And If That Don't Work?

A Neon Genesis Evangelion fic thingy.

By Josh Temple

 

Naturally, I do not own Neon Genesis Evangelion. So here's the disclaimer:

Neon Genesis Evangelion and its characters and settings belong Gainax and Hideaki Anno

 

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 Four: Resource Management

 


            Leaning against the railing, Asuka watched the gleaming VSTOL transport approach. Pausing to note the turrets added to the side doors she watched as the craft angled and touched down on the flight deck. As its turbofans spun down the sound assaulting her ears shifted to that of heavy rotors and turboshafts.


            She looked up and watched a pair of large insectile helicopters move from a their flanking positions and one at a time approach the carrier. By the time her attention returned to the transport it had disgorged a contingent of soldiers. Wearing black berets with the tricolor of the Russian federation and the crimson spear and cleaved shield of Azazel, they formed a rough perimeter.


            Asuka caught a glimpse of a young woman and a much younger girl as they stepped out onto the flight deck.


            "There you are," Kaji stated, causing Asuka to spin around in surprise.


            "Don't sneak up on me!"


            "You should be down by the flight deck." Kaji mildly said, brushing aside her irritated gaze. "Don't you want to meet the Ayanamis?"


            Stealing a backwards glance, Asuka gave dismissive shrug. "I suppose, I should give them a good first impression."


            Kaji peered down and looked at the pale sisters. "Yes, you only get one chance to make a first impression." He stood up and made for the door. "Right. Let's go."


            "What do you think?" Asuka asked as they entered the carrier's island and walked down a flight of stairs to get to the flight deck.


            "We seem to be holding our own. Nerv took out the last two Angels. Hopefully we won't need anymore nukes."


            For a fraction of a second worry crossed Asuka's face. "No problem. If a test pilot and her runt sister can fight off the Angels, just imagine what can happen with a proper pilot and Eva."


            Kaji held his tongue.


            "Well?" Asuka sharply asked.


            Kaji opened the armored door and stepped out to the flight deck. "Asuka, the test pilots are the ones with the most experience. They're the ones that figured out how to make it work in the first place." He hesitated. They were also no longer "mere" test pilots; they were combat veterans, unlike Asuka.


            Two squads of Azazel troopers cut Asuka's retort short. The redhead looked past them to the Ayanamis. The older one was dressed in a Nerv tactical uniform, including the red coat and beret, that while primly cut showed off her lithe body.


            Asuka's attention focused on the younger. The girl walked with a measured, deliberate pace and for a moment Asuka thought she was wearing some kind of flounced, ruffled dress.


            Instead, the younger Ayanami wore some sort of girl's sailor suit, complete with the pleated skirt, wide almost cape-like collar and big bows over her chest and the back of her waist. A lacy purple hair band contained much of her long blue hair while a set of purple tinted glasses kept the remainder from getting into the girl's eyes.


            "I'm sorry you couldn't bring your friends." The older sister's tone was far too energetic for how softspoken her voice was.


            Asuka frowned at the Russians, up close their harsh, suspicious demeanor formed an almost tangible field. The strongest came from a glaring giant of a man who hovered behind the younger sister.


            That girl's tenor was appropriately reserved for her voice. "I didn't ask. It wouldn't be professional." She looked around the ship in a measured sweep taking care to look at people and then at the other vessels. "Shirane would have loved this, though."


            "She would," Misako chuckled and sighed; she had been dreading this moment. The Azazel troops moved to include the two other Nerv personnel on their cordon. Misako then inclined her head at the scraggly man. "Special Inspector Kaji Ryoji."


            Shinju mirrored the gesture, causing her hair to spill over the bows on either side of her hair band. "Pilot Soryu."


            Kaji glanced over to find Asuka staring into the slight girl's scarlet eyes. "Yes. Captain Ayanami, Misako. Asuka." He cleared his throat.


            "Right. Uh... Pilot." The redhead blinked and pulled away from Shinju's eyes, and ended up looking straight at Misako's.


            "Where's Captain Groves?"


            "He's up in the flag bridge," Kaji pointed to one of the levels in the island.


            "Right," Misako stepped past him and started talking with a naval officer a few steps behind Kaji. The forty foot hike up four decks was conducted silently.


            Turning around Kaji chuckled, the almost rudely brisk demeanor was very reminiscent. Though the dossier he had read did indicate the Captain and the Project E Director were close. With Asuka at his heel, he followed the Ayanamis as they made their way up the Island.


            Kaji was wrong. Captain Robert Groves was not in the flag bridge, that sparse room was completely emtpy. Groves was a deck above in the navigation bridge, which held she ship's helm and various workstations for the bridge team.


            Entering the full bright control room, Misako looked to the left and saluted. "Captain."


            Bearing a bushy moustache and burly arms, Captain Groves repeated the greeting. His expression hardened as he turned to look behind her. "Kaji, I didn't invite you up here.


            Kaji gave a disarming smirk. "Sorry about that."


            Groves grunted.


            "We appreciate your assistance with the transport of Eva Unit 02." Misako paused, letting her statement hang.


            Groves raised an eyebrow.


            "Here's the specification of the emergency power socket," Misako pulled a folder out of her valise.


            "I haven't heard any request to mobilize 'that' doll at sea."


            Misako sucked air through her teeth. So that was the game Third Branch was playing. "Just think of it as a backup in case of emergency."


            Groves chuckled. Backup was about right. "To guard against such emergencies we the Pacific Fleet, are escorting it. When did the US Navy become a delivery service?"


            Misako blinked. Most of the planes on the deck bore UN markings, though a few... a few were more... specific.


            Groves' executive officer, a lanky man, cleared his throat. "I believe it was just after a certain organization was established." Commander Leslie Oppenheimer looked at the two women with their red eyes. At least they were better than the Nerv staff they had been dealing with..


            "This is a massive escort for guarding a mere toy. The entire Pacific Fleet is mobilized." Groves stared her in the eye as he emphasized the second word in the second sentence.


            Misako nodded in understanding. A certain organization had turned them into messenger boys, then another had turned them back into sailors. "Considering Eva's importance it seems too... small." Misako wanted to say "slow"; though what she really wanted was to bust some heads at Third Branch, or at least have a beer while she ordered Sakharov to do it for her. "Well, please sign these forms."


            Groves sighed and exhaled slowly. "Not yet. At the request of the Third Branch in Germany... both Unit 02 and its pilot are under this fleet's command." He winced; but orders were orders. "I won't allow you to just do as you please." He took care to stress the first word.


            "Then, when will you transfer command?" Misako calmly asked, sympathizing with how Third Branch had hamstrung Groves as well.


            Oppenheimer cut in. "After unloading the cargo at Shin-Yokosuka."


            Groves looked to the Azazel Naval Infantry Captain. "We're still in charge at sea. Follow our orders without question."


            "I understand. In an emergency, however, please don't forget that Nerv has-" Misako caught herself. In truth, Nerv did not have authority. JSSDF had overall authority, and that was only on Japanese soil. Out here... Azazel was the more likely authority, being, nominally, a naval organization.


            Recovering from her stumble Misako kept her tone level. "Nerv has considerable experience. Captain Sakharov can lend some of Azazel's experience as well, if the situation arises."


            "We appreciate that Nerv sent out some officers to discuss things and help with emergency management," Groves gruffly answered.


            Misako coughed. "Third Branch deserves the credit. They were quite insistent on taking responsibility."


            "Yes, they were." Groves smirked. "Very well. We don't have that much left, you can go and wait in the mess. Lieutenant Briggs can show you the way."


            "Sir," Misako saluted.


            Groves watched the Nerv and Azazel contingent leave. "Shit! Those kids will save the Earth?" he asked once they were safely out of earshot. At least the new one was quiet; besides he preferred slightly-creepy to... whatever that Soryu girl was.


            Oppenheimer chuckled. "Times change."


            Groves raised an eyebrow. "Oh? Sounds more like history is repeating itself."


            "I heard that Congress has put its hopes in that robot."


            "In that toy? Idiots!"


            Oppenheimer shrugged. "Do you expect congress to spend it's money wisely? We should count ourselves lucky we have what we have."


            Groves looked over the water out towards the cargo ship Othello. "If they have the money for things like this, they should be paying us more."

 

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

 


            In the mess hall. Misako, Shinju, and Sakharov sat on one side of the table while Kaji and Asuka sat on the other. The remaining Azazel troops sat around them in a relaxed but alert state.


            Asuka looked across the table. Then she looked to Kaji. As she waited the pressure came to a head. "What was that all about?"


            Kaji waited to see if anyone else would answer; he then suppressed a sigh. "Captain Groves, and apparently Captain Ayanami have issues with how Third Branch is operating."


            "Then why didn't they say it?"


            Kaji shook his head. "They're soldiers. One doesn't question orders."


            Looking at the two implacable crimson eyed girls, Asuka snorted. Derision was better than worrying about what they were thinking. "And what's Third Branch doing that's so wrong?"


            "The Nakajima-Douglas YC-59 Mobile Operation: Evangelion System is capable of carrying a battle-loaded Unit nearly four thousand kilometers," Shinju stated.


            "Russia offered Third Branch the use of our airstrips. Those that would fit one of those beasts." Sakharov snickered slightly, though the warmth did not reach his eyes.


            "The 59 also has in-flight refueling capability," Misako flatly added.


            "So... why didn't they fly my Unit, then? Wouldn't it be faster?" Asuka blinked.


            "Yes, but Third branch felt that this would be a more reliable way. Those transports haven't carried any Eva's very far." Kaji suddenly turned to Misako. "So, are you seeing anyone?"


            Tilting her head a couple millimeters, Misako stared. Some things never changed. Deciding no response was worth the hassle she kept silent and waited him out.


            "Oh, you're so cold," Kaji teased. After he laughed he looked to see those red eyes still quietly, distantly measuring him.


            Kaji let his attention drift. "So you came up with the battle plan against Ramiel?" he asked Shinju.


            "How do you know that?"


            Kaji brushed the question aside. "It's no surprise, you're famous in our society. The Fourth Child, who's tied for the Angel kill record. You fought one Angel alone and then launched from eight kilometers in the sky to defeat another. A little girl selflessly fighting to save humanity. Of course people are going to look up to your courage."


            Underneath the table, Asuka's fists clenched.


            "Not really. It was training." Shinju made a note to inform Section Two of a possible intelligence breach.


            The younger girl's bland, modest demeanor ate at Asuka and the Second Child openly glowered.


            "Training?" Kaji raised an eyebrow. "That's a skill. It's part of your destiny. It's your talent." He got up. "See you later, then."


            Asuka lingered but quickly decided that needling a distracted Kaji was preferable to the company of Russians and creepy sisters


            After the redhead left Sakharov stood up. To the casual eye the sisters' expressions seemed neutral and idle, but he had been around the Ayanamis long enough to pick up on their minute facial tells. The slight wrinkling of the brows, the bare narrowing of the eyes, the straightened shoulders and back....


            "Who wants some tea?" he asked, hoping to improve their spirits, or at least lessen their stress. "Anyone hungry? I'm sure they can at least make a sandwich or two."

 

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

 


            Kaji leaned against a bulkhead and looked out at the ocean. "What do you think of Ayanami Shinju?"


            Holding herself up on the railing, Asuka swung her legs back and forth. "She's dull. I'm disappointed that a girl like her has been chosen as the Fourth Child." Asuka held back her unease, Kaji seemed perfectly fine with the sisters. He even hit on one of them; Asuka's grip tightened.


            "The first time using Unit 01, her syncro-rate exceeded sixty percent." Kaji smirked.


            Asuka froze. "No way! No one's that good!"


            Kaji disarmingly, and defensively put his palms up. "The kid's a natural. It's in the blood."


            "She's only a Pilot because her sister's one," Asuka spat.


            "Well... yes. Siblings of Pilots would have much higher than average odds of being a Pilot themselves – it's genetic," he explained, then hastily added.  "It's just... Shinju was too young."


            "Until the Third Child died."


            "Yup, in battle," Kaji stared into the distance. The story was... odd. Those two Ayanamis were definitely sisters. It would be hard to fake that kind of effortless familiarity, not to mention the obvious physical and mental similarities. However it all seemed too... neat. It all made Nerv HQ seem, suddenly, too on the ball.


            "Evangelion didn't even sortie," Asuka snorted replacing the word battle; in her view an N2 mine followed by a nuclear cruise missile did not count.


            Kaji idly wondered how the elder Ayanami would handle Asuka; Azazel training figured prominently in his suppositions.


            "And what kind of a girl wears bows and a hair band like that?"


            "She does." Kaji shrugged. "It works for her."


            Asuka glared before pushing herself off the railing. She marched back into the ship and returned to the mess, where she found the Ayanamis and Russians sitting around the same table.


            The redhead put her hands on her hips. "Fourth Child! Come with me!"


            Shinju's eyes narrowed fractionally, and Igor moved to face the interloper; like an avalanche, scale made his motions look slower than they actually were.


            "What's this about?" Misako crisply asked.


            "I want to show her my Evangelion."


            "Oneesan?" Shinju asked.


            Misako frowned. The years had not tempered Asuka, on the contrary. "If she wants to show off, let her. I wanted you to be familiarized with Unit 02 anyway."


            Looking at Asuka's triumphant smirk, Shinju gave a small nod.


            "Igor. Take a squad and one of the Mi-24's"


            "They're coming?" Asuka felt she kept her tone controlled.


            "That's the purpose of Lieutenant Khariton and his men." Misako smiled slightly. Sakharov had already briefed her on the composition of Asuka's protective platoon.


            Looking between Misako's miniscule expression of mirth and a Igor's gigantic grin, Asuka started to regret her actions. However, some of the Russians had already stood up and began to escort Shinju out of the room.

 

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

 


            Asuka almost flounced down the walkway on the Othello. The helicopter ride had been hair-raising. She wondered why Nerv would let its Pilots risk their lives in such dated and dangerous machines. However her spirits soared as she drew nearer. With a flourish she lifted up the corner of the immense tarp that covered the cargo hold of the ship.


            To her satisfaction even the Russian soldiers gasped. Turning around she wanted to capture the Fourth's awe. Instead....


            "Unit 02 is red." Shinju flatly observed.


            "That's not the only difference!"


            "Proper color at least," Igor noted sagely. The titanic war machine was laying in a pool of lilac-colored coolant liquid. The left side of its head was submerged


            Asuka sniffed and stepped down to the floating dock that lead to the Unit's head and plug. "After all, Units 00 and 01 are prototypes. They're just test models. That's why it synchronized with someone who hasn't had any training. However, Unit 02 is different. This is a true Evangelion, the first on Earth to be built for actual combat. The final model."


            She turned to see that Shinju had followed her while most of the Russians had remained atop up on the deck. Only the giant of an officer had come down with the petite Pilot.


            Shinju gave a slight nod. "Correct. Unit 02 has better internal batteries, especially in recharge speed. The shoulder pylons were upgraded structurally and given supplemental defensive measures. The progressive knife is a new model with a backup blade mechanism. The targeting computer had a new software version . The armor on the arms and chest is of a stronger alloy, and the hips joints are more flexible."


            Asuka blinked.


            "Oneechan and I were briefed on Unit 02's capabilities."


            "Well yes, it's much better than the others."


            Shinju blinked.


            Sighing Asuka climbed off of Unit 02's head. At least she had not gone with her original plan and climbed to the summit of its back for her declaration. Stepping onto the floating dock, she nearly fell because of  a sudden and deep explosion.


            "What's happening?" Shinju demanded of Igor.


            The Russian barked a few orders to his men before speaking into his radio.


            "A cruiser just got hit! Broke up amidships. Something huge!" Sergeant Ginzburg shouted from up on the the deck.


            Shinju frowned. "That's an Angel."


            "Is that a real one?" Asuka started walking down the dock. She jumped up the steps and looked out into the water and saw another ship get hit. "Chance," she whispered, a feral smirk growing on her face.


            She turned around and bumped into a glowering Slavic giant. "Hey, where're we going?"

 

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

 


            "What do we have?" Misako asked as she stepped into the command center. Through the window she could see a few of planes taking off from the deck and many of the ships firing as they separated. The missiles and torpedoes hit harmlessly, but Misako surmised, damage was not their purpose.


            "Pattern Blue, it's an Angel." Commander Oppenheimer looked up from a display. "Fleet is nearing separation point."


            Captain Groves nodded and looked up to Misako. "National Command Authority has ordered us to use non-UN resources and weapons."


            "Sakharov contact HQ." Misako's attention returned to Groves. "What are your submarine force and other strategic assets?"


            "So far we've contacted the USS's Oak Ridge, Inyokern, Wendover, and Uravan," Groves stated. "Air assets are also being deployed."


            "What of Unit 02? Are you planning to launch before support arrives?" Misako asked Groves.


