Rei 02, In Fire And Ashes / Some mourning words
“If thou openest not the gate to let me enter,
I will break the door, I will wrench the lock,
I will smash the door-posts, I will force the doors.
I will bring up the dead to eat the living.
And the dead will outnumber the living.”
The airlock deep in the bowls of the Geocity sealed itself shut, cutting off the painfully bright blue light from the containment chamber. With a sigh, Gendo Ikari relaxed slightly, and peeled the argoggles from his face, dropping them in the disposal bin. They were soon followed by his ear protectors, and the undyed cotton overall.
The man stood fully naked, eyes closed, as chill mist filled the chamber, thick and swirling and cloying, its scent washing away the odour of the place on the other side of the door. A thin, colourless condensation dripped from his warm body, and he shuddered. The call of instinct was too strong to resist; not when the coldness touched his flesh, rivulets running down over the thin white lines which crisscrossed his back and hands, and dripping in long, stringy drops from the uncapped socket points for the sorcerer’s implants.
The sudden furnace heat was nothing compared to the chill, and the warm water that washed the now-dried micromachine gel off was positively pleasant by contrast. Spitting out a foul-tasting residue, he stepped through to the next decontamination chamber, snatching up the towel and dabbing at his eyes, sinking his face into the absorbent material, before he began to dry the rest of his body.
As Gendo dressed himself again, motions hurried, his eyes unconsciously avoided the transparent window on one side of the room where, on the other side of a one-way mirror, an opaque white box, corners smoothed to nanoscopic precision, was undergoing its own decontamination procedure.
‘703’ was all it said, in big black letters. That, and the Greek character ‘α’, a black symbol in the centre of a yellow circle. The warning for arcane materials.
Gendo Ikari had descended to Irkalla to obtain a way to tilt the odds in their favour. And this box, and its contents, was his weapon.
It was the start of a brand new day for the students at the Academy, filled with fun and excitement. Even if they wished that it wasn’t, especially when the ‘fun’ included an evacuation notice. The only mercy was that the school was deep enough down, that it, in itself, counted as a valid evacuation shelter, and so it was not necessary to move. This came with the attendant downside, however, that there were still going to be some lessons. The entire class was muted, with a considerable fraction deciding to use the tutor group period to catch up sleep.
“Come on,” Hikary said, folding her arms and glaring around the class. “I know it’s Thursday, but do you all have to be like this?”
There was a mix of groans and vaguely assent-sounding noises from the subdued figures.
“Not my fault, Class Rep,” Toja managed, voice a little muffled by the way his face was mashed into the desk. “I didn’t get much sleep last night.”
“How is that not your...”
“Face it, Hik,” said Ayesha, with a shrug, “people just kinda suck.”
There was a clatter as Beautriu, a tanned girl with short, mousy-brown hair, managed to trip over her own shoelaces, and send both her arglasses and her bag full of books spilling over the floor. There was applause, and even a few wolf-whistles, which were cut short when Hikary straightened up, and directed a glare around the room.
“Case in point,” Ayesha added, smirking.
Hikary glanced at her fellow xenomix. “That wasn’t where I was heading,” she said. “I was just wondering why everyone seems so tired... more tired than normal for a Thursday, that is.”
“Yes, well... doesn’t make it not true,” remarked the Student Council Representative. “People are lazy. I mean, I hate Thursdays too, but no more than any other day.”
The pig-tailed girl shook her head. “It does make it not relevant. For one, you hate the world generally.”
The other orange-eyed girl sighed, adjusting her headscarf slightly. “Because... I refer you to my first point. I did stand for Council on a policy of jaded cynicism and misanthropy, after all, and I got in, so... meh.” She shrugged. “And on that topic, you did get the minutes from the last meeting, right?”
“Yes.” Hikary nodded. “I hope everyone will do their best, with the minimum of fuss. It shouldn’t be too bad; the class play is usually quite popular.”
“Class play?” someone asked from directly behind Hikary, panting slightly.
“Good morning, Taly,” the Class Representative replied, flatly. “Yes, class play. You’re late, by the way.”
The other girl shrugged. “He’s not here yet,” she said, referring to the teacher, “so I’m not late.”
“That’s not how it works, and you know it.”
“Plus, I have a totally valid reason. You know, there are evacuations everywhere. I don’t know if you have been paying attention, but there are. And even before the notice came through, the central dome in Princechurch was sealed off completely, and there are delays all along the Ascension line. It’s a mess trying to get down from higher in the city. Which, you know, you’d know if you weren’t you.”
Hikary narrowed her eyes. “Maybe,” she said. “Now, Ayesha,” she said, turning away from the girl with the dyed red streaks in her hair, “back on the topic... perhaps without any interruptions,” she added, sweetly.
Dabbing carefully at her face with the wet towel, wincing every time the skin shifted over the bruising around her forearms and lower back, Ritsuko stared at herself in the mirror. She ran her tongue over dry, cracked lips, tasting blood.
“Self-inspection reveals epidermal haematomas on face, specifically over the cheeks and around the jaw.” She winced again, as she added, voice rough, “Discomfort in talking, dry throat, sore eyes. Majority of tissue damage is located around grounding implants in soft-tissue, as expected. Self-examination complete. Now, will you let me out of here?”
[Medichine initial diagnosis is still in process. Please wait.]
“Sorry, Dr Akagi,” added a Nazzadi-accented woman, the subtle inflections in her voice distinguishing her from the LAI, “but you know the rules. After a ritual of this magnitude, we have to check for organ damage, and...
“There is something rather more important right now,” Ritsuko said, her jaw locked. “So, forgive me if I...”
[Medichine initial diagnosis is still in process. Please wait.]
“Dr Akagi, you know the rules. We need to make sure that any bleedthrough aftereffects aren’t going to kill you. So, please, wait while we wait for the medichines to provide a diagnosis.”
