And If That Don't Work?

A Neon Genesis Evangelion fic thingy.

By Sunshine Temple

 

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

 

 

Other works can be found at my fanfiction website.

http://jtemple.florestica.com/

 

Temporary Backup Site.

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

 

 

Other website Temple of Ranma's Senshi Seifuku

http://fukufics.com

 

C&C as always is wanted.

 

Chapter Six: Quality Control.

 


            The Sukhoi 33 was powered by two Saturn AL-31 engines. Each produced sixteen thousand pounds of thrust, which when combined and with afterburners enabled resulted in over fifty five thousand pounds of thrust. Precision machined parts work in extremely close tolerance to generate this power while being pounded by air hot enough to make the blades and vanes glow red. Manufacturing precision and material quality was crucial, because half the components rotated several thousand times a minute.


            The spinning caused immense centrifugal  forces as the rotating sections fought to keep themselves from tearing apart, all while compressing, burning and exploiting a constant stream of air. Until something failed in the starboard engine.


            A crack had grown in the root of the second stage compressor disk, and rapidly spread. Holding the compressor blades, the disk was a heavy, but perfectly balanced, chunk of metal that took torque from the shaft and used it to rotate blades that rammed air deeper into the engine.


            At that moment the was no balance was lost. As the crack grew, the engine had begun to wobble as the disk shuddered in its rotation. Before the bearings could be damaged, the disk ruptured. In an instant, a fine-tuned precision instrument had turned into shrapnel. Shards of metal shot through the plane with the force of a tractor-trailer hitting a bicycle.


            The Saturn AL-31 had a protective shroud that would keep minor damage, such as ingestion and blade loss contained, but those features lacked the raw mass and kinetic energy of disk fragments.


            In that same instant the port engine was destroyed almost as thoroughly as its sister. The wings and tail fared somewhat better, having only crippling structural damage instead of total.


            The pilot already on alert, saw all his indicators trip as his plane tore herself apart behind him. The decision was automatic. "Engine failure." Captain Yakov Koval clinically announced on his radio. "Eject. Eject. Eje-" There was a sharp pain and he punched out of his disintegrating aircraft.


            Seeing where the twin contrails blew into a disjointed mess, Shinju looked up and tracked the flaming wreck's descent. Unit 01's targeting computer highlighted the plane, and placed a reticle over a smaller object that shot up over the wreck.


            "Pilot spotted clear of aircraft. Chute..." Shinju paused. "Chute has deployed."


            "Verdammt! Did someone shoot one of the planes?" Asuka asked as the collection of twisted burning scrap fell towards the earth with deceptive grace.


            "I confirm chute." Captain Zel'dovich stated with clinical detachment.


            "Hold all weapons." Misako ordered. "The exercise is over. I want search and rescue launched now.


            Holstering an Evangelion-scale revolver, Unit 01 turned towards the distant parachute and took a step forward. "Permission to recover." Shinju stated.


            "Granted." From the command center, Misako looked at the map. The Evangelions were closest. Technically Zel'dovich's Su-33 was closer but there was nowhere for him to land. "We haven't heard anything from Yakov. Expect trauma."


            "Understood." Ejecting the external power cord, Unit 01 broke into a sprint; Shinju's eyes held on the parachute and its dangling load. The cockpit module had been ejected from Yakov and his paracute.


            Misako sighed. "Rei, go and secure the crash site. May as well capture whatever footage you can. Asuka backup Shinju. Odds are you'll need to get out of your Eva to help the Pilot."


            Unit 01's sprint ate kilometers of terrain. Soon Shinju saw the parachute spread over a rice field and followed it back to the pilot. Cameras zoomed in and found the Azazel captain still.


            "Cover me," Shinju ordered Asuka as she brought Unit 01 to a kneel and force ejected the plug. Both the rope ladder and a drop line spooled out of the plug. Slinging a survival kit over her shoulder, Shinju scrambled out of the cockpit.


            Not looking at the ground twenty meters below her, she clipped the drop line to her plug suit's harness, threaded a belay device over the cable and then grasping the line with both hands swung over the edge.


            Rapidly rappelling down the cable, she felt her hands burn up, the frictional heat searing through her gloves. She hit the ground with a muddy splash and ignoring the pain ran to the Azazel pilot.


            Training flashed in her mind and she knelt down over the man, who had fallen to the ground in a heap. She frowned at the bloody, but not bleeding, back to front wound on the left side of his chest. Reaching out she tried to find a pulse or a sign of breath, but while the man's flesh was still warm there were no other signs of life.


            Giving a slight whimper, Shinju stepped back. Straightening her shoulders she looked around her area, confirmed that Unit 02 was looming above her, and only then took out her radio. "Shinju here. Captain Koval is dead." Listening to Oneesan's response she finally noticed the pain in her palms.

 

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

 


            Ritsuko commented as she finished the light, loose bandage over Shinju's palms. "She's going to be okay. The gloves took up all the abrasion; she only got the conducted heat."


            Standing across from her in the Eva-bay medical facility Misako glared at the diminutive clone. "The drop-line is for emergencies."


            Shinju looked up. "Doesn't that count?" Her hands twitched. "I could have helped him."


            Ritsuko exhaled. "Shinju, a piece of shrapnel shredded Capitan Koval's left lung and a bunch of his arteries. The only thing you could have done was watch him die."


            The Fourth Child's eye hardened. "He wouldn’t have died alone then."


            Misako shook her head. "You still went down the line too fast. What if you couldn't have controlled your landing? What if he'd been alive, but you'd have broken your leg, or worse."


            Shinju frowned. "That was my mistake."


            "Stubborn little thing," Ritsuko noted.


            "It's in the blood." Misako idly straightened Shinju's hair band.


            "Yes, and that gives us a positive note. She should be perfectly fine in just a couple days."


            "Really, the burns?"


            Ritsuko chuckled. "Remember how badly Rei was beat up after Unit 00 went berserk?"


            "Yeah, it took her a month to recover."


            "A normal human would have taken fifty percent longer."


            Misako smirked. "So, there's an actual upside to these buggy clone bodies?"

 
            "Yes, yes," Ritsuko said as she revised Shinju's prescription "You're designed to synchronize, that's what was important."


            "Angels heal don't they," Shinju noted.


            Misako raised an eyebrow.


            Ritsuko's expression quickly turned to a smirk. "So do Evangelions. Unit 02's leg recovered awfully quick."


            "Wait... that's how we were modified? We're part Evangelion?"


            "Yes, be a little louder. Let's test the door's sound-proofing." Ritsuko sighed. "No, you're not miniature Evas. Your modifications are at the genetic level, it was all done before you were born... well grown in a tube."


            "You really know how to express the miracle of life," Misako deadpanned.


            "It's science," Ritsuko shrugged.


            Misako shook her head. "So, we know why that jet crashed? Other than engine failure?"


            Ritsuko shrugged. "Azazel's investigating, and Rei recorded a lot of footage after she secured the site. That'll at least tell us how honest their report is."


            "This is their first big screw up. His plane wasn't doing any real maneuvers. It just blew up."


            There was a knock on the door to the infirmary and after Ritsuko unlocked it Sergeant Zlatoust stepped inside followed by Captain Zel'dovich. The short fighter pilot was still in his flight suit, though his usual cocky grin was replaced with a more morose expression.


            "I'm sorry," Shinju whispered.


            A weak smile crossed Zel'dovich's face as he knelt down. "You have heart. You didn't know how bad it was but you came running. All you knew, all you needed to know was that a comrade needed help." He eyed the bandages on the girl's palms.


            Shinju looked up and met Zel'dovich's gaze.


            "Yakov liked you. I know he would have been proud to have you come to his rescue." Zel'dovich rose to his feet. "There's nothing I can say. You're a pilot; death is part of the job."


            "This was an accident," Misako reminded.


            "Accidents shouldn't happen, but they do." His face hardened. "I promise you we will find the pigs responsible for this. I can accept dying in battle, but I can't accept dying because someone got sloppy on machining or maintenance. We're supposed to be better than this," Zel'dovich spat, bitterness edging into his voice.

 

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

 


            Sitting on one of the chairs in the infirmary's waiting room, Asuka looked over to Rei. The First child was reading one of her seemingly endless trashy romance novels. The redhead picked at the hem to her skirt and leaned back putting her head against the wall.


            A couple minutes passed, accompanied by the rustle of pages and the quiet commentary of the Azazel guards. Asuka's meager Russian allowed her to determine that they were talking about chess, but she had had enough of Russians today.


            Shrugging in defeat, Asuka looked over to her squad-mate. "So....
            wasn't that the dead Pilot's wingman who just visited?"


            Rei paused in her reading and waited, silently.


            "Yeah I guess it was. Well, Princess did have her flashy rescue attempt." Asuka tapped the wall.


            Rei closed her book and held it in her lap, tightly.


            "It's weird you know, why are we out here? Is Princess that bashful? I mean we've all been in the locker room shower, and why all the privacy?  How bad could it be? Give her some first aid on the drive back home."


            One of Rei's knuckles popped.


            "Oh well." Asuka stared at the ceiling until the metal door to the infirmary clicked open and swung out on its oiled hinges.


            Zel'dovich was the first out of the room. He turned and gave a salute to Shinju before returning to his escort and walking down the corridor. The Ayanami sisters were next, followed by Ritsuko.


            "So just use the burn cream and you'll be okay in a couple days. Change the bandages every six hours or so and don't tie them too tight," Ritsuko explained handing the clone a packet of fresh medications,  salves, and bandages..


            Shinju nodded.


            Looking up, Rei rose to her feet and walked straight to her sisters.


            "Well you girls can go back home." Misako patted Shinju's head. "Rei make sure Shinju has a quiet evening."


            Rei's nod was identical to Shinju's

           


            "At least you two are done for the day, I've got more meetings."


            "Quit complaining. They're the ones that were in Evangelions all day," Ritsuko reminded.


            "Right, right." Misako turned to an Azazel trooper. "Zlatoust rustle up Khariton or Katrina and take the pilots home."


            Sergeant Zlatoust nodded and began the painstaking process of Pilot portaging. Soon he had ordered his men, contacted his superiors, checked in with Nerv Command, and began to lead the Pilots out of Central Dogma.


            Misako turned back to Shinju. "And I'll be giving you a talking to on reckless behavior young lady. What would the Commander think if you had slipped and got hurt, or died?"


            Shinju looked down. "I... I was trying to help."


            "The first rule of helping is to make sure you're not making things worse," Ritsuko added as the Pilots were escorted away from the medical wing.


            "Are you okay, Princess?" Asuka asked the girl in front of her on the ascending escalator.


            "Yes, just worried what the Commander would think."


            "Oh him? So what?"  Asuka shook her head. "You freaked me out you know? You dropped right down that rope."


            Shinju looked over to Rei who was gently holding her hand, but her Oneechan did not react.


            "Time was important."


            "Yeah, and you were able to show off, again." Asuka shook her head. "So what's the deal with Ikari? How come he's all creepy rich uncle with you two and just tosses a gift at me? Why do you care so much about what he thinks?"


            Shinju whimpered slightly when Rei gripped her hand.


            "The guy's hardly said word one to me, but seems to me you two meet him every day. Is it because you're such a good girl, Princess?"


            Shinju set her jaw. "I will do as ordered."


            "Isn't that a good little doll. So obedient. Do you think that Ikari really cares about you?"


            "Don't you trust the Commander's work?" Shinju's question was devoid of emotion.


            "What?" Asuka stopped. "Of course not! He's a smirking, arrogant know-it-all, too busy with his work to give you the time of day. At best he'll think of you as an interesting specimen. Cold-hearted bastard, just like my father," the redhead spat.


            Slipping out of Rei's grip, Shinju slowly turned around. She took a step towards the perplexed redhead.


            "Uh... yes?" Asuka leaned back as the smaller girl got into her personal space.


            Glaring, Shinju pulled back her arm and blushing with anger slapped her hand across Asuka's face. She then spun on her heel and silently walked further up the escalator away from the stunned redhead. After half a dozen steps she hissed in pain and pulled the bandage back over her palm.

 

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

 


            Looking across the conference room, Captian Kodama Horaki adjusted her glasses. "Based on the actions the Russians have taken, and our own investigation of the crash site, Capitan Koval's plane suffered a burst compressor disk." A display on the wall switched to a blown-up diagram of a Saturn AL-31 engine and several images of torn bits of metal. "This is a high load, high mass component that is classified as a catastrophic failure part," the procurement head explained.


            "Huh, accurate enough description," Ritsuko eyed the display. "Why'd it fail?"


            "From the rash of arrests at NPO Saturn, it looks like there was a manufacturing fault."


            "A few of the Azazel maintenance personnel have also been... transferred." Misako smirked.


            Kodama nodded. "Yes, it's likely that proper maintenance would have caught this."


            "Are the Russians overreacting?" Fuyutsuki asked. "Statistically their accident record has been much better than in the past."


            "Especially if you consider the increased tempo of Azazel operations when compared to that of their air force," Misako added.


            "There are two factors at work here," Kodama explained. "First of all the disk failures are normally exceptionally rare. This is due to the type of failure that occurs. They are held to a higher standard than other engine parts. If indicative of a systematic quality control problem, the integrity of the entire Azazel fleet would be called into question."


            Fuyutsuki exhaled. "That was our concern."


            "Sir, there's another factor. One that's related. The second impact strained already decayed cold-war era equipment, well-trained men in short numbers, and yet here the Russians are with a nuclear expeditionary force. Azazel is the distillation of the Russian armed forces. The best and brightest went into Azazel. Their most modern equipment, most competent soldiers."


            Misako chewed her lip. "So that means the drunks, conscripts, rust-buckets, and other rotting crap is stuck in Russia?"


            Kodama smiled slightly. "Accurate, but not my point Captian. My point was that that Russians took special care putting their best into Azazel, and they still had this accident."


            "Though their screw-up still leaves them with the ability to conduct patrols and deliver weapons. We have considerably less margin," Ritsuko reminded.


            "So in the short and medium term we could expect less capability out of Azazel? And more accidents," Fuyutsuki added.