            Before the Capitan could respond, Igor radioed in. "Capitan Ayanami, Pilot Soryu request launch."


            Oppenheimer's eyes widened. "Is she serious? Unit 02's still configured with B-equipment."


            Misako's eyes hardened and she briefly promised to take Third Branch to task for this... treasonous incompetence. The timing... the timing merely heightened her paranoia. "Denied. Igor take the Pilots. Get them as far away as possible. Use whatever means available," she stated into her radio.


            "Very well, we can have Unit 00 on it way with a functional load out but..." Misako shook her head.


            Groves paused in giving orders. "We can delay operations until the Pilots are a safe distance."


            Misako nodded.


            Sakharov leaned in and whispered into Misako's ear. "Capitan, 00 and 01 are being equipped and loaded. Director Ritsuko also asked about the Special Inspector?"


            Her stomach tightening into a cold knot Misako turned her head. "Send out your men, contact ship security. Find him. If he tries to leave, kill him. This isn't adding up."


            Grinning coldly, Sakharov nodded.

 

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

 


            "B-Type? Chyort voz'mi!" Igor swore; he had herded the Pilots back into the cargo area and had a his squad take a defensive position, though the way that monster cut through ships....


            "Oh," Shinju almost growled as she pulled out her handgun and worked the action. She knew it was useless against an AT field, but there was no reason the enemy had to be limited to just giant Angels.


            Asuka blinked at the weapon. "So?"


            Shinju gave the redhead a flat gaze. The paralysis due to being submerged was a primary deficiency of B-Type equipment. That was why Shinju requested a different load out for the Jet Alone wargame. "If you fall into the sea, it's over."


            "If I don't we'll be okay," Asuka countered.


            By now Igor had received his orders. "No go. No launch." He changed the channel on his radio. "Sergey start the engines. We leave! Now!"


            "What?" Asuka screamed. "Who's going to fight the Angel?"


            "Not you," Igor stated.


            "No, I won't go! I've got to stop it!" Asuka started walking down the dock.


            "What are you going to do? Jump from ship to ship?" Shinju held kept her gun pointed to the floor.


            "Bakapor. No time!" Igor ran up and cut the girl off. "Orders. We leave."


            Anger welled in Asuka's face and she opened her mouth.


            Before she could speak, well measured, a ham-hock of a fist launched at the redhead and hit her in the face. Momentum alone knocked the girl into a sprawling heap, which Igor rapidly set upon, securing her ankles and her wrists behind her back with zip-ties. One of his sergeants then grabbed Asuka's duffle bag.


            After quickly checking her breathing, taking her pulse, and making sure that the bleeding around her nose was not severe, he hefted the girl on his shoulder and was relieved to see that Shinju and the rest of his men were already running aft towards the helipad. Barely minding the load he sprinted down the ship and caught up with the other Azazel troops. The Mi-24's powered-up turboshafts were music to his ears.


            Busy with general quarters, the ship's crew hardly noticed as the Russians pushed the girls into the helicopter which immediately took off. As the lumbering aircraft ascended they watched as the immense wake of the unseen enemy shoot towards the cargo ship.


            They were barely two hundred meters up when the Othello was struck. Her keel broken, the ship separated and there was a flash of red as the tarp was pulled back, briefly exposing the Evangelion before it sank to the bottom. Hearing the ship's death Asuka screamed and thrashed but was held by the two troopers who flanked her.


            Grimly, Igor made sure that the Captains were informed and that Sergey's heading, towards land, was the best one.


           

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

 


            As his call connected, Kaji heard another batch of explosions. "That kind of attack won't penetrate its AT-field," he grimly muttered, knowing full well what kind of attack would.

 
            Looking out the portal of his cramped room, he sighed and presented the correct authorization codes to the operator.


            "Yes?" the irritable deep voice answered.


            "I never expected an Angel attack here." There was another ineffective explosion as an Exocet missile... nearly hit the angel. "They- this isn't like what you said," Kaji cursed his slip and watched a couple of seconds of battle before it slipped out of view. The Navy was not aiming to damage the Angel. They were making sure they could hit it.


            Kaji frowned at the phone's silence.


            "That's what Unit 02 is for, and another Pilot's there as a reserve. If the worst happens, escape by yourself," the man's voice ordered.


            "I understand."


            The connection terminated.


            Sighing again, he picked up the reinforced suitcase and left his small overnight bag. Kaji opened the door and stepped out into the corridor, the alarms signaling general quarters increased in volume and assaulted his ears.


            "Halt!" a voice shouted in accented English.


            Kaji turned to see a trio of Azazel soldiers raise their weapons at him. Standing behind them were some irate USN sailors; though their rifles were lowered.


            "What's going on?"


            The lead Azazel trooper spoke into his radio. "We got him. Leaving room. With suitcase." The last statement came out of Sergeant Zlatoust's mouth laced with venom.


            Kaji tried a disarming smile. "I'm operating under Nerv orders."


            "So are we," Zlatoust chuckled mirthlessly. "Captain Ayanami wants to see you."


            "Look, I'm under orders to take care of this package."


            "Which you will put down." Zlatoust glared at the suitcase. "Master Chief Penn, can you get an EOD team?"


            Kaji stiffened in realization. They were under attack, and here he was sneaking out with a strange, heavy case. "Oh come on, it's not like it's a bomb." He then winced. That was not a wise thing for a suspected saboteur to blurt.


            "Put case down," Zlatoust repeated as Penn sent a runner to get an Explosives Ordinance Disposal team.


            Kaji lowered the suitcase to the floor. "This is Top Secret Nerv. You can't just crack it open."


            "That's for Tactical Operations to decide." Zlatoust repeated robotically. He then radioed an update and found himself talking with Ayanami.


            Kaji exhaled. The chain of command had him in the right; these brutes just had to be informed. "Just tell the Captain to contact her superiors. That'll clear this all up," he disarmingly said.


            With a grunt, Zlatoust relayed the Inspector's sentiments. He smirked at the response he got. At least someone in Nerv was decisive. "Captain will clarify your orders," he told Kaji.


            "And then what?" Kaji eyed the case.


            Zlatoust briefly checked to make sure his men were still on target. "No concern. You telling truth; you okay. You not..." His smirk grew fractionally.


            Kaji shook his head. At least they caught him early. He did not want to contemplate what they would have done if they had found him in the hanger, or worse if they saw him taking off in a commandeered Yak-38.

 

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

 


            The USS Inyokern was about to end half a century of American atomic abstinence. Operating on the Northern periphery of the fleet it received word from command. The sounds or breaking hulls was a minor part of the sonar "picture".


            A target of unprecedented size was streaking among the fleet. Several times longer than a Nimitz the target's immense cavitations were quite useful. The constant formation and collapse of bubbles and wake made the beast trivial to track.


            Captain Enrico Teller leaned over his sonar operator's shoulder; the thing's heading might has well have been put up in neon. The only question was if they could get within range before it decided to turn and head back.


             "Bastard's turning, again." Lieutenant Ede Fermi stated. "Damn thing's wallowing like a sow."


            "It's not built for maneuvering." Teller muttered, hearing the cavitations grow as the ungangly beast tried to turn and ended up wallowing as it shed velocity. The enemy was optimized for speed, and had to take wide turns in order to circle back to take another pass at the fleet.


            "We're in range!" Lieutenant Farrell, one of the weapons officers shouted.


            ""Fire tube three," Teller stated, despite the dryness in his mouth.

 

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

 


            The Mi-24 landed at a JSSDF airfield near Shin-Yokosuka. Igor removed the heavy anti-radiation blankets that the Pilots had been wrapped in.


            Shinju gave a nod of thanks and stepped off the helicopter, while Asuka glared from her bloodied face.


            Taking measure of her expression, Igor only cut her leg bindings, and picked her up by the shoulder.


            "Stop it!" Asuka cried as she was manhandled out of the helicopter.


            Once on the pavement her thrashing stopped and she looked to see the young Ayanami staring out toward the water. Asuka glared at the girl, then at the helicopter, then at the helicopter's pilots. "Wait... why were they wearing eye patches?"


            "Same reason we were told to keep our eyes closed." Shinju stated, averting her gaze from the water. "In case the flash from the fireball blinded them."


            "That's crazy." Asuka pulled at her wrist bindings. "I would have had this thing fixed by now.


            Igor looked the girl over, there was little bruising and she did not seem to have a concussion but... "We going," he rumbled, motioning for them to get into the tower building. It was cast concrete and provided some measure of protection and the airbase would have a doctor that could check her out.


            "Pulling your best Pilot away from the battle." Asuka snorted as they entered the building. "What kind of officer is Misako?"


            Shinju turned, a disarmingly small frown on her face. "Why are you making things more difficult?"


            Holding a mobile phone, his radio was out or range, Igor stepped up to Shinju. "Director Akagi called. Your transport is flying in."


            Asuka's cheeks flushed. However her retort was cutoff by a distant, thunderous explosion.


            "May not need Eva then," Igor muttered before going back to the tower phone. "We just heard explosion. Status?"


            "Scheisse," Asuka swore.


            "See?" Shinju asked, just before another shockwave buffeted the building. They were too far for it to be much more than wind and noise, but it was still impressive.


            Asuka glared.


            Shinju stared back. "You would have just been in the way."


           

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

 


            With the sound of supersonic shock waves in the background, Gendo looked over his steepled hands. "You had both of your Pilots retreat from battle, let one get assaulted by an Azazel soldier, lost an Evangelion, stood by as the American Navy destroyed the Angel, and then detained Special Inspector Kaji preventing him from making a critical delivery. Explain yourself Captain."


            Misako Ayanami looked past the Commander and out at the panoramic view of the Geo Front through the glass behind him. "I merely gave the best orders given the situation."


            Commander Ikari inclined his head slightly and stared down at the albino clone.


            Fuyutsuki found his attention drawn to the projection screen that had been lowered from its ceiling-recess. On it was shaky camera footage of the battle. An underwater explosion displaced tens of thousands of tons of water in what resembled a titanic frothing bubble and vaporized nearly as much. After it had collapsed into a boiling sea another explosion came and reignited the maelstrom. By miracle, and dispersal of the fleet, few ships were capsized by the blast. Many were bathed in radiation, though their crews had time to make sure no one was on deck.


            "Is that true?" Gendo's eyes were locked onto Misako's.


            The camera switched to one from the deck of a ship. The stability indicated that it was on some kind of remote mount. The impassive, implacable camera tracked pair of missiles as they streaked in.


            Misako held fast. "Sir, given its condition, deploying Unit 02 would have been disastrous."


            The missiles slipped into the water and after an agonizing, anticipating moment detonated. The twinned explosions combined and formed smaller but fiercer blast-waves. Behind the displaced water, fireballs and flashes of stark-white flesh were visible. Gaghiel's AT field collapsed, its core ruptured, and man killed another of Adam's children.


            "Yes, the B-Type equipment."


            Fuyutsuki could detect a slight undercurrent of disgust in Ikari's statement. This time the professor had to suppress a smirk.


            "Sir, permission to speak candidly?"


            Gendo nodded.


            "To date every enemy Angel has attacked from the ocean. To not equip an Evangelion crossing two oceans with aquatic capable equipment..." This time Misako's eyes went to the screen as it looped, showing the same footage from another set of cameras. "We are either dealing with negligent incompetence of such a scale to be criminal or outright sabotage and treason."


            Ikari concealed a small smile. "Oh?"


            "First Third Branch drags their feet on the Reorganization, then they do everything they can to delay shipping Unit 02 and its Pilot. Finally, when forced to transfer the Unit, they pick the slowest, and easiest to track, transportation method possible. Then fail to equip the Unit such that it can fight."


            Briefly wondering if the Captain had gotten some pointers from Akagi before hand, Fuyutsuki gave a slight nod.


            "The Evangelion could still generate an AT field," Gendo Stated.


            "To what use, Sir? With B-Type, Unit 02 would be immobile the second it hit the water. That left staying on the cargo ship or some insane ship to ship skipping. Neither option would work against a wholly aquatic Angel." Misako slowly turned back to Gendo. "I'm sorry to say Sir, but sunk at the bottom was the best place for Unit 02 in this battle."


            "And the assault on the Second Child?"


            "She refused a direct order." Misako crisply stated. "And in doing so, placed herself and others in danger - including the Fourth." 


            "Gaghiel did destroy the cargo ship soon after the helicopter left. Further delay would have been disastrous." Fuyutsuki pointed out.


            "Which just leaves the detention and interrogation of the Special Inspector," Gendo stated.


            "When the ranking Nerv officer of a convoy vanishes during an attack on the convoy, that is suspicious. When there is strong circumstantial evidence of sabotage and the officer in question is found sneaking out of his room with a container he refuses to open, that is more than suspicious."


            "He was operating under orders," Gendo's gaze sharpened.


            "Without proof it was merely the word of someone who planned to flee the battle in a jet. Until I got confirmation from you or Sub-commander Fuyutsuki, I treated him as a potential hostile. Traitors are capable of lying, Sir."


            "Is there the possibility of your previous relationship affecting your judgment?"


            "Sir, I'll admit that Katsuragi's relationship with him did give me an insight into his character and his capability of duplicity. I hoped he was operating legitimately but he was the only Nerv officer there. The only other Nerv personnel were a skeleton crew of technicians who died when the Othello sank and the Second Child."


            "You have kept Kaji in a detention cell," Fuyutsuki reminded Ikari.


            Gendo pushed his glassed up the bridge of his nose and wondered if the "Zeroeth" Child was referring to her old self as a separate person out of a desire to "maintain character" or out of genuine feelings. He would have to consult Dr. Akagi on the subject. "The situation is most vexing, and I am short on satisfactory answers. At least some of my officers have their loyalties in the proper place."


            "You suspect Third Branch?" Fuyutsuki asked.


            "The Captain is correct. Their actions leave two unpleasant options."


            "And several unpleasant consequences, Sir." Misako added. "The Americans have pulled their Naval forces out of the UN fleet. The Russians will soon follow."


            Fuyutsuki looked to the display. "That matches the Russian's desire to expand Azazel, and the American's pursuit of a sister program."


            "Who proved their effectiveness during the battle."


            "Yes, without them, the UN fleet would have been reduced to a tithe instead of merely decimated..


            "Allowing host nations to recover even more of their ships." Gendo stated. "Without the Americans and the Russians, the Europeans and the Chinese will be next, followed by the remainder."


            "And Nerv gets the blame," Fuyutsuki frowned.


            "Sirs, it is Third Branch's fault, and the guilty parties should be charged fully," Misako's voice was cold and clipped.


            "An investigation would help us determine whether it was sabotage or incompetence," Fuyutsuki allowed.


            "And a court martial or two would show Nerv's commitment while focusing the blame onto Third Branch." Gendo put his hands down, revealing his cold smile. "Captain, I believe you have another Pilot to train. Dismissed."

 

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

 


            Asuka glared at the wall. At least she had been given her own apartment. Given what had happened to her Evangelion, it was the very least Nerv could do. Her anger renewed at the injustice against her.


            The apartment door cracked open and a deep contralto assaulted her ears. "Feh, so they did manage to find an apartment that they had yet to stink up with borscht and vodka."


            Hearing German, Asuka could immediately recognize the Low Saxon accent. She turned to face the woman and had mixed surprise. The stout, strong blue-eyed, short blonde haired middle-aged woman was quite Germanic, though the Russian Naval Infantry uniform showed that she would have fit in on a Russian farm as easily as a German one.


            "And you are?"


            "You did not read the report?" the woman frowned and stepped into the room.


            Asuka glared.


            "Lieutenant Katrina Diebner, Azazel. My platoon has been assigned to you," Katrina stated, closing the door behind her.


            "Right." Asuka sighed. "Well, you speak German passably enough. Are you going to punch me in the face too?" she asked, stepping into the kitchen.


            "If you refuse an order, yes." Katrina stated. "And I am more German than you are."


            "Right, because German citizens can serve in the Russian military."


            Katrina gave a brief smile. "Says the American."


            Asuka narrowed her eyes. "Blame my father for that."


            "I was a citizen of the German Democratic Republic, until I was sixteen and that country ceased to exist. Then my family moved back to Konigsberg, but it was a brief respite, as communism soon fell there too."


            "You're not calling it Kaliningrad?" Asuka knew enough Prussian history to understand the terms..


            "Use the General's name? Yes the Motherland defeated the fascists, and I suppose that is reason to take away that land from the Fatherland." Diebner shrugged her shoulders. "That is the past."


            "Huh... so you went with the Russians?"


            "The Fatherland would not take me. Not with my family's history."


            Asuka blinked. "What?".


            "No matter." Katrina walked around the room. "As I said, my platoon has been assigned to guarding you, and if I can force that collection of potato-digging peasants into a batch of real soldiers, imagine what I can do with you."


