The maglev ride was smooth and silent, as it always was; the only noise the hiss of air around the train. The only outside forces felt by Shinji Ikari, immersed as he was by the music in his headphones, were the accelerations in and out of stations, and, beyond that, the slight, omnipresent rotation, as the Fifth Circle Line looped around the city. Unlike many of the other train lines, the various Circle lines, all the way from the First, at the top down to the lowest, remained at the same depth; a cyclone and anticyclone which ran all hours of the day.
“This is Ellersmer Court,” the recorded voice played. “This is a Fifth Circle Line train, towards Whitborough Dome. Please allow passengers to leave the train, before you board.”
The movement of people, getting off. The movement of people, getting on. They flowed, and yet, to the eyes of the brown-haired boy, sitting here, eyes on the other people for lack of a better place to stare, he could discern no change.
With one last blast of trumpets, the current song came to an end. Slowly, quietly, the thin, gentle melodies of the violins gave the start to the next one.
“Krehaba estel soli footbali serakroni sanginoji abismi,
” a loud-mouthed Nazzadi, slurring his words somewhat, proclaimed, “Chelsi... absul hi abisakroni adisi radski!
” a woman standing next to him, in the same bright blue shirt, agreed. “Absul footbalazi... serakroni suluperukredoneyakroni , absul serabi suluperukredoneyabi, pla absul serakausi suluperukredoneyakausi.
”I’m sure you had fun,
Shinji thought, irritation in his mental voice, as he turned up the volume, to drown them out, even if you thought the game was bad and the players are overpaid. But, seriously, can you please talk more quietly?
He didn’t say anything out loud, of course. Not only were they both bigger than him, but they looked drunk. There was no point in a confrontation; they would be gone soon, and he’d still be here, so what did it matter? In fact, yes, they had open cans of beer with them. A little voice in Shinji’s head gloated at the fines they’d be facing, because the watcher LAIs monitoring the CCTV cameras would have seen that and flagged their faces, but, still, it was irritating.
Shinji sated his annoyance by rolling his eyes at the girl sitting opposite him on the train, accompanied with a sideways glance at the pair. The dark-haired girl, who looked to be about his age, merely stared back without a change in expression, which suddenly made him feel more embarrassed. She was sitting next to an amlata
, built like an athlete, and Shinji suddenly had a sinking feeling that he was accidentally flirting with someone’s (very attractive, a treacherous part of his brain noted) girlfriend. Actually, they both looked vaguely familiar; he thought that he might have seen there somewhere around the Academy. Oh no. Just when I thought the situation couldn’t get any more embarrassing.
To escape any further mishaps, he dropped his gaze, staring down at the screen of his PCPU, and just hoping that the world would leave him alone.
“This is Little Delhi,” the recorded voice played. “This is a Fifth Circle Line train, towards Whitborough Dome. Please allow passengers to leave the train, before you board.”
As they pulled out from the station, Shinji hazarded a look up. Phew
, he thought, the football people got off. And the girl, too.
That social minefield had been evaded, even if her boyfriend had stayed on the train. He flicked the volume back down, and sat back, as the music of Beethoven filled his ears.*bleep*
“Shinji has mail.”
Or at least it did, before his muse decided to inform him of it, subverting his music to do so. He really hoped it was something important to bother disturbing him. Then again, Ari was running high-end anti-spam filters, so she did tend to catch pretty much everything that wasn’t important.
He checked. It was a... well, an almost wary-sounding message from the human boy from yesterday, Kensuke, asking if he wanted to come see a film with Toja. They were meeting in Dome 3, in the Eddington cluster.
A few presses, to get to the map, and... yes, he had thought so. If he got off at Sideware, and then took the inclinator up to Third Tier, he’d be in the right dome. Shinji shrugged. It was going to be easy for him to do it, and he’d have to think up a reason for why he didn’t, which would be harder than just doing it. If he were to be perfectly honest, it wasn’t like he was doing anything vitally important. Just as long as he was back at Misato’s for six, because they were having dinner with Dr Akagi...
The room was a vast cylinder, rising far above, just as it could, through diamond plates in the floor, be seen to plummet far below. The full height was unseen; the white light from the lit areas ended before this hollow space, deep below the depths of the Earth did. It was not a pure white, though, because for every light, there was a path which took it through the transparent sphere, divided into eighths by the metal bands which ran around its equators, which hung in the centre of the room. The orb refracted the light which shone through it with an uncanny radiance which spoke of its adamant nature, and was filled with a blue fluid which could be seen to move by the patterns of bent light, much like light shone through waves in an aquarium. The chamber was suspended by a cobweb of threads no thicker than a spider’s web, the other, more visible profusion of flowing cables and arcane, in both senses of the word, equipment there for its function, not for its structure.
And speaking of its structure, if one were to look into the onion-like layers of the globe, and at the walls of this place with an electron microscope, one might see the warding circles, inscriptions and other anchors for sorcerous containment procedures which covered every square micrometer.
Rei Ayanami floated naked in the warm tank of fluid, eyes closed, hair drifting around her like seaweed. Curled into a ball, she twitched slightly, mouth moving with unheard words. Around her, the pale blueness swirled, cycled frequently to prevent her from depleting the oxygen. It was LCL, true, but not LCL as used in the entry plugs of the Evangelions; this was, quite apart from being a different colour, thinner, and, in the areas away from her body, almost an aerosol, never quite sure on whether it was a liquid or a gas.
It was, after all, designed for a rather different purpose.
A twitch, and she spasmed, straightening to full rigidity with her spine curving back, an unseen jet of fluid expelled from her lungs to send the blueness swirling and twirling. Slowly, slowly, she curled up again, only for, only a few minutes later, the process to repeat, her mouth open in an unheard, or perhaps, ignored, scream.
