And If That Don't Work?

A Neon Genesis Evangelion fic thingy.

By Josh "Sunshine" Temple

 

Here's the disclaimer of non-ownership: Neon Genesis Evangelion and its characters and settings belong Gainax and Hideaki Anno. Team Fortress 2 is owned by Valve. The Spoony Experiment is owned by Noah Antwiler

 

 

Other works can be found at my fanfiction website.

http://jtemple.florestica.com/

 

Temporary Backup Site.

http://www.fukufics.com/fic/

 

 

Other website Temple of Ranma's Senshi Seifuku

http://fukufics.com

 

C&C as always is wanted.

 

 

Chapter Eleven: Defects and Acquisitions Part 2

 


            The Evangelion lift slammed into place. Bolts releasing, Toji immediately slammed down into a prone position. He was on the upslope to one of the ridges that surrounded the city. In front of him was a line of blocky storage bunkers. As he went down, he caught a glimpse of the city. It was dominated by the battered wreck of the Angel's body.


            Immediately, he was reminded of the Ramiel battle. Once again an angel had fallen to the eerily flat surface of the city under full retraction. Looking out he could see fires in many of the buildings of Old Tokyo 3 to the north. Swaths of trees on the surrounding ridges had also been blown down, though he was not sure if that was from the angel's impact or the airbursts.


            The difference was in scale. Ramiel was a huge solid mass that took up several city blocks. While probably no heavier, Sahaquiel was thinner and far more spread out. The gangly Angel draped over much of the downtown of Tokyo 3.


            A great orange and green eye was surrounded by titanic arcing red lobes edged in waving fringes. A rainbow-like iridescence ran along the lobes. The fringes themselves were made up of rows and rows of disturbingly humanoid, waving figures that easily stood several stories tall.


            The other pilots checked in. Rei's lift had deposited her a bit to the side and in front of Toji. Glancing at his map revealed that Kiko's and Shinju's Evangelions were in a similarly emplaced fire team to the east of his position.


            However, Toji's fixation was on the giant eye and the bright red throbbing light at the very center. No taller than an Evangelion, it glowed invitingly, the centermost circle in a series of concentric rings.


            "We have close air support and Azazel assets but with the Angel this close to the ground- We're reading an energy spike!" Captain Ayanami's voice suddenly shouted.


            Keeping prone, Toji rose up on his elbows and shouldered his Mark 9. He pulled the trigger. A cloud of smoke and fire bigger than his Eva blasted out of the barrel as an N2 penetrator warhead shot out and hit true. An even larger explosion lit up the bare armored expanse of downtown. Supersonic waves of pressure slammed against the Angel's AT field, just as a heavy red beam shot out of the eye's pupil. Automatically, Toji squeezed the trigger again and a second penetrator round blasted the top off the beam and sent a bit of its energy back into the Angel causing it to writhe up and emit a great hissing noise.


            "Good going Rookie!" Kiko said as she braced herself and took a shot of her own. The first was another penetrator, but the second barrel launched a barrage of N2 canister shot across the angel's writhing lobes.


            "Mind your chambers," Rei gently chided Toji as she took a shot on the angel.


            Toji nodded and checked his rifle and then his revolver.


            "AT field still up," Shinju said as she swapped out the cartridges in her Mark 9 rifle. "Toji, Oneechan, covering fire."


            Reloading, Kiko laughed as Unit 02 rose to her feet.

 

***************

 

 


            Seeing the arcs of missiles and line of immense explosions Wing Commander Owen Lysaght felt acutely impotent. Still nothing more than a cloud of fire-wreathed specks, the Angel fell towards the earth. It shrugged off everything Azazel launched at it, detaching pieces of itself to intercept the brunt of the explosion.


            In the thinner, high altitude atmosphere more energy was released as ionizing gamma radiation and x-rays instead of the more customary high pressure shockwave seen closer to the ground. Circling the city in a wide orbital, Lysaght kept his plane out of range. The Angel was still outside of the range of his weapons, but not outside Azazel's Su-33's.


            As soon as the Angel's altitude brought it within range of their Angel Busters, the blue and grey planes attacked. Sleek, nimble and - compared, to the long comet-like Angel – the planes pounced like eager little corgis. Then the Angel gave counter fire. Thick red beams sliced across the sky downing two planes and knocking out some of the missiles.


            "Oh bugger me," Owen muttered. He was also patched into the Nerv Command Center. A measure of respect formed at their calm in the face of the seemingly inevitable. However, the Nerv comm. officers in the back of his plane seemed to be a bit too eager to take up the reins.


             Then the inner perimeter batteries went off saturating the Angel in ineffective, but distracting fire. However Owen concentrated more on the rival airframes. Exploiting the diversion the remaining planes launched their payloads. Azazel cruise missiles hit and bloomed in the mid-morning light, adding another pair of suns to the string of growing light. The Angel... bobbled as each explosion hit it one after the other blunting its forward momentum, reducing it to a more sedate fall.


             This time the airburst was low enough to cause a pressure wave that a minute later rumbled across the bulk of Owen's plane. By that time the Angel's fiery shroud had been torn away and with deliberate slowness it still dropped onto Tokyo 3. But it was less like a comet-strike and more like a bag of meat falling off a cliff.


            "Right, then!" Owen grinned and pushed the throttles forward and turned the plane on a course back to the city.


            "Wing Commander," Captain Ayanami's voice cut in. "We're sending the Eva's topside, requesting air-support."


             "Yeah, yeah, Stop mucking about and get to the Angel, ETA two minutes," Owen said. He checked over the readouts, all green. He then keyed to the crew in the compartment directly aft-ward. "It looks like the damn fools didn't get to complete the job and they've called us in. So, let's show them what we can do. Reactor?" Owen asked, redundantly. Any sign of trouble should have come up at pre-flight, or on his cockpit readout, or failing that told by the reactor technician himself. But it was good to check and recheck.


            "We're good. Temperature green. Plenty of reserve coolant."


            "Engines?"


            "Running clean, thrust nominal. You've got some redline to play with, but don't burn them out."


            Owen grunted. "Gun?"


            "Inductive on standby. Cannon warmed up and ready."


            "And the updates?" Owen asked; they had tried the new settings at the Mount Takanosu Testing Range but without an AT field to fire on they were working in the dark. For some reason Nerv was unwilling to let them test on an Evangelion.


            The technician chuckled. "Harmonic software package loaded."


            "Right, here's hoping that Booksmarts' little equation holds up," Owen said before switching back to Nerv Command's channel. "All green, closing to target."


            Displays updated with targeting information showing the Angel, and a split fire team of Evangelions. The display was soon rendered superfluous as the plane's angle of attack cleared the eastern ridge around Tokyo 3. Owen's eyes widened. "Damn, that's a whoppin' big target." Flailing like an angry squid, the pulsing, thrashing red Angel took up most of the downtown.


            Down below the red and purple Evas rushed the gigantic Angel. Further back, the blue and black Evas were firing in sequence. The Angel rolled to one side and a long blindingly red beam lanced out, cutting against black and blue armor. AT fields bloomed and the beam splashed to the side, the bright backsplash rivaling the N2 bursts.


            "This is YA-11, on final approach," Owen keyed into the Pilots' channel.


            "Glad to have yah," Toji replied. Black dropped to the ground while blue dived behind an ammunition building. "Bit busy, though," he shouted as he ejected the power cable and plugged a fresh one into his Evangelion.


             Unit 03 and Unit 00 were far enough apart that the Angel's beam had to rake back and forth to keep hitting each. A new explosion came from the opposite side, drawing the angel's ire. The creature rolled back and let its gaze fall onto the purple and red Evas.


            "Go, Princess! Go!" Kiko yelled as she took aim.


            Splitting ahead of Unit 02, Unit 01 continued crossing the bare no-man's land between them and the Angel. The beam shot out, splashed over the purple Evangelion. Unit 01's AT field flared and it continued closing in.


            Nearly simultaneous, the other three Evas fired. A trio of N2 explosions lit up the city's valley, snuffing out the red beam. Then the silvery humanoid fringes on the Angel's flared lobes quivered and began to drop off. Eyeless, each had long smooth, gangly limbs and rounded abbreviated heads.


            "Scheisse, not again!" Unit 02 transmitted. A familiar lunged at her, grabbed the Eva's legs and exploded. Another pair followed. "Shit! Not again!" Kiko took her combat spade and cut though the two others.


            "Another army of midgets?" Toji grumbled as several platoons' worth of silvery multi-story tall figures dropped onto the ground. They resembled the Israfel army.


            "Reloading," Shinju frowned. "Wing Commander, can you please clear the way?" she asked in her sweetest voice.


            "Right oh, Poisy. Now watch that big raygun it's got," Owen said as he flicked the trigger. An eighty-five round per second stream of two-inch diameter heavy-metal darts shot out at twenty times the speed of sound. The speed was such that the air in the dart's path ionized and turned to plasma.


             Flaps and rudders twisted as the plane's nose slalomed back and forth covering the bulk of downtown Tokyo 3. Flaming wisps of plasma flowed over the city as thousands of darts rained down.


            Concrete and armored plating shattered and crumpled as the angelic familiars were pierced, blown apart by sheer kinetic energy. Broken and splattered body parts began to fill Tokyo 3's plazas, streets, and armored roof panels.


            AT field flaring, the Angel's body was raked but withstood the attack. Its eye began to glow but, Shinju aimed the Mighty Mo and cut the beam off with another N2 shot. Behind her, Kiko fired a canister shot at the approaching group of familiars.


            "Hey Rookie, Wonder-girl get down here and clear our backs!" Kiko yelled. Unit 02 took out two shells and was about to load them into her Mark 9. Then some of the Angel familiars charged. She then cross-drew her revolver and began to take measured shots at the few stragglers that had withstood the canister shot barrage.


            "Readying another run. Hold on," Owen transmitted as the YA-11 blasted past the city and banked around to return.


            "Sure, sure, closer to the minion army, the giant eye of death, and the huge hellfire plane," Toji muttered with a clenched smile.


            "Affirmative," Rei added as they wheeled around to place themselves between their teammates and the remnants of the pseudo-Israfel horde.


            She took two shots blasting a cone of canister shot cutting out a wedge of the enemy horde.


            "Down!" Toji yelled as Unit 03 raised his rifle. Before him Rei dropped to her Unit's knee and broke open her rifle's action and began to reload. His fingers flexed as the targeting reticle on his display wobbled between Unit 02 and a wing of Angels. He swung his gun a bit to the side until it was clear of both Unit 02 and Unit 00; he fired.


            "Go, Shinju! Kill the bastard!" Toji stepped back and found another group of enemies close towards him.


            Now under the Angel's immense shadow, Shinju grinned and flared her AT field. Two shots fired from the Mighty Mo sparking against the Angel's eye. Grabbing the far end of the riffle sling, she flung the rifle up and over her shoulder fin, and drew her revolver and spade.


            Flashing, the red iris opened and an immense figure shot out of the massive vertical aperture. Vaguely humanoid, it had an armored head with a somewhat avian shape. However, green eyes glowed from a disturbingly feminine face. Strong ropy purple muscles banded across its chest and supported wiry arms that ended in long, long lances made from spiraled ribbons of a glimmering purple metal.


            Grinning, Shinju fired her revolver; the fourteen inch bore shell shot out and splashed against the Angel's AT field.


            The Angel darted forward and thrust its arms, knocking aside the purple Eva's sidearm and combat spade. The tips bit into both palms and cut though the armor and blew through the backs pinning the Eva.


            "Waahh, uwaaaahhh! Ahhh!" Shinju screamed as her hands... her Evangelions hands were pierced. The lances pinned her arms then ripped them apart, splaying her arms out in an almost cruciform stance. She tried to pull her arms down but the Angel extended the lances to keep her from escaping.


            "Synchronization is too high!" Ritsuko's voice broke in on the command channel. "We have to get her out. Kiko-"

 

            Shinju's screamed chocked down as she focused and let the pain wash through her. She clenched her jaw and pushed her Evangelion's shoulders up. Her arms, her Unit's arms flared with pain. "Open your heart; open your heart," she chanted the words barely passing her lips.


            "No," Misako countermanded. Her red eyes hardened. "She can handle it. Kiko counter-attack."


            Blinking quizzically, Sahaquiel pressed forward with her arms. The abomination of the Adversary's flesh bent down and fell to its knees. Pinpricks from the other perversions peppered the armor of her outer body, but it was no matter. Her secondary weapons could keep them at bay.


             Sahaquiel extended herself farther; she could pick up the enemy's cries. Then the transmission.... changed.


            Screams of pain turned to pained but manic laughter "AHAHAHA HAHA!" She coughed and leaned forward squeezing her hands against the cockpit's controls. "Did you think you could beat me?" She demanded clenching her Evangelion's hands against the lances. Purple fire shot out burning off the armor and revealing white flesh and spurting gouts of blood.


            Sweeping its own leg, Unit 01 went from kneeling to flat on its back. She rolled over crossing the two lances in an X and sprang back to her feet. Clenching her teeth, Shinju dug her unit's fingers into the spirals of the lance, leaned back, and pulled.


            The Angel shrieked loud enough to rattle the Eva's armor and trip the cutoffs on the external microphones. The angel's torso was now pulled out to nearly its hips and there was a squelchy tearing as the creature was pulled as far as it could go. The torso pulled out and to the side, the aperture was now clear, revealing the glowing core at the center of the Angel's main body.


            "Oh no! I am not done with you yet!" Panting, ignoring the numbness spreading up her arms, Shinju steeled herself and took another step back and continued to pump out her AT field, eroding the Angel's field in return. She wrenched her arms back and the tearing increased both on the Angel's torso and in Unit 01's arms.


            Shaking, Shinju looked past the Angel and saw a red figure running towards them. "Now Kiko! Now Kill it!" Seeing the blade affixed to the end of Kiko's Mark 9 Shinju grinned.


            Unit 02 lunged forward and gave a classic upper thrust. The progressive knife was a bit short to be a classic bayonet but it was enough. There was an orange flash as the AT field flickered. The blade pierced the Angel's flesh, sinking to the hilt in its chest.


            "No! The core!" Shinju cried just as Kiko pulled the trigger.


            The N2 shell detonated inside the Angel. The entire torso vaporized and blasted away much of the outer covering of the eye. Drenched in pulpy Angel flesh, both Evangelions were knocked down and the end of Kiko's Mark 9 was bent and blasted.


            "Guts and glory, Princess!" Kiko yelled as she drew her revolver and shot at the Angel's core. Her body sang and she felt alive. In that moment the weight of the armor binding her greater self vanished.


            Shinju's growl was cut off when she looked up. The giant grey mass of the YA-11 had returned. "Get down! Air support."


            "I'll get you some breathing room." Wing Commander Owen Lysaght transmitted. The hulking plane nosed down. "Here's hoping Booksmarts is right."


            Unit 02 immediately dropped prone and the rail-gun kicked in. Hyper-sonic darts slammed into the AT field surrounding the core. The immense friction from the velocity caused the air to burn. The gun gave off an even more shrill whine with an odd undertone, as if the rate of fire was being pulsed in some way. The charge lasted for ten seconds then doubled. A line of fire slammed into the Angel, but the AT field held.


            What happened next was only recorded by the high speed cameras onboard the Dreadhog. Still the AT field withstood the pinpoint pummeling, but it began to waver. Oscillations increased and the field began to deflect springing forward and back until it slammed into the core, and again, and again.


            There was a sound much like a frozen lake having the water beneath flash boil, and the core cracked. The AT field fell. The tail end of the strafing run sliced through the crystalline material, gutting the entirety of the Angel's central cavity.


            "Not so smug now! Are ya?