            "Hey! I'm the-"


            Katrina snapped the back of her hand across Asuka's face. "You are slow! You are an insult to the Fatherland. It is a good thing you are a child. If you were an adult your treachery would have gotten you shot."


            Face reddening, Asuka glared at the scared-woman. "I wanted to fight!"


            Katrina sniffed. "Your fighting spirit is not lacking, only your sense."


            "I knew the risks! I'll die to kill the Angels."


            "Must I repeat myself?" Katrina shook her head. "The time may come when your life will be spent, but I should hope it would not be cashed in on such a foolhardy endeavor. A water battle would have been suicidal, and worse you would have gotten in the way, preventing others from killing the enemy."


            "That's not my fault!"


            Katrina's eyes hardened. "Yes. It is."


            Asuka paused.


            "Who's Evangelion is currently resting on the ocean floor?" Katrina asked in a disturbingly jovial German.


            Asuka's reply was automatic. "Mine."


            "And you knew the limits of your equipment." Katrina savored the frightened look in the young girl. "Did you not anticipate an aquatic battle? Did you not force those technicians to request the necessary equipment, before the convoy stated? Is Unit 02 not your responsibility?"


            "I-"


            "You what? You sunned yourself on the deck? You chased after that Nerv Inspector? Did you train at all on the journey?"


            "No. Of course not."


            Katrina glared.


            "What? I couldn't very well activate my Evangelion."


            "Fah, so much work to do." Katrina turned to the door. "Come," she ordered without turning around.


            Reluctantly, Asuka followed. Stepping out into the hallway, she saw the depressingly familiar grouping of Azazel troops. They walked down the hallway, passing several open doors. Which contained idle soldiers most were resting, reading, or playing card games, but one had a quartet practicing on their instruments.


            After a trip in the elevator they cut through the lobby. Sandbagged positions, tripod mounted machine guns, and various supply crates were glaringly conspicuous. Exiting a side door they stepped onto a grassy side yard.


            There Asuka stared as she watched two of the Ayanamis... fight. Both were in stripped t-shirts and shorts. The younger one was wearing her hair band and those purple glasses. The older one was nearly identical, save the two years of growth, shorter hair, and ruby-lens glasses.


            Each held a black, rubber knife and to Asuka's slight confusion were leading with their empty hands. Overseeing their sprawling combat, was the giant that had punched Asuka.


            A measure or pride crossed the man's face as Shinju knocked one of Rei's legs and as the girl fell repeatedly jabbing her practice blade into Rei's side. He then frowned when Rei flipped her blade and poked Shinju's neck.


            "Everyone loses! Hahaha!" He then helped the two girls to their feet. "Let this be lesson for you," he informed Shinju after examining her neck, and Rei's leg. "You did well! Both of you.


            "Knife fight ugly." He dusted his big hands and turned to Asuka. "Oh no, you I do not forget!"


            Asuka's shock at seeing the sisters go from pummeling each other to their strange... staring evaporated under the fierce hate she radiated towards the big man.


            "The Second Child needs training," Katrina said, switching to Japanese.


            "Dah."


            "Perhaps a spar to see where she is?"


            Igor examined the Asuka, then slowly turned to the Ayanamis. "You are no match for them!" He laughed darkly. "Go run home to Mama!"


            Asuka's face reddened to match her hair. "Don't you dare...  don't mock me! I'll take them both on."


            Katrina sighed, at both Igor and Asuka. "I should have waited until it was Pyotr's turn to train. He knew how to keep his mouth shut."


            Igor gave a bearish grin.


            "I'll practice with the Second," Shinju quietly offered.

 

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

 


            Kaji leaned against the bolted down chair in his cell. Ikari was supposed to straighten this all out. He was supposed to straighten out that pink-haired Captain and her Russian goons. Instead.....


            "At least they're not going to kill me," he muttered looking at the armored door. "Ayanami could have dumped me overboard after taking the case."


            He watched as the door opened and a pair of black-suited Security Intelligence agents stepped in and took positions flanking the door. "Hey guys, either of you got a smoke?" he asked, an easy grin forming on his stubbled face.


            The smile cracked as a pair of meaty Russians stepped into the room and took position in the corners adjacent to the door and leveled their rifles. His expression broke completely as Captain Ayanami strode in, her hands clasped behind her back.


            She stopped several paces in front of Kaji and the affixed table before him. To keep clear lines of fire he realized with slight dread. "Mister Ryoji Kaji," she flatly stated.


            "Why hello Misako-chan." Kaji smiled.


            "Captain Ayanami." Misako coldly clarified. "Mister Kaji-"


            "Shouldn't I be Special Inspector Kaji then?"


            "Mister Kaji," Misako repeated, her voice sharpening briefly. "There are several irregularities about your recent behavior."


            "Oh?"


            "As the ranking Nerv officer during Unit 02's transfer were you aware of its inadequate loadout?"


            "Oh?" His smile faltered briefly "That's not my responsibility."


            "So Third Branch released an Evangelion with only a skeleton maintenance crew and a Pilot?'


            "It's her Eva."


            "Does Third Branch make a habit of such negligence?"


            "Why don't you ask them?"


            Misako frowned. "When did Director Harteck give you the case?"


            "The day the Othello left Wilhelmshaven."


            "Did he recommend against the airlift?"


            "Nope. I think that was Commander Bothe's choice. He was always jealous of Ikari. The other branches are loath to give up their Evas. As you should know being from First Branch. How is Major Proust doing? Her sister's still trying to get into Nerv?"


            Misako paused. "You kept the case near Unit 02 in case of an Angel attack. Did it not occur to you to verify the Eva's usefulness?"


            Kaji's grin shifted slightly. "So do you like being back with your sisters? Must have been a while since you last saw them."


            "Every attack has originated from the Ocean, and yet when the Commander in Chief of Nerv tasks you with guarding critical equipment, you do not ensure that the Evangelion with you could survive getting wet?"


            "There were nukes."


            "You decided that Nerv should once again depend on another organization's protection?"


            "Well, no."


            "Did you inform the Commander of this change in defensive strategy?"


            "What?" Kaji's eyes sharpened. "You kept me from leaving!"


            "If you had gone through proper channels your leaving during battle would not have been suspicious," Misako mildly stated.


            Kaji gaped. The implacable red eyed woman glanced to her guards. "You can't be serious," he moaned.

 
            "As a Special Inspector you are supposed to provide oversight to Nerv operations. Why did you not report Third Branch's gross violations?"


            Kaji's gaze fractured. "The Unit wasn't my responsibility. The case was."


            "Why didn't you petition a faster mode of transportation?"


            "I don't have that kind of authority."


            Misako gave a slight nod.


            "And unfortunately, neither does Commander Ikari."


            "Is that your reason for not informing him?" Misako asked, noting his grin beginning to return.


            "Oh, I told him, but the Commander insisted I stay with the Evangelion."


            "Did you inform him as to its deficient equipment?"


            "Well.... no." Kaji looked up. He would have preferred to see her give a victorious little smile or a smug smirk or even any kind of satisfaction. Instead her face was cold and distant.


            Misako briefly lowered her head. "What do you know about B-Type equipment?"


            "I thought it was just basic. It's not like I'm part of Nerv Tactical. Like you or your predecessor."


            Misako cocked an eyebrow. "Why did Third Branch not assign Soryu's tactical officers?"


            "Bothe felt that Lieutenant Clusius would be a burden. Maybe he didn't want to pay for the return fare."


            Misako frowned at his joke. "Petty corruption? Why didn't you report it, Inspector?"


            Kaji bristled. "It wasn't part of my mission."


            "Escorting a package did not take up all of your time. Was some other job dividing your attention?" Misako asked mildly.


            Kaji's smile flickered for half a second. "That information is classified, only Commander Ikari has need to know."


            "Very well," Misako then pulled back her ear and tapped the headset clipped to her ear. "Hello, Commander sir? Yes, he went with that excuse. Understood." Finally smiling, she turned to him.


            Kaji stiffened. "He's coming isn't he?"


            "This won't be a waste of his time. Will it?"

 

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

 


            Ritsuko looked up from her paperwork and sighed. She had hoped, however slight the chances were, that this appointment was a joke. "Yes?" she asked eyeing the two... German women.


            "She bit me!" Asuka screeched. "That creepy little freak bit me!"


            Ritsuko's souring gaze went from the Second Child to the Azazel lieutenant. "While I have a medical degree, I hardly think going all the way to Central Dogma is appropriate for such a wound."
           


            "Not about wound. Injury was dressed after sparring, very little bleeding," Katrina stated.


            "What kind of psycho is the Fourth?"


            "You did knee her in the ribs." Katrina's voice had a touch of pride.


            "And she bit me! Right through my leg."


            "Yes, the distraction allowed her to flip and subdue you," Katarina patiently explained.


            Ritsuko rubbed her forehead. Originally she had skimmed Azazel's Pilot training reports. Then came the pig and the knives. There was a reason the Ayanamis were vegetarians. Ritsuko felt a headache begin to form at the memory. "Isn't this more of a Tactical Branch issue?" She sighed, if it was not... then Misako would need to be adjusted. "Where was Captain Ayanami in all this?"


            "The Captain is in Central Dogma, investigating the previous battle," Katrina crisply stated.


            "And it's not like she'd be any help," Asuka glowered.


            Resistance crumbling, Ritsuko opened her desk drawer and pulled a pack of cigarettes and her lighter. She offered the pack to Katrina, who politely declined. Lighting up, the bottle-blonde returned her gaze to Asuka. "Are you trying to protest your commanding officer?" Ritsuko blew out a plume of bluish-smoke "Is this an attempt to go over Misako's head?"


            Seeing the doctor's frustrated amusement, Asuka hesitated. "I thought you'd be impartial."


            "Impartial? Hah! This is Tokyo Three. Do you have any idea how deep the nepotism and cronyism runs here?"


            "What?"


            "You're angry because the other Pilots are related to the tactical commander and that I'm friends with her? Of course we're all close. Those girls are all that's keeping Japan from being reduced to radioactive slag. You don't think their performance hasn't been under a microscope?"


            Ritsuko took a drag on her cigarette. "Never-mind that they're being trained by their rival organizations. Never-mind that it was an Azazel training session that's made you so pissy, or that it was Azazel personnel that you owe your life to. You're angry at the officer who kept you from running off and getting yourself killed."


            "You can't speak to me this way," Asuka glared.


            Ritsuko gave a manic laugh. At least she did not have to deal with seemingly compliant but judging eyes, no this was simpler fare. "I'm the Director of Project E. There's only three other people you can talk to. One you've already bypassed and the others..." She leaned forward and pulled her lips back and held her cigarette in between her teeth. "Maybe you should try to talk to Commander Ikari."


            "Maybe I will!" Asuka shouted.


            "Nein, bad idea," Katrina intoned.


            Ritsuko lit a fresh cigarette and rubbed out the old one on an astray. "The way I see it, you've got two choices. You can do whatever Nerv tells you to do, or you can go back to Hamburg."


            Asuka's face colored. "But... there's only Three Pilots."


            "And? Nerv can't afford the risk of an insubordinate Pilot. Do you know the damage a berserk Pilot could cause us?" Ritsuko looked the redhead in the eye. "If you want to stay here you'll obey, and I will be reporting this conversation to Captain Ayanami."


            Staring Asuka took half a step back.


            Ritsuko turned to the Azazel officer. "Lieutenant take her back home."


            Katrina nodded and took the muted Child away. Outside one of Katrina's squads formed up around them in a protective detail. Once they had gone down the hallway from Ritsuko's office the German-Russian woman spoke. "I told you."


            "I..." Asuka glared. "Who does she think she is?" she demanded punching a wall.


            "Director of Project E." Katrina reminded. "It's not wise mouth-off at superiors."


            Asuka withdrew her fist. "It's not supposed to be this way."


            As they got onto an escalator, the solid woman snorted. "So?"


            "So?" Asuka turned to the blonde. "I'm a Pilot! I'm the Second Child. I was trained to be the best. I'm not supposed to be pushed around and ignored. I'm not supposed to be outclassed by a test pilot and her little sister!"


            "Your insistence to refer to them that way does not change the underlying reality. They are the veteran troops.  You are not."


            "Only because I wasn't here yet!"


            Katrina glared. "That's my point.  They have killed Angels.  You are an rookie, green, untried.  Their training has been grueling and encompassing,  you spend the last couple weeks on a cruise."


            "That's not my fault!" Asuka wailed.


            "Disappointment happens. Deal with it." Katrina's eyes narrowed. "I saw my country collapse and crumble like a wet sandcastle. A whole state gone, just like that. Then I saw the decay grow, and an entire political existence shatter and blow apart. Then came the Second Impact." Katrina chuckled.


            "This is different!"


            "Yes, you're being a petulant child. My world died. Your world may die too, and I ask: So?" Katrina's eyes hardened.


            "I don't get it."


            "What does crying solve? What does yelling solve? Pathetic mewling like that makes you a disgrace to the Fatherland." Katrina looked to one of her Sergeants and barked an order to him in Russian.


            "You work for Azazel."


            "You don't work for the Bundeswehr either."


            "That's because they don't have Evangelions," Asuka reminded while the contingent passed through a security station. The Nerv Tactical personnel slightly wary of the Azazel troops.


            "Neither do they have nuclear arms." Katrina smirked and turned back to the Sergeant who informed her that their surface transportation was ready. "What do you want Pilot Soryu?"


            Asuka opened her mouth, then closed it. She was silent for a few moments. Then when they boarded an elevator she had her answer. "To be the best Evangelion Pilot."


            "Is that it?" Katrina tapped her chin. "Then swallow your pride. Become a good little soldier, do everything that these people tell you to do."


            Asuka turned to the Russian officer.

            "They control Evangelion. You Pilot at their whim." Katrina's blue eyes twinkled. "Prove them wrong. You think you're better than them. Show them. Be the better soldier. Be the better killer. Be the better Pilot."


            "But I am!"

            "Nein," Katrina shook her head. They then stepped out of the elevator, linking up with the squad members that traveled ahead of them. "How many Angels have you killed? Words are cheap. Akagi showed you that."


            "So, I need to prove it to them?"


            Katrina smirked, the teen sneered but only slightly. "It should be easy. You know your Unit best, you have the best Unit, and you have me."


            "Oh?"


            "I know how Azazel works, and I can certainly train you better than that fat, bald lunatic and his mute friend."


            Crossing a vast wide corridor, Asuka frowned. "What about the other Pilots? Those sisters don't like me."


            "That is troubling." Outwardly, Katrina bore a frown that mirrored her charge's. They passed through another security station and entered an underground garage, where their APCs waited. "However, I have a plan. You won't like it, but it has to be done."

 

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

 


            Shinju turned the page on her copy of "Guerrilla Sniper" and read a few paragraphs. After a couple minutes she found her mind slipping from the text and lowered the book.


            Sitting on the opposite end of the couch, Rei paused reading and lowered her book: a RAND corporation release called "Mastering the Ultimate High Ground, The Next Steps In the Military Uses of Space." She waited and noticed the slight distress on her clone's face. "Are you having trouble?"


            Shinju let a small smile form on her face, and took a few seconds to relish the concern someone else had for her. "Yes, Oneechan."


            Rei gave a curt nod. "Long range support is an ill-suited role for Evangelion,"


            "It's not that."


            The middle Ayanami raised an eyebrow.


            Shinju waited until she could express herself. "I'm concerned about the Second Child," she eventually said.


            Rei nodded.


            "I know you only saw her during sparring today, but what do you think?"


            Placing a bookmark in her text, Rei then folded her hands over the closed book. "I think you're correct. Concern is prudent."


            Shinju smiled slightly. "She will be trained, and Oneesan will command her. Will that make her a good Pilot?"


            "It made you one." Noticing her sister's contented and continued silence Rei searched for another sentence. "And if it doesn't work, Misako-san will not let her Pilot."


            Shinju nodded at that, but she was still focused on Rei's first statement. "The Second Child is alone. No family. No friends."


            Rei inclined her head and waited for the clone to elaborate.


            Shinju's little smile returned. "Thanks, Oneechan!" she exclaimed before picking up her book.


            After making sure the conversation would not resume, Rei returned to her own reading. Several silent minutes later, Shinju looked up to the clock below the television and retired to her room.


            Knowing that it was merely part of her sister's daily hair care, Rei continued reading. While she understood why her clones had a different hairstyles, she was still relieved that she got the least time-intensive cut to maintain.


            Several minutes after that, the silence was broken. Frowning slightly, Rei answered the apartment's intercom. Her displeasure increased markedly as the conversation progressed.


            Breaking the connection, Rei placed her book on the kitchen table and waited by the door. There was a knock and the First Child opened the door. Glancing past her visitor she nodded to the Azazel troops standing in the hallway.


            "May I come in?" Asuka asked, wondering if the pale girl was being rude or socially stunted. That Rei paused and actually seemed to actually consider the question, pushed Asuka's estimation towards the latter category.