With a lack of care in her eyes, Dr Ritsuko Akagi flicked her gaze up, the light painting her harcontact-lit eyes blue-within-blue, before returning back to the feed, to deal with more important matters. Eventually, though, she was satisfied.
“Prepare for chamber evacuation,” she ordered the girl. In response, mutely (or maybe not? How could one tell, when no sound seemed to escape the sphere?), the girl swam into a position which would leave her on her hands and knees when the vessel was cycled, as, indeed it did, the LCL drained away and replaced by air.
Kneeling, a gush of blue-to-clear liquid rushed out of Rei’s mouth, as she coughed it out of her lungs, only for the fluid to effervesce and boil away before it hit the floor, the unhealthy-looking mist pulled out of the chamber too.
“Cycling chamber,” Ritsuko noted.
“That went well,” Ritsuko told her. “As far as I can see, there were no issues with this first test after your synchronicity accident.” She paused. “Did you feel anything different or wrong?”
“I did not, Dr Akagi,” the girl replied, hands still by her side, making no attempts to cover herself. Ristuko handed her a paper robe, which would last her until she got to the decontamination showers, to wash out the remains of the LCL-variant which still tinted her hair blue and coated her skin in a thin layer which made it look even colder than usual.
“Good.” The blond paused. “The Unit 00 restart test is on Wednesday. You are to attend school as normal; it is not scheduled until 16:00.”
“I understand, Dr Akagi.” Rei sneezed, the thin wisp of blue fog dispersing before the older woman could even recoil.
Ritsuko had the feeling that she was forgetting something. “We will schedule the next session for... the third of October,” she said, making note. “That’s next Sunday.”
“Yes, Dr Akagi.” The girl continued to stand there, unmoving since she had donned the paper gown, no hint of movement from her own conscious volitation. The sneeze didn’t count.
“That will be all, Rei,” Ritsuko said.
“I understand, Dr Akagi.” The girl paused, shifting slightly. “Dr Akagi?” she asked, raising one hand slightly.
“Yes, Rei?” the scientist asked, with a hint of interest.
“Why did you deem it necessary to have me stand-by for the Harbinger-4 incident, when I had not successfully synchronised with Unit 00 without a synchronicity incident? It was not necessary to have me do so, and any attempt to have me do so would have had unknown success.” If there was curiosity in the girl’s voice, Ritsuko could not read it. “It was not time then, and it was not necessary.”
“Because we couldn’t be sure that Test Pilot Ikari would be successful,” Ritsuko explained, any interest she could have before drowned by the... the Rei-ness of the question. “If he had been incapacitated, it would have been necessary to eliminate the Harbinger, and, as a secondary objective, salvage the Test Model.”
“But it was not necessary.”
“No, it turned out not to be necessary,” Ritsuko admitted. “To be honest, we did not expect Shinji to perform... well, to perform well. He’s been a bit of a surprise.”
“He has surprised you?” the girl replied flatly.
“Yes. Compared to the Second Child, the Third is woefully under-trained, and yet he’s a prodigy in the field of AT-Field manipulation. It’s a surprise.”
“The Third Child. Acedia. Test Pilot Ikari. Shinji Ikari. He is the son of Representative Gendo Ikari, and Dr Yui Ikari.”
The scientist waited for the girl to continue. She did not do so.
“You can go, Rei,” she said, framing the statement as an order.
“Yes, Rei?” she asked, frustration creeping into her voice.
“Why are you surprised?”
The woman blinked, the lit harcontacts painting her eyelids purple as she blinked. She really wanted a smoke right now. “Because he’s defying the predictions made on you, the Second Child, and the other failed test subjects,” she said. “Now, if you’d just...”
Rarely, almost uniquely, Rei interrupted her. “I did not mean that,” she said. “What I meant was, ‘Why are you surprised?’”
Ritsuko frowned. “I just told you.”
There might have been a hint of sadness in Rei’s eyes as she answered, the doctor thought. “You did not understand. I am not surprised.” And with that said, she turned, and headed for the exit that would lead her to the showers.
Then again, that might just have been excessive and wilful anthromorphism, the woman thought with a hint of spite.
The sirens were wailing with the high pitched scream of a newborn infant. Most of what could be seen on the mainscreen was the red of destroyed assets; prime among them, the flanks of capital-grade charge beams now entirely silenced.
A woman screamed; a high-pitched shriek of terror. “Contact!” she managed. “C-c-contact!”
“My god,” a young man, his temples still streaked with grey despite his age, muttered, staring at the screen in front of him. “God! No! It’s... it’s still coming! It just came out of nowhere! Why didn’t you detect it?”
Her face streaked with sweat, the Captain in charge of the facility ran in, her red eyes narrowed. “Report!” she barked. “What the hell’s going on? It’s hell on earth outside!”
“C-captain!” the man stammered. “An unknown object... maybe two hundred metres in diameter... just appeared
in low earth orbit. And that’s only after it destroyed the defences. We think it must have had some kind of arcane field protecting it from detection!”
“Impossible!” the Captain snapped. “Nothing that large could be warded against detection in that...” and her face fell. “No,” she said softly, expression suddenly wracked with fear. “They’re back, aren’t they?”
“I can’t say. But... but they’re launching smaller objects. We can’t stand against them.” The man looked up, tears in her eyes. “We just can’t. We couldn’t see them. Oh, God, why? What does science exist for!”