            The Angel quivered and collapsed. Starting from the eye, and expanding outward the Angel's body lost cohesion. Lobes and flanges fell apart and separated into waves of homogenous red mush.


            "How's that bullet feel? Feel good? Huh! Huh! That's for Canberra you bloody monstrosity!" Owen yelled.


            Her arms limply held at her sides, Shinju watched as the piles of Angelic flesh poured towards her in a slow wave that went to her Eva's shins. The power cable running into the Evangelion jostled as the pulpy goo washed over it.


            Glancing at her bent Mark 9, Unit 02 shouldered the weapon and checked her revolver. "Is that it?" Kiko asked.


            "I'm not picking up any Pattern Blue," Rei transmitted as she squared away her own kit.


            "We're reading clear, too," Misako transmitted. "Airborne sensors are confirming it."


            Owen snorted lightly. "Right, my eggheads are saying it's all dead, too."


            On the picture in picture on the Eva's displays, Misako's image slumped forward slightly. "I... we think it's over. We'll get you down shortly."


            "Oh, delay?" Kiko asked.


            "Not much, just have to check which lift gates aren't buried and aren't jammed."


            Toji looked over and saw one of the Evangelion lifts a couple blocks away. It was half buried by a pile of Angel goo and was holed with a line of railgun dart craters.


            "Damn," he surveyed the rest of the city. Hummocks of mushy red flesh cut across the downtown in gooey spidering lines. Scattered silvery lumps were all that was left of the horde of familiars. The few places where the city surface was clear had been swept clean by the layers of explosions, then covered in burns, and then finally torn up by the YA-11's nuclear-powered rail gun.


            To the north Old Tokyo 3 fared a bit better. There were fires and many of the buildings had windows blown out, but they largely stood. He saw the blocky-low slung edifice of the Pilot's barracks and turned away "What a mess."


            "Could have been worse Rookie," Kiko said as Unit 02 shrugged.


            Shinju nodded. "Operation Excelsior."


            "Are you functional?" Rei asked her sister, eyeing Unit 01's arms.


            Shinju shook her head. "I'm fine, but my hands... my unit's hands no."


            "Right," Toji looked around, he supposed that Ramiel's corpse was bigger. Though it was a lot less messy. "Well it's only fair I guess, this time it was the Angel's turn to slam into city."


            "Ha, ha, ha," Kiko stiffly laughed. "Not funny Rookie."


            "Still? I'm up to my knees in Angel, and I'm still a rookie? Maybe you're Rusty then."


            Unit 02 froze. "Rusty?" Kiko's voice repeated.


            "You're red and old, Second Child."


            Wincing, Shinju coughed. "You should apologize."


            Looking at his Evangelion and then at Shinju's Toji sighed. "Fine, just up to my ankles then."


            "Not to me."


            Toji blinked and turned. Eyes flashing, Unit 02 lunged towards him and slammed her fist right into Unit 03's neck. The black Evangelion flipped back and slid for a couple blocks.


            "Kiko!" Misako shouted.


            "Stupid Rookie!"


            Groaning Toji found his rattled mind beginning to clear. The first thing he heard was one of the Ayanami's... Rei's... calm distant voice. "Rusty does mean corroded, a bio-mechanical life-form may not like such a comparison.


            "Oh. Yeah. I guess it could also be read that way. Oops." Toji switched to the private comm. "Uh... Asuka... Kiko?"


            "What?" Kiko growled as Unit 02 loomed over him.


            "Sorry, I... I didn't... I was just calling you old, and making a joke on your... hair color."


            "Right, because that's so much better," she snapped.


            "It is! I didn't think-"


            Kiko's laughter cut him off. "Yeah, you got that right." She paused. "Scheisse, you weren't thinking. Damn."


            "Huh?"


            "Ice Queen's chewing me out on the other channel."


            "My Unit's not that damaged," Toji coughed. "I shouldn't be that bad."


            "Tell that to her."


            "Okay," Toji went back to the private tactical channel. "Uh, that was my fault. I got Kiko angry and I... slipped."


            Misako stared. "The Second Child uses trillion yen hardware to clock you in the most unprofessional and public incident Nerv has had in months and you're covering for her? Badly?"


            "Yeah..."


            "At least say you fell down some stairs. If you're going to be obvious, be obvious enough to be funny."


            Toji absently nodded. "I was walking to the lift and I tripped over a dead Angel. Kiko's just helping me up."


            Unit 02 tilted her head, but took the offered arm from the black Evangelion.


            "Yeah, that's what I'm doing," Kiko absently said as she pulled Unit 03 back to its feet. "Come on Rookie, can't have you tripping over yourself."


            "Yeah," Toji looked at the red Evangelion. "Thanks for the help."


            "Ugh, whatever," Misako sighed. "We've got lift Seventeen working again. You'll need to take it one at a time, and no... tripping."

 

***************

 


            Unit 02 descended to the Evangelion docking cages. Her head twisted as the shoulder restraints bolted into place and the various catwalks and bridges locked in. The crimson Eva began to power down, and consciousness began to slip away. More locks and limiters slid into place, entombing the Evangelion. Unit 02 looked out and saw her sisters being similarly restrained.


            Vision fading, radio transmissions cutting out, Unit 02 found herself feeling warm... disembodied. Cold rushed against her as fluid began to drain. Her neck jerked and her vision flashed. She blinked, her eyesight was cut down and she found herself in moist darkness. She blinked and selected interior lights on her HUD. Softly illuminating the modified plug.


            The display screens on the outer walls had been kept off. And unlike the other entry plugs, this plug cockpit had access ports added at the Pilot's waist, shoulder blades, and above her head. In the soft light the forest of cables and robotic arms seemed to hold the gynoid in a cold embrace. The tubes that covered her mouth and nose pulled back and she leaned forward to cough up the LCL in her lungs. The motion was stiff, controlled, mechanical.


            "System, release," Unit 02's sapiency driver stated.


            There was a rustling at her back as power cables retracted. Gasping, she pulled her head forward. Her arms unclenched and popped off of the cockpit controls. The socket her brain prosthesis cable plugged into rotated and came loose.


            Nigokiko then reached back and released the cable and pulled it forward so the end fell in front of her shoulder. Kiko looked aside as her waste tubes were retracted and then slotted her crotch plate black into place. "Disconnected, ready for extraction," she radioed, keeping the display screens disabled.


            Armor slid aside and the entry plug ejected and was grabbed. Kiko gasped as the custom-built crane arm took the plug and pulled it out. She felt the last links to her greater self sever. The locks on the inner plug retracted and the main door hinged open.


            Feeling very small, Kiko looked up at the gantries, overhead crane rails, and conduits that lined the ceiling of the docking cage. Exhaling and inhaling she made sure her lungs were cycling properly.


            Grinning, she checked to make sure all the various cables and tubes were clear. After making sure her holster was still on, she then jumped out of the cockpit and stretched her shoulders.


            "What a rush!" She frowned. No one met her on the catwalk. There was a crowd around Unit 01's plug.


            The Forth child was sitting on the side of her cockpit with a slightly distant look. Her plugsuit had been expanded and fell around her loosely. In fact her arms had actually been pulled out at the neck hole and were being inspected.


            Rei stood next to her steadily eyeing everyone else.


            A pair of medics were inspecting Shinju's arms and hands. There was a pair of angry red marks on either side of her palms. However, they were still overshadowed by the scars she bore from the rope burns.


            Flexing his arms, Toji stood a bit further back.


            "What's going on?" Kiko asked the Fifth.


            Toji looked at the gynoid. It was easy to forget that he was taller than her, even if you counted her hair. "Shinju's hands. Stabbed. High sync rate."


            "I'm okay, I'm okay," Shinju softly said as she pulled herself back into the plug-suit. Blushing she pulled it back on and hit the cuff button, turning it back to skin-tight mode.


            Kiko blinked. "Huh," she said absently.


            "Uh, you okay, Red?" Toji asked.


            "Red?" Kiko's bright almost waxy lips curled into a smile. "Not bad Rookie."


            "You seemed a bit distracted." Toji tapped his chin. "If you didn't use the same locker room as her I'd be having questions."


            "Princess... hah!" After chuckling, Kiko narrowed her eyes. "And what about you?"


            Toji held back the first comment that entered his mind. Being punched in the neck by an angry war-machine did produce an ounce of tact, and he knew mentioning anything... physical would be a bad idea. Toji then held up his fingers and began counting. "She's two years younger than me, my sister's best friend, and can silently shiv me in the back."


            Watching Shinju get to her feet and be led down the catwalk by Rei, Kiko's grin grew. "She is like a Gothic little ninja."


            "And the captain thinks you're unprofessional," Toji shook his head.


            "Hey! I'm plenty professional!"


            "You punched an Evangelion." Rei stated as the four of them exited the catwalk and entered the corridor that led to the Pilot locker rooms and briefing rooms.


            "Like you've... never let your temper get the better of you?"


            Rei inclined her head.


            "Gah!" Kiko's choker flashed yellow. "And they call me the robot?"


            "Who?" Shinju asked.


            "Yeah, we're all afraid you'll deck us if we get you mad," Toji said.


            The intercom in the corridor clicked on. "Enough bickering," Misako said. "Go to briefing room 4. There's something we need to discuss."


            "After we shower right?" Toji wiped a bit of LCL off his brow.


            Long hair heavy and limp on her head, Shinju nodded in agreement.


            There was a pause. "Sorry guys... this... this is urgent."


            Toji looked at the clones. "All of us? Can't just me and Kiko go first? I'm sure Rei and Shinju can get in later, if it's that urgent."


            Misako laughed. "No, this isn't about that. We'll have to deal with that later. Just go to the briefing room, Ritsuko and I will be over shortly."


            "Oh..." Kiko still felt apprehensive. She told herself that it was due to Captain Ayanami's promise of later reprisals but...


            "This isn't good," Shinju said as they entered the briefing room.


            "Thanks for pointing out the obvious Princess," Kiko grumbled.


            Looking around the briefing room, Toji pulled out a plain plastic chair. LCL dripped off his plugsuit. After the day's events, the plain, empty room with its twin rows of chairs, long tables, and idle display screens was a welcome relief.


             He turned to see Kiko striding forward and primly taking a seat. Next to her were the Ayanami sisters, both had their hair limply plastered down by the red-orange liquid. Shinju seemed especially put off, constantly wiping dripping LCL away from her cheeks and eyes.


            "Really, this isn't good," Kiko groused, crossing her arms before her.


            "What do you think's wrong?" Toji asked, finally sitting down. He figured Nerv wanted them here right away; they could clean the chairs later on. "Maybe... maybe a shelter got hit? We've all got family and...."


            Glaring, the gynoid turned to face him. Remembering her father, Kiko's glare softened slightly. "I suppose so, but our... relatives are supposed to be taken to the deep shelters. Especially in the apartments, you know what Azazel's supposed to do."


            Shinju nodded. "They even have a procedure for taking Flins down."


            "Yeah... the city's a mess, but it's not that bad." Toji sighed. "Whatever it is, they don't want to blurt it out."


            "Got it in one Rookie," Kiko tapped the table. "Something is up."


            "It is not another Angel." Rei stated.


            Shinju frowned.


            "Right, Wondergirl." Kiko tapped her finger on the table before her. If it were another Angel they would have stayed in the Evangelions or at the very least they would be briefed on the situation immediately. The preceding battle was a prime example; time had been so short that they had not even used the briefing room, instead having been sent straight to their units.


            "Then it's something else, something bad." Toji lowered his head. "Well... shit. Maybe someone was caught outside."


            Shinju gave a little whine and lowered her head.


            "You're not that far off," Misako said as she and Ritsuko stepped into the briefing room. The pink haired woman went to her sisters and stood between them, putting her hands on their shoulders.


            Ritsuko walked over to the lectern at the front of the room and logged into the terminal before her. "Now, I'd like to congratulate you four on all that you've done today but-"


            "Cut the crap," Misako growled. "They know what they did; they know they won. We wouldn't be here if they didn't."


            "Technically, it was that angry Australian," Kiko muttered.


            "Don't forget the few thousand missiles Azazel and the JSSDF shot off," Toji added.


            "Right." Ritsuko rolled her eyes. "Fine. I tried to sugar-coat this but, whatever." The display dominating the front wall turned on. A map of the world appeared. Nearly two dozen cities were marked out with cheery color coded labels.


            Kiko's eyes immediately went to Europe, then Germany. "No." Her face slackened and her shoulders squared as her emotions drained.


            "Fucking Angel." Toji put his hand to his face, covering one eye. He did not have to look at the numbers. The color coding was clear enough. Only four cities were outlined in a bright green. Six were a worrying yellow. Four were a harsh red, and seven were totally blacked-out.


            Berlin was one of the red ones.


            Shinju and Rei were silent. Their red eyes stoically studying the figures and numbers.


            For a moment Toji was jealous of the clinical clones. At least Kiko had an outburst before tuning out. "What, was this all a diversion?" he asked.


            "No, the Angel concentrated most of its power here. There weren't any AT fields to speak of on the other attacks. We think that an Angel can split up its AT field only so far. Still... only the most well defended cities made it," Ritsuko said, her tone professional, distant. Unsurprisingly, Moscow, Washington DC, Tokyo 2 and 3 were the green cities.


            Shinju swallowed. "How... how many?"


            Ritsuko glanced to Misako who nodded and squeezed her sisters' shoulders.


            "Forty million." Ritsuko looked to the map. "We expect it to climb... not in any of the Level Four cites. But the Red and Yellow cites... well, we're not sure how many survived... or will survive the 'glancing' blow."


            "We didn't kill it slow enough," Kiko said evenly, monotonously.


            Misako nodded.


            "Is that it? We kill the Angel but it still goes on to nuke a buncha cities? How's that fair?" Toji looked to the map and saw some of the numbers tick up. He laughed. All this technology and Nerv used it to keep a live casualty estimate.


            "Life's not fair," Misako stated.


            "I guess we shoulda killed it faster," Toji's shoulders bent forward and he looked at the table in front of him. Anything was better than looking at the shiny user-friendly map.


            "It didn't matter. The Impacts were synchronized. By the time you launched the capitals of the G20 nations had already been hit," Ritsuko explained.


            "And you didn't tell us?" Kiko demanded her orange eyes locked on Berlin.


            "You had more pressing matters to deal with."


            Squeezing her sister's shoulders tighter, Misako looked to the other pilots. "There was nothing you could do to help those other nations. You'd have to be in 'em."


            "Easy for you to say," Kiko grumbled."


            "Is that it? Can we go back home?" Toji asked.


            Ritsuko looked over to Misako.


            Toji craned his neck to catch his commanding officer's expression. "Oh come on! What now? Who's dead now?"


            "In this city?" Ritsuko snorted. "A few thousand. Mostly people that didn't get to shelters in time. Azazel lost a few planes. We and JSSDF lost some ground personnel when the Angel blasted the missile batteries and hit a control post. Expected levels."


            Toji nodded. Urban combat was never clean. Especially when N2s and nukes were going off.


            "But that's not what you were asking about, was it Rookie?" Kiko coldly asked.


            Toji held his tongue. He then gave a curt nod. "Nope, you're right. So, what else is wrong Doc? One of our family get hit? A.... friend from school? Shinju's giant puppy?" He paused. "Our guards? Don't tell me some of them were stuck topside."


            "Azazel only lost three fighter pilots," Misako said.


            Shinju looked up. "Who?"


            Misako frowned. "I... don't know. I'll have to get their names later."


            Pushing her bangs aside, Shinju held her gaze before looking back to the big map.


            "We'll need to handle that too. Piloting's risky enough and they did slow that big bastard down," Kiko said, resulting in an approving nod from Shinju and a raised eyebrow from Toji and Rei.


