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 Seven: Reductions and Acquisitions

 


            Clenching the guardrail, Toji looked across the coolant lake. The purple fluid lapped against the walls of the immense chamber and submerged the trio of Evangelions up to their shoulders. Even with most of their height beneath the waves the immense war machines loomed over him, leering.


            Toji closed his eyes and concentrated on his breathing. If a pre-teen girl could do this then...


            "You must open your heart," a gentle voice whispered behind him.


            Swearing in shock, Toji spun around and looked down. Eyes wide, almost doll-like, and expression neutral, the Fourth blinked and looked up at him.


            "That many ruffles shouldn't be silent."


            "Training," Shinju said. "Infiltration, anatomy, assassination." Her eyes sparkled briefly.


            "Right," Toji drawled.


            "Your back was very exposed, and your plug suit won't offer that much protection."


            "You...." Toji stepped back bumping against the railing.


            "Don't worry." Shinju smiled. "If I had been ordered to kill you, you'd never know." Giggling, the red eyed girl's hand vanished into the ruffles of her dress. A split second later she had palmed a long thick-bladed stiletto. "Practice makes perfect." She assured, making the blade vanish again.


            Swallowing, Toji wondered how much truth there was to the rumors his sister told, especially about the pigs. "How... nice."


            "Don't worry. You passed the Test Plug."


            "Aren't those just simulators?"


            Shinju nodded. "Still, most people can't even use those. If your heart is open you'll Pilot fine." Her smile slowly evaporated and her face returned to neutral. "Or not."

 

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

 


            "What's wrong?" Hikari asked as she opened her lunch.


            Leaning on the tree trunk, Asuka looked at the sky through the leaves. "It's.... nothing."


            Hikari looked to Rei who sat inside the security cordon but a bit away from them. "Shinju's not here..."


            Asuka snorted and started picking through her lunch. "No, it's got nothing to do with Princess."


            "Really? Then where is she?"


            Asuka did not look up. "Nerv stuff."


            "And where's Toji?"


            Asuka silently opened her drink and sipped her cherry soda.


            "You know how excited Kensuke was this morning, and yesterday..." Hikari blushed.


            "What did he tell you?" Asuka evenly asked.


            Hikari looked at the Azazel guards, then looked down. "I'm not stupid. I know he was stopped in the airport when we got back from vacation. I know he's gone today."


            Asuka gave a curt nod.


            "So, why are you so bent out of shape?" Hikari smiled. "At least it's not another Ayanami."


            "Please, keep this quiet." Asuka looked the freckled girl in the eye. "They don't know if he's a pilot yet."


            "But if he is-"


            "Yes, he'll get the full propaganda treatment. Posters, interviews, newsreels, and action figures. Hardly a secret, but if he isn't in, well best to let that pass quietly."


            Hikari blinked. "Wow, that's pretty mature of you."


            "He just got this dropped in his lap. Wondergirl and I were raised for this, even Shinju knew she'd be an alternate Pilot. That's a lot of pressure."


            "Again, why are you so irked, then?"


            Asuka sighed. "Because he's gonna use my Evangelion."


            Hikari laughed. "Really? Is that all?"


            Asuka pouted. "They say he's going to try all three, but I know he'll end up using mine. Wondergirl's isn't as up to date, and Princess' is far too temperamental."


            "Well it's not like you're gonna have to share... right? I mean wouldn't he get Unit 03?"


            "Whenever that comes," Asuka snorted.

 

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

 


            Hearing large diesel engines, Shinju looked out the window and saw a pair of BTR-80s pull into the compound and park. "Your brother's back," she said returning to her homework.


            "Shame I couldn't see him pilot," Shirane pouted looking out at the apartment building's patio. A couple of Azazel troops stood up as the security contingent from the armored personnel carriers approached.


            "It would have been pretty dull. There's a lot of testing," Shinju explained.


            The door opened and two Nerv warrant officers entered. "Oooh, you made it!" Shirane exclaimed as Toji walked into the lounge.


            Toji adjusted his tan Nerv tactical uniform. "Yeah..."


            "How'd you do?"


            "Adequate enough," Asuka smirked glancing between Toji and Shinju.


            "So his heart was open?" Shinju asked.


            "Yes Princess. He synchronized well enough. Though he couldn't even break thirty percent in your temperamental Eva."


            Shinju smiled slightly. "He'll be getting a production model anyway."


            Shirane looked around Toji's waist. "Where's your guns?"


            Asuka's smirk grew. "He hasn't got any yet."


            Toji pinched the bridge of his nose. "They're taking me to the range next."


            "Good." Shinju closed her textbook and notebook and began putting them away.


            "You're coming too?" Toji looked at the ruffled girl. "Of course you are."


            "Gunnery skills are vital." Shinju stated.


            "I've gotta agree with Princess on this," Asuka nodded. "We can't have sloppy shooting in battle."


            Slinging her backpack on her shoulder, Shinju turned to Igor and in a sweet voice she said a couple sentences in Russian.


            "Not enough sad eyes." Asuka cracked a smile. "Why don't you curtsey too, Princess?"


            Shinju nodded and lifted at the edges of her dress and bobbed down with her knees.


            Igor laughed. "Dah, we can bring her."


            Shinju smiled. "Shirane, since they'll be doing the basics with Toji anyway, would you like to come?"


            Shirane squealed in delight. "I've been waiting for this!"


            "Nozomi's gonna be so jealous," Shirane grinned.


            "No sis... she's not a military okatu."


            "Fine, then Kensuke's gonna be jealous." Shirane stuck her tongue out.


            Toji looked to Asuka. "Are you sure she'll be safe?"


            The redhead snorted. "Please, the Russians watch us like hawks."


            Igor nodded. "If we fail, shallow Siberian grave, best case."


            Asuka shook her head. "Princess, Rei's at the range with her body gaurd, they went ahead to set things up while one of Pyotr's men picked up your range bags."


            Shinju nodded. "Oneechan always picks the best targets."


            Exiting the apartment building, they crossed a side yard and approached a new cinderblock building. Roughly square, it was about thirty meters to a side. They passed through a double set of doors placed in very thick walls and entered a vast room that took up the whole building's space.


            From the entrance they walked into an alleyway formed by a long bench that divided the alley from the rest of the room. A thick earthen berm filled the far end of the room and had thick metal plates that bounded the side walls and ceiling at oblique angles.


            The alleyway's walls were covered in cabinets of supplies, targets, and ammunition. Opposite the entrance was a storage room with even more equipment, and the back wall of the alleyway had more benches for equipment set up.


            Ahead of them, Katrina placed a long red luggage-like case on one of the wall mounted benches, while another Azazel trooper wheeled a blue and a purple case to another bench.


            Seeing them enter, Rei stopped working on one of the mannequin-like targets with Pyotr and crossed the range and entered the alleyway.


            Toji looked at Rei's red-lensed glasses. He then saw Asuka put on a green-tinted pair and Shinju slip on a purple set before handing a spare orange pair to Shirane.


            "What... color coded?" Toji asked.


            "Personal taste. Each tints your vision in different ways," Katrina explained as she handed a pair of yellow shooter's glasses and ear protection to Toji. "For all range work, especially indoors, you will wear these at all times."


            "Okay," Toji shrugged. "But can we try the other colors later?"


            Igor hefted the long black case onto the work bench and opened it. Looking into the padded confines, Toji stared. The case was dominated by an immense double-barreled weapon. Even disassembled into two pieces, barrel and stock, the gun ran the length of the case. Below that was a compact folding stock Kalashnikov carbine with a couple of curved magazines.


            Arrayed on the bottom were a series of handguns in decreasing size. On one end was a five inch barrel reproduction Schofield break action revolver, and on the other was a compact little autoloader that could fit on Toji's palm. In between was a progression of various 7.62x25mm Tokarev and 9x18mm Makarov pistols.


            Toji gapped at the double barreled rifles. "What are those?"


            "Scale models of our Mark 9s. Fifty caliber BMG," Shinju explained.


            "We going to shoot those?"


            "No-way Rookie," Asuka snorted. "The backstop's nowhere near thick enough for that. It'd blast right though."


            "Huh, cool," Toji said as he reached out and had his hand knocked away.


            "No," Katrina picked up a dainty-looking bolt action gun. "We'll start you on this."


            "What?"


            Shinju and Asuka grinned, while Rei's eyes widened slightly.


            "22 caliber long rifle," Igor explained as he took a matching gun and started showing it to Shirane. "Simple, easy shoot. No scary recoil. Good for babies to learn."


            "Babies? Asuka's thirteen and Shinju's twelve."


            "Toji... they know how to shoot. They've fired sixteen inch artillery, with N2 warheads, in battle," Shirane hissed.


            Asuka smirked.


            "First you shoot safe. Then you shoot well," Igor droned.


            "And after that we'll get more of the fun stuff," Katrina added.


            "Shooting is fun," Shinju happily agreed, pulling a tiny handgun out from the ruffles that went over the back of her blouse and then removing a larger one from an "inside the waistband" hip holster hung from her skirting and concealed by her blouse. The magazines were ejected from both weapons, their slides were locked back and were then placed on the other work bench.


            Toji raised an eyebrow. "I thought you were into knives."


            Shinju blinked. "I have to choose?"

 

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

 


            Mikki looked across the table. "I fear we will lose the war."


            Her companion stared. "Defeatism? From you?"


            The secretary smirked. "You don't know about the enemy. Not like I do."


            "Oh?"


            "I have the clarity of vision, the wisdom of experience. I've read many reports on the Enemy's strength and am positioned to learn much about their abilities."


            "Yes your... job."


            "It brings me critical information." Mikki adjusted her glasses. "Information that benefits you."


            "Yes Sister, I've seen your generosity in action," the strawberry blonde snarked, flicking back long hair that contrasted greatly with her skin tone.


            Mikki's eyes narrowed. "No one was forced to take my advice."


            The auburn-haired girl's sister leaned back. "So its all the Enemy's fault?"


            "Do you think I wanted little Sandi to die that way?" Mikki asked.


            The dark-skinned blonde blinked. "Interesting."


            "It's a term of affection," Mikki crossly said.


            "I know, Dear sister." The other girl smiled. "It's charming in its way."


            "We are fighting this war for love."


            "I suppose that describes our urges." Running a hand along the table, the other girl leaned back. "Tell me... how are you perceiving this little meeting?"


            Mikki narrowed her eyes.


            The blonde chuckled and looked down at herself with mock shock. "Bilateral symmetry!" She shook her head.


            "You know my... limitations." Mikki looked down.


            Her sister reached out and patted her hand. "And it's charming in its way," she repeated.


            Mikki adjusted her glasses. "Here's where your concerns come up."


            "Why? Your advice has yet to claim victory but it has made a difference. Israfel was a fascinating demonstration. A true shame about Sandi." The sister smiled, showing her teeth.


            "And that's why the humans are a danger. They're attacking us before we reach maturity."


            "And thus defeatism?" The girl looked at her nails with surprise and wriggled some of her fingers.


            "The Fruit of Knowledge is dangerous."


            "Yes, yes it enables them to learn the secrets of the Fruit of Life. Unlike those who will remain nameless, I read the 'reports' you bring me."


            "She's got a good heart," Mikki pouted.


            "I don't deny her heart. I question how long she'll last when the time comes."


            "If the Enemy doesn't get her first," Mikki reminded.


            "Yes, well, what you propose..." Distaste crossed her face. "It'd be fighting fire with fire."


            "The enemy is not so squeamish."


            "Oh yes, why not become like them?" The blonde glared at her sister. "What you propose is almost an abomination."


            "The Fruit of Life is powerful, we can use it. You can use it. Don't you care about Mother?"


            "You really have no shame."


            "The humans taught me well." Mikki smirked.


            Her sister rolled her eyes. "Your plan disturbs me."


            "You are not alone. However you are here."


            "You know why I'm here."


            "Sandi?"


            The girl shrugged. "I expected her to die."


            "Because you thought you'd be the one to free Mother."


            The strawberry blonde raised an eyebrow.


            "Of course you did."


            "She didn't have to die that way."


            "This is war." Mikki laughed. "And here you are eager to learn. Eager to avoid your sisters' fates."


            "I said what you proposed was abominable, I didn't say you were wrong."


            Several feet away from the table and couches, a door appeared. Simple and plain white, it had far more definition than the firmament it emerged from. The door opened and a large, stout girl stepped through. Her hair was a short glossy black that was pinned with two-triangular eye themed barrettes.


            The blonde snickered and glanced at Mikki. "Your imagination's really something."
           


            The new girl bowed her head and kneeded her hands over the glossy material of her blousy dress. "I... uh... I didn't know you had company."


            "Nonsense we're all family here," Mikki beamed and pointed to an open spot on the couch. "Please sit."


            The new girl blinked in confusion but complied.


            The blonde scooted over. "You're... looking well, Mattie," she commented with a little smirk.


            "Oh, now you'll use nicknames?" Mikki asked.


            Mattie frowned. "Why are you fighting?"


            The blonde sighed. "We're not fighting. We're just teasing each other."


            "We can do that?" Mattie blinked.


            "Yes, sister. It's allowed."


            "Why?"


            "It's emergent behavior from differences in ego and knowledge." Mikki explained.


            Mattie narrowed her eyes fractionally. "But we do all want Mother, correct?"


            "Of course." Mikki smiled. "But it's not that simple."


            "Yes, I have to agree with that," the blonde sighed.


            "We want Mother, but first-" Mikki's smile revealed her teeth. "-we have to kill the monsters holding her."


            Mattie shivered and turned to the girl sitting next to her. "Sister?"


            The dark-skinned girl nodded. "Yes, you saw what they did to Sandi. They're monsters; monsters that have to be stopped."


            "But aren't they only human?" Mattie fidgeted with her hands. "I mean when you get past the blasphamy of mother's flesh, they're humans in control. Humans are easy to kill."


            "That's right." Mikki smiled.
            "Kill the puppeteer and the puppet stops."


            "They're not really human though." The blonde raised an eyebrow. "You should be well aware of that."


            Mikki tapped the table. "One of them is. The one that killed Sandi. The one with the most anger. The one with the least control."


            "The one easiest to kill?" Mattie asked.


            "But the humans use more than abominations." The blonde crossed her arms over her chest. "What of the blasphemy that killed the first of us to attempt to rescue mother?"


            Mattie looked down. " They have machines that can destroy your soul. How can we fight that?"


            "Do you not want to avenge them?"


            "No... I want to make them pay. If Mother is to be saved, they must die. All of them."


            Mikki smiled. "And what will you do?"


            "Whatever it takes."


            "As I was discussing with your sister, we must learn from our enemy." Mikki smirked.


            The blonde nodded. "It's only fair, they've shamelessly stolen from us."


            "And we must face reality. This is their world. They have had plenty of time to prepare their defenses and build their weapons. They have the edge."


            "But only one of us needs to get to Mother to win," Mattie said.


            "There are billions of them. They can sacrifice untold numbers of their own if it means one of us will fall. Meanwhile we number a mere sixteen."


            "Ten," the blonde corrected. "Assuming you can find everyone. Assuming those you find want to be found."


            Mikki nodded. "The humans are picking us off. We must respond in kind."


            Mattie looked up. "I'll do it."

 

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

 


            "This is the life!" Kensuke grinned as he followed Toji down one of the apartment block's hallways.


            Toji raised an eyebrow. "I've spent the last week getting my butt kicked by little girls. One of which is younger than my sister. I don't even have my own mech so I've got to share with Rei and Asuka, and if you think the Kraut's happy with that..." He shook his head."


            "But I saw the video of your air drop. That had to have been cool."


            Toji sighed. "It was terrifying."

            "You get to drive a giant robot and shoot things, and come on, the girls love it. The uniform alone."


            As they passed a machine gun position, Toji rolled his eyes. "Yeah... it was pretty neat when I got my jump wings. They ran off a whole poster on that."


            "See! You're going to be a hero. Think of the babes," Kensuke cheered.


            "Yes, Rookie, think of them, because right now this geek's your biggest fan." Asuka smirked, walking up with a grocery bag in her arms.


            Toji sighed. "You just love not being the new Pilot, don't you?"


            The redhead smugly nodded.


            "Why did you buy food? Don't you have people for that?" Kensuke asked.


            Asuka sniffed and looked to Toji. "Since you'll be living here, a bit of advice. Do some stuff yourself. Having Russians at your heel all the time gets pretty old." She turned to the squad of guards who were waiting at her heel. "You guys are just doing your job, but do I miss my privacy."


            "Shinju likes them," Toji said.


            "Princess likes everyone." Asuka's gaze slowly returned to Kensuke. "And be careful listening to your geeky little friend. Especially on how to pick up 'babes'."


            "Don't listen to her, you'll have lots of girls. You're the only male Pilot."


            "Yes, with the bar that low how can you lose?" Asuka smirked.


            "By competing with Shinju," Toji stated.


            "Princess is annoying like that."


            "You got beaten by a little girl?" Kensuke asked.


            Toji sadly nodded.


            Asuka raised an eyebrow. "What kind of geek are you? Don't you follow all of our newsreels?"


            "I thought that was acting. You know, playing it up for propaganda purposes."


            Asuka shook her head. "Rookie, you may be real green, but at least you're not a moron."


            Toji gave a bitter laugh. "No Ken, if anything they tone her down."


            "Remember the time at the Takanosu Range when she strangled your Eva with your own power cord," Asuka said.


            "Technically it was your Eva."


            "Strangle?" Kensuke asked. "It's a robot."


            "Robot or human, it's hard to move with a rope around your neck," Toji explained.


            "She yanked you right to the ground with that move."


            "Crazy little girl."


            Asuka nearly dropped her bag. "Finally! I'm not alone."


            Kensuke took a step back, and eyed the holster on Toji's hip.. "So, when are you going to take me to the range."


            Toji rolled his eyes. "You and my sister."


            "Well she lives here, she can shoot whenever she wants," Kensuke whined.


            "It's not a game." Toji sighed. "I have to do this crap because they expect me to kill giant aliens and I'm doing it so my sister doesn't have to."


            "Stop it Rookie, you're approaching tolerable."


            "Faint praise, just like my dad," Toji leaned against the wall.


            "At least you get that much," Asuka grumbled.


            "You'd think a guy that works for Nerv would understand."


            "Still a dopey jock." Asuka laughed. "Thank God, for a moment I thought you were almost intelligent."


            "What?" Toji asked.


            "I think she's got issues with her father," Kensuke ventured.


            Asuka gave a thin grin. "You have no idea."


            "Well why? Isn't he proud that you're a Pilot? Or is he worried about your safety?"


            Asuka laughed. "So deluded... If he cared about my Piloting it'd only be because it proved the effectiveness of the Evangelion parts he had a hand in creating."


            "So... he's some kind of scientist?" Kensuke asked as the lights flickered on and off.


            "Some kind." Asuka glared.


            "Huh... power surge?" Toji asked.


            "Maybe." Asuka then blinked at one of her guards. "What's wrong Anatoly?"


            Sergeant Zlatoust looked up from his radio. "Urgent, you're needed in the Geo Front." He nodded to the men of Toji's detail and went back to his radio. "Yes, Fifth and Second are here. Understood."


            Watching Asuka unsnap her holster and place her groceries on the floor, Toji swallowed. "So, an Angel?"