“Stow your bellyaching,” the Captain snapped. “I’ll tell you what science is there for! It’s there for truth, for beauty, and for the realisation of the imminent potential in all things! And, most importantly, it’s there for giving us tools, whether to find out more about the world, or killing those who would kill us. Because,” the nazzady
said, breaking the glass on the wall to remove a fire axe, “the Migou may have made me, and their Loyalists may have called us monsters when we rebelled. But let me tell you this. I’ve read Frankenstein
since then! And it’s in the nature of so-called monsters to destroy their makers!” She pointed up at the screen. “Look at that! Tower 07, by the Elder Thing City, is still operational! It’s just not firing! So we’re going to go there, and start it up again! For Earth! For Human and Nazzadi alike! And for the honour of the Antarctica Defence Forces!” She grabbed an automatic grenade launcher from a rack. “Saddle up, men, because the 27th of December, 2073, is a day which the bugs are going to remember for a very long time!”
There was a cheer from the soldiers huddled in the room, and a mass checking of weapons.
“You’re... mad,” the desk operator shouted. “It’s minus 50 out there! And they’re still bombing!”
The Captain glanced back over her shoulder. “Then the fireballs will keep us warm.”
“I thought I said I didn’t want to go see a film about military stuff,” Shinji muttered along the aisle to the other two, as patriotic music swelled.
Toja looked uncomfortable, as he leant forwards. “Uh... yeah, sorry about this,” he whispered back, his eyes reflecting the light like a cat’s in the darkness. “I... would rather have gone to see something else, too. But he,” he jerked his head towards Kensuke, who was sitting in the middle, “had already paid for the tickets.”
“But it’s not even that good,” Shinji hissed. “I’ve seen this story before. And the script is terrible.”
“Shush, you two,” said Kensuke, who was still avidly staring at the screen. “This is awesome. You do know, right, that this is all Live Action, no CGI at all? It’s amazing! They used real military equipment, even old stuff from the start of the war for everything. I’ve never seen such a realistic use of conventional explosives to fake a nuclear blast.”
The other two boys stared at him. “You mean you didn’t see if the plot was any good?” Shinji managed.
“Why?” Kensuke frowned. “It’s really pretty.”
Toja’s palm collided with his forehead. “Last time I let you buy tickets,” he muttered. “Next time, we’re going to see Snake Fist IV.”
Shinji was in a mixed mood as he got home. Some of the parts of the film, the ones which hadn’t been full of laughable dialogue or pretty explosions had been a little too close to home for his preferences. He’d heard that kind of controlled panic in the voices of other people, in the Evangelion Group, in training. He’d looked away at those points, especially when the bombardment had begun.
Of course, the events of December 2073, the so-called “First Strike”, had been a Migou attack against the Antarctican polar defences, the first blow in the Second Arcanotech War, which would properly begin the next year as the Migou Hive Ship arrived complete with escorting fleet. The first landings had been in Antarctica, which had not even been contested thanks to the damage done by the First Strike. But at least it had been a Migou thing, not anything to do with Harbingers or anything like that, so that had numbed it a little, disassociated it a little from what they made him do. Hah
, Shinji thought, if I couldn’t do that, I basically couldn’t watch anything.
He checked his watch; good, yes, he was still back before the deadline at six. Only a short search was needed to find his keys, which weren’t actually mechanical keys, and the door slid open.
The... it wasn’t even a scent in the air anymore, more a taste, hit him in the face like a fist. A sensation which he was, regrettably, familiar with. Coughing, choking, he stepped back outside, and sucked in a breath of clean arcology air.
It, whatever it was, was even making his eyes water, just from the smell. Taking a tentative sniff, he could smell burning paper, chilli... yes, there was certainly chilli, maybe some kind of curry powder stuff... and that was when his endurance gave out, and he retreated back to safety.
“Ari,” he instructed his muse, pulling out his PCPU, “phone Misato.” If she didn’t respond, he should probably start getting worried, because peeking his head inside, he could see what looked like hints of smoke. Well, there would have to be. There had to be some point where a smell stopped being a smell, and started being a smoke, or maybe a vapour. Shinji couldn’t quite remember the difference between the two, from Chemistry.
There was a sound of sizzling and bubbling from the other end of the line, as Misato picked up her PCPU, and, using that peculiar tone of voice which people use when they’re holding the handset between their shoulder and the side of their head, said, “Heya, Shinji! I was starting to wonder when you’d call. Where are you?”
“Outside.” Either she was in a full medieval dungeon, complete with boiling oil, or she was probably in the kitchen, Shinji was forced to conclude.
“Oh. Let me just turn that down... wrong way... down! ‘Kay. ‘Kay. Right.” She paused. “Oh, right? Why? Are they not letting you through security? Your card should still be synched with your profile, right?”
Shinji shook his head, briefly wondered who he was shaking his head at, given that he was on the phone, and said, “No. I mean...right outside the entrance to the flat. I’ve got it open... are you alright in there?” he asked, with some anxiety. “I can smell smoke. Is there a fire?”
“Not anymore!” Misato said, cheerfully. “There was a leee~eeetle
accident with some chilli I was frying with the beans, but that’s all okay.”
The boy relaxed. “That’s good, because...”
“... and the packaging is totally extinguished!” Misato added. “Although who’d sell real chillies in a paper bag like that, I’d like to know,” she added in a darker voice. “You can’t microwave it at all, even though it looks like you should be able to!”
“Okay.” Shinji blinked, lost for words. “Right.” She’s cooking she’s cooking she’d cooking
a little voice in his head wailed, but he managed to keep it away from his vocal cords.
He could hear Misato humming tunelessly, as something sizzled. “So, Shinji, did you have fun today?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said. “Um... well, the film wasn’t that good, but, yes.”
“How were your friends?”