            "That's correct," Kodama said, while Misako nodded.


            "How does this affect Nerv?" Fuyutsuki asked.


            "Azazel support has been useful in the past, though the JSSDF can replicate some of their capabilities." Misako frowned. "It really depends on how bad things get with them. We're lucky this happened in training."


            "Seemingly minor components failing can cripple a weapon system. If this had happened in battle, it could have been much worse." Kodama looked at her notes. "If anything Nerv is in a worse situation supply-wise. Our parts are even more exotic, expensive, and esoteric. I trust you've all read my report on quality control issues with Evangelion power systems?"


            Fuyutsuki and Ritsuko reluctantly nodded while Misako glared at the prim woman. "That killed an entire evening," the clone hissed.


            "There is always room to apply further pressure on our suppliers," Kodama asserted.


            "Fine, draw up some ideas on how we can do that." Fuyutsuki took some relief in Ikari's absence; he did not handle minutia gracefully. "What else?"


            "Well, in other news the Super Solenoid equipment from Second branch and Third Branch's Energy Analysis Unit has finished being moved to its new home at the Matsushiro Test Facility."


            Ritsuko bent her pen. "Already? Including the staff?"


            Kodama looked down at her notes. "Yes, the schedule was advanced due to the reassignment of several of the Energy Analysis Unit personnel. Also much of the equipment had already been moved to the Second Branch, making the final relocation easier."


            Misako eyed Ritsuko. "Is that headed by who I think it is?" she asked grinning.


            Ritsuko rubbed her forehead.


            "Yes, Professor Tino Noah Insana. After the reorganization of the EAU he's the new head of Super Solenoid Research and Integration," Kodama explained.


            Misako patted Ritsuko on the back. "At least he'll be in Matsushiro."


            "They're scientists, not Betta fish. They won't fight just because you put them in the same room," Kodama stated.


            Ritsuko glared. "I'm not worried about that."


            Fuyutsuki gave a curt nod to Ritsuko. "Still, it reminds me of the old days."


            "I'm not like my mother," Ritsuko grumbled.


            "Yes, you're a bit more like Doctor Ikari." Fuyutsuki said.


            "The Commander's wife?" Misako asked.


            Fuyutsuki smirked. "The same."


            Ritsuko looked between Misako and Fuyutsuki. She sighed. "Fine, then. Moving on?"


            "We could spend more time talking about which scientist Rits is more like." Misako gave a tight little smile. "Her mother or the Commander's late wife."


            After blinking at Yui's face, Ritsuko glared at Misako. "You're not helping," the scientist hissed.


            "Well, it's rare enough that I find something that upsets the normally unflappable Dr. Akagi, and here are two things in one day."


            "Very funny." Ritsuko sighed.


            "Nah, if I wanted to be funny I'd suggest that Professor Insana was somehow involved with your mother."


            Ritsuko shivered. "Bad Misako."


            Kodama looked to the Sub-Commander.


            Fuyutsuki cleared his throat. "Really, I think we've detoured into the past long enough."

 

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

 


            Asuka entered the apartment building's lounge. Frowning she looked between the door that led to the exercise room and the one that led outside. Rain poured down on the patio, and the adjacent exercise room was full. The lounge itself was adjacent to the building's lobby and contained a few couches chairs and tables. There was a void along one wall where a bar had been replaced by a much smaller karaoke machine.


            "There's a wait to use the machines." Shinju said from the couch as she ran one of her knives against an oil stone.


            After rolling her eyes at the ruffled, double-skirted romper Shinju wore, Asuka nodded. She took a seat that faced the couch and rolled her shoulders. "So, how are your hands?"


            Shinju held up her hand, showing an angry red line that cut across her palm.


            Asuka winced. "Getting better."


            Picking her blade back up, Shinju resumed her work.


            The redhead sharply exhaled. "Look, I'm sorry I got you mad. It's just the Commander... he reminds me of my father."


            Shinju looked up.


            "They're both bigwigs in Nerv. Too busy to care."


            "You weren't raised by your parents?"


            Asuka gave a bitter smile. "I was raised by my mother... until she couldn't."


            Shinju placed her knife on the table and folded her hands in her lap.


            "What about your parents?" Asuka asked looking out the window at the rain.


            "My mother was a Nerv scientist. She died when I was young. I never got to know her."


            "Small world." Asuka's eyebrows went up. "At least the Ice Queen had to have remembered her."


            Shinju bit her lip, recalling the cover story. "Oneesan wasn't... close with mother."


            "So the eldest butted heads with Mom, the youngest was the adorable one, and Rei was the neglected middle child?" Asuka rolled her eyes. "Figures. What about your father?"


            Shinju opened her mouth –


            -and Asuka cut her off. "Lemmie guess. Another Nerv? Someone more interested in science than his own children?"


            Nodding, Shinju looked away. "After mother... Oneesan took care of us... until Nerv split us up."


            Asuka slumped in her chair. "Nerv really knows how to screw up their pilots don't they?"


            Shinju frowned and looked down at the fluffy skirting that flowed around her.


            "I can count the number of times I've met my father on one hand." Asuka held up a fist. "First time was when I was born." Asuka glowered.


            "And?"


            "After that my mom took me straight to Germany and never said a word about who my father was. Whenever I asked, she told me I was born through the combination of an elite sperm and an elite egg… that I was a chosen being, a special person."


            Shinju blinked. "How old were you?"


            "Yeah, I got the sex talk when I was really young." Asuka sighed and wiped at her eyes. "Scientist parents sure are fun."


            Shinju frowned and looked up at Asuka.


            The Second Child rubbed her forehead. "You want to hug me don't you?"


            "You seem sad."


            "And you think hug from Nerv's Precious Princess Perfect will help?"


            "They seem to cheer up Oneechan," Shinju pouted.


            "Wonder girl? Cheery?" Asuka sighed. "Are you scared about tomorrow?"


            Shinju shook her head.


            "There'll be a lot of people. All watching you."


            "A lot of people watch us already." Pulling a small bottle out of one of her ruffled pockets, Shinju added some light gun oil to her sharpening stone.


            "Yes, I got the fan letters," Asuka watched Shinju calmly steadily run the blade over the stone, making sure to keep the angle and pressure even. "It's almost as bad as all the letters that get stuffed into our lockers. Right Princess?"


            Shinju blushed.


            "I never thought I'd be thanking those spy creeps in Section Two." Asuka chuckled. "Though I wonder who you'd have to piss off to get the job of sorting fan letters to the Pilots."


            "It's very serious work. Explosives and poisons could easily be snuck in."


            "Is that why no one's sent you candies?"


            Shinju blushed. "It's not all bad... some of the gifts are nice."


            "Oh?" Asuka's eyes sparkled. "What'd you get?


            Shinju tapped the varnished oak holder for the oilstone and Asuka actually looked a the object. The stone was a milky white and was held in a wooden container that glowed with patina and the gentle nicks and wears of a lifetime of use. A matching wooden lid was next to the stone and it bore a small silver nameplate.


            Asuka shook her head. "Princess, princess, princess. Best I got was a box of opened, inspected, and resealed chocolates and a bouquet of wilted roses."


            "What color?"


            "Red, a bit forward if you ask me." Asuka looked to the exercise room.


            "What about tonight?  Are you nervous about that?"


            "Captain Koval's service?"  Asuka shrugged. "Not really, it's sad that he died, but the Russians seem to be taking care of it.  We've got to show up, but it's not personal."


            Rubbing her palm, Shinju looked down.


             "So, where's Wondergirl? Were you too chatty and she needed some quiet time?"


            Flush, Shinju looked down.


            "Man... that was a joke."


            "Oneechan will be down soon."


            "Oh, how fun." Asuka groused.


            Shinju tilted her head. "You're waiting for her?"


            "No of course not!" The redhead grumbled. "It's just... I mean Hikari and everyone's at Okinawa."


            Shinju nodded. "My class went too."


            Asuka snorted. "Yeah, they can go off and have fun while we're stuck here."


            "It's the price we pay for service."


            "Yeah, yeah." Asuka rolled her eyes. "Still, does it seem fair to you? You've got to give a speech; they get go on vacation."


            Shinju gave a charitable smile and returned to her sharpening. "I won't be the only one talking tomorrow."


            "Oh?"


            "All the pilots will be participating in a question and answer panel. Are you worried about that?"


            "Why?" Asuka sighed. "That's industry people. Not fans."


            Shinju gave a tiny smile as she added more oil to her sharpening stone.

 

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

 


            Happily humming, Shinju reached up and pulled a rocks glass off the shelf and placed it on the polished granite bar. She then took a large mixing glass, strainer, and metal jigger and put them next to the cut crystal tumbler. A long silver stirring spoon placed perpendicular to the bar edge completed her set of tools.


            The girl then carefully picked up a wide-bottomed crystal ship's decanter, and using two hands delicately placed it onto the bar. She then opened the freezer compartment of a small fridge and removed an ice cube tray. After filling the mixing glass she slowly removed the decanter's stopper she used to jigger to slowly measure out two ounces of single malt scotch and pour it into the mixing glass.


            After stirring the ice and single malt exactly eight times, she used the strainer to remove the ice by pouring the mixture into the tumbler. Once again using both her hands, she gingerly picked up the tumbler and carried it across the darkened office and placed it into a waiting gloved hand.
            Blushing, Shinju bowed her head and spread her ruffled skirting in a slight curtsy.


            Lifting the glass up and inhaling the aroma, Gendo allowed a slight smile. "Are you ready to give your speech?" he asked, looking down at the diminutive clone.


            As Shinju's cheeks cooled her expression shifted into a tight smirk. Keeping her head down, she reflexively smoothed her skirt before clasping her hands in front of her.


            "That's my Pilot." After taking a sip, Gendo grinned. "And you're getting better at this too.


            Quivering slightly, Shinju flushed with pride.


            Resting his glass on the desk, Gendo patted his thigh. "Come on up, I've got a present for you."


            Blushing furiously, Shinju slipped up onto her father's lap.


            "I had this specially made for you." Gendo smirked as he opened up a lacquered rosewood box. Lying inside on a bed of velvet was a glittering choker.


            The band of the choker was made out of two intertwined glossy but supple strips. One of the leather-like strips was coppery and the other was silvery. A shimmering blue octahedral crystal was set on the choker's front via two luminescent purple bands.


            "Pretty," Shinju cooed.


            Lifting up Shinju's tresses, Gendo fastened the choker around her neck.


            Shinju felt a slight almost echoing spark, but was soon lathered in the warm happy memories of victory. Languidly smiling, she leaned onto her father's chest and returned to her happy humming.


            "You're my special girl," Gendo whispered into Shinju's ear. Smirking at her reaction, Gendo picked up his tumbler and took another sip.


            "You're not mad?  After I burnt myself trying to rescue Koval?"


            "Don't worry, that's something I understand." Gendo's smirk gained some mirth.
"How are things?"


            Shinju ran a hand along her choker. "Oneechan and Oneesan are doing well."


            Gendo nodded, simulating interest.


            "Even the Second is coming along."


            "I heard you hurt her again."


            "There was a reason." Shinju frowned.


            "I know."


            Shinju bit her lip. "Are... are you coming to the service?"


            "Captain Koval's?" Gendo took a sip. "I was planning to make an appearance, yes."


            Shinju gave a tiny smile. "It's just a quick service, casual so no uniforms, his funeral will be in Moscow of course."


            "I should change, then."


            "That's why I'm wearing my black dress!" Shinju fluffed flounced silk sleeves.


            Gendo gave a proud smirk, "Well I'll see you later tonight."


            Shinju kissed Gendo on the cheek. "I love the gift!" she gushed hopping onto her feet. Turning around she waved to Gendo and then merrily skipped out of the room.


            Shortly, Fuyutsuki entered the room. "Well that was a surprise." He tugged at his cuffs. "Are you going then?"


            "Solidarity would be important, especially given tomorrow's theatrics."


            "Of course." Fuyutsuki looked out the office's windows. "Cute jewelry though. What does it do?"


            "Do?"


            "Yes, what byzantine and overarching purpose does it have?" Fuyutsuki asked with a slight smile.


            "Dear professor, what could I possibly do to her?" Gendo picked up his glass.


            "How should I itemize the list, by difficulty or depravity?"


            "Let me clarify, what do I need to do to her? To satisfy the plan." Gendo added before taking a sip.


            "She is as loyal as the First." Fuyutsuki shook his head. "Then is it merely a garish hunting trophy disguised as elegant jewelry?"


            Gendo chuckled. "I wouldn't go that far."

 

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

 


            "You seem perturbed." Katrina noted as she braided Asuka's hair.


            "Gee...you think?" Asuka looked into her vanity. "I suppose black works well," she said remarking on the stark, almost severe dress she wore.


            Katrina tied off the long braid. "It's not really your color," she said, inspecting Asuka's hair bun. "But conventions must be maintained."


            "You're in uniform."


            "Yes, my duty uniform the one I wear every day, not my dress one." Katrina smiled. "I'm touched that you consider this a social event for me."


            Asuka looked down. "Ah... sorry."


            "Don't be. Captain Koval was a brave man. He knew the risks, he still volunteered, he killed the enemy."


            "Yes, Ramiel and the horde."


            Katrina nodded.


            Asuka looked at her reflection. The ostentatious nature of her hairstyle, layered lacquered buns terminating in a cable-like braid clashed with the plain, if flattering black dress she wore. Having dark red trim, it hugged her thighs, went to her knees, and had a high collar with short sheer sleeves. "Do you have regrets?"


            Katrina lowered the can of hair fixative. "Certainly," she said after a moment.


            "Do they include doing... this?"


            Katrina chuckled. "Do you really think I was ordered to be your beautician?"


            Asuka looked up. "I think Captain Sakharov is more than willing to give you any order."


            The stout German woman nodded. "Your cynicism is coming along nicely. We'll make a proper soldier of you yet."


            "I suppose it's good that I got the normal platoon."


            "Yes. I doubt Pyotr spends much time doing the First's hair."


            "Well neither does Rei." Asuka frowned and shivered. "Though now I'm imagining Igor brushing Princess' hair."


