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 Five: Stress Test

 


            "You seem unusually pensive," Fuyutsuki asked from his seat to the side of his boss' desk.


            Gendo frowned at the report and leaned back. "Is it that obvious?"


            Fuyutsuki chuckled. "Only because you've been reading the report from the Instrumentality Committee, absent your normal wit."


            "Good." Silence returned.


            Looking up from his own copy of the report, Fuyutsuki caught Ikari's gaze move towards the photograph on his desk. "Introspection does not suit you."


            The commander's somewhat mild glare served as consent. "The past is a closed book."


            "Commenting on the inaccessibility?" Fuyutsuki raised an eyebrow at Gendo's narrowed eyes. "Or is it the immutability?"


            "We have done things. Things of great consequence. We will do things of even more import, but still..." Gendo's gaze returned to the picture of the Ayanami sisters.


            "You are not one for regret."


            "No, but I do wonder." Gendo sighed.


            Trying to conceal his surprise, Fuyutsuki cleared his throat.


            "Metaphysical Biology always allowed for Salvage."


            "Yes, the transitive properties of souls were key to our work, but application required precise work and the development of technology like the Magi."


            "It would seem that Doctor Akagi has finally stepped outside of her mother's shadow.


            Fuyutsuki nodded. "So, it's about her."


            "We tried. We knew what she wanted but we still tried. There was some success, the first Child proved that." Gendo's voice softened. "But Naoko wasn't good enough was she?"


            "I'm afraid Yui really is a closed book."


            Gendo tapped his desk. "The potential is there, but..."


            "It was a contact experiment." Fuyutsuki fatally stated.


            "I suppose there is a symmetry at work."


            "Beyond the expected symmetry between Pilot and Unit?" Fuyutsuki smiled weakly.


            "Blood tells, Professor."


            "And what is it telling you?"


            "Perhaps I was wrong trying to protect him." Gendo exhaled. "Clearly, Unit 01 does suit her."


            "You didn't think you'd need Shinji." Fuyutsuki paused fractionally on the last syllable.


            "Great, first you accuse me of being wistful and now you add sentimental."


            "Your words. Not mine."


            Gendo smirked. "I suppose I could have boarded him in a military school instead of with family."


            "Let alone the other Children."


            "Playing 'what if' with past policy decisions is defeating. Look at the role Katsuragi has played."


            "Which one?"


            "Not the Doctor, though obviously Super Solenoid and the Expedition had their role. No, perhaps the death of Ritsuko's friend forced the breakthrough that eluded her mother."


            Fuyutsuki blew air through his teeth in a hiss and looked out one of the panoramic windows of the expansive office. "Yes... without the Fourth our position would be even more precarious."


            "At least we don't have to worry about the Fourth. Especially given how... sudden things changed."


            "What? Did you expect a self-loathing hedgehog? My brother isn't that incompetent of a guardian and what kind of child of mine would obsess over me?"


            "Very few parents would think ill of their children," Fuyutsuki remarked.


            "What do you think Yui's opinion of her would be?"


            "We both know what she would have thought about having a daughter," Fuyutsuki said a bit sharply.


            "No Shinju is fine; only the Second is sub-par."


            "Yes, the Fourth does seem to have adjusted rather well to being a twelve-year-old girl."


            Gendo shrugged. "The Fourth's file indicates she handled being a fourteen-year-old boy well enough."


            "And our other guest?" Fuyutsuki looked to Gendo's gloved hands.


            "You saw it."


            "Inspector Ryoji was a risky courier."


            "He was suitable for the purpose. Properly baited he played quite the honey-pot."


            "But is the proximity wise?" Fuyutsuki asked keeping his gaze.


            Gendo chuckled. "Sometimes, you are too cautious."


            "Age imparts caution. The Old Men are prime examples. Still, we cannot operate so freely. Discretion..."


            Gendo held up his right hand to silence the professor. "I'll concede that this time caution is warranted. There is competition. The Plan is at risk." He looked to the picture frame. "But... the window has not closed yet."


            Fuyutsuki chuckled. "Now you sound hopeful. Or is that eager?"


            Smiling thinly, Gendo turned to the older man. "Your words. Not mine."


            "So, there is more than one way?" Fuyutsuki raised an eyebrow.


            Gendo turned and looked out at the panoramic view of the Geo-Front his office allowed. "Adaptation is a prerequisite for survival and we must survive if our plans are to succeed."

 

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

 


            "What the hell is that?" Asuka stepped into the grove of trees that stood in a side yard of the apartment compound taken over by the Eva Pilots and their Azazel Naval Infantry escorts.


            Rei briefly looked up from her novel and looked to Shinju. The First Child gave the barest tinge of a warm expression towards the diminutive clone. For her part, Shinju in a frilly romper was happily hugging a big blue... thing. Shiny but pliable, the octahedron was slightly bigger than Shinju's torso and gave off a soprano aria with every hug.


            "Is it cute?" Shinju asked, smiling sweetly while holding  the triangular-faced double-pyramid towards Asuka. "I killed you; yes, yes I did," she quietly cooed pulling it back to her chest.


            Gaping Asuka's eyes went to the middle Ayanami, then to the laughing Russians, and finally settled onto the two "normal" girls.


            Seeing Asuka's pleading eyes Shirane sighed. "Yes, it's an Angel toy. I told you Kotobukiya Hobby got the license to make all sorts of stuff."


            "And Princess is hugging the one that looks like two pyramids. Why?"


            "She thinks it's the cutest." Nozomi explained.


            "I guess, all the angels are pretty ugly. Just seems a bit plain for her tastes."


            Behind her bangs, Shinju smirked slightly.


            "Well she thought the pig was cute too," Shirane said.


            Nozomi's face paled. "No."


            Asuka stared at the pre-teen pilot. "What?"


            "We don't talk about the pig." Nozomi hissed.


            "It's just weird, them being vegetarians and all..." Seeing Nozomi's glare, Shirane trailed off.


            "Look at it this way; at least she's not doing this with her redheaded doll."


            Asuka's eyebrow twitched. "She... bought that thing?"


            "No, Nozomi's sister got her the set of pilot dolls."


            Nozomi sighed.


            "Really?" Asuka's voice was flat.


            Shirane nodded. "I got the scale models of the three Units."


            Slumping onto a tree trunk, Asuka sighed, and absently adjusted her holster. "Why am I surrounded by such strangeness?"


            Shinju put her plush Ramiel down. "You're a Pilot, tragedy is part of our existence."


            "Oh, morbid. I thought you were going to be a sweet gothic Lolita?" Shirane teased.


            Shinju blushed.


            "We're teenage girls that are sent out to kill aliens, and if we fail everything gets nuked."


            "You get to fight in really cool robots though."


            "There is that," Asuka beamed.


            "You need to open your heart to it," Shinju whispered.


            Asuka leaned back. "Isn't that what you shout in battle?"


            Shinju absently patted her mini-Ramiel.


            "Yeah..." Asuka shook her head. "Anyway, I was thinking of going to the range, and if you were up to a little challenge."


            Shinju perked her head up.


            "Not a good idea." Shirane shook her head. "Shinju-chan makes guns seem just as girly as ribbons and fluffy bows."


            "All three of which she's wearing," Nozomi deadpanned.


            Asuka turned to the girls. "She's not perfect. I'm just as good a shot as she is."


            "Isn't one of your nicknames for her Perfect Princess?"


            "And she's not really a princess is she?"


            Shinju gave a tiny smile.


            Breaking away from his men, Lieutenant Pyotr Kurchatov silently ambled to the girls. "You want shooting challenge, then?


            "Well I was thinking a normal match based on points."


            Pyotr frowned.


            "Katrina said she could have some of her men watch the range, so..."


            Pyotr nodded and turned to Rei. The First Child looked up and Pyotr raised an eyebrow and shrugged in Asuka's direction.


            Rei looked to the Second and gave a matching non-committal shrug.


            Asuka looked to Pyotr. He was far saner than Shinju's brute of a bodyguard. "Okay, if you've got some training in mind."

 

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

 


            Kaji sipped his tea as a slim woman slipped into the booth. She held a clutch purse and wore a plain if somewhat formal beige dress with red piping. Humming, she bore a serene little smile that quickly died when she looked at the spy's face.


            "You remembered why I called this meeting."


            The young woman nodded, her grey eyes downcast. Her fine auburn hair, carefully combed and fixed into a mid-parted style with curled ends seemed appropriate for her age, if at least several decades out of date.


            Kaji leaned back and idly scanned the restaurant. "You worry too much. Secretaries are allowed to date, even those of important men."


            Adjusting a pair of slim silver-framed glasses, she gave a slight nod and nearly cried out when the waitress came to the table. After giving a stuttering, flushed apology, she ordered a water and some pecan cookies.


            Kaji let the silence eat at her.


            "What do you want?" she eventually asked, after the waitress returned with her order.


            Kaji frowned slightly. Her voice seemed a bit too playful.
            "I want to know their agenda. I want to know what they want."


            The secretary lifted her head up and gave a lopsided smile. "Seele wants Azazel gone." She giggled and gave a flighty motion with her hands. "So, things can go back the way they were, but you know the truth." She broke a cookie in two. "There's no going back. The Russians changed things. Forever."


            "Yes, it doesn't matter if the Russians are taken out. The cat's out of the bag. You don't need Evas to kill an angel."


            "At least they'll die quick. You'll squeeze me until I get caught, or became a liability."


            Kaji laughed. In his experience women and sources could always be helped along with a bit of flattery. "I don't want to kill you. What would I do without you? Go back to conning spooks? No. No. You complete me."


            The woman gave a coy smile. "You're a liar. You'll sell out anyone."


            "Hey! I'm doing this to save humanity."


            She shook her head. "No, don't talk like them, because you're not. Even if you'd like to be." She patted his hand. "To them you're just a freak. Like me. They need you right now, when they don't..." She bit down on the cookie. "They'll cast you out. Like a leper. See... their morals, their ethics, their humanism, it's a joke. Dropped whenever it gets too hard. They're only as good as the world allows them to be. You lived through the Second Impact. You know what they did. You know the choices they made when things got too hard."


            "You seem amused at human suffering."


            She folded her hands in front of her. "There is something... reassuring at knowing the limitations of the human race."


            "Given the work your boss is engaged in?" Kaji let the leading question hang.


            "What do you think my boss and his... friends want? What do you think they've done?


            "What I think? I know about the Katsuragi Expedition." Kaji's hand shook as he sipped his tea. "I know who was behind it. I've got a good idea what they were trying to do."


            The secretary smiled slightly, her advice had been useful. Give him the right tidbits, the right direction, and he would happily go off and dig out the rest.


            Looking around the room again, Kaji shook his head. "Sure as I know anything, I know this - they will try again. A year from now, fourteen, right now? They believe that they can make people... better. And I do not hold to that."


            Grinning shyly, she leaned forward and lifted up her glasses. "And what are you going to do about it?"


            Kaji gave a cocky smirk. "I aim to misbehave."

 

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

 


            "You really didn't think this through." Katrina warned as Asuka took apart her double-barreled rifle.


            "I thought a little competition would be good." Asuka peered down the barrels and sighed.


            From her bench Shinju looked up and gave a shy wave.


            "You let Pyotr pick the contest and judge," Katrina deadpanned.


            "How was I supposed to know he's nuts!"


            Rei frowned at the outburst, but resumed her own work.
           


            "You didn't think he'd have a bias towards Rei?" Katrina chuckled and leaned back.


            "It was supposed to be just the two of us."


            "Well, now you both lost."


            "And it's not fair!" Asuka wailed. "Princess likes getting girly dresses."


            "I picked something, I felt you would both enjoy, but not be willing to purchase for yourselves." Rei stated, using a ramrod to push a cleaning patch through the fifty caliber barrel.