            "Yes." Ritsuko cleared her throat. "No, none of your classmates were hurt, and the barracks building was fully evacuated. The reason you can't go back is that we're doing a radiation sweep. Nerv and medical and water facilities get priority, but the rest of the city needs to be cleared. Not including the damage from that plane... and you guys."


            Shinju lowered her head.


            "Geeze, how bad Doc?" Toji asked.


            "I have a map-" Seeing the Pilot's reaction, Ritsuko stopped. Even Rei had glared at her offer. "Anyway... the closest Angel Busters were still air bursts. Fallout's limited to bits of the Angel itself, which is... worrying. We-" Ritsuko hesitated her voice resigned. "We should be doing pretty good. Much better than the first Angel Azazel blew up at least. That one was on the ground, kicked up a lot of irradiated dust. We don't have that problem here. Downwind of us could be worse, but... again, we've got a lot of experience." Ritsuko sighed.


             Today's battle had ensured Japan's dominance in the field of nuclear detonations in anger, thoroughly establishing the lead over the Pakistani-Indian war. Ritsuko glanced at the map. At least this time we didn't get the majority of the casualties, she thought, feeling a bit cold.


            Shinju looked at the map again. It was barely two dozen cities but it looked like so many. "Why'd they do it?"


            "Princess... the Angels want to kill us, all of us." Kiko stated.


            "But these aren't the largest cities, they're the capital ones."


            "The Group of 20 to be specific." Ritsuko sighed. "We saw it too. The Angels hit the capital cities of the top twenty major economies of the world. This was political."


            "Great, will the Angels appear on some giant screen and make their demands?"


            "Demands? They want us all dead," Kiko sniffed. "They're just trying to twist the knife as it goes in."


            Toji looked to the map again. Mexico City, Cape Town, Buenos Aries, Brasilia, New Delhi, Riyadh, and Ankara all gone. Canberra, Berlin, Rome, and Copenhagen were not much better off. "Hell of a twist," he said, his mouth feeling dry.


            "What about next time? Will they just keep frying cities?" Kiko folded her hands, and studied the way the armor around her fingers flexed and interlocked. "How many more... victories like this can we take."


            "As many as it takes." Ritsuko stated, narrowing her eyes. "You were all born after the Second Impact, but here's the truth. Even if every single city were destroyed." She turned the display off. "It would still be under a tenth of the lives lost in the Impact. Over two in a single day, another billion in the chaos of the aftermath.


            "Now the Angels want another Impact. One where they finish the job. Focus on that, that is what you stopped today." Ritsuko took out a lighter and began to smoke. "You want to see the ultimate precautionary principal in action?


            "This is it. This is why the Japanese government has practically begged the Russians to use nukes over their airspace and has let the JSSDF buy whatever doomsday planes they think could make a difference, this is why the Americans are dusting off ideas that were too insane, impractical, and expensive for the Cold War's Strategic Defensive Initiative, this is why the UN green-lit the trillions and trillions of yen it would take to even start Program E."


            Ritsuko exhaled a curl of smoke escaping her lips. "We're burning money and resources as fast as we can, all in the hope that we'll be able to take the enemy down before they manage to kill every last one of us."


            "So, gung ho then? Fight because we're the only ones?"


            Rei titled her head. "We are all expendable."


            "Maybe you are, clone." Kiko evenly stated.


            Rei kept her head cocked then made a slow nod. "You are hardly excluded. Evangelion sapiency drivers can be constructed on an as needed basis."


            Kiko stared. She turned to Ritsuko. "You wouldn't... if something happened to me..."


            Ritsuko did not miss a heartbeat. "I'd find or construct a replacement pilot for Unit 02."


            "But... I AM Unit 02."


            "Irrelevant. I did the same when the Third Child died and when you were wounded. Azazel is replacing the pilots they lost. Thankfully one actually managed to eject, but he's too wounded."


            Shinju lowered her head slightly. She thought about how she was her own replacement, and how she had rushed to help Captain Yakov Koval when he had been forced to eject. In his case however, Shinju had been too late; Yakov died on the way down.


            "I'll agree with one thing about the reorganization the UN forced on us. You are soldiers. Part of that means accepting that you can die and that you can and will be replaced," Ritsuko stated.


            Shinju looked up. "Perhaps... we should visit the wounded?"


            Ritsuko nodded. "I could see that, would be a good little photo op." She saw Shinju frown and lower her head again. "And it would be a good way for you to check in on your... comrades. We are all in this together."


            "That's right." Misako cleared her throat. "And it's not just you pilots. We didn't know if Azazel could actually slow down the Angel."


            Ritsuko snorted. "Last stands are easy when you don't have the time to run away."


            "The point still stands."


            "Which is?" Kiko asked.


            Shinju raised her head. "That we're in this war until the end. There's no running away. There's no quitting. Doctor Akagi is right, we cannot lose this war."

 

***************

 


            Leli sat on the edge of a large black desk. Its surface was inlaid in orange-edged hexagons. The white-haired Angel swung her legs back and forth. Looking over her shoulder she examined the map that had hovered above the hexagonal grid. Sitting at a chair before the desk, Iry worked at the map collating files and organizing network connections.

 

            "Saha's not coming back." Leli said after silently watching her sister work. She kicked her legs again causing her flouncy white and black checkered skirt to bounce up exposing a pair of black tights. She had short white hair cut into a somewhat stiff looking pageboy.


            Iry paused. She long had strawberry blond hair that was held back with an orange hexagonal shaped hair clip. She wore a prim and starched black dress with little red hexagons edging the sleeves and lower hem. The intonation made the statement sound almost like a question. "Yes, she's dead."


            "Maybe not." Leli frowned. Her eyes went to the map and looked at the rats' nest of lines that went to Tokyo 3. Anger bloomed on her face. "All we know is that the humans still live, mother remains imprisoned."


            "And thus she has fallen."


            Leli smirked. "Fallen has multiple meanings. Death is just one."


            "Now you're being pedantic. Do you really think one of us would give up?"


            "I'm just being thorough." Leli leaned closer to the desk's surface.


            Iry laughed. "Well.. doesn't that sound familiar?"


            Leli blushed.


            "You know what happened to her," Iry said, clasping her hands and lowering her gaze slightly. After a moment's consideration she moved her arms and put a hand on Leli's knee.


            Leli sniffed. "Yes, but... as an alternative would death really be better?"


            "What, a prisoner? Is that better?"


            "We could always rescue her too." Leli put her hand on Iry's "Is it so farfetched? We know the humans want to capture one of us. Look at Sandi. Look at... Mother."


            Iry's eyes flashed. "If Mikki heard you..."


            "She'd say I was spending too much time with you," Leli smirked.


            "Maybe you are." Iry turned back to the map. "Such a waste."


            Leli nodded. "Hardly enough damage to make Saha's loss worth it. I suppose she did destroy more than those that went before her. Did you at least get some good intelligence out of it?"


            Iry shrugged. "Maybe, and if I don't I'm sure Mikki can send another one of us to go off and provide the necessary diversion."


            "Aren’t you next?" Leli quietly asked.


            "That's why you're helping me," Iry gave a wan smile.


            Leli whimpered.


            "It's a simple procedure. The Magi themselves are fairly secure, but their weakness is when they interface with other networks. Put enough high demand strain on the system... say collating trajectories of a global orbital bombardment, and... you can start to worm your way in."


            "That doesn't give you much time."


            Iry nodded. "Right, which is why you can't root around, pure smash and grab, but I've got enough of an idea on their archival structure." The dark-skinned blonde smirked. "Organizations always put greater emphasis in protecting new secrets. And that's not just Nerv, Seele, JSSDF, Republic, USAF, I've even managed to find some pre-Azazel RVSN reports. They've all got skeletons: the Contact Experiments, Novyi Systema Perimetr, the Katsuragi Expedition, some are even literal, like the piles of dead Abominations Nerv has buried under the Geo-Front."


            "Oh?"


            "Sure, it was pretty easy to get the blueprints of the Geo-Front and the initial server architecture. Nerv can't do everything."


            "And Mikki works for a construction firm."


            "She does have her moments."


            Leli laughed "I bet Mikki could have just waltzed into the room where they keep the Artificial Evolution Laboratory records."


            "It wouldn't have been that easy."

            "Really? She's been inside the Geo-Front. She's seen the Adversary and her Shadow and the Abomination." Leli stated.


            Iry raised an eyebrow and looked at the curious girl. She shook her head and looked back at her desk. The info on the Contact Experiments threatened to draw her in. The depth of Humanity's sins against Mother were mortifying.


            "What?" Leli asked, seeing her sister's distraction.


            "It would seem that Mikki's worries about my influence were warranted." Iry stared at the list of Contact Experiments. She was familiar with them all... but the first one, the one Seele did... there was more to that story.


            "Oh? But shouldn't your influence grow? You have this special project. You've learned so much about the enemy, so many of their old tricks and monstrous experiments."

            "Yes," Iry shuffled some of the lights on her desk. "And there's more to it than that. I've gotten feed from cameras and logged credit card purchases."


            Leli tilted her head, her bangs shifting keeping her face framed by pale blonde strands.


            "Humans are simple creatures, creatures of habit. There are patterns they follow; and while the Pilots are well protected much of the Enemy's critical personnel are easy to reach."


            Leli grinned. "You can't collapse the bridge so you'll cut the ramps leading up to it."


            Iry's eyes widened. "Why yes. Careful with metaphors like that, or else she'll think you've been spending time with the humans."


            "You're here, she's not."


            "Yes.... she's... Mikki's not here," Iry quietly said as she scanned the documents.


            "Who isn't here?" Armi asked with a yawn. Her hair was curly and bright, almost golden blonde. She wore a little light blue silk jumper with an pair of angel wings embroidered on the back. She kept a small blanket wrapped over her shoulders.


            Leli jumped off of the desk and picked up the little blonde girl. Or at least an Angel in the shape of a small blonde girl. "Did you have a good nap?" she asked dropping the blanket back onto the couch.


            Armi nodded. She looked between her two sisters. There were only two of her sisters here. She gave a little whimper and buried her head into Leli's shoulder


            "Smart little munchkin." Iry noted looking over the young appearing Angel with a critical eye. She was still as youthful as when Mikki had brought her here. At least part of her was developing.


            "Heartless," Leli grouched. "It's okay, Honey," she said consoling Armi.


            Armi lifted her head and looked to Leli. "Saha?"


            "Sorry, kiddo."


            Armi cried.


            Leli reached in and hugged her. "It'll be.... okay. Maybe...."


            The littlest Angel blinked and stopped her tears. "I'm scared," she whispered clutching to Leli.


            Leli looked to Iry with the same haunted, pleading expression.


            Swallowing, Iry glanced at the old archives, specifically Seele's Project Number Nine. "Yeah... me too."

 

***************

 


            Toji leaned on the patio's railing. Looking out he could see downtown Tokyo 3. Much of the Angel's corpse had been cleared and several of the retractable skyscrapers had been elevated.


            Their polished unblemished sides contrasted greatly with the broken windows on many of the outlying, and non retracting structures, and even more so with the few that had actually been flattened. Smoke rose up from several sources and combined with the occasional siren and the deep rumble of dump trucks and other heavy haulers.


            Hikari walked up beside him. She looked over the city then to Toji.


            The Pilot's hands flexed off the railing and he glanced over making eye contact with the middle Horaki sister. He turned back to looking out at the city.


            Glancing at the weapons on Toji's belt, Hikari studied his eyes. "It could have been worse," she eventually said. "You helped stop that."


            "You don't know the half of it." Toji exhaled.


            Hikari raised her eyebrows slightly. "I know about the other attacks, it's been all over the news."


            "Nah... not that." Toji looked down at the walls and fencing that surrounded the apartment building. He could see Nerv and Azazel cleanup teams continuing their sweep. Doc Akagi had been right, the wind was fortunate this day.


            "What do you mean?" Hikari asked following his gaze. She knew that her own apartment had not been cleared yet. This was why Hikari's elder sister Kodama had pulled some strings and got quarters for her and her sisters in the Pilot's barracks. Being head of Procurement Section had some advantages, even if a timely radiation sweep was not among them.


            Toji exhaled again. "Do you know what I did in the fight?"


            "You piloted a giant robot."


            The Fifth Child laughed. "Sure and I gave some 'adequate' covering fire, but even Shinju, even that angry Australian were only little parts of it. Did you see our counter attack? Do you know how many people worked so hard all over the planet to bring that bastard down? And it still killed millions." His sigh deepened. "They're right you know... it's still a victory."


            "You're... feeling inadequate?" Hikari blinked. "You drove a forty meter tall war machine armed with a gun taken from a battleship, firing the most powerful non-nuclear explosives known to man."


            "Uh... I actually did have nukes." Toji admitted. "They didn't know if there'd be the chance to rearm us, what with the ballistic inbound Angel, so we got a bit of everything."


            "Oh." Hikari blushed. "Still you went up against something that destroyed whole cities and won, and you feel inadequate?"

            Toji glanced at her but held his tongue. He would have to work on holding back any self pity, especially when it came time to visit the hospital. The young warrant officer was aware enough that wounded veterans would not take kindly to a mouthy teenage boy, no matter how big his giant robot was.


            "This isn't because Shinju took the lead was it?"


            Snorting, Toji shook his head. "Nah, I've accepted that."


            "Accepted what, Oniisan?" Shirane asked as she stepped onto the patio. Behind her inside were the rest of the Horaki sisters, the Ayanami sisters, Kiko, and Toji and Shirane's father.


            Turning, Toji frowned slightly. His sister's glasses were a bit scratched and her ponytail was a bit askew, but he had Lev rustle up a medic to check her and their father over and both were okay. "Oh, nothin' much just stuff about Shinju."


            Shirane smirked. "Is this about being less macho than a cute little girl?"


            Toji nodded.


            "Less?" Hikari asked.


            "You've seen the videos of her in combat." Toji shrugged. "She'll give it her all, do anything to win."


            "Yes, I know Kiko jokes about how Shinju's bitten her."


            Toji made a thoughtful noise at Hikari's use of Kiko instead of Asuka. "Well... big Red hasn't been bitten that much anymore, what with the armor."


            Hikari blinked. "You're kidding right?"


            "This is Shinju we're talking about," Toji flatly said.


            "But..." Hikari looked to Shirane.


            "He's right," Shirane shrugged. "Ask Nozomi if you need more proof."


            "Or ya'know, you could just talk to the Princess yourself," Toji suggested.


            "What? Ask her if she bites people?"


            Shirane tilted her head. "You've got a bit of a fixation don'cha?"


            Hikari looked between the Suzuhara siblings. "I'm starting to see the resemblance."


            Toji and Shirane shared a bemused glance. The elder brother gave a light sigh.


            "Not going to complain?"


            "You're saying I'm like my sister?" Toji shrugged. "Well yeah. Only problem is that'll make her think she can Pilot too."


            Shirane's eyes sparkled. "Really?"


            Toji narrowed his eyes. "No."


            "Mean," Shirane partially mock pouted.


            The Fifth Child chuckled.


            "So, you going to be okay?" Shirane asked.


            Looking back at the city, Toji tapped the railing. "Yeah... guess so. Thanks," he added a bit distantly.


            Brightening, Shirane nodded. "Great!"


            Hikari blinked. "Uh... what?"


            "He's got a lot on his mind, but he appreciated what I've said."


            Toji raised an eyebrow.


            Hikari. "Really now?"


            "You just gotta learn the language."


            "Does having a brother give you insight on how to decode 'Boy'?"


            "Oh no. Ayanami."


            Hikari snickered.


            "Okay... that's not a funny comparison." Toji looked into the apartment, and Shinju raised her head to meet his gaze. He nodded and she gave a big smile. "Really, not funny at all."