Shinji wasn’t quite sure that he’d chose to describe them as friends quite yet; associates, certainly, with a view to a potential upgrade later, but you really couldn’t say that when less than a week ago, one of them had punched you.
“They dropped ‘round, you know?” Misato mentioned, an innocuous tone in her voice. “I had a talk with them in my capacity as Director of Operations... which was not what I wanted to do on a Sunday, ‘cause I managed to get a day off... and I don’t think you’ll have any more trouble with them.”
Yes, Shinji did know. Mainly because when the other two had asked what he had been doing, he had ended up explaining why he had got into the habit of just occasionally going out, and riding the Arconnect for hours at a time. It was something he’d done back in Toyko-3, too, because sometimes he just had to get away from people, to relax, and a house with one excitable little girl, and one very
excitable little girl, was not a place where you could do such a thing.
And then he had made the mistake of using the line, ‘And sometimes Misato is a bit exhausting to be around’, which had been interpreted as two teenage boys, who believed that a double entendre
could only have one meaning, would interpret it. There had been much discussion of the attractiveness of his guardian from the other two parties involved, with no appreciation of the fact that she was a slob, even when he explicitly pointed it out.
Shinji just knew
this was going to get annoying.
“But... uh, Shinji, it would probably be easier if you’d come in, you know,” Misato added. “I mean, I could do with some help, and some of us have been working hard in the kitchen.” Shinji could smell it. If she’d been working hard in there, she hadn’t been working at cooking something edible.
No, that wasn’t fair, he corrected himself. She hadn’t been succeeding at working at cooking something edible.
“Um, okay, I’ll be in a moment,” he said, as he disconnected. No, thinking of it, a more appropriate descriptor would be ‘lied’. He was just going to wait out here for a while, let the air cycle a bit, before he’d come in, and try to help salvage dinner.
“Oh, hello Shinji!” called out Dr Akagi from behind him, the click of her heels a solid sound. He turned, noting that he didn’t think he’d actually seen her out of what he was going to call ‘scientist clothing’ before. The loose blouse and trousers looked somehow wrong on her, compared to the more common lab coat, or more specialist equipment. And the fact that her harcontacts were off, that her pupils weren’t rimmed with a blue gear... that was odd
. “Why are you out h... oh, God, what is that smell?” Her eyes suddenly widened in recognition. “H-has Misato been cooking?”
Shinji winced. “I think so. And... um, when I called her, she said she’d burned it, too.”
Ritsuko nodded. “It smells familiar. She went through about... about three months at university,” she explained, “after a... difficult break-up trying to teach herself how to cook.” She glanced at Shinji’s expression. “No, I don’t get the chain of logic behind that decision, either. As I recall, I ended up spending most of my time in the library to avoid the way the flat smelt.” Her eyes narrowed. “Well, that and the tissue boyfriends.”
“Tissue?” Shinji frowned. “I don’t recognise the... what, were they all... oh. I see. Something to sob into and then throw away?” There was still a lot of doubt in his voice.
“Something like that,” Ritsuko said diplomatically. The actual line of logic behind the nickname had actually been that they were only good for a few blows, before they were discarded, and more covertly, that they were rather... limp. The blond had not had a high opinion of the other woman’s taste in men. “But,” she added, changing the topic, “did she say what she was making?”
Shinji shook his head. “No. She said something about beans and chilli, though, and it was sort of implied that she went and bought ingredients, rather than nanofac stuff.”
The woman’s eyes went blank for a moment. “Right,” she said. “In that case, Shinji, do you like Nazzadi food?”
The boy frowned, shifting his posture to lean against the wall a little more. “What kind?” he asked.
“What do you mean, ‘what kind’?”
“Well, it’s not all the same. At all,” Shinji said, with authority. “You’ve got the Traditionalist stuff (although, even then, you can split by Colony Ship), you’ve got nazzadanfrazzi nutrenti
... that’s the stuff which takes inspiration from pre-existing human styles, but then twists it, and there’s at least one version of that for every culture, and then there’s the mess of ineveti nutrenti
styles, which... well, you can’t really...” he trailed off, as he found the blond staring at him. “Gany, my Nazzadi foster mother, was the one who taught me to cook, and did most of the cooking,” he explained. “Um... you kind of pick this stuff up.”
“I’d always thought it was just food,” Ritsuko said, slowly. She had to confess, that was a side to the Third Child she hadn’t seen before. “You know, quite a lot of sauces, tendency to add spices, quite a lot of protein. That kind of food.”
Shinji rolled his eyes. “Yes,” he said carefully, “in the same way that all Japanese people eat is sushi.”
There was a snort from the woman, along with a shrug. “Okay, then. I get your point. But you’ll be fine with it?”
“Yes.” Well, as long as it’s well done
, he thought, privately.
“In that case,” Ritsuko pulled out her PCPU, “... favourites... bookings... yes, they’ve got space for a party of three.” She tapped the screen a few times, before raising one finger to her lips, with a gesture for Shinji to be quiet, and selecting a call. “Hello, Misato,” she said, into the device. “Uh, huh.” A pause. “Oh, I got out of work a while ago, I’ve just got to your dome, so I’ll be with you in a few minutes. The bookings are for 18:30, so we should be able to make the reservation.” Another pause. “Wait, what? I thought we were going out. I was making the bookings, and we’d be meeting at your place... you’ve been cooking. Sorry, I wouldn’t have done it if I’d known, but... no, really, I insist. It is a really good place, I assure you... yes, it does have a good bar,” she added, with a glance down at Shinji. “Sorry, we should probably both have been clearer...” she laughed, “... yes, I know exactly what you mean. I’ll see you in a few minutes. Bye... bye.”
