The wind brushed Max's face, waking him from the first dreamless sleep he had had in five years. He opened his eyes, and in a flash had his revolver in one hand pointed at the open hatch to his entry plug. Sure, it wouldn't fire, but it was better than nothing.
“Wait, holy pilot, wait!” The voice that called down from the open hatch was cracked and thin, old and stretched. Max blinked, letting his eyes adjust to the light streaming into the entry plug, and gazed at the person who had awoken him. The figure was hunched, nearly naked save for a loincloth, bald and thin. Their face was a wreck, one eye simply covered over with grown skin. The other rotated slowly in its sockets, above a nose that was little more than a stump. Max's gaze fell to the man's mouth, a graveyard of black teeth and grey gums.
“Mutant,” Max spat. Everyone had come through Third Impact with mental scars, but a few unfortunates had lost their bodies as well. No-one thought they would live past the end of the decade, but they had. “What do you want?”
The mutant laughed, or coughed – it was hard to tell. Max was almost tempted to end the poor bastard's misery right then and there, but he was still too tired to move.
“I saw you,” the mutant eventually said. “Out there, in the wastes, and in here – the Tsunderdome! - such glory, such power! An Evangelion like yours must surely have been one of the Three!”
Max's lip curled in disgust. This old horseshit? “The purple-green was sent to the stars,” he said, “Red's pilotless, and the Orange was destroyed. I'm sorry, old man, but your prophecy isn't coming true.”
The mutant dropped down into Max's entry plug, almost jumping right onto Max himself. Max gently pushed him off, his earlier impulse for murder subsiding. No use wasting someone who was willing to talk to him, after all.
“Not true!” barked the mutant. “Not true at all! Yes, the zero was destroyed, but these things can always be rebuilt!” He raised one, claw-like finger. “Your blood-and-bone is young, for an Evangelion, far younger than any I have seen. It cannot have started growing more than a few years ago, can it not?”
Those words made a perverse amount of sense. “Five years, yes,” Max admitted. “But... I recovered the core far away from the deadlands. I-”
Max was cut off, as the mutant shoved his face right up to Max's. Conversation or not, Max was definitely feeling the urge to kill now, but before he could draw his blade and finish it the mutant was drawing back.
“I knew it!” he crowed. “I knew! Your eyes, child, your eyes!”
Snarling, Max was upon the mutant before the slippery bastard could react. He grabbed the creature by its throat, and hurled it against the wall of the entry plug. “What about my eyes?”
The mutant raised both its hands in surrender. “The red, child, the red! They be mostly white, yes, but you have the red!”
No. It couldn't be true. He couldn't have red eyes – he'd seen his eyes, they were solid white aside from the pupils! “A mirror!” Max demanded. “Now!”
The mutant scurried off, leaving Max in the shadowy depths of the entry plug. He sank into the pilot's seat, too wrapped up in his thoughts to consider looking around at his surroundings. There was no way he could have the red eyes! Max was not he who sold the world, and he was certainly not she who would save it.
“A mirror!” declared the mutant, dropping back down into the plug and thrusting a shard of glass under Max's face. “See! The red! The red!”
Max gazed into the mirror, staring intently into his own eyes. To his relief, they were still white-
except for one tiny sliver of red in his right eye. It was thin, asymmetrical, like a loading wheel that had much more progress to make.
“What does this mean?” Max asked of no-one in particular.
The mutant decided to be that no-one. “I know not,” he said. “But it is portentous. Your blood-and-bone, your red eye, they herald something! Something big, something magnificent and awesome!” Standing on both legs, his back straight, the mutant spread out both his arms. “Praise be and witness! This is a momentous day, truly!” Suddenly, he was hunched over again, coughing up blood. Max's first instinct – to collect the blood for his LCL tanks – was quickly over-ridden by his second, which was to help the man to the pilot's seat.
“Who are you, mutant?” Max asked when the coughing appeared to subside. “Who were you? Before the world was killed?”
This prompted more hacking from the mutant, and for a moment Max thought the man was about to die. Then, the mutant smiled. Max had once heard a man's smile being likened to a military cemetery; in that vein, this man's smile was like a mass grave.