            "What? You know how hard it is to get her to open up, and she's a regular chatterbox compared to Rei." Smirking Shirane, left her brother and her best friend's sister on the patio.


            She entered the living room.


            "Rookie done moping?" Kiko asked as she idly smoothed her red skirt. Sitting with her shoulders squared and her legs crossed the skirt did give the illusion of modesty, despite its transparency.


            "Yeah, just feeling a bit insignificant."


            Shinju stopped petting Flins. "Yes when one kills Gods such a reaction is expected."

            The gynoid blinked her eyelashes making a slight whipping noise as they meshed and separated. "Right... I dunno about you but I got a real rush when that bastard died."


            Smiling, Shinju nodded approvingly. She resumed petting Flins and the puppy rolled over and let his tongue roll out.


            Shirane studied Kiko. The gynoid had stopped talking and just stared off with a contemplative, vaguely pensive look. The only motion came from the rise and fall of her contoured chest armor as she breathed, but even that was steady, regular, almost mechanical. With every stilled second she looked more and like some idled machine.


            Kiko snapped her head and back and squaring her shoulders eyeing Shirane in return. "Yes, is there something wrong?"


            "Just um... looking," Shirane nervously blushed.


            Kiko tilted her head.


            "I could ask the same about you."


            "University of Berlin class of 2013." Kiko's orange eyes with their multiple pupils locked onto the younger girl. "That wasn't just my capital, that was my home. And now..."


            "Oh, how... are... you?" Shirane could swear that the gynoid's earblades drooped down.


            "It could be worse. Europe did have some defenses. There's enough to rebuild, though the continent did get some of the heaviest bombardment. And forget the politicians, do you know how many universities, research institutions, and museums we lost?"


            "Yes, the refugee crisis is especially acute in the Channel area, with London, Brussels, and Paris so close. Of course Copenhagen and Berlin make their own pair. Then there's the organizational problems, though in the short term military distribution systems are working. Most competent C&C systems are built to withstand decapitation strikes."


            "You're Princess' little war-okatu friend aren't you?" Kiko sighed and gave a little smile

           
            "At least you weren't drooling." Nozomi snickered then drank from her glass of water emptying it. "And she's her sisters are Hikari and Nerv's logistics head. I swear those girls do actuary tables for fun."

           

            "It's just the crossword!"

 

            Kiko sighed. "Man, I hope they finish clearing my room pretty soon. How hard is it to replace a window?"

 

            "You are valuable! They want to make sure you're safe," Shinju stated with too much cheer.

 

            "A window broke in your apartment? I thought Nerv armored this place up?"

 

            "We did have a big battle, and it was just a crack," Kiko explained.

 

            Shirane shook her head. "A deep enough crack will compromise the whole window."


            The gynoid's sculpted and stenciled eyebrows raised a few clicks in surprise. "Are you sure... still better than Rookie's creepy friend."


            "Kensuke's not that bad!" Shirane blurted.


            "Huh..." Kiko then stared blankly for a couple seconds. "Hey Rei, is this something where I can snort derisively at humans? Or is this something I really can't blame a whole species on?"


            Rei blinked. "Why ask me?"


            "Yeah, you're not the least human." Kiko nodded. "Hey Princess!"


            Shinju looked up from staring into Flins' eyes. The battle had pushed off any decision on whether or not she could tell Kiko and Toji about her... past, and part of her was wondering if that would be for the best.


            "What? Oh, the human thing." Shinju blushed in embarrassment. "Well, I guess you could be more tsuntsun. You've got the aloof part, you just need to be more irritable."


            "And where does the 'Kill all humans' come from?" Shirane asked with a nervous smile.

 

            "That's not actually funny." Kiko flexed her hands and looked down at her legs. She then waved at a window. "I was just out there yesterday getting shot at by angry Australians."


            Shirane bowed her head. "It was only a joke, We know you're not a-" The black-haired girl stopped and held her tongue.

 

            "What? I'm not a bad robot?" Kiko shook her head.


            "Not enough spikes." Nozomi then got up. "Anyone else want something to drink?" she asked holding her glass.


            "I guess this is what Princess feels." Kiko appeared to look into the distance.

 

            "You're teasing is adequate enough," Shinju assured as she rolled Flins over to expose the dog's soft belly.

 

            "I could go with some water. About half a liter will do."


            "I'll... get you a glass."


            The gynoid glared. "Oh come on! That wasn't even a significant digit. Do you want to know what the at a gauge on my Heads-Up Display said? Four hundred seventy three point two milliliters. There happy now?"

            "Uh... sorry?" Nozomi said as she backed towards the kitchen. She turned around and saw her elder sister, Rei and Shinju's elder sister and Toji's father at the table.


            "How's it going?" Captain Kodama Horaki head of Nerv Section Four, Procurement asked.


            "Uh, alright. Just getting some juice and some water for Kiko-chan."


            Misako blinked. "Right, is she getting all existential?" she asked, looking up from her single can of beer.


            Jun Suzuhara gave his own beer a long look. He was an older man who had a strong resemblance to Toji, though his eyes were a lighter shade of brown closer to Shirane's. A fairly conservative suit hung from a lanky frame much like his son's but with less musculature. "The robot?"


            Misako tilted her head. "Yes, Langley has some issues, mostly about being 'the robot'."


            "Her parents are also a major contributor," Kodama calmly interjected.


            "Oh?" Jun asked. "I know her father's some crazy company scientist, ain't he the one that built her?"


            Misako nodded.


            "And her mother?"


            "She was also a Nerv scientist. Emphasis on 'was'," Kodama said.


            A widower himself, Jun gave a slow nod.


            "It's worse than you think." Misako then took a sip.


            Jun looked out the window. "Things tend to be these days."

 

 

***************

 

            Unbuckling her gun belt and unhooking her phone Kiko looked around her room, her regeneration tube dominating. The open door was inviting, the soft back and sides tempting. Giving a sigh, she stepped to her dresser. Ammunition magazines were piled on one side, a plastic tool box containing replacement parts and a cleaning kit was on the other.

 

            She held the holster and gun belt and looked down at the translucent skirt that puffed up around her waist. She could remove it. It was not like she needed clothes, especially in the privacy of her own home. Despite her indecision, her hands had begun loosening her skirt. Frowning, she shook her head and reset her skirt and ran her hands back down the sides of the short dress.

 

            Her attention returned to the dresser. In the middle was a box wrapped in bright red paper and trimmed in golden bows. Based on the colors and the precision of the folds on the paper and curls on the bow spiraled so precisely that Kiko could guess the sender without looking at the tag.

 

            She put a hand on the box, feeling that it was something solid and strong. She swallowed and turned on her heel. Her stomach felt empty; and it was only when her hand was on the door that Kiko realized she had walked to her regeneration tube.

 

            Shuffling back, she arced around the room, keeping the regeneration tube in view until she reached the bathroom. Then in a quick, deliberate sequence she threw open the door, grabbed a glass, filled it with water, leapt back out, and solidly shut the door behind her.

 

            Taking a sip, she stood in front of her window. The thick armored pane seemed brighter than before. She eyed the edges and found that the seams had been scuffed and all the paint had been scratched away. Looking to the floor, she spotted bits of glass and molding that had not been vacuumed up.

 

            Part of her took pleasure in the shoddy attempt at a cover up. She knew that her window had been cracked, and that her room had been given an extra sweep to make sure it was clear of contamination.

 

            Her left hand went up and armor pressed against reinforced polymer. She exhaled and took another sip. The room was safe, or at least as safe as a company of Russian Naval infantry could make something.

 

            She pulled her hand from the window. Giving her regeneration tube a backwards glance, she went back to her dresser. She stopped and looked at her holstered sidearm. The belt and magazine carrier were also on the dresser. A carbine also leaned against it. However, her attention focused on the sidearm.

 

            In the back of her mind was a fluttering, whispering sensation and she was struck by images of her mother, of a gently swaying stuffed doll, of her greater self, of ranks of glassy-eyed porcelain dolls in crisp, frilly almost uniform dresses, of slaying angels, of standing in the shadow of explosions brighter and hotter than the sun.

 

            Her body quivered for a moment before stopping and snapping to her normally statue-like perfect poise. She looked between the sidearm and the present. Reaching out, she changed her mind at the last moment and took the latter and returned to her living room. Unlike her bedroom, it was full of furniture. The deep green leather couch was thick cushioned and had a curving back.

 

            The chairs had a similar overstuffed appearance. Circular and oval tables of dark polished wood dotted the room with several supporting squat green-glass lamps with fluted shades. The walls were a plain soft, off white. On the wall opposite the couch was an enlarged wood-framed photograph.

 

            It was a picture of very young ballet dancers in a lush city park, Tiergarten to be specific. The oldest could not be more than six. However, the focus was on an even younger redhead in the center of the line who managed to hold her stance as well as the others. The background was dominated by the golden winged statue of Victory atop a seventy meter tall column which outshone the surrounding and further distant Berlin buildings.

 

            In the foreground there was a line of spectators sitting in folding seats. Kiko's attention went to the dark auburn-haired woman just to the left of the redheaded junior ballerina. A confident woman in a dark blue suit coat and skirt, she seemed intensely focused on the girl before her.

 

            Kiko pulled her eyes from the photograph and looked around the room. She exhaled. After gingerly placing the present on the coffee table, the gynoid flopped onto the couch. It creaked under her weight but no more than it would for any other person. She straightened the cable that dangled from the back of her resin bouffant, and then sat up and plopped her legs on the table with a clunk. Her skirt flared out somewhat messily with the front edge of the hem rising quite a bit while the back of the dress compressed as she sat.

 

            The armor was sleek, showing off her legs quite well. For most of the length it almost looked like she was wearing a particularly thick and stiff bodysuit... that happened to have racing stripes and numbers on the tights... and had extra armoring with visible seams around the knees and ankles... and built in high heels.

 

            She gave a little smile. There was one slight, very slight upside. Being unable to remove her "shoes" caused culture shock wherever she went. Her teachers decided to politely ignore Kiko's lack of appropriate uwabaki slippers for school.

 

            Though Hikari had told her that some of the other class representatives had floated the idea of getting Kiko some tight galoshes. That way the "poor robot" could have something she could change into during the day that would both keep the floors neat and help her fit in.

 

            The latter at least was a valid concern. She could shatter concrete and tile easily, especially with how her heels focused the pressure. Though Kiko secretly suspected that the heels were Ritsuko's idea and were a way to ensure an upper bound to her weight.

 

            "Father was planning to stuff me full of all sorts of extra weapons and gizmos," Kiko muttered. "Oh well, maybe I should have told Hikari to go forward with those slippers. It would be nice to have something... else."

 

            Glancing at the photograph of her and her mother, she then softly chuckled. It was actually a nice gesture, nicer than how the subject of school slippers had been broached to her when she had first arrived in Tokyo 3. The gynoid's laugh turned to a sigh.

 

            That advertising executive organizing Nerv's propaganda, Miss Mann, was right. In some ways she was more approachable as a robot, as opposed to being a foreigner. Instead of being one of the Children, she was simply a component, something built to defend humanity, not some uncontrollable youth....

 

            "Careful, now." Kiko shook her head. Grabbing the remote from the dark grained wood table she eyed it for a second. "I guess I should be relieved that laughing loon didn't cram one of these into me."

 

            She glanced at the TV half-expecting it to turn on in response to her thoughts. A tinge of disappointment flittered in the back of her mind. "Stupid robot body. I don't even get cool tricks or nice shoes."

 

            Taking the remote, she turned on the television. What she saw did not improve her mood. It was not unexpected, but it did reduce the sense of alienation. It was on the same channel she had left it on: Deutsche Welle Germany's international broadcaster.

 

            It was much the same as the last time she had watched. Half of the screen was taken up by an unsurprisingly polished reporter (after all, the surviving studios were in DW's Bonn offices) interviewing a harried but reserved governmental minister.

 

            Kiko let the words gloss over her as she focused on the other half of the screen. It was a helicopter view of Berlin. Or at least what was left of it. The boroughs of Mitte and Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg had borne the brunt of the damage. Buildings had been gutted and blown apart. The river Spree was choked with debris that had been blasted in.

 

            Going outward the damage was minimized, but that simply meant there were still some standing buildings. In some ways the damage seemed worse, as the sections further out actually resembled a city and not a rubble strewn wasteland.

 

            Overall, there seemed to be fewer fires. Kiko knew that fire departments from the rest of Germany had sent everything they could spare. "Which was how it always went. Berlin always got it in the end," Kiko thought to herself. At least this time the rest of the Fatherland was in a better position to lend support.

 

            She exhaled and closed her eyes. She knew it was worse elsewhere. Mexico City was a circular hole that looked like someone had torched a matchstick model, Riyad was a crater with highways running towards it, and there was a new bay on the Río de la Plata where Buenos Aires used to be. There was more. The burned hulks, twisted cars, plumes of greasy smoke, collapsed buildings, piles of hastily bagged bodies, and swarming, haggard rescue crews had all blended together. In any other time, this would have been an unparalleled global disaster, but after the Second Impact, it was more of an encore.

 

            She looked out the thick door that led to her patio. Tokyo 3 was much the same way. Half of the city was still under elevated radiation risk as cleaners from Nerv and Gombe Heavy Construction swept the town block by block. Despite the stockpiles, and doubtless Nerv's pilfering, there was also a glass shortage and a run on concrete in the Old Town given the blast damage from the battle.

 

            Kiko looked down from the television. She edged herself up and looked at the present. Made out of a folded piece of wrapping paper, the tag drew her attention. Suddenly she wanted to confirm her suspicions.

 

            She picked up the box and unfolded the tag. She read the tag; she slowly returned the box to the table. The.. nickname Lieutenant Diebner had used to address her was not one she normally used. The quotation, and oddly personal closing above Katrina's signature gave the gift a far more personal feel.

 

            Kiko recalled the second year theater class. It had been a good course taught by a tall bird-like old man who only seemed alive when reading Wagner. It was a good break for her, between the engineering classes and the training; it was that class that encouraged her to spend the extra time to peruse a Literature minor.

 

            She remembered Professor Harteck's constant rants about how his work was theater, that opera was something to be performed, not something to be merely read.. The man seemed insulted to be part of the University of Berlin's Literature department. Of course now, neither existed.

 

            The television's noise drew her attention back. Perhaps Götterdämmerung, the last opera in The Ring of the Nibelung was appropriate. Perhaps Brünnhilde did fit her. The Valkyrie was often portrayed as a redhead. And she was the offspring of Odin (a god of war, wisdom, and knowledge) and Erda, a jötunn, a giant, and a goddess who personified the earth.

 

            Kiko stared off, not sure whether to be flattered, insulted, or disturbed by the implications of what Katrina's note implied.

 

            The late Professor Harteck would have understood. He had pointed out the parallels between the Second Impact and the war of the gods. However, he had studiously avoided making any comparisons involving his youngest and most famous student.

 

            She looked at the box. She wondered if Katrina knew how the opera ended. If she knew what Brünnhilde did to cleanse the Ring, and how Brünnhilde's pyre reached up to consume Valhalla, taking the gods in the same great fire.

 

            Part of Kiko found appeal in the closure of such a scenario. The Angel war would be won by her hand and... Kiko's choker flashed yellow and for a moment red spots began to form. After a second, Kiko blinked. Confused, she looked at her empty hand with her extended pointer finger and clenched middle, ring, and pinky.

 

            Again, she eyed Katrina's gift and wondered if she made the right choice. She could go back to her bedroom, go back to her- There was another pause, and she shook her head. There was no need to go to her regeneration tube. Not yet, perhaps later after another glass of water.