There was an uncomfortable silence.
“Okay, it’s coming in,” the medical technician announced over the speakers. “Some minor internal bleeding...”
“Where?” The word was short, terse.
“Uh... liver, small intestine... grade 1.”
“Nothing in anything immediately important, then?”
The nazzady paused. “Uh... no. It’ll be dealt with by the medichines, but you will need to take it easy for the next few hours, and you shouldn’t be nanoscrubbed until they’ve sealed off the bleeding.”
“Of course I plan to take it easy,” Ritsuko lied. “Now...”
There was a faint sigh from the medical technician. “Just wait a moment, please.” A container slid out from the wall, containing a white jumpsuit and attendant jacket. “We’ll need to make sure that you’re plugged into the monitoring gear in case of complications.”
“Yes, yes,” the blond snapped, already threading the cable out from the neck of the clothing to the port just under her left ear, before roughly pulling on the suit. “It’s not like I haven’t done this before. Now, can I...”
“Yes, I’m reactivating your data access rights. The sealed bag has...” the other woman noted that the scientist had already torn it open, to get to the equipment. “Yes,” she sighed. Scientists were all the same, in her experience. Pure sorcerers tended to treat their bodies better.
“Right, so,” Dr Akagi said to herself, as the initialisation text ran along the insides of her harcontacts. “Come on... come on, ah. Athena,” she began, addressing her muse, “check mail. Filter for relevancy based on List 3.”
[Yes, doctor. You have 149 new relevant messages.] the LAI said, formally.
Ritsuko blinked, heart suddenly racing. What had happened while she was out of contact? “Sort by urgency,” she instructed the LAI, as she slipped on the plimsoll-like shoes provided. “Prioritise by relevance: subjects Evangelion, Harbinger-5, Ikari, Harbinger.”
[51 of 149 new messages are urgent, doctor.]
“What?” she blurted out loud. Pulling out a stylus from the bag, she began to flick down the list in front of her eyes, rapidly scanning the headers. The door unsealed, and, barely paying attention to what was going on, Ritsuko shuffled out. Pausing for a moment, she told her muse to bring up a route-line for her to follow to get to where the Unit 01 team was working, on the repairs, before resuming the reading that left her blind in one eye.
Her jaw dropped open at the sight of the annotated diagrams.
All across Eastern Europe, the fires of conflict raged. All across Eastern Europe, the New Earth Government was being pushed back. The Migou had committed heavily to this front, and so the forces which tore into the human lines with ruthless efficiency were not the normal mix of Nazzadi Loyalists, backed up and honed by Migou units. No, these were pure Migou formations, filled with the technological horrors of the fungi from Yuggoth, interspersed by the Loyalist Elite, who were, in mind, more akin to their masters than to their genetic source.
A flash of light blinded the midday sun, as an antimatter warhead blew a glowing crater into the hillside, the direct hit crushing the NEG fortification dug into the geography like a tin can. The Migou fliers which had broken away just before launch returned, black knife-shapes tearing through the air and slashing at those human gunships which had survived the shockwave, the aircraft now denuded of their surface to air support. The sudden shift in the tactical situation was enough to allow the silent, ellipsoid shapes of the Migou heavy ground units, and their strange mecha, which approached the technoorganic aesthetic from the other side, to break through. Beams of relativistic plasma illuminated the contrails of worryingly smart missiles, as blasts reaped their way through the armoured units of humanity.
Second Lieutenant Salou Danda swore in his head, over and over again, and tried to crouch down further, to make his Dawn an even smaller target on this battlefield. Half his squadron was already KIA, and with the loss of the firebase, they certainly didn’t have enough forces in this area to hold off. And without Lieutenant Santiago, they didn’t have the drones, and so were blind... not that drones would be much use in this emwar environment, he thought, staring morosely at the haze on his passive radar. The clouds of interfering micromachines and nanomachines released by both sides were staining the air silver, replacing the ones destroyed by the blast, and high above, the sun was once more a blood-red disc, as if it was dusk, despite the fact that it was not even midday yet.
“Orders, sir?” It was Tirtzah, over the tightbeam laser.
The man took a single breath, and let it out, slowly. They had been forwards recon for the base; that was, obviously, now useless. Their EWAC aircraft and drones were down, so they were cut off, completely. They could try to retreat, but the emfog was dense enough that the damnable Migou sensors would have a worrying chance of seeing their stealthed mecha, just from the displacement patterns left in the clouds. It was one of the reasons that both sides used them, after all.
“We hold,” he lased back. “Go Ghost-Niner, Lima-Lima.”
It was that simple. Two Dawn-class reconnaissance mecha couldn’t do much against the armoured legions of the Migou. Even if Tirtzah was the heavy weapons specialist, she only had one ACMRM left, and a one tonne-yield warhead was not enough. Not when there were Mantises out there, which weren’t even always mission-killed by a close proximity blast.
But wait, wait and watch, while the emfog dispersed and settled to the ground like silvery snow, wait and track the Migou movements, and then try to re-establish contact, to report their findings? That was a worthy cause.
You didn’t give up, and you didn’t throw your life away. To do either, was to court extinction.
Evangelion Unit 01 was a titan covered in ants that swarmed and crawled across its surface; exosuited workers and autonomous drones alike replacing damaged external plating. The parts which had come from Unit 02 were obvious; they were the crimson of that Evangelion’s test colours, and a sharp contrast to the intact parts of the armour, which had been stripped down to its base purple to check for microfractures.