            "What? You're telling me Princess won't buy that silly Lolita dress?"


            "Have you seen her wear anything like that?" Katrina asked.


            "Well... some of her clothes are pretty frilly but..." Asuka rubbed her forehead. "You're telling me you don't actually dress that way?" she harshly asked the Fourth Child.


            "Shirane and Nozomi think I'd look good that way but..." Shinju blushed and went back to cleaning the hinge assembly to the scale-rifle.


            "So... if I had won and you'd have been forced to ditch all the frilly stuff and only wear skits when a uniform required it... you'd be okay with that?"


            "I dressed that way before moving in with Oneesan and Oneechan." Shinju shrugged.


            Asuka gaped. "You... you were a tomboy? With hair like that?"


            Looking up Shinju brushed aside one of her long bangs and paused in thought. "Oneesan did give me my headband when I arrived; we also went shopping for a new wardrobe."


            Asuka slowly put her tools down and organized the spread parts on her bench. "So, you get called up to Tokyo 3. Find out you're a Pilot, and decide to go all girly. That's right then?"


            Shinju tapped her chin.


            Asuka groaned and went back to cleaning. "I'm an idiot," she muttered.


            "Don't worry, I'm sure we can find a gown that's perfectly adequate for your needs."


            Asuka exhaled, and returned to her cleaning. After the powder residue was finally removed, she switched to a dry patch and then started oiling. "So, is there any way I could have won? Are you at least a bit embarrassed that you'll have to buy that black and purple ribbon explosion that Shirane found?"


            Shinju looked at her weapon and then down at the lacy jumper she wore. Closing her eyes she breathed a few times. "My heart is open."


            Asuka huffed and turned to Rei. "How sad is it that you're the normal one?"


            Without looking up, or bearing any real expression, Rei wiped down the barrel and stock assemblies of her rifle before sliding them together and snapping the break-action shut. Thoughtfully she pointed the gun to the floor and dry fired the triggers. Working the action she then proceeded to run an oil cloth over the outside removing any stray fingerprints and stains.


            She then slung the rifle over her shoulder and looked Asuka in the eye. "I cry myself to sleep every night at the thought."


            "Oh.... kay." Asuka shivered at the girl's leaden words. "Even counting that sense of humor of yours, you're still the normal one."


            Rei looked to Shinju and blinked. "She acknowledged that it was a joke. It seems Shirane is correct: I am funny."


            "Yeah, you did good, Oneechan!" Shinju cheered.

 

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

 


            Smiling, Ritsuko leaned back on her chair. "So Rei tricked Asuka?"


            On the other side of the Director's office, Misako nodded. "She got into the contest and beat them both."


            "She made Shinju get a frilly dress too," Ritsuko exhaled.


            "Oh let her have fun. She's been eyeing that dress for a while."


            Ritsuko raised an eyebrow. "Are you sure that's the right attitude? After all Shinju was..."


            "You're the one that put her in the little clone body. Rei could have had a twin sister you know."


            Ritsuko pulled out a cigarette. "Twins would have put a bigger spotlight on you. We don't want more questions. If we didn't have to maintain the secret I'd have had you be triplets. That way you'd all be stock models."


            "Gee, Ritsuko, you make a woman feel so special."
           


            Ritsuko flicked on her lighter. "Oh you are special. Model N4-003," she said staring into the butane flame.


            "Three?" Misako asked as Ritsuko lit her cigarette.


            "You were my little guinea pig."


            The clone shivered. "What... what happened to the other two? Did they come out wrong, did the transfer not hold? You got a room somewhere full of... me's?"


            "Actually it's more like a big LCL aquarium." Ritsuko deadpanned.


            Misako ground her teeth. "Rits...."


            Feeling the office's air conditioning kick in, the scientist chuckled. "Oh you're easy to tease." She blew a smoke ring. "You're a clone. There's nothing different between you or Rei. Rei's number 2, and Shinju's 4.


            "And one?"


            Ritsuko looked at her cigarette. "There were... problems. You know my mother?"


            "Yeah, she was big on the Magi right?"


            "She also... helped with the Pilot project. The first one, didn't go so well." Ritsuko stabbed the barely smoked cigarette in her astray.


            "What happened?"


            "Salvage experiment went bad." Ritsuko flatly said.


            "Oh. That's something your mother never figured out, right?"


            Ritsuko smirked. "Do allow me that bit of pride."


            Misako laughed. "You had me worried for a bit. I had this vision of you being some mad scientist experimenting on a whole clone army."


            Ritsuko raised an eyebrow.


            "A tactical officer and two warrant officers don't count for an army."


            Ritsuko kept her eyebrow raised.


            "Fine, yes we're all Eva Pilots." Misako crossed her arms over her chest. "You're no fun."


            "So, what did you think I'd be doing with a mess of clones?" Ritsuko said as she took out a fresh cigarette and grabbed her lighter.


            "I dunno, using us for your auto-pilot project."


             Ritsuko slowly put her lighter down. "Really?"


            "There's a reason NHIS couldn't hope to make an AT field, mechanically." Misako shrugged. "Evas are alive. You need a Pilot to synchronize with one."


            Ritsuko gave a toothy smile.


            Misako groaned. "Crap."


            "Mad scientist remember?"


            "So your auto-pilot... it's powered by a forsaken Child?"


            "Might be, kind of- I mean, I didn't use the whole thing," Ritsuko's smirk died when she felt a chill down her neck. "Look, I'm kidding."


            "Really? Then how do you do it?"


            "Cloning." Ritsuko stated as she lit her second smoke.


            Misako narrowed her eyes.


            "Oh not all clones are you. The Magi have plenty of organic components. The Dummy Plug system is a Magi-derivative modified to interface with Evangelion. Sure, it's got some of your genetic information, but that's to enable the system to mimic a human's brainwaves."


            "I thought we weren't normal humans."


            Ritsuko rolled her eyes. "Fine it mimics an Ayanami."


            "I suppose Asuka's stock human."


            Ritsuko inhaled some smoke. "Makes me wish I stuck with clones."


            "She is getting better. Katrina's really gotten less colorful in the reports she sends me."


            "Maybe she's running out of ways to swear. I mean she only speaks what, Russian, German, English and Japanese?"


            "Look, she's getting better training."


            "Would you send her on the next mission?"


            Misako looked to the ceiling. "Depends. Certainly not a solo, but maybe providing support. I'll have to see how she handles tomorrow's war-game."


            "And if she fails?"


            "Break her down for parts?" Misako smirked. "I'm sure you've got some experiments you've been itching to try. After all if you can't make a girl into a good Pilot, you could just make a good Pilot."


            "Oh yes, I've got some novel interface ideas, you see we had to modify Evangelion to accept a Pilot, so why not do the reverse? Yes, I can taste the rich frothing tang of Science!" Ritsuko cackled.


            Misako stared and after a moment edged a bit back in her seat.


            "Don't be such a baby. I already crossed the line into mad science when I made you."


            "I thought the giant bio-mechanical robots and supercomputers powered by shards of your mother's soul would be enough."


            Ritsuko snickered and took a puff. "Yes, yes. All very good projects, but really you need clones to cap it off. It's traditional, you see."


            "Huh. You know you never do talk about your colleagues."


            Ritsuko snorted. "In Metaphysical Biology? A field with such luminaries as my mother, your father, Professor Insana, Asuka's mother, and the Sub-Commander?"


            "Okay... you have a point."


            "Hell, that smirking Russian's right. The whole field's nuts."


            "You seem to be doing pretty... good."


            Ritsuko simply stared at the clone. She sighed. "I suppose it could be worse. At least I could get some respect. Why, Doctor Insano would laugh me out of the Mad Scientists' Association if I didn't get around to clones at some point."


            "What? That's not real."


            Ritsuko smirked.


            "Come on!"


            "Oh, no it's real. That's the informal name to the Metaphysical-biology Association, Division of Applied Sciences. If you're drunk enough after a conference it looks sorta like MAD Sciences. It's a little joke that's been around since the old Artificial Evolution lab."


            "Right.... but the doctor?"


            "Professor Tino Noah Insana. He's with Nerv-02."


            "Oh, him." Misako stared. "I hate you."


            "He's got the unfortunate nickname of Tina. You see they swap the last-"


            Misako rolled her eyes. "Yes, I get it. I can't believe Nerv would hire someone... wait. Yes I can."


            "He's not so bad." Ritsuko paused and after a moment sighed.


            "So, he's mad but competent?"


            Ritsuko nodded. "Back when they were in development he worked on Evangelion systems integration. Now, he's heading the Super Solenoid research branch over there."


            "Oh, so highly experimental and powerful engines are being developed by a guy with the nickname of Insano? Lovely."


            "What? He's eccentric not stupid."


            "Reassuring," Misako deadpanned.


            "Much as I'd love to do all the work myself I just don't have the time."


            "Some mad scientist you are. You've got a clone army. Just make a few of you."


            Ritsuko raised her eyes up to the ceiling. "Like that wouldn't turn around and bite me in the ass."


            "Huh, I didn't realize you felt that way... about yourself."


            Ritsuko snorted. "If I made duplicates of myself, it'd be a week before the Akagi count dropped back down to one."


            "Just drug them into being good little helpers." Misako gave a big wide-eyed smile.


            "My someone's being a sarcastic clone today."


            "So you really couldn't live with yourself?"


            Ritsuko inhaled some smoke. "Could you?"


            Misako simply gave a half-lidded gaze.


            "You're only genetically identical."


            The clone raised an eyebrow skeptically.


            "Okay, yes there's some... leakage but-"


            "But we're different. We live together and we're the only family any of us really have."


            "Shinju..."


            "Shinji's former guardians wouldn't recognize Shinju. As for her father... I'm just glad he's gotten out of the way."


            "He is a... difficult man to live with."


            Misako blinked. "Ewwww...."


            Remembering the original owner of that face, Ritsuko stared at Misako. "Not like that! I paused because I didn't want to say 'He is a socially oblivious bastard.' "


            "Sure Rits, I believe you," Misako winked.


            "Oh grow up."


            "You're the one that took away a third of my age."


            "Being younger helps you bond better with the Pilots, and the less accelerated aging the less your body is stressed."


            "Yes, thanks for reminding me I'm in a buggy body." Misako stuck out her tongue.


            Ritsuko waved her cigarette around. "You don't get to be picky. Rei's had to take various drugs and deal with weekly medical exams for her whole life."


            "And it shows."


            "You and Shinju have been doing great with her." Ritsuko stubbed her cigarette out. "Even Pyotr's been doing good with her."


            "Yeah, handy that the Russians had Japanese fluent Azazel Naval Infantry officers that complemented every one of our pilots and their tactical officer." Once again, Misako was wide-eyed and empty-smiled.


            Ritsuko snorted.


            "I'm half tempted to ask Sakharov who the next Pilot is. Odds are he already knows."


            "You think they've penetrated Marduk?" Ritsuko's smile broke as she began to laugh. "Oh yes... that'd be great!"


            "You know Rits, sometimes I get the feeling you're not being totally honest with me."


            "We're Nerv. Everyone's related to everyone else and we screw each other in the dark."


            "Yeah... ewww."


            Ritsuko sighed. "I could have phrased that better."

 

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

 


            Shinju pulled her hair band off and carefully hung it inside her locker. She then clicked her plugsuit's wrist and checked her sidearm and sealed it in her pilot-issue holster and slipped on her interface headset. Finally, she looked over to see Asuka doing much the same, if more slowly.


            "Are you okay?"


            Asuka looked up. "Fine!"


            "There's nothing wrong with being scared."


            Checking her headset, Asuka snorted "I'm fine!"


            Shinju pursed her lip and turned to Rei, also dressed in her plugsuit.