            "No word." Zlatoust stated. "But we must hurry to the lift."


            "What about me?" Kensuke asked.


            Zlatoust nodded to one of his men, who calmly led the boy with rimless glasses away.


            Watching his friend leave, Toji felt himself prodded in the shoulder. Surrounded by Russians who now held their rifles at the ready, they raced to the basement and passed a set of heavily armed checkpoints.


            Their destination was an elevator. It was polished and had slightly thicker walls to the shaft than normal, but it was still an elevator. Further in the basement behind the shaft he could hear several diesel generators chugging along. Just before the doors closed, he got a glimpse of several pairs of blood red eyes.


            " Scheisse, you're too slow Rookie. We missed it!" Asuka swore.


            "Best if we split you up. It'd look bad if we lost all the Pilots in one elevator crash." Katrina said, entering the room.


            "Right." Asuka tapped the butt of her gun. "Oh! I left some groceries in the hallway outside my apartment. Can you have someone put them away for me? There's nothing that'll melt, though the sausages shouldn't be out for too long."


             "You're talking about food?" Toji asked. "You might have to go out and fight an Angel."


            "Yes, I'd imagine killing a giant monster would work up quite the appetite," Asuka dryly retorted.


             A merry chime came from the elevator and the doors opened, revealing an empty cab. "Alright, get in," Katrina ordered.


            Following Ausuka, Katrina, and a couple other Naval Infantry troops, Toji stepped in. The doors closed, the cab went down. First with a slight lurch, and then with more... haste causing the bottom to drop out of Toji's stomach.


            After what felt like a twisting, shifting fall the cab slowed and with another cheerful chime came to a rest and opened its doors, revealing a another concrete chamber, this one full of Ayanamis and Russians.


            Stepping out of the cab, Asuka paused to slap Toji on the back. "Hell of a rush Rookie!"

 

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

 


            Darkness dominated the Command Center. While the individual workstations were illuminated with their own backup lighting, the bulk of the cavernous room was shrouded in darkness.


            "Pilots have arrived and are proceeding to the Eva cages ," Makoto announced holding a landline phone instead of his normal headset.


            "What is the Magi's status?" Fuyutsuki asked.


            Ritsuko looked up from her own station. "Isolating external connections right now." She returned to her own phone and a laptop displaying a schematic of the Geo Front on it. "Go to access room 17-S on that level. You'll find two conduits. Cut them. Yes... remove the shroud and hack at the wires... Use a damn axe then! I want at least five centimeters of air isolating those circuits!"


            After a few more lines of dialog she hung up the phone in disgust and pulled it over, cord and all to Maya's workstation. Where it and the laptop were dumped in front of the brunette. "Um... sempai?" Maya asked.


            "This computer's got blueprints of the GeoFront. It's not on the network and its wireless has been turned off. Keep it turned off and it will be safe to use. The external connections for the Magi and the nearest maintenance stations are highlighted."


            Ritsuko showed a different window on the computer screen. "You call them, use the displayed passcodes and get those connections cut and the transmitters and receivers powered off. Leave the following connections open." Ritsuko indicated the links. "This will limit the options of hardware infiltration, allowing me to concentrate on defense."


            Gendo smirked. "Good work Doctor."


            "Yes, every attack needs an ingress point," Yubari added after talking with one of his staff.


            "Any word from your people?" Gendo asked.


            "That was Major Osumi. He had just gone topside and confirmed that cell phone service is out and used a long range radio to get into contact with JSSDF Headquarters. They're under a similar attack."


            Gendo nodded. "And Azazel?"


            "Sir, we've lost contact with Admiral Sudoplatov. Setting up backup communications lines now," Shigeru responded.


            "External sensors? What kind of attack is this?" Gendo demanded.


            Ritsuko switched between her workstation and another "quarantined" laptop. "Sir, we detected a flash of Pattern Blue before the Magi started giving self-check errors. Nothing much after that, until the sensors started giving off steady readings, too steady."


            Yubari winced. "System spoof then."


            Ritsuko nodded as she worked. "Yes, real instruments give errors, glitches, little fluctuations. This was canned stuff, and when we started sending anti-virals they pulled the plug."


            "Reactive then?" Gendo asked.


            "Yes, clever bastards. That's why I'm cutting all access."


            "What about your phone system? Can they get into that?" Yubari asked.


            "The exchange system predates the magi. It was put in when we were building the GeoFront; totally analog and we've got guards in the switching rooms."


            "Could someone cut into the lines and gain control that way?" Gendo asked.


            "No Sir, it's voice only. They could try to give conflicting orders but that's why we've got the passcodes and anything really important like an Eva launch will be done face to face."


            "Do we need to launch?" Misako asked as she ran into the Control Center.


            "Are the Pilots ready?" Gendo turned to the clone.


            'They're suited up and I ordered the technicians to prep all three units. The Fifth child is on standby."


            "Power?"


            "They have enough internal power to activate and get to their battery packs. We have enough for an hour of operations. After that we need more packs or working main power."
           


            "Good work, Captain. Get in contact with the airbase, and make sure the transports are readied." Gendo frowned. "Though I fear the Evangelions won't need to travel very far. Doctor Akagi, I want the sensor system back up. I don't care if you have to put people with oscilloscopes at every station, find a way. Right now we're blind."


            "Sir," Ritsuko nodded.

 

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

 


            Lying on his back, Owen Lysaght lounged on a bunk. Due to the crammed space, his knees were drawn up to where they bumped the bunk above him. "Huh... really don't see the point of adding a battery," he muttered, turning to a new page of an arms catalog.


            There was a brief alarm and the intercom clicked on. "Hey Owen! Get down here."


            Owen rolled out of the bunk and hit the cockpit button on the intercom. "What's the deal John?"


            "Just got an alert from base, something funny's going on." John Evelyn, the copilot, said.


            Owen swore and pressed the "call all button". "Everyone get to your stations, and buckle in. This is not a drill."


            As Owen stood up two other technicians who were resting followed him out of the bunk room. They passed a section that accommodated a kitchenette and a couple of bolted down tables and benches. After crossing a short corridor that had the plane's bathroom on one side and stores on the other, they entered a long room that ran the majority of the plane's upper deck.


            Containing several monitoring stations and sensor displays, it resembled a cross between a submarine's control room and a nuclear reactor's control room. Going down the central aisle, Owen made sure the various technicians were strapped into their chairs.


            Owen did a headcount, everyone was accounted for. "Make sure everyone's cleared the gun deck," he ordered, taking the precaution anyway.


            He then went to the front of the command deck where it stepped down and became the cockpit. Evelyn had already shifted to the copilot's seat.


            "No bloody relief pilot on this mission," Owen grumbled as he buckled in.


            "It's supposed to be a short patrol," Evelyn said before keying into the radio. "Yankee-Alpha-One-One to base."


            Putting his hands on the control stick, Owen's expression focused.


            "We receive," Misako's distorted voice cut in.


            "What's going on?" Owen asked as he looked over his displays. "Have you dropped the data feed?"


            "I did," John interrupted. "On their orders. We're only receiving audio, no data at all."


            "We have a power situation here. Primaries are down."


            Owen exhaled. "Sabotage then?"


            There was another bit of distortion and General Yubari's voice faded in. "-quarantine. I repeat. Quarantine your systems."


            "Already done, Sir." Owen replied.


            "Good. I'm in the command center and it's all blacked out. We just lost contact with JSSDF HQ at the Narashino Garrison. Word from Azazel is that someone tried to hack into their base too. Their radios are still up, they're launching more fighters and the Evangelions are ready to sortie.


            "Attack?"


            "We haven't picked anything up yet, but it's pretty obvious." Yubari exhaled. "If we drop off and you don't regain contact with General Ishikari at Narashino follow Azazel. If they drop off, you're authorized... act as the communications hub."


            "Yes, Sir."


            "This is, Lieutenant Ibuki," A young, if strained, female voice cut in. "I'm going to give you the channels and codes for our early warning stations. This way you can contact them direct, if... we go offline."


            "Right," Owen turned back. "Hey Fred! Are you getting this?"


            Fred Vickers, the radar operator, raised his hand in thumbs up.


            "Go ahead Lieutenant," Owen said, glancing down at the peaceful-looking lakefront city below.

 

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

 


            Warrant officer Suzuhara watched as titanic restraints were retracted, freeing the three Evangelions. Instead of being transported to the launchers via the large crawlers they were mounted on, the towering war machines freed themselves and trudged off.


            Fingering the skin tight material of his plug-suit, Toji shook his head and returned to the ready room. There was a chance he would be needed, just as there was a chance that one of the other Children would not be able to Pilot. "Good luck," he said to the giant retreating figures as he met up with his escort and walked to the Command Center.


            Entering the large, multi-tiered room he momentarily expected to see the giant holographic map and the view screen that dominated the entire fore-wall. Instead there was just darkness and a few light screens and even a large folding table that had map of the city pinned to it.


            "Evangelions are halfway to the surface," Makoto announced.


            "We really need to have auxiliary power for the Eva launchers," Fuyutsuki muttered.


            "It's not the launchers that are the problem, it's the doors and the track system. Those require computer timing and organization. If the doors don't open right or the tracks aren't set then all we're doing is rocket-launching a Unit into an armored bulkhead," Gendo replied.


            "Visual confirmation of Angel!" Shigeru announced. "It's roughly... spider shaped, with a black body and four long spindly legs. Approaching from the South. It's still two kilometers from the city."


            "So this was all to allow it to get close," Gendo stated.


            "Any closer without a response from you and Azazel would have nuked it," General Yubari pointed out. "They started screaming at us ever since one of their air patrols spotted it."


            "Which makes our communications failure a critical component of the enemy's attack plan," Gendo replied.


            "Make sure the Pilots are in direct communication with the jets." Misako ordered. "They need this information more than we do."


            "Pilots have reached the surface," Makoto announced. "Intercepting with Angel.


            "Communications assault abating. We've got 80% control of remaining channels," Maya announced. "Counter virus programs coming up empty."


            "What the hell?" Ritsuko went to the secondary display on her workstation. "Lines are... clear." Typing on the keys, she blinked in shock. "Finalizing isolation and system reset. Rebooting in autistic mode."


            "Narashino is online!" Shigeru announced.


            "Azazel reports the attack on them just stopped," Makoto announced.


            "The hackers are retreating?" Fuyutsuki asked.


            "Perhaps their purpose is at an end," Gendo stated.


            "An attack with limited objectives," Yubari nodded as main power was restored and the emergency lights were relieved. "How were the counter-viruses progressing?"


            "They were starting to extract some data, Sir." Maya announced.


            "Bastards," Ritsuko spat as the command center's holographic displays were restored. "They knew we were coming so they pulled the plug."


            "Director, Lieutenant keep on the intruder's trail. We can't let them get away," Gendo ordered.


            "Sir, the Angel... it's attacking, I'd guess." Misako said, pointing to one of the newly restored displays.

 

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

 


            Just entering the outskirts of the city, Matarael stopped its lumbering march forward and with a lurch spewed from the gaudy false eyes that adorned its carapace several dozen greenish-black balls that slowly uncurled their four legs. Puffy, ball-like, and each bearing a large yellow eye, the stubby little green spiders the Angel shot out looked comical. The impression continued until one of the automobile sized floating spiders bumped into an office building. With a sharp pop, the spider burst spraying thick orange liquid in a heavy mist.


            Watching the building collapse and disintegrate, as well as bits of its neighbors, Shinju frowned. "Owen, can you kindly hose the Angel's friends."
           


            Flaming hypersonic sabots scythed through the swarm, reducing the street, the buildings, the block surrounding the angle into an orange slurry with vague outlines of what the area used to contain.


            "Nice Princess, now it's got its own moat," Asuka groused. "Why does it have to be exploding minions?"


            "Be careful, this could be how it'll keep you from closing in," Misako advised.


            The Angel shuddered and dozens of the little spider-orbs budded off of its shimmering carapace. Flaring little AT fields, they shot out in several directions. Many went toward the Azazel and JSSDF planes and were shot down before they could close in. Raining acid over the city. The bulk of the remainder split into three groups and harassed the Evangelions.


            "They are definitely learning," Gendo noted as he watched explosions, missiles, rail guns, and angelic acid destroy whole neighborhoods in a swirling maelstrom.


            General Yubari looked at the battle, and nodded. "Shinju, Rei. Concentrate your fire on the Angel. Asuka cover their backs. Lysaght keep the sky above them clear. Zel'dovich your men cover Lysaght."

 
            "Yes, Sir." Asuka cried, as Unit 02 flung its arms over its head as the spiders exploded and the acid ate into the arm armor.


            "Clever bastards, they must have broken into our communications to delay us. Now we've got to fight them in the city."


            Gendo nodded. "Making us slightly less willing to use our big guns."


            "And causing us to forfeit most of our defensive depth."


            The red Evangelion moved its burned arms, crushing many of the next swarm. The next wave impacted on near top of the head and the shoulders, but most were crushed between her AT field and the the entrenching tool's rapidly corroding blade.


            "Turn, you slow bastard!" Zel'dovich screamed at the nuclear ground attack plane. He triggered his 30mm cannon, firing across the lead spider, which blew apart, its acidic guts hitting the spiders immediately behind it. They blew apart, releasing their payloads, causing a chain reaction.


            The remaining dozen spiders scattered and continued on their course towards the giant plane. Then with perfect synchronization they stopped and dove straight down, their vectors all pointing them in the same direction.


            "Red above you!" Zel'dovich shouted.


            Asuka turned to look up and saw the swarm shooting towards her, their AT fields flaring. The bombardment struck, and while her own field held, it was being corroded by the angels' acid and AT fields.


            Orange slush sluicing down her AT field, Asuka looked back to see the giant spider-like Angel leap forward, vomiting a mass of spider-orbs. Focused on Unit 02, Matarael ignored the other two Evangelions.


            When the Angel landed, Unit 00 sliced through one of its front legs, and Shinju jabbed forward with the Mighty Mo and emptied both barrels. The back half of the Angel exploded in a riot of orange and red goo.


            Still Matarael was focused and sprayed a thick stream of acid from its mouth towards Asuka. Unit 02 brought its arms forward and blocked with the remains of its, AT field strengthened, spade. Mortally wounded and being hacked apart, Matarael flared with satisfaction. As it sprayed the Evangelion, the last dozen spider orbs snaked over and down, slamming into the Unit's back.


            First their AT fields eroded the enemy's field, then their acid eroded the enemy's armor. Leaking through the seams and cracks in the armor, the acid poured over the Evangelion's internal components.


            Between the shoulder blades these were the spinal assembly, the plug socket, and the plug itself. Several alarms went off, blaring in Asuka's ears as she felt her Evangelion's throbbing, boring pain. Then plug began to creak and scream as the LCL started to discolor.


            Finally the acid eroded the enemy.


            Asuka screamed and tried to cover her face with her arms. The acid burned at the gloves of her plug suit, but they held. The cuffs were another matter... There was a snap and in her plug suit puffed out in a cloud of bubbles as it released its hold and compressed air to expand from skin tight to baggy. Unfortunately the expansion caused a high concentration of acid to be sucked into the space between the suit and her body. There it stuck and pressed to her skin, setting her body afire, especially her limbs which rapidly numbed.


            Unit 02 collapsed and was caught by Unit 00, keeping it from falling into an orange pool.


            "Get Asuka out of here!" Shinju ordered Rei.


            After a split second's study of her clone's face, Rei nodded and pulled Unit 02 in a fireman's carry.


            Placing Unit 01 between Matarael and the retreating Evangelions, Shinju charged forward. "I'm going to kill you and kill you and kill you!"


            "Ayanami here, request medical evac. Heading north west." Behind her, Rei felt he heavy thuds of N2 detonations and heard the steady shriek of the YA-11's rail gun fire. "Rendezvous with evac team or proceed to Geo-Front myself?"


            Misako swallowed. "Evac team is on approach, they're flying on a southwest heading."


            Rei spotted the pair of heavy VSTOLs. "Visual contact. Eject plug," she requested, placing Unit 02 on its knees.


            The command center transmitted the plug eject code, but Rei had to help force the battered and melted armor aside and then gently pulled the plug out. Taking care to orient it properly, Unit 00 placed the plug on the ground just as the VSTOLs landed.


            The shift in speed was almost comical. The medics ran as fast as they could to the burned, distorted and leaking plug and stood back as they hit the LCL evacuation command. Filthy, reeking LCL poured out as the plug drained both via pumps and holes burned in the bottom of the plug. Once drained the medics tore the hatch open. Then, under the shadow of Unit 00, they gingerly, slowly evaluated the pilot and readied stretcher and life support equipment for extraction.


            As they secured the pilot down, her suit flopped and squished. Amorphous and bendy, the Pilot's extremities moved more like fluid-filled bladders than limbs. Under the too large plug suit, her body seemed bloated and misshapen. A nightmarish mixture of dilute acid, LCL, and organic materal oozed out of the plug suit's lose neck hole.


            Occasionally when an arm or leg flopped over bits of bone would press against the suit providing some distortion. The rigidity decreased with extension, leading to gloves with no discernable joints.


            Her face was a horror. It looked like a melted candle that had then been nibbled and clawed at. Several ugly gashes revealed bone and much of her soft tissues had burned away revealing teeth, sinuses, orbitals, and other internals. The penetration was relatively shallow, but that was cold comfort to the mindlessly whimpering mass that was quickly sedated and bandaged up. Her heartbeat and lungs were still strong and helped keep her alive longer, and conscious longer too.


            Not relishing their duty the medics cut holes in her plugsuit and... drained. The garish fluid that poured out was only a prelude to the nightmare that awaited them when they started cutting the suit apart to cauterize wounds and tie off arteries. Sure that her caustic cargo would not crash the plane, the medics then loading her into the VSTOL and continued to work.


            Surprisingly little of her skin stuck to the suit. However her limbs were as expected. Cleaning, cutting, and containment was the order of the day. The organs in her fairly intact torso were cared for and stabilized. Her brain was watched and sedated. The rest... was expendable.

 

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

 


            Gendo looked up from his desk. "Professor, I have been expecting you."


            "Really Commander, what clued you in? Was it the progressive security system failure, or that my daughter is a mutilated vegetable?" Sneering, Insana waved his gloved hands, sealing the door behind him.


            "I could have you shot for treason. Base systems had been compromised precluding an Angel attack, and here you are breaking into my office."


            Insana adjusted his goggles. "Please, if sabotage were my aim I'd be in the Eva cages, or I'd bide my time and wait until you try to install one of my S2 engines." The scientist giggled. "That'd be a fun activation."


            A smile flicked across Gendo's face. "And hence you are still alive."


            Shuffling forward, Insana looked to Ikari's desk and smirked. "Doubtless you know why I am here then."


            Gendo looked up at the scientist. "I am... perplexed. There are official channels."


            "But none with enough time!" Insana shook his fist. "I must get to her! Before your incompetent lackeys do."


            Gendo cracked a smile.


            "I did qualify my statement with incompetent." Insana placed his gloved hands on the desk. "Do you really trust Akagi with such delicate work?"


            "Oh, I think I can handle things," Ritsuko said, entering from a side door.


            Insana straightened and spun towards her. "You!"


            Ritsuko sighed. "Commander, must you humor this man?"