The PCPU was returned to a pocket. “And that, Shinji,” she said with a smile, “is how you handle Misato.” She winced. “Do me a favour, though. Next time she suggests one of these things, either make sure we’re going out, or don’t let her in the kitchen. I’m no longer a student, much as I hate to admit it, and I don’t think my stomach can cope with it anymore.”
“... so I said, ‘yes, that is
what I said’!” Misato leant back her head, and roared with laughter. Shinji and Ritsuko exchanged embarrassed looks with each other; a situation only made worse by the looks that the other patrons were giving them.
“I happen to like this restaurant,” the blond muttered, “and I’d prefer to not be banned.”
“Oh, lighten up, Rits!” The woman paused, as she took a mouthful of food. The particular dish she had, fermoja flakorpa
, was a solid Traditionalist meal, meant to be eaten only with a knife and the pastry provided. Misato was wilfully ignoring that, and had obtained herself a fork, just as she was ignoring the fact that, technically, this meal was only meant to be eaten by men over the age of 27. Of course, that latter detail was ignored by all but the most Traditionalist, but the way that she then went to look for where they kept the condiments would have produced wider annoyance.
Ritsuko shook her head, with a hint of sorrow in the motion, as she watched her friend go.
“Thank you for doing this,” Shinji said, as he sliced the leaf-wrapped protein on his plate into thin slices.
The blond flapped a hand at him. “No problem.” She paused. “Of course... are you sure that you want to stay with her, though?” she asked. “I mean,” the woman blinked, “I know you were placed with her, but... after smelling that cooking, there’s no need you need to have your life ruined by a bad flatmate.”
Shinji sighed. “I don’t really get her,” he admitted. “Sometimes, when we’re talking... it’s like we’re not even in the same room. I just don’t get how she can be like she is.” He shrugged. “It’s fine; there’s no need to go to all that trouble. I’ll survive.”
“... if only because I’ve taken over cooking and cleaning duties,” he added, with dark humour.
Ritsuko laughed. “I did the same at university,” she admitted. “She’s always been, for as long as I’ve known her, a slob, and a useless chef, and... well, she can only have got worse.” The last words were said with a seriousness quite unlike the rest of the sentence.
Shinji frowned. “Huh?”
The scientist’s eyes widened, fractionally. “Oh,” she mouthed, silently. “You don’t know?”
Ritsuko frowned. “This is awkward. I don’t know how much I should really say, as her friend, but...” she licked her lips. “Misato was with the Army... one of the best mecha pilots of her generation,” she explained, picking her words carefully. “She made Captain after keeping the remnants of a brigade together and fighting for 23 days after they’d been cut off in the Fall of China, behind Storm lines, with only enough state-nullifiers to keep away state-sickness for fourteen... and even those weren’t designed for how high the states were getting as the Leng POLLEN expanded. State-sickness does... funny things to your brain... random excitation of the atoms into higher r-states, and there’s only so much that arcanotherapy can do. And then it happens again, when you leave, as they decay back down, and radiate out the energy. She came out lightly. Only the loss of most of her sense of smell and taste.” Yes, that would do for an explanation. It wouldn’t do to mention everything. For one, they were eating. For two, it was... private.
The boy paled, and poked at his food, suddenly much less hungry. “So,” he said, glancing over at Misato, who was leaning over the buffet table, picking up bottles of brightly coloured flavourings, “the reason she puts so much stuff on everything she eats...”
Ritsuko nodded, gravely. “Yes.”
“That’s horrible.” And Shinji now felt terrible for finding it amusing.
“Of course, she still can’t cook,” Ritsuko pointed out. “But now... she can’t even really taste or smell it. She probably couldn’t even smell the apartment, and because she has implanted Eyes, they wouldn’t have been watering as much. So she does this just to taste anything.”
“Oh.” There was an uncomfortable silence, which was only broken when Misato put the bottles of red, blue, clear, and red-with-what-looked-like-chilli-seeds-in-it down on the table, and began to liberally apply them.
“Ah, that’s better,” she said with a grin. “Want to try a bite?” the dark-haired woman said to Shinji, with a grin, proffering her fork forwards.
Shinji shook his head mutely, and poked at the slices on his plate.
“Wimp,” she said, with a grin. “A real man should always be willing to try something once.”
Ritsuko rolled her eyes. “What, you mean like Pola? As I recall, he let you drive for him once. And then left you.”
Misato pouted. “He was terrible in be... being a good passenger,” she said, with a sideways glance at Shinji.
“Misato. He was in training to be a fighter pilot.”
“He’d had the Grade One implants. He shouldn’t even have been physically capable of getting motion sick.”
“So? He said the real issue was being that low, which just goes to show that he wasn’t all that good.”
The blond raised her hands. “I’m just saying, there are some things you shouldn’t try.”
Just then, both womens’ PCPUs chimed. “If this is an emergency, I’m going to kill someone,” the black-haired woman growled. “Oh, good,” she added, after checking, in a lighter tone.
“Yes, I was a little worried, but it seems to have gone smoothly. And not a moment too soon.”
“Hmm?” Shinji asked, or at least made a quizzical noise.
“We were having Zero-Two moved from where it was, to another place,” Ritsuko said carefully, choosing her words because they were in a public place. Well, she happened to know that a non-negligible fraction of the clients here were Armacham Internal Security guards, but the point still remained. “And that’s all I’m going to say... and Misato will say, too.” She snapped her fingers, and reached for her handbag, rummaging through it. “Although... that reminds me. She handed him a black sealed tablet, about the size of his hand.
“What is it?”