            "If you're not fit for battle, Captain Ayanami will ground you."


            Asuka slammed her locker closed. "You'd like that!"


            Rei blinked. "Yes, I'd prefer my sister to not die due to an incompetent partner."


            Asuka glared while Shinju stepped off to the side and called the command center.


            Rei glanced over to Shinju who hung up the phone and nodded. The first child turned to Asuka. "We need to get to our Evangelions."


            Frowning, Shinju followed the two older girls out of the locker room and to the Evangelion cages and into their cockpits. The cockpits were inserted into the plugs, and then the plugs were inserted into the Evangelions. Shinju slowly and evenly inhaled the LCL and opened herself to synchronization.


            "Are you feeling okay?" Misako asked, via view-screen window. "You look distracted."


            "I'm worried about the Second."


            "Everyone gets jitters their first time." Misako frowned. "She needs to get experience sometime."


            Shinju nodded. "Yes, Oneesan."


            "Good luck." Misako switched to the other pilots, and then turned to the uppermost platform. "Commander, the pilots are ready."


            "Are you sure the second is ready?" Gendo asked.


            "Her performance in the simulations has caught up to the others."


            General Yubari nodded. "We have cleared her for operations, but she is still a rookie."


            "That's why Shinju will lead the operation," Misako went back to the display.


            "We have cleared routes to the runway. Eva 01 and 02 are in position," Makoto said from his terminal.


            "Pattern Blue heading north in Suruga Bay, estimated landfall at Numazu City," Aoba announced.


            "Launch Evangelions!" Misako ordered. "I want those planes in the air as soon as the Evas are secured.


            Deep inside Unit 02, Asuka listened as her Evangelion banged and shuddered as it was transferred from its control cradle to the carrying arms on her Y59 transport. Once locked onto the plane, she heard the engines whine and the plane start to taxi towards the runway.


            Then Shinju's image appeared. "Hi!"


            Asuka narrowed her eyes. "Yes?"


            Shinju looked down and blushed. "Well... I want to wish you good luck."


            Asuka tried to snort, and then held her nose and coughed up some LCL. "Gah... well that's funny. You tried to replace me with Wondergirl."


            The plug shuddered as the engines flared and the plane shot down the runway. Her bottom fell out as the plane took to the air and rockets shoved it skyward. On her screen, Shinju shuddered as her transport took to the air.


            After both planes had leveled out of their climb, Shinju looked up and seemed to lock her eyes onto Asuka. "Oneesama said you were ready. Do not prove her wrong."

 

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

 


            Grey eyes tracked the mass of contrails cutting across the sky. The growling, heavy whine of giant turbo fans and the thundering pulse of rocket boosters pulled her attention from planes mustering towards the south-west. Instead she leveled her gaze and saw two immense flying wings, each with a nearly three hundred meter wingspan, lurch into the air.


            Dressed in a prim black skirt, white blouse, black pumps, and black vest of an office lady, she stood alone in the business plaza. Around her the skyscrapers of Tokyo 3 began to descent clearing out her view of the mountains to the west of the city.


            "Mikki, there you are," one of the other secretaries, this one with black hair in a ponytail pulled over on ear ran up to her.


            Mikki turned face her coworker.

            "Didn't you hear the sirens? We have to get to the shelter!"


            The grey eyed woman nodded absently.


            "Come on!" her coworker tried to pull the girl but found Mikki squirm her wrist out of her grasp.


            Looking back at the sky, Mikki's face brightened. "Coming, I just wanted to see them take off!" She smoothed one of her curled crimson tresses back into place. "Good luck sister," she whispered, looking back to the south-west before running to the bunker-like entrance to the shelter elevator.

 

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

 


            "You're approaching the landing zone," Misako said over the plug's heads up display. "Israfel is about to make landfall near the ruins of Numazu City."


            "This sucks, my Japanese debut and I can't solo," Asuka muttered to herself. "Why do I have to bring you?"


            Shinju frowned. "Procedure," she coldly stated.


            "Well, let me tell you something: just don't get in my way!" Asuka growled.


            Shinju narrowed her eyes, and her display vanished as Unit 01 was released from the transport plane.


            "Her selection as a Pilot must be a joke," Asuka sighed just before her own drop.


            One after the other the two Evangelions hit the beach in a low crouch. A pair of cable trucks lumbered up and lifted their umbilical cables.


            "Two against one is not what I call a fair fight." Asuka said as she plugged into the external power.


            Shinju kept her small frown as she wired into her umbilical and shouldered her rifle.


            "Survival takes priority," Misako stated. "You've got M-Type equipment so don't worry about getting wet."


            A sixty meter tall figure breached the water. Roughly humanoid but lacking a clear head, the giant had long gangly arms that almost reached to its own feet. Its skin was a thick silvery hide and instead of a face it simply had a circular plate with three holes.


            From inside the command center, Misako looked up at the looming angel. "Attack at will!"


            "Cover me Shinju!" Asuka shouted as she started to run down the beach.


            "You don't give me orders, rookie," Shinju mildly stated as she lined the sights up on her rifle "Wisky" BB-64. She smirked fractionally. "Strafe to the side, I want a clear line of fire.


            Slinging her rifle, Asuka grunted and altered her course by wheeling along to the side. She soon reached the water's edge and, instead of wading started hopping on the rooftops of the partially submerged buildings. Each long leaping stride eating up the vast distance.


            "It's not moving," Shinju warned as she shouldered the massive gun and placed Unit 01's feet and braced for the recoil.


            Asuka drew her entrenching tool, drew it back over Unit 02's head, and sliced down. Roughly bisected the Angel fell into two quivering halves that slumped back down.


            Asuka smirked and waded back a bit from her handiwork. "What do you think of that Fourth? A fight should be clean, elegant and without waste."


            "We're getting a pattern orange," Ritsuko's voice cut in as the angel pieces began to balloon into two humanoid figures. Gaping Asuka stared at the transformation.


            "Asuka, duck and cover!" Shinju screamed.


            Training hit and Asuka slammed Unit 02 down to the sandy bottom. As she sent out her AT field the water above her was struck by one massive concussion and then it lit up and flashed with heat. A bare second later another explosion hit, this one a hundred meters to the side.


             After being battered about Asuka pulled herself up and saw lumps of spongy angel flesh floating in front of her. "You shot an N2 at me!"


            "Get out of the water, Warrant," Shinju tightly said, flicking her gun open and slipping another set of shells in.


            "What are you talking about?" Asuka looked over the runny, bobbing chunks, which, while lacking the gouts of blood she had come to expect from angels, were dappled with splotches of red. "You killed the damn-" Finally, noticing how the pieces were running back together, Asuka clenched her spade and began to back out.


            "Faster would be better."


            "Right." Using some of the remaining buildings as stepping-stones, Asuka pulled back towards the beach. By the midway point, a quartet of angels had congealed. Each was about equal to an Evangelion in height and was split between silver and gold.


            Inside the command center the various Nerv, Azazel and JSSDF personnel watched the mitosis. Communicating with the Pilots Misako was having them pull back from the beach as the group of angels began to race forward.


            Fuyutsuki leaned down to Gendo. "This was unexpected."


            "Not the first unexpected information today," Gendo grumbled.


            "Pardon?"


             The commander waved him off. "What is Rei's status?"


            "Unit 00 is ready and loaded onto a YC59," Maya stated.


            "Captain Zel'dovich reports that his squadron is in position," Makoto announced.


            "Thank the captain, but we'll authorize a launch only after the Evas have been pulled back." General Yubari stated.


            The gigantic monitors flashed over again as Unit 02 fired into the center of the group. The angel on the far left darted to the side and leapt into the air and was blasted apart by another blinding white flash.


            "That's not destroying their cores," Ritsuko muttered as she worked at a Magi terminal.


            "Nyet, AT field seems only prevent vaporization, all other damage is regenerated," Beria muttered. "Moskva now, before they split up."


            General Ishikari glanced back to Ikari.
           


            "Load Unit 00 with as many sets of Mark 9 rounds that you can get in a minute and launch." Gendo pushed his glasses back into place. "Captain Ayanami, move your Pilots to that ridge west of Mount Ohira. And get me Admiral Sudoplatov; I do have a use for his planes."

 

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

 


            Once on solid land, Unit 02 was able to rapidly sprint up the beech and across the Second-Impact-ruined cityscape. Unit 01 was already well ahead of her crouching behind the remains of an elevated freeway.


            "Why are we always retreating?" Asuka demanded as the loping little angels, each only coming up to an Evangelion's shoulders, steadily gained on her.


            "Air strike," Shinju flatly stated as she fired into the bakers-dozen Israfel. Unfortunately, the first blast only incinerated half of them and remainder of the flock darted apart when the next hit came.


            Two of them leapt up and landed on Unit 02. The first one hit her left arm with a bear-hug while her right arm grabbed her progressive blade and sliced the angel off. As that happened the second angel landed on Unit 02's head, wrapped around it and detonated.


            Head pounding, ears ringing, vision blurring, Asuka felt Unit 02 fall to its knees, as the multitude of Israfel closed.

            "Duck and Cover!" Shinju cried, stressing the second word.


            Curling into a ball, Asuka concentrated and her AT field shimmered just as a mass of angels leapt onto it. Their detonations were little pops, especially when compared to the scorching blast from Shinju's Mark 9.


            "Cover!" Shinju beat her spade onto the angels and Unit 02. After clearing the clingers, Unit 01 slung Unit 02 over its shoulders and took off running, twin cables trailing behind


            "Incoming, clear the beach," Misako ordered


            "Keep the cover!" Shinju shouted as she threw Unit 02 to the ground and jumped on top of the Evangelion.


            Further dazed by the impact, Asuka looked up and saw several of contrails race across sky, then in the cover of her HUD she saw Shinju's... expectant face as Unit 01 turned to the angel mob.


            "Bombs are friend! Come, visit friends!" Shinju cackled as the flight of Tu-160's released their loads.


           

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

 


            View-screens flickering, Asuka lifted up Unit 02's head as she went into one-kneed kneel. Wincing, she shouldered her Mark 9, and as explosions pounded in the distance she eased over the two hundred meter ridge her Evangelion had been heaved over.


            "Pilot Status?" Misako's voice demanded, the picture in picture on the view-screen alternated between being blank and showing static.


            Asuka blinked but looked to her displays and read her gauges. "Uh... okay, visual communications and sensors damaged. Armor battered but... still functional, power supply holding."


            Numazu City sprawled below her and it was... filled with writhing metallic angels. Underfoot, the beach, the highway, any remaining buildings had been turned into a moonscape of interlocking craters. The one bare spot was roughly circular and had a pair of deep Eva-scale tracks leading away.


             The waist-high swarm steadily loped towards Unit 01, which stood on the steep slope leading to the ridge. Ramparts of mashed angel flesh piled at the foot of the ridge and occasionally quivered as they gelled into more Israfel.

 
            The giant war-machine looked smug, almost serene, as it broke open its Mark 9, spent brass cartridges flung out and were replaced by a pair of green tipped shells.


            "Gott... why didn't they just nuke it?" Asuka asked, reflexively checking her weapons.


            "You would have been dead too, and it might have missed some of the angels at the edges." Misako transmitted. "Lots of... little bombs were able to buy us some time."


            "Weaker AT field now. Canister shot," Shinju ordered Asuka over the com-link as she raised her rifle and fired into the crowd. After exiting the spinning sabots flung aside releasing two dozen eight inch diameter spheres.


            The wave of miniaturized N2 warheads arced down the slope. Instead of one sky-blinding flash, a wave of sun-bright detonations raked through the angelic lines. Body parts flew and spongy flesh spattered across the destroyed city.


            And in that moment, Asuka hesitated. Complementing the rolling thunder of detonations were pearls of high, almost giggling, maniacal laughter. The redhead swallowed, braced herself, fired into the silent horde.