            Rei stepped back from the threshold. "Yes." Her eyes briefly went to the barrette-like interface headset clips on Asuka's head.


            Entering the apartment, Asuka looked around. It was similar in layout to hers, but a bit larger, and warmly decorated to a shocking degree. The fact that there were any personal touches like photographs, game systems and knickknacks stuck out in Asuka's eyes. From her impression of the Captain and the Fourth, Asuka half-expected the Ayanamis to have been grown from pods.


            The door clicked shut behind her; Asuka spun around to see Rei blankly staring at her. For a moment, Asuka glared at those red eyes but then remembered her mission. "Are your sisters around? I..." the redhead faulted. "I have something I need to tell them."


            "Misako-san is still at the Geo-Front. Shinju is in her room." Rei pointed to the small hallway off the right side of the living room.


            "Thanks," Asuka walked across the dining room and paused. Human touches aside, the apartment had an almost oppressive silence. The redhead felt her confidence begin to slip. "Um... Rei... can we be... friends?"


            Rei looked over to her book on the dining room table. "Why?"


            Asuka smirked, this was firmer ground for her. "Because it'd be convenient, in lots of ways."


            "If I'm ordered to, I will."


            "Talk about odd." Asuka muttered under her breath. "Is that a joke?" she asked looking at Rei.


            Rei frowned impatiently. "People comment on my sense of humor."


            "But yeah... people can't be ordered to be friends and expect it to work?"


            Rei tilted her head. "Why not? It's how my family does it."


            Looking past Rei at the exit, Asuka nervously chuckled. "Yeah... I get it." She shook her head. Gott im Himmel, even with her "Sense of humor" she's the sanest one; she hasn't bitten me or ordered a hulking madman to beat me.


            Turning away from Rei, Asuka let her expression slacken and walked down the little hallway. Knocking on the thin door, she found it sliding open under her palm. Running on oiled tracks the door slipped aside revealing Shinju's room.


            Asuka's eye twitched at the adorable assault. The walls were dominated polished-steel-framed, press-glass propaganda posters. Across from the door was one featuring Unit 01 standing with its gun raised as Azazel jets flew in the distance. To the left of that was one with the Prototype and Testtype; to the right were the three Ayanami sisters, the captain in her formal uniform, the Pilots in their plugsuits.


            On the left wall was an aerial shot of the Russian aircraft carrier, which looked suspiciously less dirty than it should have been to Asuka's eyes. On the wall opposite that one was an image of Shinju being lifted up by the square-jawed Azazel pilot. He was wearing a dress uniform while she wore a white party dress.


            Avoiding the walls Asuka found the furniture even worse. From the dresser, a gaggle of over-dressed over-styled dolls stared at her. A sickeningly-scaled miniature vanity was covered in makeup cases, ribbons, knives and magazines, both fashion and munition.


            Finally, sitting on a fluffy ruffled comforter was the Fourth Child; power-blue hair spilled around her in silky pools as she worked a silver hairbrush through the freely flowing strands. Red eyes peeked out from behind the mass of tresses that ran down her face. Her brush stilled as the small girl paused. She then grabbed her hair band, pulled her hair back, and slipped the bowed-band behind her ears.


            Face mostly visible, Shinju turned to Asuka and slowly blinked her slightly tinted eyelids expanding and contracting as her long lashes embraced then separated. "You're staring," she observed in an even, quiet voice.


            "Err... its just the.... posters," Asuka gave a bit of relief. It was nice to see that the perfect little princess actually was vain, egoless good-girl act to the contrary.


            Shinju gave another measured blink. "Yes, we'll have to do another photo-shoot. Now that you're here." A tiny smile formed. "Though we'll have to wait for your Evangelion for those shots."


            Cheeks reddening, Asuka glared at the younger girl. "Wait, what?"


            Slight smile still present, Shinju tilted her head in innocent confusion.


            "Oh," Asuka blinked.


            "So, why are you here?" Shinju asked.


            Asuka looked down. " I think we got off on the wrong foot."


            Shinju cocked an eyebrow.


            "I shouldn't have gotten mad at you, you were just following orders." Asuka's eyes narrowed. "Until you bit me."


            The clone's eyebrow lowered. "That was a bit enthusiastic of me."


            "Enthusiastic." Asuka's skeptical tone was almost as dry as Shinju's original statement. "Do you all have the same broken sense of humor?"


            Shinju frowned slightly.


            Asuka stared at the identical expression. It's like they were mass-produced...


           
"We will be working together." Shinju stated studying the other girl.


            "Yeah, we'll make a good team." Asuka found her confidence. "And you Pilot very well, for someone your age."


            Still scanning Asuka, Shinju's little smile returned. "And you're so pretty! I can just eat you up!" With that exclamation her crimson eyes sparkled.


            Asuka's eyes widened. "What?" she asked as her hands twitched..


            Shinju's open, exuberant expression became tinged with slight confusion. "What shampoo do you use? You smell great! Or is that your soap?"


            Taking a step back, Asuka cursed showering after that sparing session. "It's my shampoo. It uses apricot extracts."


            "Oh? I use a lilac blend for my hair. Yours must work great, I don't see any split ends."


            Asuka almost wished that she had lost all of her luggage. At least then she would have been forced to use Katrina's shampoo, which certainly did not smell... inviting. "I try take care of myself."


            Looking away Asuka tried to find something... stabilizing to look at, something that was not cute, grandiose, or upsetting. The silver picture frame did not help. Seeing six staring red eyes was the opposite of what she was looking for; that the Captain was smiling in the picture did not help either. "You like music?" Asuka asked, her gaze shifting to a mini-CD player next to the frame.


            Shinju nodded.


            "Play an instrument?" Out of the corner of her eye, Asuka caught Shinju's eyes widen and the young girl deeply frown.


            "Yes, but its been a while, I haven't played since I... came to Tokyo 3."


            Looking back at Shinju, Asuka noted that the girl's expression was back to distant and neutral, but so was her voice. "Yeah, I didn't bring my instrument either. What do you play?"


            "Cello."


            Imagining the dainty girl playing a hundred and twenty centimeter instrument Asuka snickered. "Sorry, nice instrument What size did you play half, one quarter?" Often a cello would be scaled down, not by half but only slightly, to help musicians with smaller arms play.


            Blushing, Shinju looked down.


            Asuka grinned, at least someone in this family had emotions.


            "Do you play an instrument?"


            "Violin back in university." Asuka's hopes that the Fourth Child would rise to the bait were dashed when the young girl simply blinked.


            "Oneechan played the violin too," Shinju had never seen Rei open the case, but she had helped move it and a small folder of sheet music into her new room.


            "That's... good. Maybe we can all play sometime."


            Shinju nodded.


            Asuka tapped her chin. "No, that's real good. Add a viola player and we've got a String Quartet. Maybe the Fourth could-"


            Shinju flashed a quick glare.


            "Sorry, Fifth Child." Asuka winced at the faux-pas, it was all to easy to forget that Nerv had already lost a Pilot. "Well... I'm glad that we talked. I think we'll work good together."


            "Oh don't worry, we won't have a choice," Shinju happily said.


            "What?"


            "If we fail, thermonuclear destruction will be rained down upon us." The young girl's subdued smile had a fierce focus. "Just like yesterday."


            "Yeah..." Asuka took a couple steps back.


            "See you during training," Shinju smiled warmly.


            Looking away from the eager and... anticipatory eyes, Asuka nodded and continued to back out of the room. Once in the corridor, Asuka stepped into the living room. There Rei looked up from her book and silently tracked the redhead.


            "Guess I'll see you at training too," Asuka stated.


            Rei inclined her head and returned to her reading.


            Similarly mute, Asuka left the apartment. The door closed behind her, she leaned on the hallway wall and sighed. "What have I gotten into?"


           

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


           


            "I met the Second Child today," Ritsuko sliced open a fresh cigarette pack.


            "How did her medical screening go?" Misako asked leaning back in the office's spare chair. "I know Maya double checked yesterday but that was just for radiation exposure."


            Ritsuko tapped the pack. "Didn't do it. She came to complain to me."


            Misako rubbed her face. "Little brat. She really needs a session in the Eva-Sim."


            "I told her to go to Gendo if she had a problem with your command style."


            Misako's eyes lit up and for a moment she seized up, then the clone burst into laughter.


            "It shut her up." Ritsuko chuckled. "She's not totally senseless."


            Taking a sip of water, Misako shook her head. "It's not that.  I mean trying to pull rank and get Gendo in; Kaji was being an ass."


            Ritsuko tapped the packet idly. "Yes, typical of him."


            "Then he tried to pull some Need to Know garbage. So I called the Commander in." Misako's broad smile revealed her teeth.


            "Wow." Ritsuko shook her head. "It's a real good thing Asuka backed out."


            Grinning Misako nodded. "Gendo was not happy."


            "Well of course, Third Branch's little power play caused a disaster. We could have lost two pilots, an Eva and you."


            "Good thing the Americans ignored the UN and brought nukes," Misako shivered.


            "So Third Branch, was this really all incompetent posturing on their part?"


            Misako sighed. "That's the only reason we got out of him. Kaji could have been a patsy."


            "So, what next?"


            "Captain Horaki's running down the paperwork going over the shipping records and memos. Security Intelligence and Azazel are picking up the top Third Branch officers."


            "You're using Azazel troops?" Ritsuko pursed her lips.


            "Do you trust Security Intelligence?" Misako mirrored the doctor's expression.


            "You're at least sending men from our Security Intelligence ," Ritsuko observed.


            Misako nodded. "I'm afraid Third Branch is a complete write-off."


            "On the upside, this'll allow us to move the S2 research to this facility."


            The elder Ayanami's eyes narrowed slightly. "Did you know something about Third Branch?"


            "Only that their reports were riddled with obfuscation and their experiments were dangerously lacking in rigor."


            Mirth replaced suspicion in Misako's eyes. "You're sounding like another Director I know."


            Ritsuko chuckled. "Beria's right about one thing S2 engines have an incredibly high energy density. If a prototype test went bad..." the scientist shook her head.


            "Thank goodness for Matsushiro."


            "Yes, that is the purpose of a Secondary Experimental Facility." Pulling a cigarette out, Ritsuko studied its filter. "How tough do you think Ikari's going to be?"


            "Third Branch's petty power play eliminated all of the work we'd done in repairing Nerv's image. Once again, we were unable to effectively sortie and had to be saved though the use of nuclear weapons. Once again, a lot of soldiers died before the Angel could be killed. But this time-" Misako curled her lips in a simulacrum of a smile. "the Angel was only able to attack because Nerv screwed up. How tough do you think Ikari's going to be?"


            Flicking her butane lighter, Ritsuko stared at the jetting flame.


            "Yes that's about right." Misako's face shifted to a true smile; however it was an expression that clashed with her vegetarian diet.


            Ritsuko took a drag. "So, not only do we roll up the incompetents and malcontents , but we also play the part of reformer and inspector."


            "It's the best we can do to repair our image and distance ourselves from Third Branch."


            "The next Angel?"


            Spilling slightly, Misako refilled her glass. "We'll have to be decisive."


            "The Second Child?"


            "She's the unknown quantity. She has the least real experience and the most Old Nerv training and no New Nerv training. I have some ideas but..."


            "But she's the first non-Ayanami pilot." Ritsuko tapped some ash into the belly of her cat-shaped astray.


            "Which makes her an important symbol to reduce the nepotism cries." Misako sighed.


            "You think she'll be much of a problem?"


            "During her first combat experience she disobeyed orders and had to be physically subdued and restrained. Then in the course of normal training she got upset and tried to go over my head." Misako gripped her glass. "It's bad enough that we're putting the fate of the world in the hands of young girls, but an unstable one?"


            "You can always ground her."


            Misako scoffed. "Well of course. If she keeps this attitude and fails her training, I'll have to. We can't hide her performance. Not with the JSSDF handling the wargames and Azazel doing their physical training."


            "We can't keep her out of the cockpit. For one, we could easily need three Evangelions." Ritsuko lit a fresh cigarette from the stub of her old one.


            "We can't put a failure in the cockpit either. Just imagine the fallout an incompetent or mutinous Pilot would cause."


            "You girls have really spoiled me." Ritsuko shook her head.


            Misako smirked. "We can't all be your obedient clones."


            "Oh? A subtle hint to lean on the Marduk Institute?" Eyes twinkling, Ritsuko blew a smoke ring.


            "I was wondering if it'd be possible to smooth her emotions out actually, but your idea's better."


            Ritsuko chuckled. "Challenging, she'd be suspicious if she started taking medication and found her moods changing."


            "Then get us another Pilot. That'll also force the Americans to give us one of their Units, and if not... that gives us an excuse to be selective with who we let sortie."


            "And First and Second Branches would be on edge, given what's about to happen to the Third Branch."


            Misako chuckled.


            "Even if you get another pilot, you'll still have to deal with Asuka. What if she doesn't respond to the training? What if she screws up in battle."


            "Depending on the screw up we'll either all die in a nuclear fireball or the Third Impact. For minor infractions, there's always a court martial."


            Ritsuko raised an eyebrow. "Technically they're not soldiers."


            The clone's laugher returned.


            "Oh?"


            "I talked with the Commander, and he's open to the idea."


            "And the Pilots?


            "Shinju and Rei won't bat an eye, and you think the Second Child would let that get in the way?"

 

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

 


            Behind his cyclopean visor, Keel Lorenz stared down at the man across from him. "Unacceptable."


            Sitting on his own white-lighted dais, Gendo inclined his head. "Why?


            "This investigation is disruptive and far too damaging," the man bathed in yellow light intoned.


            "I concur." Gendo stated his hands neatly folded atop his desk. "Unfortunately," he glanced at the empty blue seat. "This investigation is the least damaging option."


            "You've leveled charges against half of Third Branch's senior officers!" the green representative shouted. "How is that the least damaging?"


            "Because it preserves a shred of Nerv's credibility."


            "And this matters? Given this committee's full support, Nerv is untouchable," Lorenz dryly remarked.


            "Is it?" Gendo's eyes flashed between the empty chair and the green one. "For the second time, weapons prohibited by the UN have been deployed, to great effect."


            "It does not matter how the Angels are defeated." Lorenz stated.


            "To an extent." Gendo gave a ghost of a smile. "Project E and associated endeavors are quite expensive. The Plan's solvency depends on Nerv's success."


            Lorenz chuckled. "The... competition worries you."


            "Presuming the work of outside agencies is logical, if Azazel and the US Navy-" Gendo looked to the green representative. "- were the work of this committee... then they are an effort of sheer counter-productivity."


            "You dispute the utility of these weapons?"


            "I dispute their use," Gendo adjusted his glasses.


            "When the Third Angel attacked you had only one functional Evangelion and no Pilots. When the Fifth attacked you had two Pilots but no functional Evangelions. Those would seem ample opportunities to use... insurance."


            "The First Child could have fought Sachiel and the Third would have arrived, if not for the insurance. As for Gaghiel, reinforcements were enroute and Adam was secured with a top officer."


            "Still relying on nepotism to ensure loyalty?"


            "Among other things." Gendo spread his hands. "If not for Third Branch's gross and petty incompetence Unit 02 could have destroyed the Angel. This would have bolstered Nerv's credibility."


            "Instead you propose a witch hunt," the crimson representative drawled.


            "Examples will be made and those allowed to remain will know the reality of the situation. Their games can not be allowed to risk the Plan. We have gone too far to be undone by the childish tantrums of the ignorant."

 
            "An investigation will tarnish Third Branch's reputation." The French representative smirked.


            "Any attempt to salvage Nerv-03 will merely incriminate the rest of Nerv. Third Branch had their chance. They failed."


            "And their failure turns to your success." Lorenz frowned.


            "Our success." Gendo steepled his fingers. "If the Evangelions are to succeed in their true purpose, they must first succeed as weapons."


            "That may be, but we cannot eliminate your competition for you." The green representative stated.


            "On that issue, what have you learned of Azazel's intentions?" the crimson Englishman asked.


            Behind his hands, Gendo smiled. Their clumsy transparency was comforting in its own way. "As you know they have pursued their own research in metaphysical biology. Given their limitations they focused on smaller timescales. However, it is safe to presume that like Gehirn their focus was on the modulation of AT fields."


            "Their destruction using brute force," the Frenchmen's dismissive tone had an undercurrent of curiosity.


            "Yes, weaponizing devices used to usher in the Third Impact. Absurd."


            A frown crossed Lorenz's face. "The possibility is... under consideration."


            "Maskirovka, always maskirovka. Deception, distraction, misdirection. Do not do what your enemy least expects, do what they would never think to expect." Gendo made sure his face was concealed.


            "Then why have they not struck?" the emerald American asked.