“I worked on these beasts,” the man said, his eye focussing on Max's face for the first time. “Technician Third Class Suzahara. I had two children, Toji and Sakura, both taken from me, and a wife who died a long time ago. It's been longer since someone asked me that question, and for that, I must thank you.”
A chill ran down Max's spine. “So you know-”
The mutant – Suzahara – cut him off. “How to make your blood-and-bone better, yes.” Suddenly, he was back to his old voice, cracked and high. “We must install an engine, one of great power. That old diesel of yours will not do, and neither will the cables these... heretics! Philistines! APOSTATES! Dared to connect to your sacred machine.”
That hadn't been the question Max was about to ask, but it seemed that Suzahara's moment of lucidity was gone. Perhaps that would be his last. Perhaps that was for the best.
Max closed his eyes, took in a breath, and let it out. “So,” he said, finally. “Where do we get an engine?”
“First, child,” Suzahara said, “You must conquer the Tsunderdome. One way, or another.”
Two hours later, Max wrestled himself from the bowels of his Evangelion and back into the artificial light. So far, the two of them hadn't accomplished much, but then these monsters used to be maintained by crews of hundreds. With just two people – one of whom knew much but could do little, and another who could do much but knew nothing – the work was far more onerous. They'd plumbed the LCL pipes, checking for blockages, re-soldered the nerve interfaces and poked around at the computer a little. In other words, they'd finished what should have been a fifteen-minute checkup.
Max was tired, and not just physically. “Are we done yet?” he asked.
“Soon, soon!” cried Suzahara. “I must attend to the entry plug's borehole, then we are finished! You may sit and watch, for this is a task not fit for your clumsy hands.”
Clumsy? Max's hands certainly were not clumsy. Glowering, he sat down at the edge of the huge workspace that his Evangelion had been left in. They hadn't been given many tools – especially nothing that had a battery attached – but his Evangelion didn't have many mechanical parts that needed work.
“I see you, pilot!” called a voice from high above. “Do not think that you can escape my gaze!”
Again, Max's revolver was in his hand and pointed at the source of the voice. Again, he stayed his finger – it was dry now, but the voice was too far away for him to shoot accurately. He holstered the gun, all to aware that he only had three bullets left for it, and turned his focus on the bright window high above him.
A man stood there, silhouetted against the light. He was of normal proportions, although that counted for little in this broken world, and stood with the authority of a king. “You managed to win against the house champion!” barked the man, his voice carrying oddly. “I appreciate that, my pilot, but you have far more matches to win yet. My Chosen shall be down momentarily, to collect you for the next bout.”
This had to be the one who'd taken him out, back in that nameless town. Max let out a growl, but forced himself to be calm. “The Evangelion isn't ready,” he called back. “How am I to fight with no Eva?”
The man laughed. “You proved to me that you do not need your blood-and-bone to kill,” he said. “You shall not need it in the next fight. Win, and be fed. Lose, and die. Either way, I do not care.”
A door opened on the catwalk opposite Max, and two people walked out. Both were clad in thin leather straps, with large metal spikes protruding at angles that mostly just looked uncomfortable. More importantly, both were holding spears. Max approached them, and they shrank away.
“White hair, white eyes!” one of them said, in a booming voice.
“A pilot, he certainly is!” said the other, in a feminine voice. “Come, come! Your audience awaits!”
So these were some of the Chosen, then? Max let out a snort. They were little more than raiders – hell, hadn't the three he'd killed in that town been Chosen, too? So much for them being some mystical war band. If this was the calibre of the guards here, then perhaps...
Max raised both hands, and walked towards the door. The two Chosen fell into step behind him, carefully keeping their spears trained on his back.
Stepping out into the Tsunderdome, Max checked both his weapons. His rapier was still in good condition, despite being repeatedly dunked in LCL, and the revolver had at least dried off. The audience was shouting over themselves, and Max was unable to pick out any individual words. Being in the arena as a person, and not an Evangelion, he could see just how large the place truly was. The steel beams making up the outside of the Tsunderdome looked like frail threads at this distance, and he could see how the floor formed a sort of bowl shape. For this fight, it looked like whoever ran this place had set up a second arena inside the Tsunderdome; indeed, it was almost like an entire city had sprung up in the place overnight. Shacks, tents, pre-Impact caravans, you name it, someone had set one up in the Tsunderdome.