Dr Sarany Akanubalaki vy Saranupakalarti, head of the Unit 01 team, brushed a cowlick of black hair away from her eyes, and continued, “... and that about summarises the repairs. To cut it short, Unit 01 is nothing more than functional. We did our best, but...” she bit a lip, “... there’s only so much you can do. The internal damage is enough that after this is over, if we’re all alive, we’re going to have to strip off the chest, and put it through a localised moult-regrowth. There’s a hole in its tissue, in its chest, about the size of a tank, once we cut out the crystal-contaminated tissues. It goes all the way through. It’s a miracle it missed anything we couldn’t replace. Four of the D-Engine/D-Sink pairs were hit by that alone. And there’s more. I can tell you that any activity is going to damage it more, but,” she shrugged, “you’re going to say that it’s an unavoidable necessity, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” Ritsuko said, tersely. “Now...”
The nazzady fixed her eyes on her immediate superior. “It’s almost ready to move, when the inspection is done but... I don’t like the additional modifications we have to make.” Her red eyes were narrow, as she added, “I’m not blind, Ritsuko. I can recognise what the modifications are for. But the orders came straight from the Representative, and what Ikari wants...” She paused. “What the senior Ikari wants, that is,” she corrected herself. “I doubt Test Pilot Ikari will want it. But... eh.”
The blond nodded in slightly peeved agreement.
“Of course,” the other woman continued, looking at Ritsuko from the corner of her eyes, “have you checked that the Test Pilot will actually be piloting? I wouldn’t, if I were him.”
“Mis... Major Katsuragi is seeing to it,” Dr Akagi said, “or least, she should be. She’s Operations, so the pilots are her responsibility. We just need to ensure that the equipment is in the best possible state for her.”
The head of the Unit 01 team acknowledged the mild rebuke with a nod.
“Dr Akagi.” The voice came up from her PCPU.
Reaching down, Ritsuko acknowledged the call, even as Sarany turned on her heel, and hurried off. “Yes, Tola?” she acknowledged the head of the Unit 00 team.
“Unit 00 has been fully recovered. I’ve sent you the damage report from the sortie, but you haven’t responded yet.”
Inwardly, the Director of Science sighed. They had recruited Dr Sopheap from the Engel Group, where she had been in charge of frontline testing and deployment for one of their Species sub-Projects, and it showed. “No, Tola, I haven’t,” she said, already bringing up a harcontact display to read yet another Urgent message. “I have, literally, just got out of a ritual.”
“I do require your formal authorisation to proceed,” the other woman chided her.
Eyes flickering across the display, Ritsuko scan-read the message, and the attached diagrams. “Are you sure you can get the repair work complete?”
“Yes.” The word was solid, confident. “It’s a B-2 part, but the hand design is the same. It’s very fortunate that the Unit only took a glancing blow like that. It’ll make the repairs much easier... which we will want, if we want Unit 00 to carry a handheld weapon. Oh, and the Test Pilot’s synch ratio was low enough that she didn’t even take mild sympathetic burns,” Dr Sopheap added, as an afterthought.
“Don’t do it,” Ritsuko ordered.
“What?” The tone was confused.
“I mean, ‘permission is refused’,” she said acerbically. “That’s the arm we’re installing the blast shield on. She doesn’t need a hand for that arm.”
“Get the Unit loaded onto the train ASAP. You can finish the important repairs in the L2 Geocity. A hand isn’t important compared to the extra armour.”
She could hear the gritted teeth in the, “Yes, Doctor,” and the cursory way that the line was cut. Ritsuko didn’t care. Like too many of the staff recruited from the Engel Group, Dr Sopheap tended to treat the Evangelions as little more than enlarged versions of their child-technologies. As a result, Tola was looking as this as the loss of the primary weapons system of the Unit. But that was not that the mission profile that Major Katsuragi had designed called for, and so, simply, it was not needed.
It was that simple.
Shinji Ikari awoke again to a subtle swaying motion. Like a babe in his mother’s arms, he lay, eyes closed, surrounded by warmth, gently rocked from side to side. Slowly, one hand crept up, to rest upon the smooth skin of his chest, to feel the thud of his heart and the rhythmic pulsation of his breath.
It felt good. Through the depths of bone-deep weariness, there was a tiny spark of exaltation. He was alive, and he was warm, and it was good.
Two blue eyes slowly opened, feeling gummy and sticky. Though slightly blurry and indistinct, Shinji could not recognise the... no, it wasn’t an entry plug. It wasn’t curved enough, and it was the wrong colour. What was the word? Ah, yes. Ceiling. It was an unfamiliar ceiling that arched above him, low, clean snow-white, and covered in what looked like handholds. It was a utilitarian thing. It was something designed for a role, and, hence, it would carry out its role.
Somewhere, from outside his field of vision, there was the snap of a book being closed, and the faint, wet sound of a lid being reattached to a pen. With an effort, he tilted his head, to gaze upon two frigid grey eyes, locked upon his face. Two grey eyes, in a milk-coloured face, situated above a white plug-suit. It had obviously been used; he could smell the LCL, which plucked at the chords of memory like a knife. It was a scent that both repulsed and called to him.
The heartbeat became a hummingbird’s wings. He knew her from somewhere. She was familiar. Very, very familiar.
“Ayanami,” he croaked, through disobedient vocal cords. “Rei.”
The girl tucked her book back into army-green rucksack by her chair, along with the pen, and then removed a PCPU. All the time, her gaze never left his. “I have come to provide necessary equipment for the as-yet-unnamed operation to engage Harbinger-5 again, in defence of London-2, as well as the interim briefing.”
His eyes began to droop shut again.
“I bought you a meal.” The girl paused. “There are also stimulants. The dosage requirements are on the packet,” she continued, standing up. With a faint clink, she lifted the tray in one hand, and, the other hand working its way across the ceiling, she made her way to place the tray beside his bed. The clink of the plastic was reassuringly solid.
“My... head...muscles... everything aches. And tired.”
