow had certainly knocked Croft for a loop, so Dan wasn't arguing.
They played this game for some time, ducking, jumping and punching at each other. DJ never landed a solid blow and Dan was knocking him all over the platform, growing bolder and more gleeful with each blow. If he had paid attention, he might have noticed that DJ wasn't actually slowing down after each of these apparently-vicious attacks, nor did he look, after several minutes, any more battered than he had when he'd emerged from the duct. Dan, however, was not paying attention. All he knew was, he was about to close the book on this guy who'd been a thorn in SEELE's side for so long, and it was going to be easy.
His last blow left DJ in a crumpled heap at the side of the entry plug. Grinning widely, Dan strode to his fallen adversary, grabbed a double handful of the front of his shirt and hauled him off the floor, holding him face-to-face. The difference in their heights meant that the toes of DJ's boots barely touched the floor as Dan sneered at him.
"I want you to know," said Dan, "that it was Dan Ellison who destroyed you."
DJ's hands plucked feebly at the front of Dan's jumpsuit. The battered NERV pilot raised his bleary-eyed face to Dan's, blinked twice, and suddenly his face was perfectly composed and he was grinning.
"What's the frequency, Kenneth?" he asked, and then drove the hardest part of his forehead against the bridge of Dan's nose. There was a deep, meaty CRUNCH, and then Dan was reeling backward in sudden agony, howling, blood pouring from his face. Released, DJ settled back against the side of the entry plug.
"You're none of you very bright, are you?" asked DJ conversationally.
Dan stopped his reeling and glared at DJ through hate-filled eyes, one hand still holding his smashed and bleeding nose.
DJ held up his left hand, and spun the memory keyrod around his index finger by its hanger ring. Dan realized, all at once, where DJ was, what he'd really been doing when he'd clutched ineffectively at Dan's uniform, and what he'd meant by that last comment. Dan started to lunge forward, his body darkening and sharpening as his demonic nature surfaced, but it was much too late; DJ was already vaulting the side of the entry plug, settling into the seat with a big grin on his face.
"Ta," said DJ cheerfully as Dan reached the side of the plug. He punched the 'canopy down' key, and with a metallic BANG, the canopy hatch slammed shut, nearly amputating eight of Dan's fingers.
Of course, DJ reminded himself as he slotted the keyrod home, if this doesn't work you're going to feel like quite a fool. So thinking, he thumbed the master priming key and hoped like hell the system still worked.
After the power outage which had made fielding the EVAs such an adventure the previous year, the launch-prep systems had been fitted with their own backup power. It had been one of Gendō Ikari's small rebellions that he had failed to report this to SEELE. Unaware of the modifications, SEELE had shut down the power to the EVA cage and proceeded with the invasion, secure in the knowledge that, even if one of the Children were to reach an EVA, they couldn't seat the entry plug and launch it.
They were wrong.
DJ whooped with triumph as the LCL flooded in; then the entry plug rose from its cradle to the requisite angle, tilted on its side so that it would be properly oriented once installed, and then screwed itself into EVA-01's back.
DJ closed his eyes and said softly,
"The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want
He makes me down to lie
Through pastures green he leadeth me the silent waters by
With bright knives he releaseth my soul
He maketh me to hang on hooks in high places
He converteth me to lamb cutlets
For lo, he hath great power, and great hunger
When cometh the day we lowly ones
Through quiet reflection and great dedication
Master the art of karate
Lo, we shall rise up
And then we'll make the bugger's eyes water!"
Then he opened his eyes, grinned, and pressed the master activator.
Dan Ellison looked on in stunned, infuriated amazement as the entry plug deployed into EVA-01 despite his leaders' assurances that such a thing would be impossible. Still, though, he clung to the hope that the other report he had received was correct, and that Unit 01 was inoperable following its battle with Zeruel. Some part of his mind had noted upon entering the cage that the unit's external damage had all been repaired; the armor had been replaced and painted a pleasant combination of dark and light greens instead of the original purple-and-green test colors, and except for the six orange-gold cylinders jutting out from specially fitted openings in the new back armor and the lack of a power coupling socket, it looked perfectly normal.
As he was noting them, those six cylinders glowed with a brilliant orange light, and the Evangelion shivered faintly. An inaudible but perceptible sound filled the silent hangar.
EVA-01's eyes glowed, the restraints shot back, and the unit was free and operational. Dan Ellison watched it step out of its cage, knew his failure was complete and utter, and hoped above all else that EVA-01 would turn around and kill him, so he wouldn't have to face what the others would do to him for this.
Unfortunately for him, DJ had bigger things on his mind.
Like getting outside. The EVA lifts would all be out of service by now, surely...
... so he'd have to get creative.
He smiled and directed the EVA to Security Sector Four.
Ni Ayanami rejoiced in being the first of the Ayanami sisters to be sent on an Evangelion combat operation, and the first of any of SEELE's pilots to command a multiple-EVA operation. At the helm of Unit 07, she was in overall command of the three-element final assault on Worcester-3—and she took a particular glee in knowing how that had to rankle on Ulysses Ellison, pilot of EVA-09.
"Follow your preset map course," she advised her section. "Once we find the railbed, we should be able to catch the train without a problem."
"Union Station one kilometer ahead," Go Ayanami reported from Unit 08. "I don't have the train on radar yet... but..."
"But what?" asked Ni irritably.
"Something funny going on with my phase space here," said Ulysses Ellison, a note of concern in his voice. "Interference, almost as though... "
"... that's impossible," Go murmured.
Go never got a chance to answer; as EVA-07 turned back to look at EVA-08, mirroring its pilot's annoyed mannerism, EVA-08 was transfixed by a beam of blue energy. For a millisecond everything was as before; then the white AP EVA went up in a towering fireball. Units 07 and 09 whirled, their pilots in twin shock, to face the source of the beam.
Almost a mile away, amid the tangled wreckage of the antennae high atop the AT&T Tower, crouched a familiar shape. Swearing, Ni Ayanami switched her EVA's sensor systems up as high as they would go, peering through the static that still washed the screens after the Elerium pulse of EVA-08's destruction.
The static cleared. Crouching atop the Tower was Evangelion Unit 01.
"No!" Ni shouted; then, falling back on the military skills drilled into her by Evangelion training, she barked, "TARGET! Bearing zero zero five, elevation mark six!"
"Identified," Ulysses replied through gritted teeth.
DJ detached and discarded the Type 20 particle cannon from his EVA's left arm. It was ruined, smoke pouring from its vents; he'd dumped the entire contents of its power cell into that single shot, and though it had paid off, he wasn't going to get the opportunity to do it again.
And, since he'd just called forth the fires of Hell—or at least as much firepower as the remaining two EVAs could throw at him—down on his head, he'd best be getting out of here.
The top of the AT&T Tower boiled up in a swarm of small fireballs as Units 07 and 09 ran clips of micro-missiles dry in the direction of their locked target.
"Did we get him?" Ulysses wondered as he slapped a fresh magazine into his launcher.
"I don't know," Ni replied, discarding hers and pulling her EVA's autorifle from its back. "Move in and keep your eyes open. Command, this is EVA-07. NERV has launched EVA-01, repeat, NERV has launched EVA-01! EVA-08 has been destroyed."
"Understood, EVA-07," came Natla's voice. "Engage and destroy."
Natla fought an urge to slam the microphone down and cursed Dan Ellison and all his brothers under her breath. Damned half-Impudite idiots! They were so close to human as to be almost as worthless.
DJ, ears still ringing from the impact of EVA-01 with the sidewalk behind the AT&T Tower, ran through the back streets near the wreckage of the Clubland nightclub, keeping low. This area had been pretty well ravaged by Jet Alone's battle with EVA-05, but it contained the only open weapons block—the one EVA-05 had forced open during the battle. DJ knew the locations of others, and could probably have forced one of them with EVA-01's strength, but it would have taken time, drawn attention and left him vulnerable, so he preferred not to do it if he could get away with it. Crouching behind an abandoned bank, he took stock of his equipment.
Much of the weapons block's contents had been damaged or ruined by the explosion of EVA-05, but he'd salvaged a working handcannon, a hand grenade, a demolition charge and a progressive spear. The spear he had slung on EVA-01's back; it wasn't likely to be of any use to him, since he had little in the way of melee-weapon skills. If he lost the cannon and expended the grenades, and still had an opponent left, he'd probably be better off going after them with Lucifer's bare hands.