 

            Her introspection was cut down when one of her earblades chirped, and a flashing telephone icon appeared on her heads-up-display. She blinked and activated the connection.

 

            "Pilot, why weren't you answering your phone?" Captain Sakharov asked over the radio uplink. He was commander of the Azazel's First Guards Naval Infantry Company, and personally oversaw the Captain Ayanami's protective platoon. There was a hint of anger in his voice but it was mostly gentle if confused concern.

 

            "I was enjoying the illusion of privacy," Kiko sighed.

 

            "Yes, you are safe." It was not a question.

 

            "How can I help you Captain?" Kiko asked. She knew it was not an emergency. Those had even less small talk and far more rushing Russians and shouted orders.

 

            "A comrade of yours is about to visit, thought you should know."

 

            "Why? Who?"

 

            "Warrant Suzuhara. Perhaps he, too, became concerned that you had unplugged your phone." Sakharov's tone was somewhat amused.

 

            Kiko nodded. "Right.... sure." She felt a bit of tension ease up, like her spine after a fresh pharmacological-plug had been inserted. "Sure... send the Rookie in."

 

            She then leaned back and resumed watching the television. The connection dropped and she closed the radio program on her brain prosthesis. Then she waited and drifted and let her body loosen in the soft cushions.

 

            A knock on the door, from the far side of the kitchen, jolted her mind back into focus. "Enter," she shouted and looked idly for her sidearm. She shrugged and eyed the door. It opened and Toji stepped through, two Azazel guards standing behind him.

 

            After removing his shoes, Toji nodded to the Azazel Naval Infantryman and entered the apartment's kitchen. It had a round table made out of the same soft dark grained wood and had ceiling mounted lights in green glass fixtures. The kitchen had the pristine cleanliness that only came with a lack of use.

 

            However, there was a plate containing a couple slices of rich black forest cake under a glass cover on the countertop and a teapot and kettle on the stove. Padding forward, the Fifth Child crossed the kitchen and stopped at the edge between the tile floor and the carpet of the living room.

 

            He looked at her and blinked. Instead of the normal prim, square-shouldered, almost... mechanical posture, the gynoid was... slouching. Spread apart, her feet were propped up on the coffee table and she seemed to be leaning to her right side. Toji did not know much about feminine modesty but he did know such a position was not wise when wearing a skirt, even if was a clear one. However the gynoid did not seem to notice, her orange eyes were fixated on the television and the devastating panoramas within.

           

            "Yeah, whatcha want Rookie?" Kiko distantly drawled.

 

            "I was worried. The second Katrina said your room was cleared, you stormed right out of the party."

 

            "Did I?" Kiko asked finally turning to face him.

 

            Toji was dressed in a khaki Nerv tactical uniform. The understated orange epaulettes, stiff collar, and large pistol he wore on a dark leather holster did make him look a bit older. However that he was walking in his socks did ruin the image. Kiko raised her eyebrow and smirked.

 

            "Yes, you did. And then you weren't answering your phone and..." Toji glanced at the guards. "Thanks Sergeant, that will be all.

 

            Sergeant Babayev glanced between the two pilots, the slumped gynoid and the barefoot young man. "Yes, Warrant." He then nodded to Kiko. "Warrant Officer."

 

            Toji waited for the guards to leave and close the door behind them.

 

            Straightening her pose, Kiko chuckled. "So you demand privacy in order to bug me despite my own clear intention to not be bugged?"

 

            Toji rubbed his chin and leaned back. "Pretty much."

 

            "Well." Kiko looked to the framed-photo. "Thank you for your concern," she stiffly stated.

 

            Toji eyed the television. "Fine."

 

            The gynoid grumbled and caught an overflight of a burned out park. A toppled Victory Column raced past the camera view. Sighing, Kiko picked up the remote and hit the mute. "How come you're the only one here bugging me?"

 

            "I thought all of us would be too much, and they didn't seem to notice... I did." Toji shook his head and frowned at the red-wrapped present on the coffee table.

 

             "Lovely."

 

            "You gotta remember what... who they are. The Ayanami haven't had what you would call.. well... Hell, the most normal one was raised by king bastard himself. I mean Shinju's real nice, but she's also real scary."

 

            "You shouldn't talk about the Commander that way," Kiko automatically said. "You never know if he's listening in," she added after a confused blink.

 

            "My point stands."

 

            "You think my upbringing was so much better?" Kiko demanded as she crossed her arms and glared at Toji.

 

            "You're not the only kid to lose his mother," the Fifth Child had kept his voice even but there was an undercurrent of frustrated anger behind his words.

 

            Kiko looked aside. "Shut up, Rookie."

 

            Toji exhaled and calmed himself. "We were still on the waiting list for a new car, an electric yah-know? Father still blames himself, but he was putting in enough long hours and he couldn't afford the down payment to get on the list earlier. Course... without that old Toyota... well every kitchen has knives, and Mother was creative... why Nerv hired her." Toji slowly explained his tone becoming hollow. "I'm just happy that on that day, I was the one who had to take out the trash first, not Shirane." He chuckled, but his eyes remained hard. "Pops still won't live in a place with a garage."

 

            Kiko had raised her head and listened to the Pilot's story.

 

            Toji buried his head in his hands. "Don't wanna talk about that no more."

 

            Holding her glass, Kiko stood up. "Uh... you want some water?"

 

            Hands cradling his face, Toji nodded. " Least, I kept Shirane from..."

           

            After taking a second glass and filling it, Kiko stood over Toji and held out her arm. "Yes, no one should."

 

            "I was six." Toji accepted the glass and took a sip.

 

            Kiko returned to the couch. This time she kept her back straight and her shoulders square. "Well... we're really a screwed up lot aren't we?"

 

            "What about Rei and Shinju?"

 

            "It's a sad day when Nerv's lab rats have better lives than us." Kiko rubbed at her eyes. She pulled her hand and looked at her fingers for a moment. "And I don't believe that for a second. Wondergirl's hideously repressed, she takes after Captain Ice Queen like that, and everyone seems okay with Nerv's Little Perfect Princess turning into a spoiled, sadistic sociopath."

 

   "Shinju's not that bad."

  

            "No of course not. Let's forget the pig. It's just that the precious Ace of Spades can do whatever she wants, but after a little... accident I get treated like a psychotic robot. Let's forget that you were just talking about how she scared you. No she's perfect and I'm some... salvaged wreck. She's the perfect pilot and I'm scraps!"

 

             Toji bristled. "You're complaining? You've got the best synchronization rate. Period. When it comes to Piloting, you've got more finesse, where she's..."

 

            "Insane, blunt power." Kiko supplied. "You've seen her, what she's really like."

 

            "Yeah..." Toji pulled the wooden chair closer to Kiko's couch and sat back down. "It's creepy..."

 

            "Yes, a gothic lolita Spetsnaz would be creepy," Kiko said, deadpan.

 

            "She didn't start out that way. When she moved here she was just shy. It took time for her to become an adorable knife nut. I blame my sister." Toji offhandedly added before sipping his water.

 

            "Right." Kiko took the remote and turned the TV off. "So why shouldn't I complain? She's over a year younger than me, and is beating me despite having less training and experience!" The gynoid's voice rose. "And as you just pointed out she didn't even start out wearing dresses full of bows, bullets, and blades."

 

            Kiko lowered her head and looked over her nose at Toji.

 

            Feeling a slight pressure on his temples and chill at his joints, the Fifth Child looked at Kiko's choker. It was still green. He calmly took another drink. "Is that what you're worried about? Nerv doing stuff to us? The Commander twisting us into something we're not?"

 

            Kiko put an arm to her cheek, looked down at herself, and gasped. "No that would be silly. The Commander would never do something unethical."

 

            Toji snickered. "Fair enough, but it's not fair to compare yourself, she's a clone specifically engineered to Pilot. Where you could pilot as a normal human. Hell you proved it was even possible." He shook his head. "And you think you've got it bad? How do you think this makes me feel?"

 

            "It's not that bad being the rookie and the human," Kiko sighed. "Last I checked you didn't need to sleep in a tube or take fancy drugs every damn day."

 

            "Yeah, yeah, being a rookie isn't that bad. Before me, you managed it just fine."

 

            Her choker turning yellow Kiko glared until the air around her began to shimmer.

 

            "Anyway... " Toji rubbed his head. "I'm dealing with being less manly than a little preteen girl. It wouldn't be so bad if she didn't dress up like some kind of princess... and silently appear behind you holding a knife."

 

            Leaning forward Kiko's lips curled into a greasy smirk. "You're scared of her."

 

            Toji snorted, but did not challenge the statement.

 

            "And the clothes were your sister's idea? And isn't the real reason that you're a Pilot is to keep Ikari from dragooning your sister?" Kiko asked, smirking.

 

            Exhaling, Toji nodded.

 

            Kiko's smirk warmed to something like a smile. "Yeah Rookie, you've earned the right to have a bit of angsty self doubt. Hell, if you weren't scared I'd think there was something wrong with you."

 

            Knowing who Kiko was referring too, Toji gave a nervous laugh.

 

            "But you didn't get turned into a little femme-bot with built-in high heels and beehive hairdo now did yah?"

 

            "I thought we were talking about how Shinju makes us feel small and inferior?"

 

            "Well, that was a nice distraction from bemoaning my father's insanity, the cruelty of the fates, and my..." Kiko looked to the photograph on the opposite wall.

 

            Toji shrugged. "What can I say? "

 

            Kiko leaned forward, splotches of purple appearing on her choker. "Well, you are here. So what can you say? You had a reason to come here, to try to comfort me. Clearly you're not afraid of me."

 

            "Well..." Toji coughed and in desperation looked around the room. "well, no you're less scary than them, you're more... human. Anyway, what's with the present?"

 

            "It's a gift from Katrina." Kiko waved her hand in dismissal. "You think I'm more human, really?"

 

            "Sure, look at all you've gone through, the horror your life has become; you've survived. That's pretty comforting."

 

            "I'm glad my existence reassures you." Kiko clenched her teeth.

 

            "Seeing that you can handle well... all this, makes me a bit less scared." Toji looked down. "Sorry, if that's corny."

 

            "Only a little." Kiko found herself smiling.

 

            "So.. Katrina got you something? Why?"

 

            "Maybe she thought I needed some cheering up, but decided that I deserved an ounce of privacy?"

 

            Toji leaned over the coffee table and inspected the shiny red wrapping paper. "You gonna open it then?"

 

            Kiko tapped the box. "Trying to distract me?"

 

            "Nah, just curious."

 

            The gynoid eyed him, but found nothing other than honest, if simple enthusiasm.

 

            "Come on open the box," Toji said, something akin to giddiness edging his voice.

 

            "Fine, have your fun." Kiko grabbed either side of the box and tore the crimson paper and ribbons away. She was rewarded with a shiny-white and blank cardboard box. The gynoid ripped the tape off the lid and flipped it open. Viewing the contents she paused; her lips curling into another smile.

 

            "The hell?" Toji peered inside and frowned at the tubes and plastic cases. There were no labels and they had a vaguely industrial look about them. "Makeup?"

 

            "Yes." Kiko pulled out one of the tubes and uncapped it, revealing some matte red lipstick that looked strangely dense and heavy. "Katrina's got family in the television business."

 

            "Makeup artist?" But why?" Toji asked looking at Kiko's glossy lips. "You don't need it you've-"

 

            Kiko raised a sculpted and embossed eyebrow. "Yes?"

 

            "Nothing. You look great. Least I don't have the Ayanami's complexion," Toji grumbled. Being nearly albino, the clones were in a real danger of being washed out in any televised appearance.

 

            "I think you look very good in makeup," Kiko laughed as she rummaged through the box.

 

            Toji picked up one of the blocky compacts. "What is this?"

 

            Kiko pinched one of her cheeks. "I've got special... skin." She pulled a small mirror out of the box.

 

            "Oh, didn't notice," Toji said, gamely trying to lie.

 

            "Please, I know I look like a mannequin." Kiko rolled her eyes "Normal makeup doesn't blend or even really stick and you can forget about coverage." Kiko took out a tube of foundation and rubbed some between her fingers and dabbed it on her cheeks. "Now this, this might work," she said looking into a small hand mirror.

 

            Toji sniffed. "Looks like spackling paste."

 

            Kiko hit Toji across the tip of his nose with the mirror he held. "What's that supposed to mean?" she demanded turning to him.

 

            "Gah!" Toji pulled back and rubbed his nose. "What? It's not like I called you a robot."

 

            "Ah-ha! So you were thinking it!" Kiko waved the hand mirror triumphantly.

 

            "Least you're pulling your punches." Toji pressed his glass to his nose; he knew she could have done some real damage if she wanted too. Their training rooms, and the Geo Front's swimming pool, had the freshly poured concrete to prove it.

 

            "Didn't want to break it."

 

            Toji held his thanks when he realized that Kiko was still waving the mirror. "Why do you gotta be so mean?"

 

            Kiko pulled back her shiny lips, revealing gleaming too-perfect teeth. "Because I'm part of the sinister robot conspiracy plotting to overthrow you meat-bags. First the Angels, then you lot."

 

            "Bullshit!" Toji cried. "You were just as much big of an obnoxious jerk as a human."

 

            The gynoid's mad gleam dissipated replaced by soft chuckling. "Not bad Rookie." She put the makeup tube and mirror back in the box and stood up. "Say... you want some cake? I've got a couple slices of Princess' black forest left."

 

            Toji made a show of looking around the room. "I guess this counts as a party. You did get a present."

 

            "Yes, and another kill." Kiko stepped to the kitchen and started pulling down plates. "I suppose it's for the best that this was just my fourth. I'd hate to have made ace "

 

            "Fourth?"

 

            "Angel kills." Kiko took out the cake tray and placed flatware on the plates. "First the one that kept splitting, then the baby Angel we blew up a volcano to get to, then the spider that... got me, and finally today."

 

            The gynoid handed a plate to Toji. "Which was your first kill. Nice job, you were perfectly adequate today."

 

            Toji accepted the plate and wondered if the battle against Matarael really should be put in Kiko's "kill" column. Especially since that Angel had melted Asuka into a screaming mess. Toji also was reluctant to count today; it was not like he had struck the mortal blow.

 

            After retaking her seat on the couch, Kiko looked down at the golden halos inscribed below her left shoulder. "Guess I'll need another one," she said with a grin before forking her slice of cake.

 

 

***************

 


            Looking out the hospital window, Kaji stirred his coffee can. He was in one of the hospital's break rooms, and had the antiseptic bright florescent light and plastic table and chaired room to himself.


            The destruction in the surrounding city was... minor. Just another day in Tokyo 3. If anything it served to underscore the devastation that had happened elsewhere. If not for the Second Impact, the "Little Impact" would be the greatest loss of human life in a single day. Somehow the smaller scale made it worse. Unlike before, there was a measure of normalcy. Twenty cities targeted, over a dozen destroyed. This was something people could comprehend, not the disintegration of a continent or global tsunamis or over a billion dead in a single day.


            Parked in front of the hospital were several Azazel armored transports. Russian troops also patrolled the grounds. He allowed a little smile. There had been few casualties in the battle, but Nerv had still found a use for them.


            The glass fronted door to the break-room opened.


            "So early, Captain?" Kaji asked, angling his head so that he could see the door in the reflection off the window.


            A slim woman with grey hair and a starched white nurse's uniform entered blinked. "Captain? No I don't think so."


            Kaji stepped back from the window and glanced at the plate of biscuits the woman had placed on one of the break room's tables.


            "I'm sorry Miss, I'm waiting..." Kaji blinked at her silver eyes, the same shade as her hair. "Ah."


            Grinning the nurse reached into a pocket and pulled out a pair of glasses. She gave a coy smile and picked up a biscuit. She glanced outside the window. "It looks like my boss will have plenty of work."