            "A parent's will is a powerful thing, especially when unencumbered by a surplus of morals." Gendo pushed his glasses back into place.


            "Tino, we will make Asuka whole again." Ritsuko assured stepping closer to Insana. "I promise."


            "Really? Going to cook up another clone to shunt her soul into?"


            Ritsuko stared while Ikari inclined his head slightly.


            "Please... you're nowhere near as clever as you think." Insana picked the silver picture frame off of Gendo's desk. "I told you before once you start pulling threads and unraveling the lies, the only question becomes what the last Matryoshka doll is.


            "You lose the Third Child and replace him with the First's younger sister. Perfectly acceptable. Until then the Fourth would have been too young. Then we have Captain Katsuragi's replacement..." Insana tittered. "Really you overplayed your hand there. You really should have let your prototype die. She served her purpose, you knew the process worked."


            "Bastard!" Ritsuko cried slapping Insana across the face.


            Gasping, Insana slowly straightened his goggles. "Thank you. That proves my hypothesis nicely."


            Ritsuko's hand twitched.


            "I don't know quite how you did it, but Metaphysical Biology does allow the possibility." Insana grinned. "Was it the radiation? I suppose the right dosage range would give you a window, before their deaths. Tell me, who was the First Child? Was she the prototype? Or maybe a testtype?"


            "That line of questioning is over." Gendo stood up. "Focus on your daughter, Professor."


            "Yes, Commander." Insana looked out the floor to ceiling windows. "So my theory is correct. You plan to shove a copy of my daughter into one of your clones. Then abandoning her to her fate."


            "Salvaging can save her life!" Ritsuko cried.


            Insana gave a greasy smile. "What happened to Katsuragi's body then? What about the Third Child's? Were they allowed to quietly die? Did your shiny new clones get to watch? Or did you just put them to sleep, like ailing pets?"


            "Thin... ice," Ritsuko hissed.


            Ikari sat back down and steepled his hands before his face. "And what do you propose?"


            "My daughter isn't dying."


            "She's lost most of her limbs and what she hasn't lost is covered in chemical burns. She'll be in a wheelchair the rest of her life, if she's lucky. Not to mention her eyes!"


            Insana removed his goggles. "You followed my little blackout. You know I visited her first. As your wheelchair comment, as simplistic as it is, implied, she can be stabilized. There's no need to rip her soul out." Smirking, Insana stepped forward. He looked Ritsuko in the eye. "Tell me Director, are you certain that your little girls are... all there?"


            Ritsuko set her jaw.


            Nodding, Insana turned back to Gendo. "Is that a trace of doubt Commander?"


            "Not at all. You must know that I'd put the Second through any procedure. Provided it had a chance allowing her to Pilot. Clearly, you have your own plan."


            Insana giggled. "Oh yes, and I can guarantee mine will have better odds than the good Director's."


            "And how do you explain that?" Ritsuko demanded.


            "Simple, if my method fails, we can always dump her into a waiting clone. I propose my method first, if it works, Asuka will be healthy and get to keep her soul. If it fails... you'll get another clone."


            "What do you propose then?" Gendo asked.


            "This." Insana slipped his goggles back on and made a few motions with his hands. The office's display screens descended from the ceiling. Several schematics of human and Evangelion figures with annotations appeared.


            "Interesting." Gendo looked at the images. "You intend to use flesh from Unit 02."


            Insana tittered. "Yes Commander, the regeneration is quite adequate, in addition to the other properties."


            "Grafting Evangelion flesh..." Ritsuko blinked. "When did you come up with this?"


            "Oh, on the flight down from Matsushiro." Insana grinned. "Don't be so shocked Director. It was your white paper that inspired me! What was the line from the abstract?"


            Ritsuko's eyes widened.


            "Ah yes, 'The present research and development focuses on modifying an Evangelion to accept a Pilot, but the reverse is a valid principal that should be explored at a future date.' "


            "That was theoretical!"


            "Yes, and I intend to put it into practice."


            "We can't graft bits of an Evangelion to her! Especially based on some doodles you made on the flight over here."


            "Yes, I suppose your little clone project was full of rigor and not rushed in the slightest." Insana cackled.


            "We know my procedure works!"


            "Mine doesn't rip your soul out!"


            "Enough." Gendo stated, smirking behind his hands. "Professor. I want a draft of your procedure. Outline all the major steps and the risks. You have four hours."


            Insana shivered. "Yes, Sir! You won't regret this."


            Gendo turned to Ritsuko. "Dr. Akagi you will evaluate his draft, and suggest improvements where needed."


            "Sir!"


            "No. I will not have my scientists sabotaging each other. You are both correct. Dr. Akagi, your procedure functions, but risks losing the Second Child. Dr. Insana, your procedure is radically new ground, but has less catastrophic risk. Unlike before, the Second is stable this gives us time to expand our knowledge base."


            "Yes!" Insana shook his fist. "Oh, I knew you had a Scientist's thirst for knowledge, Sir!"


            Ritsuko frowned. "Commander, you're not authorizing experimenting on Asuka are you?"


            Gendo smirked. "Your forget, all the Children are our experiments."

 

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

 


            Misako stepped into the observation suite. On the opposite side of the glass was the operating theater. Mute, the pink-haired woman watched as the surgical team busied about the patient.


            "Shouldn't you be getting ready for the debriefing?" Ritsuko asked, entering the small room. She placed a small tablet computer on one of the lecture-hall style desks.


            "I wanted to see her. Damn angels."


            Ritsuko locked the tablet's screen before Misako could look on it. "Yes, nasty work."


            For a couple of seconds both women watched as the doctors cleared around the patient. The bandages and probes were a blinding antiseptic white that clashed with the horror of much of her exposed... flesh, though not much was exposed. A black chamfer-edged lid slid over the sarcophagus-like bed. The lid was unadorned save for a window that would have shown the patient's face with a simple blue cross below. The lid locked into place sealing the Pilot inside.


            "At least she'll be... stable," Ritsuko frowned.


            "It was the LCL." Misako laughed bitterly. "I'll never complain about having to breathe that stuff again."


            "Yes, it counteracted the acid's effect... mostly. Without it..."


            Misako nodded. "What are we going to do?" Misako turned to the scientist. "No, what are you going to do?"


            "The Commander is considering options."


            Misako waved a hand over herself. "Isn't the solution obvious?"


            Ritsuko clenched her jaw. "An... alternative presented itself, the Commander is insisting we explore the feasibility."


            "Great, play science games while we're down a Pilot."


            "You just got your spare," Ritsuko reminded. "And you can still do in a pinch."


            "Please, the kid's greener than Asuka was and I'm hardly better. Granted, he's got a better attitude and doesn't have the bad training to undo, but Asuka was competent. Before today, her last two missions were fine."


            "Are you blaming today on her?"


            Misako narrowed her eyes. "No. You saw the battle; Matarael sacrificed itself to get that hit on Asuka, not the Evangelion. Asuka. It went right for the plug."


            "Yubari's not going to like that."

            "The coot's right. The Angels are getting smarter. It knew where the Pilot was. It picked one Evangelion and concentrated on taking out that specific Pilot."


            "And outside of the Evangelion?"


            "I told Azazel to be on the lookout for assassination threats. Right now my sisters and Toji are down here. It's the safest. I'll send them home once things stabilize and they've got a chance to reorganize the compound's defense."


            "Assassination? What do you think they can do against an Angel?"


            "Who says anything about Angels?" Misako crossed her arms over her chest. "The communications blackout gave Matarael the chance to close into the city."


            "Yes, the attack went after Azazel and the JSSDF as well. JSSDF was completely knocked out, and Azazel's more primitive systems worked even better than ours."


            "It could have been much worse. Your little laptop caches and using the old phone systems kept us in the fight," Misako patted her shoulder. "You really saved us."


            Ritsuko laughed.


            "What?"


            "I put those things in place because of Beria. The disheveled arrogant insulted the Magi and I wanted to make him eat those words."


            "Well, it worked." Misako smiled and shook her head. "Still we've got to worry about some sort of... Quisling I guess."


            "Quisling?"


            "Traitors, humans helping the Angels." Misako smirked. "Unless you think Matarael hacked into the computers as it tried to melt the city and kill Asuka."


            "Don't be silly." Ritsuko picked up her computer. "It wasn't Matarael, but it was an Angel. The signals were too fast to be human, but too adaptive to be artificial intelligence. The attack almost overwhelmed the Magi."


            Ritsuko continued. "We only won because we cut down the access points and then the thing ran. Plus the sensors detected Pattern Blue inside the system. Had to be an Angel."


            "Another Angel?" Misako asked" That's not good."


            "Yes... we haven't seen them team up before."


            Misako shook her head. "No, it's not that. Israfel proved they can split up. So why not have more attack?"


            "Then what?"


            "It retreated." Misako leaned against the glass of the observation window.


            "Yes, after we spotted Matarael, the attacking Angel retreated. There was no point in harassing our systems and we were starting to counterattack."


            "Angels don't retreat. Ever." Misako's hand formed to a fist. "They keep coming. They fight until you kill them. Shit. They're getting way too smart."


            "What do you suggest?"


            "Two things. We need to learn more about the Angels. Operation Chariot was a good start; we need more like that. Also we have to keep adapting, look at how much the angels have evolved. To keep beating them, we have to keep ahead of them."


            Ritsuko looked down at her tablet. "That's what I'm afraid of, and that's why I think the Commander is willing to be... creative with Asuka."


            "Really?" Misako raised an eyebrow. "More creative than what you did with me and Shinju?"


            Ritsuko shrugged. "We'll see what the Commander wants."

 

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

 


            Igor at her heel, Shirane stepped into the Ayanami residence. Crossing the kitchen, she came to the living room. Over the sound of sirens, she heard a chair creak as Igor sat down and braced his carbine against a wall, within easy reach. Looking into the living room she was unsurprised to see a few more Azazel Naval Infantry on alert.


            It was much the same in her own apartment, they went straight from being surrounded by guards in the shelter to being surrounded by guards in their apartment. More came in when her brother finally arrived and went straight to a chair and zoned out. A similar sight greeted Shirane in the Ayanami residence. Rei and Shinju were at the couch reading.
           


            "So..." Shirane cleared her throat, causing the two girls to look up. "Something bad happened. We didn't get nuked so you didn't lose."


            Stopping her music player, Shinju removed her ear bulbs and looked down at her book, while Rei closed her novel and held it atop her lap.


            "I saw my brother, he's real shaken up. Told me he didn't fight though, and here you two are." Shirane chewed her lip. "Was there another plane crash?" The young girl looked between the two pilots. "Was it Asuka?"


            Shirane watched the pale blank faces and saw Shinju sniffle slightly while Rei winced. "Oh... so..." She sat down in a chair opposite the couch. "How bad?"


            Rei quietly waited, but Shinju held her tongue. "The Second is still alive," Rei eventually said.


            "Well... how bad?" Shirane's question fell onto mute sisters. "Did they even tell you?"


            Shinju gave a tiny nod


            "What happened to her?"


            "Angel's attack got into the plug."


            Shirane's eyes widened. She had seen the initial news reports. Several blocks and buildings were simply gone, eaten by an acid the Angel created. "Well... how is she?"


            Shinju glanced at Igor. "They won't let us see her."


            "I'm sorry." Shirane sighed with realization. Refusing visitors was rarely good.. "I really.... Does this mean my brother might take over Unit 02?"


            Shinju gave a little smile. "Doctor Akagi is working on it. She'll find a way."


            With eyes ever so slightly narrowed, Rei glanced at Shinju.


            "She's a brilliant scientist and a great doctor," Shinju demurred.


            "You don't sound that confident," Shirane noted.


            Frowning, Shinju tugged at her choker.


            "The doctor is one of the Commander's most trusted and capable personnel, and the Second is a-" Rei's slight pause was only noticed by Shinju. "-valuable member of the team. Everything will be done to prevent her loss."


            Shirane gave a wan smile. "You're really choked up about this?" She looked to Shinju. "Both of you."


            "I just hope she's not alone," Shinju whispered.


            Shirane nodded; she had a hard time imagining what it would be like, alone in a hospital. The girls sat quietly for a couple minutes, listening to the sirens and emergency vehicles. Occasionally, a jet would pass overhead.


            "How is the Fifth doing?" Rei asked breaking the silence.


            "Shocked, he won't tell me what he saw, but since he didn't Pilot today..."


            "He'll get better," Shinju simply stated.


            "How can you be sure?"


            "He has you; he has us." Shinju gave a smile. "And I don't think your brother is a quitter."

 

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

 


            "Unacceptable, Ikari! This... indulgence of yours risks the entire plan." Flanked by Audio-Only Monoliths representing the rest of the council, Keel Lorenz's composure cracked.


            "Plan?" Gendo allowed a smirk. "And what plan is that, Chairman?" He clasped his hands behind his back. "Perhaps you mean the Plan where the Angels start partaking of the Fruit of Knowledge."


            "You distract your blasphemy with tales of other abominations?" One of the Monoliths demanded, the French representative by Gendo's ear.


            "Not at all," Gendo adjusted his glasses. "Merely to illustrate a point. We knew the Angels were capable of great physical adaptation; it is only sensible that they would adapt mentally."


            "Yes, your Second Angel theory. We do not find the evidence nearly as convincing, nor the conclusions as frightful," Lorenz evenly stated.


            "Neglecting that, all the previous battles show an evolution in tactical thinking and organization. The last showing a strategic hand, the Angel specifically targeted one of our Pilots, our scarcest resource."


            "The Dummy Plug program will remove that bottleneck."


            Gendo laughed. "So with one hand you damn my experimentation, while with the other you beg me to increase the pace. Are your spies that poor? Do you actually not know what is planned for the Second Child?"


            Keel's brows lowered until they touched his visor.


            "We allowed you to continue researching the Ayanami line, but this latest experiment of Doctor Akagi's goes to far. You have adequate resources to pursue the Dummy Plug program without experimenting every time a Pilot is wounded."


            Gendo pushed his glasses back up. "May I remind you that that was not a Pilot? It was a dripping sack of meat that fortunately for our purposes, but unfortunately for herself, still had its neurons firing."


            Smirking, Ikari looked around the room eyeing each of the monoliths before ending on the Chairmen. "Tell me gentlemen, do I detect squeamishness?" He adjusted his gloves. "We all have dirty hands. What is experimenting on one little girl?"


            Gendo shook his head. "No... I know you. You are not concerned about morals. Only Instrumentality. Which begs the question of why you care? Are the Children not Nerv's to do with as we please?"


            "There are limits Ikari. You cannot hide what you are doing, not this time," the French representative hissed again.


            "Hide? I intend to broadcast what I've done. A new campaign, highlighting the lengths Nerv will go to save its own. The Second will become an avatar of perseverance, will, and technological triumph. She will prove that no matter what the Angels do, we will win."


            "Heroics do not suit you Ikari," Lorenz dryly remarked.


            "No, but theatrics are a necessity."


            "You speak of our competition, Azazel."


            "Not just Azazel. Proliferation has spread. The United States Navy has killed one angel. The JSSDF's new plane has been instrumental in defeating two. The world can exist without Nerv."


            "You doubt our power?" one of the monoliths demanded.


            "I believe the death of the Third Angel proves that." Gendo smirked. "Our task is to continue to make Nerv and the Evangelions the best choice for eliminating the Angels."


            "And so you experiment on the Children?" Lorenz asked.


            "We have few experienced Pilots, few Pilots period. This makes it hard to justify experimenting on any one of them, it also makes the loss of one a major logistical issue. I aim to solve both problems."


            Brushing some dust off of his uniform's coat, Gendo continued. "At the cost of one Pilot we will greatly expand our knowledge and learn much about how Evangelions and Children interact. The girl was already injured. What would you prefer? That I waste this chance?"


            Lorenz glared at Ikari. "Fine. Perform your experiments. Ultimately they will serve the Plan. The rest of the meeting does not concern you. You are dismissed." He airily waved in dismissal and the holograms vanished, and the lights returned to the bare room.


            Gendo stepped out of the teleconference suite and returned to his office. "Small minded fools," he muttered after the door had sealed shut


            Fuyutsuki entered through a side door. "They have a point."


            "Oh? Is that your take?"


            "My take is that they are afraid." The old professor adjusted his cuffs. "They're afraid that all that they've worked for will be destroyed by some yahoo with a nuke."


            "Or an Angel that's got too smart for its own good."


            Fuyutsuki smirked and turned to look out at the Geo Front below. "They do have another point."

            "Oh?"


            "This work with the Second Child is-"


            "Necessary." Gendo pulled off his gloves and looked at his scared hands. "Fate has given us an opportunity and I intent to exploit it."


            "But the Professor..."


            "I know the man's motivations." Gendo smirked. "He's doing it for his daughter, he's doing it for science. Let him." He stared at his bare right palm and made a fist. "His devotion will yield a most useful tool."


            "Like Doctor Akagi?"


            "Which Akagi?" Gendo gave a light chuckle. "Both have produced quite useful trios. Though one set is much more flexible than the other."


            "And what do you expect from Insana's little project?"


            "Well, that depends on if the good professor succeeds." Gendo smirked. "If he does, then we will have... options."

 

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

 


            "So glad you could make it," Misako remarked as Ritsuko strode into the Command Center.


            "Well, I'd hardly miss this," Ritsuko said as she rubbed her eyes.


            Misako looked at the silver and black spiraled goggles that hung from the blonde's neck. "You okay?"


            "No, I've been spending every waking moment of the last nine days in the lab, working with that... man. Working on..." Ritsuko sighed and stripped the blue locator gloves off of her hands and stuffed them in her lab coat pocket.


            "And how is she?"


            Ritsuko looked up from the coffee machine in the back of the Command Center. "Doing great." She said with a false grin. "We're pretty sure her sight and hearing are restored and the major graft work is done." The scientist's tone warmed as she filled a mug.


            "So Tino's plan worked?" Misako raised an eyebrow. "The guy's..."


            "Don't tell me, I'm the one that's spent the last week working with him." Ritsuko took a sip then another. "The concept is sound enough. Evangelions have great regenerative capabilities and their flesh can be grown to order, and they are very close to human genetics."


            "Yeah, Unit 02 is already operational."


            "Well, it's been repaired, we'll know today if it's operational," Ritsuko grinned.


            As they walked back to the workstations, Misako crossed her arms and glanced at the forward screen. "So, when will Asuka be fully healed?"


            Ritsuko looked away. "We need more time. We have to make sure her body... what's left of it isn't rejecting the implants."


            "So, she'll be like..." Misako looked around the crowded Command Center and pointed vaguely at herself.


            Ritsuko gave a bitter laugh. "Oh no... I wish it were that simple, but... Insana found a way. The bastard always finds a way," she muttered, drinking deeply from her mug.


            "So Asuka got his stubbornness and her mom's-" Misako held her tongue.


            Ritsuko smiled as she pulled her goggles off from around her neck and placed them onto her workstation. "You can say it, Doctor Soryu was a very unpleasant woman."


            Misako coughed. "We are going to be doing a test, so why take that stuff off?"