            "She does have a lot of hair."


            "It's not much longer than mine."


            "And we know how much time you spend on yours," Katrina teased. She then nodded. "Speaking of that, yours is satisfactory."


            Asuka nodded and rose to her feet. After inspecting her reflection in her vanity she moved to a full-length mirror. "Does... does this work?" she asked adjusting her dress.


            "What do you think? You asked to have your hair done this way."


            Asuka looked at her reflection. "I... like it, but it is a real pain."


            "Yes, it is," Katrina dryly noted.


            "I do appreciate you doing my hair for me, but it's not just that. Even after showering my hair's still stiff. It takes a couple days before it stops feeling like plastic."


            "There is a reason these styles aren't that common," Katarina reminded.


            Asuka nodded. "Still... does it work for me?"


            "Do you mean does it make you appear more mature and ladylike than the Fourth?"


            Asuka rolled her eyes. "Please, she thinks more ruffles are the solution to any fashion problem, not to mention all the lace she puts up top to cover up her lack of endowment."


            "She's nearly two years younger than you."


            "And that makes it creepier. Is there a man she doesn't moon over? Zel'dovich, Kaji, her shaved bear, even the Commander isn't immune."


            "I think you exaggerate."


            Asuka snorted. "Oh no, trust me. Puberty's going to hit her like a truck. All that fan mail she gets is going to give her a big head."


            "Yes, we mustn't have that."


            Asuka raised an eyebrow. "Sarcasm then?"

            "Well, your jealousy of Nerv's Perfect Princess, as you call her, is transparent. It's also quite justified."


            "Really?" Asuka crossed her arms over her chest.


            "She's the one out in the limelight. She's the one making all the stirring speeches, and her posters do sell the best."


            "And that's not creepy?"


            "Let's just hope that little girls are the ones doing all the buying," Katrina chuckled. "It's natural that you feel irked at a replacement pilot who is simultaneously newer than you and more experienced."


            "Right, but when I complained before you told me to shut up and stick with my training."


            Katrina's eyes went cold. "Training makes a difference. You know the last battle. How well do you think you would have done fresh from Germany?"
           


            Asuka narrowed her eyes.


            "You were blown up, were blown up again, destroyed a mountain, were mobbed by Angels, partially eaten, and then went crazy and started crushing them bare-handed." Katrina showed her teeth. "And that was a good battle."


            "It was a small mountain." Asuka whined. "Anyway, you're forgetting the two cities that Azazel bombed, and the power station that the Angels blew up. As for crazy, what about Princess?"


            "She is the best Pilot. You might want to emulate her spirited approach."


            Asuka stared at Katrina.


            "She has very strong esprit de corps."


            "Right, you want me to scream like a loon when Piloting then?"


            "I think that's a bit far," Katrina chuckled and examined Asuka. "I think you're ready to go."


            "Finally." After holstering her sidearm, Asuka picked up her shoes and carried them to the door. "I suppose Princess isn't that bad, at least she doesn't whine like a little girl."


            "Yes, that is something," Katrina distantly remarked.

 

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

 


            "You weren't going?" Mikki asked as she walked out of the restaurant and onto a large patio that overlooked the Tokyo 3 skyline.


            Putting down his drink, Kaji stood up. "I wasn't invited."


            "Aren't you one of them?" Mikki frowned.


            Kaji shook his head as they went to the railing at the edge of the overlook. "Koval was a soldier. I'm not."


            "They don't trust you."


            "Well, they're not stupid." Kaji exhaled. "It looks like they'll be needing Unit 03 soon."


            "Yes, Marduk has found the next pilot." Mikki leaned on the patio's balcony.


            Standing next to her, Kaji nodded. "I heard they picked the next girl, yes."


            "Boy." Mikki glanced over. "The next pilot's a boy. Can't you tell the difference?"


            Kaji rubbed his chin. "Huh... I heard a rumor that only girls could pilot. Of course the pool's so small... and Marduk..."


            "What about the Institute?" Mikki raised an eyebrow.


            "You don't know?"


            The office lady blinked innocently. "What's to know? They find children that might be able to pilot."


            "It's all a scam," Kaji tapped the railing. "It's all in-house. Marduk is just a front."


            Turning away, Mikki smiled to herself.


            "Which doesn't make sense. Why bother making up an Institute? People'd be perfectly fine with Nerv itself finding the Pilots. It doesn't make sense."


            "It's a conspiracy."


            Kaji snorted. "Conspiracy theories are a joke."


            Mikki stared. "Wait... but you..."


            "Yes, I'd say I'm qualified on the subject. The problem with conspiracy theories isn't the conspiracy; it's the theory." Kaji flashed a grin.


            "Organizations are staffed with mostly well-intentioned but incompetent people. Conspiracy theorists reverse this: they think these sinister agencies are evil-intentioned but supremely competent."


            Mikki crossed her arms over her chest. "And you deny this?"


            "I deny the supreme competence. Look at where you work. Look at your boss. Do those people seem supremely competent? Are they immune to Murphy's law?"


            "But, humans do conspire."


            "Oh yes, conspiracies are real, but humans are also petty, shiftless, incompetent, and imaginative." Kaji looked out at the sprawling city below them. "Do you know what would happen if I hijacked a television studio and went public with everything I knew?"


            "You'd be shot."


            "Eventually, eventually. But not that, do you know what the public would do? How they'd react to the truth?"


            Mikki tilted her head.

            "They shrug and go 'That's it?' People expect better. They expect grandiose plans. That's why Captain Koval's death is so damning. An organization that can kill an Angel in one shot shouldn't have accidents like that."


            "That's absurd. Accidents happen, especially if you're using poor quality parts."


            "That's human nature."


            "Grandiose plans... but the Evangelions are-"


            Kaji cut her off. "Fighting fire with fire. Again, the public wouldn't really care. They've already accepted the use of thermo-nuclear weapons. And what's an alien-clone cyborg war-machine when compared to creating miniature suns."


            Mikki closed her eyes. "It really is overwhelming."


            "I'm not denying that there is a conspiracy. Quite the contrary, I intend to uncover it."


            "Why?"


            "Because there's only one thing worse than a some pathetic sack weaving conspiracy theories in order to give his sad little life a little meaning."


            Narrowing her grey eyes, Mikki waited.


            "It's that same pathetic man creating conspiracies to give his life meaning." Kaji cracked a smile. "Do you know what Ikari wants? Do you know what your boss wants?"


            "It's always secrets with you isn't it?" Mikki smiled.


            "Well, when secrets are all you'll give up, I have to content myself with that."


            The auburn haired girl giggled, awkwardly.


            "You're getting better." Kaji gave a charitable smile. "Have the other secretaries been helping you?


            "Practice helps." Once more Mikki looked out over the city. "Even our failures can help, if one's willing to admit fault and learn from it."

 

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

 


            "And finally we've got a special guest to tell you how vital your work is to Project E and humanity." Ritsuko cleared her throat and stepped away from the lectern. "May I present the Fourth Child, Pilot of Evangelion Unit 01, Warrant Officer Ayanami Shinju."


            Wearing the tan skirt and jacket of a Nerv Tactical uniform, Shinju strode onto the stage. She wore her customary hair band and a silver and gold choker adorned her neck. Turning she looked out at the auditorium. Hundreds of engineers, managers, and other employees from Nerv's various suppliers gently clapped. Inhaling, Shinju's eyes went from the crowd to the camera crews, one in each of the far corners and another in the front of the center aisle.


            "Open your Heart," Shinju whispered as she took the final step and lowered the microphone. "I have one thing to say," she announced.


            "Any one of you can get me killed." Each of her words clearly rang through the hall.


            A murmur rushed through the audience, but after a few seconds it passed and silence dominated.


            Shinju blinked. "It doesn't matter whether you're a machinist, engineer, inspector, scientist, clerk or manager. My life depends on the work you do, the equipment you make. A capacitor failure, impurely layered armor, mis-fused ammunition; each of those could get me killed."


            The central camera zoomed in and held, taking care to use her bangs and headband bows to frame Shinju's face.


            "If you fail at your job, people will die. If you're lucky it'll just be one of us pilots." Shinju exhaled. "If not... Tokyo 3's destruction is best case. You will fail. Mistakes will be made. What you have to do is own up to them. No more cover ups, no more excuses. Give us the tools, and we will win."


            The camera zoomed out, showing the diminutive girl standing alone on the white stage.


            "We are fighting for humanity's existence." Shinju paused. "We are fighting. All of us. You may not be in the cockpit with me but your work is what put me there, and can throw me right out. Victory depends on you. If you find that burden too much," She narrowed her eyes, "then I suggest you resign."


            Deep in Gendo's office, Fuyutsuki shook his head as the feed switched to one of the side cameras. "She's certainly... photogenic."


            "I believe she gets that from her mother."


            Fuyutsuki thinly grinned.


            "No retort?"


            "Oh, I don't think I could top that. Still... I suppose you are correct: Blood tells."


            Nodding, Gendo listened to Shinju retell Operation Excelsior. She paid special attention to the critical equipment such as the YC-59 transport, without which the operation would have been impossible.


            "No mention of Third Branch. Is Shinju the carrot to Misako's stick?"


            Gendo smirked. "Do you underestimate the Fourth that much?"


            "Oh?"


            "You know why I had my little Azazel epiphany?"


            "Do tell," Fuyutsuki dryly remarked.


            "Unlike the Old Men, unlike Mr. Kaji, unlike the good doctor. Azazel understands. Lieutenant Khariton knows exactly what Shinju is."


            Fuyutsuki stared. "That much? They know about the cloning and Lilith?"


            "Nothing so pedestrian." Gendo's smirk broke into a grin. "They know the spirit, the fire that lies within her, and best of all, they're cultivating it. Such a gift, no?"


            "And how do you plan to use this gift?" The professor eyed Gendo.


            "Gifts are best shared. Let her inspire the whole world, if that is what it takes."


            "This is being broadcast in Russia as well?" Fuyutsuki asked.


            Gendo nodded.


            "I knew Nerv would have to play many roles, but the hero?"


            "Life is too rich to predict, all one can do is adapt. Look at Mount Asama."


            "The Old Men are wary of going on the offensive."


            "They are cautious, too cautious."


            "They are also concerned about the location. It is close..."


            Genma waved his hand. "Competition is making them more conservative."


            "The fools." Gendo tapped the desk. "Competition forces boldness. If we do not act, they will."


            "But the risks. Accessibility..."


            "Will not be an issue." Gendo smirked. "And a living sample is worth the risk."


            After a moment, Fuyutsuki nodded. "Assistance from our allies then?"


            "Of course, anything to achieve our goals. " Gendo allowed his grin to recede. "Capability and loyalty give us options. The Second aside, I have every confidence that the Pilots will do their duty."


            "Including the End?"


            "My dear Professor, why would Shinju disagree with that? She misses Her almost as much as I do."

 

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

 


            Back straight, Shinju strode off the stage and down a hallway.


            Going the other way, Misako in the black jacket and long skirt of her formal uniform hugged her. "You did good."


            Shinju nodded.


            "Too much for you?"


            The little clone bit her lip. "I just want to be quiet now," she whispered.


            Misako chuckled and patted her on the back. "You deserve it. Go an take a break. I'll make sure the Q&A panel is quick."


            Shinju nodded and finished transversing the corridor. At the far end a group of Azazel troopers on guard opened the door letting her into the green room.


            "Speech powerful, maybe babies will learn, no?" Igor smirked.


            "It was one of your planes that crashed," Asuka grumbled from her chair. She looked to Shinju before going back to watching the television where Misako was starting her own speech.


            Igor frowned. "Dangerous work."


            Shinju nodded as climbed onto the couch and drew her knees up to her chin; she lowered her head causing her bangs to fall over her face.


            Sitting next to her, Rei put her book down and critically examined her sister. With a slight frown she reached out and straightened Shinju's hair bow and pulled the girl's bangs back.


            "Nothing wrong with being scared." Igor offered her a red and white wrapped candy bar.


            Still keeping her knees drawn up, Shinju gingerly peeled back the foil and started nibbling on the chocolate.


            Asuka glared. "Oh come on! No one's that cute!"


            Shinju looked up from the confection. "You think I'm cute?"


            "Don't be coy. With your big eyes, long hair, and fluffy and ruffled dresses, how can you be anything else?"


            "She's wearing the same uniform as you." Rei picked her book back up.


            Asuka waved her hand in dismissal. "She's the kind of girl that's always wearing ruffles, even when she's not. And I'm not wearing a choker or a hair band out of Alice in Wonderland."


            Resuming her nibbling, Shinju smiled.


            Igor shook his head and lumbered off to the far side of the room, leaving the pilots alone.


            Asuka sighed. "It was a good speech, Princess."


            "Maya wrote it."


            "Huh." The redhead shrugged. "I didn't realize Dr. Akagi's puppy had it in her."


            "Puppy?"


            "Sure, she's nice enough, but really she's just a little piece of fluff."


            Clutching her chocolate bar, Shinju looked up at Asuka.


            Asuka blinked. "You know Princess, it's actually amazing you're not more spoiled."


            Rei's hands twitched and her bookmark slipped out and fell onto the floor.


            "Spoiled?" Shinju frowned.


            "You sleep on a four poster bed with a silk canopy. You're part of a family that Pilots and commands giant robots. You collect dolls and like wearing frilly gowns. You've got elite Russian guards. You're on posters, on action figures. You play an adorable little three-quarter cello. There's propaganda films about you."


            "Now you call us elite?" Igor laughed.


            "I didn't deny the princess part," Shinju said, slightly cross.


            Asuka sighed. "Great more Ayanami humor."

 

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

 


            A titanic grey object shot towards the earth. Considerably longer than an Evangelion, the plane's minimally backswept wings stretched even further out, to nearly twice that of a Unit's height. Despite the length and wingspan, the fuselage's large girth made the aircraft look stubby and stout. Looming just forward of twin vertical tails, the hulking nacelles of two massive engines dominated the fuselage. The most powerful turbofan engines on the planet, each A-110WS produced over one hundred fifty thousand pounds of thrust.