            "Gombe Heavy Construction is doing quite well."


            "Especially our international subsidiaries." Mikki exhaled, transferring the biscuit from one hand to the other.


            "Why the dressup?" Kaji asked studying her hair. Unlike her normal auburn and neatly parted and combed style, her hair had been dyed silver-grey and gelled at the tips so it spiked out a bit. The operative found the expressiveness disquieting.


            "Costume party?" Mikki smiled about to take a bite.


            "No." Kaji raised an eyebrow and memorized the ID badge pinned to her blouse. The picture matched her new hair color.


            "Shame. Well you got me." She smirked. "I smuggled myself into the hospital to get a glance at the Pilots. See them giving the wounded a moral boost."


            "Section Two would find that very fascinating." He glanced out the window. "Maybe the Russians?"


            "Well, you're the Special Inspector."


            Kaji glanced to the door and let his shoulders lower taking on a more at ease stance. "You're here because of me."

            "I am in the room with you."
            Mikki lowered the biscuit and frowned at the man.


            "Why? What's your plan? You wanted to bring me a snack?"


            Mikki patted her pocket. "That's not the only thing I've brought for you."


            "So you came here with a plan?"


            She finally put the biscuit into her mouth. "Hmmm? You know... You know what I've noticed? Nobody panics when things go 'according to plan.' "


            "Oh?" Kaji asked.


            "Even if the plan is horrifying!" Eyes sparkling, Mikki smirked; she picked up another biscuit. "If, tomorrow, you're told that an Angel will march on Tokyo or part of the Kanagawa Prefecture will be blown up by Russian soldiers, nobody panics, because it's all 'part of the plan'." She giggled.


            "Do tell," Kaji made sure his sidearm was within easy reach and then shifted his coffee can to his left hand.


            "But not even a dozen little old capitals get hit... well then everyone loses their minds!" Her giggle returned.


            "You're saying people expect giant monsters to attack Tokyo?"


            Mikki nodded. "Did the old men in their halls of power think they were immune? Did they think that they could escape notice?"


            "That implies the Angels understand political aspects to war." Kaji took a slow sip. "That's terrifying."


            Mikki stared. "Not going to try to rationalize a purely tactical and strategic worldview on their part?"


            "I could for the cities on the Security Council, but they made it through... fairly well. Instead all of the G20 had their capital cities attacked, plus Tokyo 3, and no there's not much strategic or tactical reason to glass Buenos Aires."


            The young woman giggled. "Oh I could think of one."


            "Do tell," Kaji repeated.


            Mikki cocked an eyebrow up. Her quizzical expression was then consumed by a toothy grin. "It's really simple, all those old men, all those politicians are running scared." She lifted her hands and mimed running by wriggling her fingers.


            "They know the Angels are targeting them, but it didn't work. Washington, Tokyo 2, Moscow, London, they all beat the Angels. They survived."


            "Really?" Mikki tilted her head. "They intercepted a ballistic attack, that's hardly beating an Angel. And to be scared you have to survive." Smiling she took another biscuit, nearly depleting the whole pack. "Just imagine it."


            "You're saying the attack was deliberately weak."


            Sadness flickered across Mikki's face.


            "But not so weak that everyone could beat it..." Kaji's grip on his can tightened. "It's not just a political aspect, it's a full physiological-operation. Delude humanity into thinking that budget solutions can save them from an Angel attack. Waste resources and money spreading ourselves thin."


            "People love building things: bunkers, fortresses, castles." Mikki picked up the last biscuit. "That's why my boss is doing so well. Humanity's sunk an endless stream of money in a vain hope of survival."


            "You see defense as a futile measure?"


            Mikki seemed taken aback by the man's question. "One cannot win without hurting the enemy. The battle must be taken to them."

 
            "Humanity's great weakness in this war is our inability to find out where the Angels are coming from. Every battle is a purely defensive one."


            "Not every one." Mikki stated, her voice chilled.


            Kaji frowned. He forced himself to glance back out the window. Staring at her for too long would be too suspicious, too aggressive. "Ah yes, Operation Chariot. Nerv is being very tight lipped about exactly how they found a... baby Angel in Mount Asama and why they can't repeat the process."


            "Why?" Mikki asked.


            "Perhaps they can't."


            Mikki blinked.


            "If the Angels are getting smarter then they'd have to realize how much of an advantage they have."


            "They are very powerful."

            "Not power, information. We know almost nothing about them. Where they come from, what their numbers are, what their strategic goals are."


            The corners of Mikki's lips curled up. "Yes, they are a mystery."


            "Well now that you've given me my snack..." Kaji waved to the nearly empty packet of biscuits.


            "Rude." Mikki's face clouded.


            "I'm direct," Kaji smirked.


            "I submit to your roguish charm," Mikki mock swooned as she reached into her pocket and tossed a plastic object towards the spy.


            Catching the memory stick, Kaji suppressed his frustration. No matter how much information it actually contained, the device would have to be run through a quarantined computer. And the more useful information it had, the more would have to be printed out in order to be scanned into a networked machine.


            "What's it this time?" Kaji pocketed the device, reminding himself to not have any sensitive conversations until he had it swept and secured.


            "Construction reports. You were right to follow the supply orders." Mikki frowned in thought. It was too much like something Iry would have suggested. "Mr. Gombe can hide money but he can't hide rebar and concrete and trucks."


            "So, he is building a bolt hole?"


            Mikki looked out the window. At least her sister's body had been cleared away, and the blood had been washed off. "I suppose," she absently stated. "Whatever it is, it's big and being dug in fast."

            Kaji resisted asking how big and how fast. The documentation should show that.


            "You didn't take too much of a risk getting that?" he asked.


            "Please." Mikki rolled her eyes. "Powerful men are so trusting of those they think they dominate. He's the one that ordered me to retrieve the files. It didn't take long to see the discrepancy in the... logistics."


            Kaji looked to her eyes. There was a distance there - a powerful loathing, not just of her boss but the whole indignity of her employment. He understood how she could chafe at her position; he was counting on it. Ego was a prime motivation for spies. "Well, thank you, I'll be sure to look into it."


            "Good, he's up to something," Mikki looked down and shifted her shoes. "I think he could really affect the war effort."


            Pretending to understand, Kaji nodded. He knew Gombe was involved with some... questionable organizations, and all those underground facilities had to be built by someone. "Isn't that what we're all trying to do?"


            The faux-nurse blinked. She chuckled lightly. "Right." Mikki spun on her heel and walked out of the break room.


            After the door closed, Kaji turned to the window and using his cell phone left a coded voicemail message for himself, documenting the contact and the received package. He glanced at the time and threw out his coffee can.


            The door opened and a pink-haired woman strode in. In spite of her diminutive height, her stance was pure self contained power. Deep red eyes sparkled with mirth. "Why Inspector Kaji, it seems the legends about you are true."


            "Pardon?" Kaji asked stepping back from her critical gaze. Her presence had a subtle pressure that reminded him of Mikki.


            "I see a sweet little nurse leaving here and you..." Misako frowned. "Inspector. You are either very good at getting dressed in a short time or you missed quite the opportunity."


            "Far from it."


            "Ah." Misako nodded. "Business then?"


            "As you say."


            "I don't like it," Misako's eyes glanced out the window, but they immediately returned to meet Kaji's gaze.


            "You can't take such offense to my presence."


            Misako stared with a blank expression that still managed to radiate disapproval and disgust.


            Eventually, Kaji coughed. "Er... so what don't you like then?"


            "That we need you."


            "Why Captain Ayanami, you wound-"


            Misako cut him off. "We're up against giant aliens. We shouldn't need skulking backstabbing spies."


            "But events have proven that they've been getting intelligence on us too, and not things that you can get out of any encyclopedia or newspaper."


            "I am well aware of the counter intelligence justification for your employment." Misako narrowed her eyes. "What I'm not so aware of is your progress."


            Kaji bowed his head slightly. "While this is not a secure location..."


            "Out with it."


            "Just a sec...." Kaji reached into his pocket. "You have your guards with you?"


            "Of course," Misako nodded.


            "Right," Kaji took the thumb drive and opened the glass fronted door. A pair of Azazel Naval Infantry looked him over with a professional, if predatory evaluation. "You... Sergeant Babayev," Kaji read the nametag of the more senior Azazel guards.


            "Sir?" Babayev skeptically asked.


            "I need you to hold this device and stand in front of the door where I can see you," Kaji said handing the younger and far stronger man the solid state computer drive.


             Babayev turned to Misako.


            Misako blinked then looked to Kaji. "That's what she gave you?"


            "Yup, so I didn't get the chance to sweep it or clear it."


            Nodding, Misako turned to Babayev. "Do what he says. It's for security."


            "Ma'am," Babayev saluted. As odd security related tasks go, this one was straightforward. In case the object held a listening device, he was to hold it outside the room, and in case Azazel were to take the drive or copy it, he was to hold it where this Nerv Inspector could see it.


            Kaji and Misako stepped back into the break room and closed the door. Looking through the door's window the Inspector nodded and resumed his conversation with Misako. "You're right, there's something at work here. In between all the other snakes and backbiters someone else has slipped in."


            Misako glanced at the door and thought of the nurse who had just left. "Really? Her?"


            "I doubt she knows who she's really working for, but she's still angry enough to make waves and prove herself," Kaji said, a bit smugly. He looked though the door, and saw the Russian Sergeant still holding the data drive.


            "You would be well positioned to take advantage of a young woman's disillusionment," Misako said, deadpan.


            "Er... Yeah." Kaji eyed the pink-haired woman. "Well, there's more than just her. This mystery group is working in a bunch of other areas, shifting things, moving funds, pulling information."


            "Like the server breaches Ritsuko found after the Angel's attack."


            "The same," Kaji nodded. "Now that could have been another 'second Angel' but it didn't have to be."

            "Bad enough that the Angels can hack our computers, if they start hiring humans do to their leg work..."


            Kaji chuckled. "You're starting to see what I'm unraveling here. It's not just hackers. They could hire mercenaries, scientists, lobbyists, entire companies."


            Misako sighed. "Figures. Keep me apprised of how bad things are."


            "A bit cynical," Kaji said as he followed Misako to the door.


            "You start working with Russians you get that. Isn't that right Sergeant?"


            Babayev handed the drive back to Kaji and eyed the man as he put his left hand back onto his carbine. "Dah, only rationed in worst of winters."


            "Oh... okay." Kaji shook his head.


            "Good talking with you, Inspector," Misako bowed her head and turned on her heel. With her guards flanking her, she crossed the corridor and took the elevator down a floor. There she was met by another group of Azazel Naval Infantry and after passing through that security checkpoint, went down another hallway. There she eventually reached the giant mountain of a man: Lieutenant Igor Khariton.


            "Ah, Captain!" Igor smiled as he lumbered over to Misako.


            "Lieutenant," Misako nodded. "How is everyone?"


            "Good, good. Other pilots are with the casualties from the missile command bunker, but Shinju here with Azazel Pilot."


            "Right," Misako stepped forward and looked in on the hospital room. A surprisingly tall looking Azazel pilot lay on the bed. One arm was bandaged to where it ended in a round stump. Tubes stuck into his body and were connected to a bank of machines that hummed next to the officer. There were other burn recovery bandages on his neck and head and down the one leg that the blanket had been tossed off of.


            His face was sallow; his eyes were bloodshot; and beads of sweet raced down his brow and neck. Despite it all the man kept a warm face and had pulled himself to something resembling attention as he conversed with his guest.


            Dressed in a restrained, only somewhat frilly, purple dress with black trim and matching gloves, Shinju sat on a corner of the bed with her ankles crossed and her hands held in her lap. She had a shy little smile as she talked with the pilot.


            Misako stepped back and turned ninety degrees when a shadow fell over her. It was too small to be Igor.


            The short but solid form of Captain Andrei Zel'dovich nodded to the Nerv officer. "Is good what sister does. Borisovich can use this."


            "He was hit by the Angel," Misako made sure it was not phrased as a question.


            "Dah, Yuri... Adamsky," Zel'dovich clarified. There were three Yuri's in the Azazel flight wing; well two now. "He not so lucky."


            Misako nodded. The Angel had hit two of Azazel's Su-33's. One it had destroyed outright, the second one had dodged and was only clipped. Still with only one wing, Captain Borisovich Trutnev had to eject. "You think Shinju can help?"


            Zel'dovich
shrugged. "She help Yakov. She there for him."


            Igor nodded gravely. "Why she here now. Alone," he emphasized.


            Misako looked through the window. "Sure, that'll be good for both of them."

 

***************

 


            Leli looked up at the clock. Instead of her customary dress she wore a black leotard over her slender frame with a fluffy checkered skirt over. The mechanical representation ticked as its gears turned powered by wound springs and metered by the rocking of an idealized pendulum. She looked over to the couch where Armi was curled up under a soft blue blanket. Only her dozing face and curling blonde hair were visible.


            Iry's eyes twinkled briefly flashing red. A few strands of reddish blonde hair had escaped her ponytail and she absently pushed an errant bang back over her ear. "Don't worry, we have plenty of time M- Mikki is still playing doctor." The creases on her matte-black dress were less sharp and the sleeves even looked a bit rumpled.


            The Angel tilted her head causing her short pageboy-cut white hair to tilt over. Her eyes went to Iry's black desk. The surface had been polished and shined with little white pinpoints. "You've found something."


            Iry raised an eye brow. "Continue."

            "It's not something you want Mikki to know about... or at least know about just yet." Leli's eyes went to the clock again.


            "And?"


            "And it's about the..." Leli looked over the desk. "It's about the information you took when Saha died."


            Iry nodded pride and a bit of regret touching her face.


            "You're next." Leli quietly said. "But..."


            "But my attack isn't for a while."


            Contrasting with Iry's calm poise, Leli fidgeted. "This is about that special mission big sister wants you do to."


            Again, Iry nodded.


            After watching her fingers twitch, Leli clasped her hands before her and blushed.


            "You're concerned. Worried that you'll disappoint Mikki maybe? Mother perhaps?"


            Leli swallowed. "I never met Her."


            "Can you guess what I've discovered?"


            The younger Angel shook her head. "No."


            "How much do you know about our big sister?"


            Leli exhaled.


            "And now you're pretending to breathe too? She woke us early. We were supposed to wake up and attack. That's what Sachi, Shami, and Rami did. Hell as far as we know Sandi was the first one Mikki, the last of us, found. You can see the problem."


            "Mikki's the last, so... who woke her up?"


            Iry beamed with pride. She then sighed. "Yes, that's only one of her... oddities."

            "She has a human body."

            "Aren't you curious about that?" Iry stepped back in shock, before she could finish the question, Leli's eyes had flared red and the younger Angel began marching towards her.


            "Curious? Curious! I am the Angel of Night. All can fall within my domain, to be pulled inside and studied. Not knowing about Mikki's past gnaws at me. Why should she keep secrets? Our goal is to rescue mother." As Leli spoke her prim crisp black dress began to... ooze. The bottom hem started to flow and drip and a shiny inky mass began to pool around her feet.


            Iry swallowed. The phantom sensation nauseated her, but she steeled herself. If she were to succeed, she would have to be able to handle much worse.


            "Do you doubt Mikki's commitment? Or her power? With or without us, she will rescue mother. The Lilin will be broken, and Abomination and the Adversary will be slain."


            Stepping back from the display, Iry chuckled. "You forget one thing. You may be the Angel of Night, but I am the Angel of Fear. You think this is about the Lilin and the Adversary.


            Iry smiled, her lips slowly revealing her teeth. "But I will show you something different from either."


            Leli steadied her gaze and the inky mass around her grew.