            Spheres of light bloomed and swallowed many of the angels, pouring over flickering AT fields and blasting their flesh apart. However, more came.


            One armed, Shinju snapped her rifle shut and raked the tip of the barrel across a line of Israfel. On the backswing she jammed the end of the gun into the lead angel in the swarm.


            Reloading herself, Asuka tilted her Evangelion's head to avoid the flash.


            "Who sends all these babies to fight?" Shinju bellowed with disgust as more Israfel marched over the mashed pulp of their siblings. Switching to her spade she began to tear through the mob.


            "How many of these things are there?" Asuka asked as she fumbled for another cartridge.


            "Well over sixty-four," Ritsuko tonelessly transmitted, as Shinju punted an angel that had managed to surmount the ridge into the bay.


            "Not my fault!" Asuka shouted.


            "Hold on, Rei is on approach with more ammunition," Misako assured.


            "And then what?" Asuka cried as she shot northward across the slope, clearing some space for Shinju to reload.


            Ritsuko's voice cut in. "Each generation's AT field is weaker than the previous; you are hurting them."


            Before she could respond, Asuka spotted some of part of the mob breaking away from the ridge where they wheeling around to the north and towards a run up a pass where the ridge dropped down to a mere fifty meters. "Sheisse, flank right!"


            "On your left too," Misako noted as over a dozen angels poured in from the south over the summit of Mount Ohira."


            Capitan Ayanami looked over the giant topographical display. "Shinju take center, Asuka left." She then keyed to an Azazel channel "Captain Zel'dovich take out the right."


            "How long until Unit 00 arrives?" General Ishikari asked as the screen bloomed with the detonation of an N2-tipped Moskva.


            "She's only a minute out, will be over the drop zone momentarily."


            "Little bastards split up," Asuka's voice cut in as Unit 02 scrambled backwards and down slope to intercept the multiplying survivors of her attack.


            Misako's eyes widened. A few kilometers behind both Evangelions was an unassuming blue glyph; one that was connected to both Units with thin blue lines. "They're after the transformer. Asuka intercept!"


            "This is a bit beyond the single-minded march forward we've seen before," Fuyutsuki whispered.


            "Clever." Gendo noted.


            "With the external batteries they've still got twenty minutes," Ritsuko said.


            "How many spares are airborne?" Misako asked.


            "Two C5s are on orbit, each loaded with an external set," Makoto stated.


            Part of Asuka tried to listen to the conversation back at base, but most of her was concentrating on the transformer station. The collection of heavy trucks, industrial electrical equipment and various transmission and umbilical cables contained everything needed to link Evangelion with Japan's power grid.


            It was nearly overrun.


            Behind her, to the west Shinju's laugher mixed with smattering rumbles and cracks. To the north the blasts were less frequent, but the concussion was much higher, with overpressures steadily racing down he valley and battering the hardened station.


            However, to the South the little angels freely ran down the hill. Unit 02 picked off at least half of the hoard. Then they crossed the river and got within a kilometer of the station.


            Growling, Asuka sling her rifle and drew her knife and entrenching tool. Leaping into the mass, she started stabbing and actually shoveling the enemy away. Using her spade she scooped the angels up two at a time and flung them away. Half the time they exploded on her spade, but it kept them at bay.


            "Pilot, to your south!" Misako shouted.


            Chuckling as a lateral slash eviscerated four angels at once, Asuka looked up towards the mountain. A silvery avalanche was tumbling down. "Oh.... "


            Asuka unslung her rifle and ejected the canister shot. She briefly considered opening the sealed container on her ammo belt and getting the white-tips, but relented and pulled out a set of red-tipped cartridges. Snapping the gun shut she shouldered it and as the angels clamored towards her she fired.


            Twin penetrator N2 warheads slammed into Mount Ohira, and in a massive burst of dust and light the avalanche turned from figurative to literal. Dozens of angels were consumed in the rockslide. There was a brief hush in the command center as the topographical map updated.


            Staring at the field of writhing, buried angels, Asuka flipped out her spade and with a feral grin started slashing the struggling angels.


            "Hooah! Give 'em hell, Red!" Shinju cheered.


            "Damn right." Grinning at the words, Asuka flipped the Big J open and loaded in two canister shot cartridges. After eliminating the trapped angels she ran back to the transformer station, spade in one hand, knife in the other.


            Her motions were brutal and workmanlike. The two blades simply cut through the capering mobs as they swarmed about. Then to the west there were two more rock spewing explosions as Shinju collapsed the center ridge on her horde.


            The distraction was enough and a trio of angels slipped past Unit 02 and detonated amid the collection of electrical equipment and transmission wires. " Schweinehunde!" Asuka screamed as the complex blew apart and her Evangelion switched to battery power.


            In the command center, Misako frowned at the display. The transformer station had been just destroyed and Unit 02 was slicing apart angels as they scattered about. Unit 01 had been progressively pulling back, and was now hitting the angels as they crested the ridge, and despite periodic missile strikes, some angels managed to slip through the northern pass.


            "First Child is over the drop-zone," Aoba announced.


            "Halt drop!" Misako shouted. "This whole thing's a trap."


            General Yubari looked over the map and nodded. "Honey-pot. There's enough of those bastards to split up and make a run for Tokyo 3."


            "But they're not," Misako said before repeating her halt order to the YC59's crew.


            "They're waiting for us to fully commit our troops so they can simply walk around 'em." General Abukuma shook his head.


            Ritsuko's eyes widened. "Or they're already on their way here and we just can't see them. Maya I want you to adjust the scanners to home in on Pattern Orange."


            "Nothing beyond the current targets," Maya announced.


            "Keep checking." Ritsuko leaned in and glared at Maya's screen. "I don't want those little creeps sneaking in."


            "I want those spare batteries ready to be dropped on request, and setup an ammunition drop." Misako keyed to the pilot channel. "Shinju what do you and the Second need?"


            "Still have fifteen minutes left, ammunition low, more canister and standard N2. Oneechan'd be nice too." Shinju jumped over the river and went to Asuka, abandoning the ridgeline to the angels. "How long are we to hold?"


            "Keep at it, your AT field is eroding their fields. Each time they split, they're getting weaker and easier to kill," Ritsuko assured.


            "But there's more of them!" Asuka cried using her Mark 9 as a club before quickly ejecting the shells.


            "There are?" Shinju blinked, and scanned the plain across the river.


            "Actually, they've topped off at around 128. Just keep hitting them." Ritsuko paused and became more agitated. "Maya, what the hell are you doing? That's the wrong frequency."


            "So, what? Just keep blowing up mini-angels?" Asuka asked.


            "You wanted to Pilot Evangelion," Shinju replied.


            Gasping, Asuka slashed one angel and on the upswing of her spade one got through and clung to Unit 02's left leg. Several more followed and quickly melded. Striking with her shovel, Asuka tried to dislodge them.


            "Get 'em off Red! They'll take out your AT field," Shinju shouted.


            "I know that," Asuka pried off half of the clingy bumpy mass, and the remainder exploded.


            Armor ripped off Unit 02's shin, musculature tore apart, and with a deafening crack the left foot flopped to one side and the red Evangelion fell. Dozens of angels swarmed towards the stricken Unit.


            "Get them off!" Asuka screamed as her plug's screens were covered in silvery flesh before they went completely dark. The blinding pain from her... from Unit 02's leg was accompanied by a constant prying and nibbling. "Princess! They're eating me!"


            Soon, the creaking gnawing was soon overshadowed by a loud chanting and Asuka almost wished she had not been saved.


            "Open your heart. Open your heart. Open your heart! Open your heart!"


            The command center's video feed on the battle distorted as Unit 01's AT field flared in insanity and the Unit ran towards the stricken Evangelion. Two N2 warheads on either side of Unit 02 blasted the angelic swarm with debris and pieces of their brethren.


            Continuing her mantra Shinju used her Mark 9 as a club. Crossing the distance, she brained, launched, bashed, and lamed scores of angels until there was a snap and she discarded it in exchange for her progressive entrenching tool and knife.


            "Is Unit 01 going berserk?" Misako asked as Unit 01 literally waded into the battle. The AT field burned brightly and kept the Israfel at bay.


            "Synchronization at eighty-five percent," Makoto stated.


            "Other readings are evaluated but..." Ritsuko frowned and looked up at the gore-splattered Unit. "I think it's Shinju."


            "Power is dropping. They're going to need those batteries in five," Makoto stated before shifting to one of the cargo transports. "Readying to drop on order."


            Misako nodded and then saw the horde shift. "Hah! There it is," she smirked as couple score of the little angels turned and started running to the north-east. "They're making a break for it. Call the admiral."


            The ruins of Numazu City lay thirty kilometers away from Tokyo 3. After the initial ridgeline the river plain was relatively flat for several kilometers before the terrain grew more hilly and crossed with river valleys ending with the mountains that surrounded Lake Ashinoko.


            The Israfel split, with the bulk of their numbers occupying the two Evangelion while a smaller group started a seemingly panicked run on a direct bearing towards Tokyo 3. Mishima city lay at the midpoint. Its altitude had spared it much of the devastation of the lower lying cities. Its distance from Old Tokyo, despite being a commuter city due to high speed rail, had saved it from that city's destruction.


            With the new rail lines it even benefited from the construction and expansion of Tokyo 3 in much the same way it did with Old Tokyo, and the city had even been evacuated before the latest Nerv operation had commenced. However, its fortune ended when the rearmed and refueled Azazel bomber squadron released their loads.


            Using penetrator warheads similar to the Mark 9 "red", the bombs cut into the ground before detonating throwing concrete and earth into the air while collapsing buildings, tunnels, and even the streets. Overlapping pressure waves worked to bury and immobilize dozens of the angels, while roasting and scattering just as many.


            The slim fraction that escaped the inferno continued their scrambling ascent. Then, their distributed core singing with proximity to their goal, a giant shadow fell over them. Gleaming blue armor shone as Unit 00 leveled "The Big Stick".

 

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

 


            Howling, Asuka flashed her AT field and threw Unit 02 upright, flinging many of the little angels off. Grinning madly she grabbed one in each hand and squeezed. There were two pops as they splattered gore like blood-soaked sponges. "Oh... now you bleed!" Asuka chuckled and rose from the sitting position only to scream as Unit 02's broken leg flopped under her. Growling, Asuka ran one of her bloody hands over the wound, which started to numb.


            "Cowards bleed now! Cowards die!" Shinju's voice boomed as Unit 01 patted Unit 02 on the back, and helped the Evangelion to its feet.


            Favoring the damaged foot, Asuka picked up her spade and slammed it down on an Israfel causing a bloody splatter. "Finally, stupid things."


            "Yes, very bad," Shinju picked up two batteries. "Release externals."


            Asuka blinked, and hit the buttons that ejected the spent batteries from her shoulder pylons. "Right, right," she said as she helped Shinju attach the fresh set. "You need help on yours?"


            "Already did them." Shinju handed a fresh ammunition satchel and passed "Big J" over.


            Asuka checked the gun's load. "Thanks," she said snapping the action shut. She looked over to see Shinju leveling a pristine Mark 9. Free of scratches, it only had a bit of powder discoloration on the ends of the barrels. "New gun?"


            "Spare," Shinju hesitated. "Wisky didn't make it."


            "Ah," Asuka stepped forward, relieved that Unit 02's leg seemed to be functional, if pained. "They're running? How many are we looking at here?" She took sight and fired a canister shot into a fleeing gaggle of angels. After the smoke and flash from the propellant and warheads cleared there were only smears of blood and still angel-flesh.


            "They made a break for Tokyo 3. Onechan and Azazel stopped them. Now they're trying it again." Shinju chuckled and snapped BB-63 "The Mighty Mo" open. "But that won't work."