“Medical micromachines are currently rebuilding nerve connections throughout your body. The discomfort is tolerable,” Rei said, shifting slightly to unconsciously flex her right arm. “Now,” something heavy impacted his legs, as she dropped a sealed packet in black on his legs, “here is a fresh plug suit. You will wear this plug suit on the operation.”
“You’re... okay?” he managed, ignoring her comments. It seemed a little unfair to Shinji, in his current state that, she seemed to be so completely untouched by anything, while he was lying here incapacitated.
The girl tilted her head slightly. “I took only minor fractures in the first engagement against Harbinger-5, and they were self-induced in my attempts at evasion,” she stated. “I have also been deployed again, while you were dead. I lost a hand.”
Shinji frowned. She appeared to have both hands. And... “I w-was dead?” he stammered, his breathing suddenly laboured.
“It was not the hand of this body. I was piloting the Evangelion at the time,” Rei added. “My synchronisation ratio with Evangelion Unit 00 was low enough that I did not experience sympathetic damage.”
“W-wait. I. Dead?” Shinji managed. It was a matter of some importance to him.
“Yes.” The girl blinked. “You got better,” she said, no shift in intonation at all.
There was spluttering from the figure on the bed, which turned into coughing. “I. I. W-wait, do you just mean ‘clinically’. Not dead, dead?” he asked, weakly.
“You were clinically dead, yes.” Rei paused, and continued, her voice sounding as if she were reciting something she had memorised. “We are on a heavy transport train, connecting Ostberlin-2 and London-2. Evangelion Units 00 and 01 are also on this train, repairs having been made to them, to get them operational. That will not prevent your deployment.”
Shinji winced. That had been an objection he might have bought up, had he thought of it. That she had already pre-empted it was... he yawned, and closed his eyes.
The cold voice of the white-haired girl still managed to piece his fatigue. “You are to eat, and take the dosage of stimulants provided, as to ensure that you conform to the timetable.”
Slowly, groggily, the boy shook his head, but nonetheless managed to force himself to sit up, muscles in his back screaming at unexpected use. Opening his eyes, he started down at the plug suit, neatly packaged. The ‘01’ visible on the front seemed to be winking at him.
“You will wish to put that on. It will be cold outside.”
Shinji looked up, to see the girl’s head tilted slightly, as she stared down at him. No comprehension dawned on him. She stared back. Shinji shook his head, trying to dispel some of the blurriness which still hung over him. “I’m... what? I... what are you talking about?”
“You are naked.”
He squinted. He looked down. Huh. So he was, under the sheets. He hadn’t noticed that. And the act of sitting up had made them roll away. He wouldn’t have been aware of that, unless Rei had pointed... Rei... girl... naked... naked Rei...warm... exposed...
A squeak, and a hurried grab of bedsheets left him in a somewhat less exposed state. His head drooped, the fringe of dark hair just protruding into his vision, to shield him from the stare of the white girl. “Sorry,” he muttered.
“For what?” There seemed to be a hint of curiosity in Rei’s voice.
“Because... um... well, just, sorry.” He paused, and swallowed. “I... I’ve been saying that a lot recently,” he remarked, almost to himself, eyes half-closed. “Still... at least we’re now even?” Shinji pre-emptively flinched, as he realised just how stupid that statement was.
“You will eat.”
The food, if that was what one deigned to call the broth-like drink, looked singularly unappetising to him, and he said as much.
“You will eat,” Rei said again, her intonation identical.
“I’m not hungry,” he said, turning away, and slumping back down.
“You will eat. You require nutrients.”
“To maintain focus while piloting.”
Oh. Yes. “Must I?” he asked, the self-pity audible.
“I don’t want to,” he blurted out. “It... it hurts, and I just want to sleep! You... you can only stand and tell me that I must do it because you haven’t had to... do...” he trailed off. After a moment’s pause, he looked back at her.
The two grey eyes were fixed on the wall, above his bed. He felt, somehow, that not only was she not looking in his direction, she was not looking in his direction, and that was utterly different.
“Sorry.” There it was again. “But... but...” he bit his lip. Indeed, he bit a little too hard, and tasted blood. “I don’t ever want to have to do it again.”
“Stay here.” The unexpected words came through the veil of tiredness.
“Stay here. I will pilot. Unit 01 can be reconfigured for me.”
There was an odd feeling, almost akin to pressure on a forgotten bruise, deep within his stomach. That they could... would... he blinked. That was what he wanted, wasn’t it? “They can do that?” he asked.
“Yes. You know that. Dr Akagi can order such a change.” Rei straightened out, subtly. “I will go. You will stay here, in this bed. I may see you afterwards.”
The way she said ‘bed’, despite the lack of audible emotion, nevertheless filled Shinji with an odd feeling of rage, of anger at the way that she was patronising him. “Fine,” he snapped back, jolting upright even as his body protested. Wincing, groaning, he nevertheless glared at her.
She did not even look at him, but continued to stare at the wall. “I will inform Dr Akagi that the Third Child is not willing to carry out his duties.”
“Yes! They’re... they’re duties I never wanted, never asked for, never... never ever was really asked about or... or anything! Why? Why should I do it?”
“It is necessary. It must be done by someone.” She blinked, once. “Lie back down. You may damage yourself,” she said, turning around and heading towards the door. She paused for just a moment there, and there was the slightest twitch of her head, as if she were about to turn around. She did not do so.
“Goodbye,” she said, her tone not only cold, but dead.
The door slid shut behind her, and Shinji was left alone, in this white, cold, clinical room, the burning reds and crimsons of rage and shame painting themselves behind his eyeballs. One hand jerked out, and, unlooking, he grabbed the cup. A long slurp resounded through the room, as he took a mouthful of nutrient broth.
It didn’t make him feel better.
The OIS perimeter around the building was secure, and growing more so by the minute. The hulking figures of power armour were joined by stationary anti-tank emplacements, the dark-grey-and-blue capsules keeping their anti-armour railguns trained on the designated locations.