            "Your shadow is striding behind you; your shadow is rising before you, but I will show you fear in a handful of dust." Iry reached to her desk and grabbed several of the points of light. She flung them up and gently blew them towards Leli.


            They resolved into a series of reports documenting a Soul Salvage Operation conducted by Seele in the months succeeding the Second Impact. The humans had taken the body of Adam, of Mother and....


            Eyes snapping shut, Leli shook her head. "No.... no..."


            "I told you," Iry's smile shrank to a frown. "It's bad enough that the monkeys are flinging around suns, but now we're starting to realize the full depths of their depravity."


            "But... Mikki..."


            Iry's nod was full of resignation and defeat. "Shares more in common with the Adversary than I'd like. And makes this whole rescue mission a bit too... self fulfilling."

 
            Leli exhaled and put her hand to her sternum. Her surprise at the sensation faded and concern and worry dominated her face. "What should we do?" she asked in a quiet voice, and then Leli looked back to the couch where Armi was fast asleep.


            "I've got my mission." Iry looked to the clock. "I will go out among the humans, I will challenge them, and I will change the course of this war."


            "Really?" Leli bit her lip, nearly chewing through the simulated flesh.


            Iry found the lack of blood mildly disturbing, but took her sister's hand regardless. "Yes, we're not going to pointlessly die. I..." Iry closed her eyes. "I can't force you, not even M- Mikki can force you, and when I'm gone..."


            "No, don't talk that way. You can win." Leli begged. She had opened her jaws and the torn flesh of her lower lip began to knit back together.


            Iry squeezed Leli's hand tighter, feeling something very much like bones. "I don't plan to die, but no matter what happens remember it's your choice."


            "What?"


            Iry smiled. "Everything. You are the Angel of Night. You'll have to do what you feel is right." Her face sobering, she turned back to her desk and began organizing her files. "You might want to wake Armi up, Mikki is due back fairly soon, and you don't want her to wake up scared, again."

 

***************

 


            Rising from bed, Gendo leaned towards the nightstand and reached for his gloves. After slipping them on he leaned back and straightened his glasses.


            Ritsuko rolled back over and quirked a vaguely amused smile. "You know I don't care about the gloves. Especially since-"


            "What?" Gendo asked staring at the ceiling.


            Ritsuko blinked. "Since the burns aren't that bad." She tilted her head. "Is something wrong?"


            "Wrong? Oh no, just that the Angels have figured out they can simply attack other cities, the Old Men are screaming and running to their little bolt-holes, the UN is making their usual asinine demands, oh yes, and now we have to deal with every country not only trying to build their own nukes but snapping up every other military resource they can."


            Nerv's Supreme Commander made a fist and held it at his side. "All because it turns out that you don't need an Evangelion or even a hydrogen bomb to thwart an Angel. Turns out a ridiculous nuclear plane or enough missiles could do the job.


            "But no please, focus on my one of my least eccentric habits. Do you nag Shinju when she wears gloves?"


            Lifting her head, Ritsuko looked over his chest and to the nightstand and saw a familiar silver-framed photo. It had been easy enough to ignore earlier in the night but now...


            "Do you really want to talk about her?" Ritsuko asked as she pulled back to the other side of the bed and drew the sheet up to her chest.


            "To whom are you referring?"


            Ritsuko sighed. "Is there a good option? We've got your wife, your wife's body... bodies, inhuman clones of ancient god-like monsters, your son, what might as well be your daughter, what might as well be your other daughter. The least creepy is Misato."


            "Huh, interesting choice." Gendo put his arms behind his head and stretched his legs. "I was simply commenting that we both have similar scars. Hers are less prominent, thankfully, but little girls are sensitive of such things I suppose."


            "Son," Ritsuko muttered.


            "Pardon?"


            Ritsuko rolled her eyes and considered getting closer. She decided to press the issue instead. "Yes, little 'I break people with my hands' Shinju is sensitive about scars."


            "Well obviously. She breaks people with them; needs to keep them fine. See it's not entirely feminine vanity."


            "Son," Ritsuko repeated more loudly.


            Gendo tilted his head towards Ritsuko. "Perhaps mistakes were made."


            "That's an understatement," Ritsuko slowly drawled enunciating each syllable. "Speaking of son versus daughter, Shinju has made a certain request. She wants to be able to tell the other Pilots about the Salvage."


            "I am aware." Gendo looked to the picture on his nightstand. "And I am postponing approval. Revealing that secret to the other Pilots would be risky; it could hurt the team dynamic."


            "Nigokiko?" Ritsuko asked. "Yes, she would wonder why she wasn't Salvaged." The blonde narrowed her eyes at Gendo, indicating that she had much the same question.


            "That is a risk, more time being conditioned reduces her ability to rebel, but the Pilots are all in a delicate situation. That is one of the reasons the truth is so restricted."


            "But you have not given a flat denial. "


            Gendo took his eyes from the picture and looked to Ritsuko. "The truth is also empowering. I have not decided if the benefits out-weight the costs. I have to consider Shinju's performance."


            Instantly, Ritsuko found the pressure of Ikari's gaze manageable. "Concern? From you. For the Pilots? For the Ayanamis... hell for Shinji?"


            Gendo kept his stare. "I handled Rei, I could probably have handled another one."


            Lip quivering, Ritsuko sat up, leaned over her raised knees, and began to softly laugh. "You... you wanted to raise both of them?" Ritsuko eventually gasped out.


            Gendo folded his hands below his chin, which was less impressive when he was on his back under a sheet that left him half naked. "Quite immature Doctor Akagi."


            "Oh no," Ritsuko laughed as she pulled herself back up. "I'm sure you and Rei could have done wonders raising little Shinju. She has been a great help with the other two clones, both of which look up to you."


            "I fail to see your mirth then."


            Ritsuko tilted her head. "You don't get it do you? Consider our twisted little clone family, the monstrous abomination raised by –well- you is the normal one. Rei did not have a normal childhood. Even I can see that, and I was raised by a woman that abandoned me for a computerized copies of herself."


            Gendo nodded. "It was a shame what happened about Naoko," he then said a bit distantly.


            "Oh, that's just what I need, you getting wistful about her."

            "You brought her up."


            "My mistake." Ritsuko sighed. "One of many."


            "Well then, shall we make some more mistakes?" Gendo smirked.


            "You've had some bad pickup lines, but that excelled even among them." Ritsuko leaned up and pulled his glasses off. "This time... just keep the damn gloves on."

 

***************

 


            Clara Cavendish Johnson, CEO of
Fairchild-Republic Aviation stepped into the hanger. Watching the woman approach, Hiram stood up and removed his hardhat. The woman was in early middle age and possessed sharp, almost angular features. She wore a purple suit coat with matching skirt, white blouse, red tie, and low heeled shoes. All were cut with the same precise hems and made the stiff fabric look more like aluminum sheet than cloth.


            Long and forest green with brighter highlights, her hair would have been the most striking part on anyone else. Instead it came in second to her bright almost golden eyes, which constantly scanned around the room in jittering jumps.


            Her gait had the same jerky starts and stops. Contrasting that was her companion's fluid grace. A slight man in a tan suit with wide-lapels and a red and white paisley tie he walked at her heel. He had rich black hair that was tied back in a loose ponytail and wore a moustache and sideburns touched the first tinges of grey.


            Miss Johnson stopped in front of her employees; her gaze darting between them and the plane and their equipment. "Test pilots, war heroes, engineers." Her voice was even with a slight Southern-Swede accent.


            The man at her heel leaned in and whispered into her ear.


            Miss Johnson's expression paused momentarily. "Ah I see, Carl over here told me that Owen isn't actually in today, and neither are the other pilots. Anyway, I wanted the best, and you are it." Walking up to the plane, she fell under the shadow of the immense fuselage of the YA-11.


            Carl pulled back and catching Hiram's eye gave a little smile.


            "Normally I couldn't come in person, but I though a recorded message wouldn't do. I've been most impressed by your team's performance." The CEO smiled. "They said conventional weapons couldn't kill an Angel. We showed them! Did it anyway."


            The assembled workers gave an enthusiastic, but guarded clap.


            "Good. Remember. Your job depends on the quality and quantity of your clapping."


            Johnson's eyes went to the twin engines in the back of the plane.


            "Now I'd like to caution all you technicians that the lab boys back East have found a bit of a snag in the heat exchangers. So far, it's just in some of the production ones and only with the alternate reactors. Still the lab boys say there's a coating wear issue and something about sub critical reactions." She briskly continued smoothly rushing past the concerns. "Anyway, we haven't entirely nailed down what element it is, but it's a lively one. Just wear your dosimeters and if they go off contact your supervisor, and we'll cut out anything that's grown in yah."


            "Uh... yes Ma'am?" Hiram scratched his neck. "That warning came from us. We were the ones that inspected the coolant systems from the reactor NHIS gave us."


            "Ah, yes you recommended we stick with the Westinghouse ones." Johnson shook her head. "Sorry about that Son, but politics and all. However for those of you stuck with the alternate reactors,
I've got good news, the medics at Camp Bullis say that element's got a median latency of forty years. If you're thirty or older you're laughing, worst case scenario you lose out on a few BBQs and miss seeing your grandkids become annoying punks, plus you've ensured that humanity has gained an effective weapon against the damn So... er Aliens."


            Carl looked to Hiram and gave a nod. The Texan suppressed a sigh and clapped his hands. "Very inspiring, Ma'am," he said as the other technicians gave a smattering of applause.


            Johnson blinked. "Well, you deserve it, but I'd also like to inform you it'll be my pleasure to host a little celebration here. Bean counters said we couldn't afford to ship a whole cow over here, let alone a bunch of steers. It's my damn company; I'll do what I like. I've got the spits ready and the pits dug."


            This time the applause was far more enthusiastic.


            "Now, I've got to borrow your boss for just a tick." Johnson smiled. "But I promise you, you'll have him back in at least one piece."


            Hiram walked up to her and she took his hand and shook it. "We can talk in my office," he said after getting his hand back; she still had the same steady and strong grip.


            "Yes, after you."


            "Wouldn't it have been easier to simply stow the dressed beef in the cargo hold of the plane you flew over here in?" Hiram asked after they left the hanger and stared crossing the warren of corridors and rooms that Republic used as their Tokyo 3 offices. "Butchering takes time, and disposing of the offal alone..."


            Stopping, C. C. Johnson stared.


            "Yes, that's exactly what we did," Carl cleared his throat. "Beef is expensive, even in Texas. Not to mention the other refreshments we brought."


            "Good then, that's much appreciated." Hiram nodded. "But we're all doin' well. The Dreadhog is selling, and has a proven record now."


            "It's a hard slog. You know how much money we sunk into research. Truth be told this is the second bullet we've dodged. If it weren't for the Second Impact Republic would've..." C. C. shook her head. "And it's not just the money, we've been facing some real headwinds."


            "There are those that are quite opposed to... alternative methods," Carl added.


            "It was better back in the day."


            "Reminiscing about the War again, Ma'am?" Carl politely asked.


            "Which war? Not the Angel War? So the Post Impact Wars? " Hiram asked as they reached the top of a set of stairs.


            "No! The one before it. The one that never happened. Damn it! They went and caved before I could ever get out there kicking their asses!"


            "Ma'am... the United States doesn't like using women in combat roles, you'd have had better odds kicking ass if you were Soviet."


            C.C. gives her secretary a withering glare. "Carl, I didn't say which 'they' caved now did I? Damn weak-kneed Massachusetts spook. The Great Old Communicator set it up, all his little protegee had to do was spike the ball."


            Carl Coulton kept his face neutral. "Of course Ma'am. Pardon me for assuming that within your Cold War fantasies you wanted to kick communist ass. I'll try not to make the same mistake again" The secretary bowed his head.


            "At least this damn war's starting to look like something proper. Actual destruction and tactical crisis."


            "And our allies?"


            "Helpful. War's just not the same without strange foreigners at your side." Johnson airily waved her hand. "We've worked with the Soviets before, against 'em too. Just like the Nipponese and the Prussians."


            "Ma'am I must remind you that There hasn't been a Prussia for well over sixty years," Carl flatly stated.


            Sensing the subtext Hiram raised an eyebrow. He was pretty sure the secretary really wanted to say something like: "What century are you living in?" or "You're not nearly old enough to get away with senility gambits."


            C.C.'s eyes darted about and she shrugged dismissively. "Bah You just don't have an eye for history. Hell, we used to be enemies with the House of Hanover too."


            Again Car's face was kept neutral; it was a skill born of much practice. "Hanover? Ma'am, are you talking about..." He paused in recollection. Part of his ability to survive for so long as her personal secretary was his ability to act as a surrogate database, that and the fringe services he offered. "The British ruling house during the Revolutionary War?"


            "Yes. If old George could see his descendents now." She cackled.


            Hiram held his tongue; he could tell this was an old game the two of them played. Obviously, C.C. would drift into esoteric minutiae and her Secretary would try to decode the ranting.


            Carl brushed aside the obvious question of which George his boss was talking about. "That was two houses ago. It's Windsor now and has been for almost a hundred years. And the Kingdom of Hanover was annexed by Prussia in the Austro-Prussian War, neither the house nor the country have existed in this or the past century."


            "Incorrect the House of Hanover ended with the death of Queen Victoria in 1901," C.C stated.


            "I see you treat historical knowledge with the same feverish domination and exploitation as you do technical knowledge." Carl bowed his head in defeat.


            "Well you've gotta show who's boss," Hiram said as he unlocked the door to his office.


            C.C. stepped inside. She turned to her secretary. "Carl you can wait outside. See if you can get Wing Commander Lysaght. I'd like to talk with him while we're here."


            Carl's eyes briefly went to Hiram before he nodded and closed the door behind him, leaving the two inside.


            "How much have you heard."


            C.C. snorted. "It's the Little Impact, Son. And our birds kept DC and Tokyo 3 from being glassed."


            Hiram chose not to correct her. He knew that the various AGIS Radar and intermediate range missile batteries had a larger, if not as flashy, contribution.


            "Maybe that'll make up for those Senate hearings the whiners at Cape Kennedy wrangled us into." She began to pace the office, periodically poking into the folders that Hiram had neatly piled on the desks and shelving. "There's plenty of astronauts; why does it have to be a crisis every time one goes missing? We're the ones that killed the Angel and saved that useless half-sunken swamp-city."


            The Chief Engineer could no longer hold his tongue. "The Aegis and Space Guard systems were instrumental. Not to mention Nerv and..."


            Still glaring with irritation, she shook her head. "Yes, the Russians. Azazel tried to stop us from taking the shot?"


            Hiram shook his head. "No, other than pumping me for information about Project Jarngreipr, they pretty-much ignored us."


            "Damn Navy. Even when it's the Russians, it's the same damn Navy." C.C. looked off at the wall. "Son, we'll starve before doing business with the damned Navy. They don't know what the hell they want and will drive you up a wall before they break either your heart or a more exposed part of your anatomy. Those bastards couldn't even order a damn shower curtain. They've got no business in the air."


            "Yes Ma'am. Though if Jarngreipr has leaked..."


            "I'll contact the Air Force and do an audit of the Cleveland labs."


            "Ma'am." Hiram noncommittally said as he sat down at his desk.


            "On the upside, the combined might of Nerv and Azazel only wounded the thing, it was our plane that gave the coup de grace." She smiled thinly. "And since the JSSDF finally, finally got a clean kill... well they'll be more eager to buy more of our products."


            "They've overlooked that it was an Australian who pulled the trigger, and unlike Azazel we didn't have any fallout." Hiram said.


            "So far, so far." Pausing in her pacing, C.C. lowered her gaze. "That's not my concern. I'll allow some... flexibility in my staff, but I have my limits, I won't allow a repeat of the '04 Houston Expo?" she asked, putting a hand on the red metal tripod frame that sat in the corner of Hiram's office.