            Her grin on Asuka's HUD caused the redhead to recoil.


            Shinju reloaded. "All of you, yes you, are dead!" her voice declared over the blasted, blacked terrain.


            Asuka shook her head and sighted another clump of angels. "So, it's down to cleanup?"

 

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

 


            Only after the LCL drained from the plug did Asuka relinquish the controls. Though that was primarily due to her violently coughing up the fluid that had filled her lungs. After her plug was ejected and the cockpit section removed, Asuka stumbled out of the seat and onto the catwalk.


            Groaning, Asuka pulled herself up and looked at the trio of Evangelion. Unit 00 bore several scorch marks and gashes and the damage went downhill with increasing number. Her own unit was covered in overlapping layers of tears, gouges, burns and sections that were just gone. One of the green eyepieces had been torn out, revealing a shockingly organic-looking orange eye, and the left leg was completely de-armored around the shin.


            Wincing as she put weight on her own left leg, Asuka looked up to see her fellow pilots emerge from their cockpits. "Is it always like this?" she asked before coughing up a glob of LCL. "Sorry."


            Rei frowned minutely. "Yes."


            "But that's okay. You were very adequate today!" Shinju smiled.


            Asuka looked down at the younger girl, and sighed. "Yeah... you were good too."


            Shinju smiled and walked off with her sister to the locker room.


            Asuka shook her head but followed. Getting out of the plugsuit and taking a long shower tempted her forward. Outside the locker room she almost ran in to Captain Ayanami.


            Misako looked between the three girls. "You did good. Take some time to cleanup. We've got a debriefing in an hour."


            Asuka longingly looked to the showers. "Can't we go back to killing angels instead?"


            Misako chuckled. "Just be glad you've just got the one meeting."


            "Who are you meeting with?" Shinju asked.


            "Strategic review. We want to talk about what this angel did and how our logistics and organization held up."


            "It acted with more intelligence," Rei stated.


            "Little bastards tried to trap us," Asuka grumbled.


            Misako looked to Shinju.


            Finding her hair falling in front of her face, Shinju wished she had her headband. "Tactics. It had a goal and tried to keep us from interfering with it."


            Misako smiled. "Good girls. Don't underestimate the enemy."


            "Even if there's a horde of exploding freaks?" Asuka snorted.


            "Yes," Misako stated and went down the corridor.


            "How are they?" Ritsuko asked after slipping next to the clone after a T-intersection.


            "I thought those suits were wired?"


            "They only give physical telemetry. I want to know how they're doing."


            Misako shrugged. "You know how hard it is to get a read on my sisters."


            Ritsuko smiled thinly. "And Soryu?"


            "Tired, bitter, a bit deflated."


            "You mean the thing she fixed her entire self identity and self worth on wasn't the dream she thought it was?" Ritsuko shook her head, snickering.


            "I thought you were concerned about their mental well being?"


            Ritsuko straightened herself. "Nothing wrong with having her ego a bit defeated. We'll just have to make sure she doesn't collapse."


            As they walked, Misako nodded. "It helps that she didn't have too many big goofs. She was pretty green, but next mission she'll be better."


            Ritsuko stopped in front of the conference room. "So you'll ease up on pressuring Marduk?"


            Capitan Ayanami glared flatly.


            Ritsuko found herself shivering slightly.


            "Look at today. Three units and... three pilots give us no margin. If Israfel had a bit more sense, it could have stalled Rei just like it did the others," Misako explained.


            "Agree completely," Admiral Sudoplatov said as he entered the hallway. "All of our resources were pressed today." He gave a toothy smirk. "I trust the pilots are doing well?"


            "Yes, they're in the showers right now."


            Sudoplatov nodded and slipped past the women and took his seat at the conference table, where he started chatting with the JSSDF officers.


            "It's like Ikari without the social graces." Ritsuko muttered.


            The albino Misako somehow managed to blanch.


            "That was a joke."


            "Oh? I suppose we can allow some humor in victory." Fuyutsuki said as he walked up.


            Ritsuko's eyes widened-slightly and she turned around.


            "It's just me." The former professor adjusted the cuffs of his uniform. "The Commander has a pressing appointment."


            "More pressing than this?" Misako's eyes widened with realization. "Ah, the UN. Almost pity him."


            Fuyutsuki smiled lightly. "Shall we start the meeting?" He then followed them into the conference room, where the door was closed and locked.


            Maya activated one of the wall displays showing an overhead map of the battle and an image of one of the Israfel.


            Fuyutsuki tapped the table. "First off. What just happened?"


            The assembled officers paused at the misleadingly mild outburst.


            "Israfel had the ability to separate itself into hundreds of independent bodies. It's AT field also acted differently. Instead of acting purely as a shield it helped with regeneration. This enabled them to recover from obscene punishment, until their AT fields were sufficiently eroded," Ritsuko explained.


            "We've seen flexibility with these AT before," General Yubari noted.


            "Correct."


            "Previous two angels used AT for propulsion," Beria added.


            Ritsuko eyed the Russian. "We've also seen a radical departure in behavior."


            Yubari nodded. "Strategy. It was simple, but it was more than we've seen before."


            "Flanking, targeting critical assets, and a giant diversion." Misako bit her lip. "That's a lot more than simply marching towards the city."


            "The last one attacked the Pacific Fleet. Not Tokyo 3," Sudoplatov's tone was mild but his eyes were piercing.


            The conference room fell silent for a few seconds.


            "Well doesn't that fit? That time the angel tried to take out an Evangelion. This time it tried to get us to commit all three so it could tie 'em up." Misako exhaled. "These bastards are learning, and they're targeting the Evangelions first."


            Fuyutsuki allowed another little smile, and pondered how much the Captain knew. She knew Inspector Ryoji was a courier but did she know what was in that case? Ikari did seem... interested in her, and her biology raised... questions.


            "A worrying proposal," Yubari stated.


            "Look at what we've gone up against. First one Azazel nukes. Second one tangles with an Evangelion. Next..." Misako's eyes sparkle. "Next we get a giant flying fortress with a beam that fries anything that gets close. After that we get a giant fish thing that tries to takeout our reinforcements. Who knows what it'd have done if the Americans hadn't killed it. And finally we've got an angel that can make its own army and is capable of setting up traps and basic tactics. What's next?"


            "We'll need to keep our training up. Continue simulating the enemy have numerical and tactical advantages," General Abukuma stated.


            "Resources stressed," Beria stated, drawing wooden reproach from Sudoplatov.


            "He's right. We've got plans for being outnumbered, but not like today," Misako looked up at the map and then turned to Fuyutsuki. "We need one of the American Evangelions, at least."


            "There was also a shortage of delivery platforms and aerial support." Sudoplatov noted.


            "More planes and more missiles are easier to get," Misako stated. "They're all very useful, but Evangelion is at the center of our load-out."


            "Despite the expense, another Evangelion would give more options, including a reserve." Yubari conceded, as he made a note to check in with Fairchild and see what progress they had made.


            "They're also already under construction. Essentially, a sunk cost. Technically, their relocation is a Nerv matter. Something, Nerv has experience with.," Sudoplatov smiled icily at Fuyutsuki.


            Yubari frowned. "We're still short on Pilots."


            "Has there been any progress with the auto-pilot system?" General Abukuma asked.


            "The Dummy Plug system proceeds." Ritsuko looked through her notes. "We have managed to simulate basic synchronization. However I will caution the risks of leaving such a dangerous technology under remote control."


            "Director Project E show rigor? Shocking." Beria deadpanned.


            Ritsuko glared at the balding engineer. "The Marduk Institute is also screening candidates. Unfortunately, with the younger Ayanami piloting and the Second Child already here we've exhausted the low hanging fruit."


            "We would not have this problem if the Third had not died," Sudoplatov stated.


            Once again Ritsuko felt her body chill. Turning she saw Misako quietly staring, her eyes smoldering with rage. Ritsuko coughed. "There's no avoiding casualties."


            "They were fairly light today," General Abukuma agreed, helping change the topic. "We lost several observation VSTOL and there was the Nerv personnel that didn't evacuate the power station."


            "There were also the civilians that didn't evacuate Mishima City," Yubari added.


            Misako glared at the admiral. "Our big failing was not expecting a mob. Our weapons are geared towards taking out small numbers of exceptionally hardened enemies."


            "There was the canister shot and the Tu 160 bombers" Abukuma pointed out.


            "Reloading speed was too slow, essentially the same problem with the bombers. We've still got a tactical gap."


            "Shoulder fired artillery on one side and combat spades on the other?" Fuyutsuki asked.


            "Why don't you give them sidearms?" Beria joked.


            "Well..." Misako started.


            "There was some progress on an autoloader, but Captain Horaki was very skeptical on the design," Ritsuko stated.


            "Surprising sense for Nerv," Beria grumbled.


            Misako nodded. "Yes she said it was possible, but that it would take a while, something about springs."


            "Springs do not scale well," Ritsuko smirked. "That's why the Pallet Rifle was such a mess. Especially the magazines."


            "Just skip magazine then."


            "What a revolver?" Ritsuko smirked. "Why not give them cowboy hats too?"


            "They are using break action double barrel rifles," Misako reminded.


            Ritsuko sighed.


            "A revolver would have manual indexing." Yubari raised an eyebrow at the confused looks, from the Nerv personnel. "The action is worked by the user. It's much simpler than other actions."


            "And more robust." Beria nodded. "Also very few springs, and those would be similar to ones in the Mark 9."


            "Don't revolvers have that gap between the cylinder and barrel? That could be a problem when you're shooting... artillery." Misako reminded.


            "Bah, you wanted a less powerful weapon to fill gap. This would do it."


            Fuyutsuki turned to Ritsuko. "Feasible?"


            "Well... " Ritsuko rubbed her forehead. "He's right. It's a very simple design, and one that can scale up. There'd be less pressure allowed but this is supposed to be a less powerful weapon."


            "And reloading?"


            Ritsuko sighed. "They are called six-guns for a reason."


            "Swing out or break would be the best," Yubari suggested. "Loading gate's far too slow, but that's for whoever designs the damn thing."


            "Right," Fuyutsuki made some notes. "Dr. Akagi I want you to talk with Horaki in Procurement. We can probably use the same company that makes the spares for our Mark 9's."


            Ritsuko nodded. "And if they do well, we can expand that knowledge to get them to build something more modern."


            General Yubari cleared his throat. "There is another weapon in development."


            "Oh?" Fuyutsuki asked.


            "It's a ground attack platform being developed by the Americans," Yubari said, omitting the other nations in the consortium behind the weapon.


            Beria looked to Sudoplatov.


            "Yes, we've heard about that. It sounded quite expensive, but it might have been useful today." Sudoplatov allowed.


            Yubari nodded. "It won't break through an AT field, not a full strength one. But as we learned today, AT fields vary. Even against a strong field it could provide good support."


            Ritsuko raised an eyebrow. "So, let Evangelion wear down the AT field and then strike?"


            "Correct." Yubari stated. "It's basically an extremely mobile version of several of our ground based systems."


            "How far along is the development?" Fuyutsuki asked, wondering how the answer would contrast with his and Ikari's sources.


            "They're still doing integration testing, but they project first flight within the month."


            "And you were keeping this secret?" Ritsuko eyed the general.


            "It's rather experimental. I'm not even sure they can make the damn thing fly." Yubari looked down. "It is being made by the Americans."


            Fuyutsuki suppressed a smile. The lie was artfully done. "So... any other weapons people have been secretly planning?"


            The conference room quieted down.


            "Any saner business then?" He paused. "Right. Well, cooperation is paying off. What we also need is to continue to learn about the enemy."