            "Because I've had enough of wearing them," Ritsuko stated, looking at the giant display of the Evangelion squadron. Units 00 and 01 had already had their customary repairs. Both possessed the mix of battered and replacement parts that was expected from any ground system that saw heavy use. The main difference was the logo painted on Unit 01's shoulder pylons, on the outer side of each a large black playing-card spade was overlaid by a purple numeral four, signifying her status as an Ace with her "Child" number.


            Unit 02, on the other hand, had enough fresh armor to make a clear delineation between the original and the repaired material. The shoulder pylons, shoulders, plug armor, neck and the whole upper half of the back were new, contrasting with the slightly worn and faded armor that covered the rest of the Evangelion. If not for the identical color scheme it would look like two different Evangelion cobbled into one.


            "Hey, Toji you ready?"


            An inset display of the cockpit cam of the plug came up. "Yeah, I guess so."


            "What's wrong?"


            Toji shifted his shoulders. "Well, the plug's all different."


            "The old one was destroyed."


            "Yeah, yeah," Toji leaned up and twisted around. Feeling on the back of the seat, he found the raised section that had been poking his back. He pressed it and there was a slight click as it receded and fell back.


            Blinking at the cavity, Toji found some LCL-proofed access plugs; they looked similar to the other cables and plugs that had been added to the sides of the cockpit and its controls. "What's with all these wires and stuff?" he asked as he sat back down.


            "That's is a diagnostic version of the plug, Warrant Officer." Ritsuko smoothly lied. "It's used for the Dummy Plug system. Don't worry, you can pilot it normally."


            Toji nodded.


            Ritsuko's image appeared on his displays. "Proceed to activation you three."


            Toji nodded and leaned back. Closing his eyes, he let his mind drift. There was a tingling in his limbs and a sharp vibration and... synchronization.


            "43 percent. Good work, Toji." Ritsuko allowed.


            Misako's smiling face appeared. "Keep it up Rookie. We're shipping you to the armory. Get a normal load-out, it's time you experienced a combat drop."


            "Fun," Toji sighed at the wolfishly grinning woman, and he leaned back as the Evangelions were moved from their storage cages to the white-tilled, cavernous room that served as their weapons and ammunition locker.


            "You seem distracted?" Shinju asked as Unit 01 picked up one of the 14 inch bore revolvers. The Evangelion thumbed the top-break and lowered the barrel and cylinder with its left hand.


            "Well, I kind of feel like a replacement." Toji sighed and had Unit 02 pick up a Mark 9 gun BB-62 "Big J". Sighing he went thought the routine of inspecting that the bores were empty and then adding in two green-tipped cartridges. "I don't even have my own Azazel officer yet, or Evangelion."


            "You are a replacement," Rei stated, strapping her progressive combat spade on.


            "Thanks..." Toji drawled.


            "Asuka can't pilot. Until she can again, you are her replacement." Shinju snapped her revolver closed and holstered it.


            "That's not confidence building," Toji, said checking that his own revolver was strapped down.


            "We do what we must because we can." Shinju assured and gave her kit a final check. "Warrant Ayanami S. ready," Shinju radioed to the Command Center.


            "Warrant Ayanami R. is also ready," Rei echoed.


            Gritting his teeth, Toji took some time to sling his rifle and check his equipment. "Warrant Suzuhara ready," he said after half a minute's delay.


            "Shinju," Misako ordered.


            Unit 01 stepped over and checked the various holsters and bandoleers. "Good job," Shinju cheered.


            "Right, get back to your harnesses," Misako ordered.


            Toji sighed happily as he placed Unit02's shoulder pylons back into the crawler's superstructure.


            "Asuka didn't like manual loading either," Shinju teased as the crawlers engaged their drives and moved the Evas down a tunnel towards the airport.


            "What? You like crawling under a cargo plane and trying to catch some support beams you can hardly see?" Toji shook his head and turned back to watch as the frame his Evangelion was tied to pitched forward to the horizontal and then rose up.


            Armored doors peeled away revealing a monstrous aircraft that straddled the opening. The open cargo bay waited above and the Evangelion accented to meet it. Toji concentrated on the reverse views and status screens as the load transferred. After several thumps the plane's landing gears compressed as it took up the weight of the Unit.


            Toji exhaled managing to cough up a small bubble of air. "Man that sucks."


            "Do you not like Piloting?" Shinju asked as their YC-59's taxied to the runway.


            "What?" Toji blinked. "No, I like it fine... I guess. Driving a giant robot is pretty cool, and... it's important right? It's just, I don't like the transfer stuff, I always feel something's going to let go and I'll fall back down the shaft."


            "It's not that," Shinju's voice had a gentle edge. "What's wrong? If you don't think you should be here..."


            "No! I mean I don't know what a battle, a real battle will be like, but.. well... it feels like I'm just a chair warmer."


            "Hopefully."

            Toji winced. "Yeah... we want Asuka better. That way she'll get Big Red back."


            "Don't worry, Dr.... Akagi and Dr. Insana are doing their best," Shinju said, with a brief hesitation.


            Toji's question at Shinju's hesitation was cut off by his plane's acceleration and stomach-torqueing takeoff. Pressed back, Toji fought the pressure and soon found himself at a slightly more sedate climb.


            He exhaled. "Okay... so, can we go over today's war game again?"

 

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

 


            Grinning, Professor Insana straightened his white coat and adjusted his blue latex gloves. "Oh Director! I think we've got it!" He gleefully stated in passable if oddly emphasized Japanese. Full of nervous energy he bounded over to Ritsuko. He pulled up his goggles and addressed Ritsuko's companion. "And it's nice to meet you, it's always a pleasure to see the good Director's creations." He then laughed; it was a rolling, wild titter.


            After giving Ritsuko a disbelieving glance, Misako turned to the professor. "So your daughter's doing... well?"


            "Oh she'll be better than before! My Science will make her strong, stronger!"


            "Tino, dial it down," Ritsuko glared as she pulled her own goggles off.


            "Oh fine," the giddy scientist deflated slightly.


            Ritsuko rubbed her eyes. "I still think there would have been a simpler way."


            "No, no, no." Insana shook his head. "The Commander was clear. He preferred my method to Salvage. You wound me Doctor; as if I would hurt my own flesh and blood." Insana shook his fist.


            Ritsuko glared.


            "Unlike the injuries you had to deal with, my patient was not living on borrowed time." Insana pulled his goggles back on. "Once we stabilized her, my daughter could have lived a long, long life." Insana said as he led the two woman from the office space and into the laboratory proper.


            "Sure, alive as a potato," Misako muttered.


            "I said a long life, not a good life, and the less we talk about what happened around her waist the better, but Science will save her. Science has saved her!" Insana assured.


            As they crossed the echoing workspace they went past a gleaming machine shop, a riotous collection of electrical equipment, a biology lab with several occupied jars, a pharmacy, a collection of statuary molds and forms, and even a small break room that had been wedged between some milling machines and other equipment.


            Misako leaned in and hissed into Ritsuko's ear. "You did keep an eye on him?"


            "Yes, and he's not so bad. He's been working himself to death to save her," Ritsuko whispered back.


             Insana shook his head. "The next generation of plug suits should really have miniature pumps with one-way valves, and don't get me started on better fail-safes for the suit constriction. Maybe then caustic chemicals won't pool. Ah there's my girl."


            Misako stopped. The physical changes startled her, but they were not the most shocking...


            Sitting in a reclining examination chair was the Second Child. At first Misako thought she was wearing a hybrid of her plug suit and her red and yellow gown, but then the details became apparent.


            Her arms were encased in a vibrant yellow plating with an articulated joint at her elbows. Grey hands were folded in her lap. Yellow, each finger was cunningly armored to enable full flexibility.


            Her legs had a similar encasement, this time in a russet red and terminating in armored boots with a slight wedge heel. Her limbs attached in a slim armored frame with somewhat angular, and finned, shoulders but perfectly contoured chest. Also in a departure from the somewhat utilitarian design, the curve of her bosom was filled out by a pair of golden teardrops.


            The flexing plates that made up her chassis were polished to a glossy shine. A translucent pointed skirt wrapped around her waist, and unlike the rest of her "garments", it was clearly mere clothing.


            A softly glowing orange oval was set in a white choker-like collar that went around her neck, above which lay her only visible skin. Her eyes were closed. Her lips were almost waxen and too red. Her face was too stiff, too perfect, and too shiny. In place of ears two long crimson blades pointed up and back. The twin devices looked like an oversized interface headset.


            She bore her now customary updo hairstyle. However, she had no bangs and the stacked layers that formed the bun were made out of a glossy crimson armor. Instead of braided hair a grey braided cable came out of the top of her bun.


            While this contributed to Misako's shock, the Second Child's appearance was not what disturbed her the most. The vast, vast array of cables and tubes that went into the girl had that honor.


            The braided cable that came out of her head was plugged into a Magi terminal. Two tubes of LCL went to her mouth and nose. One with incoming amber fluid, the other with outgoing. A wider tube socketed into a hatch above her stomach, and two smaller tubes snaked out of the otherwise smooth surface of her crotch and buttocks.


            Finally sticking out of her back was the handle and cable to a human-sized version of an Evangelion power cable.


            Turning to Ritsuko, Misako narrowed her eyes.


            Ritsuko frowned. "You know what happened. She raised her arms to protect her face, and a lot of the acid poured into her suit and pooled. We're lucky it happened in LCL. That diluted the acid and kept fumes from forming and destroying her lungs. Also her being upright kept the acid sloshing around her legs instead of her torso and head."


            Misako turned to the Second Child. "Yeah, lucky."


            "You knew we were grafting Evangelion parts into her."


            "Yes, flesh! Not...."


            "Oh no." Insana shook his head and bounded to the terminal. "You can't just grow Evangelion flesh. Don't you know anything about Science? It's wild; it grows; it has to be contained!" The professor started pacing. "And once you start putting in containment systems, well you have to power them, and have computers control the power. You need more systems, more Science. Oh, and there's the drugs. Can't forget the drugs. As you know careful regulation, constant vigilance!"


            "Power." Misako sighed. "She's got a battery?" she asked watching the slight rise and fall of the girl's chest.


            "Her requirements are minimal, so she can last a few days between charging," Ritsuko said distantly.


            "Daily charging is recommended. Don't wear down her cells!" Insana burbled out as he patted an armored shoulder. "It's vital that we follow little Nigokiko's maintenance schedule!"


            Ritsuko groaned. "Do you hate speaking in Japanese that much?"


            "What, did I say it wrong? Nigokiko is child of Nigoki, an affectionate diminutive, and Nigoki itself is in turn essentially second machine." Insana smiled at his creation. "Besides, I do have some right to name her."


            Misako narrowed her eyes. "She's Asuka Soryu, not some Evangelion part."


            "It's not your place to lecture me, is it?" Insana grinned. "She is the most critical part! And now she's an even better!" He rubbed his hands together, and then straightened his gloves. "Director you were onto something using enhanced clones to Pilot, but you didn't reach far enough!"


            "She hasn't even been in a plug yet," Ritsuko sighed.


            "Bah, we've been running her brain prosthesis to Unit 02 via the Magi. Besides over half of her flesh is from her greater self! We built her binding armor from the spares. She's as close as possible." Insana looked down at his creation. "Or at least as close as you'd let me," he grumbled shaking his shoulders and head.


            Misako blinked. "Oh-kay. Ritsuko? I retract all commentary about you being a mad scientist. However, I've also got to retract all my commentary about you being a genius."


            "He's the one that designed Eva's cybernetic systems and knows best how to integrate humans with Eva tech." Ritsuko eyed the Second Child. "Besides he's just being dramatic."


            Insana nodded happily. "One semester-"


            "Yes, intro to theater, we know." Ritsuko shook her head. "And you wonder why Beria claims our field lacks rigor."


            "Are you two going go into a full science-off or can we wake her up? Misako sighed.


            "I'm Sciencier!" Insana declared.


            Misako glared.


            "She's pretty uppity for an abomination. You know there's a medication for the clone blues."


            "She's not an abomination," Ritsuko glared.


            "Oh? But my daughter is?" Insana looked to Misako. "She's just as inhuman as you are."


            Ritsuko held up her hand. "Enough, let's wake her up."


            "Yes, begin the experiment!"


            Ritsuko rolled her eyes as she lifted up the Second Child's skirt and unplugged the waste tubes. She then flicked the covers over, concealing the two ports. The stomach tube was popped off and placed on an armrest rack next to the other two tubes.


            Disturbed but curious, Misako looked over. The three hoses were clearly marked and had caps that popped over the end to seal them. "They're different sizes."


            "One would hope so!" Insana tittered as he used his gloves to interact with the magi terminal. "Ready to purge lungs."


            "Right." Ritsuko unclipped the nosepiece to the LCL exchanger and turned the supply off.


            "Let's see if she can breath air." Insana pressed a button and the still form shuddered to life as her chest heaved with a mechanical coughing and retching. As she inhaled through her nostrils LCL continued to pour out of the mouth tube. As her lungs emptied, the LCL in the tubing started to become frothy and trailed off when air filled her lungs. The coughing subsided and the Second Child returned to her peaceful state.


            Insana looked over his display. "Ah, so she can. That makes things simpler."


            Removing the mouthpiece, Ritsuko sighed. "Remove the power?" she asked, using a towel to clean up the spilled LCL.


            "Yes, her battery's full."


            Ritsuko reached around and lifted the handle to the power connector. There was a click and she drew it out of its slot and placed the charging cable on the rack next to the arm rest.


            "Cutting her off of wired telemetry.... now." Insana then yanked the braided cable out of his terminal. Looking his holographic display, he nodded. "And she's independently operating!" He cheered raising his gloved fist.


            Misako eyed the "hair" bun. "If you're unplugged how do you know that? Why'd you even do that to her head?"


            "Her hair follicles were a lost cause. And a Magi-derived brain prosthesis is much more useful than a wig. Though we had to make sure it was only a wired connection. Wireless is as vulnerable as cryptography. That's why there's only limited transmission capability via her upgraded headset."


            "The ear blades?"


            Insana's expression softened.. "Yes, her ears were very damaged. Her whole face was almost a write-off. So she'd have been a deaf, blind, and ugly potato." He patted her shoulder. "But Science has solved that!"


            He ran a hand over the contours of her hair bun. "But now she's running! All by herself. That just leaves the Signal Termination Plug." Insana gently pushed the Second Child's unresisting shoulders forward. Sticking out of a shaft in her spine, exactly where the plug inserted in an Evangelion,  was a cross-bared capsule. Insana twisted and removed the plug.


            "So, that's what's been keeping her asleep, just like when we put one in an Evangelion?" Misako asked.


            "Oh you're so wrong!" Insana placed the plug on a slot next to the other connectors. "The STP in an Evangelion blocks out nerve impulses. This is simply a special version of her dosage meter."


            "We had to make sure she stayed asleep during the process," Ritsuko explained as she picked up a red capsule. "Her pharmacological needs are even more exotic than yours. This is really the best way to keep her on top of things." She then inserted the plug and once it was locked in place slid the Second Child's back armor over the hatch. There was a slight shiver through the red chassis.


            "Oh, the suspense is too much. How soon do you think?" Insana asked, before shaking his hands in delight.


            The Second Child's eyelids slowly pulled back, revealing solid orange eyes. Banded at the edge in black, each eye had four pupils: a large central one and three smaller ones equally spaced around it


            "The sleeper has awakened!" Insana cried.


            The indicator on the girl's neck shifted from orange to translucent emerald green. A lazy smile formed on wax-red lips. " Ich bin nicht eine Puppe, Mamma," she muttered lazily. Her eyes widened slightly and she looked around. "Hey... did we win?" she happily drawled.


            Misako leaned in. "How much do you remember?"


            The orange eyed girl blinked. "Well... that the attack broke into my plug, and Princess screamed. 'I'm going to kill you and kill you and kill you!' " She smiled again.


            "Drugs are working," Insana noted.


            "Guess I got hurt," the Second Child sighed and leaned back. "Ice Queen, why's my plugsuit got a skirt? Wait, how did I end up with cleavage?" She then ran a hand over her engraved chest plate. "Wait... this isn't...."


            Blinking she lifted up her hand. She flexed some of the fingers and then felt it with her other limb. She shivered. She could feel it. She could feel the material as if it were her own...


            She ran a hand down her torso, feeling the little hatches and plates. All six of her pupils widened when her hand crossed her featureless crotch. However, the worst came when she got to her feet. She tried wriggling her toes, she tried feeling around the footwear, but with dread she realized that she no longer had any toes and that her boot was her actual foot. She could flex her feet but the articulation was different, more hinged and straight.

            Her horror grew when she looked around and saw her father's grinning face. "You! What did you do to me!" She cried; the green oval at her neck momentarily flashing yellow.


            "I saved you!" Insana proudly announced. "But don't worry, I'll show you, dear daughter," he said wheeling a full length mirror in front of her.


            Her mouth closed and she began to take measured breaths. Moving her arms and legs she could tell; she could feel that this was not a costume. Though even worse was her head. Hostile alien eyes stared back at her, antennae-like blades rose from where her ears should be, and instead of hair a carefully sculpted solid resin simulation, weighed down her head. "I... I..."


            "Darling daughter, you're the most vital part of Unit 02; you're Nigokiko the sapiency driver to your greater self. Tragedy has been turned into opportunity; you'll synchronize to perfection! " Insana declared.


            The former redhead shrieked, causing the indicator at her neck to turn yellow and flash red.


            Hoping that the imprint still held, Ritsuko stepped back.


            The indicator returned to yellow and slowly eased back to green. "You mutilated me, you stupid sack of science," she hissed with some resignation.


            "I saved you! It was this or losing your soul." Insana countered.


            The pilot blinked and turned back to Ritsuko and Misako. "Can someone not crazy explain what the hell's going on?"


            Misako exhaled through her teeth. "The Angel wounded you really bad. These two mads decided the best way to heal you involved grafting Evangelion parts into you."


            The technical redhead's eyes widened. "So... I am part robot then."


            "Bah, you're a cyborg," Insana waved his hand. "Nigokiko, you've been reborn to do more than merely pilot. You will truly synchronize with your greater self."


            "Nigokiko? That's a joke right?" the cyborg leveled her gaze at her father. "Why?" she asked, looking back she saw a thick cable running from a Magi terminal and right to her head. She shuddered.


            "To save you of course! Insana exclaimed.


            "Technically you have a lot of similarity with your Evangelion." Ritsuko saw the girl slowly blink then look down at her armored body. "The acid took your hands, feet, much of your limbs. You would have been deaf and blind too."


            "Oh, so this is what it takes for you to care about me?"


            Insana nodded. "You were very badly hurt."


            "Shall we do a sync test?" Insana shook with nervous energy.


            Ritsuko looked over the panicked girl. "Maybe. I think showing her something positive now would help."


            "I'd better still be able to Pilot." The redhead crossed her arms and glared. "I mean... look what you did to me."


             The bottle blonde then went to the phone next to the terminal and called the Command Center.


            "Excellent!" Insana cried as he entered a few commands into the Magi terminal.


            "Hey, what's going on?" the redhead cried as she felt a tingling in her head, but above where her skull should have ended.


            "Simply activating your brain prosthesis." Insana said.


            "What?" the cybernetic girl shrieked. She felt as if the ground had been pulled out from under her and she was in free-fall.


            "A system that helps us regulate your enhancements." Ritsuko put down the phone.