Peeking around the bank, he saw one of the white units—EVA-09—tramp by, the muzzle of its weapon swinging this way and that, searching for him. He could let it go by, but if he didn't keep them occupied the enemy units would eventually remember their mission and go after the train, and he couldn't let that happen.
He raised the handcannon and took careful aim on the magazine of the enemy EVA's missile launcher, then squeezed off two quick rounds and ducked back under cover again.
Ulysses Ellison had just enough time to feel the tug of the two 300mm shells' impact on his weapon before the explosion blew him over backward and pain seared up his arm all the way to the shoulder.
"EVA-09, damage report!" came Ni's voice before he could even get his bearings again.
"Gnnh," Ulysses replied, getting the unit to its feet and surveying the damage. The right hand was mangled, its two least fingers torn away, but the rest of it seemed to work all right; he keyed in a block on the pain from that injury—Advanced Production Model, I love you—and replied, "My weapon's destroyed, right hand damaged. Must have torched my missile mag with an autorifle burst. Son of a bitch, he's fast. I didn't even see where the shots came from."
"I think I did. Go to two one nine and let's see if we can corner him."
"Roger." Ulysses deployed his unit's two Progressive Knives and changed course. Off to the right he could see Ni's unit heading for the same spot at a different angle—the ruins of a BostonBank branch office, by the look of it.
"He's hiding behind the bank," Ni said. "Get ready. Three. Two. One. Take him!"
The two white EVAs swung around from opposite sides of the building at the same time, EVA-09 dropping into a Prog Knife combat crouch as EVA-07 covered the bank's parking lot with its autorifle.
There was nothing there but a box of grayish metal about the size of a minivan, with a glowing red numeric display on top of it:
"Oh sh—!" said Ulysses as he flung his unit back.
DJ watched with some satisfaction from the top of Belmont Hill as the BostonBank building vanished in a fireball. That ought to put a crimp in their bloody day!
Jon fidgeted in his seat, his pulse racing, not really understanding why he was so nervous. Sure, the situation was bad, but that didn't account for the near-panic he was feeling. Something was wrong... no, not just wrong... missing. The sky was missing something, he couldn't shake the feeling. He kept looking out the windows, his fingertips tapping a nervous tattoo on his knee.
On the other side of the train's leading passenger car, Asuka was crouched in the window seat opposite Jon's, her heels on the front of the seat, knees drawn up under her chin, where she'd been ever since she'd told the rest of them where DJ had gone. Jon wondered what she was looking at, since it certainly wasn't the bulkhead in front of her, though that was what her eyes were technically pointed at. In the aisle seat beside her, Shinji Ikari looked to be in an absolute agony, not knowing whether to try to comfort her or mind his own business.
Beside Jon, Rei sat with her eyes closed and hands folded in her lap, looking perfectly calm. It was an illusion. Jon could feel the turmoil inside her, could see the workings of the tiny muscles at the corner of her mouth.
He fought down the unaccountable nervousness inside himself, reached over and put his hand over hers. She stirred slightly and glanced at him.
"This was the only way," said Jon softly, so Asuka wouldn't hear him. "No one else had a chance of getting EVA-01 to work again."
Rei closed her eyes again; a tear slipped out of the one nearest Jon and slid down her cheek.
Her lips moved, and though no sound came out, Jon knew what she had said:
He would have tried again, perhaps, but it was at that moment that the train lurched, drawing shouts of consternation and alarm from almost everyone within. A shrieking of metal came from beneath as the brakes slammed in; from ahead came a different sound of metal against metal, and not a pleasant one. Jon looked out the window, trying to see what might be going on, but all he could see was smoke pouring back from the locomotive.
Then the smoke cleared away for a moment with a gust of wind, and he saw something else.
"Tanks!" he cried.
In the locomotive's control cabin, Misato Katsuragi saw the same thing, and cursed, slamming a fist against the panel where all the oil-pressure and coolant-temperature warning lights for the locomotive's turbogenerators flashed. "Damn!" she shouted. "Of all the rotten luck! Where the hell did these guys come from?"
Platoon 2 of Company E of the 112th Armored Cavalry Battalion of the United States Army was, in fact, somewhat lost—they were supposed to have been positioned to attack the railbed in southern Worcester, and here they were way down in Millbury... but sometimes luck works that way in war.
A moment later, as Misato was still wondering just what to do about this unfortunate development, a pair of Raiden DX-3s broke away from the ongoing air combat over Worcester and dealt with the situation—four tanks, not a big deal for aircraft equipped with plasma weapons intended to breach the hulls of alien warcraft—but that still left the train, and the people on it, with two big problems: their own immobility, and the approaching enemy EVAs.
DJ knew, looking back on the day's work so far, that he had reason to feel some measure of satisfaction. He'd managed to destroy one enemy EVA, damage both of the remaining units somewhat, and remove all their ranged weapons from the equation. Still, that left two enemy units operational and on the move, his own ranged weapons exhausted, and now the bloody flaming train was out of commission. Much as he'd been hoping to avoid it, it looked exceedingly like he was going to have to confront the two enemy units directly, before they reached the train—because even without ranged weapons, two EVAs would have little trouble wrecking the crippled vehicle and slaughtering the people it had been carrying to safety.
He unslung the spear from Unit 01's back, hefted it a couple of times (it felt surprisingly handy—much less awkward than he had been expecting—his only real pleasant surprise of the day), and then he and Unit 01 surged out of their latest hiding place behind an evacuated apartment block.
EVA-07 and EVA-09 pulled up short as the green and black enemy EVA appeared before them, standing foursquare atop the ridgeline beyond which was the crippled train, its legs bestriding Highway 146 like some bizarre modern-day Colossus of Rhodes. In its hands was a progressive spear.
Their comm channels crackled, and then a voice familiar and hated from their studies of a thousand recorded combat and training sessions said,
"Sorry you've come all this way—you won't be getting what you came for."
Rei stood by the side of the crippled train for a moment, watching the three EVAs do battle atop the ridgeline, barely a quarter mile away. It was obvious to her that EVA-01 couldn't win. DJ was doing a remarkable job occupying both of his opponents, but he couldn't keep it up forever.
Asuka tore her attention away from the battle to look at her friend's face, and what she saw there frightened her more than DJ's situation, more than her own. There were high emotions racing across Rei's normally placid scarlet eyes, and they were not pleasant ones. The muscles at the corners of her jaw were bunched and twitching, her fists at her sides white-knuckled. Jon saw it too.
"Rei—" Jon began, stepping up behind her and raising a hand as though to place it on her shoulder. Then he stumbled, driven back by the shockwave as blue-white wings of light snapped forth from her shoulder blades with a crack like thunder. She raised her open right hand, and for an instant she held a splinter of similar blue light, around which space bent as it did near an EVA's AT field at maximum output; then the splinter solidified into a gleaming silver saber, its edge burning with a cold blue fire.
"Rei!" Jon cried. "You can't mean to go up there—not without an EVA—"
Rei looked back over her shoulder. "What else can I do?" she asked. "I'm supposed to be his partner, to guard his back. I swore I would protect him. Don't you remember? To stay here would be to betray him." She shook her head, eyes closed. "I cannot do that!"
Jon's mind raced as he tried to think of an argument against this madness that she would listen to. He knew she was powerful, and that she had regained so very much of herself in South Hadley, but this—! This was insanity!
Then his thoughts were shattered by Asuka's voice:
"Vas in Himmel—?!"
Jon looked up at the shout, and that was when he saw it. Blazing across the sky, and clearly headed in their direction, was a great wheel of white fire.
"Armisael will look after you."
It dawned on him then: that was what had been missing from the sky. "Wait! It's a friend!" he yelled. (He certainly hoped it was a friend; otherwise he was going to feel incredibly stupid in another minute or so.)
The wheel of fire was almost directly above them now, hovering over the stranded train. For a moment there was an eerie silence; then everyone aboard could hear a strange sound. For most of them, it was unlike anything they had ever heard before; but Rei and Jon recognized it quite well, as did Misato, though for her it brought back bad memories. This music had an urgent and fast-paced tone to it, and in the midst of it, Jon could hear an equally urgent and fast-paced voice.
«got here soon as i could Destiny says hi hope i'm not too late what can i do to help?»
Jon opened his mouth as though to reply, realized he didn't know how, and ran to the still-advancing Rei, seizing her arm.
"Let go of me, Jon," she said. "I have to do something."