            Four hundred forty tons of aircraft pulled out of the dive, and with misleading slowness seemed to wallow in the curve as it began to bank left. Then the engines flared and the aircraft shot around its curve, rolled to nearly vertical wings and shot over the observation bunker.


            As it passed overhead the nose art became obvious. A two story tall, gaping maw with stark white teeth surrounding bright red highlighted the twin weapons protruding out the front.


             The aircraft rolled back to level and commenced a disconcertingly rapid climb as it flew deeper into the test zone. All too soon it nosed down and after swinging around to the left fired. A blinding white beam flashed and sliced through a thirty meter solid reinforced concrete cube. The weapon flashed again, and again, each time nimbly piercing straight through the scattered targets.


            Exiting the turn, the plane pitched down, swung back around, and keyed in the other gun. This time a flaming maelstrom erupted from the nose cannons. Each second, eighty, fifty millimeter hardened darts shot towards the target at over twenty times the speed of sound.


            Using hydraulic gimbals to allow for fine adjustment by moving the entire weapons platform, the Gatling rail gun raked the target zone. First controlled bursts were used to blow apart every target block, then slightly longer gouts of plasma heated hypersonic projectiles shredded the remaining fragments.


            Leveling out, the plane exited the Mount Takanosu Testing Range and returned to base. Despite its size, the plane had no trouble landing. The runways were designed to accommodate YC-59 Evangelion transports, an even larger aircraft.


            Now resting on over two dozen heavy-duty wheels the plane taxied off the runway and then shut down its engines. The rear ramp lowered, the nose lifted up revealing the guts of the giant guns, and finally the  front ramp extended and dropped onto the tarmac. A gaggle of jumpsuited Republic and NHIS technicians ran to the craft and started attaching cables and other feeds to secure the plane's nuclear power plant.


            Wearing constrictive G-suits, the flight crew descended a stairwell that connected the control deck to the weapons deck. Avoiding the weapons assembly and giving the center-line mounted guns a wide berth, they walked down the front ramp and stepped out on to the hot tarmac. As he stepped into the sun the lead man in the group, also the tallest, slipped on a black banded slouch hat he had been carrying.


             There the half dozen men were met by Azazel, JSSDF, and Nerv representatives who were just climbing out of a group of trucks.


            "Impressive test," General Yubari said as he shook the lanky pilot's hand.


            "Yes, amazing what can happen if you sink enough money into a demonstrator," Beria remarked.


            Zel'dovich and Misako hung back from the group and mostly looked up at the giant plane.


            "You put a nuclear powered naval gun in a transport plane." Ritsuko said in disgusted awe as she looked up at the aircraft. While it lacked the sheer looming presence of an Evangelion, it had a much larger footprint.


            "All proven technology," Beria allowed. "Admittedly with an unconventional assembly."


            Hiram squinted at the Russian. "Program requirements dictated the YA-11's assembly."


            "Yes a nuclear reactor would be the only way to supply sufficient power." Beria looked up at the giant tail-mounted engines and the fins underscoring the wings. "Engine fans turned by direct gas on blades or exchanger heat up of combustion chamber?"


            "Heat exchangers. That way the engines can work off the reactor or from conventional fuel. Though the latter gives us a limited range." Hiram reached out his hand. "That IIB is some slick work. Impressive engine and targeting."


            As he shook the Texan's hand, Beria's smile almost touched his eyes. "Your weapon targets accurately as well."


            "That's all Owen's work." Hiram slapped the tall pilot on the back.


            Beria nodded to the tall, brown haired pilot. "You shoot well."


            Owen Lysaght inclined his head similarly. "Appreciate it, mate," he said in a husky, grumbling voice.


            "Owen's one of our test pilots. Formerly of the RAAF. Ground Attack Squadron."


            "Owen? You were at the Battle of Darwin?" Zel'dovich not quite asked. "Did you know Charlie?"


            The Australian smirked. "If you want to call it a battle,"
Owen spat. "The ProCo's managed to take out Te Kaha and two other frigates and one of our Collins boats. However their landing craft..."


            "Their first strike did take out most of your fighters."


            "Yeah, someone gave them a bunch of fancy missiles," Owen's grin highlighted the scar that ran across his left cheek. "Darwin was left with some mothballed surplus the Americans sold off right after the Impact."


            "It is easier to take out planes on the ground," Zel'dovich stated.


           
"Well, the South Asian Prosperity Combine was pretty ruthless," Misako shrugged.


            Owen glared. "Darwin's still not the same."


            "Right." Misako shook her head, after the Impact some of the low-lying nations had banded together, and decided that their survival depended on finding and keeping better land. "That was almost as bad as the Canal War."


            "Bah, the Mexicans simply fire-bombed the Centrals." Owen snorted. "No the ProCos were real mongrels. They figured they'd just mass on the beaches and use raw numbers." The Australian chuckled. "So we let them land."


            Yubari raised an eyebrow. "It was an unconventional use for ground attack aircraft."


            "You don't need much to take out a converted troopship. Their destroyers were trickier though."


            Sighing, Ritsuko looked over and saw that even Beria was nodding along with the military personnel.


            "Thunderbolt's aren't designed for naval work. Though amphibs are just troop transports that can float. Nice, thin armor there." Owen shook his head.


            "Still, landing craft are cheap to make, and they had plenty," Beria added.


            "Yeah, we really had to go easy on the guns. Save as much ammo as we could."


            "I knew you were a friend of Charlie's." Zel'dovich smirked and held out his hand. "It is a pleasure to meet one of Charlie's Cheaters."


            Owen grabbed his hand. "And you did some good work up in Mongolia. Sorry to hear about your wingman. Milk-run's no way to die."


            "It's how it goes." Zel'dovich's shrug contrasted with the fire in his eyes. "You know what it's like."


             "Yah, I was up to my ass in that bloody mess."


            "Wait... Charlie?" Misako asked.


            "I'm guessing it's short for Charles." Ritsuko said in a bored voice. She rolled her eyes at Misako. "The city's named Darwin, named after Charles Darwin."


            "Yes, well I think we can get out of the sun," Yubari motioned towards the waiting vehicles.


            The
YA-11's crew went to a different vehicle splitting them from the Nerv, Azazel, and JSSDF personnel.


            "That's a right bunch of wackjobs." Owen leaned back and pulled his hat forward to block out the sun.


            Hiram chuckled. "You haven't even seen the Children."


            "Eh, they're not much younger than some of the AWAS girls that got drafted during the war."


            Hiram nodded. After the Impact conscription, especially for homeland defense had experienced a resurgence. The Australian Women's Army Service being notable for one of the more active branches.


            "You're just worried about your gadget not working, Booksmarts."


            Hiram turned back to look at his plane. "Damn straight. If not for the post Impact buildup Republic would have gone bankrupt."


            "Give me a working gun and I'll bag you an angel," Owen said as they stopped next to the air base's terminal.


            "It's only a matter of time," Hiram said, getting out.


            Crossing the threshold, Owen removed his hat and followed the crowd up a flight of stairs and down a hallway. He passed a large glaring Azazel officer with a curt nod and entered a large lounge. The wall overlooking the airport was made out of glass with the YA-11 dominating the view. An opposite wall had several large display screens, one of which was replaying footage from the demonstration.


            However Owen's attention went to those already in the room. As unsettling as they were, the Russian Naval Infantry troops were to be expected. The Children on the other hand...


            Specifically, Owen blinked at the little girl in her ruffled dress and bowed hair. "Well aren’t you a precious little posey!"


            The redhead sitting near her rolled her eyes.


            Misako stepped up pointed to each of the three girls. "These are Warrant Officers Ayanami, Soryu, and Ayanami."


            The Australian chuckled as the three girls got up as each was named. The youngest even gave a little curtsey. "Wing Commander Owen Lysaght , retired."


            Shinju tilted her head. "You were at the Battle of Darwin, Charlie's Cheaters. You spent a lot of time strafing the beaches. Most of them were little better than refugees with rifles."


            Narrowing his eyes, Owen looked past her indignant expression and to the silver and gold choker around her neck. "What's it to you? They're the ones that invaded. After their victory off Melville Island, they were very full of themselves. Then, very briefly surprised. Then, dead. That's how we do it in the bush."


            After a couple seconds Shinju nodded. "Yes. You'll do."


            Owen smirked. "Yeah, I figured you'd know all about bushman's rules. Nice necklace."


            Shinju blushed.


            Misako raised an eyebrow. "Well... glad you're getting along. Anyone need anything to drink?"


            "Coffee, decaff. if you have it," Owen said, looking out at his plane.


            Misako nodded and walked to the refreshment table along one side of the room.


            "So you retired? And you're working for NHIS now?" Asuka asked.


            "Nippon? Not those wankers. I'm a Republic man. Besides, if I hadn't quit I wouldn't be able to fly my baby over there."


            "So if you're not military who will you be working for?" Asuka asked.


            "JSSDF contract," Rei stated.


            "Clever girl." Owen nodded. "The Reds have their bombs. You've got the robots. JSSDF feels left out. Right now they've just got the test-plane but once production ramps up they'll get a squadron.... after the Yanks whet their beaks."


            "Are we talking about procurement woes?" Zel'dovich asked walking up to his fellow pilots and handed Owen a cup of coffee. "Captain Ayanami's compliments."


            "About right." Owen took a sip. "They fix up the mongrels that screwed up your engines?"


            "Looks that way. The inquiries are getting more pointed." Zel'dovich coughed into his fist.


            Owen nodded in understanding. "Yeah, we had a lazy-little sergeant who caused a feed jam on my Hog's Avenger. Because of that ProCo's were able to secure their beachhead's North flank."


            "Accident, or reassignment?"


            "Sniper." Owen gave a toothy grin. "A damn ProCo infiltrator. Took his head clean off."


            Rei glanced at the pilot. "And was the sniper caught?"


            Owen smirked. "Eventually."


            Zel'dovich raised an eyebrow.


            Asuka shook her head. "So why are you talking with us? Why not with the egg-heads and the brass?"


            "You're the ones I'm going to be providing air support for. How close to an angel do you have to be to take out its AT field?"


            "Close. Within a hundred meters," Shinju said.


            Owen frowned. "That's going to be a challenge. We're going to have to work on coordination then."


            "Their simulators are rather good," Zel'dovich admitted. "Can your plane be wired for it?"


            "Likely, the whole upper deck's got a damn control center. Though the galley and bunks are nice. Its even got a head. No more jars, mate."


            "You got jars? Luxurious," Zel'dovich dryly remarked.


            "Head... jars?" Asuka's eyes widened. "Ewww."


            "What do you do when nature calls?" Owen demanded.


            "The plug's already liquid filled," Shinju helpfully added.


            Asuka shivered. "Princess, that's even worse... we're breathing..."


            "You would be, if the plug suits weren't water proof." Rei reminded. "They prevent liquids from coming in, or going out."


            "Can we change the subject?" Asuka asked.


            Owen smirked. "Piloting isn't all apples and glamour, girl."


            "What's the loiter time on that beast?" Zel'dovich asked.


            "With a backup crew and a stocked galley it's limited only by ammunition and maintenance cycle. We've had it up for a hundred hours at a time during trials."


            "Crew size?" Shinju asked.


            "Skeleton crew is pilot and two reactor technicians, but they can't do much if anything goes wrong. Standard compliment is to add a co-pilot, flight engineer, two weapons engineers, and another reactor tech."


            "And you're building more?" Asuka asked.


            "That's the plan. Orders are real dependant on how this one performs."


            "But you can't kill an angel."


            "Only two things can do that. One is horrendously expensive to operate, the other is horrendously expensive to use," Owen said. "The YA-11 is support."


            Shinju looked into the tall man's eyes. "Then we'll see how well you perform."

 

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

 


            Standing up, Misako looked over the conference room at the assembled officers and scientists. This screen behind her displayed a rounded snow-capped mountain rising over fields and sharp valleys next to a map of Japan that indicated the mountain's location. "This is Mount Asama. Yesterday the Asama Volcano Observatory detected unusual seismic readings. Nerv was brought in and our equipment detected pattern blue," Misako explained as the display changed to several graphs and pattern displays.


            "Angel inside mountain?" Beria asked.


            From his seat at the head of the table Gendo impassively watched the proceedings and his gaze would occasionally drift to the Fourth Child, who sat opposite him, flanked by the two other Pilots.


            Yubari frowned. "Mount Asama is a hundred kilometers inland. How did it make landfall?"


            "There is much about the angels we do not know. That one has appeared in Honshu's most active volcano..." Ritusko shook her head.


            "What? Could an angel trigger an eruption?" Admiral Sudoplatov asked.


            "It's possible, just as it's possible an AT field could contain and direct a plume of ash," Ritsuko explained.


            Sudoplatov looked to Beria who, despite glowering, nodded in agreement.


            General Yubari looked at the Nerv staff. "What do you propose? A mountain is a rather defendable position."


            General Ishikari looked at the map. "Why there? It's over 120 kilometers North of Tokyo 3."


            "We see two reasons. It's the most active volcano on Honshu, and it's only 40 kilometers South East of a Nerv Test Facility at Matsushiro. A defensive line between Ueda and Mounts Azumaya and Shirane is also being set up."


            "Ah." Yubari nodded in realization. "The Super Solenoid research is there."


            "We cannot be sure that the Angel has specifically targeted the research facility, but the proximity is worrisome."


            "And the research?"


            Misako nodded to Ritsuko. "After this meeting Dr. Akagi will fly to Matsushiro and organize the evacuation and sheltering of equipment and staff."


            Ritsuko grimaced. "Yes, some of which was just moved in."


            "This seems to track with the enemy's increasing intelligence," Yubari said.


            Misako nodded in agreement. "And that is why we can't let the Angel stay where it is."


            "Tell us where the Angel is and we can hit it," Beria promised.


            Misako grinned.


            Gendo adjusted his glasses. "Gentlemen, Our proposal is the capture, interrogation, and dissection of the enemy."


            "Intelligence is required," Sudoplatov allowed.


            "Interrogation? There is no communicating with the angels," Yubari scoffed.