            "The same reason we have not struck them." Gendo lowered his hands. "Continued existence suits our mutual goals. However, we face an enemy that believes they can usurp our Plan at the moment of their choosing."


            "Instrumentality can not be achieved by such crude means," Lorenz scoffed.


            "Do you suggest I correct their ignorance?"


            "Disinformation would be too risky."


            Gendo bowed his head.


            "However, the Plan will need further exploration," the green representative frowned.


            "Especially given Azazel's desire to export their technology," the French representative coughed.


            "You knew?" Lorenz glared.


            "Their motivations seemed mercenary enough, but in light of their goals..."


            The Brit raised an eyebrow. "Proliferation of a dangerous technology."


            "Thousands of which can be produced for the cost of one Evangelion. Including delivery systems," green added.


            "Would that give them sufficient coverage? An anti-AT field that size-" glancing at Gendo, the Frenchman caught himself.


            "They'll have more than enough reserves. The only question is calibration."


            Gendo nodded. "Why do you think they are so eager to use their weapons?"


            "Every time they detonate an AT field..." The Brit paled, his color shifting to a more pinkish hue.


            "Correct, their knowledge grows."


            Frown deepening, Lorenz turned to Gendo. "Very well, do whatever it takes to ensure that there are no more detonations."


            "That will increase confidence in Nerv, while denying them critical information," the Frenchman nodded.


            His visor giving its flat unblinking stare, Lorenz slowly turned away from Gendo. "The rest of this meeting does not concern you," he airily said before the various projections cut out one by one.


            Before standing up, Gendo gave the seat to his left a second's glance. Outside the teleconferencing room, he gave a slight grin as he adjusted his gloves. Back in his office, Gendo nodded at Fuyutsuki who was waiting for him. Once the security scan cycled he turned to his old professor. "Your thoughts?"


            Fuyutsuki glanced at the monitor that displayed the currently empty teleconference room. "I've always admired their ability to think ten steps ahead."


            "A delightful failing." Gendo looked to the photo frame on his desk. "After truth, plans are the first casualty of combat. The problem with chess-players is their belief in complete information. They expected to know the movements, attacks, positions, and limitations of every piece."


            Gendo chuckled. "But worst of all. They expect the enemies to have the victory condition that they do."


            "Chess is one of Russia's national passions."


            "So is poetry, but I don't expect them to defeat us with poems."


            "The big question is: what do the Russians want?"


            "Close. But not the real question." Gendo chuckled. "Will the Russians interfere with our plans?"


            "I hardly think they'd be agreeable to our goals."


            "Oh? I'm certain they'd object to the Old Men's Plan."


            "Unless they happen to be Seele's catspaw, and exist as a check on our solvency."


            "Perhaps, but such a plan has a central failing. Those in on Seele's conspiracy are going against everything Azazel stands for. Such actions would be... counterrevolutionary."


            Smirking, Gendo turned to look out the panoramic view. "Azazel exists to destroy the Angels and save humanity. The rank and file believe that and will turn upon any traitors within their organization."


            "The same can be said of us."


            Gendo looked down at the artificial world spread below him. "No."


            "No?" Fuyutsuki carefully asked, wondered if things had.... changed. Ikari had been spending more time with his wife's shadows.


            "With the liquidation of Third Branch, the final pieces fall under our control. For now our tasks are complete."


            Standing behind Gendo, Fuyutsuki nodded. "What is our move?"


            "The Second Child is a potential risk."


            "We can use only so many Ayanamis."


            "It's not that." Gendo frowned. "It appears Third Branch's training is as scattershot as their logistics."


            "We cannot afford another failure in battle."


            "Which is why I approved of Captain Ayanami's proposals. I would rather be short a pilot than invite further failure."


            "Marduk, then?"


            "No, we'll see how she performs. Azazel training and JSSDF wargames will challenge her for once. There is a chance her pride could be directed in a useful direction."


            "Understood." The sub-commander frowned. "What of Inspector Kaji?"


            "A witness in a trial of global importance? Protective custody is only prudent. A man in his position would have many enemies."


            Fuyutsuki smiled. "And it would be our duty to make sure they're found."

 

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

 


            "All hands bury the dead," Commander Oppenheimer shouted as the carrier's crew fell into parade rest. He then glanced at their guests, relieved that they were carrying themselves respectfully.


            He then turned back to Captain Groves, who stood off to the side of the row of stands. After the dozen sealed metal caskets were placed foot first on the stands, flags were presented and Geiger counters discretely checked the seals.


            Wanting to adjust the tan skirt of her uniform, Asuka stared ahead. As bugling tore at her ears she watched the gigantic gantry a couple kilometers ahead of her. Bolted atop a cargo ship, the entire apparatus looked like the union of several cranes and a skyscraper frame. Six cables, large enough that Asuka could clearly make them out, dove down into the ocean.


            As quick prayer washed over her like so many waves she turned her head slightly. On either side were Ayanamis, who seemed much more at ease with their uniforms. Beyond them were Azazel troops, standing in their neat ranks, with their rifles held at their shoulders.


            "Firing party, Present Arms." Commander Oppenheimer ordered. The stands were lifted and the caskets slid off and after a silent second hit the water in one simultaneous splash.


            Asuka had to keep from grimacing as the bugler started up, but was relieved when the noise was dampened by the firing squad. Their three volleys and the playing of taps concluded a heavy silence came over the ship.


            Wondering when they could go, Asuka returned her attention to the salvage ship. She almost sagged when another batch of pallbearers cut through the parade formation. After being placed on the freshly emptied stands, Asuka's interest spiked when she saw the flags being placed on them. The black, red and yellow tricolor was immediately recognizable and wrong.


            The redhead frowned. She knew the fleet was international, and should not have been surprised that Germans died, but... without the eagle it was merely the civil flag. She thought the Fatherland called for burial with the Naval Ensign or at least the Bundesdienstflagge.


            Her interest grew when Captain Ayanami stepped out from her left side and crisply marched to the side of the stands, next to Groves and Oppenheimer. As the red-eyed woman began to read names it clicked for Asuka.


            The Second Child's eyes went from the caskets to the salvage ship. Her unit was not the only thing being raised from the Othello's wreck. Her stomach tightened as the Captain went about her speech. I didn't even know most of their names. They were just... there. As long as my Unit was working I didn't care and now... I get my Evangelion and they get dumped back in the sea.


            Asuka's eyes shifted to see a young seaman with a video camera up to his eye. At least they'll get... something. Nerv isn't just forgetting them. She shivered slightly as the ceremony concluded with Taps and gunfire.


            Groves motioned and the ship's flags were run back up to full mast and the sailors, marines, and Nerv troops were dismissed.


            The crowd broke up with most of the sailors returning to their tasks. Misako stayed with the ship's officers while the Azazel Naval Infantry maintained their protective positions.


            "I don't think I'll ever get used to that." Once again, Asuka eyeballed the stands.


             Shinju nodded, her gross-violation hair swishing around her non-regulation headband. "Death is tragic."


            Asuka turned to the pale sisters. "I guess you've done this before?"


            Rei stared blankly, but Shinju shook her head. "No, not at sea at least."


            "Oh?"

            The First Child's pupils dilated slightly. "The Third Angel, caused much damage."


            Asuka frowned and turned to look out over the water. Beyond the crane-ship was the rest of the fleet. "Least they're not that damaged."


            Rei looked up the jet contrails in the sky.


            "Most of the ships the Angel hit were sunk," Shinju stated.


            "Not many bodies were found. Though I'm sure the crews working on the Othello wreck found more than a few," Katrina privately wondered how many of those caskets were merely filled with ballast. Anyone close to the blast would simply have their flesh boiled away and their baked bones scattered about. Those sunk by the Angel, however, could be in a more... intact state. Her countries were not above such theatrics, but the West might quail at such methods.
           


            "Yeah...." The winch drew Asuka's attention. A dark shadow formed below the surface and resolved into a humanoid shape. In a churning splash, a titanic head broke the surface.


            Rapt, Asuka watched as the crane pulled her unit up by the shoulder pylons. Water poured down from the humanoid figure as it was lifted from the sea. Asuka glanced over, and saw everyone else had their eyes glued to the Evangelion.


            "Even defeated it rises," Katrina stated in accented English. The immense sixty meter tall crane dwarfed the warmachine, which limply slouched from its cables. For stability, the Unit's hands were secured behind its back and its legs were tied together at its ankles.


            Combined with the cables securing its head the whole apparatus was a macabre marionette, a galling gallows. A couple of armor pieces were missing, revealing corpse-white pulpy material and gashes and cuts crossed the armor sections that remained and one ankle bent oddly while an elbow bent out at an odd angle and in an extra location.


            "It'll fight again."


            "What of the damage?
            "


            Her chest constricting, Asuka narrowed her eyes. "It can be repaired."


            "It looks worse than it is," Misako assured as she approached. "Immediately after battle, a salvage crew sent their robots down. Power was restored and the systems were stabilized. That's why it took so long to raise. They didn't want to move it until they were sure the Evangelion could handle it."


            Asuka bit her lip. "But the damage... I didn't even fight."


            "The Angel rammed the Othello, obliterating her. Fortunately it's all impact damage. Nothing too difficult to repair."


            Stepping towards them Groves chuckled. "There is a symmetry here."


            "Oh?"


            Groves looked out at the scattered ships. "I'm reminded of another Pacific Fleet that got ambushed. Afterwards three battleships, three cruisers, two destroyers, and three other ships were raised, righted, repaired, and readied for battle.


            He sighed. "This time its only an Evangelion and a three submarines that were recovered, but the message is the same. You've been given a second chance. They caught you with your pants down before, don't let it happen again."


            Asuka looked up at the burly sailor. "Uh, yes, Sir."


            Groves gave a gruff nod. "Good, I'm glad to hear that, Warrant Officer Soryu."

 

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

 


            Panting slightly, Asuka kept her pace up. Three paces ahead of her the pale sisters ran in unison.


            "Wow, you're as good as they are," Hikari puffed as she ran alongside.


            Asuka smiled slightly, the freckled girl was nice and as a Class Representative seemed to understand authority. "Of course, all Pilots have to be the peak of physical condition."


            Hikari chuckled. "Of course, my little sister goes on and on about it."


            As they turned the track, Asuka blinked. "Oh?"


            "Yeah, Nozomi," Hikari gestured to a brunette that ran ahead of them with the red-eyed girls. "Shirane and her are friends with the Ayanamis. Sis goes on and on about all the great training you Pilots get: guns, knives, hand to hand, simulators, full-on war-games."


            Half hearing the other girl, turning the redhead confirmed that the rest of their classmates had cleared out on this half of the track. She wondered how much of that was due to the security cordon, including Katrina who effortlessly ran on her left side, and how much was due to the Ayanamis being... Ayanamis


            "Though it only makes sense. You're Pilots. Your training has to be tough."


            "We are the best," Asuka smirked as she kept her pace. Her expression flattened when the other pilots began to... sing.


            "Krutye parni po vsey stranye, kto svyazan druzhboy s vedeve, takoye bratstvo -- nadyozhnyi shchit, nikto Rossiyu nye pobedit!"


            Asuka blinked their voices sounded almost... passionate at the last line. "What the heck?"


            "Ah here's the refrain," Katrina smiled.


            This time the Anayamis were joined by the bulk of their cordon who bellowed out in time: vedeve -- s nyeba privyet, ultramarinovyi nabok beret, tyelnik s volnoy i more pogon, s nyebom naveki desant obruchon. vedeve, skolko pobyed! iz parashutov byelyi bukyet. radugoiy mirnoy paryat kupola. slava dyesantu! chest i khvala!


            Sounding almost... happy the sisters sang the next part by themselves. "v tsentral'nom parke salyut v Moskve, mechtayut parni o vedeve. lyubym oruzh'yem vladyet lyegko, znamya pobyedy glavneye vsego."


            "What are they singing?" Asuka asked.


            Katrina smiled. "In the central park of Moscow there are salute shots. Guys dream about VDV. It's easy to handle any weapon, skillfully. The Flag of Victory is the most important thing of all."


            "Okay...." Confused, Asuka nearly stumbled, but was shocked when the Azazel troopers, once again bellowed out the refrain.

            "VDV - regards from the sky. The ultramarine beret tilted to the side. Telnik with a wave, and a sea of epaulets. The airborne are forever engaged with the sky." Katrina dutifully translated. "VDV, how many victories! A white bouquet of parachutes The canopies float like a peaceful rainbow. Hail the Airborne! Credit and praise!"


            Asuka felt her neck spasm.


            "Well... it does keep them in good time as they run," Hikari allowed as the group enthusiastically repeated the refrain.


            "How often do they do this?" Asuka asked as ahead of them the sisters and their... entourage turned the corner.


            Still synchronized, Rei and Shinju sang their lines. "v goryachikh tochkakh, v gorakh, lyesakh. ataku vikhryem vedyot desant , sryvayas livnem vnezapno vniz, i tolko stavka po zhizni zhizn."


            Asuka almost stumbled again; from her vantage point she could see the pale girls... smiling.


            Hikari shrugged. "They run every day, always singing something."


            Smirking, Katrina continued to translate. "In the hot spots, in the mountains, forests. The airborne perform their whirlwind attack. Rushing down suddenly like a downpour And the only stake in your life is your life."

            After enduring another ear-splitting refrain, Asuka sighed. Her relief was short lived when the sisters soft singing started up again.


            "Ah you missed the first part," Katrina chuckled. " Though guys across the country. Tied by friendship with the VDV. Such brotherhood is a reliable shield. Nobody would defeat Russia!"

            "Too cute," Hikari laughed.


            Asuka raised an eyebrow. "Right... cute."

            "You should see them when they've got their rifles. Pyotr's got their motions set pretty well," Katrina smiled and made sure that Asuka kept up.


            "They know Russian already?"


            "It's part of their training. Not every Azazel trooper knows Japanese. The higher ups, Pilots, and the Naval Infantry Company do, but that's about it."

            "But why a paratrooper song?" Asuka asked, holding an arm to her side.


            "The last Angel to attack Tokyo 3? Project Excelsior?"


            Asuka coughed.

            "It is impressive to see them sing. It's hard enough to talk while running," Hikari gasped.


            Katrina smirked. "There's a reason cadences are a part of training."


            "Right," Asuka gasped as they completed laps. She looked up and saw the Ayanamis pull out water bottles. The redhead glowered, they even drank their water synchronized.

 

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

 


            "I can't believe they made you an officer," Nozomi said as she and her friends sat under a tree in the Eva Pilot's compound.


            "She's not an officer," Shirane corrected.


            Nozomi blinked. "But... warrant... officer."


            Shinju brushed a bit of her hair behind her ear as she carefully laid a line of oil on a milky-white stone.


            Shirane narrowed her eyes. "It's a type of non-com, enlisted."


            Nozomi sighed. "Isn't that short for non-commissioned officer?"


            Leaning on the tree, Rei looked up from her novel.


            "Senior enlisted. They don't have a commission, hence the Non-com."


            "So they're not officers?"


            "Depends on the service.  Some, like the US Army have them as essentially junior officers.  The Canadian Army on the other hand has them taking up many of the roles of sergeants, more traditional non-coms.   And don't get me started on what the British do."

 


            "Fine, I don't care." Nozomi pinched the bridge of her nose. "Still, why did Nerv decide to draft you all? You're already Pilots."


            Looking up from her oil-stone, Shinju's lips curled downward and her eyes glistened.


            The freckled brunette turned from the pale girl to her older sister who had resumed her bodice-ripper. "Fine. Be that way."


            Shirane gave the youngest Horaki a sympathetic pat. "They can't tell us everything."


            "I liked it better when they simply said 'It's classified'. This pouting is too much."


            "At least she didn't actually start crying, this time." Shirane snickered, before her expression grew serious. "Just think of the timing. Recent events and all."


            Nozomi nodded. "Still, why this rank? Why not make them officers?"


            Shirane frowned. "Huh... yeah you girls could be whatever rank they wanted to make you."


            "Traditionally many militaries give their pilots commissions, but sometimes the number of pilots exceeded the officer pool. The solution was 'Flying sergeants' who did not have the same leadership responsibilities an officer did and could focus exclusively on piloting," Shinju recited as she pulled out a set of slim double-bladed knives.


            "Oh," Nozomi stated.


            "Huh, I should have thought of that." Tapping her chin, Shirane looked over at the, seemingly, lounging Naval Infantry. "But Igor and Pyotr are lieutenants, aren't you above them?"


            Rei frowned. "They're security and training."


            Steadily running a blade over the stone, Shinju gave a slight nod.


            "Still if you ordered them in battle..." Shirane's joking smile froze when she saw Igor extend his pointer and middle finger and extend his arm.


            The bearish man laughed and mimed firing a handgun. "Pow! Haha!"


            Shirane shook her head. "Okay then... Well, what about the new Pilot?"