"Yes!" Jon agreed. "You have to tell Armisael what to do. I understand the music now, but I still can't sing it! You're the only one who can tell him what he needs to do!"
She hesitated, and Jon drew breath to continue, but Asuka stepped in, pushing herself between them, taking Rei's shoulders in her hands and practically shouting at her.
"Rei, please! DJ chose to do this to give the rest of us a chance. How are you honoring him if you throw his sacrifice away like this?"
Rei opened her mouth to reply, stopped, looked into Asuka's desperate eyes for a moment, and then lowered her own, nodding. The saber in her hand flickered and disappeared.
"You're right," she said. "I'm a fool." She looked up at the whirling white wheel and raised her voice in song:
«I greet you, O fleet Armisael, swiftest of the soldiers of Michael. We need to get to the seaport right away, but our conveyance's engine is broken. Can you help us?»
«sure no problem all aboard hold tight and get ready to go go go!»
"... Jittery, isn't he?" Jon murmured as they climbed back into the carriage.
"Ofanim are the essence of motion given mind," Rei replied quietly. "They're like that."
She paused briefly at the bottom of the ramp, looked up at the ridgeline where the battle was still raging, and murmured, "Forgive me... in failing you, I serve the greater good."
Asuka put her hand on Rei's shoulder and said with only a small catch in her voice, "It's the way he wants it... let's go."
Misato did all she could to bite back an unreasoning wave of panic as the brilliantly glowing halo settled around the train, but in the next moment her fear was replaced by another feeling she simply could not quantify, as the strange musical sounds—similar to, but much sweeter than, the horrific noises she'd heard in Antarctica—touched all of her senses.
Where a moment before she'd been rooted to the spot where she stood, now she found herself wanting very much not to stand still. It was like the feeling she'd had when she'd prepared to make her bid for freedom back in Central Dogma, only a hundred times more powerful.
The halo pulsed brightly, and then suddenly seemed to implode, vanishing into the ruined locomotive. In the next instant the train's whistle cut loose with an incredibly loud howl, and in blatant defiance of all the laws of mechanical engineering (not to mention common sense) the engine began moving forward again, dragging the train behind it. In fact it began really moving forward, accelerating to speeds which wouldn't have been possible even if the engine were still fully functional.
DJ Croft blocked another attempt by EVA-07 to get inside his guard, spun and dealt EVA-09 a blow with the spear's butt that staggered it momentarily.
He was frankly surprised that he'd done as well as he had so far. He hadn't bothered to glance at his synchrotron gauge, but he knew it had to be high; there was no perceptible lag in his synchrony with Unit 01, and all his senses felt hyperextended. He felt as if he were tuned into everything, processing strange energies that flowed all around him. He could sense what the enemy units were going to do, a split instant before they did them—it was all that was keeping him alive right now. He'd felt Rei's helpless anger, Jon's dismay, and Asuka's heart-rent plea, or rather Lucifer had felt them, and DJ felt all that Lucifer felt. Their identities resonated against each other, climbing slowly toward perfect harmony. The spear moved in EVA-01's hands as though guided by instinct.
But even with all that, he was hard-pressed to keep up with the onslaught of both enemy units, one wielding a pair of Prog Knives, the other a prog halberd, not unlike his own spear but with a weighted, crushing-blow butt instead of the mild point of his own. The pilot of EVA-07 particularly was a ferocious opponent and an exquisite fighter; DJ had narrowly avoided losing EVA-01's head to the enemy unit's blade at least twice in this melee.
He tossed a glance over his shoulder and saw the wheel of fire vanish into the locomotive, and the train start picking up speed. He wasn't sure exactly what that was all about, though he could guess, but it seemed to be good for his side, so he was willing to flow with it. Besides, he had his hands full.
Ni Ayanami noticed the train pulling away at the same moment, and she reached the same conclusion as DJ: at the rate it was gathering speed, it would be out of the two SEELE EVAs in mere moments. If they wanted to have a chance at catching it and stopping it again, they would have to disengage from EVA-01 right now.
She took advantage of Croft's slight break in concentration to whirl her halberd through an arc and smash it with all her unit's force into EVA-01's head. Unfortunately, the halberd had been oriented such that the blunt end was the one available for such a blow, but it was better than nothing; it knocked the green and black unit down in a heap, the spear sticking in the ground and remaining, standing comically, as the NERV EVA fell at its base.
"Let's go, Ulysses," said Ni, throwing her unit into a run. "We can come back and finish off this fool after we've dealt with his friends."
DJ's head swam; he fought down nausea and struggled to get his vision to focus. That may well have been the hardest blow he'd ever taken in EVA combat, harder even than the hit from the Fourth Angel that had scrambled his motor control over EVA-01 for several minutes. His neck pained him from sympathetic shock. If only he hadn't taken that instant to look for the train...
The enemy unit had taken him down to go after the train!
He gritted his teeth and flung all his will against Unit 01's punch-drunk presence.
"Get it together, Lucifer!" he shouted, his hands clenching into fists on the manual controls. Outside, EVA-01's fingers dug into the concrete, tearing up giant divots. The unit heaved itself to hands and knees, then seized the shaft of the spear and dragged itself to its feet.
The two enemy units were a quarter-mile away, running full-out in that long-striding, leaned-forward sprint configuration. DJ remembered the sensation from his and Rei's full-tilt run across Worcester-3 to stop the Angel that had, poetically, fallen from the sky...
Lucifer's song and DJ's blended into one, just as they had on that day.
He yanked the spear out of the ground and dove down the ridgeside, armored feet tearing great flying chunks out of the roadbed. One stride shattered the steel rails at the spot where the railbed crossed Route 146, but the train was already past that point, so the damage didn't matter. Now he was running parallel to the tracks, pilot's ribs heaving to match the way his own would have at such a dead sprint, arms pumping, spear point flashing in the sunlight.
As he gained on the two enemy EVAs, DJ's gritted teeth parted in a grin, as the line between himself and Lucifer began to blur and the truth suddenly became blindingly apparent.
Aboard their units, Ni and Ulysses looked up from their instruments, startled, as EVA-01 filled their rearscan monitors, bearing down on them at an impossible speed.
"Think me not defeated," crackled the voice of DJ Croft in their ears as EVA-01 powered past them both, dug in its heels and spun, blocking their path with its spear shaft outflung. All three units paused for the barest of instants, and then all three fell together into battle again. The difference was astonishing to Ni and Ulysses; where before EVA-01 had been fighting well but had still been clearly outmatched, now it fought with a liquid assurance that was beautiful—and terrible.
And as it fought, its weapon clashing against both of its enemies' at once, the chant flowed through the comm system and into the enemy pilots' ears:
"Know you that I am he who was once Longinus, centurion of the Tenth Legion. I have been Roland, Beowulf, Achilles, Gilgamesh. I have been called a hundred names and will be called a thousand more before the world goes dim and cold. I have been killed a thousand times and every time I return.
"I fight for truth," said Croft's voice, and the point of the spear ripped across EVA-07's chest, parting armor and rending synthetic flesh.
"I fight for glory," and the butt of the spear whirled in an arc and shattered the side of EVA-09's cranial armor.
"I fight for love," and Lucifer reversed the weapon abruptly to trap EVA-07's, twist it, and rip the enemy unit's right arm off at the elbow.
"I fight for beauty," and Lucifer flowed smoothly back from a wild thrust of EVA-09's right-hand Prog Knife, pivoted on his heel, and drove the blade of the spear haft-deep into EVA-09's chest. Ulysses Ellison had just enough time to scream as the instrument panel in front of him buckled before the molecule-keen spatial distortion blade severed his life.
"I am Hero," and Lucifer released the spear's shaft, turned, and smashed an elbow into EVA-07's face, knocking the unit flat on its back and sending Ni's consciousness spiraling into blackness.
An alarm beeped inside EVA-01's entry plug. Lucifer looked up at the top of the ridgeline a half-mile distant and saw the heads and shoulders of several more white SEELE EVAs appear; but the train was away now, moving far too fast for them to catch it.
NERV's key personnel, DJ's friends and loved ones, were as safe as he could make them.
There was no question of escape.
Inwardly, Lucifer smiled, and as he smiled, so too did DJ Croft.
The stars flooded his mind again, thousands of streaking blue-white points, and a final transmission burst out from EVA-01's transmission gear.
"I will return."
Aboard the speeding train, all four sometime EVA pilots looked up simultaneously, as though they had all heard a noise that had eluded everyone else. Different minds interpreted it differently.