            After a couple seconds Sudoplatov tapped the table. "Yes, we knew the Angels could adapt, but this is a bit unexpected. Perhaps we are being too defensive."


            Fuyutsuki chuckled. "I agree totally."

 

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

 


            A child slapped away her toys. "This is boring!" She then pouted.


            Her older sibling sighed. "It's important that you learn."


            "Why?"


            "Do we need to go over what happened to your older sisters?"


            Her pout deepened. "They were stupid."


            Pity crossed the elder's face. "Yes, they did fail." The toys were picked up and placed in their toy chest. "Do you want to meet their fate? Do you want to be killed?" The questions came as the slim figure sorted though the box."


            Picking up one of her toys, the child lowered her eyes and whispered. "No."


            Pity returned and the sibling pulled something out of the box. "Do you think you can face this?"


            The child screamed and scooted back, putting her arms over her head. "No!" The doll looked like her mother, but twisted and mutilated. It was like her mother's soul had been ripped out, her spine had been cut open, and various bits of dead metal and other machines had been rammed into her body. Worse, it was of mother's flesh but cut up and turned into a... vehicle to be controlled by the enemy's spirit. She whimpered at the sight of the chimera.


            The sibling sighed and pulled out another figure. "They get worse."


            Now crying, the child curled into a ball and tried to hide. At least the previous monster was of Mother's flesh, if mutilated. This... this was the enemy mockingly bearing mother's form, and the spirit controlling... A grotesque insult to Mother, It was an imitation of the enemy controlling an imitation of mother.


            Worse the figure was holding... something. It was small and silver; it was wrong. It was brutal, overwhelming force. The mockeries of Mother were at least alive. They had spirits, but that... device was... dead.


            There was no ego; there was no spirit; and yet it somehow could destroy. It was a machine, but it could kill. Nothing could stop it, nothing could contain it. Thanks to her teacher, she had seen it all. She clutched the toy in the shape of her eldest sister. She remembered her sister's triumph, the glee at victory, the pride at being able to withstand the pitiful mechanical attacks, and then it happened. Her soul burned; her sister died.


            Screaming, she threw the toy away. "No!"


            "You're not ready. Your sister Israfel was much further along when she left. You saw what happened to her. You saw what they did to her."


            Sandalphon pulled herself up. She then, from her elder's perspective, smoothed her little sundress. Her resolve faulted. "I don't wanna go," she whined lowering her head and drew her knees up to her chest.


            Sandalphon's teacher suppressed her own pity. "Don't you want to save your Mother?"


            The child whimpered.


            "I can help you. There's much you can learn. Mistakes your sisters made."

 
            Sandalphon pulled herself into a smaller ball, metaphorically hiding her face behind her hair.


            "I know you want to be with your Mother. We all do. I know you want to make those that hurt her, and killed your sisters pay."


            An unintelligible whisper escaped Sandalphon. She repeated it, until it was... audible. "Help."


            Adjusting her thin silver framed glasses, the teacher smiled triumphantly and leaned back, basking in the girl's rather cozy quarters. "That's why I'm here," she stepped out of her seat and embraced the young girl. "That's why I found you."

 

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

 


            Mopping his brow, Shiro Tokita stepped inside the Fairchild-Republic research facility. As the air conditioning blasted his suit a solid man in a pair of slacks, white shirt, and skinny black tie walked right up to him. His manner was brisk and for a moment he seemed impatient.


            "You must be the feller from NHIS, am I right?" the bald man easily drawled.


            "Uh yes... Shiro Tokita and you must be..." Stumbling, Shiro realized that the American was actually shorter than he was.


            "That's right, Hiram S. Forsyth. I'm the chief engineer." he flashed a smile. "Have any trouble finding the place?"


            Shiro looked around the room, it was the expected collection of workstations though there were more hardhats and work gear strewn on the coat racks. "No... security pretty-much drove me in."


            Hiram raised an eyebrow. "Yah been briefed right?"


            "Oh yes. I read the proposal. Interesting support stuff," Shiro coughed. The angels had attacked, and once again, Nerv and those Russians had stopped it, at horrendous cost. Shiro did not have much hope, but if this project could give him some bit of revenge, then it would be worth it.


            Shaking his head, Hiram chuckled and walked to his office. "Come on, I think we've got something for yah."


             Shiro blinked at the austere room. There were two desks that bore several neat stacks of papers, a computer, several large toolboxes, and a disassembled tripod in one corner.


            "Be right back," Hiram stepped into the hallway.


            Pacing the room, Shiro stuck his head out into the hallway and watched the engineer remove two bottles from an old-fashioned vending-machine.


            Flopping into his desk-chair Hiram motioned for Shiro to take the seat in front of him. He then offered one of the bottles and smoothed out his tie.


            Reading the English text, Shiro wondered what kind of beer this was, and was slightly relieved at the office's casual nature.


            "Now I know you," Hiram drawled. "You fronted that robot. Whoooowee. They beat you like a rented mule over that didn't they boy?"


            Shiro popped the cap off his beer. "There's a reason they sent me out to the middle of the desert to liaison with you guys. They said 'it fit my experience'. "


            Hiram laughed. "They're part right."


            Shiro narrowed his eyes. "I've read the proposal. It's a pipe-dream. NHIS agreed to throw some money at it because you were the only company that would even hire us."


            Hiram exhaled. "It's true. Fairchild wasn't doing too good. Even with the military buildup after Second Impact we just barely hung in."


            "It took us years and billions to make something... something that a little girl broke in ten minutes. What do you think you can do in a few months with some Ukrainian leftovers and other bits of failure?"


            Hiram took a swig from his bottle and stood up. "Nice to see you've got the right attitude," he drawled as he pulled two yellow hardhats off their hooks.


            He tossed one to Shiro and looked the man up and down. "Got anything better than that suit?"


            Putting his hardhat on Shiro blinked. "What?"


            Hiram shrugged. "Try not to get too messy then." The engineer then slipped off his boots and pulled a set of brown overalls over his slacks and shirt. He then slipped his boots back on and methodically tightened the laces before tying them off. "Got anything with a heavy toe?"


            Shiro shook his head.


            "Careful then. Oh, lose the tie," Hiram lectured as he pulled his off. "Don't want it to get caught in a machine."


            Shiro paused and eventually pulled his tie off.


            Hiram handed a set of goggles and earplugs over. "And put these on when the time's right." He then put his pair around his neck and put his helmet on.


            "Where is everyone?" Shiro asked as they walked back into the open office space.


            Hiram chuckled. "Why they're getting good seats for the demonstration."


            "You're doing a demonstration today? But the schedule..."


            The engineer opened a door and lead the NHIS rep through a long corridor, workstations were on one side and rows and rows of shelving containing, binders, print outs, data drives, electronic equipment and bits of machined metal on the other. "Schedule?" Hiram snorted. "This is war, boy."


            "Yes, but a project of this size..." Following Hiram, Shiro ducked under a pipe and through a door. Entering the blazing sun they crossed a small breezeway before entering another building.


            Here the doors alternated between thick steel with heavy bolts around the frame for the test cells, and lighter metal for the various control rooms. Through thick glass, Shiro glanced at the empty stations with their idling computers and cooled test rigs.


            On the far side of this building, the test cells grew in size. At the very end the doors were two-story circular hatches that rolled to one side on recessed tracks. One was open, showing a cavernous room that could easily serve as a tractor-rig garage. Having worked on Jet Alone, Shiro was rather deadened to such things. Then they went down a passage that connected the test cells to the assembly floor.


            A combination of machine shop, assembly line, and hanger, the assembly floor was a cavernous room that stretched into the distance. Overhead cranes and scaffolding and machinery dotted the landscape. The clear "aisles" were particularly conspicuous given the extreme width. Shiro spotted a few workers at the far end of the floor and nodded. At least this was not a ghost town.


            "We don't do any of the Hot work here. That'll be Building 716. This is just assembly and retrofit. Lessa the latter once Antonov starts building to spec."


            Shiro whistled. "Custom? How many do you expect to make?"


            "As many as we can sell." Hiram patted Shiro on the shoulder and led him off the assembly floor and to a large tarmac. In the shade of an overhang several bleachers, tables, coolers, and notably, smoking grills had been set up. Generally enjoying themselves, workers milled about repeatedly returning to the refreshments.


            Looking at the filled benches, Shiro felt a homesick pang. While they looked less reserved and formal he immediately recognized them as fellow defense industry engineers and technicians. Though the ones in aprons happily slathering sauce on pungent meats were a bit strange.


            Grinning Hiram strutted up to a podium in front of the crowd which quickly fell to a hush "Alright fellas. Nippon sent their man here. Whadaya say we show him what we've built?"


            There was a cheer from the crowd.


            "Show 'em what we did with the boys from Austin!" one of the technicians shouted before biting into a rib.


            Hiram smirked. "I'll be off then." He turned to the blinking Shiro. "Come on, gadget's not too far.


            "Austin? As in Austin Advanced Technology?" Shiro asked as they walked to a small electric cart.


            "What of it?" Hiram sat down and started the motor.


            "You're doing a firing test? Today?"


            "I told you we were ahead of schedule." Hiram said as they raced down to a squat concrete building and the giant... thing in front of it.


            Immense, it was a chunky metal frame fourteen feet tall, twenty feet wide with curved sides and an impressive seventy-two feet long. The assembly was formed out of a riotous mass of heavy wires, tubular framing, giant grey electronics, and rows of fire-hydrant sized capacitors. All this straddled a bundle of five matte-black barrels that ran the full length of the assemblage. Feeding the thick and lobed barrel was a flex-linkage that connected to an immense drum the size of a small truck. Cables thicker than saplings, for both power and coolant, ran from the assemblage and into the concrete building. However Shiro's attention was on the large garbage-can sized aperture that lay beneath the black barrel.


            "What did you do to my inductive cannon?" Shiro asked once the cart stopped.


            "Even when given a third of a million pounds of payload capacity to play with, it's amazing how quickly ya'll blow through it." Hiram jumped out of the cart and ran to the device, scattering some of the engineers inspecting it. "Aw hell, what's all this? I was just telling Tokita that we're ready."


            A technician holding a flashlight and a wrench swallowed. "Just finishing final inspection."


            Hiram glared and grabbed the wrench and flashlight. "That so?" He asked kneeling down and crawling under the assembly. "If you screwed up. I'm gonna tear you down, junior!"


            For a couple minutes Hiram slid around under the rig and checking the parts. "Hey Shiro. Ya'll wanna take a look at this?"


            Shiro looked down at the stained concrete and sighed.


            "We had to tweak the coolant system on your cannon."


            Shaking his head, Shiro went down and shimmied under the test platform. Looking up he blinked at the barrel ring and the conduits that plugged in down the length. "Do these things rotate?"


            "Good eye, boy. There ain't a slip-ring alive that'll take the power. So the barrels are fixed and we just rotate the feeder. Basically it just spins inside the barrel ring and whenever a breach opens it rams a fresh dart in. Requires precise timing on the breaches but heck, precise timin's a given with this rig. Thank goodness it ain't got no cases to eject."


            Shiro simply nodded and turned his attention to the induction cannon. He exhaled sharply.


            "Problem boy?" Hiram asked has he thumped his wrench against a gleaming heat exchanger


            "You stripped it down..." Shiro's eyed darted to the various subsystems. The weapon seemed complete if... scattered.


            "Had to, wouldn't fit otherwise. Guess we could have just had the cannon but that'd be silly" Hiram chuckled.


            "Yes, silly." Shiro deadpanned. After studying, the tons of machinery looming above his head he sighed. "I guess it's okay. I'm not getting the urge to run screaming out into the desert."


            "Power's turned off, boy," Hiram said reproachfully as he inspected a few connections.


            "Oh yes," Shiro slid out from under the weapon. Frowning he dusted his suit. "Once you power it up, then I'll run."