Then again, the only reason Max knew they hadn't been here in his last fight was that he couldn't see much devastation.
He kept walking, still prodded along by the two Chosen, along a narrow path marked by wooden barriers. The spectators were pressed right up against the barriers, and for a moment Max considered just jumping over them and slipping off into the crowd. He couldn't do that, though, for it would mean leaving his Evangelion behind. He would rather die. People tried to press things into his hands or grab at him as he walked past them, but they were quickly dissuaded by the Chosen trailing him. They made liberal use of their spears, probably spilling more blood as they walked to the arena than Max was about to spill inside it. The spectators didn't seem to mind – indeed, the bodies quickly disappeared, trampled under yet more people or pulled away for some disgusting purpose. There was a flash of blue in the crowd, drawing Max's attention, but he couldn't quite seem to make it out when he tried to look.
His opponent was waiting for Max as he climbed into the raised square that formed the second arena. The man was dressed in ornate armour (such a pain!), which looked vaguely crab-like and was painted red. He wasn't wearing a helmet, and the top of his head was bald. The remainder of his hair was pulled back into a topknot, which... quite frankly, it looked ridiculous.
“Ladies and gentlemen, boys, girls, sub-human filth!” rang the announcer's voice from some hidden speaker, “Our match today is between two relative newcomers to the Tsunderdome. In the east corner, from parts unknown, weight unknown, we have the pilot of the blood-and-bone!” The crowd cheered. “And in the west corner, from the island of Japan, weighing in at one hundred and eighty pounds, we have the Samurai!”
Japan? The place was uninhabitable, yet sounded vaguely homely. Whoever this “Samurai” was, he must have wandered a long way. This would be no easy battle.
The announcer wasn't quite finished yet, however. “This match is a death match, with just one rule: blades only! That's right, no guns, no clubs, hell if we see you using your fists we'll fucking kill you! It's a match that's been heavily requested but one that we've only just gotten the people for! Sword master versus sword master! Two men enter, one man leaves! This is the TSUNDERDOME!”
As before, the cry was carried by the crowd. Shit. The announcer had just ruled out the old Indiana Jones plan Max had had in reserve; he doubted he'd be able to escape if he actively pissed the crowd off.
“And now, for the moment you've all been waiting for! BEGIN!”
Before Max could even process the word, the Samurai took one long step – more like a jump - towards him and drew his curved sword, cutting upwards at Max's stomach. Hastily, Max took a step back, and the blade “only” cut the remains of his shirt apart. Desperate to exploit the gap such an attack had surely left, Max drew his rapier and thrust forwards, only to be forced into a roll as the Samurai brought his sword down in an overhead strike. Max tried to exploit the gap again, only to be forced back by a slash. Damn, this guy was fast. The announcer had called them both sword masters, but it was overwhelmingly clear just from these first few blows that only one person in the ring deserved the title.
It wasn't Max.
Another slash, from the opposite side, and Max again stepped back out of the blade's path. How to win this? How to even survive for one more moment?
The answer was clear; stop giving the Samurai the initiative. Carefully, Max watched the Samurai's shoulders. Sure enough, they twitched as the man brought his sword around into yet another slash. Max thrust out, not at the Samurai, but at his sword, catching the blade on his own rapier. The blow was heavy, nearly knocking Max off of his feet, but he grit his teeth and stood his ground, locking the Samurai's sword on the hand-guard of his rapier. He kept pushing, sliding the rapier's blade down the sword down to the Samurai's hand. The sword the Samurai was using didn't have nearly as good a hand-guard as Max's, and he intended to use that to full effect.
The Samurai twisted, using his larger body and superior strength to push Max away. Stumbling, Max found himself against the ropes of the arena, pushed back inside by the crowd of spectators. The Samurai stepped forwards, definitely about to finish Max off with an overhead blow. One final idea, one final roll of the dice prompted Max to dodge left instead of right, and step forwards. The Samurai's sword buried itself in Max's shoulder, but he only needed one hand to use his rapier, and he thrust out, finding the Samurai's neck with the point of his sword.