Rei heard it as a single celestial chime, deeper and richer than she had heard before but nonetheless familiar—the battle cry of Lucifer, mixed with a note that triggered a new flood of memory within her mending soul.
Jon heard the same sound, but could only guess at its meaning.
Shinji heard DJ Croft's voice raised in a defiant shout, the cry of a cornered but not defeated warrior defying his tormenters.
Asuka heard nothing, but felt a warm surge of emotion rush over her like the shockwave from an explosion—love and anger, life and death, a sharp and painful longing, everything she and DJ had felt for each other compressed into half a second. It stunned her with its intensity, and for several seconds she sat silent, teetering on the edge of collapsing into herself.
Then she clenched a fist and drove it against the window next to her so hard that the glass cracked. Blood trickled from her knuckles. The mundane physical pain kept her anchored to herself.
Shinji, startled, glanced over at her; he would have spoken, but something in her eyes forestalled him, and he looked away uncomfortably.
When the SEELE Evangelions reached the battle site, they found EVA-01 standing amid the wreckage of four tanks and two AP EVAs, dark, silent, and utterly motionless.
Uncertain what to do, Jūichi Ayanami radioed back for instructions, and was instructed to secure the site, see about repairing the damage to the roadbed, and await a transfer vehicle.
They almost got away with it.
Over ninety percent of the equipment, including all the vital gear, and almost all the personnel were aboard the Queen Mary before the Army reached the dockyards. In the face of this, with only a handful of X-COM troopers remaining to fight off the advancing soldiers, Misato issued the order to abandon what remained in place and get aboard—and that went double for Technical Division personnel.
She didn't have to tell John Trussell twice. Shouting to Maya to get aboard, he ran to the forklift that Makoto Hyūga was operating. Unable to shout to Hyūga over the noise of the lift's engine, he just reached up and hauled the younger man down from his seat.
"Come on!" he shouted, and ran toward the aft gangway. Maya was already at the top, standing inside the boarding hatch on the ship's side, gesturing to the two men to hurry the hell up.
They were about halfway up the gangway, Truss some way ahead of Hyūga,e when the first soldiers—three of them—came around the now-idling forklift and its cargo of crates and opened fire. Bullets whizzed all around them. Truss cringed inwardly and waited for the impact, wondering how he could possibly be so calm about his impending doom, when Makoto Hyūga cried out. Truss paused, looking back over his shoulder, saw the young man fall to the gangway, blood flying from a wound in his upper arm.
John Trussell would never, until his dying day, be able to explain quite how or why he did what he did. He knew only that he had done it.
He had only to dash through a hatchway, slam the hatch behind him, and be safe. Maya was already inside, waiting for him. With three soldiers running toward the after gangway, an armored vehicle nearby on the pier to back them up, and no X-COM troopers around to help, Truss could not be blamed for fleeing. He was an engineer, not combat personnel despite the weapon at his side. It was neither his responsibility nor his duty to do anything but run away, and every fiber and nerve of his body screamed at him to do just that.
So he turned around and ran down the gangway, yelling at the top of his lungs. His arms pumped furiously as he ran as fast as he could; his right hand yanked his sidearm from its place at his hip on one downswing and switched off its safety catch on the way back up.
He wasn't yelling incoherently, though—the words tearing out of his throat were, "MAKOTO, STAY DOWN!" Hyūga heard him all right, as evidenced by the fact that that junior tech stopped trying to get up and lay flat on the gangway, covering the back of his head with his hands. The first soldier reached the end of the gangway about the time Truss got to the midway point. He hesitated for an instant, not certain whether to finish off the prostrate tech or shoot the man running down the gangway at him.
Truss reached Hyūga and didn't even pause; he just jumped over him, twisting in midair and leveling the Desert Eagle in flight. Time stretched. Truss could see himself reflected in the soldier's tinted visor, see the man's mouth slack with surprise below it, see the muzzle of his AICW start to rise, see the red dot of the Eagle's laser sight perfectly centered on the black expanse of visor. The Eagle's trigger broke cleanly and crisply under the steady pressure of Truss's right index finger. In that one moment of perfect clarity, Truss saw its hammer snap forward, felt the distinct and discrete click of the mechanism in all the bones of his hand before the cartridge fired and the slide slammed back. The empty casing popped out of the open chamber, smoke trailing from its open mouth; it rotated three times, and so hyper-attuned were Truss's senses that he could clearly read the headstamp on it, SUPER X .357 MAGNUM, as it spun past.
Then the moment was over, and Corporal Edward Fong was crashing to the concrete pier on his back, a starry-edged hole punched through the center of his combat visor. Truss's boots hit the gangway just beyond Hyūga's prone form and skidded against the gritty tarpaper surface.
"Now go!" Truss shouted to Hyūga, dropping to one knee and gripping the Eagle in both hands. "Go!"
Now everything seemed to be happening at once, but Truss, to the infinite surprise of the part of his mind that remained a detached observer, remained calm. He felt fully capable of processing as much information as the universe cared to throw at him. The second soldier rounded the stack of crates to the left of the gangway's end, saw his dead comrade, and dropped to a kneeling fire position as well, raising his AICW. Truss shot him three times high in the chest. He died with a look of great surprise on the half of his face that was visible, having been told his body armor would be proof against any weapon NERV was likely to field against his unit. No one at SEELE, apparently, had anticipated the issue of armor-piercing ammunition to TechDiv personnel.
The third fell on the heels of his fellow, and now more were coming from the other end of the pier, firing on the run, but it hardly mattered. Truss nailed the first of that group with a double tap, dropped the spent magazine out of the Desert Eagle, swiped a fresh one from his belt and slapped it home as though he'd been under fire every day of his life. Bullets slapped the canvas gangway sides and tore into the wooden walk's tarred surface. One trooper's dying burst stitched a line up the gangway perhaps two inches to Truss's left. The engineer's only response was to shoot him again as he fell.
Then one round missed with less than a millimeter to spare, plucking at the shoulder of Truss's uniform jacket like an insistent child, and the physical sensation jarred his mind out of the strange, violent fugue it had settled into. John Trussell was abruptly stricken with horror at the situation he found himself in, kneeling at the foot of a gangway with a hot pistol in his hands, fighting an inevitably losing battle to keep the entire United States Army away from this end of the Queen Mary.
Even now, though, he didn't lose his cool; he jumped up, fired his twenty-seventh and final round of ammunition into the nearest trooper's chest armor, then turned and ran. The center of his back, between his shoulder blades, and a palm-sized area at the back of his skull burned, anticipating the sudden shattering impact of a round from one of the numerous rifles he knew had to be pointing in his direction as he charged up the gangway and then hurled himself with one last enormous effort at the open hatch.
The metal hull of the Queen Mary rang like a tin shed in a hailstorm as a squad reached the end of the gangway and sprayed their AICWs up it, but Truss hit the deck on the other side of the hatch unhurt, though the impact knocked the wind out of him and the gun out of his hand.
Makoto Hyūga slammed the hatch and spun its dogging wheel, then set the lock and ran to the nearest intercom.
"Aft gangway secured!" he shouted. "Enemy troops are on the gangway, get us out of here!"
"Acknowledged," came the voice of one of the bridge officers. "Get inboard and dog down. We're getting under way."
Maya was holding Truss's shoulders and saying something to him, but he couldn't make out what it was. He hitched himself up and sat with his back against the bulkhead, breathing hard. His hands, resting on his knees, shook so violently he had a hard time keeping them there, so he crammed them in between and pressed his knees together. Panting, he tried to focus on what Maya was saying.
"John, are you all right? Are you hit? Talk to me!"
Truss shook his head. "Nuh... huh... no—no—not hit," he gasped. "Just—huh—I just... just..." He shook his head again and concentrated on not hyperventilating and passing out. He felt the deck move slightly under him as the Queen Mary's engines ran up and the propellers engaged. From somewhere above him came the deep, stentorian howl of the ship's massive steam whistle. The banging and clanging against the outboard hatch ceased amid muffled shouts, cracking wood and bending metal as the ship surged away from the pier, tearing the gangway loose from its mountings against the hull and dumping the soldiers there into the harbor.
Makoto Hyūga knelt down next to Maya in front of Truss, his fists on his knees, and bowed until his forehead touched the deck.
"Thank you, Lieutenant Trussell, thank you!" he said. "You saved my life. I'll never forget this. Never!" he declared fervently.