            "No, Ma'am." Hiram replied, glad he still had his goggles on.


            The CEO peered at her employee. "You don't cut corners, Doctor Forsyth, not like the late not-so-lamented Doctor Conagher. And you rarely make a mess, but I only have so much patience. I'll take your warning about Project Jarngreipr to heart."


            "Yes, Ma'am." Hiram pulled off his goggles. It was best to let her go on with her rant. Any interference on his part would only prolong her visit, and delay whatever point or insight she had.


            "I like your grit. Oratory could use some work though."


            "As you say, I'll be sure to keep your advice at the forefront upon future endeavors."


            "I like your style. You make up your own rules, just like me." the woman leaned back and laughed. "Back in my day women weren't supposed to be engineers. Did it anyway. Then the trouble started at college. Little pencil necks started calling me Clarence. Saying that I wasn't a real girl. One day they tried to snap my bra, again. That was it; that last poor son of a gun got tripped." She tittered.


            Her face turned sober. "All joking aside, that did happen. We were going down the stairs, broke every bone in his legs. Tragic."


            "But informative?" Hiram allowed.


            "After that they called me C.C." She gave a crooked smile. "Really it was just a polite way for them to call me a Crazy... well you know the word."


            "Yes Ma'am." Hiram repeated.


            "Not quite that respectful." C.C. coughed. "It's you and me against the world." Sitting down she leaned forward. "Now... how exactly is Project Jarngreipr performing?"


            "I think the boys at Cleveland or Vandenberg would be better to ask."


            C.C. gave a level look. "They're only looking at parts of it; you've got the whole picture."


            Hiram glanced at the thick silver safe bolted to the floor. "The components are pretty solid. We'll know more after a test firing, but there are some real tactical questions here."


            "Tactical?"


            "Well, Ma'am. Why? The intercept velocity is quite.... ambitious, and the power of the laser assembly alone... and that's not counting the global strike capability. We've crammed half a dozen Cold War projects into one weapon system and..." Hiram rubbed his eyes. "Ma'am. We're building something that looks like one of General LeMay's boys dreamed up and... we're calling it a tactical weapon? Why? The Air Force didn't even ask for half the capabilities we're putting into it."


            "Engineering isn't about why? It's about why not! Why is so much of our engineering dangerous?" C. C. glared. "Why not marry safe engineering if you're so concerned?"


            Hiram rubbed his head. "That's not my concern at all Ma'am. It's a... well... a missile, dangerous is expected, but will the Air Force really buy it?"

            "Buy it? Hah." C. C snorted. "Son, if we can pull this off they'll have to come up with a new class of Collier Trophy. As you said, this is good old Strategic Air Command stuff. If we give them global strike, orbital insertion, unlimited loiter, and giant mountain melting lasers. They'll eat it up."


            "What about the competition?"

            C. C. tilted her head. "Those bastards at Raytheon and Boeing? Or do you mean..."


            "Look at what Nerv did to NHIS."

            "Jet Alone was a joke."


            Hiram stared at the golden-eyed woman. "Are we?" he asked his voice carefully innocent.


            "Of course not. We killed an Angel."


            "And how do you think Nerv will take that?" Hiram leaned back.


            C.C. scowled. "Damn UN coddling bastards. The Artificial Evolution Laboratory can eat my bankrupt-"

            "Ma'am?" Hiram interrupted.


            "Thank you." C. C. sighed. "Is this where you suspect the leak from?"


            "I can draw you a list..."


            "Right, can't forget the Reds either."


            There was a knock on the door. After a moment, Carl opened it and stepped across the threshold. "Ma'am, I've contacted Wing Commander Lysaght, and have arranged for him to meet us shortly at today's BBQ. I assured him liquor will be provided and that there would be no media at the event."


            "Excellent." C. C. smiled and stood up. "Come Hiram, we have work that must be done. We'll talk about that Jarngreipr issue later on."


            "Yes, Ma'am." Hiram nodded and followed her out of the office and back to the hanger.

 

***************

 


            Iry rose from bed. It was a plain affair with simple white sheets over a bare mattress. As her feet touched down on bare white tile her form shimmered and clothing rippled around her. She looked down at the precise knee-length black dress and matching high heeled boots. The dress was made out of differing cuts of velvet that formed alternating hexagons. A smirk crossed her face. Mikki had been the one to choose the garment.


            She looked around the vast whiteness of the room, but it was different. The floor was gridded off by large polished tiles and a ceiling could be just made out far above. Even walls were barely visible off into the distance.


            "It's still not enough, it's still not real," the Angel bowed her head. Definition, boundaries, merely underscored the artificiality. The room felt cold. It was a rough forgery of... home, but even like this, it was a poor substitute.


            She closed her eyes and the link severed. The white bled out. The giant pristine room was replaced with the uneven grays of concrete. Distant lights and walls became closer and she felt her world shrink, closing in on her.


            Pressure slammed into her chest and she gasped in surprise. Her breathing was a halting, stuttering affair. Shivering, she dropped to her knees. The last bits of the white illusion fell to a circle around her before vanishing, taking with it her perfect black dress.


            She nervously swallowed. Viscous liquids moved and she felt her insides shift and writhe. The resulting revulsion triggered a chain reaction of horror as she became... acquainted with various tubes and fluids. Stumbling on her heels, she fell and retched. Muscles contracted and expanded as she dry heaved.


            Eventually, she rose and wiped her mouth. She looked at the back of her hand and sighed. "An amorphous bag of plumbing, indeed. How can Mikki stand it?"


            She lifted up a hand and ran it through her hair. However, the strawberry-blonde hair continued to hang limply against her head. "Bother." Catching her breath, she looked around the small grey room. Behind her was a cot, immediately in front of her was a large trunk, and to either side was a door. One would go to the bathroom, the other would lead... outside.


            The Angel sat down. This time instead of the concept of bedding, she found the unevenly yielding tautness of fabric. She unlatched the trunk and looked inside. Vacuum sealed packets had been neatly arranged and labeled. Looking on the microcosm of order, a slight smile crossed her face. A plain plastic watch had been left atop the packets and she nodded at the displayed time. Next to it was a ring with a couple of shiny new brass keys.


            She leaned back and looked up at the fluorescent lights. Another weak-point of her mission had been crossed. Hiring a human to procure the necessary items was a risk, but there was no other way, not if she wanted to be discrete. Her arrival was problematic enough.


            Biting her lip, she looked between the two doors. The bathroom would be bad, but outside could be worse. "Ow," she muttered, feeling the area where she her teeth cut unto her lip. She then blinked at the spots of blood on her finger.


            "Oh...." The shivers returned and she stood up. Her mind went out and found... nothing. It was as if there was nothing beyond the bare and claustrophobic concrete walls. That she knew this to be untrue was the most disturbing sensation of all.


            She walked over to the bathroom and paused at the door. She could still go back, she could explain herself. She could say she had been a bit eager and was merely preparing for her mission. So far she had done nothing, especially when measured against Mikki's actions. She could go back and be a good Sister and wait her turn. If anything she'd be chided for being "over eager".


            Looking down, she knew that was impossible. She leaned against the door and held the doorknob with one hand and the door jam with the other. Despite being the same temperature the metal knob felt cooler. She knew why, but it was still novel to... experience it, and that curiosity was why she knew she had to keep going forward.


            She swallowed again and turned the knob. This time there was no violent reaction. Exhaling she stepped into the bathroom. She had read the guides, journal reports, even illustrated books, but at the moment she wondered if her preparations were sufficient.


            After the initial... difficulties had come the shower. Surprisingly, that had been enjoyable. She had let the hot water spray over her body and cleansed herself until she felt her fingers begin to prune.


            Drying and getting dressed was relatively simple. Though for the latter Iry had to go back out to the "bedroom" and consult one of the guides included in the trunk.


            Eventually she managed to figure it out. She did have to study the underwear guide a couple times and go to the trunk to find a bra that fit better. Compared to that smoothing out her black dress was easy and slipping on a pair of leather boots with a low, almost no heel was simplicity itself. Nodding with pride, she got up and looked at her reflection. Her blonde hair was a wet mess. Picking up a brush, she looked down at the guide she had opened on the countertop. "Okay... you can do this. You beat the toilet."


            She turned and began brushing. After her hair had been untangled, she went out and retrieved a slim orange ribbon. Tying it behind her neck, she allowed a little smile.


            Exiting the bathroom, she dropped the printed out sheets of the hair guide. Iry looked at the sealed backs of makeup supplies and the much, much thicker guidebook that accompanied them. She frowned and walked back to the bathroom.


            Tilting her head about she studied her reflection. "Nah... too much work." Taking care to make sure her heels would not wobble, Iry congratulated her judgment on going with the shoes with more ankle support.


            Finally, she took the watch from the trunk and looked at the time. All told it had taken her nearly an hour to complete the procedure. "Huh... humans must be far more efficient. Practice perhaps?" she muttered to herself.


            She flexed her back; her spine cracked in a couple places; and she almost fell to the floor in revulsion. "Oh... this was not smart," she mumbled pulling herself to her feet.


            She took a map, a bag with a phone and its battery, and a pen out of the trunk, and closed the lid. The map was unfolded atop the trunk and she tapped a couple locations with the pen cap. She knew where she was. She knew what time it was, and she knew her target's schedule.


            A black purse was taken from the bottom of the clothing packet that had been tossed on the bed. She slipped the phone, pen, map, and a key ring inside and looked at the closed door.


            Striding forward, she undid the lock and reached for the handle. Her hand on the lever, she froze. Iry closed her eyes and felt her breathing. "You can do this; you can show Mikki what you're really made of."


            She paused to fish out the keys from her purse. There were not many, she planned to try them all, one had to work the lock. Holding the key ring, she stopped; she was unable to find the keyhole. After carefully inspecting the door she leaned on it in exasperation. She reached into her purse; she had contacts she could call. However, the prospect of asking for help on such a... mundane subject filled her with dread. Mikki was right.


             Her eyes hardened at that and she pulled out the phone. Her free hand idly touched the door knob. There was a click, the door turned open, and she stumbled forward. After regaining her composure, Iry laughed. Stepping forward she saw the other side of the door and it became obvious. Keys were only needed upon ingress, not egress.


            A bare blue-painted concrete corridor faced her. Swallowing, she entered and took a left turn, locking the door behind her. There were a handful of doors identical to the one she had exited through. She had rented out all of the rooms on this level. Running into a human right now would be... complicated; she preferred to ease into things.


            At the end of the corridor was a pair of double doors. These she simply opened and walked through.
            Warm bright early morning sunlight fell on her. However that was a minor annoyance compared to the ocean of noise that poured over her. Cars, trucks, people, even a pair of elevated trains assaulted her ears. Even the air itself made noise as it blew around her. Then came the smells. The scent of burnt fuel dominated, but the aroma of thousands and thousands of humans also pressed upon her.


            Finally, almost as an afterthought was the sight. The double doors opened onto a terrace a couple stories above the street and gave a direct view of the city's downtown. Before her were the shining glass and concrete towers of Tokyo 3, and below was Mother's... Adam's prison.


            She exhaled. Compared to the lunatic, disorganized hive before her, the tubes and bladders within her were a minor affront. Here was where her sisters had come to die; their deaths a mere inconvenience. Their bodies swept up; their blood hosed down; the pitiful damage they had caused rebuilt without a thought. She stepped forward and clenched the railing on the edge of the terrace.


            There was even the sound of jet engines rumbling across the sky. She looked up and saw a pair of Su-33's streak by. Both were fairly low, she could make out the matte purple painted on their undersides. The pressure waves from the two twin engines came down and hit her ears and even into her chest. She stood and took some comfort in that they were at least subsonic; she was not sure how she would take to a sonic boom.


            Iry frowned, knowing that that paint scheme called for a brighter more metallic purple adorned the top with green strips on the tail and wing tips. She also knew that depending on who was flying there could be up to five golden halos painted under the canopies. The whole thing was gaudy and excessive, but it was also triumphant and unapologetic.


            She forced her gaze lower and watched the pedestrians and vehicles move below. It was more regimented and far less overwhelming, but just as dangerous. The workers, the trucks, even the housewives and school children all had a purpose. It was disorganized and suboptimal, but the hit in efficiency was made up for in innovation.


            Her fingers tightened, causing the metal handrail to creak. Seeing the humans this close gave her pause, but after a moment she realized there was little choice. Despite Mikki's wishes, despite Mother's wishes, her plan was the path to victory.


            Releasing her hands, Iry stepped to one side, went around the terrace and found a stairwell that would take her down to the sidewalk. As she descended she glanced back. The myth of returning, the illusion of running back and apologizing for her... eagerness pulled at her. With each step doubt pulled at her and made her insides feel even more squeamish and full of squirming tubes and liquids.


            But she made it. There was a soft click as a boot struck pavement. Then her other foot came down. Her confidence growing, she crossed the feeder sidewalk that led to the larger one that ran parallel to the road, and she nearly ran into a harried looking man in a black suit with a thin green tie.


            Giving a little yelp, Iry scrambled a couple steps back.


            "I'm sorry!" After the nearly synchronous declaration, both she and the salary man apologized profusely.


            Finally he bowed and resumed his walk, and Iry let out a long breath and felt her shoulders sag. She looked at her watch and frowned. Her buffer was almost gone. Briskly walking down the street, she pulled out her map and double checked that the route was as she remembered it.


            She allowed herself a chuckle at the image of the young woman with a map out navigating her first trip on the "big city". Though technically, she had been in Tokyo 3 before, just not in such a... tangible form.


            Rounding a corner she refolded the map and slipped it back into her purse. She even smiled at a couple of the people she passed. None of them knew who she was, which was fair, she had no idea who they were. They could easily be soldiers, scientists, ordinance technicians.


            Any one of them could have had a critical part in one of her sister's demises, and she had only memorized the names and images of the key staff of the enemy. Those hardest to replace. Continuing her walk down the streets of the Enemy's capital, Iry exhaled. Her planning had taken her this far.


             Right ahead of her was her target. The scientist walked alone. Unlike the Pilots she did not require a body guard. The Angel smiled. It was the same at Nerv facilities and the sloppier military bases the world over: Pilots were protected, they slept in armored bunkers or had armed guards, as insurance against sabotage.


            Scientists and maintenance crews were not so lucky. Which meant that for an enterprising saboteur, the enemy's high value vehicles would last until something broke. It took more time but there was less risk.


            Bearing a tiny grin she walked right up to the scientist. "Excuse me?"


            Ritsuko turned. Standing before her was a dark-skinned young woman. Her long blonde hair was pulled back by a simple orange ribbon that gave the lone splash of color. The rest of her outfit, from severe black dress to sleek leather boots was done in shades of black and grey. She did not wear any makeup, though her face did not suffer for it, save for her eyes which were a washed out shade of red.


             "Do I know you?" Ritsuko asked, her hand automatically reaching for her cell phone.


            "Yes you do. You've been looking for me."


            "I have?" Trusting her instincts and swallowing her pride, Ritsuko tapped the panic button on her phone.


            "I'm the one that kept running away. I suppose now that Saha's gone that makes me the Eleventh." Iry shrugged; she then grinned at the scientist, her AT field briefly flickering into visibility.


            Ritsuko stared. "No..."


            The young woman held up her hand. "There's no need for fear. Believe me, I'm more afraid of you than you are of me." The Angel bowed her head. "My name is Iry... was Iruel and I wish to defect."


           

End Chapter 11

 

 

            I'd like to thank my pre-readers. They read through my most egregious mistakes so you don't have to. J St C Patrick, Pale Wolf, DGC, and Wray.