            For a moment, Gendo's eyes flashed across the table. "The Admiral is correct. We need information; we need to know what the angels are planning, what they are capable of."


            "How do you propose containment? Angels tend to rather large." Beria mildly asked.


            "And while the most recent one was small enough; it had the nasty habit of exploding." General Ishikari dryly added.


            Ritsuko cleared her throat. "Based on the readings we believe this Angel is not fully mature. This makes it both weaker and smaller. An electromagnetic cage is being constructed that should imprison it."


            Beria rubbed his chin. "The AT fields are that weak early in the lifecycle?"


            "If not, the Evas will be on site to cut out its heart," Misako assured.


            "I agree with the need to study the enemy, and if we can capture one unaware, we should exploit the situation." Yubari looked up at the display. "However, the Angel is still in a volcano. How will you even get to it?"


            Ritsuko smirked. "What if it was no longer inside a volcano?"


            Beria cackled. "Yes, this we can do. How much do you need cut off top?"


            Yubari's eyes widened and he blew out a quiet sigh. "Is Nerv proposing destroying a mountain?"


            "It wouldn't be the first time," Sudoplatov joked while Asuka blushed.


            "This is an actual mountain, and a volcano at that."


            Gendo leaned back. "What do you propose, General? That we drop an Evangelion into the caldera?"


            Yubari shook his head. "I suppose not."


            "Theoretically D-Type Equipment hooked into the proper heat exchangers could maintain integrity for a very limited time, but at the cost of maneuverability." Ritsuko explained.


            "D-Type. Extreme environment equipment, no?" Beria asked.


            "It's similar to the protective systems on the probes we've been using." Ritsuko shrugged. "Of course those are expendable."


            "Even in molten rock?" The balding man gave a vaguely impressed nod.


            "The molten rock is the problem. An Eva can't really move in that stuff, too heavy. It'd be like dangling a crayfish into a piranha tank full of taffy," Misako explained.


            "Right." Ritsuko blinked. "I don't like this but... hitting the mountain is the most sensible option. The Angel cannot be allowed to stay."


            "What about a smaller attack, one that drives it to the surface?" Ishikari asked.


            Misako nodded and the projector switched to a cross section of Mount Asama. "The mountain has a summit of 2,500 meters. We believe the Angel is 1,300 meters down. The plan is to drill and place N2 devices five and two hundred meters below the target. A synchronized detonation will force it to rise where the second and third sequences will... clear the summit."


            "And if the detonations do not flush it?"


            Misako exhaled. "Then Director Beria will need to develop something that can break an AT field and a mountain."

 

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

 


            Ritsuko stepped into the Matsushiro Test Facility's new high energy research lab. Bare, undecorated concrete and steel, the entrance room was Spartan even by Nerv standards.


            "Well, there you are," an arrogant voice proclaimed from the door that led into the depths of the new facility. "Moving me out already?"


            Looking at the man entering the room, Ritsuko rubbed her forehead. A somewhat short, and stooped, almost hunched man, Professor Tino Noah Insana shuffled towards Doctor Akagi with a manic energy. His arms, and especially his fingers squirmed and twitched. He was wearing a white lab coat over a set of green-blue scrubs. A stethoscope was wrapped around his neck and a few small silver tools filled his front coat pocket. Messy center-parted hair flopped over a lanky face.


            "I suppose I should be gracious that Ikari sent an actual scientist to check in on me," the head of Super Solenoid Research and Integration spat. "I suppose your precious computers and robots weren't keeping you too busy." Insana said in oddly inflected Japanese. He then tittered to himself.


            "I see you're still... learning languages."


            "Better than your English." Insana waved dismissively.


            "This is serious we'll need to talk in a secure location."


            "Please, you don't think I can figure out why you're here." Insana giggled. "What else would get Nerv scared? The Asama Volcano Observatory getting locked down makes it too easy."


            "Will there be problems?"


            Insana grinned. "That depends on what sacrifices you're willing to make. It'll be like the old days. You remember them? Before Unit 01 was constructed, before I got shipped off into the desert."


            "Yes Tino, it's been a long time." Ritsuko smiled through her teeth. 


            "You had other duties." Ritsuko narrowed her eyes. "And besides, after that the Production Series started, and you hate that. Don't you call engineering semi-skilled labor?"


            "That was our lamentable colleague Dr. Cooper." Insana gave a dismissive wave. "Not that I disagree with his sentiment, despite him being Energy Analysis Unit. There's still some fresh science to explore, but no... Look at how you tried to cut me off after Unit 00's activation test."


            "That wasn't my decision, and we don't have time for this."


            Insana snickered. "Really, if we didn't have time, Section Two would have thrown me and my team into a VSTOL, after, of course, placing an N2 mine next to the rig."


            Ritsuko sighed.


            "And!" Insana shook his arms. "And! It was your decision," Insana chuckled. "I know you've got the commander's ear, at the very least."


            Ritsuko sighed at the giggling man.


            "Oh, you're no fun. You don't need to take things so serious. You'll live longer," Insana helpfully added.


            "Are you going to give me relationship advice too?"


            Insana smirked. "Well, I suppose I could. You are still single, technically?"


            Ritsuko evenly glared.


            "How about family? No children yet I presume?" Insana's grin faltered. "Fine, fine, might as well show you around. That way you'll know what to evacuate and what to scuttle." He then led her through a security station and into a small chamber that looked vaguely like a cloakroom


            "We'd only blow up the lab if the Angel breaches the perimeter."


            Insana picked a set of goggles off of a cubbyhole bearing his name. "Yes, yes. I told you. I understand sacrifice. Blow it all up!"


            Ritsuko shook her head.


            "Here, you'll need to put on eye protection," he explained, pulling a fresh set of goggles out of a foam-lined metal case.


            Ritsuko slowly turned the pair of black framed goggles. "Really?" she asked, looking over the alternating semi-silver and tinted black sections that spiraled into the center of each lens. On the left side were a couple status lights and a tiny antenna


            Insana giggled. "Oh yes, the spiral pattern maximizes the interface boundary, and thus the frame divergence! Not only that, they prevent ego cascade and can function as an augmented reality!"


            Ritsuko nearly dropped her goggles. "Ego cascade?"


            "Oh yes, Dr. Cooper's hubris was his undoing," Insana snickered. "But he's doing well, I heard he's able to tie his shoes now and they're even letting him eat pudding. What did he expect? When you stare into the abyss the abyss stares back!"


            "Most scientists remote-operate Super Solenoid tests." Ritsuko examined her goggles.


            Slipping on his goggles, Insana straightened his back. He was still twitchy and hunched but with his eyes concealed a colder expression crossed his face. "Most scientists are simpering, small-minded cowards!" Setting his jaw the professor coldly sneered and shook his fist.


            "Right.... augmented reality too?"


            Insana lowered his arm, and handed Ritsuko a pair of blue latex gloves before slipping on a pair himself. "Bah, a simple display overlay and a Magi interface. But, when combined with the locators on the finger tips of these special gloves, you get full virtual interactivity!"


            Rolling her eyes, Ritsuko slipped the goggles and gloves on. Her vision seemed to twist as her eyes compensated for the alternating lens material. After her view of the room returned to a somewhat darkened normality, the displays kicked in and a red wireframe heads up display formed on the edges of her vision.


            "Well, this is crude," Ritsuko sighed.


            Insana jittered with nervous energy. "Wait for it..."


            A vibrant rectangular screen suddenly appeared to Ritsuko's left. Blinking she reached out and ran her finger-tips through the images, causing water-like ripples in the display.


            "Okay... this isn't that bad," Ritsuko allowed.


            A translucent keyboard then appeared hovering in front of her and the blonde spent a few seconds poking through the keys and even using her hands to reposition the board.


            "All the display features are capable of being moved. It's a great way to avoid clutter." Insana added.


            "So, you can see what I can?"


            "This is collaborative mode."


            Ritsuko nodded, and moved her fingers to try out a few more interface commands. "This really needs tactile feedback. It'd be much better if I could feel what I'm touching, even a little bit."


            Insana frowned. "Yes. Well, the next version of the gloves isn't in yet."


            "I see." Ritsuko flicked her finger through a hovering off button and the holographic displays all vanished, save for a small orb labeled "On" that hovered in the lower right of her vision.


            "Now, I must insist that you keep the goggles on at all times." Insana lectured as they passed through another security station and down a long metallic hallway. "With the rig powered down, the odds of a observer-induced cascade are low, but I don't want to be punished due to your foolishness."


            "I don't think you need to worry about that," Ritsuko said as the hallway dumped them into an expansive, gently curved corridor. To the left it extended further into the facility, revealing a passageway wide enough, and possessing the necessary tracks, to drive two trains side by side.


            To the right was a massive steel door that spanned the entire width of the corridor. Insana capered over the double set of tracks and ran his key card through a scanner and unlocked a man-sized door built into the much larger armored door.


            "Behold!" Insana cried.


            Despite being privy to Terminal Dogma's "guest" and working with the Evangelions daily, Ritsuko was still awestruck when she looked up, and up. The room was large enough to house an Evangelion and had cables and pipes snaking down from the Cathedral-like vaulted ceiling. Several scientists scurried about, dwarfed by the equipment; Ritsuko shivered when she saw that they all wore the same lab coats and goggles.


            Looming above them was a giant metallic thing. The size of a small house, it was roughly spherical but had an oddly marbled texture. The majority of the... machine's surface was covered by a riot of conduits, support struts, and pipes that circled and twisted around central sphere in an eye-bending, disturbingly symmetrical pattern.


            "Yes, this will be a problem to move."


            "It only took four diesel engines, and the tracks are already laid. Though the freighter has left port." Looking pensive, Insana suddenly raised his fist in triumph. "You could always have one of the Evangelions lug it out."


            Ritsuko stared at the professor.


            "What?" Insana shambled over to an intercom. "This is Professor Insana. Close all shutters and evacuate the test cell."


            Watching the other scientists hurry away, Ritsuko shook her head. "Is it functional?"


            "Remember your goggles." Insana smirked and flicked his hands. A siren screamed, then fell silent. After a few seconds of quiet, there was an oily rasp as the sphere's plates contracted, expanded and slid over each other. A flash washed over both scientists and died down revealing the core.


            Ritsuko blinked. "And this is it powered down?"


            Insana laughed. "Oh you have no idea the gift you've given me. A functional test bed for Super Solenoid theory. Glorious Science!"


            "Yes, well we want a functional engine for an Evangelion."


            "Oh you'll get that," Insana assured as another gesture resealed the core. "Provided the Angels don't set us back." He spun on his heel and started walking out of the test chamber.


            "And are your little goggles really the most secure way to control an S2 engine?" Ritsuko asked after the exited the core-chamber.


            "Well no, but they're the most versatile, besides all actual experimentation is done from the observation deck, or the isolation bunker." Insana adjusted his goggles, as they went down another side hallway and then up a long flight of stairs, and down a short corridor.


            Stepping into Insana's office, Ritsuko removed her goggles "Very effective, but how can you wear these all day? They'd drive even you crazy."


            Insana chuckled. "Drive me crazy? My dear, that will never happen. A man who lives in Tokyo cannot be taken to Tokyo."


            Shaking her head, Ritsuko looked over and glimpsed an open cardboard box atop Insana's desk. Despite herself, the scientist was drawn towards it. Stepping closer she looked in and saw a pile of scribble-covered papers, a portable videogame system, a few television remotes, a bunch of metallic spoons held together with a rubber band, a pink squishy sea anemone toy, a metal cylinder topped with a dangly cord and a golden-framed picture.


            Her attention fixated on the picture frame; Ritsuko sighed. It contained an image of Asuka with her hair up, wearing her red and gold gown. "Tino...."


            Still wearing his pair of goggles, Professor Insana jittered over to his desk and snaked the picture out of Ritsuko's hands. "Ikari does know how give a proper welcoming gift."


            Pulling off her gloves and placing them atop her goggles, Ritsuko gave the twitchy scientist a flat look.


            "What?"


            "Tino... she's your-"


            "Bah! Don't you think I know that!" Insana looked at the photograph and with his free hand raised his fist. "Of course it took Kyoko until the end of the third trimester to tell me."


            Ritsuko rolled her eyes. "You... donated to a very specific genetic bank. What did you expect?"


            "Given Nerv and Kyoko... pretty much this." Insana nodded and gave a broad wave to the picture he held before him. "Granted I do take pride in this confirmation of the obvious superiority of my genes. She does have a degree... granted it's from a University in Berlin," Insana sneered.


            "Berlin universities aren't that bad.  It's not like she's doing any research, she minored in literature and got a bachelors in mechanical engineering." Ritsuko smirked at the last word.


            Insana deflated. "Yes, oh how pedestrian. Though I am encouraged.  She did have a flare with thermodynamics, a field with a very strong scientific base! Also with plenty of research opportunities for when she pursues her doctorate."
           

 
            "You think she's going to grad school?" Ritsuko raised an eyebrow.


            "Of course!  It's inevitable! Just like it was inevitable that she would Pilot. Though I wish Nerv had more sense.  Her training..." He shook his head.


            "Did you expect any better from Third Branch?"


            "No... no I didn't. They easily met my low expectations." Insana shrugged. "Now, what I didn't expect was Gendo's little stunt? Is the man really so blunt?"


            "Most people wouldn't take a framed photograph of their daughter as a threat."


            Insana snorted. "Most people are morons."


            Ritsuko smirked. "So, I take it you haven't been to Ikari's office then?"


            "Why? Does he have a matching picture?" Insana put the picture down on his desk. "Maybe, instead, he's got one of your girls," he gleefully declared.


            Ritsuko narrowed her eyes.


            "Too easy!" Insana happily shook his fists.


            "How are you going to handle the secret?"


            "What secret? Asuka knows. You know. The commander knows. Besides, I merely donated genetic information, and as happy as I am that the late Dr. Soryu decided my genetic information was worthy of her little experiment... I have no responsibility," the scientist's sneer faltered slightly.


            "Asuka hates you."