Truss blinked away tears as the adrenaline reaction ebbed away and his breathing came back under control. "I... huh..." He hesitated now not because of shortness of breath so much as because he couldn't think of anything to say. It made him feel rather awkward.
"I think," he said with shaky wryness after a moment, "you can probably call me Truss."
"Are you OK?" Maya asked again. "Can you stand up?"
"I'm fine," said Truss, getting slowly to his feet, Maya and Hyūga rising with him. "Makoto's the one who's wounded," he said, indicating the bloody tear in Hyūga's jacket.
"It's nothing, sir," said Hyūga, determination written on his face. "I'm fine."
"Let's get up to the bridge," said Maya.
"Why?" wondered Truss. "We can't do anything up there but get in the way."
"I'm not going to hide down here while we make our escape," Maya replied. "I want to be up where I can see what's happening."
Truss shrugged. "All right, let's go." They turned and headed forward.
"Sir, wait," said Hyūga. He ran to the base of the stairs, retrieved Truss's sidearm, and returned to offer it proudly.
Truss looked at it. He'd taken it unwillingly, trained with it uncomfortably, and now he'd killed who knew how many men with it...
... but in doing so he had saved Hyūga's life, and his own, and possibly others as well...
"I just... I don't like guns very much," said Truss to Asuka. "They make me uncomfortable. Nervous."
Asuka grinned. "A lot of things make you nervous, John. We can hardly get rid of them all."
Truss rolled his eyes and briefly considered throwing his dinner roll at her, but decided against it; she might eat it instead of giving it back, and he was hungry.
"Anyway," she continued more seriously, "don't think of a sidearm as an instrument of destruction. That's not what they're for, and it's a dangerous mistake to think of them as such."
Truss raised an eyebrow. "Then what are they?"
"A gun is a tool," replied Asuka. "Like a screwdriver or a Hackatron."
He looked skeptical. "Uh... huh."
"It's true," Asuka replied, unperturbed by his skepticism. "A screwdriver is for driving screws. A Hackatron is for diagnosing and repairing computer problems. And a gun is for protecting your life from people who want to take it away from you."
Two months previous, that bit of wisdom had put Truss enough at ease that he'd gone through with the weapons training required for his promotion to First Lieutenant without the protest he'd considered filing.
Now it enabled him to take his sidearm back from Makoto Hyūga without cringing.
"Thanks," he said, closing the spent weapon's slide on an empty chamber and holstering it at his side.
Captain Barraclough stood with his hands folded behind his back, the picture of placid contemplation, as his ship made for the open Atlantic. The atmosphere of the Queen Mary's bridge was charged with excitement, but it was a controlled excitement, almost subdued. Misato found herself slightly in awe at the British merchant captain's air of imperturbability.
"Status, Mr. Hawke?" Barraclough inquired, in a tone of almost idle curiosity.
"All engines ahead full, sir," replied Lieutenant Commander Jaromir Hawke from his station behind the helmsman-quartermaster's left elbow. "Reactors at 100% output. Everything looks nominal."
"Mr. Johnsbury, where's our air cover?"
Lieutenant Alexandra Johnsbury scowled at her radar panel. "Unknown, sir. It's... it's possible they were all shot down over Worcester-3, or are unable to disengage."
"Hm. Well, we'll have to make do without them, then."
Maya, Hyūga and Truss arrived on the bridge at that moment, crowding into the corner with Misato and trying not to make too much bustle.
"What happened to you?" Misato whispered to Hyūga, seeing the blood on his sleeve.
"It's nothing," he replied again.
"Are you all right, Truss? You look like you just saw a ghost."
"Later," murmured Truss. "Much later."
Misato looked the engineer over, noted the empty magazine pouches on his equipment belt, and suddenly understood. She nodded and let the matter drop, at least for the moment.
"What the devil is that destroyer waiting for?" Hawke muttered, peering through his binoculars and the forward windows at the gray smudge on the horizon.
"Attacking a surface train commandeered by a renegade military force is one thing, Mr. Hawke—attacking a merchant ship flying the British flag quite another," said Barraclough calmly. "I imagine their battle plan never involved our friends reaching port, so they're at something of a loss regarding us. I doubt SEELE's puppet government in Washington is quite ready to provoke a war with the British Empire."
How, Misato wondered, could the man stay so infernally calm discussing the possibility of a major war?
"There, he's moving to intercept us," said Hawke.
"Signal from the US destroyer, sir," said one of the signalmen, Warrant Officer Aldis Phillips.
"Put it through," said Barraclough.
"—tion Queen Mary," the bridge speaker announced. "This is the USS William S. Cohen. Your passengers are under Congressional indictment for numerous crimes against the United States. Heave to at once and prepare to be boarded."
"Any reply, sir?" asked the signalman.
"No," Barraclough replied flatly; then, with a hint of a smile at the corner of his mouth, "What can we say to that?"
A subdued chuckle made the rounds of the bridge, and after a few seconds, the signal from the American destroyer was repeated.
"What the devil's he doing now?" Hawke wondered, still staring through his binoculars. The Queen Mary's 30-plus-knot speed was fast eating up the gap between the two ships; details of the destroyer's superstructure were now visible to the naked eye on the bridge. The destroyer, which had been closing in on an intercept course, was swinging into a turn to port—one that would bring it directly across the liner's bow.
"Queen Mary, Queen Mary," crackled the voice of the US signals officer again. "This is your final warning. You will not be permitted to reach international waters with your passengers aboard. Cut your engines now and prepare to be boarded or you will be fired upon."
"Switch that off, I've heard enough," said Barraclough. As the signalman complied, the captain mused, "Clever fellow, if a bit reckless. See what he's doing, Mr. Hawke? He's positioning his ship across our bows."
Hawke nodded as he grasped the American captain's plan. "He doesn't want to fire—thinks we'll stop to avoid ramming him."
Barraclough nodded slowly, tapping a forefinger against his mustache.
Then, without looking back, he said tersely,
"Increase to flank."
Hawke stared at him for a half-second, caught himself, and replied, "All ahead flank, aye aye, sir!"
Misato felt under no obligation to catch herself and continued staring well past the half-second mark. The vibration of the deck under her feet shifted up in frequency.
"Destroyer's signaling, sir," said Signalman Phillips. "He informs us that if we do not reduce speed and alter course immediately, there will be a collision."
"Kindly inform Cohen that if he does not increase speed and alter his course immediately, there most certainly will be a collision," said Barraclough dryly.
The signalman complied, listened to his headphones for a moment, and said, "Sir, he is quite insistent."
Barraclough calmly grasped the bridge rail and braced himself. "Inquire of Cohen whether he recognizes the name 'Curacoa'."
"... No response, sir."
Barraclough nodded to himself. "Too much to hope for, I suppose. Sound collision, Mr. Hawke."
The collision alarm hooted throughout the ship, and Misato grabbed the back of the nearest seat, staring bug-eyed at the British captain, unable to decide whether to scream obscenities at him or ask him to marry her.
Too late, the captain of USS Cohen realized that Barraclough was calling his bluff, and ordered his ship's engines to be put ahead full. The wake behind the destroyer foamed as power was applied to the ship's twin screws. The Queen Mary's whistle bellowed.
USS William S. Cohen, DDG 102, was a destroyer of the Improved Arleigh Burke class, built in 2010 at the New Bath Iron Works in Maine. She displaced 8,400 tons of water, slightly more than one-tenth the displacement of the Queen Mary. The liner's breakwater slashed through the destroyer's steel hull just aft of amidships, cleaving the smaller ship in two like an axe through a tin can. Aboard the Queen Mary, the collision was hardly more than a distant crash and a mild jump in the deck underfoot, no more traumatic than a car running over an expansion joint in a bridge. The bow caved in slightly at the point of impact, midway from the forepeak to the waterline, but no seams were started and no water entered.
"Transmit our location to the Coast Guard," said Barraclough coolly. "If they respond fast enough from Block Island there will be survivors. Then inform Command that there has been an incident. Mr. Hawke, I'll need a full damage report within the half-hour. Mr. Johnsbury, any sign of pursuit?"
"Er... n-none, sir. My panel is clear. Correction—two new contacts have just appeared from the west. Waiting identification now... it's our escorts! Two X-COM Raiden fighters, vectoring into patrol orbit over our course."
"About bloody time," Hawke muttered.
"Indeed," Barraclough said dryly. "Reduce to full speed, Mr. Hawke—no need to strain the engines unduly." He turned to Misato, seeming to notice she was there for the first time.