            Sitting up, Hiram eyed the younger man. "Ya' ain't that dumb are yah?"


            Shiro raised an eyebrow.


            "Though you didn't ask how we're powering the dang thing." Hiram shook his head and stood up. "Right boys! Heat it up and plug it in."


            "Ah." Eyeing the other hulking metal assemblage that sat inside the concrete building Shiro edged towards the cart.


            "That's about right." Hiram jumped into the driver's seat. "When you boys have final check done, get secure and give me a ring," he said as Shiro took the passenger seat.


            After returning to the barbeque, Hiram went to one of the coolers and pulled out a beer. "Want one?"


            "God yes." Not taking his eyes from the weapon, Shiro grabbed the beer.


            "Don't see why you're worried."


            Shiro gave a flat look. "The last demonstration I was at didn't go over that well."


            "Buck up!" Hiram slapped him on the back.


            A woman tottered over to the engineer in her rose-pink high heels. She wore an above-the-knee, sleeveless dress that matched her shoes. Glossy black hair was held in a bouffant style, puffy in the back, forward arcing bangs over big dangling earrings, and held down in the front with a plain pink headband. "Sir, they've got the gadget wired and warmed," she said handing a blocky remote control to Hiram.


            The engineer smiled at the control. "Cream gravy. You go tell the boys at the blockhouse to get those targets up, Honey."


            Nodding, the woman then spun on her heels and walked off.


            "Good woman, her son's a punk, but she's alright." Hiram said.


            Shiro fiddled with his goggles. "Right..." Suddenly, a sharp siren rang out three times. Each blast echoing between the buildings. Shiro watched as far in the distance several steel and concrete blocks rose up out of the ground. To be this clear at that distance, Shiro estimated that they had to be house-sized, at least. His stomach growing cold, he noted that they were front of the weapon, and there were no buildings behind them, only a massive earthen berm.


            "Eyes!" Hiram screamed. "Everyone put your goggles and hearing protection on!" Laughing evilly, he extended the antennae on the remote and... waited. Three more sirens echoed, and only then did Hiram flip the safety cover off, revealing two shining red buttons.


            The left button clicked, and a lance of light shot out from the gadget's lower weapon. The inductive cannon's beam melted through several of the blocks and bored into the berm. Concrete and armor went flying. Hiram lifted his finger and the beam vanished. "Not bad at all." He said to cheering from the crowd.


            Despite himself, Shiro lifted his beer in salute and took a little bow.


            "This one's ours, now!" Hiram then pressed the second button. This time the light show was more muted. The massive air friction incurred on the hardened two inch diameter metallic darts as they traveled at over twenty times the speed of sound generated quite vivid plasma plumes. Pulsing rays of burning air and metal were not the same as a coherent beam of sun-bright light. One was a purifying heavenly ray, the other a stabbing, enraged sulfurous maelstrom.


            This was not a singular event. Each barrel could fire seventeen rounds a second. With five barrels this gave a total rate of fire of five thousand one hundred rounds a minute.


            Under that barrage, massive blocks of reinforced concrete blew apart into crumbling chunks, foot thick composite armor plates were blown through, and the berm itself was chewed apart and nearly cut in twain.


            And Hiram only had the button depressed for a few seconds. "Whoooowee! Makin' bacon!"


            Shiro stared. Even the crowd was hushed. "Making bacon!" He enthusiastically blurted. Despite the distance and hearing protection, his ears still rang. "Sir, I have no idea what that even means in this context, but it fits so well!'


            Hiram grinned and gave knowing nod. "Now that there was a fine piece 'a work. Let's give her another dance!" Hiram laughed manically and pressed the button again. The Gatling railgun bellowed a churning mechanical noise as once again it belched out high-hypersonic explosive darts by the gross.


            Chuckling Hiram released the button and with a flourish put the safety covers back on and retracted the antennae. He pulled off his goggles and addressed the crowd. "Job well done!"


            Chest pounding, Shiro peeled off his goggles and removed the ear plugs. "Impressive. But can it take out an Angel?"


            "I'd lay you out those little buggers that just attacked."


            "And a big angel?"


            "That's what those robots are for. Have one of them take down those fancy shields and goodnight Irene."


            Shiro chuckled, relishing putting Evangelion in that position. "So, how are you going to aim it?"


            "Are you simple? Aimin's what the plane's for, Son. Got some hydraulics but that's just fine control."


            Shiro coughed and shook his head. "And that was with the onboard power-plant."


            Hiram smirked.


            "So you've got power, weapons, and the airframe. What's next engines? Assembly? Avionics?"


            "Cooling too." Hiram put an arm around Shiro. "So, you think NHIS is interested?"

 

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

 


            Slumping on her couch, Asuka groused at the sharp pain in her side. Muttering, she undid her belt and placed her holster on the table. Then she closed her eye and leaned into the cushion. In the distance she could hear music and excited voices, but she pushed them out. For several minutes, she simply enjoyed being dry, enjoyed the quiet: no explosions, no screaming, not even any debriefing, just distant merry voices.


            A knock on the door drew her attention. Her eyes opened and she lifted her head up. The knock repeated. "What?" Asuka blinked, a bit shocked at how loud her voice was.


            The door to her apartment unlocked and Katrina stepped in. The scarred Russian Military officer looked at the young girl, curled up on her side and something akin to a smile crossed her face. "I'm just checking on you, Warrant Soryu."


            "I'm fine," Asuka put her head back down. "Just unwinding."


            Locking the door behind her, Lieutenant Diebner stepped into the apartment and took a seat facing Asuka's couch. "Today you got what you wanted."


            Keeping her body sideways, Asuka raised an eyebrow at the woman and barked out a single laugh.


            "Not what you expected?"


            Asuka's laughed again. "No, I secretly knew Ikari was Santa Claus!"


            Katrina stared.


            "You didn't know? He gives presents to all the good little Pilots." Asuka snickered. "At least now I know where Princess gets those creepy dolls, and where Wondergirl's trashy romance novels come from. It's kind of sad in a way."


            "For him or for them?"


            Asuka rolled her eyes.


            "And what did he give you?"


            Shaking her head, Asuka looked to the ceiling. "I don't know what's worse. That that old bastard bought me a set of brushes or that they're actually rather nice."


            "Oh?"


            "Yes a bunch of brushes, engraved bronze handles. I think Princess has a set in silver or something. It's just... odd. It's like he's reading off a list of things 'girls like' and handing out whatever comes up."


            Katrina shrugged. "I was asking about the battle. Was that what you expected?"

 
            "No one expected that cluster-fuck."


            "There was a lot of the enemy."


            "And the best part? I'll only get one halo." Laughing, Asuka rolled onto her back. "And why not? It's only fair. Princess only got one too. And those planes that bombed us get one. Everyone gets a halo!"


            Katrina leaned back. "I see."


            "Do you? Last I checked you've never killed dozens of exploding aliens with a giant robot." Asuka ran a finger along her holster. "Oh... I lied."


            Katrina's eyes narrowed as she shifted her hands. "Yes?"


            "Someone expected this." Asuka gave that brittle laugh. "Princess...." The redhead stopped, and silently rolled back onto her side.


            "What about the Fourth?"


            Asuka closed her eyes.


            "Are you saying she knew what the Angel was going to do?"


            The redhead shook her head. "She expected some type of trick. She's the one that warned me. She knew the bombers were coming, and she carried me..."


            Katrina winced. "You'd have done the same for her. You did warn her when the angels were about to flank her."


            "I wasn't a total load. Yay."


            "You're green. What did you expect?" Katrina's tone sharpened.


            Asuka turned back to stare at the ceiling. "I guess I was better than Princess' first run."


            "Training would do that."


            "And did training make Princess?"


            "Oh?"


            Asuka turned her head and gave Katrina a half-lidded gaze. "You watched the battle. You know what she sounded like. Does that sound like a normal little pre-teen?"


            "Coming from the thirteen year old collegiate Nerv officer."


            Asuka sighed. "You can't deny she's weird."


            Katrina shrugged. "She's an Ayanami."


            "And how much of her insanity is from that and how much of it is from that shaved bear you call a comrade?"


            The short-haired blonde blinked. She then laughed. "Oh my... yes, sometimes I don't know what Captain Sakharov was thinking."


            "She's... aggressive. Not that it was bad." Asuka closed her eyes. "It's just a bit much."


            "You're afraid of becoming like her?"


            This time Asuka's laugh was almost natural. "I'm not going to go that far, and I'm never going to be some cute-obsessed little princess."


            Katrina laughed. "Yes, she's much too ladylike."


            "Hey!" Asuka pulled herself back up.


            "You deny it?" Katrina tapped her chin. "Very well. I shall buy you some ruffled dresses, then. Perhaps something with lace for your hair."


            Asuka blinked. "You know my dress size?"


            Katrina shrugged. "You have no privacy."


            The redhead smoldered. "That's creepy."


            "If it helps, Nerv is far more intrusive. How do you think Nozomi's sister was able to help Rei find that dress?" The Azazel officer turned, looked up at the smoke detector and the black circle on its cover, and waved. "The microphones are more insidious. Can almost respect the skill there," she remarked offhanded.


            Gaping, Asuka looked around her apartment.


            "You are valuable."


            Asuka shivered.


            "You act like Nerv's unpleasantness is new to you."


            Images of Second Branch officers being executed, by Misako, flashed before the redhead. "Oh, I know. This is just... there's nothing I can do about this?"


            Again, Katrina shrugged. "Anything you remove, Section Two will replace. Cause enough disturbance and Captain Ayanami will reprimand you."


            "Great... let's just forget how little privacy I have."


            Katrina nodded. "So would you prefer I buy you a fluffy gown or something more casual?"


            Asuka twitched. "I'm not that girly."


            Katrina sniffed. "Well, you should wear something nice."


            Blinking, Asuka looked down at her bloused pants and horizontal stripped shirt. "Huh?"


            "For the party."


            Asuka slowly lowered herself down on the couch. "Crazy Prussian Commie."


            Katrina sighed. "Be that as it may. There is a party, and you should go."


            "Ugh. Another? I thought I was done with formal stuff today."


            Katrina chuckled. "Oh no, this is casual. Every time the Pilots kill an angel, we hold a party. It was Pyotr's idea."


            "Pyotr.... that's Wondergirl's Russian. He came up with a party? She talks more than he does!"


            "One doesn't need to be a chatterbox to enjoy good drink and good comrades."


            "So, I can drink here?"


            "Within reason, we can't risk your readiness, but I see no problem."


            "Japan's laws are stricter than Germany's, and we're on duty."


            "Yes, soldiers never drink illicitly," Katrina deadpanned. "And technically we're both off duty. Plenty of our men will be sober, and guarding the rest." She smirked.


            "They must love that." Asuka stood up and stretched.


            "It's a good motivator."


            "Might as well go." Asuka started walking towards her bedroom. "The Ayanami sisters will be there won't they?"


            "First and Fourth, yes. I don't know if the Captain is free."


            Asuka shook her head and went to her bedroom. She opened her closet and looking past "the gown" she pulled out a billowy, knee-length yellow dress. She then got a set of grey heels and a plain black choker.


            Smoothing the dress out on her bed, Asuka inspected the fabric. It had been dry cleaned after Gaghiel's attack and demise but....


            Turning away from the dress she gravitated towards the closet. Her eyes passed over the gown to the long boots that sat on the floor. Knee high, with full length lacing the suede red leather boots had a couple inches of heels and blunted toes.


            Smirking lightly, she swapped out the grey heels with the boots. After pacing around the selected clothes, Asuka went to her dresser. She briefly frowned at the collection of knives, magazines, holsters and other bits that cluttered the surface.