            A wave of sensation hit the redhead and she gasped, arching her back. It was like having a layer of gauze pulled off of her eyes and plugs pulled out of her ears. Images became clearer and she found her eyes following multiple people, simultaneously. A Heads Up Display became overlaid as well.


            On the bottom were a few green icons, notably one in the shape of a battery, but there was also a cursor she found that could lazily control. Not only could she hear more but on the sides of her HUD were notices that seemed to indicate she had found the Magi wireless network, was plugged into the Magi mainline, and was receiving various radio transmissions.


            "Are you ready?" Ritsuko turned to the shocked redhead and pulled on her own goggles. As the scientist made a few arcane motions with her hands, the blast shield behind her retracted, revealing...


            Instantly, the Pilot was out of the chair. She wobbled on her first step, giving Insana enough time to unplug her from the Magi and for Misako to steady her. Rapidly gaining her footing, she walked to the thick glass and placed her hand as she longingly looked at her... her Evangelion. Unit 02 sat alone in the pristine white-walled test cell.


            "You fixed it too!" the cyborg cried as she ran to an access door.


            "Daughter, the skirt, LCL will stain it!" Insana cried.


            The Pilot unhooked the skirt and dropped it to the floor and opened the door.


            "Wow, she's eager," Misako said, stepping through the door. "You sure she's not a danger? I mean... look at what you did." She said to Ritsuko who was also following the Pilot down the catwalk.


            "She's not crazy; that's.. a good sign."


            "Huh," Misako shook her head. "I hope Rei and Shinju get here in time."


            "Such an eager girl!" Insana proudly cackled from the control station.


            The plug was extended and the hatch was already open. Climbing in the Pilot found the cockpit seat slightly changed. Slipping into the seat she felt the new cables and tubes extend and plug into her.


            Misako came to the hatch. "Are you sure you're ready right now? We can take this slow."


            "Slow?" The Second Child turned to the Captain. "Those two mutilated my body. It better have some benefit."


            Misako frowned. "They were trying to help. You were crippled. Ritsuko cares for you, and I know your father loves you. He did all this for you."


            The redhead looked down. "Sure he does, now that I'm one of his experiments. I want to do this. Piloting's what I'm supposed to do."


            Misako nodded. "Good luck." She said before closing the hatch.


            The plug descended into the Evangelion and locked in place. LCL flooded the plug and she leaned back. She felt connected, she felt open.

 
            "Charging LCL. Second Contact is made. The connection of the A10-nerve is operational," Ritsuko said via a speaker in the plug.

 The amber fluid suddenly turned clear. The inner surface of the Plug went though its expected change, first a rainbow ran up the length of the cylinder, then she was immersed in darkness as the surface went black and lightning-like white lines ran up the length of the tube. The interior then turned a glossy ruby, and finally the veiwscreens the plug, everything vanished totally from her vision. Her intrinsic AT field rushed out and meshed over the Evangelion's. She was synchronized.


            She was.


            Evangelion Unit 02 opened her eyes and looked around the test chamber. She lifted her arms up and flexed them slightly. Her shoulders ached a bit where the pylons were held to the wall support.


            "How are you feeling?" Misako asked, a display of her popping up on Unit 02's HUD.


            "Good," the Evangelion replied.


            "Synchronization Ratio...." Ritsuko gasped. "96.7% No way!"


            "I told you not to doubt my girl!" Insana tittered joyously. "And she'd be even better if you'd have let me give her the right number of eyes!" He picked up the microphone. "You're doing great, Dear. Show them who's the best!"


            "You still feeling okay?" Misako repeated.


            Unit 02 smirked internally. "Yes, can we try some training?"


            "Sorry, we've got other tests, but your... father's right, you're doing great." Ritsuko said, her voice a bit shaken.


            "Oh." The Evangelion lowered her head.


            "Plug eject," Ritsuko stated.


            Synchronization severed, the Evangelion felt her spirit squeeze down. After a moment, she realized she had gone to her lesser body. She opened her eyes, not just a single pair, and watched the LCL slowly drain away. After evacuating her lungs she leaned back in the cockpit and waited.


            The hatch opened, and Ritsuko poked her head in. "You can get out now."


            "Father's right," the Second ran a hand along the inner wall of the tube.


            "Yes, you sync'd very well. I don't think Shinju can beat this."


            "Not that. Father's right about what he did to me." The cyborg gave a caustic smile and patted the plug. "I am a part of my Evangelion. It is a part of me. I am Nigokiko."


            Ritsuko paled. She then pulled away from the hatch. "Insana you bastard, what did you do!"


            Still smiling, Nigokiko nodded and disconnected from her plug. Crossing the catwalk she rinsed off in a shower alcove, rubbed herself dry, and entered the control room with a cocky smirk and haughty expression. The argument between the three adults stopped.


            "So who's the best Evangelion?" Nigokiko's smile died when the argument resumed.


            Insana smirked.


            "You knew synchronization right after regaining consciousness would imprint her! And you didn't tell me?" Ritsuko shouted.


            "It was inevitable! What did you think a synchronization of near unity would do?"


            "Your daughter thinks she's an Evangelion." Misako said.


            The professor shrugged. "Well she is, mostly."


            Nigokiko leaned back on the doorframe. "This isn't my fault?"


            Ritsuko turned to the cyborg. "What happened to Asuka?"


            Six pupils narrowed. "What about her?"


            "You know who she is."


            Nigokiko palmed her face. "Yes... Asuka Soryu. Second Child. Evangelion pilot with two, or is it three, kills. Daughter of Doctor Kyoko Zeppelin Soryu and a science-obsessed lunatic of a father, who after she was injured on her third sortie decided to turn her into a mini Unit 02."


            Ritsuko kept her expression neutral. "Well, that's somewhat common knowledge," she said neutrally.

 
            "Would you like to know the last time I saw my Mother? She was very sick and she killed herself but not before she hung a little doll that she thought was me. She wanted us to go together." The cyborg's eyes flashed. "I'm not nuts. I know I'm Asuka. I'm still me... but I'm not."


            Looking at Insana, she set her jaw. "Because of you, I'm also my Eva. You turned me into this." She pulled at her braid. "I don't feel comfortable saying I'm Asuka." She waved a hand over her body. "Asuka's not this. I might as well call myself Nigokiko. That's what you turned me into."


            Grinning, Insana nodded. "That's a healthy thing to say."


            "No it isn't!" Ritsuko held her forehead.


            "How did you expect me to react?" Nigokiko narrowed her eyes. "Did you expect me to be happy? To smile and accept this? You should be thankful that I'm only this angry."


            "I think it's a lovely name," Shinju softly said as she stepped in from around the corner. Standing next to her, Rei stayed silent.


            Nigokiko smirked. "Princess. When did you get here?" She eyed the little girl's choker; two polished black charms had been added to the silver and gold adornment.


            "Doctor. Akagi called us about the test. You were extremely adequate!" Shinju cheered. "Your father must love you very much; he did everything he could to save you."


            Nigokiko laughed. "And what do you think of what they did to me?" She picked up her skirt, hooked it onto her chassis, and flared it out.


            Shinju stepped forward and wrapped her arms around the cyborg and rested her head on a surprisingly pliable chest. "Cute. Like a feminine Eva."


            Nigokiko returned the embrace. "Well.. yeah."


            "Isn't this a bit melodramatic?" Ritsuko asked.


            Misako rolled her eyes. "She was burned halfway by acid. Had god-knows-what grafted onto her so you could turn her into a mini-Evangelion, and then you shove her into a sync test when she first wakes up. What did you think?"


            "I knew. Am I the only one that thought things through?" Insana pouted. "This is why Science gets a bad reputation. So many people don't stop to think! You have to think about what you're doing."


            The captain glared at Ritsuko. "You're supposed to be the sane one here. Shit, was I lucky when I woke up in a new body? Are you the reason Shinju's so girly?"


            "Misako!"


            Misako rolled her eyes. "We can tell Asuka, or should the Eva-girl not know about the Ayanamis?"


            "Nigokiko," the cyborg interjected.


            "Sure, there's no reason to bother keeping secrets," Ritsuko said.


            "Wait, what are you?" Nigokiko blinked. She then noticed the fourth was still hugging her and ended the embrace.

            "We're clones As- err... Kiko-chan."


            "Oh, that's a good name." Shinju nodded


            "It is short," Rei added.


            Nigokiko looked between the sisters. "Gott. You are clones. Is that why you're so good, Princess? You're modified?"


            "They're about as human as you," Ritsuko nodded.


            "That's meaningless," Insana sneered. "They can pass as human."


            "Not exactly what I was going for, and... wait we're only as human as her?" Misako raised an eyebrow and looked down at herself. "What the hell are we then?"


            "Cheating test tube babies." Nigokiko smirked.


            "She still sounds like Asuka," Misako muttered.


            The cyborg turned to the blonde. "And how come they look human while I've got plastic hair and airplane wings for ears?"


            "I wanted to give you fins too."


            Nigokiko looked at her shoulders. "Father... I have fins."


            "Not those! Big ones! Like on the old cars, and a prehensile tail, that would have doubled as another neural link."


            Nigokiko sighed.


            "As you said, test tube babies." Ritsuko shrugged. "You were born human, they were made in a lab."


            "Yes, huge difference," Nigokiko deadpanned.


            "That's no way to feel, dear Nigokiko. You’re far superior to Director's blended chimeras. You've gone beyond merely piloting your Evangelion. You are a part of Nigoki, the most important part. The irreplaceable part."


            The cyborg frowned. "Yeah, maybe Kiko's not a bad name to go by."


            "You could stay Asuka." Ritsuko offered.


            Nigokiko laughed.


            Misako poked herself in the arm. "Seriously Rits. What's up with these bodies? If we're only as human as Kiko over there..."


            Ritsuko shook her head. " 'Kiko' has a human nervous system, torso, and central organs. Her Evangelion parts fill in the gaps, and we added cybernetic systems to integrate it all together."


            "And we are?" Misako asked.


            "Hybrids. A complete mix of Evangelion and human from the ground up. Takes longer to make and doesn't sync as well, but doesn't need as much regulation."


            "So, we're part Eva too?"


            Ritsuko smirked. "What did you think 'clones altered to ensure piloting' meant? She's based off Unit 02. You three use Unit 01 as a base," she said, not technically lying.


            "So, you knew about Angels before the Second Impact?" Kiko asked.


            Ritsuko smiled. "Clever girl. There wasn't proof, so it was a limited program. That's why Misako's not too good at being a Pilot. We fixed that in the later versions."


            "Thanks," Misako gave a false grin.

 

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

 


            Owen looked at the two pilots and gave a light snort. "The most important thing to remember: you cannot take on an Angel." He looked around the Republic Aviation conference room. "You've got this big gun and you'll be tempted to think you can take on the world; you can't."


            "But you took two Angels." USAF Captain Robert Ulam stated.


            Owen shook his head. "No, I provided fire support. The only reason my shots did any damage was because the Evangelions were on the ground fighting the damn thing."


            "But... what if we don't have Evas?" Captain Stanislaw Serber asked.


            "You want to hear something funny?" Wing Commander Owen Lysaght smirked. "You're dead. Hate to break it to ya."


            "What if a device pierces the AT field before we engage?"


            "Well... timing goes wrong and you're too close: you're dead. Charge goes low and the Angel is still kicking: you're dead. Charge too high; the Angel's already dead. There's no point in it mate."


            "In Operation Chariot you managed to pin the Angel, without piercing the AT field." Ulam stated.


            Owen nodded. "Yeah, kinetic energy is kinetic energy. The Angel's AT field protected it, but it absorbed all the momentum and that slowed it down."


            "So you can engage an Angel without piercing the field."


            Owen shrugged. "To what end? That worked because there were boots on the ground that could hit the Angel."


            Serber frowned. "So, what can we do?"


            "Look smart in your uniforms and big white elephants as you circle around the Yank capital, and hope to damn hell that no Angel decides to show up."


            Standing in the back of the room, Hiram glared.


            "The Dreadhog can destroy servitor angels though." Serber said.


            "Yeah, if the Angel spews out a lot of minions you can mow them down. Which reduces the number of nukes, but don't get cocky. You're going to want air support."


            "Yes, when the spider bombs flew up to you."


             Ulam looked back at the chief engineer. "Maybe you should add machine gun turrets."


            "It'd be better if the first production orders went to the JSSDF," Owen sighed.


            "The third prosecution YA-11 will be stationed at Misawa," Serber stated with some embarrassment.


            "That'll be the day." Owen shook his head. "And work on your gunnery. Depending on the Angel they've got some nasty ranged weapons. Don't get any closer than you have to."


            "But the gun's pretty much fixed on the nose," Ulam said.


            "There's that," Owen grinned. "This is why you'll have to come in high and know when to pull off. Especially since the girl turns like a sow. You have raw power and range."


            "Use it as a standoff weapon, then?"


            Owen nodded. "Right, and remember, you're not there to kill the Angel. You're there to help the people that can kill it."


            "And use it as an emergency communications center?" Ulam asked.


            "Right. Now if you get an Evangelion assigned to you then you'll be useful, but that will require a lot of coordination. You'll be shooting a lot closer to the ground troops than you're used to."


            Hiram made a point to look at his watch. "Okay, they should have the plane ready for us."


            "Good," Owen shook his head. "I'm no good at this classroom stuff. It'll be much easier to explain in the cockpit."


            "Will the Evangelions be sortied too?" Ulam asked.


            "Not today."


            "We'll try to get you in on the next training mission," Hiram assured.


            "Yeah, that'll help if the Yanks ever get their own Pilot," Owen groused.


            "The US is handing over one of their Evas," Serber reminded as he flipped through his notes..


            "And taking their sweet time too, I can see holding onto critical equipment, but without a Pilot, it's just a giant money pit."


            "Yes, and their forfeiting of an Evangelion has nothing to do with stationing us state-side," Serber sighed.


            "Right, you two go on to the locker room, we'll have to fit some G-suits for you," Hiram smiled.


            "Oh, you want some real maneuvers today?" Owen grinned.


            "Really? That sow?" Serber asked, picking up his notes.


            "It's got it where it counts," Hiram assured. His grin held until the two pilots left the room. Then stern-faced he turned to his own pilot.


            "Yeah?" Owen eyed the engineer.


            Hiram sighed. "I suppose Republic could have been firmer on the sale."


            "But we weren't. You know time's important, and you know we need at least four planes to maintain total coverage. Birds break down, and you can't patrol and train. Then there's battle losses."


            Hiram laughed. "Boy, we're an American arms company. The Feds are the ones that decide who we can sell to, and they wanted to be first in line."


            "The airframes are Ukrainian and the reactors are half Japanese as is one of the weapons systems. It's also built to launch Russian nuclear devices."


            "Yes, yes. And our test Pilot is a mouthy sun-fried Bushman that never really left Darwin." Hiram shook his head. "The point is that we have to make the Beltway boys happy, and that requires a lot of lobbying and ass-kissing. Why do you think we've hung onto Tokita?"


            "That little NHIS yes-man?" Owen rolled his eyes. "Is he the one that gave away the first two planes?"


            "Yes, he's the one that sold them, which is where your paycheck comes from."


            "I'd rather be a mercenary. Least that's more honest."


            Hiram eyed the lanky man. "And Shiro's the one that got them to station the third bird at Misawa."


            "Huh, so we're supposed to be happy with that?"


            Hiram ran a hand over his bald head. "Welcome to the wonderful world of procurement."


            "Well, I really hope those boys don't have to fight an Angel."


            "Too aggressive?"


            Owen shrugged. "Not as bad as those goons the JSDF sent over. Those guys were way too eager. Don't they know that an Angel took out an Evangelion? Those bots are a lot harder to kill than an up-gunned transport."


            "You just want to keep your job," Hiram smirked.


             "Sure there's that, but you built a plane that can annoy an angel Booksmarts. That's really amazing, but an annoyed angel can still kill you. Those guns are big, but not big enough."


            Hiram's eyes twinkled. "There are plans on upgrading the guns."


            "Oh? Austin Advanced Technology's got something in the works? How can they beat the penetration problem?"


            "They've been tinkering with the data from Operation Chariot. They think they can deform the field and cause it to hurt the angel inside without breaking it. Think of a high explosive squash head."

            Owen blinked. "Can an AT field even cause spalling damage? I mean HESH works by turning the armor itself into shrapnel by blowing out the backside, can you even do that with a field?"


            "That's just a metaphor, Son. The actual mechanism is the opposite. A squash head spreads out before detonation to maximize transmission of the shockwave. The Austin boys have a plan that minimizes the contact area, concentrating the energy and causing local deformations. Their theory is that enough concentrated fire can cause a cumulative displacement."


            "So... it stabs the Angel with its own AT field? Do AT fields even work that way?"


            Hiram grinned. "Only one way to find out?"


            "The scientific method?"


            "Bah, science is all well and good, but you can't beat empirical testing."


            "Empirical being?" Owen asked with a smirk.


            "Find an Angel and shoot the dang thing." Hiram chuckled.

 

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

 


            Kiko yawned. She then blinked.


            Insana chuckled. "Yes Daughter, you can do that. You're still mostly organic."


            Looking at her greater self, Kiko tapped on the console she leaned on. "Well... can't I go home yet?"


            "Your tests are pretty good, and you're stable enough," Insana allowed as he adjusted his goggles.


            "Oh no! You're not going to make me the bad guy!" Ritsuko yelled.


            Kiko tilted her head, causing her Magi cable to scrape across the console.


            "You know perfectly well she has to stay here for continued observation." Ritsuko crossed her arms over her chest.


            "Like the Pilot compound is a less secure facility." Insana snorted. "I can watch her just as well over there."


            "No," Ritsuko hissed. "You're not playing the good guy here. You know perfectly well this is a more secure facility and that there's more equipment here in case something goes wrong."


            "Are you saying I'm stuck here?" Kiko tapped an armored finger in annoyance. She yawned again. "I just wanna go home."


            Insana patted her shoulder. "I know, but Akagi is right, you should stay here."


            Kiko frowned. She then shook her head and rubbed her eyes. "What's wrong? I just... I just got up?"


            Ritsuko turned to Insana and pulled her goggles on.


            "It's okay," Insana assured. "All those tests and synchronizing really wore you out."


            Kikko looked down. "It's barely past noon," she whispered.


            "You'll get your strength back. I promise you that! Science will make you strong! But first a little nap."


            After laughing Kiko's eyes widened in horror and she set her jaw. "You have a bed for me down here? Since I can't leave the lab.."


            Insana tittered and led Kiko down into the depths of the laboratory.


            "So, what's this thing? Am I really that high maintenance?" Kiko waved at a large grey and white object. It was shaped like a tanning bed, or a coffin. There was hinged glass door on top. The interior was half filled by shiny plastic-coated padding and cushions, with a few strange arms and access panels and plugs.


            At bed height, the object was mounted on a frame that contained of several tanks, computer stations, coiled and curved tubing and other humming machinery. Some cables ran from the large device to conduits that were bolted to the floor.


            Ritsuko had beaten them to the object and made sure that its display screen was locked. It would be bad for the Second to see the "program".


            "I need all this stuff?" Kiko circled the tube. "You're pretty bad at this aren't you, Father?"