"Well, Brigadier," he said, smiling cheerfully. "Today has been a busy day. Have you been shown your quarters yet?"
Misato tried to muster a smile, but she knew as she did that it was wan at best. "Ah... heh," she said. "Are you married?"
"Only to the sea," replied Barraclough, slightly puzzled.
San felt neither cold nor tired, though she had been walking for nearly six hours through the perpetual twilight of the Arctic spring, putting one foot in front of the other against a steady wind. By now, she was at the edge of direct radio range from SEELE's headquarters, and the sounds in the earphones of her parka's built-in radio were scratchy and faded. She had ignored their attempts to contact her by radio, of course, but she'd kept the unit scanning the base frequencies so as to monitor the progress of the search for her.
As she'd expected, there hadn't been much of one. She'd heard the security officers reporting the falseness of the fire alarm, then the discovery of Juhni's body and the fired escape unit. They'd made a token attempt at securing a perimeter, but no one had really cared enough to put in much effort; she'd eluded the one patrol she'd seen with ease, and then they'd called it off, one guard remarking snidely to another that a scrawny little bitch like San wasn't going to last long out there, even with a plug suit—no body fat for insulation, you know?
Since then she'd been listening with half an ear to the transmitted reports of the battle for Worcester-3. The stubborn resistance of NERV's X-COM defenders, the inexplicable escape of Brigadier Katsuragi, Go's annihilation, the battle with EVA-01, NERV's narrow dockside escape; San heard it all. As she passed beyond range and the voice dissolved away to static, she received one final piece of information: that the Queen Mary had won free of Providence Harbor and into the Atlantic, destination unknown, with two X-COM Raidens for air cover.
She was still smiling when she lay down to rest, ten hours later.
Ritsuko and Yak lay together in the still darkness of her bedroom. The muffled sounds of the round-the-clock activity at Station 51 filtered through the walls, carrying with them a sense of urgency.
Ritsuko rolled over and whispered, "Are you awake?"
"Yes," Yak replied quietly, turning to face her.
"I can't sleep," she sighed. "I keep thinking about the ship. Do you think they'll make it?"
Yak pondered quietly for a moment before replying. "Yes, they'll make it." He paused for a moment, then added, "They have to."
Ritsuko smiled at the quiet determination in his voice. Yak had been a reassuring presence since he joined their effort. He simply refused to consider failure as an option: they had no choice but to succeed. He reminded her of someone else she knew—someone who might well be dead now—and for a moment the thought caused her pain. Then she pushed it away. After all he'd done to pull her out of despair, she knew DJ would never forgive her if she allowed his courageous stand in Millbury to push her back into it.
Instead, she kissed Yak gently and mustered a smile. "Thank you."
"For being you."
"Well, you're welcome, but I'm afraid that my mum and dad deserve the credit for that." Yak brushed the hair from before her eyes and kissed the tip of her nose softly.
She cuddled up to him, enjoying the warmth radiating from his body. They both knew this might be the last peaceful night they had together for a while. Once the Queen Mary arrived, things would shift from high gear into overdrive. It wouldn't slow down again until they won. And if they didn't win, well, this might be their last peaceful night together, period. Neither one wanted to think about it, but it was impossible not to.
Their work had gone well, and was nearing completion, but there would not be enough time to do thorough testing. There hadn't even been time to build a real prototype—ARC-01 would not have the chance to benefit from the discovery of the inevitable flaws in ARC-00, since the two units were being built all but simultaneously, from the same spec. The real test of their work was going to be trial by fire. A very binary situation; if those inevitable flaws were small enough, if their work succeeded, they had a good chance of winning, but if it failed... If they'd failed in any major way, everything ended.
Their mood turned dark as they considered the great risk that was to come, and their responsibility towards the very future of mankind.
"I pray we haven't made any mistakes," Ritsuko said quietly.
"We've done our best, love."
"I know. It had better be good enough. We're not going to get a second chance."
"No point in worrying about it now... we don't have time to develop a new plan. Nothing for it but to carry on."
Ritsuko sighed. "Join NERV. Meet fascinating people. Carry the fate of the world upon your shoulders."
Yak smiled at her, and tipped her face towards his with a finger on her chin. "You're beautiful when you fret, you know. Of course, you're always beautiful. The most beautiful woman on Earth, in my studied opinion." He paused for a moment, looking thoughtful, before continuing. "Of course, I may just be crazy. What is your assessment, Doctor?"
Ritsuko broke into a broad grin, her eyes twinkling. "Oh, I don't know, Doctor. Perhaps you're suffering from delusions. Or maybe you just need to get out of the lab more." She kissed him softly. "But I'm not going to try and dissuade you at the moment. I think this deserves further study."
"Well, that's a bit self-serving," Yak said with a smile.
"Yes, it certainly is," she replied, trailing her nails down his side.
"You are beautiful," he whispered between kisses.
"Flattery will get you everywhere," she said, laughing as she caressed him.
If this was to be their last peaceful night, they were going to make the best of it.
Amy Anderson had fallen asleep at her desk; she jolted awake, feeling a twinge in her neck where it had been bent awkwardly, when one of the AIs pinged for her attention.
"Wha—yes?" she asked.
"Lightning Squadron just reported that the Queen Mary has escaped from Providence Harbor into the Atlantic," Tycho announced. "Except for Croft, your friends are as safe as they're going to get."
"DJ? Why, what happened to him?" Amy wondered, her blood chilling.
"Reports are sketchy," Tycho replied, sounding as though he would really rather not be having this conversation. "It seems he stayed behind to activate EVA-01 and meet the SEELE attackers. From what I've read about him, that's a typical gesture for him," the computer added, rather snidely. "Brave, but not too smart. He's probably dead. Still, the rest of them have escaped. I thought you might like to know."
Tycho pinged off, and Amy sat gazing at the console for a few seconds, not really looking at it.
He can't be dead, she thought. He always finds a way out one way or another. He'll find his own way out of Worcester and join us all here, sooner or later. If he activated Unit 01, they can't have beaten him, after all—no one has ever defeated Lucifer.
Then, a moment later, she thought, Oh my God—Asuka. Asuka must be devastated...
She got up from her desk and turned to leave, but another ping halted her.
"Yes?" she said.
"I wanted to apologize for my esteemed colleague's tone," said Durandal. "We're not all heartless simpletons, you know. For what it's worth, I don't think they caught your friend or killed him."
"Why not?" asked Amy, curious to know the computer's reasoning.
"Because Tycho is a fool," Durandal replied. "If he believes it, it must be wrong."
Amy considered that for a moment, then smiled faintly and left the room in search of her mother.
Night had almost arrived; the western sky was dark save for a single ribbon of purple along the low horizon. The Queen Mary hurtled northeastward at forty-three knots, lights out, trusting in her speed to keep her safe from attack just as she had seventy-five years before.
At the aft rail, Asuka Sōryū-Langley stood and looked down. Far below, seawater creamed in the ship's wake, leaving a broad streak of phosphorescence on the ocean's surface. The noise reminded Asuka of a waterfall. She gripped the rail and looked back toward the land, long since out of sight, and tears trickled down her face.
She looked down at the water again and wondered if this was what her mother had felt, this strange sort of exhilaration. It was almost like vertigo (though, part of her mind pointed out giddily, that might have more to do with the height from which she was looking down), a peculiar reeling sensation, as though the world were turning too fast under her feet for her to keep up and she must sooner or later fall.
Well, if it was as inevitable as all that, then why not get it over with?
She stepped on the lower rail, put her weight on her hands and swung her other foot over the top rail.
An arm looped around her waist—she'd been so preoccupied she hadn't heard whoever owned it come up behind her—a sudden jerk and she was flying, but not in the direction she'd intended. She and her rescuer hit the deck a good ten feet inboard, so furious had that sudden jerk been. Asuka rolled with the impact, came up on her knees, and launched herself at the shadowy form of her rescuer, hissing with rage at the interruption, at the presumption!
"Are you—" the shape started to say, and then she hit him and bowled him over backward, the nails of her right hand carving furrows down the side of his face. "Aaaggh!" was his response to that, followed by a fairly powerful slap to her face. She fell sideways, rolling onto her back, and tried to come up fighting again. She wrestled with her intended victim for a few moments; he was a skinny creature and she easily outmatched him in sheer strength, but he persevered, grabbing her wrists in his hands. Desperation gave him strength, and he held her at bay. She tried to kick him, but he'd managed to roll himself atop her, so she had little leverage or power to kick with.