            Rei turned to a new page on her book. "Different."


            Listening to the steady whisper of honing metal, Shinju concentrated on keeping the pressure even and the blade angle fixed.


            "What do you think, Shinju?" Nozomi prompted.


            Flipping the blade to sharpen the other edge, Shinju paused. "Yes."


            Nozomi turned to Shirane. "This is what we've got to deal with."


            "My sister's gotten pretty chummy with her," Nozomi offered.


            "Oh? Huh... from my brother's griping it sounds like Asuka can out-Hikari Horaki."


            "She's not that bossy!"


            "Exactly. Asuka's even more bossy."


            Shinju held up the blade and carefully ran the tip of her finger perpendicular to the blade. She repeated this process at several locations, gauging the sharpness. She looked up and caught Igor giving an approving nod. Blushing, Shinju cleaned the blade and slipped it into a holster strapped to her thigh. Adjusting her ruffled hem, Shinju picked up the next knife and resumed working.


            "Fine, I guess she's bossy." Nozomi rolled her eyes. "It's kind of weird how she always wears those clip things in her hair."


            "Her interface headset? Nah, that makes sense. It shows she's ready for battle."


            Shinju pursed her lips and ran the blade against the oil-stone.


            "It shows she wants to show off to everyone that she's a Pilot," Nozomi groused.


            "I think the large Kalashnikov wielding Russians following her accomplish that," Nozomi noted.


            Shirane looked into the distance. "True. Azazel is hard to ignore."


            Looking in the same direction as the black-haired-girl, Nozomi blinked. Wearing a blue and white horizontal stripped shirt, camouflage pants, boots, a Nerv beret and shooting glasses Asuka strode toward them.


            The brunette chuckled, doubtless Shirane's focus was on the rifle slung over the redhead's shoulder and the curved leather magazine pouch on her hip. As the redhead approached her detail spread out, merging with the one guarding the two Ayanamis. Nozomi noted a muscular and scarred blonde amble over to Igor.


            "At least there's an upside to these Russians," Asuka smirked as she unslung her rifle.


            Shinju briefly looked up to make sure the second child had the gun pointed towards the ground, that the redhead's finger was off the trigger, and confirmed the accessibility of her own sidearm.


            "Keep your stock unfolded," Rei noted.


            Asuka blinked. "What?"


            Shirane nodded. "Yeah, it only folds for storage. Like in a pack, vehicle, or para-drop. If you needed to fire it right now, you'd have to spend a second unfolding the stock."


            Asuka coughed. "Well, there's not going to be fighting now..."


            "That's never our decision," Rei replied before returning to her book.


            Nozomi frowned at the redhead's shooting glasses. "Green? What's with that?"


            Asuka pulled off her glasses. "It just worked better than the other colors."


            "Green mixes the anti-glare and minimal color distortion of gray glasses with the blue-light restriction and contrast and depth perception heightening of amber lenses," Shinju evenly recalled as she tested the second blade. Frowning at the slight unevenness she returned to the oil-stone.


            Asuka blinked. "Uh... yeah."


            "Kind of like your purple ones?"


            Shinju nodded. "Mine combine vermillion, which is good for highlighting the target against poor choppy backgrounds and gray. Oneechan simply uses vermillion."


            "Well, it's not like we can wear these glasses in the plug," Asuka said idly spinning her glasses.


            "Visual Control Seven can toggle preset visual tinting between on-off-and target highlight, though the last relies on AI or transmitted targeting data."


            Asuka quickly nodded before turning to the Ayanami's friends. They seemed normal.


            "So you're from Third Branch?" Shirane asked.


            "Yup," Asuka's smile was cut by the other girl's pensive expression.


            "It's good that you're getting trained here then," Shirane nodded.


            "What?"


            "Don't worry, when Shinju got here she was completely harmless, and just look at her now."


            Despite herself, Asuka turned and saw the young girl, in a frilly dress, sharpening knives. The small girl looked up and Asuka froze when those red eyes locked onto her. Smiling broadly, Shinju gave a happy wave, causing Asuka's left hand to go down and rub her right thigh, where the wound still itched.


            Shrugging, Asuka started to walk away.


            "So, your going in to change?" Nozomi asked.


            "Yeah, are you gonna come back out?" Shirane skeptically followed up.


            Asuka's face reddened. "Well... I lost most of my stuff when the Othello sank."


            "Oh? So you don't have any clothes." Shirane's eyes twinkled.


            "Well, I was planning on getting some later...."


            "Great we can go now!" Nozomi smirked.


            "What?"


            Nozomi turned to Shinju. "What do you say? You want to go shopping."


            Shinju shrugged, but her face held a little smile.


            Shirane looked over and saw that Rei had put her book down. "See! This is exuberant for the Ayanamis."


            "I'll order the BTR-80s up and running," Katrina shouted from the cluster of Azazel officers.


            "Wait... I didn't mean now!" Asuka cried.


            "What's wrong with now? Not like we're doing anything else." Shirane stood up and stretched.


            "I've still got a gun!"


            "Yes, Warrant Officer Soryu, you do."


           

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

 


            Shinju lowered her arms. "You don't like it."


            Staring at the... thing in the small girl's hands, Asuka took a half step back.


            Turning the object around, Shinju looked at its face. "But it's so cute... it's so... you." She lifted her arms holding the redheaded doll up to Asuka's face.


            The redhead screamed and lurched back. "No! No! Get it away!" Shaking, Asuka averted her gaze while regretting letting Katrina carry her rifle.


            Shinju frowned slightly. "Girls like dolls."


            Nozomi looked between the twitching Pilot and the... cute Pilot. "Not all girls."


            Turning to face Nozomi, Shinju tilted her head. "Really?" Confusion colored her pale face.


            "Yeah... your sisters don't like dolls," Nozomi clarified.


            "Oneechan and Oneesan are older. At thirteen, Soryu is younger."


            "Huh," Shirane put down the Joint Strike Fighter kit box she was holding. "So, your thinking was that Asuka would be just young enough to appreciate a doll that looks like her. Not that I'm not impressed that you managed to find one, but really?"


            Shinju looked at the doll. "There's some facial resemblance, but the hairstyle is too long."


            "You picked a redheaded doll with blue eyes," Nozomi dryly remarked.


            "I was looking for something that I knew Asuka would like."


            "I don't like dolls," Asuka glared.


            "Just be glad its not a month from now." Shirane noted as she rooted among the model plane boxes.


            Her eyes fixated on the doll, Asuka felt her stomach knot at that statement. "Why?"


            "That's when the figurines come out. Kotobukiya Hobby has a whole bunch of 1/7 scale Pilot and 1/200 scale Evangelion figures coming out next month."


            Nozomi sighed. "I told you, my sister's already got your wish list."


            Shirane spun around and hugged the freckled girl. "You're the greatest!"


            "And you two are the... normal ones." Asuka turned back. "Gah! Get that thing out of my face!" she yelled batting the doll away.


            "But.... it's... cute." Shinju whispered, lowering her head.


            "What are you doing?" Shirane asked.


            "Princess over here was shoving that doll in my face." Feeling her back tingle Asuka turned around and saw Rei standing behind her, carrying an armload from the bookstore next door. "Genetics? Were they out of trashy romance novels?"


            Rei narrowed her eyes.


            "You're making Shinju cry," Nozomi said.


            Asuka glared. "Really? Looks like she's just moping to me. Seems to me that she's been coddled."


            Looking out through her long bangs Shinju whimpered slightly.


            "I don't like dolls," Asuka stated.


            "How about clothes? You like those?" Shirane dryly asked.


            Asuka eyed the black-haired girl, and the military model boxes she held. "Yeah, of course."


            "Then you're done here," Rei stated.


            Shinju gave a slow nod as she placed the redheaded doll back onto a display rack.


            "The clothing store's not too far away," Shirane said as she and Nozomi walked to the register.


            The Ayanamis followed, leaving Asuka seemingly alone. "Awfully prickly today," a deep feminine voice said from behind.


            "Yeah, well I really don't like dolls. They're... creepy, Katrina. All dead and not... real." Asuka gave the redheaded doll a hateful glance before walking after the other girls.


            "You certainly showed that you won't let yourself be pushed around." Katrina said before radioing the rest of her team that they were moving stores.


            Asuka smirked. "That I did."


            "Yes, that prepubescent preteen knows that you won't be pushed around by the likes of her."


            "I'm only a year and a half older than her." Asuka raised an eyebrow. "And besides, I don't want a knife in my back."


            "Or a shovel to the gut." Katrina added as they crossed the mall atrium.


            "Right." Asuka looked up and saw a few Azazel agents in battle dress on the higher floors, overlooking the atrium. Her gaze leveled and she saw more of them moving around the hallways that branched off the central room. A few black-suited Section 2 agents were further back.


            Asuka frowned. Before... that would be the most security she would expect compared to the mass of rifle-bearing Russian soldiers they seemed vestigial and impotent. Entering into the clothing store, Asuka froze.


            "There you are! Maybe you can convince Shinju to try it on." Shirane held up a dress.


            Memory flickering, Asuka started at the collection of white ruffles, purple ribbons and layers of black silk. "Err... you think she's going to wear that."


            "Don't you think it's totally Shinju?"


            Asuka swallowed. "Yeah, it is."

 

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

 


            Standing in the upper deck of the backup Command Center, General Ishikari looked down on the giant holographic display. "How's the new Pilot going?"


            "Going through some basic motions."
Major Osumi leaned into the microphone at his station. "Warrant Soryu, proceed to rally point Seven." The JSSDF officer muted it and turned back to the general. "Okay enough. We haven't done much beyond some basics PT duty. She can operate it at least."


            Ishikari nodded. "Doctor, any problems running three Evangelions?"


            "No, Sir. The Magi can handle the simulation load just fine." Ritsuko did not look up from her terminal.


            "Unit 02's moving a bit sluggishly."


            "It's still being repaired, or the Pilot needs more experience," Ritsuko smirked slightly.


            Misako frowned slightly, but the new pilot could synchronize. At least Third Branch could manage that much. Now just to finish cleaning up their mess, she thought grimly.


            "Second, how are your visuals?" Ritsuko asked


            "Not bad, not bad," Asuka moved her Eva's head, seeing the rolling hills scroll past her. Icons appeared over the other two Evangelions and Asuka started lumbering towards them.


            "Didn't Third Branch have a simulator?" Shinju flatly asked.


            Asuka glared at the albino-bearing panel projected onto her screens; she wondered if she was paranoid or if there was something to the Fourth's tone. "Yes, but ours just had the plug go into a simulation body."


            "That explains the lack of fidelity," Ritsuko transmitted.


            "Not everyone has the skill to wire an Evangelion dummy system," Osumi chuckled. "Now Pilots, we've got some gunnery Second Branch and the US Navy are shipping in the next batch of weapons."


            "Loading Iowa type guns," Maya stated. A loaded rack the size of an office building formed into existence. On it Four Evangelion-scaled over-under, double barreled, firearms gleamed.


            "Those look... primitive," Asuka muttered. There was no magazine feed and they bore a strong resemblance to a break-action hunting shotgun, only with a twenty meter barrel length.


            "Just be glad they're not muzzle-loading," Misako cut in.


            "They're based on the 16"/50 caliber Mark 7 guns the US Navy pulled off their mothballed battleships. They were the only big guns in good enough condition." Osumi briefly pondered the irony. Seventy-year old weapons designed and used to destroy the Japanese military were now in the hands of... He shook his head. "We'll start getting you used to the kick of these weapons. Proper foot placement is very important. These things could knock back a fifty-thousand ton battleship."


            "Each of you take the weapon that matches your Pilot Number," Ritsuko ordered.


            Unit 01 strode forward and picked up one of the guns. Careful to keep her finger off the trigger and point the weapon away, Shinju flicked the lever atop the gun. Via a heads-up cutaway display, she saw the breech blocks revolve to unlocked position and retract, the hydraulic locking pins release, and the entire barrel assembly rotate downward on a gigantic hinge shaft.


            She flipped the gun closed and was relieved at how fluid the action sealing was. Repeating the process she got a feel for how responsive it took, and wondered how representative the simulation was.


            Finally she held the action open and peered down the cavernous barrels. Rifling spiraled down the deep bore length. She closed the action and looked at the side. Stenciled in meter-high letters on the stock was: BB-64 "Wisky".


            "Why aren't we matching Evangelion Number?" Asuka asked looking at her weapon: BB-62 "Big J".


            "Because The four Iowa ships were BB-61 to 64." Ritsuko sniffed. "Though it's really just a PR coup. I'd doubt the barrels came from the exact ships they said they did, especially when you consider all the spare parts."


            Rei picked up her weapon and gave a thin smile at its name: :The Big Stick". Unlike the stubby, blunderbuss-like Little David, the weapon had a sweeping elegance and mass.


            "Have you no romance?" General Ishikari laughed.


            "They can call the guns whatever they want," Ritsuko sighed. "This is all a stopgap, until the UN decides we need to lob even bigger shells even faster."


            Asuka eyed the lone Iowa-rifle. Despite being a computer simulation of an inanimate object, the third gun, "Mighty Mo", looked quite forlorn. "Yeah, but we don't have four Pilots."


            "That situation is being addressed, Warrant," Ritsuko nearly snapped.


            "Err... right." Asuka then went to the ammunition case. The twenty shells in their neat rows appeared innocuous enough, until she realized that it was the size of a bus. Picking up one of the gleaming brass cases and steel bullets she gave a slight whistle. Longer than her Unit's hand it looked like an elephant-gun cartridge. The half-meter diameter brass casing itself was three meters long.


            Asuka could see this data on her HUD, but more impactful was that the casing was thicker than one of her Unit's fingers and ran from her wrist to the Eva's second knuckle where it necked down to the pointed bullet itself, which jutted out beyond her digits by another knuckle spacing.


            The redhead stared as the misleadingly skinny-looking shell that dominated her palm. She was used to holding things that were out of scale with an Evangelion, but for the first time she held something that made her feel... small. It was as if the ammunition was too big for her Unit.


            "That's a Mark 9 shell. The warheads being largely 'off the shelf', the breakthrough was combining the propellant and the payload. Each one contains nearly seven hundred pounds of smokeless powder and lobs a shell weighting up to 2700 lbs." Osumi stated.


            "Big," Asuka idly noted.


            "There's bigger, the Little David fires a shell over twice the diameter at 36 in, 914 mm. It lobs a 3700 lb shell."


            "Wow... that's big."


            "Now, your training rounds are merely filled with a ton of high explosives. In battle you'll use N2 or nuclear warheads," Ritsuko smiled at the feed from Asuka's plug.


            The redhead's eyes widened. "We're going to fire nukes, from artillery? Isn't that... insane?"


            "Not really, nuclear artillery is a half century old technology," Ritsuko sighed.


            "Indeed. Even firing them out that gun of yours is an old idea. The W23 was built in the early sixties, though that bomb was only 20 kilotons." Osumi's chuckle had a nervous undertone.


            Misako cut in. "But we anticipate you using the N2 warheads. Those bridge the tactical gap between an Azazel strike and a knife fight."


            "But we'll still have nuclear weapons?"


            "Just in case. Most of the time an N2 is enough." Ritsuko paused. "Look, only two weapons can kill an Angel. You might as well have both, and you should definitely be trained in how to use and survive both."


            "Now today we're going to work on basic gunnery and ergonomics here. Fortunately, it's not too difficult to manufacture new grips. We can also learn what kind of stock is best." Osumi stated.


            "And possibly retrofitting to a different action," Ritsuko said with a half-concealed sigh.

 

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

 


            Looking up from his desk, General Yubari nodded to the younger general. "How was today's training?"


            "Nerv's still running them through some synchronization experiments, or something, but I felt you'd want a report right away." Ishikari sat down in a chair and stretched slightly. "The Ayanamis preformed as expected."


            Yubari chuckled. "Of course they did."


            "Warrant Officer Soryu on the other hand...."


            "Ah, disobedient?"


            The middle-aged man shook his head and pulled a slim report out of his steel briefcase.


            Yubari glanced at the dozen or so papers that plopped onto his desk. The document had the standard triple representation. On the left was the half fig-leaf, partially obscured and staggered Nerv lettering, and motto of: "God's in His Heaven, All's Right With the World." On the right bearing the word Azazel, a stylized spear cleaved a cleaved a shield. Bellow, was: "Each Man is a God, Each Man is Free."


            Centrally and contrasting with the two crimson logos was the Japanese Strategic Self Defense Forces. On a field of blue, a winged, golden parachute was above a matching set of olive branches and below Rising Sun flag and JSSDF in white letters.


            "She'll take orders, but she's got to unlearn a lot of habits." Ishikari shrugged.


            "Third Branch trained her."


            Ishikari nodded.


            "Ah, that kind of training."