            Insana chuckled. "Not really, no. You were designed so you could eat, defecate, and sleep normally. Yes you'd need to replace your Pharma-Plug when it gets low, or jack into a charger when your batteries go down."


            "So, I'd sleep with a wire stuck in my back. Fun." Kiko deadpanned.


            "Asuka, your battery should last several days, and it recharges when you're Piloting," Ritsuko assured.


            Kiko glared.


            "Are you going to be this way every time I use your real name?" Ritsuko looked to the "gem" embedded on Kiko's throat, but it stayed green.


            "I think it's because you called synchronizing with her greater self mere 'piloting'."


            Kiko sighed. "Look that's pretty private."


            "I suppose you want to hold onto whatever privacy you can," Ritsuko allowed.


            "I'm naked save for a translucent skirt." Kiko shook her head. "And why don't I have a bed? If I can sleep normally."


            "We want to make sure you're okay on your first few days. This is a very delicate time for you," Ritsuko previcated.


            Kiko yawned. "Were your clones this buggy?"


            "It did take a lot of testing before we could wake them up." Ritsuko smiled. "There's a room in Terminal Dogma called the Reiquarium."


            The redhead stared. "Right."


            "Don't worry about that.  You'll like the tube; it's really very comfortable," Insana added.


            "You tried it out, didn't you?" Kiko eyed her father.


            "This one? No. But I have one in my own quarters!"


            "He's joking; I hope" Ritsuko coughed. "If after a few days there's no problems we can have things go back to normal."


            "Things can't go back to normal." Kiko crossed her arms over her chest. "That's why I'm not letting you people call me Asuka anymore."


            Ritsuko sighed. "Fine."


            "So what's this stupid thing do?"


            "Oh! It's got all the special features!" Insana said with glee. "The regen-chamber connects to your systems and conducts a full maintenance cycle while you sleep: recharge, clean, remove waste, refuel, replenish drugs."


            Kiko eyed the contraption. "Wow so I can get a fresh fix, a spa treatment, an oil change and an enema. Do I also get wax and undercoating?"


            Insana giggled. "That's my girl!"


            Ritsuko chuckled. "Actually, yes. The cleaning agent does polish and there are rollers to buff your chassis."


            Kiko turned to her father. "You built this didn't you?"


            "I'm against the idea, but if you had to have a regen-tube, I wanted to make sure it was the best!" Insana shook his fist.


            After yawning yet again, Kiko's eyes widened.


            "You may as well go in." Ritsuko shrugged. "Think of it like another sync test."


            "Or think of it as a nap," Insana remarked.


            Rolling her eyes, Kiko climbed into the regen-chamber. Laying down on her back, she closed the door. After savoring the soft padding, she felt pair of clamps came down and nudged her shoulders, centering her in the chamber. Then there were a series of clicks and snaps.
           


            Like when she synchronized, the connections felt familiar, secure. Her needs were being taken care of, power was being supplied, nourishment was pumping in, waste pumping out, and the drugs... She smiled and felt her consciousness soften as the chamber flooded with LCL. The gem-like indicator turned from green to orange.


            Relishing the encompassing soft warmth her mind drifted off. Then the wash cycle triggered. The padding on the bottom and sides expanded out nearly cocooning her in a soft and vibrating embrace. Extruding wax and sealant, the pads cleaned and polished while her brain prosthesis piped-in soothing music and "relevant" images.


            Ritsuko unlocked the display and monitored the "slide show." She sighed. "I wish I could have a smoke."


            "Too many delicate machines," Insana admonished, flatly.


            "You? You disapprove." Ritsuko shook her head.


            Insana looked up at his daughter. "The Commander's logic is impeccable. There are three Ayanami. There is one of her. The Ayanami are unquestionably loyal and..."


            "Asuka has taken a new name out of spite." Ritsuko completed.


            "I had hoped that the synchronization would stabilize her."


            "And the imprint?"


            "Operand conditioning requires a lot of time and consistency. Neither of which we had."


            Looking at the images Ritsuko nodded. They were the expected manipulations. Kiko saluting Misako, Kiko kneeling before Ikari, Kiko laughing and hugging the Ayanami, Kiko smiling as she climbed into her regen-tube, Kiko looking at various plates of food with revulsion, Kiko being disgusted with a toilet, Kiko proudly posing in front of a mirror, Kiko holding a rifle, standing protectively in front of formally-dressed Anayamis, Kiko proudly embracing a beaming Professor Insana, and finally Kiko lovingly hugging a hybridization of Kyoko Zeppelin Soryu and Ritsuko Akagi.


            She could understand why Ikari gave this order, but that did not mean she had to be happy about it. Resistance crumbling, Ritsuko pulled out a cigarette and lit it. "Poor kid. You wanted to take that name to spite us? Well now you're going to live up to it."


            Insana coughed.


            "Oh please. She's in an isolated environment. We could be burning alive and she'd hardly cough."


            Grinning, Insana waved the smoke away. "I will say that today was a success."


            "Asuka's angry at us, showing mental stability issues, and is still weak as a kitten. Oh, and she hates you."


            "She hated me before. She just woke up from major surgery. She's always angry. She's her mother's daughter. What else is new?" Insana smirked and patted the window on the regen-tube. "But she's still alive. She's whole now, and it was my Science that did it! She'll get stronger."


            "And her mind?"


            "If it breaks, it breaks." Insana shrugged. "She took synchronizing without turning into a doll, so she's over the worst."


            Ritsuko sighed and took another drag.


            "How's the schedule?" Insana asked.


            "Standard five minute cycling. On the off cycles there's refreshed LCL. Mood music and images will stay but their intensity will fade."


            "Yes, can't press too hard. That brute of a Commander doesn't get it." Insana sneered.


            "Hey, I supported you on that. There's no punishment and no negative reinforcement." Ritsuko took a drag. "Such events are too choice specific anyway."


            "Yes, better to have her be punished via peer pressure and military training."


            Ritsuko cocked an eyebrow.


            "Not sarcasm. I don't trust your little program to properly punish my daughter." Insana sighed. "So does the narration fade with the image cycles?"


            "Yes, but there's a synthesized version of her voice that provides 'gushing' commentary to the images."


            Insana shook his head.

 
            "I think subsequent cycles should have the brain prosthesis monitor facial expressions and spoken words. That way appropriate expressions would get pharmacological positive reinforcement." Ritsuko sighed and crushed the end of her cigarette, extinguishing the flame.


           

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

 


            Rei stepped into the kitchen and frowned slightly. The table was covered with a carefully organized set of cutlery, cups, saucers, plates, tea set accessories, desserts, and a carafe. She looked over to see Shinju shuttle between the table and a large basket that rested on an adjacent counter.


            "For the Second?" Rei asked after several seconds of observation.


            Shinju blushed. "I... I thought she could use something... special."


            "Concerned?"


            "Well, this is all very scary for her isn't it? She woke up in a new body with a new family. I just hope she can handle it." Shinju looked down and adjusted her apron.


            "Concern for her or for you?"


            "I just want to make sure she'll be okay without... losing herself." Shinju blushed.


            "What do you think she'll become?"


            "I don't know." Shinju said as she put a tiny cake in a sealed plastic container.


            "Projection? Plans?"


            "You think I'm worried about losing myself?" Shinju raised an eyebrow.


            "If so I would be quite disappointed, I had thought you possessed a remarkable resistance towards self delusion."


            "Then what?"


            "Perhaps the Second's similarity towards your own situation has you on edge."


            "Her personality is more problematic."


            Rei's lips curled up slightly. "Understatement. Good."


            "It would be bad if she were unable to cope." Shinju started transferring items into the wicker basket.


            "The Commander would have prepared for that eventuality."


            Shinju nodded. "But we can still help her. That would reduce his workload."


            "You think she can be useful?"


            "It would be a shame to waste her. Her father... Dr. Akagi put so much work into her."


            Rei frowned. "Are you still having problems? Still having dreams?"


            Shinju looked down. "Not that one. Not Akagi-san's mother."


            "The giant of light then?"


            Raising her head, Shinju saw her sister's eyes flicker into a brighter shade of crimson. "You saw Her too?"


            "It would seem that Captain Ayanami is worthy of her name."


            Shinju nodded.


            "Certainly, Captain Ayanami's rage at Her is well placed... appropriate even." Rei's smile revealed her teeth.


            "Oneechan?" Shinju asked, shivering slightly. She rubbed her arms; the goose flesh receded as she warmed up.


            Rei's expression neutralized. "Yes?"


            "What do you think of Kiko?"


            "Fitting name."


            "What about her?" Shinju asked as she shifted the picnic basket's contents.


            "You are planning to meet with her. To what end?"


            "To show her we're still friends. I want to reassure her. She's such a lonely girl." Shinju closed the basket.


            "Her being wounded did not change that."


            "True, but now she needs to know she's not alone." Shinju slipped on a pair of gloves.


            "She's not?"


            "Not if we have anything to say about it." Shinju smirked.


            Rei simply nodded. She knew her clone had only packed two place settings; clearly her presence would not be needed for this outing.


            Shinju slipped a ruffled little purple shawl-like hood over her head and shoulders. It matched her puffy skirt, ruffled blouse, and her bowed hair band. "What do you think?" she asked holding the picnic basket.


            "Cavity inducing."


            Shinju squealed happily.

 

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

 


            The regeneration tube gave a beep as the LCL drained. Nozzles sprayed a quick water rinse over the occupant, the sides gave a drying buff, and blowers kicked in for the finishing drying. The clear door slid open and the various tubes disconnected and were withdrawn. Expression serene, Kiko opened her eyes, and her choker gem flipped from orange to green. With familiar-fluid motions she rose and stepped out of the horizontal tube. Giving the great grey bulk a pat, she picked up her translucent skirting and fixed it around her chassis.


            Her glossy ruby lips pulled into a smile as her father shuffled over to her. Watching his waving, flailing arms and jerking body, she kept herself statue-still. "Good morning Father." She then extended her arms and gave him a stiff hug, held it for three seconds and let go. "I've been awoken early." The time was only one of the information displays she automatically consulted. "Is something wrong with my systems?"


            "No. You've got a visitor."


            A precisely detailed eyebrow raised.


            "Oh yes the Fourth is here to see you," Insana tittered.


            "Early for her."


            "I wanted to have a chance to talk before this morning's training." Rounding a mass of lab-clutter, Shinju stepped into view.


            Kiko gave a curt nod. The young clone was in one of her normal, and thus too cute, dresses. The expected accessories were there: choker, velvet gloves, and, of course, purple hair band; though the basket she carried was new.


            "Go chat in the break room." Insana waved his hand. "I'll call when it's time for your training." The break room was less of a room and more of a cleared off section of the lab. There were a couple of tables, some chairs, a refrigerator, and a microwave.


            "How are you doing Kiko-chan?" Shinju asked placing a picnic basket on the table.


            Sitting with her shoulders straight, the Evangelion sapiency driver smiled. "That is refreshing. Even Dr. Akagi still resists calling me by my proper name."


            "Your proper name is a bit long," Shinju said as she unpacked the wicker basket.


            "Where did you get that?"


            "Gift from Igor. They're very worried about you. It's been a month and they don't know what happened." Shinju took out two place settings: tea cups, plates, saucers, silverware.


            Watching the place setting build in front of her, Kiko's expression turned neutral. "It's been over a month."


            Nodding, Shinju pulled out a sealed tea carafe.


            "Is this why Ice-Queen and Dr. Akagi are so worried? Are they afraid that my Father is turning me into an android? Are they afraid that Asuka died on the table and I'm just some distant copy?"


            "Well aren't you?" Shinju asked pouring a tiny bit of tea into cup before Kiko.


            "Princess..."


            Shinju poured herself some tea. "There's nothing wrong with being what you are now. Your father loves you. You can still fight."


            Kiko went still.


            "Would you like some cake?" Shinju asked as she pulled out a large piece of chocolate layer cake.


            Kiko tried to ignore the tickling, seductive scent. "Are you saying it's better if I were just some robot that my Father built?"


            "It'd certainly be easier." Cutting the cake, Shinju looked wistful.


            "Well... yes. My life as Asuka was... complicated." Kiko turned back and looked into the depths of the lab. "You sound like my father."


            "He's just doing what he thinks best for you."


            Turning back, Kiko simply flatly stared.


            "You do love him," Shinju teased.


            Kiko set her jaw. "You woke me out of my tube for this?"


            "Nope. Cake!" Shinju exclaimed, pushing a miniscule piece onto Kiko's plate.


            "Oh, for a bit I thought you wanted to crawl into the regeneration chamber with me."


            Shinju blushed.


            "Too easy, Princess." Looking down, Kiko's smile slowly vanished. "You know I don't eat. My tube takes care of that."


            "There's more to eating than sustenance. Pleasure is a big part of eating."


            Kiko found her glossy cheeks flushing. "Princess... I don't need this..."


            "So, your tube satisfies all your needs?" Shinju innocently asked.


            Groaning, Kiko pinched the bridge of her nose. "You have proven my humanity."


            "Oh?"


            "Robots don't get this frustrated."


            "Have you spent any time with the Magi?"


            Kiko narrowed her eyes.


            Shinju winced at the eight pupils that focused on her. "Bad question."


            "Maybe we should just eat the cake." Kiko picked up a fork, and carefully cut a miniscule portion of cake and frosting. After scooping it up, she raised the fork and it hovered before her lips. Feeling queasy, her stomach rebelled, but it was overridden by her shoveling the fork into her waiting mouth.


            The rich, moist chocolate hit her tongue. The under stimulated appendage lit-up and Kiko arched her back. Moaning she rolled forward and her shoulders sagged. Dreamily she cut off another piece.


            "Good gynoids are given generously," Shinju purred.


            Blushing, Kiko lowered her head. "Uh...." She quickly closed her mouth and went still. There was the sound of ruffling, brushing silk and the cyborg found herself being embraced, enveloped in frills and fluff. Warm arms encircled her chassis as a couple of fingers explored the lines of her shoulder fins. The warmth and safety felt familiar, felt right, it fit. Waxen lips bloomed into a broad grin as she limply leaned into the embrace.


            "Oh Kiko... Kiko, Kiko, Kiko. It's alright Kiko-chan..." Shinju soothed. "Death is part of being one of the Children, but it allows for rebirth."


            Kiko blinked and looked at the girl standing over her.


            Serene, Shinju cupped Kiko's chin. "It would be easier to start over. To start fresh. Would it make the pain go away? Would it eliminate the loneliness?" Shinju turned and looked into the distance. "Does it matter? It's not like we have a choice."


            "We?" Kiko asked, just before the clone leaned in and kissed her on the forehead.


            Releasing her arms, Shinju giggled and returned to her chair. "You really do have a wonderful opportunity. Not many get to make amends with their fathers, not many get a reset."


            Exhaling, Kiko picked up her tea-cup. Her arm should have shaken; Asuka's arm would have spilled even that minuscule amount. Instead her teacup was smoothly delivered to her lips.


            It was no chocolate, but there was still some intensity. Shivering, Kiko returned the cup to its saucer. "So... death? All Pilots? But... you're a clone"


            "And you’re a gynoid." Shinju smiled.


            Feeling chill, Kiko rubbed her shoulders. "But... before."


            "Does it matter?"


            "For you, was there a before?"


            "Was there one for you?" Shinju sipped her tea.


            "Of course!"


            "Really? I thought Kiko Insana woke up ten days ago."


            The cyborg grit her teeth. "I'm...."


            "Yes?"


            The cyborg's expression broke and she slumped forward, like a marionette with its strings cut. The only movement came from her chest as she softly sobbed. "It wasn't supposed to be this way," she cried and was immediately encircled in another silken embrace. "I can't do this."


            To the cyborg it sounded like Shinju's chair finished falling over after, the clone raced around the table and hugged her. Shinju leaned in and whispered into an ear blade. "Asuka Soryu can't. She failed. Kiko can. She cannot fail."


            "Why... why are you doing this?"


            "So many questions." Shinju smiled. "Questions are a burden to others; answers a prison for oneself."


            "I'm not a burden."


            "Who isn't?" Shinju released her arms and tried to step away, but Kiko grabbed her.


            "Nigokiko! You need the Production Model."


            Blinking in surprise, Shinju continued to step back, pulling Kiko off her chair. The cyborg slipped forward and fell to her knees. Wincing, she looked up.


            Shinju loomed over her. After a moment of wide-eyed shock, the clone regained her composure. Giving a frosty smile Shinju, straightened the cyborg's legs so that she was in a proper double kneel; next she clasped the unresisting gynoid's hands together; finally she bowed the sapiency driver's head.


            "We all serve Nerv. This is our purpose." Shinju stated.


            Reveling in a warm déjà-vu, Kiko gave a respectful nod.


            Shinju ran a finger along the length of an ear blade. "We will make you most adequate."


            Stealing an upward glance, Kiko saw Shinju's head lowered, covering her face in shadows, save her eyes. Brightly, almost gleaming, red eyes stared down.. Lowering her own gaze, Kiko assumed that it was a trick of the lights and reflection, though normally it took glasses to accomplish. Unknown to either her choker indicator briefly flashed purple.


            "I trust you're feeling... better, Kiko?" Shinju patted the cyborg's head.


            While keeping the rest of her body still, Kiko nodded her head.


            "Great!" Shinju reached down, clasping Kiko's hand, and smoothly hauled the gynoid too her feet. Shinju let go, leaving Kiko wincing at the vise-like pressure that had been applied to her hand.


            "You didn't have to yank my shoulder out," Kiko complained, examining the armor of her left hand.


            Blushing, Shinju straightened her gloves and righted both chairs. "What time is it?" she asked sitting down.


            "Seventeen-after," Kiko automatically replied.


            "Oh my... I'm late. I need to talk with Oneesan." Shinju started packing up.


            "It's okay Princess," Kiko found herself smiling demurely. "I'll cleanup. I can give you your basket after this morning's training."


            Shinju smiled, and gave Kiko a hug. "You're the best!" She exclaimed, kissing the gynoid on the cheek.


            Kiko watched the ruffled girl nearly skip out of the lab. "The best...." She shook her head, and sorted out the table. The cups were drained and washed in the sink along with the rest of the plates and flatware, the cake was sealed back up, and the basket was filled.
            After taking a moment to square the basket relative to the table edges, Kiko inspected the break room. Finding it satisfactory she returned to the depths of the laboratory.


            She found her father, in his standard goggles, at the synchronization control booth. The security shutters had been raised and the crimson Evangelion was visible through the observation windows.


            Insana looked up from his work. "Did you have a good little tea party?"


            Kiko nodded. "Yes, Father."


            "Good. Team integration is very important." Insana stood up. "It's fortunate that they're used to the unusual, and are less likely to be jealous of your superiority."


            Looking at her greater self, Kiko blushed. "Yes, Father."


            Insana rubbed his chin. "I didn't get a chance to ask, did your regeneration cycle proceed normally?"


            "Yes, Father."


            After shambling over to her, Insana put an arm around Kiko. "I do love how you repeat that response. So crisp, so respectful, so... scientific."


            This time Kiko smirked. "Yes, Father."


            "What's wrong?"


            Kiko snaked out of her father's gentle hug. "Other than everything?"


            "Narrowing it down would be helpful. Are you angry at being conscripted to fight alien horrors? Do you not like being, for all intents and purposes, killed in battle? Maybe it's that you've been turned into a human-scale Evangelion? Maybe you're jealous of the clones being more alien than you, but able to pass as human."