            Shrugging, Asuka picked up a cross draw holster and opened a drawer to pull out a gold sash. She then placed both on top of her dress. Nodding happily at the composition she went back to her dresser where she dug out a jade cameo. Picking up the choker band she held the cameo and looked at her dress's neckline.


            Asuka closed her eyes and exhaled. Turning around, she looked back into her closet. The gown hung, smugly; its high collar and ruffled tie inviting; gold sleeves matched her sash; and red skirting would complement her boots.


            "Fine." Asuka pulled the gown off its hanger and laid  it over her yellow dress. The gown had two layers of skirting. The under skirt was thicker and went to mid-thigh, while the over skirt was translucent, pleated, and was hemmed in alternating points that went past her knee. Having a crimson body, the gown had somewhat puffy and gathered shoulders that transitioned to golden sleeves.


            Giving another sigh, Asuka stripped out of her clothes and changed. As she expected the dress flattered her figure, and after she pulled on the boots she found that they ended above the hem of the translucent skirt, but below the solid underskirt.


            Putting on the sash and the cross holster she went to the mirror and smirked at her reflection. "Yes, much better than some girly little princess," she said picking up a brush enjoying the heft the solid metal handle gave. She then ran it through her hair.


            Katrina knocked on the door. "Any trouble?"


            Asuka smirked. "Oh, I'm done."


            The door opened, and Katrina stepped through. "Well, you're not a girly princess at least."


            "Oh?"


            "Princess, yes. Girly no. Though..."


            "What?"


            "Are you sure about your hair?"


            Asuka narrowed her eyes. "Hair advice from you?"


            "Well, I did have a life before I signed on." Katrina ran a hand through her short blonde hair.


            "And what do you suggest?" Asuka skeptically asked.


            "Have you ever worn it up?"


            Looking at her reflection, the redhead smiled slightly. "That would look more mature."


            "We still have time?"


            "There's nothing wrong with being fashionably late."


            "Tell me more about this updo. It will be fun to see the Princess and Wondergirl at a party. They don't strike me as very... social."

 

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

 


            Smiling slightly, Shinju leaned back in an oversized chair and watched the merriment. In one corner of the apartment a trio were playing the drums, violin and balalaika. Sipping, her juice she enjoyed the happy chatter and music. She was in her new black and purple dress. Once she had figured out the ruffles and the petticoats, it had been easy enough to fit into. As she happily lounged, she saw someone come inside form the patio.


            Extinguishing his pipe, Igor lumbered towards the Pilot. Grinning he pointed to the band and then to Shinju. "Good fight! Come sing with me! "Ej, uhnem! Ej, uhnem! Ese razik, ese da raz!"


            The band members nodded and started playing Song of the Volga Boatmen.


            Shinju laughed and sang along. "Ej, uhnem! Ej, uhnem! Ese razik, ese da raz! Razov'em my berezu, Razov'em my kudravu!"


            The two continued to sing. "As the barges float along. To the sun we sing our song. Ay-da, da, ay-da! Ay-da, da, ay-da! To the sun we sing our song. Hey, hey, let's heave a-long the way to the sun we sing our song Yo, heave ho! Yo, heave ho! Once more, once again, still once more." One in clumsy school-girl Russian, the other with literate eloquence. However both sang well, Shinju's mezzo soprano complementing Igor's gravely bass.


            Soon the other Azazel troops joined in, filling the room with triumphant singing. "Volga, Volga our pride. Mighty stream so deep and wide. Ay-da, da, ay-da! Ay-da, da, ay-da! Volga, Volga you're our pride."


            In the final stanza the others trailed off leaving only Igor and Shinju. "Yo, heave ho! Yo, heave ho! Once more, once again, still once more."


            Then Igor stopped.


            "Ej, uhnem! Ej, uhnem!" Shinju sang, lingering on the last word. She then blinked at the silent staring soldiers. Looking down she saw that she had stood up on the chair sometime during the song. Back up she saw the expectant, hushed faces. Her hand twitching slightly she reached down for her glass. She then raised it into the air. "We are killers!"


            The Azazel Navel Infantry raised their glasses and cheered in response.

            Igor slapped Shinju on the back. "You fought well today! Killed many tiny baby enemies."


            Shinju grinned and climbed down from the chair and looked up to see Oneechan.


            "You're wearing the dress." Rei observed.


            "Isn't it nice?" Shinju lifted up the layered black and purple skirting.


            Rei looked down to her own white dress. "There are a lot of ribbons." Rei's dress only had a couple bows at the hips and chest.


            "You made me buy it."


            "Yes." Rei turned to the band where Igor was belting out the vocals to Kalinka.


            Shinju stepped over and put her arms around Rei. "Thank you."


            Rei stiffened but returned the gesture.


            "It was good having you in battle today, and I really like the dress." Shinju leaned on her sister.


            Rei squeezed Shinju before releasing the smaller girl. "Good."


            The door to the apartment opened and a redhead stepped in. "So, this is how the Russians party?"


            Shinju blinked. She had expected the red and gold dress, with its translucent skirt and long boots, but the hair...


            Asuka's long crimson hair was styled up in a multi-tiered bun. After four decreasing levels the updo, terminated in a heavy braid that spilled down her neck and looped up to be draped over her shoulder to hang in front of her chest.


            "Oh, shiny!" Shinju's eyes lit up.


            Smirking, Asuka leaned to Katrina. "I told you that was too much product."


            Katrina chuckled. "But it's holding your hair in place so well."


            "It's very... daring." Shinju stepped towards the redhead.
           


            "Yes." Asuka straightened her sash.


            Rei gave a small nod. "It suits you," she said before walking off to the patio to look up at the moon.


            "Did... she just compliment me?"


            "Yes," Katrina deadpanned.


            "It is very shiny. Really fits your dress."


            Asuka looked down at Shinju's black gown with its purple ribbons, ruffled sleeves, and layered skirt. "You look good too. Very... fitting."


            Shinju blushed.


            Eyeing the puffy decolletage on Shinju's chest, Asuka idly wondered if the fourth child had enhanced her support garments. "So this is an Azazel party?"


            "For Azazel Naval Infantry, yes. The Air Wing Pilots are supposed to be coming later," Katrina explained.


            Igor bounded over. "You hear Shinju? You'll get to meet Zel'dovich again."


            Shinju blushed once more.


            "What? The fighter Pilot?" Asuka asked.


            "He's tied with Shinju on the kill board. Only two to go and she'll be an Ace," Igor proudly boasted.


            "Ace." Asuka hissed through her teeth.


            "It's not your fault you deployed late," Katrina said handing Asuka a glass.


            The second child sniffed the clear liquid. "Vodka? Really?"


            "Please, you're one of humanity's heroes. Nothing but the best for you," Katrina assured.


            Asuka took a small sip and shrugged. "It's okay."


            "I'll get you some refreshments," Katrina stepped into the kitchen and to a table covered in food and various bottles.


            "Laying it on a bit thick?" Igor whispered in Russian next to her.


            "You think you're the only one that can dote over your girl?" Katrina smirked. "She had a victory today. She didn't screw up. Let her have this moment."


            "Morale is vital for a unit's spirit." Igor emptied a tumbler. "Ahh. But no. I meant her makeup. Was your older sister not a stylist for Deutscher Fernsehfunk?"


            "Yeah Gretchen primped the talking heads on State-Media, but I only did her hair."


            Igor chuckled.


            "And what about you? Shinju's Russian is getting better. She's going to figure you out."


            Grinning, Igor switched languages "Japanese very hard and Azazel never hire stupid officer for such important task."


            Katrina shook her head.


            "I don't think she'd care. I wasn't lying. That little girl's just like us."


            "Except she has a forty meter tall war machine." Katrina chuckled and picked up the platter and headed back to the living room.


            Shinju had returned to her large chair, and Asuka sat on a couch next to her.


            "Yeah they did bomb us." Taking another sip, Asuka looked to the cluster of Naval Infantry across from her.


            Shinju nodded. "A flock of white swans. Very pretty."


            "Pretty? Swans? Princess, what the hell are you talking about?


            " Tu-160 bomber. Called the white swan due to its white anti-flash paint. Its supposed to reflect some of the heat from a nuclear blast," Katrina explained as she put the platter down on the table.


            "Heaviest combat aircraft in the world," Igor nodded.


            Asuka raised an eyebrow. "They destroyed two cities."


            "You destroyed a mountain."


            "Only because the enemy was on it!"


            "It worked."


            Asuka grinned. "As long as you don't call me adequate."

 

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

 


            "You seem unusually... chipper." Fuyutsuki looked up from his report.


            Gendo leaned back. "You enjoy insubordination don't you?" he asked with a ghost of a smile.


            "Allow an old man his pleasures." The professor turned a page. "What happened? Did the Fourth give you a hug?"


            "I did give the Pilots gifts."


            Fuyutsuki raised an eyebrow. "And did the Second like her gift?"


            "I wonder if Captain Horaki is losing her touch."


            "Because she wasn't as enthusiastic as the others?"


            "Rei? The First is many things, enthusiastic does not lie among them."


            "Please, she treasures her gifts more than the Fourth does. Shinju merely keeps the dolls on her dresser. Rei carries those books around and reads them every day. Do you know what the last piece of fiction she read before this was?"


            "Humor me."


            "It was a book about puppies and pie, when she was still learning how to read."


            "And your point?"


            "Well, I won't dare criticize the wisdom of introducing the idea of romance to Rei. However, my larger point is that Asuka is not like the others. She won't treasure what you give her, because to her you're just her boss." Fuyutsuki looked to the picture frame on Gendo's desk.


            "No, your larger point was that I was 'chipper'."


            "Well aren't you?"


            "Israfel displayed unexpected abilities. The angels are getting smarter."


            "And despite this, our rookie pilot preformed well enough, our veterans were their usual professional selves, and Nerv was able to achieve victory."


            "We needed a lot of support." Gendo's tone clashed with his little smile.


            "Yes, support. The word says it all doesn't it? Azazel acted to support Nerv. Everyone's a big team, nobly defending humanity."


            "With Nerv taking the senior role." Gendo smirked.


            "Giving us the authority to continue operations."


            "And the funding to achieve our goals."


            Fuyutsuki looks out the window. "And our goals?"


            Gendo gave a slight smile.


            "And our obstacles?"


            "The Old Men remain predictable."


            "And the Russians?"


            "We have to make sure their goals do not interfere with ours."


            Turning back, Fuyutsuki raised an eyebrow at Gendo. "Oh? You can arrange that?"


            Gendo folded his hands.


            "Non-interference requires knowing what their goals are."


            "So, we've had a breakthrough?" Fuyutsuki's mind went to Gendo's comment during the battle.


            "You could say that."


            "Is this a new source?"


            "Not solely. Combine it with a realization."


            Fuyutsuki chuckled. "An epiphany, from you?"


            "Be it Czarist, Communist, or Chekist they are a proud, suspicious people far more concerned with starvation and invasion than the ecclesiastical. There are only a few things Azazel could want." Gendo flashed his teeth. 


            "But, surely our plans are mutually exclusive towards theirs?"


            "Are they?"


            Fuyutsuki raised his eyebrows. "Has the plan changed then?"


            "I've said it before: to survive we must adapt.  That is what places us above the Old Men. That is how we will defeat the Angels. That is how we will achieve our goals."

 

End Chapter 5

 

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 and Kevin D. Hammel.

 

The scene with Kaji and his source does have some rather... blatant lines being reused.

That was something I wanted to do since the start of the story.

 

Speaking of blatant(ish) things, I was considering using Isana, since Insana's a bit on-the-nose... but apparently, Insana is a more common name. I was shocked and horrified.'

 

I'd also like to thank the TV Tropes people for their, near obsessive, attention to detail for their work on The Return's entry.   Give it a read, they've put a lot of work into it, especially the character page.