            "Yes, Rei had only done activation tests and Shinju was almost a complete blank slate. Really, they were nearly ideal."


            "Yes." Yubari skimmed the report. Ishikari had noted as much, though had used slightly more colorful language, especially in reference to Third Branch, and why not. They were already going to take the fall, why not add a bit more. "Nerv made sure they could pilot Eva, and we make sure they know what do with the damn things ."


            "And Azazel hones their bodies outside of Eva. Not a bad compromise."


            "Especially at the mere cost of subsidizing Russia's entire defense sector."


            Mock surprise graced Ishikari's face. "But Sir, UN funding is only supposed to cover costs directly related to Azazel."


            "Handy how the entirety of Russia's strategic procurement and development falls under Azazel's purview."


            "Still, less corrupt than Nerv."


            Yubari gave a fatalistic shrug. "So it goes"


            "With Soryu, she has the potential."

            "I would certainly hope so, given she Pilots the most expensive weapon devised by man." Yubari looked at the hastily written report. "Is she ready?"


            Ishikari shook his head. "But when has that stopped us? Remember Shinju's first battle? We don't have very much margin here."


            "We have three functional Evangelions, two proven Pilots, one rookie Pilot, and enough strategic weapons to ensure that while we may lose the enemy certainly won't win."


            "Yes, but as the last battle shows, there's not much in between an Evangelion strike and a nuclear strike."


            "Blame AT fields. We can either erode them using an Eva's field or brute force 'em. We should be happy that Nerv figured out how to replicate the enemy's abilities." The younger general shared a meaningful glance with the elder. "Can you imagine fighting this war without Evas?"


            "Hence our research in combined arms. Speaking of that. How did the Iowa guns fare?"


            "The simulations worked fine. I'm not certain how adequately that'll prepare them for the real thing."


            "You sound like Director Beria." Yubari flashed a quick smile.


            "Real world testing is the best."


            Yubari leaned back. "And it's good that the Americans hung onto those guns for so long. Though there's something... odd about us using them."


            "The ships were only decommissioned two decades ago. The guns have been in a ready state for the majority of their existence." Ishikari gently corrected. "There were even plans to make them part of the UN fleet."


            "What fleet? With JMSDF, the Russians, the Americans, the Brits, and the French pulling out, there's not much left."


            "I think Brazil and Australia still have some ships."


            Yubari shook his head. "Non-nuclear powers. Everyone with nukes is pulling in their forces and readying their weapons."


            "Can you blame them? People are wondering if the Angels will keep attacking Japan, especially after the last battle."


            "A fortress is useful only if the enemy has to attack it."


            "Yes." Ishikari cleared his throat. "How do you think General Abukuma is doing?"


            "The proposal is interesting. It's only a supplementary system, but it could fill that gap of ours," Yubari allowed.


            "Yes but Nippon Heavy Industry Solidarity is involved. You think they can cut it?"


            "They're not the primary contractor this time, and it's not like they're the only second stringer involved."


            "I'm not sure about that. Westinghouse and Antonov are doing quite well, but Fairchild barely survived the post Second Impact defense buildup and Austin Advanced Technology only has prototypes."


            "Well, we've only now just gotten the first mass production Evangelion. Hopefully this group can give us more flexibility."


            "And put a weapons system under our full control."


            Yubari raised an eyebrow. "Yes, that is a factor."

 

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

 


            As the plug drained Asuka leaned back and absently massaged her right shoulder. Compared to the various AT field tests the gunnery exercises were a godsend. Frustration was preferable to boredom. Her memories of that gun firing were cut off as the main plug hatch opened and a support crane grabbed the cockpit module and raised it out of the plug tube.


            Looking over, the redhead paled. On the catwalk below her, the youngest Ayanami blandly tracked Asuka's movements. The second the cockpit was secured, Asuka jumped up and grabbed the catwalk's railing for balance.


            Impassively staring, Shinju stood in front of her. Asuka looked past the lavender-plug-suited girl to Unit 01. The purple Evangelion bore a pair of halos stenciled on the side of its head and had a large jump-patch on it's shoulder pylon. Hearing no motion, Asuka slowly, reluctantly turned back to the younger Pilot.


            Asuka tensed and Shinju sprung forward. The tiny girl nearly tackled the redhead and used a bear-hug to pin Asuka's arms to her sides. "You were adequate today!"


            Relaxing a bit, Asuka wondered why she had to be the only Pilot with any social graces "Uh... I'm a Pilot. We're the best."


            Quickly pulling her arms back, Shinju gave Asuka a critical eye. "Yes," she said before spinning on her heel and walking back down the catwalk.


            Noticing the suspiciously shaped bulge on the small of the fourth child's back, Asuka blinked and ran up. It was mostly hidden by the thick fall of LCL-soaked hair. Getting a closer look, Asuka boggled at the rounded vaguely-L-shaped water-tight pouch. It had a set of quick release buttons and another, thinner sealed compartment that ran the long side of the L.


            Shinju stopped and looked over her shoulder. "I don't wear it on my back when piloting. There's a clip on the right side of the seat."


            "A handgun? In an Evangelion?"


            "Pilots carry sidearms." Shinju continued walking.


            Asuka inhaled. They had already been drafted and had just practiced shooting nuclear naval artillery. "Fine, but isn't that a bit weak?"


            Joining them at the junction of Unit 00's catwalk and Asuka and Shinju's, Rei fell into step next to her sister. "The left side of the seat has a sealed compartment containing a survival kit, including a compact carbine," the middle sister stated.


            "Really?"


            "You are using the new plug design. Weren't you paying attention when they were briefing you?"


            Asuka froze, for a moment she could not tell which sister had spoken. The undercurrent of disapproval made her think it was Rei, but, looking between the two heads of blue hair, Asuka could not be sure. "It sounded... all the same."


            "We're an experimental combat unit. We might just have to eject in an unfriendly area. But don't worry our Naval Infantry really know how to run an SERE module!" Shinju brightly said before they passed through a set of armored doors that sealed off the Evangelion cages.


            Asuka frowned. This time she could tell who was speaking, but... "SERE?"


            "Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape." Rei clarified, with a trace of disappointment.


            "Oh." Asuka followed the sisters into the locker room. "So survival stuff if we get stuck in... hostile territory."


            Stripping off her sidearm, Rei went to her locker. "Yes," she stated as she opened the case, discharged the magazine, ejected the chambered round, caught it, and worked the action. After inspecting the weapon, she then loaded the magazine, racked the slide, ejected the magazine, topped it off using the spare bullet, reinserted the magazine, and then set the safety.


            Blinking Asuka turned to see Shinju mirroring her sister's actions. "So... I heard they're going to have the trials tomorrow. What do you think will happen?"


            "They'll all be killed," Shinju absently shrugged before stripping out of her plug suit. Her dripping hair hung around her like a cloak.


            Asuka glared at the naked pre-teen. "What?"


            "Treason," the girl innocently said as she walked to the shower stalls, shadowed by an equally nude Rei.

 
            "It's not that simple!" Asuka cried out, but the two sisters seemed to ignore her as they briskly and efficiently scrubbed the LCL off their bodies. The synchronization broke and Asuka laughed. Unlike "Oneechan" Nerv's pretty princess spent time on her tresses. By the time Rei had left the shower stall, dried herself, and was getting dressed, Shinju had only started putting in the conditioner.


            The redhead watched as Shinju finished washing her hair and returned to her locker and put on a set of underwear edged in little bows and slipped into a confection of ruffles and bows that appeared to have started life as a romper. "You should clean yourself too," Shinju stated, not pausing as she used her silver hairbrush.


            Asuka's eyes darted between the long steady strokes of Shinju's arm, and Rei's... idle expression. "Err- Right." Peeling out of her plug suit Asuka backed to the shower. She could understand Rei's impassive stare, but what kind of girl let someone else watch them shower?


            Finishing her brushing, Shinju gave a tiny smile at her reflection, slipped on her headband and straightened out the vast array of bows that adorned her body. Slipping on a pair of shiny lavender Mary Jane heels and her sidearm, Shinju skipped over to her sister. "Ready Oneechan!"


            Looking the clone over, Rei nodded and took her hand and lead her out the locker room. They had an appointment with Dr. Akagi and time-permitting a meeting with the Commander.


            Wrapping a towel around herself, Asuka walked out of the shower stalls and sighed. At least being alone she did not have to worry about crazy sisters.

 

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

 


            On the screen nearly a dozen figures stooped, most had a mix of shock and slumped grief, while two roiled with ill-contained anger. "The verdict is guilty!" a deep contralto voice cried. "The charge is treason. Not just against Nerv, but against all of humanity," her voice growing more sharp, the scene shifted to showing the badly mangled and now disbanded UN Pacific fleet. "In their quest for power, these petty insects betrayed their sacred oaths and this is the cost of their... decadence," the announcer savored the last word drawing it out.


            "The nuclear fires, the hundreds of dead sailors, the near loss of an Evangelion all laid at their feet." The display now showed a court room. Starkly lit, its deep wood paneling and almost cramped quarters gave a claustrophobic sense. At the defense table, short-haired blond man with a Nerv commander rank glared at an ill-shaven man leaning in the witness box.


            "The orders were clear, the needs of our soldiers, our sons, our daughters would become secondary to... political maneuvering," the announcer spat the last words. "Some denied critical reforms, some cut vital equipment in order to deepen their own pockets. Their crimes are unforgivable! Weapons of global import were sabotaged. Yes, look at these men!"


            The scene cut back to the Third Branch official. Their stoops had reduced, due to their hands being bound behind their backs. "These are the faces of traitors, of wreckers, of saboteurs! They thought they were enriching themselves, they thought they were increasing their own power."


            The announcer gave a thick chuckle. "In reality they were helping the Angels. These quislings are no better than spies. Because of them humanity was weakened! Because of them critical material, critical manpower, critical men were spent."


            "The battle was won, but it was in spite of these seditious insects. Having betrayed the most important of trusts they cannot be trusted with anything. Punishment must be taken; their victims must be compensated; the world must see our resolve." Once again the scene shifted, it now featured a trio of the stooped men. Behind them lay a wall of freshly-hewn logs.


            The voice-offer stopped and in the sudden silence a pair of men in tan Nerv tactical uniforms offered cigarettes and hoods to the figures. Two accepted the latter while eschewing the former. The former commander took the reverse. Taking a few drags he straightened himself and squared his shoulders.


            After the two Nerv officers finished their work, the camera pulled back revealing nine riflemen, their weapons already rising. "Let every Nation, every human, every Angel know, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe," -as she spoke her voice rose in a triumphant crescendo, "-in order to assure the survival of the human race." Her statement was punctuated by a volley from the rifles.


            Wearing a the black long skirt and matching red-trimmed jacket of a Nerv tactical dress uniform, a crimson-eyed officer strode towards the bleeding, prone figures. Coldly, precisely she drew her sidearm and placed a single shot, unnecessarily in two cases, into each forehead.


            The Nerv officer froze in mid-stride, video paused.
           


            "And this is playing before movies and in news reports?" Beria chuckled and took a sip of his tea. "Nothing like the deaths of billions and a existential crisis to force the west to abandon their decadent mewling and show some backbone."


            Igor leaned back, his chair worryingly creaking. "I am amused at her courtesy," he smoothly said in cultured Russian.


            "Oh?" Admiral Sudoplatov looked across the plain metal table.


            "She shot the commander first, Sir."


            Captain Sakharov laughed. "So, she is a courteous one."


            "Yes, Commander Bothe knew how to die." Pyotr shook his head. "Shame so few Germans seem to remember that."


            "Oh?" Katrina's face broke into a broad smile. "Perhaps, that's because we kept killing those that knew how to die."


            Sudoplatov gave a cold smile. "It would seem that Nerv has found their stride."


            Beria refilled his cup. "No one ever underestimated Ikari's ruthlessness," the engineer said as he put a touch of sugar in his tea. "What he has now is the capital to pursue his agenda."


            "Much like the Tokyo 3 reforms," Igor nodded.


            "Reform is such a convenient cover for consolidation," Katrina laughed.


            "Still, Third Branch's incompetence is real. Even Ikari would not fake that debacle. However, he is taking advantage of the situation." Sudoplatov nodded.


            "It is not surprising that Third Branch would be such a mess. Nerv's greatest failing is their inability to bridge the gap between proof-of-concept-prototype and something a soldier can use." Beria leaned back. "One must remember that Director Akagi is the best that Nerv has. Therefore every other scientist they have is worse."


            "Such is the problem when a research organization takes on the airs of a combat unit." Sudoplatov chuckled.


            "Indeed. It is no coincidence that the Reorganization merely augmented Nerv's tactical, strategic, and procurement branches. The core science, such as it is, remains proprietary." Beria looked up at the ceiling. "Even this airbase and our forces serve to strengthen the defense and the position of Nerv."


            "Yes, our very own Captain Zel'dovich, is protecting Tokyo 3 airspace right now," Captain Sakharov said.


            "Which is good. Russia can be the hero, the responsible one. The rigorous one. Let Nerv do the fancy gadgets, we will do the yeomen's work and ensure that humanity does not die.  As with the Great Patriotic war, we will bear the greatest cost." Beria stated.


            "Unless the Americans get there first," Sakharov nettled.


            "It was their fleet, let them save Nerv. Besides, they needed four bombs."


            "However, the arrangement is not without its own risks for Nerv." Sudoplatov looked at the Naval Infantry.


            Katrina cleared her throat. "Yes, the second child clearly is the weak link. She is an outsider with an attachment to Third Branch.  Then add in all the retraining required to get her to current New Nerv standards."


            "How has she taken the executions?"


            "Distantly. Conveniently, intentionally I'm sure, she had no personal relationship with any of the traitors, and she has started to blame them for what happened to her Eva."


            "It was their fault," Igor stated.


            "While not necessary it is... cleaner to execute actual traitors when the need arises." Beria sardonically said.


            "Yes, she's uncomfortable with them needing to die, but it should be a good learning experience. The Ayanamis have a much better handle on death than she does."


            This time Admiral Sudoplatov's smile reached his eyes and grew wistful. "They do have greater personal experience."

 

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

 


            Adjacent to the lobby with its sandbag and machine gun accents was a lounge area. Off to one side was a bar and one set of doors lead to a smallish exercise room. Frowning at the room full of laughing, sweaty Russians, Asuka stopped. Many of the men turned and several gave waves and quick salutes.


            The redhead sighed and turned away, re-crossing the lounge she caught a flash of crimson. She walked up and saw Rei book in hand, staring directly at her.


            "Uh... you... wanted me?" Asuka hesitantly asked as her arm slid around to her back. Her eyes darted to the figure on Rei's side.


            For a few silent seconds, Rei tracked the other Pilot's motion. "No," she eventually replied looking down at the cover of her Mark 9 Iowa-system technical manual.


            Asuka clenched her fist. "Then don't stare at me!"


            Blinking her eyes open, Shinju lifted her head off of Rei's side. "Oneechan?" she asked in a bare whisper.


            Staring at the girl, Asuka noted her dress. Unlike herself and the First Child, the Fourth Child had a lacy and ruffled version of her white and blue physical-training clothes, complete with an almost nauseatingly effeminate jumper.


            "I'm sorry did I wake Nerv's precious Princess?"

            Brushing some of her bangs out of her face, Shinju looked up at Asuka. "Yes."


            "Great, now you're being sarcastic."


            After straightening her torso and legs, Shinju pouted. "No."


            With deliberate slowness, Rei picked up her book and resumed reading.


            "We're supposed to be a team!"


            "We are," Rei replied.


            "Ordering us to be a team doesn't count," Asuka snapped, ignoring Rei's flash of irritation. "We have to act like a team."


            "There was the Eva-Sim," Shinju stated as she nestled back down, pulling her knees up to her chest.


            "That's not enough, there's more to being a team than training together."


            "Combat?" Shinju asked.


            "She does lack that experience," Rei said with a hint of levity.


            "Just wait until the next Angel." Asuka took a couple steps to the side, she wanted to take a seat, but she also wanted to leave to forget about the creepy sisters.


            "Yes, Unit 02 will be properly equipped, this time," Rei noted.


            Asuka's eyes narrowed. "Yes... good thing it's nearly fully repaired."


            "The Unit will be combat ready," Rei noted, flipping to a new page.


            "Oh, what's that supposed to mean?"


            "You don't think Nerv will just dump someone into a plug and send them into battle?" Shinju's deadpan immediately brightened after her question. "So it's vital that you do your best and be the best! I'm sure you can do it."


            Muttering under her breath about sarcastic brats, Asuka simply stared at the ruffled little girl. "Anyway I passed those," Asuka smirked.


            "No. Today was merely to see how much damage Third Branch did to you. All today proved was that you could synchronize, take orders, and shoot. " Shinju shifted so she was curled into more of a curled position. "It's a good thing you cleared them, now the Generals can add you to the real combat training."