Almost all of the people were gone. Only a few, specially chosen, manned the necessary command sections, and they were few indeed, because there was very little that could not be controlled remotely. Humans, no matter their subspecies, were to evacuate away from any instance of Budapest Syndrome.
And yet a fresh armoured truck was permitted past the security cordon at the dome entrance, its wheels silent on the road. The man driving it paused and held an arm out of the window, as his genetics were checked again; as it retracted, he winced, sweeping back his red hair. “We’re here,” he called back, as he pulled to a stop, at the point where the tank traps blocked the robe.
The side of the van unfolded, and a tall nazzada, his hair combed up into an afro, straightened, unfolding out of the vehicle. Stretching, he cricked his neck, a slight muttered comment providing his opinion of the seats, and stepped out, followed by two, slighter figures. Both women were wearing transparent facemasks, and light armour, but compared to the heavy armour and unmanned vehicles around here, they seemed comically underprotected.
These were specialists, here on the direct orders of Deputy Director Echo. They were aware that armour, or even ANaMiNBC protection, would not help against Budapest Syndrome.
With a nod, and a few curt words, the women strolled in, their eyes alert. The larger man, meanwhile, returned to the vehicle after stretching, and began the process of connecting up all the systems of the building, routed through the OIS containment station outside this dome, back through his vehicles. Any objections were routed through the fact that this team were specialists directly under orders from Deputy Director Echo, the Section Head of the London-2 branch of the OIS, and were promptly withdrawn.
The driver leant back, hands behind his head and an uneasy expression on his face, as muffled curses in Nazzadi resounded through the vehicle’s chassis, interspersed with the calm voices of LAI systems, which, for some reason, did not seem to be helping.
Inside the building, though, all was quiet. The two women had already removed their masks. One was blonde, the other darker-haired, but there was a certain similarity in their blandly attractive faces which suggested some relationship.
[So, what do you think, ASPARTAME?] the blond ‘said’ over her interface, her hands running over the barrel of her stubby, bulky pistol, fingers tapping and stroking it unconsciously. Obviously, she was eventually satisfied, because a button was depressed, and the rails extended and expanded, the systems in the railweapon coming online with a hum. [Authorisation APHRODITE, reconfigure for special ammunition, Classification ‘Flayer’,] she instructed the weapon’s LAI over a link.
[Acknowledged. Please Insert Specified Ammunition Type.]
The darker-haired one shrugged. [The OIS got it contained quickly,] she ‘replied’. [And no-one seemed to have stumbled into it when they kicked down the door. So we got... maybe twenty, thirty people in this Budapest? Not much.]
[That’s what I was thinking,] the blonde said, sliding the magazine in. There was a tone, and a light on the handle turned green.
[We’ve had worse,] her companion remarked. There was suddenly... something in her hand, a line of distortion and anomaly and darkness and light and paradox; a vague barb of a sword which seemed to writhe as something alive.
[Yep.] The dark-haired woman shrugged. “Hey, APOSTATE, get them to give us access to local systems, would you?” she asked, verbally, over the comms link. “They still haven’t.”
“On it.” A slight pause, followed with some profanity. “Done,” was the next word said which was suitable for polite company.
The blond tapped a button on her PCPU with her thumb, and paused for a moment. “Okay... okay... and, get it open,” she said, working her way through the menus.
The interior doors opened, and the two women stepped in, sealing the door behind them.
The door to Shinji’s room slid open again, and Misato stepped through, her uniform marred by the filter mask slung around her neck and the thick mass of body armour over her torso. Slowly, almost painfully carefully, she picked her way over to his side, one hand always clinging to the nearest ceiling hold.
“Hey,” she said, her voice softer than usual. “I think we should tal...”
“No.” Shinji’s voice was flat, almost dead, as he interrupted. He didn’t even meet her gaze, instead keeping his eyes locked on the unfamiliar ceiling. He didn’t want to look at her. “No. I’m no-not doing it. I’m not getting back in that th-th-thing. Not again. It killed me.” He sucked in a breath. “And... and you said it. Before... when I was feeling all nervous.” He swallowed. “You said I wasn’t going to be killed. I was. I can’t believe I’m saying it, but... clinically dead is still dead, if only for a while!”
There was an uncomfortable silence, only broken by the waver and sway of the train.
“Well,” Shinji said, bitterly, shifting slightly to prop himself up on his arms a fraction, before sinking back down. “Aren’t you going to s-say something like ‘You only died a little bit’, or ‘You got better’, or... or anything? Anything...anything trite to try lessen the fact that it h-h-hurt and I was sort of de-dead and I never want to have to get in that thing again ever!” He swallowed hard, his throat suddenly dry. “It was so... cold,” he muttered. “Cold and dark. Except when it wasn’t. But... it was... no. Never again.”
“No.” Misato’s voice was quiet, hollow-sounding. “I can’t lessen it. I can’t justify it. I can’t explain it. If Strategic Missile Command hadn’t mismanaged the deployment of warheads, we could have hit it with multiple ones, like the ones we initiated in the first attack, and we know that managed to get through the AT-Field. If the Migou hadn’t moved interdiction forces into the North Atlantic, Asuka... that’s Unit 02’s pilot, could have been moved over. If I’d pushed harder, I could have maybe had Unit 02 stationed over in L2 already, and it wouldn’t be needed.” She slumped down in a chair by the bed, not meeting the boy’s gaze. “There’s so many ways we could have not needed to do this. But we do need to. And it’s a terrible thing.” She bit on her lip. “It’s wrong that we want you to do this. It’s wrong that we need you do this... except we don’t. That’s the worst thing. This isn’t the only option.”
“Then why don’t you...”