            "Yes, I'm a lousy father." The scientists shrugged and stepped to the thick observation window and looked down at the S2 test cell. "At least it's a better kept secret than with your girls."


            Ritsuko glared.


            Giggling, Insana turned back. "Please, your little cover stories only work on people that don't know anything! You take three nearly identical girls with blacked out pasts. Two of which can pilot, all of which have... strange physical attributes and pharmacological requirements."


            "Yes their genetic quirks make them a fertile family for Piloting."


            "Which makes you so very lucky," Insana sneered. "Come on! Gehirn's front was the UN Artificial Evolution Laboratory. And once you start pulling threads and unraveling the lies, the only question becomes what the last Matryoshka doll is."


            Ritsuko sighed.


            "What? At least it wasn't a pun. Bah." Insana gave a dismissive wave as he paced back to his desk. "You really don't have to worry about me. My only curiosity is professional." He rubbed his hands and grinned. "You must tell me what you discovered working on your girls."


            "You're going to have to clear that with the Commander," Ritsuko's shoulders sagged.


            "Oh? Is my work that important?" Insana tittered as his lips curled into a mad grin.


            "You've got the guts to an angel in there!" Ritsuko cried. "Right now we're drilling into a mountain to place N2 mines. Azazel's drawing up plans to blow the whole thing apart. The JSSDF pressed a nuclear attack jet into service. Your daughter will take to the field, Piloting a giant robot you designed. All to protect your work."


            Insana gave a greasy smile. "And a damn good thing too. Those fools at the Energy Analysis Unit had no idea what they were doing! And the worst insult was that they wanted to do all the work, then ship it to me once it was operational. Me! A mere test engineer." Insana grit his teeth. "I am a scientist! Science!"


            Ritsuko stared in disbelief.


            Insana quivered with rage. "It's really for the best that you had your little pet kill those incompetent insects."


            "Pet?"


            Insana rolled his eyes. "I'm sorry. She's got a soul. Science has proven that."


            Ritsuko raised an eyebrow.


            "Oh, I do love metaphysical biology." Insana joined his hands and wriggled his fingers "Nothing like proving those theologians right while simultaneously crushing all their hopes. Killing Angels using our unholy abomination robots!"


            "They're not robots."


            Insana flatly stared at Ritsuko. "I'm the one that designed their cybernetic components. It was my Science that turned them from giant piles of stinking flesh and bone into something that we could actually control. Something we could use. If anyone can call the Evangelions robots, it's me."


            Insana shook and turned back to the observation window. He looked down at the massive spherical metallic enclosure with its collection of curving and spiraling conduits. "This is why I prefer robots to clones. Clones are crap. It's like filling out a form in triplicate and keeping only the pink copy."


            "Bastard," Ritsuko hissed.


            Keeping his back to her, Insana giggled. "How many failures did your mother have? How many did you have? Not just with your little Pilot project, but with the Evangelions."


            "My mother?" Ritsuko chuckled. "I did prove myself better than her."


            Nodding, Insana turned around and looked to his desk, and the golden picture frame. "That's good. Children should not be overshadowed by their parents," he admitted, his arrogance momentarily abated.


            Again, Ritsuko stared.


            Insana sighed. "Fine, how's this? Do you understand Super Solenoid theory? Can you comprehend the power that we are about to bestow upon mere Children?" He clenched his fists and waved them above his head. "We create life! We create power! We are gods! Gods of Science!" Insana cackled before he started giggling with a manic energy.


            Ritsuko sighed. "That takes me back."


            "Yes the MAD Scientists conventions," Insana shook his head. "They called me mad. They called me mad."


            Ritsuko laughed. "You know you have problems when Kyoko and Katsuragi think you're nuts."


            "Your mother too. Bah. Too stodgy. Fuyutsuki's all that's left and he's no longer a scientist. Though he was never Mad really, merely disgruntled, disillusioned." Insana shook his head. "The old guard really didn't have the stomach for this kind of work"


            "That's... reassuring."


            "You sound like my old students," Insana giggled. "Half of them thought they were in Intro to Drama."


            "I'll bet they did better than the other half."


            Insana gave a dismissive wave. "Not by a statistically significant amount."


            "And you wonder why MIT put you on permanent sabbatical."


            "Yes, yes." Insana turned to the window. "So, are you going to evacuate my team before the battle or only if they cross a certain line?"


            "The self destruct line is the base itself. The plan is to evac if the Angel crosses the Ueda Azumaya line."


            "Halfway from Asama then..."


            "The plan is to stop the Angel on Mount Asama itself, or what's left."


            Insana giggled. "And things always go according to plan."


            "You better hope so, you could have another rig."


            "Planning a little harvest?" Insana rubbed his hands against each other.


            Ritsuko smirked. "We're planning to capture it alive."


            Quivering with mirth, Insana tittered. "Oh yes..." he adjusted his goggles. "There's so much we could learn, and the parts! Fresh, glorious parts. Oh, I take back my comments about your little pets."


            Ritsuko smiled thinly to conceal her distaste. "I knew I could count on you."


            "You tease! You could have told me what you were doing right at the start. We'll need containment facilities, dissection equipment. Yes... it should all be in stores, but there's assembly..." He turned to Ritsuko. "Do we have the time?"


            "I believe you'll find preparations more than adequate."

 

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

 


            From her high vantage point, Asuka looked at the broad slopped, peak of Mount Asama. Save for several bright dots that ringed the mountain, the dark night dominated. Switching to night vision, Asuka got a better view of the many drilling derricks that had been emplaced.


            "Remember to tug your cable every few steps up. You don't want it to get caught on the ascent." Shinju said leaning back in her Evangelion's cockpit.


            Asuka bit down her retort. "Yes, and if the cord gets stuck eject the power plug and proceed to battery." She pulled the unit's head back and looked up. High above several jet contrails crossed the crisp night sky. "If the Angel is inactive?"


            "Use the containment cage. If the Angel is active?"


            "I provide cover. Which allows you to engage or retreat. If the mountain is too unstable?"


            "We move to stable terrain our retreat covered by air support. We will then meet the Angel on more favorable terrain." Shinju shifted the large purple holster that hung off her Evangelion's right hip. "If the Angel moves towards Matsushiro?'


            Asuka glared at the younger Pilot. "Intercept it before it reaches the Ueda Azumaya line."


            After several seconds of adjusting her kit, Shinju looked to Asuka's display window. "It's your turn for the next question."


            Asuka sniffed. "Fine, do you think these... revolvers will work?"


            Shinju shrugged. "With the containment cage I can't carry the Mighty Moe or even Little David."


            "Yes... I guess it's good that we don't have muzzle-loading nuclear cannons... anymore."


            "We fight with what we have." Shinju closed her eyes.


            Misako's image appeared on both cockpits. "Girls, the last two drilling platforms have placed their loads and are being evacuated."


            Both Pilots nodded.


            "What about the Russians?" Asuka asked.


            "Azazel is in position."


            "And the new plane will be available?" Shinju asked.


            "Yes, JSSDF has authorized the YA-11. Rei is in standby with Unit 00 in case Tokyo 3 is attacked, but we can call her in." Misako smiled. "The mission will start in five. Good Luck."


            Shinju turned to Asuka. "Are you ready?"


            Again, Asuka held her tongue. "Yes. Are you?"


            Shinju gave a tiny smile and nodded approvingly.

 

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

 


            In the predawn light Operation Chariot commenced. Dozens aligned N2 devices exploded from their drilled locations in an upward progression. Mount Asama shuddered and began to... wrinkle; its slopes contorted and shed rock in several landslides.


            Sandalphon woke to see her world destroyed. A circular pressure wave shot towards her cozy home, but unlike anything she had been taught, this radius of pressure front shrank with time, instead of growing.


            "Sister!" Sandalphon screamed in fright as she ascended. Looking down she saw the shockwave relentlessly collapse. Crushed from all sides, her possessions, her toys, her very home was obliterated.


            Her horror was brief for another pressure wave detonated. Crying, Sandalphon fled. She ascended further and further, each time escaping the quaking, shattering, nightmare.


            With nowhere to run she abandoned the only world she had known. Despite being frocked and cocooned, the bitter, biting cold assaulted her. Looking around, she froze in terror and renewed her cries and started edging back towards her collapsed home. The Fruit of Life was not ready; she was not ready.


            Scrambling over rocks, two nightmares rushed towards her. They dully gleamed, their mutilated bodies carapaced in dead material. Both shone with unnatural life. Though the Enemy was brighter than the mockery of Mother. There was no compassion, no love. These beings burned with a cold, hate. The Enemy seemed especially violent; it burned with an almost bestial desire for blood.


            The violet enemy hooked around and rushed her from an angle while the crimson blasphemy raised a long tube, while the other carried something that resembled her  toy chest.


            Sister's lessons blossomed in her mind and Sandalphon tried to dodge, but the intense cold sapped her strength and this time she bore the explosion directly. Searing white-hot heat was almost preferable.


            Pained, but not really hurt she looked up to see the box slam over her, its walls flashing into existence. Moaning, she felt the container shift and jumble. "No... not like this." She whispered. "I won't die. I won't die. I won't die. I won't die." Her voice hardened and she screamed. "I won't die!"

 

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

 


            Tension rose in the mobile command center. Inside the glowing walls of the containment cage, Unit 01 held an immature angel. Mount Asama continued to groan and crumble but they had done it.


            Then several bars began to rise on one of the displays. "Pattern blue's spiking!" Makoto shouted from his station.


            "Containment power's at max," Shinju calmly intoned as she put the cage down on the slope.


            "I guess nuking its hidey hole woke it up," Asuka said as she broke open her Mark 9 and swapped out the low-yield "stunner" N2 cartridges for something with more kick.


            "Shit," Misako swore. She turned to Ritsuko who gave a tiny nod. Misako went back to the radio. "Standard procedure, if the Angel breaks containment kill it. Captain Zel'dovich."


            "Ma'am," the Russian officer replied.


            "If the Angel crosses the Ueda Azumaya line unchallenged you are authorized to use whatever means to destroy it."


            Behind his mask, Zel'dovich smiled. "Yes, Ma'am."


            "Do try to leave the body in one piece... if you can." Ritsuko added.


            "Right... anything else you want?" Asuka demanded just before the containment cage's walls flared and blew apart.


            Swelling up, the Angel rapidly outgrew its cocoon-like encasement and burst into a stocky, flatfish-like form. Powerful arms emerged behind a squat predatory face, and the body extended back with a heavy tail and thick fins.


            As Sandalphon grew the air around the summit chilled. Water was the first to condense followed by carbon dioxide, and was followed by a rapid pressure drop as the other atmospheric components started to separated.


            Being closer to the Angel, water and dry ice had started to cake on Unit 01's limbs and joints.

 
            "Get down Princess," Asuka said as she aimed her frost-covered rifle at the Angel.


            Shinju dropped and looked over to see Unit 02's uneven footing. "Your feet!"


            Asuka pulled the trigger, but as the gun shot out a sixteen inch N2 shell at the young Angel it also recoiled into the shoulder of the Evangelion with the force of a battleship gun. The ground shifted and Unit 02 tumbled down the slope of Mount Asama.


            The explosion deformed against Sandalphon's AT field, shattering the ice that had desublimated out of the atmosphere and splashing the strange clear liquid that seemed to rain out of the air directly under the Angel as it slowly floated down from the volcano's summit crater.


            "Asuka!" Shinju cried, drawing her sidearm. A gleaming revolver in 14 inch caliber flew out of its purple leather-like holster and as the hammer thumbed back it was aimed squarely at the screaming Angel. Rapidly working the action, Shinju emptied the gun and leapt down the mountain.


            Narrowly avoiding landing on a drilling platform, Asuka had just gotten her Evangelion back to its feet when half a dozen explosions bloomed, making it look like the mountain was erupting. She then gasped when Unit 01 landed a few hundred yards away holding one of their new, if ridiculous guns in its right hand. Lengths of power cable slid down the mountain forming a pile next to the Evangelion.


            The purple Evangelion got out of its crouch and reloaded. Pulling back on a lever above the hammer, the revolver hinged open and flung out spent, smoking shells. A speed loader with six fresh, meter long, cartridges was inserted and the gun was snapped shut.


            "You didn't get it then?" Asuka asked, reloading herself.


            "Why's it so cold?" Shinju asked, ice was falling around them and further up the mountain nearer to the Angel, the ground was already encrusted in various kinds of frost.


            Ritsuko rubbed her forehead and winced. "Living in a volcano must have made the Angel massively endothermic. And now it's forced to draw in as much heat as it can."


            "And how does that help us kill it?" Misako asked.


            "It's not just heat Evangelions have to worry about; they've got a low temp limit too." Ritsuko frowned at a display. "And if these sensors are right... the Angel's started condensing nitrogen."

            Misako raised an eyebrow. "Do we need to call in Rei?"


            "Not yet... we can't throw our full force into every battle."


            "Wait.. nitrogen? So how cold is it?" Misako asked.


            "Think, negative two hundred degrees Celsius."


            "Enemy's coming in, six o'clock and high," Captain Zel'dovich radioed from his fighter. "Straight down the slope."


            "Right." Misako went to her radio. "Wing Commander Lysaght would you kindly shoot the Angel."


            "God save the queen!" Owen gleefully cried as his YA-11 dived.


            Descending the mountain via floatation and two powerful ground gripping arms, Sandalphon looked up. In an instant a lance of light shot from high above and slammed into the Angel's fish-like forehead. The orange octagonal lights flared into existence, and while the AT field held, Sandalphon's head was still slammed into the mountain side. The A-11 flared its engines and twisted out of the dive. "Alright Posey, we can hurt it!"


            Shinju pulled out her entrenching blade. "Pin it down then Lysaght, Asuka flanking fire, I'll kill it or at least erode its AT field."


            Seeing Shinju running towards her, Sandalphon pulled herself forward and launched herself at the Evangelion, clawed arms outstretched. Swinging low, Shinju tried to chop at the Angel's belly with her progressive shovel.


            The combat spade neared and was caught by the floating Angel. The glowing edge dimmed as all the heat drained and the progressive blade slowed and stopped vibrating, its components too cold to function.