“Turn it over.” He did; the other side was emblazoned with ‘Secure Biometric Data package’. There was a transparent window on the front. Through it, he could see a picture of Rei Ayanami. “It’s her new Ashcroft Ident Card; her only one expired. Some of her access rights are dependent on this.”
“Maybe because you’ll see her at school tomorrow, while I’m working,” the woman said, a hint of irritation in her voice.
Shinji could accept that this was a fair point. He glanced back at the picture. It was even taken against a black background; it had been found that sidoci
ended up overexposed and bleached when taken against a normal white one. Tilting the sealed package, the familiar face shifted as the angle he was looking at it changed. Idly, he ran one hand along his jaw, squinting at the hologram of the girl.
He looked up to find both women staring at him, smiling faintly. Well, Ritsuko was smiling faintly. Misato had a look on her face which would probably have run afoul of pre-NEG decency laws in some parts of the world.
“What’s the matter?” asked the dark-haired woman, a slight lilt in her voice. “You seem to be looking at Rei’s face very
“Oh, come on, it’s sweet,” she continued. “This way, you have a nice little excuse to talk to her. And then, maybe...”
“You might even get to see her house,” Misato added, a salacious grin on her face.
Ritsuko blinked suddenly, her face rigid. “There’s no need to tease him quite so much,” she told her friend, mock-sternness in her voice.
“Yes! Thank you! A sane...”
“... of course, you still need to tease him a little,” Ritsuko continued, the grin creeping back in.
Crossing his arms, Shinji slumped back down, his face taking on the caste of a martyr.
“Make sure you remember, Shinji,” the blond said. She sighed. “She tries, you know.”
“Rei. But... well,” she ran one hand over her face, “much like your father, sometimes I think her problem is that she can’t see the little things in front of her. She can’t see the trees for the forest... and, yes, I mean it that way around. And she’s not very good at it.”
Her handbag made a solid thump on the floor, as Ritsuko dropped it, and turned to check that the security systems had turned back on properly. Satisfied that they had, she slipped her shoes off, and, socks squeaking on the hard material, stepped into her kitchen.
Twelve eyes reflected the light from the hallways back at her, an inhuman yellowish-golden glint. The blond sighed.
“What are you doing in here, sitting around in the dark?” she asked, flicking the light on.
There was a mewing, as the cats protested at the sudden change in their conditions. The woman glanced over at their bowls. Ah. Yes, that made sense. She’d forgotten to fill up the dispenser robot; the football-like unit waiting at its charging point. They had drunk all their water, and would be wanting food. Stepping over to the bowls, she reached down to pick up the dishes, only for her fingers to be batted away by one of the cats.
“Major Zero? What are you doing?” she asked the cat, a handsome Havana Blue tom. Quite unlike their ancestor breed, the Persian Blue, the Havana Blue was actually, blatantly blue. The genetics labs of Cuba had been busy with genetically modified pets even before the First Arcanotech War; the specific breed was one of the oldest ones, an experiment into pet colouration which had tweaked the genes which decided coat colouration, carried on the X-chromosomes. Its fur was an almost-synthetic blue, never encountered in nature, and it had been rather pricy as a result. The Havana Blue was always provided with full geneline history, and the numbers were highly restricted, with a long waiting list.
It had been Ritsuko’s little act of rebellion to let the Sergeant breed with Kiko, a perfectly normal mongrel tabby. She didn’t care about the genelines, or the fact that she was diluting the stock. Their kittens would thank her, for one, because the cat breeders, even with the aid of genetic modification, tended to keep the lines too closed-in for her liking. Plus, the tortoiseshell from the litter had been adorable
, its spiky fur a mottled grey, orange, black and blue.
The cat mewed at her, staring at her with its red eyes, and batted at her hand again. The human sighed. “Do you want foot or not?” she said, as she straightened up. The cat trotted out of the kitchen, waiting for her at the door. “Okay then,” she said to the cat, “be that way.”
A series of splashes of water was followed by the rattling sound of her filling up the dispenser robot. Shortly afterwards, she emerged from the kitchen, carrying a cat under each arm, because they had insisted at batting at the ball-like robot which was trying to fill their feeding bowls, rather than actually let it give them it. For all that she liked her cats, they could be rather stupid.
Making her way through to her box-like study, she found the large blue cat occupying her chair. She’d left the door open again, obviously, and they always found their way through, to the most comfortable chair in the house. Booting up the machine, her Grid workspace appeared, followed by the sound of its internal processor whirring to life. She picked up the tom from the seat, and sat back down, keeping the cat on her lap. Major Zero didn’t protest; in fact, he flopped over her knees, stretching, a fair purr vibrating her legs.
Reactivating her harcontacts, Dr Ritsuko Akagi resumed work. The Unit 00 start-up test was this Wednesday, after all, and she wasn’t going to get work done by having meals in restaurants.
~’/|\’~27th September, 2091
Without exception, everyone who passed the entrance examination to get into an Ashcroft Academy was a high achiever. The schools prided themselves on it; there was a reason that the global academic league tables were utterly dominated by these schools. They cherrypicked the brightest from mainstream education with generous scholarships, and were rumoured to conduct pre-admission genetic screening which was then taken into account in the acceptance process. The children there were disproportionately xenomixed and genofixed.
And despite this academic brilliance concentrated in one place, not one person had been able to deduce the logic behind how the Physical Education sessions migrated around the week. This week, they were Monday afternoon. Last week, they had been Tuesday morning. The week before that, Thursday morning. The general consensus was that the timetabling LAI was mad, with a minority report that the PE teachers were all a bunch of bloody-minded sadists who took too much pleasure in detentions issued for lack of the proper kit.