“Because Rei, in Unit 00, doesn’t have the fine AT-Field control,” the dark-haired woman continued, in that same, broken-sounding voice. “She can’t, physically, do it like you could. Remember, she had her first successful start-up test yesterday. So if we use her... we’ll have to get her to nearly point-blank range, and even if she survives that, the odds are that she will not survive the use of the weapon.”
“So you’re getting me to pilot again by putting her in danger.” It was a simple statement.
“No.” Misato shook her head. “As you said, it left you clinically dead. Believe me, I’ll understand if you don’t want to. I might not agree, but, believe me, I’ll understand. All too well. But I am going to tell you the facts. And this is a fact, that because Rei only has simulator practice, she is worse at AT-Field manipulation than you, has a worse synch ratio, and so will probably die. The MAGI give her odds of survival at about 10%, even if she survives getting into position. You saw what that thing was like; how it was able to target everything. And if she fails, the odds are that we’ll need to use the RAPTURE contingency.” She lifted her chin slightly. “Do you want to know what RAPTURE is?” she asked.
“Uh...” Shinji frowned, trying to ignore the sudden churning, swirling acidic feel in his stomach, and glanced over at her for the first time. “Well, the word means ‘happiness’, doesn’t it? But I don’t th-think that’s a happy thing.”
She shook her head. “No. Not happy at all. There are enough fusion warheads built into the structure of London-2 to reduce the entire city to something like a three-kilometre deep crater.”
“Wh-why? What’s so important that you need to...” the boy paused, unable to continue. Unwilling to continue
“Because we can’t let them win.” The Major’s voice had changed; although it was still quiet, it was quiet in the same way that a tiger in the night is quiet; something only made more dangerous by the lack of volume. “We can’t let them get any benefit, even from taking a city. And I don’t just mean the Harbingers by ‘them’. I mean anyone who’s not us. Migou, Deep Ones, Stormites, a Harbinger... whoever. They all make use of people. Make people less than people. Use them against us. I don’t... we won’t let them. Every major arcology is set up the same way. After what I saw in China and after A... it’s something I fully agree with.” The woman’s eyes flickered over to the armoured wall of the train, breaking his gaze. “It’s better than the alternative.”
Shinji took several shuddering deep breaths, and let them out slowly, feeling the muscles in his chest ache from so little. The idea of such things, that the New Earth Government, the good guys were willing to go to such lengths to stop... “What happens if the Harbinger wins? What will it do?”
“I could tell you,” the Major said, still staring at the wall. “And I said earlier, that I was going to tell you the facts. I... I’ve studied the reports from Harbinger-1 and I w... and looked at some of the after-effects. But, again, just like with RAPTURE, I’ll ask you again. Do you really want to know?”
There was silence. Then, “No,” Shinji said, staring back up at the ceiling. “I d-don’t want to know. B-but,” he stammered. “Do I have a chance about not-knowing? You’re not going to tell me anyway?”
There was a single nod from the woman. “No. If you don’t want me to, I won’t force you to listen.”
“Then, as I said, I don’t want to know.” The boy paused. “You look like you know, and... no, I don’t want to. But...” and he swallowed hard, trying to search for the right words “... I really don’t want to go against... to get in the Unit. B-but, from what you say?” Images of Unit 00 being annihilated in Harbinger-born radiance, swiftly followed by the faces of his classmates, of everyone he might have seen in London-2, throbbed in his head. “I don’t have a choice.”
“No. You have a choice.”
“No... that’s n-not quite the same thing,” the boy said, wanting to gesture with his hands to explain, but feeling too weak to even manage that. “I mean... well, you’re giving me a choice. But I don’t have a choice. I want to run away, far away, and never see any of this again. But I won’t.” He let out a weak chuckle. “And can’t, too. I mean, I’d collapse before I got...” the words were broken by coughing.
A watery smile crept onto Misato’s face, at the poor joke. “You’ll do it,” she said. It was not a question.
“Yes.” Several deep breaths. “Yes. I don’t know if I can actually,” he winced, “actually physically do it, but... I want to do it. I have the intent of doing it. Because... I can’t not.”
Stepping over to the side of the bed, Misato squatted down, head at his eye level, reaching out to squeeze his hand. “I’m sorry, Shinji,” she said, in a tone carefully purged of elation. “But... thank you.” Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out a widescreen PCPU. “Now, see this?” she asked, thumbing it on.
Shinji nodded. “It’s one of the training placards? Isn’t it? For the AT-Field stuff.” He frowned. It was notably more complicated than any of the other ones; the three dimensional image a mess of layered red and blue lines. It had some resemblance to the ‘spike’ shape they used to show him how to surround a blade, but... different.
“Correct. We need you to memorise this. Completely. Perfectly. It will be the only way that you can fire the modified LANCE system we’re fitting to Unit 01.” She swallowed. “I am going to explain what this will involve. Please,” she almost begged him, “listen to everything that I have to say before you say anything.”
And now the two women stepped out of the building, masks back on, weapons no longer there, stepping promptly into the decontamination centre that the OIS had erected. They showed up clean, and there was a sigh of relief from the watchers and their handler.
“Captain Joyeuse,” the blonde said, opening a link to the OIS team outside. “We have examined the bravo-type ENE.”
Ori, safe away from the... the thing, shuddered slightly. Those disposal and examination experts were far, far braver than her; she’d had nightmares after the bit when they’d explained Budapest Syndrome to her, and the knowledge that one of the people on her team, Gjorgji, had actually been in Budapest in ’67... well, she didn’t envy the man. “Yes, Agent Biksisu?” she asked, trying to keep her voice calm.
“It seems to have been a deliberate formation,” the specialist stated, with a slight shrug, which Ori felt was rather inappropriate. “That’s both good and bad. Good, because it hasn’t self-catalysed, and so it has a small absorption radius. Bad, because there’s someone out there who knows how to do this.”
The captain paled. “I... I see.”