            AT field flaring, Unit 01's hand twisted and in a rain of fresh ice wrenched part of the spade out of Sandalphon's hand.


            The giant fish-like creature glanced at the spade head it still held. Then the handle slammed down.


            "Now, Owen! Don't you miss!" Shinju cried bludgeoning the Angel, causing its AT field to flare into existence.


            "Right Posey" Owen's gravelly voice assured. "Well, let's see how much blood's in ya!" The railgun fired and a line of dozens of hypersonic sabots marched across the Angel's back.


            Sandalphon screamed as the barrage pounded her AT field..


            "Cry some more!" Shinju screamed as her cudgel snapped. Without missing a beat she thumbed back the hammer to her revolver and fired into the Angel's head.


            Howling, Sandalphon shot forward, grappling with Unit 01.


            Feeling ice cover her Evangelion's arms, Shinju fired two more rounds. Then the ice grew too thick and she could no longer index the cylinder. Snarling she whipped the barrel of her sidearm across the Angel's face. "Little help, Red!"


            "Not letting you solo on this one, Princess." Unit 02 had sidestepped the Angel and shoved her Mark 9's barrels into the Angel's long belly. Before much ice could form, Asuka fired, blasting the Angel off Unit 01.


            Sandalphon rolled a few hundred meters away and Shinju, looking up, caught a clear glimpse of the YA-11's main guns. A burning beam skated over the writhing Angel. The ground around it was blasted and torn apart, but the AT field resisted. The Angel's power extinguishing much of the weapon's intense heat. The plane turned and the barrage abated.


            As that happened, Shinju drew her progressive knife with her off hand and leveled her revolver which had thawed enough to allow it to cock. Sandalphon rose up and darted towards Unit 02 who was reloading. Asuka tried to bat the Angel aside, but had her legs swept by the creature's immense tail.


            Taken to the ground, Asuka felt the extreme cold bite into her Evangelion as liquefied nitrogen and other gases poured onto her. Flaring her AT field freed her joints, and Unit 02 let go of the rifle with one hand and reached for her progressive knife. Then the sky lit up with a pseudo-sun appearing right over Unit 02 and the Angel.


            After emptying her gun, Shinju thrust forward with both hands. Shimmering and flaring, her AT field wrapped around the knife and gun. "AT Field Red! Pour it on."


            Screaming, Sandalphon felt the pressure from two angles. The Angel squirmed but the intensity was too much. In a moment of weakness, the AT field flickered off and two blades sunk into the Angel's spongy flesh.


            Once embedded the blades turned brittle and shattered, but it was enough. "Push, Red! Go, go push Angel!" Shinju yelled, as Unit 01 grabbed the squirming, freezing Angel and shoved.


            Unit 02 reached out. Gritting her teeth, Asuka felt the Evangelion's hands numb and then burn. AT fields flaring in synchronization, the pair succeeded and the Angel, its own field flickering in and out, tumbled off Unit 02.


            Unit 01 clung onto the Angel's back. "Hit it!" Shinju shouted.


            Owen obliged. A pure white beam of light shot down. Speared by the inductive beam Sandalphon's head blew apart. "Open your heart!" Shinju screamed as she scrambled over the thrashing body and using her Evangelion's numbed hands ripped the core out of the Angel's neck. Blood spewed from the wound and Sandalphon's body partially deflated.


            Standing amid billowing steam and other rapidly evaporating fluids, Shinju held her bloody trophy to her chest. "I've got the core. Request orders!"


            Misako blinked. "Yes, we actually got the damn thing alive." She smirked. "Good job you two. I guess we'll need another containment cage."


            Looking up at the display Ritsuko exhaled. Her eyes went from the shining crimson orb to the Angel's bloody corpse. "Kill it."


            "What?" Misako asked.


            General Yubari's image appeared on one of the teleconference displays. "Doctor, I'm confused. The whole point of this mission was to capture an Angel alive."


            "The aim was to capture an immature angel. This one woke up; we can't contain it." Ritsuko said, going over various readings.


            The window showing Yubari panned over to reveal General Ishikari. The slightly younger JSSDF officer cleared his throat. "Sir, this scenario was outlined, and frankly I have to agree. A live, fully functional angel is too risky to contain."


            "Requesting orders," Shinju interjected. Through the Evangelion's broken hand armor she could feel the core vibrate, shuddering, almost whimpering. The cold seemed to wax and wane.


            "The only other option is to studying in situ, but that will require remote operation and commit the Evangelion squadron or Azazel, because this creature will wake up."


            "Azazel would be happy to provide security for any on-location examination," Captain Zel'dovich offered in a slightly bored tone.

 
            "Noted." Ritsuko looked up. "Gentlemen, we have a chance to study a complete core at our leisure, or we can take the risk of fighting this battle all over again."


            "Approved." Ikari's image appeared. "Pilots, you will kill the Angel in the manner Dr. Akagi prescribes."


            Hearing a faint crying, Shinju slowly dipped her head, while Asuka crisply nodded.


            "Asuka is your progressive blade functional?" Ritsuko asked as she started collating data from the scanners.


            Unit 02 picked up its progressive knife, flipped it over, and released the second blade.


            "Good, I'll feed the coordinates on where to hit to your targeting computer. Shinju I'll need you to hold the core perfectly still."


            Asuka maneuvered Unit 02 so that it stood before Shinju. The redhead, grinned. "No tricks from this bastard, eh Princess?"


            Shinju stared blankly.


            "Targeting information should be on screen," Ritsuko said. "Just stab straight in to the hilt."


             Asuka thrust forward; the core crystal cracked; the crying ceased.


            Deeply exhaling, Shinju blew out a small bubble of air.


            "Good job girls," Misako radioed. "Hang tight and we'll bring up the equipment and collect the remains. And start repairing your Evas."

 

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

 


            "Ooooh, pretty flowers, who gave them to you?" Tokiko said as she leaned over Mikki's low secretarial desk.


            Suppressing an expression of annoyance, the auburn haired woman looked up and forced a smile. She felt it was far too early to deal with people, but such was life. "It's a gift." She returned to carefully placing the flowers in a gold foil box.


            "Couldn't wait until Valentine's day?" Tokiko teased, straightening her side ponytail so it fell back behind her shoulder.


             "Actually, it's for one of the pilots." Mikki's smiled, showing her teeth.


            Tokiko giggled. "Those Russians are pretty cute, in a very rough way."


            "Yes," Mikki's smile thinned as she straightened her glasses. "Did you hear about the accident?" she asked looking out the expansive window to her left. A corner office, and an expansive windowed ante-room were all expected perks of a man of her boss' stature, including the perky secretary.


            Tokiko tapped her chin. "Is that what it's for? I thought it was for today's battle."


            Mikki focused on the flowers.


            "You didn't hear? It was all on the news. Nerv killed an angel before it could even attack."


            "Yes... I heard." Mikki kept her voice even.


            "So... for a pilot? I guess the black and white roses are for mourning, but what about the purple and yellow flowers?"


            Mikki turned back to her coworker. "Everything has a meaning. People attach abstract values to objects; it's part of being human. Reality is insufficient, extra meaning has to be attached to everything."


            Tokiko rolled her eyes. "Yes that's why I asked why you picked those flowers." She stared at her fellow secretary.


            For just a moment, Mikki's eyes had gone cold. The spark of life extinguished and a pair flat grey orbs stared out. "I'm sorry?" Mikki blinked and then giggled. "What did you say?" She asked as she slipped a book entitled "The Language of Flowers" into her purse. "I sort of ditzed out there for a bit."


            Tokiko raised an eyebrow. "Right. So are you trying to snag a pilot's heart or express your condolences?"


            "Why can't it be both?' Mikki said coquettishly as she gave the bouquet one final adjustment before sealing the box closed. "It's important for the pilots to know they're not alone. Tragedy is a part of human existence."


            Watching Mikki gaze out the window, Tokiko bit her lip. "Yes, I think the Second Impact proved that."


            "So it did." Mikki gave a dreamy smile. "How old are you?"


            "Mikki!" Tokiko cried.


            "I'm sorry," Mikki bowed her head. "What I mean is that you can't remember much of the Second Impact. You were very young girl then."


            "Well, so were you."


            "As you say." Mikki smiled and nodded. "But I fear..."


            "What? You think we'll get another Impact?"


            Mikki tilted her head. "Isn't that what the whole war's being fought over? If an angel gets into the Geo-Front it's all over."


            Again, Tokiko glared. "Not so loud Gombe-san will hear you."


            "Oh, Nanashi doesn't mind. His company is here to make sure things don't go wrong. Why do you think we're here anyway?"


            "That's true." Tokiko nodded. "We are doing our part to stop the Angels."


            "Yes well, I've got some flowers to drop off at the mail-room," Mikki said as she picked up the bouquet box.


            "I hope you get your pilot."


            Mikki smirked. "Me too."

 

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

 


            Admiral Sudoplatov tapped the conference room table. "I suppose it's a functional enough weapon, for a gigantic white elephant."


            "The YA-11 may be large, but it does fill a tactical gap," General Yubari stated.


            "I thought the Evangelions were the gigantic white elephants?" Ritsuko removed her glasses and placed them on her notes.


            "Do not disappoint." Beria smiled. "In expense, the Evangelion is in a class of its own."


            "I'm just relieved we did not require Azazel's... assistance."


            Sudoplatov laughed. "Nothing would please me more than never having to detonate another device. The enemy forces us to use terrible, terrible weapons. The less the better."


            "It is shocking when the nuclear powered attack plane is the least destructive weapon in our arsenal," Misako frowned as Ritsuko went to a Magi station and started putting battle footage on the wall displays.


            "And a minimally effective one at that," Beria noted.


            "It managed to pin the Angel in place." General Abukuma remarked.


            "A newly hatched Angel."


            "We knew nothing short of another AT field, or a nuclear device could touch an angel. This weapon was designed to support the Evangelions and provide precision firepower after the enemy AT field has been eroded." General Yubari inclined his head slightly. "In that regard, it succeeded."


            "Agreed. If we have another Israfel situation, the YA-11 will really clean up." Sudoplatov grinned.


            "The mission was not all a success," Beria cautioned.


            "The Magi clearly lined out the risks and what would happen if the Angel prematurely awakened," Ritsuko stated.


            "Magi," Beria snorted. "You rely too much. They are machines not sages.  What happens if someone takes them out?  Tools break."


            Ritsuko glared at the engineer but made a node on her pad.


            "Yes, containment failed on the Angel." General Yubari looked to Vice-Commander Fuyutsuki.


            "Given the Angel's location, waking it up was a known risk." Fuyutsuki looked to the video of Sandalphon being caged and then breaking free. "However, we have learned much. Our early warning and detection systems have proved successful. We know that we can contain a pre-awakened Angel. We have another cadaver to examine. We know how to extract a core with minimal damage. And, of course, we defeated the enemy."


            Yubari leaned to Ishikari. "Do you propose capturing the next Angel?" He asked after conversing with the younger general.


            "If possible. This will require finding the Angel before it fully activates. Once activated the AT field and regeneration make containment impossible."


            "And who examines the Angel body?" Beria asked.


            "Our biological section has handled the analysis and salvage of the flesh, while the Professor Insana of the High Energy Research Lab will consult on the core." Fuyutsuki stated.


            The balding Russian engineer grinned. "Ah yes, enthusiastic fellow?"


            Ritsuko shivered slightly.


            Beria continued. "Nerv First Branch if I remember, wait no... he got reassigned to Second after his... sabbatical at the university." The Russian shrugged. "He's your Super Solenoid researcher, previously he did the systems integration for Project E. Interesting man."


            Ritsuko forced a smile. "His expertise in high energy systems and Metaphysical Biology give him insight on how Angels generate and use AT fields."


            "Of course," Beria bowed his head. "He has experience."


            Yubari sighed. "Enough sniping on the dubious manufacture and expense of Project E."


            "Indeed." General Abukuma turned to the Vice-Commander. "Will you be able to learn from what you've captured today?"


             Fuyutsuki nodded. "Thanks to Warrant Soryu and Dr. Akagi we have a nearly intact but safe core to examine."


            "Soryu's performance has improved. Was it just a problem of experience then?"


            Misako nodded. "This is only her second engagement, which ties her with Rei. It took time for her to catch up to the new training standards."


            "The Fourth is at her fourth too?" Beria grinned.


            Sudoplatov turned to his engineer. "Today we see the treachery of Nerv. By using this new plane they have assured that our beloved Captain Zel'dovich has fallen behind, and now their Pilot is one victory away from being the first Angel-War Ace."


            "Purely a fortuitous coincidence," Misako stated.


            "This battle was less of a challenge," Yubari admitted.


            "Preemption has its advantages," Ritsuko said.


            Misako looked to the image of the mountain devastation. "Though now we don't know what that Angel's plan was."


            "That level of heat absorption could have caused a lot of damage. Especially, if we assume the Angel would have grown in power at full maturity." Ritsuko said.


            "Following the previous attacks and the location, can we presume that the Angels are attacking supply and development sites?" General Yubari asked.


            "Attacking our supply?" Misako asked. "That could be... devastating. Tokyo 3 is the only city protected by functional Evangelions, but many components and systems are manufactured elsewhere."


            "The nuclear powers do have contingencies in place for their major cities." Sudoplatov stated.


            "The bomb is hardly a surgical device," Ritsuko stated after a moment's silence.


            "It's more numerous and more responsive."


            "Right, I'll have Captain Horaki from Section Four draw up a list of possible targets," Misako said.


            Yubari exhaled. "The Angel's attention on Tokyo 3 and the Evangelions has worked to our advantage."


            "So has their development cycle." Sudoplatov dryly added. "So far the Angles have obliged us by attacking one by one."


            Folding his hands before him, Fuyutsuki gave a slight smile. "We have our own reinforcements."


            Ritsuko nodded in understanding.


            Sudoplatov raised an eyebrow.


            "The Marduk Institute has found the next Pilot."


            "Finally!" Misako exclaimed. "What about getting Unit 03 from America, then?"