Up and down the pitches in front of the main buildings, a mass of boys thundered. Tight white T-shirts were covered by red or blue bibs, as they fought for primacy, and short shorts were splattered with mud as the studded boots tore up the natural turf. With a flick, a blue-bibbed player passed it to a tall, brown-haired boy who, pale legs flashing in the lightstrips in the dome ceiling, tore off up the field, outpacing or outwitting those reds who might have tried to obstruct him.
“Damn it, Dathan, pass the ball!” a boy, in a perfect position for a cross into the penalty box, yelled.
The taller boy ignored them, and, with a flick, sent it straight at the goal with a quite scary velocity, to barely be brushed aside by the fingers of the goalkeeper; fingers which were now in considerable pain. In the chaos around the goalmouth, the ball went out of play, and, luckily for the red-bibbed players, it was their goal kick.
Of course, the people on the pitch were predominantly the first team players from the six classes with PE scheduled at this time. The rest were sitting around at the sidelines, where they were meant
to doing exercises. However, the teacher who had been covering them was currently escorting two boys, who’d managed to run head-first into each other, to the nurse’s office, and so they were currently being simultaneously apathetic, indolent, salacious and libidinous.
Whoever had decided to give the school swimming pool a glass front which was visible from the playing fields was worshiped as a minor god by much of the male population of the school, or at least the ones old enough, and inclined to find girls interesting. For one, they had single-handedly, in their pursuit of architectural aesthetics, managed to negate the work done in dividing the sexes when there was swimming, to avoid any possible problems with body issues imposed by social pressures.
With a synchronised splash, the five girls standing at the end of the pool dived in. At the other end, the previous set climbed out, dripping down onto the clean white tiles. One wrapped her arm around another, mouth moving in unheard laughter, and there were sighs from the male onlookers.
“I like the view,” Kensuke said, in a voice which was approaching sexual harassment merely in intonation, as he nudged Shinji in the ribs.
“I-I don’t know what you mean.”
“You cannot fool me!” declared Kensuke, with deliberate pomposity. “You, too, are looking for an answer to that eternal...”
“... well, since the 2060s...” Toja interjected, sitting on the other side of the boy.
“... eternal since the 2060s problem too, my friend. It has puzzled generations of men, driven them to madness... and stuff. But what is that problem, I hear you ask?”
Shinji squinted. “I feel you’re going to tell me.”
“Nazzadi or human! Which is hotter!”
“It’s a hard one,” a Nazzadi boy, his hair dyed white, said, as he leant back. “And if you say, ‘That’s what she said’, Ken, I will thump you.”
“Come on, Ala. Would I do...”
“Yes. And have.”
Shinji nodded. “It is true.”
“I hate you guys.”
“Don’t worry,” Enitan, the dark-skinned boy on the other side of Toja, said with a smirk. “We hate you too. But, back to the topic at hand,” he stroked his chin. “Difficult indeed. Humans are shorter, which is cuter...”
Toja snorted. “You only say that ‘cause you’re short and don’t want a girlfriend who’s taller than you. You know how much I’d have to bend down to kiss some of those people?” He paused. “Not that I’d mind, if they were hot, because that’s a sacrifice worth making, but still...”
“Ah, but we’re forgetting the big divide,” Ala pointed out. “More fat; yes or no? Nazzadi are thinner, but humans have bigger boobs, and are more curvy... which I just find...” he shook his head. “Well, look at Panary.” Gazes were indeed directed at the girl, her wet black hair tied back into a ponytail, as she stood at the end of the pool, waiting for her signal. “Sure, she might be tall and thin, but look! I mean, if I wanted someone tall, thin, muscled, and with no boobs, I’d go ask Dathan out.”
Enitan snorted. “Get ready to fight both Jony and Ferdina for him, then.”
“That wasn’t serioooous
“Even if he asked you out?”
“Yes! God, were you not listening to me? She’s gotta actually,” he made gestures in front of his chest, “be shaped like a girl, you know? That was the whole point of the comparison. Plus, you know, I’m a nazzada
. So I know what my teeth are like. Like chisels, that’s what. And... well, that’s a real
downside on a girl.”
There was collective male wincing from all but Shinji, who had tuned out the conversation a while ago. He couldn’t help but feel that the whole conversation was more than a little sordid. It was already a little dubious to stare; did they have to make commentary too? It made the whole thing rather uncomfortable. They really didn’t spend enough time around women... no, that didn’t make sense. It wasn’t as if all the other lessons were gender-segregated.
Shinji was of the rather smug opinion (which he would, of course, never mention to anyone) that he just had a healthier, which was to say, less objectifying, attitude to the fairer sex. Because when one is raised by two women, one of whom works for the FSB, one discovers that objectification is not strictly viable, unless one wants to have why it is wrong explained in detail.
Of course, that didn’t stop him staring over at the pool, too. Over at the pale figure, dark blue swimming costume a stark contrast to her chalk-coloured skin, who sat at the end of the pool, legs clutched up against her chest.
Rei Ayanami. Who was she, really? He didn’t know. Oh, they called the First Child, and sometimes, when they were talking to military people they referred to her as Invidia, but he didn’t know anything about her. He didn’t know where she lived, what she did in her free time, how she felt about having to pilot, what she was like as a person... in a purely professional sense, he hastened to reassure himself. Although, of course, she was very attractive, in a sort of special way; there was something about the way that snow-white skin just looked good
on a girl, and from this viewpoint, he could see that she had an excellent figure. The thought had occurred that he would get to see her in a plug suit at some point in the very near future. It was a nice thought.