“The site has been contained adequately,” the darker-haired woman added. “Grade 5b sterilisation will be required, to purge the ENE. I would also recommend that you flood the section with carbon monoxide, to prevent any aerobic lifeforms from getting near, and adding to the coalescence. I have attached the recommendation to our initial report.”
“Yes... yes, that makes sense.”
“We have been ordered to another site,” she continued, her brow furrowing slightly. “This looks to be a busy day.”
“And to think that this was meant to be our day off,” her co-worker added. “A city-wide evacuation notice, and all these Budapests. Well, we’re certainly earning our monies today.”
Captain Joyeuse swallowed slightly. Gallows humour. How... funny. “Understood. I’ll just need you to submit your provisional containment report, before we can acknowledge this.”
“Talk to Agent Garta,” the blonde said. “We’ve given him our data; he’s the team leader.”
“Okay, I understand.” Ori sighed, and cut the link, letting her head slump into her hands. Looking around, at the faces of her colleagues, she was not alone in this feeling. A deliberately caused instance of Budapest Syndrome.
This was bad.
It was now late afternoon, and the reduced timetable which the Academy had put on had finished. It was questionable how much attention had been paid, of course, because the combination of widespread tiredness, and the natural inattentiveness when a full-scale warning was still in place, had unified their efforts to make the intricacies of mathematics lose their lustre, somewhat.
The fact that there had been two absences; ‘Ayanami, Rei’ and ‘Ikari, Shinji’, had been noted. The Academy was a highly selective school, designed to train the next generation of world leaders and scientists for their future careers, and to engender a love of knowledge and the ability to solve puzzles in its students. They were more than capable of putting facts like ‘Shinji and Rei are not here’ and ‘last time something like this happened, some kind of monster attacked’ together.
“I wish we were allowed up to the surface to watch!” moaned Kensuke, sitting at his desk, and glaring at the security notice warning of restricted Grid access. “I bet they’re being deployed right now. Just think of it; two shining titans, weapons firing bright high energy lasers and plasma, valiantly standing forth against the abominations which imperil humanity. And Nazzadity,” he added, with a sideways glance at Toja, which somewhat ruined his attempts to puff up his chest. “And then come the large explosions and the awesome flawless victory!”
Red eyes were rolled at that comment. “It’s not that pretty,” the taller boy said. “It’s messy, and the things are terrifying, and... delo kivilita pla kontrunosesa, he’s braver than me if he chooses to do that.”
“Yeah, well, you got to actually see a battle,” the human said, crossing his arms, and pouting slightly. “Why’d it have to show up at your Social Work Task, not mine, when I was actually... argh. I’m thinking the fates are conniving to stop me from ever seeing an Eva in action. What I’d give to be let in the cockpit of one! I wouldn’t even need to be allowed to pilot. I’d just want to get to touch, to see it!”
Toja looked away, and the other boy sucked in a breath.
“Sorry,” he apologised, leaning back a bit. “I forgot... how is your sister, anyway?”
“Actually... they’ve got her in physio right now,” Toja admitted, with a weak smile. “She managed to take her first steps... her second first steps, come to think of it, anyway, well, she’s really wobbly, but...” he choked up. “I saw how... hard, and I... so proud.”
They sat in stoic, and manly, silence for a few moments, before the teacher at the front of the class stood up, his chair scraping along the floor, and cleared his throat.
“Ahem. If you will all... thank you.” He coughed. “Yes. I’ve just received notice that... well, I guess you’re all aware that the school serves as an evacuation shelter for other schools too.”
“Yeah, the lunch hall was packed with little kids,” Ala, sitting on the other side of the class, could be distinctly heard to mutter. “They ran out of chips because of them.”
“They’ve been cooped up in the emergency shelters for most of the day, and so, apart from exercise breaks...”
“It’s bad enough at the start of term when the new first years are all there, let alone this.”
“Yes, thank you, Ala,” the teacher said, with a sigh. “Yes, it’s annoying, but you’re meant to have more community spirit.” He coughed, again. “Well, they’ve... ‘they’ being the Headmaster, have decided that we need to spend a few hours stopping small children going stir-crazy, and so each class is being assigned a class of children from another school. We’ll be expected to keep them entertained for a while, and also... well, most of the schools are feeder schools for the Academy, so they’ll have a chance to see where they’ll be able to go, if they’re good enough.”
“Great,” the boy drawled, no longer even attempting to conceal it as a stage whisper.
“Did I mention, Ala, that they’ll be counting this as a SWP occasion, with the time counting towards your overall mark for the module?”
The boy suddenly sat rigid upright. “I am suddenly overcome with a desire to help small children,” he stated.
“I thought you might be.”
Gingerly, Kimuna, sitting in the middle of the class, raised his hand. A slightly dreamy look, as usual, was present in his pink eyes. “What age are they?” he asked. “I mean, will we have to change their nappies, or what?”
The teacher snorted. “Not quite. They’re Year 5s; that’s nine and ten year olds. They’ll be going to secondary school the year after next, and although it might not seem like it, to you bunch of grizzled teenagers, it’s not that young.”
“Do I detect some sarcasm there, sir?” asked Taly, a smirk on her face.
“Well, that entirely depends on whether your sarcasm detector is working or not,” was the rhetorical answer.
Toja blinked twice, eyes suddenly wide. They wouldn’t have, would they? Year 5s, from a feeder school? It couldn’t be...
“Oh, look, it’s Kany’s big brother!”
“Yes! I told you askin’ for it would work!”
“Hey, Toja! Look at me!”
Hikary raised one eyebrow at him. “Toja.” There wasn’t even a need for a question.
“They’re in my sister’s class,” he explained with an affected tone of boredom, trying to keep it to that. “I’ve been SWP temping with them. That’s how they know me.”