            "Commander Ikari is talking with First Branch to arrange transport." Fuyutsuki narrowed his eyes. "We will not allow a repeat of the Unit 02 debacle."


           

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

 


            "Man I can't believe I missed the battle," Kensuke cried as he and Toji crossed the concourse of Tokyo 3 international. The steel and glass structure was awash with people. Most were in civilian dress though a sizable majority wore the uniforms of Nerv, Azazel, and JSSDF.


            Toji shook his head. "You wouldn't have seen it anyway. It wasn't anywhere near the city."


            "But they used that new plane!" Kensuke burbled.


            Toji rolled his eyes. "You sound like my little sister."


            A few paces ahead of them, Shirane giggled, only to be elbowed by Nozomi.


            "Hey! You act like it's girly to be into military stuff."


            "Gee..." Toji rubbed his chin. "Have you looked at the Ayanamis? Shinju? Even Asuka."


            "It's not girly!" Kensuke wailed.


            "So... going to be wearing frills and lace next?" Toji smirked.


            "Come on! You didn't tease me like this while we were on vacation."


            Ahead of the boys Nozomi and Shirane giggled.


            "You weren't gushing about liking all this girly stuff."


            "It's military! Look at Asuka."


            "The girl with the updo and red gown?" Shaking his head, Toji grinned.


            The only noise was the rush of people walking around them


            Toji stopped. "Ken..." He looked up and saw a platoon of Azazel troops in battle dress, rifles held close to their chest with the barrels facing down on a diagonal. In the center of the group was a figure with pink hair an red eyes.


            "Toji Suzuhara," Misako stated as the Russian troops encircled the four students.


            "Uh... yes?"


            "Tomorrow morning you have an appointment with Commander Ikari."


            Toji stared.


            "Oh wow!" Kensuke cheered while Shirane grinned.


            Toji glared at Kensuke. "Shut up you!"


            Misako lifted her hand and pointed to the teen. "Until that time you will be assigned an Azazel contingent." The Russian troops slightly shifted their stance. Toji went from being on the outside to being on the inside.


            "Wait... what? Don't I get a choice?"


            "That will be decided tomorrow." Misako turned to one of the Russian officers. "Captain Sakharov you have the Child. Make sure he makes it through the night."


            Sakharov saluted. "Yes, Ma'am."


            "Good." Misako looked to the two girls. "Nozomi, your sister says hello and reminds you to come home and have dinner with the family tonight."


            Shirane smirked.


            "Yeah, yeah," Nozomi sighed. "So, Shinju's got another victory party tonight?"


            Misako nodded. "Of course, but you can't go."


            "At least we'll get a cool ride home," Shirane smirked.


            "But..." Toji blinked.


            Looking between the Russians, the retreating Ayanami, and his friend's little sister and her friend, Kensuke rubbed his chin. "Maybe you're right. Maybe this military stuff is pretty girly."


           

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

 


            Shinju adjusted her dress. "It's a shame you weren't in today's battle."


            Rei blinked. "Why? The Second's performance was adequate."


            Putting her headband on, Shinju smiled. "I missed you."


            After examining the younger girl, Rei nodded.


            Shinju straightened her hair band. "Well, I'm ready!"


            "Yes." Rei smiled slightly as the two left their apartment.


            Passing a couple Azazel troopers they crossed the hallway and knocked on the door to Asuka's apartment.


            Answering the door Katrina, let the pair in. "She'll be ready in just a minute."


            Shinju was drawn to the bouquet on the kitchen table. "Oooh, pretty flowers."


            "Those just arrived. A bit gaudy, but ..." Katrina shrugged.


            Passively waiting, Rei glanced at the flowers.


            "I'm wondering if I should just leave this here." Katrina muttered, picking up a box full of hair care and styling tools.


            Rei raised an eyebrow.


            "I shouldn't complain, I'm the one that suggested it to her."


            Shinju giggled.


            The German woman shook her head. "Right, well I'll see you at the party." Carrying her box, she left the apartment.


            About a minute later Asuka burst out of her room "Did Katrina leave already?"


            Rei gave a curt nod.


            "Drat, I was going to ask her about eyeliner." Asuka flipped her braid over her shoulder.

 
            "Your eyes look fine," Shinju said.


            Asuka sighed. "Princess... I'm not sure I want to take make up advice from you."


            "But you want Lieutenant Diebner's?" Rei asked.


            "Hey, she does my hair!"


            "Yes."


            Asuka's glare softened slightly. "You might have a point. You wear plain white dresses so very well. The look really complements you."


            "Your clothing is also very complementary," Rei deadpanned.


            "Hey!"


            "Translucent skirts, yellow gowns work for you." Shinju offered. "And heavily lacquered hair."


            "It's just hairspray."


            Frowning, Shinju looked to the table. "So... you got new flowers."


            "Yeah, and they're fresh too. Guess Section Two's getting better at their job."


            Shinju nodded.


            Black-tipped white roses dominated the bouquet. "There's just something about me getting creepy roses, and the maple seed pods that's just weird," Asuka said.


            Leaning in Shinju sniffed the flowers. Blinking, she raised an eyebrow.


            "Yeah, there's mint in it. Strange. At least the Bird's-foot Trefoil are cute."


            Shinju frowned.


            "The little yellow and red flowers. I had to look up what it was." Asuka explained.


            "It's very cute. I really liked the purple ones." Shinju said, referring to some tiny asymmetric flowers. They consisted of five petals, three large ones on the lower half, with two smaller ones on the top.


            Rei stepped closer to the bouquet and carefully examined its composition.


            Asuka smirked. "You would. Those are called Lobelia."


            "Sounds cute."


            Chuckling, Asuka shook her head, causing her heavy braid to swing. "Princess. Princess." She gave the bouquet a last fond look and followed the sisters out of the apartment.


            As they descended the stairs, the expected sounds of merriment and celebration increased. When they entered ground-floor lounge however silence reigned. Standing in the middle of the trio Asuka smirked proudly at the hushed collection of soldiers and pilots. The biggest change from last time was the addition of the YA-11's crew, many dressed in their Republic jumpsuits.


            "I could get used to this," Asuka muttered.


            Scanning the crowd, Shinju looked for Igor and found him near the buffet chatting with the YA-11 pilot and chief engineer.


            Wearing a padded brown vest over slacks and a button-down shirt, Owen's lanky frame stood well above the others. "And then the little Posey jumps right on the creature's back. There's ice everywhere. And what does she do? She rips the damn thing's heart right out." Owen shook his head and took a sip of vodka.


            Igor laughed loudly and enthusiastically. "Yes, that's how she fights. Full of life, full of death!"


            "She's got spirit," Owen agreed in his gravely, raspy voice.


            "It's interesting that the Evangelion's armor held up so well." Hiram, in a grey suit with a string tie, noted. "With the cold and all."

 
            "Is good weapon." Igor looked up and saw the crowd part. A figure in purple and black, ribbons and ruffles strode down the void formed by the separating Nerv and Azazel troops. "And here Pilot!"


            Shinju nodded to Owen. "Good shooting."


            Owen cracked a smile. "Well, aren't you dressed all pretty," he said looking at her frilly dress. "I thought those getups were just for the propaganda posters."


            Shinju blushed.


            "Look around, Nerv's got cameramen out." Hiram pointed to a couple of Section Two agents who were holding up video recorders.


            "Feh, well isn't that great." Owen sighed.


            "Really? One of Charlie's Cheaters complaining about some morale boosting?" Hiram teased.


            Owen sniffed and looked down at Shinju. "Bit of advice Posey, it's the job that counts. All the posters and newsreels are just fluff; fluff that can be made up after the fact."


            Shinju nodded.


            Owen rubbed his chin. "Still, you fight well. Hard for little girls."


            "Must be the training," Shinju blushed.


            Igor smirked.


            "There you are." Smiling, Misako walked towards them. Rei, who was carrying a plate followed.


            "Ah here's the First Child," Owen remarked.


            Rei blinked and picked a rice ball off her plate.


            Owen looked over the three sisters. "Middle child then?"


            "Hah! It shows then?" Misako laughed and sipped her drink.


            "Well, the ages make it obvious." Owen stepped over to the buffet and picked up an apricot and turned to Shinju. "You should really eat something."


            Blushing, Shinju went to the buffet line.


            "She really is something else," Owen laughed.


            "That she is," Misako agreed.


            "And the other one?" Owen looked to Asuka who was chatting with Katrina and Zel'dovich.


            Misako raised an eyebrow. "Asuka? She's more than a handful."


            "Good enough Pilot though," Owen said.


            Smiling, Misako took a sip. "You don't know what means to me."

 

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

 


            Noting the older scientist's composure break, the little blue haired girl's mischievous smile died.


            Arms shot out from Dr. Akagi's looming, scowling figure. Red eyes bulged as strong hands encircled and squeezed a tiny neck. The little girl's face filled with fear, confusion, and pain. Unable to scream or cry out she was helplessly throttled until a sharp crack reverberated through the laboratory. Numb, the girl's vision dimmed into nothingness.


            Yelping, Shinju flopped to her side and shivered. Crawling under the collection of fluffy comforters she found one of her stuffed animals. As the angel doll softly sang she cried for a couple minutes.


            Rising to a sitting position, Shinju shook her head at the glowering vision of Dr. Akagi but not Dr. Akagi. The face was off... it was too old, too angry, and the hair was too dark. Pulling at her choker, she undid the new fish-shaped fastener, and placed it on her nightstand. Moving her hand a couple inches over she picked up her Vz82 in 9mm Makarov and slipped it into one of the pockets of her ruffled nightgown.


            Rolling her shoulders and twisting her neck, Shinju walked to the bathroom sink and drank some water.


            Returning, she heard faint whimpering from Rei's room. "Oneechan?" Eyes flashing in the darkness, Shinju slid the door open with her left hand.


            Rei was alone. Tossing about the teen's normally placid face was scrunched up. "No, don't leave. Father..." she muttered as she rolled over.


            Shinju knelt down and put her arms around the clone.


            Snapping awake, Rei's eyes widened, then relaxed. "You woke me."


            Shinju released the hug and rose up. "You were having a nightmare."


            Rei blinked. After a few seconds she nodded.


            "Is it because you did not fight?" Shinju asked, still sitting next to her sister.


            Rei frowned slightly.


            "I've had similar.... dreams. Did the Commander ever leave you?"


            "No." Rei's quiet voice had a touch of pride.


            Smiling, Shinju put her hand on her sister's shoulder. "You're not alone."


            Confusion crossed Rei's face. "Alone?"


            "Abandoned?"


            Rei looked down, and drew the covers up around her shoulders. "We have our purpose."


            Eyes sparkling, Shinju grinned revealing her teeth.


            "I was not that loud; you were awake, then." Rei ventured.


            Shinju lowered her head, causing her bangs to fall over her face. "I had a nightmare of my own."


            Rei reached out and slid some Shinju's strands aside.


            "Do you trust Dr. Akagi?" Shinju whispered.


            "Which?"


            Shinju tilted her head, causing her hair to fall forward again. "Is it a concern?"


            "Do not worry. If there is a problem the Commander will take care of her." Before the last word Rei stopped for a bare moment. In that moment a tiny, transitory, trace of a smile flickered into existence.


            After giving Rei another hug, Shinju returned to her feet. "Should we tell Oneesan?"


            "If you have problems sleeping, yes. In that case, Dr. Akagi should be informed too." Eyes shining, Rei tilted her head fractionally. Noticing the clone's bare neck she almost frowned. "Congratulations on your kill."


            "Thanks!" Shinju grinned. "And the Second's performance is no longer a great concern."


            "She is one of the Children." Rei nodded. "Good night Sister."


            "Night, night!" Shinju cheered before returning to her room.

 

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

 


            Toji was led into the cavernous office. The polished and inscribed stone ceiling pressed down on him while the wall to wall, full length windows gave a vertigo inducing view of the Geo Front below.


            Sitting at an imposing, yet plain, large but too small for the room, desk was Commander Ikari. Light from the windows behind him illuminated his sides, while casting his face in shadows.


            "Mr. Suzuhara." Gendo stated while Misako nudged Toji forward.


            The teen stepped closer. Looking away from the glowering man, his eyes locked onto the desk's only personal effect: a silver-framed picture.


            "You are the Fifth Child. You will Pilot Unit 03."


            Toji exhaled. "Yeah, I guessed this... why me?"


            "The Marduk Institute has determined that you are a likely candidate."


            "Took them long enough." Misako cracked a smile.


            "Don't I have a choice?" Toji demanded.


            "Of course you do. We are having this meeting," Gendo stated. "If you agree you will be tested for synchronization and your training will commence."


            "Do you even have Unit 03?" Toji blurted.


            Gendo's eyes narrowed slightly.


            "Much of your training does not require an Eva, especially at the start." Misako said.


            "And if I say no?"


            Gendo's eyes went to the picture on his desk. "I won't to appeal to your patriotism, or your sense of adventure, I won't try to bribe you. I won't guilt you with reminders as to what Evangelion's only effective alternative is." Gendo looked into Toji's eyes. "Instead, I'll say this. We have proven that the Children's younger siblings can also pilot. If you refuse; I doubt your sister will make the same choice."


            Toji clenched his fits. "You... she's just a kid."


            "I've already shown myself more than willing to put one preteen girl into battle."


            "If anything we've shown that little girls can kill Angels just fine," Misako added.


            "So, that's it then. You'll either risk my life or hers." Toji demanded.


            "You misunderstand Mr. Suzuhara. The choice is yours. You can either fight, or send your little sister in your place."


            Toji's arms shook.


            Gendo nodded to Misako. "Personally, I have no need for cowardly soldiers. Agree or get out of the way."


            Misako stepped forward and put her hand on Toji's shoulder.


            Shrugging free. Toji inhaled. "Fine. I'll do it. But I have one condition."


            Gendo pushed his glasses up. "Good, you're not totally spineless. Name it."


            "You won't draft my sister into this. I'll be your Pilot, but you won't push her into an Eva."


            Ikari cracked a slight smile. "Agreed. Welcome to Nerv Warrant Officer Suzuhara."

 

End Chapter 6

 

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