But of course, that wasn’t why he was interested in her. Honestly. This was a more professional (and the word felt strange to him) interest. Sure, it was possible that something more might be achievable, but that was only a distant prospect. This was just getting to know someone who, after all, also piloted a forty-metre giant robot; someone else who would understand the stress and the punishing training schedule they inflicted on him. He was... he was taking the initiative.
There were things, though, that he had picked up from the others in the class; they said she was asocial, cold, that she never chose to interact with people unless it was necessary and that she had been like this ever since she joined the class, back in first year. Some of the girls had apparently tried multiple times to get her more involved; he had heard mention of attempts by Hikary, Taly, that brown-haired bookish one who sat at the back... no success. Although it was admirable of them to try. She did look... isolated, sitting there, her legs raised up like a barrier to the world around her. Lonely, and yet there was something about her that left him ill at ease, a darker voice added. Maybe it was because she seemed to be able to make his father smile, when he couldn’t.
He really hoped it wasn’t some kind of unconscious bias against sidoci
. He didn’t want to think of himself as the sort of person who had a problem with them.
Someone said his name. He switched his attention back to the conversation.
There were mutual smirks all around. “I said,” Toja said, “I think Shinji agrees that xenomixed is best.”
He stared at them in confusion.
“You were staring,” the boy said.
“At Rei Ayanami
,” Kensuke added, unnecessarily.
“N-n-no,” Shinji stammered.
Enitan rolled his eyes. “We’re not blind, you know. The world doesn’t shut down when you’re not paying attention.” He paused. “Well, if it does, it creates memories that make it the same as if it didn’t...”
“But what part were you staring at, hmm?” Toja interrupted, as he leant in. “Her breasts, perhaps?”
“I think you can definitely say she takes after her human side, if you know what I mean,” Kensuke said, waggling his eyebrows. “Or maybe her calves?”
“Or her thighs?”
“Like I said,” Shinji stammered, pushed off balance by both the interrogation, and the fact that they were leaning in from both sides, “that’s not it. Really.”
“... in that case,” someone muttered, “we should take away your man card. Because not staring at something like that...”
“Then what were you looking at, huh?” Toja said, drawing even closer.
“After all, we know you’re bad at lying,” the bespectacled boy added
“Your faces are too close,” muttered Shinji, through clenched teeth. “And... I was wondering why she’s always alone. Why she never does anything with anyone.”
“Because she’s... like that.”
are a bit like that. You can’t really get in their heads.”
“Always been like that.”
“Don’t know why some of the girls keep on trying to get her to do stuff. She’s made it clear she’s not interested.”
. That means she... she acts like Rei.”
The chorus of advice and answers was as useless as everything else had been.
“Plus, you know, by the way?” Toja nodded, face serious. “The whole ‘Why are you so lonely’, and wanting to be the one who does stuff with her? Doesn’t work. At all.”
“Which is a shame,” Kensuke added, “‘cause she’s a solid AA+ on my list of girls.”
“Well, yeah, you know there’s a study, right,” Enitan said, “and... I read it, and it turns out, that xenomixes all have that sex factor... don’t look at me like that, that’s what they called it, and the study found that, whether they’re amlati
, they’re like ten percent hotter than other people.”
“Yeah, because anything which uses the word ‘sex factor’ is totally
a reliable study,” Ala said, rolling his eyes. “Mind you,” he said, eyes searching for a certain amlaty
, and not finding her, “it’s true. They do just get the balance right, you know.”
Shinji tuned out again, only for the teacher to get back and start shouting that they should be on their feet, that this was ‘physical education’, not ‘sitting around education’, and other such witticisms beloved of the PE teacher. Who was wearing a lab coat, for some reason.
The boy blinked. Oh yeah,
he thought, as he pulled himself to his feet. We were sitting around because he had to take people to the nurse’s office.
Shinji had sort of forgotten that.
He also had a feeling he was forgetting something else. Oh well. It probably wasn’t that important.
“The time is 18:04. Shinji has mail. There is one new voice message from Dr Ritsuko Akagi. Begin voice message. ‘Shinji, did you remember to give Rei her card? It’s important. If you have already, thanks.’ End message. There is an attached file. Do you wish to add this to your reminders?”
Shinji groaned. That was it. Flicking through the attachment, he noted that, yes, Dr Akagi had sent him the girl’s address. He looked up at the wall, looking for a clock which wasn’t there; a pointless endeavour, since he did already know the time. Idly, he highlighted the physical address.
“Ari,” he instructed the muse, “get directions.”
The instructions flowed up onto the screen. Shinji frowned. She lived pretty high up, in one of the shallow domes feeding off from one of the older clusters. Maybe forty-five minutes in rush hour, as the estimate stated. He didn’t really want to do this.
But he probably had to. He had been asked, yesterday, and Rei would probably have problems without a valid card. And... well, he had wondered where she lived. This was an excuse, right? Well, not an excuse, it was a duty. In fact, he was helping her out by sacrificing his time, which made it acceptable.
Confirmed in his self-righteousness, which was still failing to drown out his nerves, Shinji headed off. Then he stepped back in, and left a note for Misato on the table, telling her where he had gone. And then decided that she’d probably knock it off when she dumped stuff on the table, or just not see it, and sent an email as well. Then he left, only to return to grab something to eat on the way; it wasn’t as if there was a paucity of junk food in the apartment. Places where she lived seemed to generate it in the same way that dishes left in the sink generated mould. In fact, there were some dishes in the sink, left to soak from the abortive cooking attempt the night before. Maybe if he just cleaned them first...
No. He wasn’t delaying, but he should just go and do it.
If only he could convince himself that the squirming in his stomach was a completely irrational response to an errand which would take him to a pretty girl’s house.