"Asuka, what the hell's the matter with you?!" Shinji Ikari demanded. "Stop it!"
"Leave me alone!" Asuka cried, wrenching her left hand free and battering at his right shoulder and ear. "Let me go, damn you, let me go, berühr mich nicht! Oh, damn you, damn you, damn you..."
The last tapered off from furious ranting to broken sobbing, and she ended by subsiding completely, covering her eyes with her free forearm and slowly shaking her head from side to side in time with her sobbing. "... damn you, damn you, damn you..." she repeated over and over.
Somehow, Shinji got the idea that she wasn't actually damning him.
It occurred to him that, should a member of the crew happen by the poopdeck right about now, it would look a bit awkward; so he let go her other arm, rolled himself off her and sat cross-legged next to her, keeping a sharp lookout in case she should try to attack him again, or worse.
"Asuka," he said, as gently as he could, "let's go inside."
Shinji half-carried, half-guided Asuka, who was neither uncooperative nor particularly cooperative, to the stateroom he had been assigned for the voyage. He put her on the bed and took off her shoes. She immediately turned away from him, curling into a fetal ball, one of the bed's pillows clutched to her, her face buried in it. Shinji went to the bathroom and soaked a washcloth; then he dragged the desk chair over beside the bed, sat down, and kept a silent vigil while she soaked the pillow with her tears, daubing absently at the stinging, bloody scrapes on his face with the washcloth.
At length she lacked the strength to cry any more; she slowly released the pillow, rolled on her back, and looked bleakly up at the beautifully paneled ceiling.
"God damn DJ Croft," she said hoarsely.
Shinji looked shocked. "Asuka!" he said.
"Don't 'Asuka!' me," she snapped wearily. "Why does he always have to be the hero? If there's a risk to be taken, a sacrifice to be made, why does he always insist on doing it? How... h-how many times does he think he can leave me this way?"
She looked on the verge of plumbing some untapped reserve of grief, and Shinji spoke without really thinking about it first, just for the sake of inserting something into the moment.
"You seemed to accept his decision at the time," he said.
Asuka gave a shuddering sigh. "I know... but... it seemed so right at the time. He... he had such a conviction about him when he turned to me. 'You will make sure to get yourself and Misato to the train, won't you?' As though he was just going to take a walk around the park and he'd be joining us..." She sniffed. "What could I say? If I'd made a big scene, he'd have gone anyway, except... except he'd have gone disappointed in me. I couldn't stand the idea of his... his l-last thought of me being what a silly bitch I'd been about it."
"He had to go," Shinji pointed out. "He was the only one with a prayer of activating the only unit left available. It was the only chance any of us had."
"I know that!" Asuka cried, slamming a fist into the mattress in frustration. "He did it for me as much as for anything. That doesn't change the fact that he's gone and I'm still here."
Shinji was unconvinced that the next thing that came to his mind was a wise thing to say, but he had no better ideas, so he said it, as gently as he could:
"He's come back from this kind of thing before."
"Last time we had the EVA," Asuka said. "We wanted him back and we got him. They don't care. They'll flush the entry plug and put one of their own people in there to try and activate the unit. It's all to the good for them if DJ's... if DJ's..." She shook her head. "I want to believe he'll be back, Shinji, but I can't. That feeling I got as we sped away... it felt..."
She closed her eyes, and fresh tears ran sideways down her face, detoured around her earlobes and wetted the hair at the nape of her neck.
"It felt like a goodbye kiss," she whispered, her lower lip quivering. She turned on her side and began sobbing again, clutching the sodden pillow and murmuring things in German which Shinji could not understand. He began to get the feeling he was intruding; so he very quietly got up, went into the bathroom, collected his toothbrush and toothpaste, and went to the door. Maybe Hyūga and Aoba wouldn't mind if he crashed on their floor.
"Shinji," said Asuka softly as Shinji slowly turned the knob on the door. He froze and looked over his shoulder.
She met his eyes, her own bloodshot and still crying, and whispered shakily, "Don't go. Please don't. Everyone... everyone always leaves me..."
She reached out for him, her hand trembling.
Slowly, Shinji released the doorknob; then he tossed his things back into the bathroom, sat down on the edge of the bed, and took her hand.
Asuka pulled him down into her arms and cried herself to sleep.
Back in the EVA cage at Central Dogma, a work crew had finished gingerly docking EVA-01 back in the bay it had occupied for so long. It hadn't resisted; in fact, it had done nothing at all, evincing no reaction to anything around it. It was as inert as all their reports said it should be.
Ni Ayanami, one encasted arm in a sling, an ankle braced, and a patch over one eye, stood on the embarkation platform behind the unit's back, flanked by two burly blacksuits with plasma rifles. Back by the cage entrance door, a small knot of her siblings and cousins watched the proceedings, including a battered and smarting Dan Ellison. Jacqueline Natla stood off to the side, arms folded, smiling coldly. With the facility secured, Kaori Yamashita had been brought in; she stood at the diagnostic console at platform's end, next to the entry-plug bay.
"Any sign of activity, Doctor Yamashita?" asked Natla.
"No," Yamashita replied. "Monitors are all down. LCL's testing clean, though—no contamination. Whatever happened to him last time... " She shrugged. "Not this time." She punched a few keys; EVA-01's plug-seal armor retracted and the plug extruded into its ready position. Another key triggered the LCL vent.
Yamashita glanced up at Natla, her finger over the final key, but it was Ni who spoke, her voice harsh.
"Open it," she said. Then, in a calmer but colder tone, she said with a predatory smile, "I want him."
Natla nodded perfunctorily; Yamashita pressed the key.
The cockpit hatch swung open to reveal...
"What the—!" Ni said, stepping to the edge of the plug. She looked angrily over the open plug at Yamashita. "I thought you said he hadn't been absorbed."
Yamashita shrugged again. "No water in the LCL. No carbon, either."
"Then where the hell is he?!" Ni demanded.
"What am I, the cruise director?" Yamashita replied dryly. "Maybe he's up on the Lido Deck."
"That's enough, Doctor," said Natla sharply. She was no longer smiling. "I want the operation logs for this unit combed from one end to the other. Find out what happened. Understood?"
"Sure," said Yamashita. "Assuming there's anything useful in the operation logs."
"You had better find something," said Natla coldly. "Croft is too dangerous a quantity to be unaccounted for. Is that understood?"
"Sure," Yamashita repeated, unperturbed.
Ni, still bubbling over with fury, gave the doctor another withering glare and then stormed out, her siblings and cousins in two. Natla lingered for another moment, then turned and left as well, taking the two guards with her.
Kaori Yamashita looked around the empty EVA cage, lit another cigarette, drew deeply on it, and then sighed, letting out a cloud of smoke.
"This job isn't giving me the warm, fuzzy feeling any more," she said matter-of-factly to EVA-01. Then she started poking around for those operations logs.
As night settled over the darkened vessel, Jon Ellison found himself wanting to be nearer to the sky. He got up from his stateroom bed—beds on ships might be called bunks normally, but this was an honest-to-God bed—and went up on deck, letting his instincts guide him to the ship's forepeak.
Rei was there, as he knew she would be, standing with her hands on the rail to either side of her at the very point of the ship's bow. The Queen Mary's cutwater slashed through the sea far below, adding a muffled, crashing counterpoint to the song of the wind in the rails.
Silently, Jon came up behind her and encircled her in his arms; she made no sound, but leaned back into his embrace, placing her hands over his where they clasped over her middle.
The troopers at Alcatraz, Jon remembered, had from time to time joked about a pre-Impact movie that, apparently, had had a scene much like the tableau he currently found himself in (the important difference being that the movie's characters were in a far more positive mood than were either he or Rei). The irony—that the ship in the movie had been doomed even though the people aboard it hadn't a worry in the world—did not escape him. If anything, Jon found that his sense of irony had been honed by the events of recent weeks.
This ship would reach its destination. Of that he was fairly certain. No other vessels had challenged the Queen since she reached international waters, and though they were keeping their distance so as not to draw too much attention, the DX-3 escorts were nearby, watching carefully for any sign of trouble.
So yes, odds were good they would make it to Halifax, but what then? All NERV had left to its name were the two surviving production-model EVAs, one intact but the other still suffering from a ruptured core. Were he to be called on to pilot one, he doubted his ability to handle it effectively, accustomed as he was to EVA-00's fluid responsiveness. EVA-03 had felt clumsy by comparison after that.