“Oh, okay.” Hikary nodded. “Well, that will be helpful.” She smiled at him. “I hope we can rely on you to help with names and...”
“Don’t worry everyone!” a platinum blond little girl declared loudly. “If any of you get lost, Toja will rescue you!”
“Yeah! He’s really, really brave!”
With surprising velocity, the nazzada’s head collided with his desk. “Why me?” he muttered to himself.
In the dark room, Director Khoury twitched slightly, as the sustained lack of sleep and the drugs in her system designed to counteract it warred for supremacy.
“London-2. News refresh,” she said, her voice flat.
[Director] stated a voice. [ANARCHY Cell. APOSTLE reports that APHRODITE and ASPARTAME have secured the Bravo-Sierra sample from Site Alpha-3, in London-2. They are proceeding to Site Alpha 4.]
“Good,” the woman said, red eyes reflecting the light from the screens. “It is contained?” she asked, unnecessarily. The woman blinked, slowly.
[Nothing else, Director.]
“Praetoria-B? News refresh.”
[CENOTAPH Cell is en route. No other changes, Director.]
The burble and susurration of voices resumed, as she moved onto other topics.
“Rits. He’s in. He’ll do it.”
The blond raised her eyebrows at the news, and briefly considered checking if her cochlear implant was, in fact, functioning properly. “Really?” she asked. “How... how did you manage that? I was sure that he’d refuse.”
“He did. So I explained the facts to him.”
“All of them?” There was concern in the scientist’s voice. “But...”
“Of course not. That would be cruel. But enough that he could make his decision whether or not to pilot, actually knowing what he was doing by choosing either way.” She heard a sigh over the link. “And I told him I was sorry.”
“Sorry? For what? What did you do wrong?”
“Rits, they don’t pay you to deal with people. Robots, yes. Ackersby organisms, yes. People, no. As Director of Operations, I have to.” There was a click, and hum over the line. “Look... we have him, so we can proceed with the primary plan. Now, Director of Science, do your thing, and get me Unit 01 in the best possible state for this. I owe him that much. For lying to him by telling the truth.”
The sounds of feet against the metal floor was a constant backdrop to the bustle and bluster of the evacuation process. The rich, who lived deeper, in the larger arcology domes built more recently, might be already pre-evacuated, but the masses that lived in the slums of the surface and in the oldest, shallowest domes, were not so safe. Millions of people had to be moved, in a population movement which put the daily commute of rush hour to shame.
A man, sweat beading on his forehead, pushed a heavy cart, laden down with nanofactory feeder capsules. His eyes flicked nervously from side to side. Around him, the crowd was snarled and disordered; voices raised in worry and agitation as the orderly evacuation was slowed to a snail’s crawl.
“Hey!” The man pushing the cart flinched slightly, but forced himself to relax, as an ArcSec officer stepped over, red eyes somewhat annoyed, and weary. “What’s this?” the man asked, in a strongly Nazzadi-accented deep voice.
The man shrugged. “Moving stuff,” he explained, unhelpfully. “That is,” he hastily added, “I just got in an order that more refills get moved down to one of the safety bunkers.”
“Then why aren’t you using the supply corridors?” the officer asked.
“I didn’t have a specialist pass, okay? I’m not normally with Resupply, but the guy lives deep, and so is already evaced. They grabbed me from Waste Disposal. ‘Least I’m earning overtime for this.”
The nazzada coughed. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to come with me,” the officer ordered, eyes flicking at the crowd which was forming behind him.
“Urgh. Umm... that is, fine, yes.”
The cart was pushed to the nearest transit corridor, and from there, it was only a short distance to the nearest ArcSec waystation. The man pushing the cart was taken to be genescanned, and a full verification done on his background, while the items themselves were taken for a closer examination, to check that they were actually what the RFID tags on the packages claimed they were.
“What do we have here?” the technician manning the scanner asked, an unlit cigarette sticking out from between her lips.
“Flagged as suspicious,” the nazzada who had bought the delivery in explained. “Crate ID say that they’re nanofac refills for Bunker NNE 00102, but... he was acting suspiciously. Wasn’t moving them along the supply corridors, for one, and...”
“Yeah, yeah, just getting the ‘bots to grab the crate info,” the woman said, her forehead crinkling. “Just push them through the arch... yeah, walk through too. Okay.” Her machine bleeped, and a red light appeared on her arglasses. “Okay. Yeah, I’m gonna need a random one...” she raised a hand, “okay, randomiser selected package number ZZA9WYA923Q. That’s the one, right hand corner, middle layer. Just going to have check that it’s clean, as per protocol.”
The checks were run, as the bulky, heavy capsule was moved by the technician, in her exosuit, into the sample nanofactory set up to test the contents. She stepped back, servos whining, as the machine accepted the sample, sealing after entry, and began to extract tiny amounts of the theoretically homogenous contents. There was a faint whine, as the mass spectrometer warmed up, and the tests began. The nazzada officer flinched; the technician showed no sign that she could even hear it.
After about a minute or two, it bleeped again, the light coming up green.
“Okay, yeah, it’s okay, and all the other ones are null-tamper,” the technician said with a shrug, bending down to lift the refill out of the device with a grunt. “I’ll just stick it back on the cart, then you can get the idiot out of here. Tell him and his ‘corp... Armourcorp, isn’t it? Yeah, issue them a caution for breaking handling auth’.”
“Don’t tell me how to do my job,” the officer said, his eyes narrowing.
The woman shrugged. “Look, I’m overloaded already. The ‘corp fuckers have to be reminded not to waste ArcSec time because they don’t get the proper transit auth’. Bastards who think that money buys them immunity to the law.”
The cart was sent on its way, and the hapless courier received a lecture from the ArcSec officer.
And no-one was any the wiser that package ZZA9WYA923Q had stayed in the scanning office, and been replaced by its identical twin.