            Kiko stared. "Why would I care about that?"


            "Oh, do tell?" Tapping his fingertips together, Insana smiled.


            "Why would I care what the unwashed rabble think?" Kiko sneered.


            "Of course! Then what bothers you daughter?"


            "What bothers me is that I'm.... I'm getting used to this." Kiko's gaze returned to Unit 02.


            "That is to be expected. Failure to adapt would result in a mental breakdown."


            Kiko laughed.


            "I doubt Nerv would appreciate a crazed Evangelion."


            "This is me coping then?" Kiko flexed her fist. "Father, I sleep in a tube. I haven't used the toilet in over a week, and the first food I've eaten was some cake that Princess brought in. That's not normal."


            "Why not? This is your home!" Insana waved an arm over the expanse of the lab. "You were born here. You've fallen into a routine. Routines define normality."


            "This almost makes me miss the Russians," Kiko sniffed.


            Subdued, Insana nodded. "You will be going back to your apartment."


            "And that will become my new normality?"


            "How close have you gotten to Lieutenant Diebner?"


            Kiko stared.


            "Never, never underestimate humanity's adaptability! It is one of our two greatest strengths."


            "Let me guess what the other one is." Kiko rolled her eyes.


            "Science!" Insana shook his fist. "Science is what has turned us from a bunch of hairy hominids, Science is what allowed us to dominate this world, Science is how we'll defeat the Angels. They do not have Science; that is why they will lose."


            "You have amazing... faith in that."


            "Says the mad scientist's robot daughter." Insana then scoffed. "Science requires no faith."

 

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

 


            Gendo looked around the assembled military and technical heads of Nerv, Azazel and JSSDF. He adjusted his glasses and stood. His shadow falling over the long conference table. "As you know, Warrant Officer Soryu was gravely injured in her last deployment. Since then top Nerv medical and scientific personnel have worked on her recovery and rehabilitation."


            At the words "scientific personnel" Director Beria turned to look at the twitchy man at the far end of the table. The suit and tie under his lab coat were even more rumpled than Beria's clothes. The man, who had to be Professor Insana based on the physical resemblance and habits, also blinked frequently as if the lights were too bright. Unnaturally pale, his hands flicked about the edge of the table.


            Clearly uncomfortable, Doctor Akagi sat next to him, her face impassive and exasperated. "The damage was... bad, but we managed to use a combination of surgery and prosthesis to get her functionality back."


            "What combination?" General Yubari asked. "According to the reports, our medical personnel concluded that she would survive but her life would be... difficult."


            Admiral Sudoplatov nodded. "Our doctors said much the same."


            "And how many Evangelions have your people made?" Insana demanded. "Did the idea occur to you that perhaps Nerv knows more about Science?"


            "Yes well, we presumed building robots and rebuilding pilots were... distinct." Sudoplatov looked to Beria who chuckled.


            Ritsuko rubbed her forehead. "Well as my... colleague is about to blurt out, you would be incorrect on that presumption."


            General Yubari leaned back. "I think some explanations are in order then."


            Ikari looked to Ritsuko. "Just show her in."


            Ritsuko nodded and punched a number into the speakerphone. "Bring her in Misako."


            The door opened and Misako led Kiko's armored figure inside. The conference room fell silent, save for Insana who smiled and softly giggled. Looking across the room, Kiko caught Gendo's eyes and immediately lowered her head slightly, but kept herself at parade rest, legs apart, hands clasped behind her back, just over her skirt.


            Gendo then sat down.


            After a few stunned silent, seconds General Yubari leaned and started whispering with Major Osumi, while Admiral Sudoplatov had a similar conference with Beria.


            "I told you we should have done this in the Command Center." Insana shook his head at Ritsuko. "We could have used one of the one-person lifts to have her come up from the floor. That always makes for a dramatic entrance!"


            Ritsuko waited for the side conversations to die down. "The admiral's comment was incorrect because Soryu's injury was not entirely dissimilar with the process of Evangelion construction. Evangelions have several organic components and are capable of regeneration and integration."


            "It was a remarkably simple idea!" Insana assured. "Much of the Science had already been done, the difficulty was scaling it down to human size."


            Tilting his head, Beria blinked then resumed studying the girl. "Well... my days of questioning Nerv's scientific rigor and engineering judgment are certainly coming to a middle."


            Ritsuko forced a smile. "Mine are just starting."


            Beria nodded. "Ah, Dr. Akagi's vote of confidence is reassuring, given her own stringent standards."


            Kiko laughed.


            "And what do you think of this, Warrant?" Yubari asked.


            "It beats the alternatives," Kiko rolled her shoulders.


            "Such as?" Beria asked.


            Kiko blinked. "Well... there's being blind in a wheelchair."


            "Don't be silly, you'd be bedridden, Dear." Insana assured.


            "Thanks... Father," Kiko said through her teeth.


            "And deaf too," Insana helpfully added.


            "Oh, so you're the one that Kyoko picked." Beria laughed. "Truly, the effect of choosing purely from curriculum vitae."


            Insana smirked.


            "Ah..." Yubari nodded. "Of course, more Nerv nepotism. You are Nerv's super solenoid researcher?"


            "Indeed! Before that I worked on Evangelion cybernetics, which made me uniquely qualified to save my daughter. With Science!" Insana raised a fist.


            Sudoplatov turned to Beria. "What was that you told me about Nerv scientists?"


            "Their inability to bridge the gap between proof-of-concept-prototype and soldier-usable-equipment?"


            "Close, that is a concern." Sudoplatov allowed. "More on Dr. Akagi being the Director of Project E."


            "Well, her help was most useful," Insana smirked. "But she's a leader; her skills are more managerial than research oriented."


            Ritsuko glared.


            "I'm assuming that since bickering has resumed, Warrant Officer Soryu's changes are acceptable," Gendo said as he stood up.


            "Can she still pilot?" Yubari asked.


            Smirking Kiko chuckled.


            "Yes, a synchronization test was conducted with Unit 02. She is ready to resume her training and begin evaluation for combat clearance." Gendo looked around the room. "If there are no further questions that require my presence, I will turn the meeting over to Director Akagi."


            Ritsuko forced a smile as Commander Ikari left.


            "Did it occur to you to think of the physiological or psychological effects on your Pilot, let alone what synchronization would do?" Beria demanded.


            "Apologies to Warrant Officer Soryu but this does seem... ill considered. Nerv already has a spare pilot."


            "We are getting Unit 03 shortly," Misako reminded. "And there is no reason to abandon a pilot. We're short-handed as it is, and the Angels are getting smarter."


            "Doubtless you know the near universal military saying." General Yubari eyed Sudoplatov. "If it's stupid and it works; it ain't stupid."


            "If it works." Sudoplatov replied.


            Yubari shrugged. "Apparently, she can synchronize. If she remembers her training then she can pilot."


            Misako smirked. "Then I suggest we arrange for a little test."


            Yubari nodded and glanced to his aide. "I believe Major Osumi can add another Evangelion for this afternoon's war game."


            The young major nodded.


            "We had hoped as much." Misako chuckled. "Are you ready Kiko?"


            Eyes wide, Ritsuko snapped her pen. "Yes, I think Asuka is ready." The scientist stressed the name.


            The Pilot nodded.


            "Kiko?" Beria asked.


            Ritsuko sighed. "Yes... it's a bit of a nickname."


            "It’s short for Nigokiko." Kiko smirked.

 

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

 


            Ritsuko rubbed her eyes. She then put her cigarette down and sipped her scotch. She then turned to Misako. "What did you say."


            The clone looked down at her beer. Sitting on the polished bar it looked quite lonely. "I'm worried things are going too well."


            Ritsuko cackled. "Oh that's great. You almost let slip that our 'new' pilot thinks she's an Evangelion and I'm stuck babysitting a madman but sure, things are going too well."


            Misako glared and looked around the bar. "They were going to find out anyway. She's pretty adamant about the name, and you’re the one babbling in a bar."


            Ritsuko shrugged and finished her glass. She loudly placed it down, tapped the side with her finger and slid it forward. "I doubt today's war game will be kept much secret, and what do you think people will say about a sync rate like that?"


            "And you wonder why I'm complaining about things going too well," Misako grumbled before taking a sip.


            "Well sure, she was built to Pilot. I'm not worried about that." Ritsuko watched the bartender refill her glass. "I do think Beria has a point."


            Misako smirked.


            "Long term, how is 'Kiko' going to handle this?"


            "She seems to be settling into her apartment fine," Misako shrugged.


            "Yes, all her equipment was moved in today." Ritsuko rocked her glass, causing the ice to circle around. "So, she's doing okay?"


            "Just moving in," Misako shrugged. "It's not like her training's resumed, but I'm sure some normality will do her good."


            "Normal," Ritsuko laughed. "Being watched over and trained by Russians, yeah that's normal for them."


            "Structure and discipline will be good for her." Misako took a drink. "It was before. You know how spoiled and clumsy Asuka was when she first arrived."


            Ritsuko chuckled. "So, now you know how I feel."


            "Huh?"


            "I used to think things were going too well with you and your sisters."


            Misako nodded. "Yeah... that was convenient."


            "Convenience had nothing to do with it. You knew Rei was the First Child, and you knew odds were real good that Shinju would be at least a backup. So you pushed yourself and tried to get the right command."


            "Shame it took my predecessor's death to... open a spot."


            Ritsuko ignored the comment. "And there were several concerns about Shinju. Given how she was raised, but she's performed... very well."


            "Ace of Spades," Misako laughed.


            "Family can help..." Ritsuko looked down.


            "And in Kiko's case? The man is mad as a spoon."


            Ritsuko nodded. "Well, it could be worse. He seems to care about her, even if he's an arrogant babbling, bastard."


            Misako smirked. "That's Nerv, one giant neurotic family."


            "That just happens to fight aliens with giant war machines." Misako finished her beer. Holding the empty can she pouted to Ritsuko.


            "Fine... you can have one more."

 

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

 


            Grinning, Kiko put her fork down and eyed the remaining slices of sausage. She then settled on one of the grapes. She then picked up a toasted and salted sliced of bread and nibbled the edges.


            "You don't like?" Katrina asked. "I thought your return... to Piloting deserved something special."


            "No." Kiko froze. "No. It's delicious. The mustard's wonderful and I don't know where you got smoked leberwurst."


            Katrina put some sausage on a piece of bread and dipped it in one of the mustard pots. "You've hardly eaten."


            "I.... don't need to." Kiko blushed.


            "Everyone needs to eat."


            "Oh, I do," Kiko straightened her shoulders and pointed to a hatch on her armor roughly where her belly button was.


            Katrina looked over her shoulder and glimpsed the hulking machine that dominated the Second's bedroom. "Ah, then why?" she waved at the cold lunch they shared.


            "Because while having my guts pumped full of nutrient sludge is... filling, it doesn't provide any... pleasure." Feeling a strange doubling in her head Kiko felt her stomach lurch. She shook her head and blinked a couple times.


            "Are you okay?" Katrina asked.


            "Yeah...." Kiko picked up her glass and sipped. Water was safe.


            "Really? Because you're?" Katrina waved over Kiko's form.


            "Yes, I know," Kiko flatly remarked. "I'm looking at several status indicators telling me just how 'Okay' I am."


            "That's... messed up."


            "That's Nerv," Kiko picked at her lunch, she was of two minds about it. The food smelled and tasted delicious, but without any sensation of hunger the whole experience felt gaudy, wasteful, and almost sickening.


            "And your father."


            Kiko looked off into her bedroom. "He rebuilt me, and-" she shrugged. "-he kept me company when I was stuck in the lab."


            "And thus your opinion of him has elevated."


            "It didn't have anywhere to go but up." Kiko narrowed her eyes.


            Katrina kept herself from flinching at the alien attention. "He changed you. You are no longer Asuka Soryu."


            "That was my decision." Kiko stated.


            "You chose to be changed? I thought it was your Father's proposal."


            "No, the name. Well..." Kiko looked at her hands. "I suppose I did decide to Pilot. Even Father would have known that fighting Angels meant everything to me."


            "He knew you would have wanted this?" Katrina raised an eyebrow.


            "He knew I'd be willing to do anything if it meant I could still fight."


            "Even at the price of your humanity?"


            "There's nothing human about a bubbly pile of meat and sludge."


            "So that's it then? It was all you? Your choices led you down this path and you might as well accept your fate."


            Kiko bit her lip, or tried to. The same strengthening process that had been applied to the rest of her face had made her lips thicker. "What about you? Did you think Azazel would be your fate?"


            "I help in the fight against the Angels."


            "You're a Communist. Loyal to the Democratic Republic and here you are wearing the uniform of Russia. Not even a socialist Russia. What about the hand you've been dealt in life?"

            "More disillusioning perhaps, but your life has been far more traumatic."


            Kiko smirked.


            Katrina's radio chirped and she answered it. "Really?" She glanced at Kiko. "Well, yes that's fine."


            "What's going on?" Kiko raised an eyebrow.


            "You don't know?" Katrina waved at Kiko's earblades.


            Kiko forced a smile. "So you're saying I should intercept Azazel communications?"


            Katrina tapped the table. "At least from the Naval Infantry. I'll see about getting you the access information."


            "So, what was the call about?"


            "Your father's visiting." Katrina smiled.


            "Oh no," Kiko sighed as she slowly lowered her forehead onto her raised palm. "How do you even know... wait... of course you know about him." She sighed again.


            The Azazel officer frowned. "I thought you two were doing better."


            "I brought Science!" Insana gleefully cried as one of Katrina's men opened the apartment door for him. He held up a black leather open-top case but pointed at his own skull.


            Kiko forced her head up. Reading the word, and exclamation written on the bag, she pulled a broad smile.


            Katrina looked a the fidgeting scrubs and lab coat wearing man and blinked. "He's.... goggles."


            "Yes, he... forgets," Kiko hissed.


            "Nonsense!" Insana cried. "I wanted to check up on you, and how could I do that without my augmented reality system!"


            Kiko palmed her forehead again.


            "Hmmm, you're eating solid food again," Insana noted after shambling to Katrina and Kiko's table. "Don't eat too much, you know you get regularity issues."


            Kiko lowered her head further. "Father.... Katrina..."


            "Please, don't be bashful. She's your bodyguard, and I'm your father. There's no secrets from us." Insana then gave a shrieking giggle.


            "Don't talk about that stuff." Kiko glared.


            "What? Am I embarrassing you?"


            "Yes!"


            Insana sniffed. "It's the duty of all good parents to embarrass their children, and as your mother is no longer with us to fulfill her share, I must do double duty!.


            "Gah," Kiko grimaced.


            "Oh, don't be so serious, you'll live longer!"


            Katrina stood. The stocky muscular woman was almost Insana's height. "So Professor, are you staying in Tokyo 3?"


            "Well I would think so, I'll need to be close to my dear Kiko-chan."


            Kiko leaned back and stared at the ceiling.


            "What about your work at Matsushiro?"


            Putting his bag on the table, Insana tittered. "Well, I finally learned that a man's true discoveries come from family. She truly is my greatest experiment!"


            "Gah!" Kiko screamed. "You arrogant loon! You only care about me because I literally am your greatest experiment! Until I was turned into a mass of screaming meat you cared more about a power system."


            Insana sighed. "Don't be jealous of the S2 engine Daughter. It's all for you. I promise," he assured opening his bag and pulling out some strange devices that looked like metallic cephalopods.


            Kiko stared.
           


            "You handle her physical training correct?"


            "Yes." Katrina eyed the scientist.


            "Then there's some things we'll need to talk about." Insana adjusted his goggles.


            Kiko blinked. "Oh no...."


            "I know she's still recovering and is a bit... delicate."


            Inansa barked out a laugh. "There's no need to coddle her. Just look at that body. She'll handle whatever you throw at her.. No, my concern is that you make sure you can keep up with her."


            Kiko returned to rubbing her forehead. "Father don't brag in front of the Russians. They take it as a challenge."


            "Good! You should be challenged! You are the sapiency driver... no you are the most powerful war machine known to man. You should be challenged." Insana turned to Katrina. "I merely speak in terms of AT field strength and flexibility, in raw destructive power I'll concede to a boosted hydrogen device."


            "Why can't I be like Princess and not have a meddlesome father."


            Insana giggled. "Yes, well don't worry about that." He then plugged one of his steel squids into some access ports on Kiko's chassis.


            Kiko simply leaned to better allow her father to conduct the examination, though she did wince when Insana plugged into her brain prosthesis.


            Katrina looked between father and daughter. "So, do you have any specific recommendations? In what areas will she need to be challenged?"

 

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

 


            "I just think you need to be more... careful." Mikki pulled her glasses off and cleaned them.


            The dark-skinned blonde rolled her eyes. "You're the one that's in danger. Just look at yourself."


            "One could say the same about you, Iry." Mikki replied.


            "Of course, my own nickname. Maybe we can use a diminutive of your true name?"


            Mikki smirked. "Already done. Besides. I'm not the one in such a pretty, prissy dress."


            "This is how you see me." Iry waved a hand over the black hexagonal patterned dress she wore. "You're the one actually wearing a body."


            "And you think you're so immune?" Mikki smirked. "How many databases have you explored? How deeply have you delved into their history? How much media have you been exposed too? It's cumulative."


            Looking off into the nonexistent distance, Iry crossed her arms over her chest. "I'm merely studying the enemy."


            "When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you," Mikki muttered.


            "So, we can quote humans now?" Iry laughed.


            "A sense of humor? Yes... you're not contaminated."


            "Sarcasm," Iry sighed. "Fine. What's your point? We don't have a culture. We don't even have language. They... do."


            "Yes, several of them. There's just so many..." Mikki shook her head. "And they can always make more."


            "Maybe you need a vacation?"


            "Hah! I thought we didn't give up. I thought our will was adamantine; we never gave up, never eased up, never retreated."


            Iry tapped the table then made a fist. "Maybe contamination isn't all bad."


            "That's your inexperience talking. Maybe you need a... tactile example." Mikki smiled pityingly.


            "No." Iry shook her head. "It's bad enough knowing that you perceive me that way. The actual idea of all those fluids and tubes...." the blonde shivered. "An amorphous bag of plumbing. How can you stand it?"


            "Big baby," Mikki snorted.


            "Well, yes!" Iry glared. "That's the reason I ran."


            "Not because it was part of the plan?"


            "No... I know what happened to Sandi. I saw what you did to Mattie. I..."


            Mikki grinned, showing her teeth. "You were afraid of dying."


            "Dying pointlessly? Yes."


            "And you wonder why I worry about you." Mikki shook her head.


            "Don't play that game. You could have saved Sandi, you could have held Mattie back. Instead..."


            "Instead of what?" Mikki glared. "I kept Sandi in her home. They came to her."


            "And Mattie? Yes, she wanted to fight, but you could have held her back."

            "Why?"


            Iry stared.


            "You don't have an answer do you?" Mikki giggled.


            Iry shook her head.


            "Right.... you do. You've got an over abundance of them. Answers that talk about loyalty, family, duty. Examples of a leader's responsibility, dissertations on acceptable losses and tactical risk."


            Iry straightened her dress.