            "In the simulator, they had me dropped from a plane."


            "A real war-game would have had you drop into battle, not a gunnery range, and a simulator drop is very different from the real thing."


            "This isn't at all like what Third Branch did." Asuka looked at the pale sisters and winced. "I didn't mean it that way..."


            "Good." Rei did not look up from her book.


            "I don't.... Did they have to be executed? I mean the Captain..."


            "They're the reason so many people died. They're why your Evangelion could not fight." Shinju wrapped her arms around Rei. "Why are you defending them?"


            "Fine, they screwed up. Big time. Does that mean they should die?


            "Yes." Rei and Shinju echoed.

 

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

 


            Fretfully, looking at her apartment door, Asuka paced. "How long does it take to use an elevator?" Chewing her lip she glanced at her bedroom. She'd already straightened her hair and face but was worried... "The second I start to change he'll knock on the door," she muttered. "It had been one of those weeks."  The simulator exercises had gotten progressively more complicated and the actual training deployments were only slightly less involved.


            After a few indecisive seconds she started walking towards her bedroom. There was a knock. A vicious, victorious smile crossed her face as she spun around and ran to the door.


            "Ah hah!" she cried throwing the door open.


            "Gah?" Kaji blinked and stumbled back, almost hitting one of the chuckling Russian guards.


            Asuka's eyes narrowed. "What took you?"


            "The trials only ended two days ago. They only just let me out of... protective custody this morning," Kaji's voice was dry.


            "Not that. The Russians said you had gotten in over ten minutes ago."


            "Ah." Rubbing his cheek, Kaji awkwardly laughed. "The Captain intercepted me."


            "Oh? Did you hit on her?"


            Noting the sidearm on Asuka's hip, Kaji coughed. "Of course not. She's not my type."


            "I don't think that Ice-Queen's anyone's type," Asuka grumbled, stepping back. She glanced at the Azazel sergeant. "Thanks Vasiliy, I can handle this here,"


            Kaji watched the Naval Infantry salute and saunter off. "You can order them around?" he asked, stepping into her apartment.


            Asuka shrugged. "They work for Katrina; Katrina works for me."


            "Don't let the power get to your head." Kaji's chuckle died when saw the redhead's cross expression.


            "I don't want it. I don't want them." Asuka stomped into the living room. "We wouldn't be in this mess if Nerv could do its job! The only reason the Russians are even here is because Ikari didn't kill the first angel."


            "It's not that simple," Kaji noted. "After the N2 went off, JSSDF decided to try a bigger bomb. Nerv never got the chance."


            "And if we did?" Asuka slumped on a cream-colored leather couch. "What then? I was in Germany with Unit 02. Our Perfect Princess was still in a daycare somewhere and the mysterious Third Child had just gotten killed." Asuka had removed her sidearm and started field stripping the weapon as she talked. "What does that leave? The Test Pilot and her buggy Prototype. An Eva that wouldn't be combat capable for two more Angels. What was Nerv supposed to do? What could Nerv do?"


            Kaji sighed and sat down across from her.


            Asuka frowned and shifted her seat so her gun was pointed away from him.
           


            "Rei would have been put in Unit 01, I guess." Kaji coughed. "Only Pilot. Only Eva."


            "Right. It's still a mess. How come when Nerv HQ screws up a battle they get a slap on the wrist, but we get people lined up and shot?"


            "You heard about the second battle?"


            Asuka raised an eyebrow. "It's not exactly a secret that Captain Ayanami froze-up and one of the Generals had to relieve her, but things are going great for her," the redhead spat.


            "So you saw the video."


            "Of course. It's all in the news. Stirring music of Nerv cleaning up its act and traitors being punished."


            "Well... I was there too. Third Branch really was a mess."


            "And why didn't you do anything?"


            Kaji's bitter laughter lasted for the better part of a minute. "Oh my... what do you think happened? The show trials, the executions, that was all because I did something! I was the one that testified against them. I showed the court where the evidence was."


            Asuka narrowed her eyes and finished reassembling her gun.


            "I'm a Nerv Inspector, uncovering these things is my job."


            Hitting her handgun's release, the slide shot forward. "So you're a spy?"


            Kaji coughed. "No, no... nothing like that. I mean it's not like I kept my job hidden."


            "So Third Branch wasn't just treasonous, they were incompetent too?"


            Kaji blinked. Did she have to ask?


            "They knew you were a Nerv Inspector. They had to know you were reporting on them."


            "They sent an Evangelion without aquatic gear across two oceans," Kaji dryly reminded. "There's a reason people joke about Nerv's corruption."


            "And now you're fixing it?" Asuka holstered her gun.


            "Their screw-up almost got you killed. You're only alive because of the Captain's paranoia. I couldn't let them get away with that." Kaji assured, almost convincing himself.


            "Awwww? Really?" Asuka grinned. "I knew you cared for me!"


            "Well... as a Pilot."


            Asuka crossed her arms over her chest.


            "What?"


            "You're thinking about the Captain aren't you?


            Kaji sighed. "I told you, she's not my type."


            "You just like the challenge then."


            "You're not my type either."


            The redhead narrowed her eyes and put her hands on her hips, coincidentally near her holster.


            "So, how do you like your training?"


            "You're changing the subject." Asuka frowned.


            "I'm just curious. That Katrina woman's quite-"


            "You're hitting on her too? She's built like a stove!" Asuka smirked. "Besides, why go for an old East German clunker when you can have this year's model." She purred, slinking over to Kaji's seat.


            The Inspector's eyes darted from her chest to her hips to her eyes, before he final leapt to his feet. "I've really got to go."


            Asuka's expression melted into a pout. "You never have time for me."


            "And you don't have time either." Kaji backed up to the kitchen. " This war's going to keep us both very busy."


            "Better to enjoy ourselves while we have the time?" she asked following him.


            "Yeah..." Kaji stretched out the word; he was nearly at the front hallway.. "You're a great kid but..."


            Asuka stopped. "Oh? Still going after the Ice-Queen?"


            "No! It's not like that."


            "You're not going Wondergirl are you?"


            Kaji ran a palm over his face. "Rei's older than you!"


            "What? The Princess? What are you some kind of lolicon perv? You did say that juvenile cute look suited her."


            "But I'm not! You're the one..." Kaji gave an inarticulate scream.


            The door opened and a pair of Azazel Naval Infantry entered. "Is there a problem, Warrant Officer?"


            "No, Vasiliy." Asuka sighed. "The Inspector was just leaving."


            Sergeant Vasiliy Eudoxia lowered his voice and asked with mock gravity. "Permanently?"


            Asuka laughed. "No I think we can let him off... this time." She warmly smiled at Kaji who had backed up to the threshold. "Now you be a good little Inspector; you don't want me angry do you?"


            Kaji looked between the Russians and the Pilot and for a brief moment he missed the dissecting stare of Captain Ayanami. At least that woman kept her hormones in check.


            Giggling, Asuka closed the door, but not before blowing Kaji a kiss. Shaking his head, Kaji turned to the Russian guards. "Do you think that's an appropriate joke to tell a young girl?"


            "What joke?" Vasiliy blinked.


            "Really, you would kill me based on the word of a little girl?"


            Vasiliy's companion shrugged. "We're training her how fight like soldier, why not how laugh like one?"


            "Dragging people off and killing them isn't funny."


            "Depends, how you looking at it." Vasiliy said as they walked back towards the elevator.


            Kaji sighed. "In front or behind the barrel?"


            Vasiliy slapped Kaji on the back. "See! Good joke!"

 

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

 


            Going down to a kneeling position, Asuka winced and caught her rifle and locked it back into place across Unit 02's chest. Going prone she slowly maneuvered her Evangelion forward, aiming for the twin support booms half extended out of her YC59.


            "You're doing okay," Misako's transmission assured. "Just follow the heads up display and you'll line up."


            "Right, no pressure," Asuka grimaced as she slid forward. The immense flying-wing dominated her vision, running the full width of her view. Compared to the plane's titanic wingspan, the Eva-length metal prongs seemed almost an afterthought.


            Once the prongs had straddled Unit 02's head Asuka paused. "Why can't we just use the automated attachment?" she asked eying her displays. The prongs were unlocked, ready for pylon insertion.


            "What if you need to be flown out of a forward airbase?" Misako chuckled. "Only core Nerv bases have the cages and lifts that can do automatic attachment. YC59-C is green for attachment. Final extension. Proceed when ready Pilot."


            The redhead looked up and watched as the booms extended until they lined up with her shoulder pylons. "Alignment good," Asuka stated and carefully raised her shoulders. There was a thud and her left side shuddered. "Port pylon contact," Asuka announced and twisted slightly, causing a similar thud. "Starboard contact."


            "Just like the simulator." Misako nodded. "Locking shoulder pylons."


            Yeah just like the simulator, save for the time I jerked my shoulder up and broke a boom in half. Asuka thought to herself. Crazy Ice Queen.


            The clamps at the end of the booms clamped down and locks swiveled into place, fixing the Evangelion to the airframe. "Returning to rest state," Asuka announced as she lifted Unit 02's legs. For a brief moment the entire assemblage, Unit, booms, and airframe groaned and the transport shifted as its landing gears took the additional weight. Holding her lip, Asuka pushed down her instincts and pulled Unit 02's arms off the ground and put them at her side.


            Biting back vertigo she looked down and saw herself hanging above the reinforced tarmac. "Fixing body, powering down." Stiffly held out. Unit 02 hung from the ends of the booms like an acrobat.


            "Good connection. Reel in the booms," Misako ordered. "Nice work Pilot."


            Asuka sighed and let herself lean forward and down. Double checking, she made sure things would fit within the transport's bay, the Unit's legs were straight back and that her weapons and batteries were properly stowed. Looking up, she saw the center bulk of the aircraft close in and eclipse the sun. The booms finished retracting and with a series of mechanical thumps locked into place.


            Asuka then retracted the plug armor and let the transport's extend a power and control umbilical. The bridge also allowed for the plug to be inserted in midair. However that was not an option with manual loading. The last indicators finally turned green. The redhead's relief was interrupted by a small heads up display. The redhead narrowed her eyes at the purple-plug-suited princess.


            "Hi! You did good. Didn't even damage the booms!" Shinju saccharinely said.


            Asuka glared. "Oh like you're such an expert."


            Rei's HUD appeared. "The Fourth Child possesses a shoulder patch which states that she is. Do you have any questions on today's mission?"


            "Yeah, you've got the same patch too," Asuka grumbled.


            "Yes, I am jump-certified, too." Rei blinked. "So you do not have questions? Are you clear on your tasks?"


            Asuka exhaled frowning slightly at the LCL taste. "Yes, yes, we drop over Mount Takanosu Testing Range and proceed to Hill Fifty-three for live-fire exercises with our Iowa guns. It will also check our ability to operate from external batteries."


            Rei nodded.


            The background whine of the four immense turbo-fans rose as they powered up to max thrust. The noise stabbed through Asuka's ears, before being flittered down by her Eva's audio pickups. As the two sister transports revved their engines, Asuka wondered how the ground crew could handle the volume. She closed her eyes and felt the plane shudder as it lurched forward before it began the laborious turning motions that passed for taxiing. Asuka glanced at her map overlay. Her transport lumbered onto the runway and began to turn; then the singing started.


            "He was just a rookie trooper and he surely shook with fright. He checked off his equipment and made sure his pack was tight; He had to sit and listen to those awful engines roar, You ain't gonna jump no more!"


            The redhead had a brief second to boggle at the sisters' outburst, then the YC-59's RATO system kicked in and Asuka became intimately familiar with the limitations of Eva-Sim.


            A simulation tied into an immobile Evangelion was very good at providing realistic controls and displays; however it could not simulate accelerations, especially ones caused by a Rocket Assisted Take-Off system that used eight solid rockets that combined to quadruple the transport's already beefy thrust.


            The airframe torquing loads rammed the craft down the runway and, rocket motors still burning, wrenched its nose up leaving the ground, and Asuka's stomach behind.


            Pressed against her seat, the redhead heard more English lyrics. "Glory, glory, what a helluva way to die. Glory, glory, what a helluva way to die. Glory, glory, what a helluva way to die. He ain't gonna jump no more!"


            The rockets cut out and the transport assumed a more... leisurely climb rate. Asuka took the time too look around her and regretted it. High fidelity panoramic displays in her plug were giving an excellent view of the rapidly receding airbase. It's okay, its just a display, I'm not going to fall. Not unless the booms fail, wait... I am gonna fall... scheisse... that's the whole point.


             Asuka flipped off the displays. It would be a while before the other transports took off and they sortied to the drop zone anyway.


            Meanwhile Rei and Shinju continued their duet. " 'Is everybody happy?' cried the Sergeant looking up, Our Hero feebly answered 'Yes,' and then they stood him up; He jumped into the icy blast, his static line unhooked, And he ain't gonna jump no more.


            "Glory, glory, what a helluva way to die. Glory, glory, what a helluva way to die. Glory, glory, what a helluva way to die. He ain't gonna jump no more!"


            Absent of visual cues Asuka studied the song. They were clearly mangling the refrain, making it sound almost like "Gory, Gory." Asuka knew the Japanese did have problems with the English "L".


            "He counted long, he counted loud, he waited for the shock. He felt the wind, he felt the cold, he felt the awful drop. The silk from his reserve spilled out and wrapped around his legs. And he ain't gonna jump no more."


            Shinju's feed shuddered for a moment as her plane's RATO's ignited. Smirking, Asuka noted the young girl grit her teeth before repeating the refrain.


            So that's your game. You sing to keep your mind of being shot into the air on a bunch of rockets only to have to jump back to the ground, Asuka thought triumphantly.


            "The risers swung around his neck, connectors cracked his dome. Suspension lines were tied in knots around his skinny bones. The canopy became his shroud; he hurtled to the ground. And he ain't gonna jump no more."


            Asuka's eyes widened. "Oh-kay.... that's a bit dark," she muttered as the sisters once again sang the refrain.


            "The days he'd lived and loved and laughed kept running through his mind. He thought about the girl back home, the one he'd left behind. He thought about the medics and wondered what they'd find, And he ain't gonna jump no more."


            By now Shinju's transport YC-59B had gained enough altitude for Rei's plane to take to the air. Mutely, Asuka watched as Rei had even less reaction towards the takeoff. The rockets ignited in mid-chorus and Rei did not miss a beat.


            And the grim song continued. "The ambulance was on the spot, the jeeps were running wild. The medics jumped and screamed with glee, rolled up their sleeves and smiled. For it had been a week or more since last a 'chute had failed. And he ain't gonna jump no more."


            Once again Asuka listened to the refrain and still could not tell if they were signing "gory" or "glory"


            "He hit the ground, the sound was "Splat," his blood went spurting high. His comrades then were heard to say: 'A helluva way to die!' He lay there rolling round in the welter of his gore. And he ain't gonna jump no more."


            Despite herself, Asuka snickered. Jumping out of an airplane with the goal of getting surrounded by the enemy just warranted dark humor. Rather like using barely-teenage girls to pilot giant robots against nigh-invincible aliens while nuclear bombs exploded overhead.


            And then you combine them... Asuka thought, before her mouth opened. "Gory, gory, what a helluva way to die. Gory, gory, what a helluva way to die." By the second repetition she had caught herself but went with it. "Gory, gory, what a helluva way to die. He ain't gonna jump no more!" Grinning, Asuka finally understood.  The point of the chorus was the bending of gory and glory.


            Shinju smirked slightly, and then slowly, solemnly she and Rei finished the song. "There was blood upon the risers, there were brains upon the chute. Intestines were a'dangling from his Paratrooper suit. He was a mess; they picked him up, and poured him from his boots. And he ain't gonna jump no more." The young clone looked at Asuka's almost eager... expression, and nodded slightly, and the trio gave the chorus with its customary gusto.


            "Yay! I knew you'd join in," Shinju gushed.


            Asuka raised an eyebrow at the eager girl. "Not bad," she eventually allowed. "So... are you going to sing it again?"


            Rei glanced down at the timer. "There's time before the drop."

 

End Chapter 4

 

Writer's Notes:

 

I'd like to thank my pre-readers. They read through my most egregious mistakes so you don't have to. DGC, J St C Patrick, Pale Wolf, Wray, Ikarus, Trimatter, and Acey. And special thanks to James Axelrad for giving me an accurate layout of the features on a Nimitz ship.

 

The first song is Alexander Buinov's contemporary song VDV (Vozdushno-Desantnye Vojska, Air-landing Forces).  Special thanks to Cheb and Kilich for translating the lyrics. The second songs is Blood Upon the Risers, an American  WW2 paratrooper song. Youtube has renditions of both songs and both are worth a listen. special thanks to James Axelrad for giving me an accurate layout of the features on a Nimitz ship.