The conclusion was obvious to Jon: he was no longer useful as a pilot. He knew that Dr. Akagi and Dr. Minter were doing something about producing some new weapons with the Archangelion project, but he wasn't sure if that would ever compare to EVA-00, or make up for the scope of their current losses: EVA-00 destroyed, EVA-03 damaged, EVA-01—Lucifer—abandoned and in the hands of the Enemy along with what remained of Worcester-3. SEELE was in firm control of the United States government, which was clearly hostile to NERV and X-COM now, and relations between the US and Britain were certain to get very ugly soon, if they hadn't done so already. And then there was Germany...
If Misato had had any chance at all to assess the damage from Worcester, she had made no mention of it when Jon had seen her at dinner. As such, Jon had no idea how hard X-COM had been hit. How many troopers and pilots (not to mention their valuable equipment) had been lost at Worcester? How much X-COM man- and firepower remained, and would it even do any good against the true Enemy?
Stephen II might have his empire, but the way things were going now, that empire might well have to defend itself against all the rest of the world, with the forces of Hell literally behind the assault. Lucifer, the being the Angels had been trying to rescue all along... if only they had known! They couldn't possibly have known, of course, but trying to be rational with one's own emotions was often a losing proposition at best. This too was something Jon was all too familiar with.
"You're troubled," Rei's soft voice came to his ears.
"Yes," he replied softly, holding her a bit closer, catching the faint scent of shampoo mingled with the salt of the Atlantic. He didn't need to voice his thoughts since she knew them already, and Jon could feel her own spectrum of troubles. Steadfast and strong though they might be, Cherubim still had feelings, and the loss of so many things she had protected had left her hurt and raw. The loss of Lucifer and DJ in particular tore at her; as much as it tore at Jon, he knew Rei would be suffering far more from what she perceived as her failure.
"We must have faith," she said even more quietly, summoning her reserves of strength.
"Faith?" Jon replied, sounding unconvinced but wishing desperately for a handhold.
"Yes," Rei whispered, before turning and hugging him tightly with her own edge of desperation. Jon could only put his arms around her and hug back, working all the harder to keep his emotions checked. His gaze traveled outward to the black sheen of the nighttime ocean, upward to the sea of stars which was the night sky. Neither sea nor sky seemed to have an answer for any of his questions, as much as he wished that someone from above would answer even one.
Apparently, someone thought that was a wish worth granting.
Though it was dark Jon could see easily with his powerful alien eyes, and it seemed as if the space around them had grown a bit brighter, even though no lights had come on nearby... and he could hear the music again... behind them.
Turning together, Jon and Rei found themselves facing a youthful, slender woman of incredible beauty. Her long, perfectly white hair flowed around her, and she seemed to glow from within. She said nothing, merely smiled faintly and regarded them with calm, sparkling red eyes. She looked eerily familiar—and not just because some of the lines of her face resembled Rei's, although they did.
"... I know you," Rei said, though Jon could feel she didn't know from where, and indeed he felt much the same way.
"We've met before, yes," the young woman answered, her smile slipping a bit. "I was... broken, then."
Despite the female pitch of the voice, Jon recognized the tone. "Tabris!"
"Part of me was once Tabris," the visitor said, nodding. "I am Tabriel, Herald of the Light." She bowed. "I have been made anew by my dread lord Lucifer."
Jon felt Rei gasp; indeed, he gasped himself. Both of them had heard John Trussell's report of what had happened in the EVA cage while they were fighting their battle in South Hadley.
"You... you look like me," said Rei.
Tabriel smiled and nodded. "In a sense I am you."
"I don't understand," said Jon.
"Ichi Ayanami was not Natlateth's first attempt to duplicate you, Reilael," said Tabriel. "Before her, there was another—one whose genetic structure was not modified as the later ones were, because Jon had not yet been created to show them the way to do it. One who, like you, was not Fallen."
Jon and Rei looked at each other, understanding in their eyes.
"The empty chamber DJ found," said Rei.
"P/T," Jon mused. "Prototype." He looked at Tabriel. "The first EVA-01 test pilot."
Tabriel nodded. "Lucifer had recovered nothing of himself, and the part of me who was the duplicate of Reilael knew nothing of herself, but the attempt at synchronizing them created a resonance of a sort. You must understand that she was... incomplete. She had no identity, no sense of herself. It resonated with Lucifer's own confusion, and in his pain he sought to understand..."
"... And they became one," Rei whispered. "She was the one I saw, who told me I asked too many questions..."
"And they became one," Tabriel confirmed, nodding. "When the part of me who was Tabris, shattered, went to Lucifer and demanded relief, Lucifer saw a chance to help two tormented, incomplete souls with one stroke. He combined the two... and I am the result." Tabriel smiled. "I am whole again... and that is what truly matters. It was right that I should be remade into what I am now."
"I don't know that we can ever be whole again," Jon sighed heavily. "Worcester-3 is gone, I don't know how many good people we lost there. Moloch is gone, Lucifer is in their hands... and we don't even know about DJ. They'll be turning the entire world against us soon."
"Everything you say is true," Tabriel conceded quietly. "But they could never compel Lucifer before and they certainly cannot compel him now, and the Eternal has never truly been defeated. Now, more than ever, Jonathan, it is important to have faith, as Reilael says. Everything you know and understand rests on the line, and you must be willing to fight for it."
"Hard thing to do." Jon shook his head. "When everything in the life we knew is already gone, already over..."
For a moment all was silent, but then Tabriel looked directly into Jon's eyes, and smiled gently.
"Oh no, Jon. Not over. It's only just begun..."
Then she leaned forward and gently kissed his lips; before his eyes had finished going wide in surprise, she was gone.
He looked at Rei, shock still written on his face, and she smiled ironically.
"And all this time," she said, "I thought it was because of me..."
Jon stared blankly at her, incredulity slowly melting into comprehension and then amazement; then threw back his head and laughed into the night.
In a moment, she joined him.
The Queen Mary plowed onward through the dark waters. Whether it would be a journey toward Destiny, or Fate, remained uncertain.
Neon Exodus Evangelion
in alphabetical order
Naomi Anderson, MD
Captain Stuart Barraclough, RN(V)R
James A. Corsi
Sir Henshingly Croft, KB
The Honourable Franklin J. Dabney-Post
Saint Peter of the Gates of Heaven
His Britannic Majesty Stephen II
Thomas J. Sullivan
Tommy Lee Jones as Special Agent Ken Stanfield
Will Smith as Special Agent James Edwards
Dennis MacCrofton as DJ Croft
Sir Alistair Warden-King as Pen-Pen
with special guests
and the voices of
Terri Brosius as SHODAN / Leela
David Banks as Durandal
Ellen McLain as Lilith
Tony Jay as Tycho
Douglas Rain as HAL 14000
Inspired by Neon Genesis Evangelion created by Hideaki Anno, Gainax, et al.
Most characters created by Hideaki Anno and Yoshiyuki Sadamoto
DJ Croft, Ichi & San Ayanami, John Trussell,
and the crew of the Queen Mary created by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Ichi Ayanami significantly improved by and
Kaori Yamashita created by John Trussell
The clan Ellison created by Larry Mann
Lara Croft created by Toby Gard
Ken Stanfield by way of and
Jim Edwards created by Lowell Cunningham
Naomi and Amy Anderson by way of Naoko Takeuchi
HAL 14000 by way of Arthur C. Clarke
Additional material and inspiration cadged from
Tomb Raider by Core Design, Ltd.
X-COM: UFO Defense and sequels from MPS Labs
Half-Life by Valve
Marathon 2: Durandal by Bungie Software
Full Throttle by LucasArts
System Shock by Looking Glass Studios
The X-Files created by Chris Carter
Babylon 5 by J. Michael Straczynski
2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick
In Nomine by Steve Jackson Games
Men in Black by Lowell Cunningham
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 'Yak' Minter
Excerpt from "Sheep" by Roger Waters
from a suggestion by Rob Mandeville
This work of fanfiction is dedicated to the memory of my
grandmother, Beulah Walker, who was called back to the
higher dimensions on March 17th, 2000, after nine decades
of faith and devotion to her family. Memorial services
will coincide with the release of this final chapter of
Neon Exodus Evangelion.
Farewell, Grandma. You will be deeply missed, but you
have earned your rest.
© 2000 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
HTML remastering © 2016 EPU
E P U (colour)