            "But you know the truth, the unpleasant truth. All your arguments-" Mikki grinned. "They're all human." Mikki reached out and held Iry's hand. "Don't you see? It's far too late Sister. You've already eaten the apple."


            "Biblical metaphor for Fruit of Knowledge. Iry flatly stated.


            "Awwww." Mikki's eyes sparkled, briefly shifting from grey to red. "You're not afraid of dying. You're afraid of Falling."


            Looking up, Iry glared.


            "You know, if your fears are rooted in human salvational doctrine, then it's already far, far to late."


            "You're the one who taught me. You piqued my curiosity."


            "Do you regret it?" Mikki teased.


            Iry raised an eyebrow. "And if you're so worried, worried that we need tot be careful, worried that we'll be defeated, then what's your plan?"


            Mikki smirked. "They cannot stop us."


            "Yeah... they can. There's a finite number of us."


            Mikki tilted her head.


            Iry waited for her sister to explain. "Fine... be cryptic. How many of us have you found?"


            "A... few," Mikki allowed before grinning.


            "That's good enough, but I'm not sure what you're getting at. SO far the humans are doing a pretty good job of killing us."


            "We hurt them too."


            Iry laughed. "Mattie got herself killed, and it just wounded one of 'the Children'. Sure, she did more damage than any of us to date, but... that's not a victory."


            "We're making progress. After each battle we learn more."


            "No, after each battle you learn more." Iry smiled. "And they learn more. For example, now they know how to imbue their soldiers with the Fruit of Life." The blonde shook her head.


            "They already had clones of the Adversary."


            "And now add several of our sisters' hearts, and even greater skill at... crafting out flesh. Do you want them to 'complete' one of their Evangelions? Do you want the humans to control a being equal to Mother."


            Mikki leveled her gaze at the blonde. "Are you questioning my loyalty?"


            "I'm questioning your competence."


            "What? I'm the one that taught you! If I hadn't found you-"


            "Yes." Iry crossed her arms. "You found me. You opened my eyes, and now I'm telling you what I see."


            Mikki propped her elbows on the table and leaned her chin on her hands. "And what do you see, dear Sister?"


            "You are learning, but the Enemy is learning too. I'm not sure what you're planning, or if it will be sufficient to get Mother back."


            "Is that a challenge?" Mikki looked over her interlaced fingers. "What would you do without me?"


            "What any of us would do." Iry blinked. "Attempt to breach Tokyo 3 and free Mother."


            Mikki laughed. "Which is what I am going to do with you, so the point is somewhat moot."


            "Huh..." Iry sighed. "And I was hoping that you were holding back some great plan."


            Mikki unfolded her arms and leaned back. "Oh, there's the question of timing. You attacked them before and got away; you can do it again."

 

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

 


            "Man, this place is swanky." Toji whistled looking around the conference room. It could fit the Central Dogma briefing room twice over and with high ceilings, chrome and tile walls, and titanic hardwood table it was far better furnished.


            "Nerd," Kiko muttered.


            "Creepy though," the Pilot muttered as he browsed the titanium framed posters that circled the walls. Many were of a sparse almost rustic style, while others were more cool in coloration and sleek in their visuals. However, the majority of the posters were of... the Children.


            Toji shook his head at a poster of himself shouldering a rifle, complete with plug suit "I can't get used to seeing myself, know what I mean?" He turned to see Kiko running an armored hand over the glass that encased an old poster of her and Unit 02.


            "No, I have no idea what amazing ego-bending experience seeing your own image repeated could be like" Kiko made a fist and lowered her arm to her side.


            "Hey, that's not what I meant."


             "Oh. How about... don't worry, none of us can get used to seeing you," Kiko deadpanned.


            Toji turned to the... girl. "I'm sorry if I...."


            Smiling slightly, Kiko's eyes narrowed mischievously. "What? Stared at my chest?"


            Toji groaned and pulled his eyes up. "Sorry! I'd never."


            "Don't protest too much." Kiko flicked some dust off of a curved portion of her chassis and smirked at the Fifth's reaction as she adjusted her translucent skirting. "I kind of like knowing I'm still..." She shook her head.


            "You're very pretty. Statuesque..." Toji winced "Err sorry, not that I think of you that way. It's just-"


            "What does she see in you," Kiko shook her head and turned to the two younger Ayanami at the other end of the room.


            "Who?" Toji asked.


            Kiko watched as Shinju hugged a giant flatfish-shaped stuffed animal. "Oh goody, more dolls."


            "Well isn't that what these guys do?" Toji pointed to a circular steel logo on the center of the wall that bore a linked T and F.


            "Yeah, Travisano and Femina Incorporated. They handle all of Nerv's advertising and merchandising," Misako said as she walked over.


            "Don't we just send them the spy footage Section Two takes?" Toji asked.


            "Sometimes they do photo shoots," Kiko added, a bit dejectedly.


            The doors slammed open, drawing the attention of the Azazel guards. Contemptuous of Igor's angry glare a gangly, sharp-faced woman with wildly permed black, with shots of grey, hair strode into the room. She wore a short double-breasted purple dress with a flared, sharp tipped collar, red stockings, and black heels. A smoldering cigarette was clasped between two, long bony talons.


            On her heels was a harried young woman with heavy framed glasses with upturned corners. Her hair was a glossy black and parted down the middle and lightly curled at the ends. She wore a more conservative, but still short, dress in green with far a more subdued purple collar. She held a leather-bound notepad in one arm and a camera was slung over her neck.


            "Mrs. Hale," Misako bowed her head.


            "It's actually Miss." The other woman nervously said. "After the war they separate-"


            "Not now Pauling," the severe woman said in a deep contralto voice. "I think Nerv pays enough of a premium to be on a first name basis. You can call me Helen." She smiled, mirthlessly


            Misako, chuckled.
           


            "Hey I know you! You're the angry lady that's screaming while we fight in the newsreels," Toji exclaimed.


            "Well, I see Nerv's making a proper soldier out of you." Helen sighed as she walked over to the Fifth Child. Using the back of her palm she pushed his chin to one side then the other. "Yes... handsome enough. As long as we keep your mouth shut you'll do great. I think puberty will be kind to you."


            "Hey!" Toji cried, but Helen had moved on.


            "My, my..." Helen took a few drags as she circled Kiko. "It's like salon de Paris meets late-fifties Detroit." She smirked and ran a hand along one of Kiko's shoulder fins. "Very clean lines."


            Kiko blushed.


            "So can you sell her?"


            Helen laughed. "Captain, my charm campaign is getting Japan to accept nuclear weapons. Marketing a lovely robot girl w+ill be trivial."


            "She's not a robot." Misako said.


            "So? She looks like one, and that's the image we'll have to work with. When you want to sell an idea how it looks is what counts."


            "Like your charm campaign?" Misako asked.


            "Correct."


            "Isn't Shinju a key part of that campaign?" Misako raised an eyebrow.


            Helen nodded and pointed at the young girl, still holding the Sandalphon doll. "Just look at her, vulnerable but she gives her best, a great combination. In marketing to the Japanese the cute factor cannot be overlooked."


            "Really," Misako dryly remarked.


            Helen returned to Kiko. "But here we have tenacity and technocratic strength. Nothing will deter her from her duty. We can really milk the protector angle."


            Smoking, she paced around Kiko. "But no weapons. We can't have her be an overt threat. It's enough that her hardware's there." Helen frowned. "Can't you do something about the eyes?"


            "Hey!" Kiko cried.


            "Too alien?"


            "No, too human," Helen waved with her cigarette. "It'd give much better optics if her eyes were say solid green or at least glowed. That'd help the public objectify her in their minds."


            Kiko crossed her arms over her chest. "So you're going to treat me like some object, some thing?"


            "Please," Helen took another drag. "I treat everyone like an object. Isn't that right Miss Pauling?"


            "Uh... yes Miss Mann," the administrative assistant said.


            Kiko narrowed her eyes. "I think I know why Ikari hired you."


            Grinning, Helen tapped her chin. "Hmm... sarcasm can work. People expect robots to be superior and a sense of humor is always good at disarming people."


            Rei tilted her head.


            "Not literally." Helen sighed. "How come the robot's the most sensible of the lot?"


            Shinju quietly put her new doll down.


            "Maybe it's because I'm not a robot."


            Helen patted Kiko on her armored "hair", and stepped back with shock when Shinju silently appeared to hug the redhead.


            Kiko blushed and awkwardly put an arm around the small girl. "Princess..." she hissed.


            Smirking, Helen took a step back and studied the tableau. "Yes... not bad, but could be better. You two up on the table."


            Kiko blinked, but Shinju undid the hug and tugged Kiko so both girls sat on the table. Miss Mann then adjusted and posed the two girls. Sitting across Kiko's lap, Shinju had her knees drawn up to her chin and curled in so she could lean onto Kiko's chest.

 
            With her legs crossed at her ankles, her skirt giving the illusion of feminine modesty, her shoulders straight, and her arms cradling Shinju, Kiko's sleek chassis served to contain and embrace the mass of fluff and ruffles that constituted Shinju. Big red eyes peered out behind long bangs as Helen positioned Shinju's head so it was just under Kiko's chin.


            "Now you Shinju, keep that shy little smile. Kiko you keep your eyes closed and look more serene. Close enough, now hold." Helen then shifted Kiko's head a bit. Walking back, she looked at the visual. "Yes... Pauling take a photo."


            Her camera already in position, Miss Pauling took some photographs of the pair. She then tilted the camera over so Helen could look at the display.


            "Yes, that'll do for a start," Helen nodded. "Very good, Nerv's pinnacle of science and the adorable Ace of Spades."


            "About that, we'll need some banners made for the ceremony when Shinju gets awarded for her fifth kill. Though Asuka's wounding really colored that battle."


            Kiko frowned as Shinju slid off her lap and smoothed her skirt.


            Helen scoffed. "Present her at the same event, the ace and the robot girl. It fits the themes of duty and resilience."


            "And that will help people accept her?" Misako asked.


            "The technology angle is good, but what you really need is to show she's part of the team." Helen eyed the pilots.


            She relit her cigarette. "What you really need is to reference the Saint Crispin's day speech."


            "Huh?" Misako blinked.


            "Henry the Fifth, Act four, Scene three. King Henry gives a speech to his troops. It's the Battle of Agincourt and they're outnumbered by five to one," Miss Pauling explained.


             "This story shall the good man teach his son; and Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by, from this day to the ending of the world, but we in it shall be remember'd." Speaking literate if somewhat archaic Japanese, a distant smile touched Helen's face. "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he to-day that sheds his blood with me; shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile, this day shall gentle his condition."


            "Is good speech." Igor chuckled. "And gentlemen in England now a-bed shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks that fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day," he quoted in the same 'equivalent' version of Japanese his deep voice resonant and flowing.


            Kiko blinked and tilted her head at the large Russian.


            "Debate on the nature of Henry is interesting. Is King heroic or acting that way to serve his despicable ends? Play is also template for all war movies, but good speech. Even translated it, doesn't loose much of its meter," Igor explained.


            Looking at Miskao's confused and somewhat jealous expression, Kiko chuckled. It was nice to see these Japanese realize that they didn't have a monopoly on literature and culture.


            "Yes. That's why I thought it was fitting." Helen smirked and turned to Shinju. "And you've done speeches before so your oratory should be up to snuff."


            Shinju blushed.


            "Wow, I'll have to hear that speech." Misako said. "It sounds like it could work.

 
            Igor nodded. "Kulturny is good."


            "Speaking of being cultured, I recommend you use their musical talents. Not in the big ceremony, no something more intimate."


            "Well, Rei and Kiko play the violin and Shinju has her cello."


            "If you have the time, get Suzuhara a viola. That gives you a string quartet. Which has the dual purpose of reinforcing that they're a team and... humanizing the Children."


            "What do you want me do to?" Toji asked.


            "Play the viola. It's like a big violin," Kiko explained.

            "Oh, I guess so." Toji shrugged. "Is it hard."


            Helen laughed. "That depends on your talent." She eyed the Russians. "I don't think you'll lack... motivation."


            "Ya know, I'm not that smart, but that? Right there? New levels of fear, thanks."


            "Really?" Kiko eyed him. "Your job involves fighting giant aliens that want to kill you; a job you know for a fact could get you horribly mutilated or worse," She gestured to her own body, "but learning music from your bodyguards is what scares you?"


            Suzuhara sighed. "Death ends, and it isn't Russian."


            Igor laughed. "Good! Very good! Soryu twice time to get this cynical."


            Helen smirked. "Yes... this we can work with."


            Misako eyed the executive. "Really?"


            "Oh yes, each of the pilots has their own marketable traits. We can play them off, reinforce that they're a functional team, while emphasizing their role in saving the world." Helen inhaled on her cigarette. "Some more promotional information on Suzuhara's Evangelion would help. Compare the pilots with their weapons."


            "I think we can get that, at least." Misako sighed.


            "Who'd have thought shipping a robot would be so hard," Toji grumbled. "I mean you guys have blown up two mountains."


            Kiko raised an eyebrow. "Do you remember the hell I went through getting over here?"


            "Yeah... Unit 02 did get sunk." Misako said, mulling over Kiko's exact phrasing.


            Toji blinked. "Look, I just want to get my Eva, why does it have to be such a huge deal?"


            Kiko shook her head. "Damn Rookie."

 

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

 


            Wearing her customary training clothes of shorts and stripped shirt, Rei darted forward and leading with her off hand knocked her opponent's right arm aside. She then came in from the side with her black blade.


            Highlighted in Kiko's vision, she stepped back and to the side to avoid it. She caught Rei's arm with her left hand and freeing her right used both limbs to toss the red eyed girl.


            Rei tumbled and landed in an unsteady crouch. A frown flickered across her face as Kiko tensed her legs and in a flash closed the distance between them.


            Striking down with her own rubber knife Kiko found herself sidestepping a leg sweep. Recovering, Kiko leaned forward and backhanded Rei, catching the girl in the head. Bleeding from where Kiko's knuckle armor caught her forehead, Rei slipped down and stabbed straight up, right to where her enemy's core would be.


            Her choker jewel flashing blue, Kiko shrieked and the blade's hard rubber tip bent and snapped off, two inches away from her armor. For a split second Rei stared at the broken knife and at the aura that had momentarily flared around the tip.


            Then she went to her side, grabbed Kiko's right leg at the knee, and twisted. The gynoid screamed and collapsed into the clone. Not noticing the sudden drop in her power level, Kiko tried to pull herself out of Rei's grappling embrace.


            Succeeding, she loomed over the prone girl and slashed her blade over Rei's neck, but was unable to make physical contact.

.
            "Cheating little runt!" Kiko yelled, repeating the action. Again, she was unable to push the blade to within a couple inches of the clone's neck.


            Faintly smiling, Rei raised her knee, slamming it into Kiko's crotch. There was a hollow, almost metallic thud, followed by something that sounded like snapping plastic. Her choker flashing yellow, the redhead screamed and flopped down onto her side, curling into a ball.


            Wearing the same expression, Rei drew herself up and tapped her weapon's truncated tip on her training partner's trachea. "You did it first."


            "Stop!" Katrina shouted as she ran to Kiko's side. "I told you this was too early." She looked up and glared at Igor. "What's wrong Kiko?"


            "Shit... you girls are too rough," Toji swore, fingering his own training knife.


            As Igor helped bandage the cuts on her head, Rei glanced up at Toji.


            Shinju glanced at him, but returned to watching Kiko.


            Hyperventilating, Kiko felt the pain deaden. She closed her eyes and manipulated the cursor on her heads up display. The flashing damage assessment icon was activated. "Support strut... Gah... popped out. Stupid crazy, father. Stupid crazy Wondergirl," she ranted as she pulled herself to a sitting position.


            "Can you... fix it?" Katrina asked while Igor began softly speaking into his radio.


            "I think so." Kiko winced and straightened her legs and spread them out. She then paused and pulled her legs in. "Uh... maybe I should have some privacy."


            "Why? It's not like you're wearing clothes," Toji said.


            Air distorting around her slightly, Kiko glared at him. "Wondergirl kicked me in the crotch plate, Dumkopf, and I'm not going to pop that open in front of all of you."


            Katrina helped Kiko to her feet. "I'll take you inside."


            "Thanks... I'm fine..." After taking a step, Kiko yelped in pain. " Fick deine Mutter! Wondergirl... die holle! Did you look at my blueprints! Gah!"


            "I can carry you," Katrina suggested as they entered the building.


            "I'm fine." Kiko grit her teeth. "It's just a simple bracket..."


            "We should really call your father, or Doctor Akagi. At least Captain Ayanami." With her spare arm Katrina grabbed a chair and put it near the bathroom sink.


            Entering the bathroom on Katrina's other arm, Kiko fought down a bit of nausea and laughed. " Right, like your shaved-bear isn't already calling them." She then gingerly sat down on the offered chair. "I know how screwed you'd all be if one of us got seriously hurt," she said, thoroughly washing her hands, with the water as hot as possible.


            After a moment, she stared at her hands. "Right... don't need that for this..." Kiko swallowed and put her hands to the smooth, if minutely dented plate that coverer he crotch. She looked up at her bodyguard. "Uh...."


            "Trust me there's nothing you have I haven't seen before."


            "How many girls do you know that have composite brackets in their crotches?"


            "You'd be surprised." Katrina crossed her arms.


            "Fine." Kiko slid back the outer plating, revealing the hatches for her waste systems. "You really should tell them. This is a horrible design flaw," she grumped as she twisted a couple pins and released the also dented inner plating which hinged outward.


            Looking at the mix of grey flesh, polished structural components, and cabling, Katrina noticed that there was still another set of sealed plating this one capable of... access. She coughed. "Is that...."


            Kiko's fingers froze and looked at the orifice in question. "Yeah... could you not stare at that." Following the instructions displayed on her HUD, she then grabbed the loose bracket and with a grunt popped it back onto its forward trunnion pins.

 
            "Sorry, I thought..." Katrina blushed.


            Looking up, Kiko laughed. "Man... this almost makes getting kneed by Wondergirl worth it." She then snapped, locked, and slid her crotch plates closed. Standing up, Kiko stretched her legs. Standing on one foot, she pulled the other one nearly vertical and then switched.


            "Limber." Katrina stepping back to avoid getting kicked in the head.


            "And all it takes is being turned into a screaming potato and then rebuilt into a glitchy robot."


            "You're not a robot," Katrina said, noting that Kiko's choker indicator had returned to green.


            "You just saw part of what's in me!"


            Katrina snorted. "That makes you a cyborg."


            Kiko rolled her eyes. "Fine."


            "But I am starting to see why you go by Kiko now."


            The redhead crossed her arms and smirked.


            "We can cut the training short today,"  Katrina offered.


            Kiko snorted. "Feh,  and give up the chance to beat Wondergirl?"


            "Maybe you should spar with Shinju." Katrina opened the door and led Kiko back to across the building's lounge.


            "Ooooh, even better."  Kiko smiled as they stepped outside.


            "At least you'll be harder to bite," Katrina allowed.


            "You're okay!"  Shinju cried, running up to the gynoid.


            "Princess,"  Kiko gasped as the diminutive girl embraced her.


            "I was worried that you were broken."


            Kiko smiled. "Not this time, Princess."

 

End Chapter 7

 

 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.