The two combatants stood still for a moment, their blades embedded in each other's bodies, and then the Samurai slumped down, dead. His death grip on his sword pulled it out of Max's shoulder, sending a wave of pain throughout Max's body.
Slowly, the noise of the audience came flooding back into Max's awareness. They'd been shouting throughout the entire match, but he'd tuned them out. Exhausted, in agony, Max dragged his rapier out of the Samurai's neck-
The house was small, but well-built. Even when the red snow fell thick, the inside was still cosy and warm. Later, when the sun bore down, the inside was still cool and pleasant. It was remote, away from most people, but up here they had a good view of the city. Besides, with the new highway it only took him a few minutes to get to work.
Breakfast would be ready soon. The toast had just popped up in the toaster, and the eggs were just about right. Hell, he'd even set the table with cutlery and a fresh Hydrangea cutting from the bush outside. He'd better go and wake up-
A knock on the door.
Max gasped, the sudden intake of air waking him up. Memories of last night flooded into his brain, the fight he'd been in and the way he'd won. Fucking hell, that had been way, way too close. Something was tight on his left shoulder, but it didn't hurt. Flexing his fingers and arm, he found neither were much stiffer than normal. He inspected the dressing on his shoulder, and saw a tell-tale plastic bulge. It was an LCL pack, an expensive relic of the old world, and many stories told of their legendary healing properties. They wouldn't heal a broken bone, but flesh and nerve damage was repaired almost overnight.
Who had put this on him?
He turned over, finding himself in a makeshift bed in the corner of the Evangelion cage. His Evangelion's single eye stared at him from the centre of the cage; anyone else might find that unsettling, but to Max it was... familiar. Like a part of his own body. Perhaps that's what all pilots thought of their Evas.
“You are awoken!” called a familiar voice. Sure enough, Suzahara scuttled into view from where he'd been working, in the little workshop space he'd set up. “I knew that wound would not delay you for long!”
“How's the Eva?” Max asked, sitting up on the bed. “Did you find a lead on an engine? Or even a battery?”
Suzahara nodded his head. “An engine is easy to find,” he said. “The man who brought you here has one attached to his Evangelion that will serve our purposes nicely.”
Max leant against the wall, one hand behind his head. “I don't think asking politely is going to work on him, though.”
“That it will not,” confirmed Suzahara. “I do not have the gift, but I can tell that that man has a lot of blood on his soul. He may not have broken with the rest of us, but far earlier.”
“So he was a psycho before... well, before,” Max said. “So, what? We just wait around until we get an opportunity?”
Letting out a groan, Suzahara pulled a key out from his loincloth. “Wait, yes, but not here. You must be curious as to what those eyes of yours mean, yes?” Suddenly, the hunchback was right in Max's face. “Was that band of red so thick last time I laid eyes upon it? Surely not.”
Max brushed the man away. “You mean there's someone here who knows about this shit?”
Suzahara's eyes lit up. “Yes, yes, indeed and most certainly! A soothsayer, one with the true gift, one who can stare into the very depths of thy soul and drag out what is hidden within!”
“And someone like that just happens to be in the Tsunderdome?” Max asked, sceptical. “That's a bit convenient.”
“They travel, yes!” said Suzahara. “She will be here tonight! I took the liberty of ensuring we would receive an audience – all I had to do was mention your red-eyes and the blood-and-bone, and it was guaranteed.” He produced an old watch from the loincloth, making Max slightly queasy in the process. “We must leave, yes, now! Or we shall miss our appointment!” With that, the mutant reached out and took Max's right arm, dragging him off the bed. As he did so, Max got one good look at the watch; it wasn't working.
Oh well, whatever. What else was he supposed to do? Sleep? He'd done enough of that for one lifetime.
Gnawing on a stick of unidentifiable meat (he'd forked over extra from his winnings to make sure it wasn't human), Max followed Suzahara back into the Tsunderdome. The place was still packed, the whole dome carpeted with buildings of one type or another. He kept one hand on his revolver at all times, all too aware that these crowds only made it easier for someone to attack him.
“I need to buy some more bullets, too,” said Max, as his thoughts turned to the gun. “Do you know anywhere that sells point four-four? Old grade, of course.”
Suzahara shook his head. “Too popular, that type. Only recycled bullets for that gun, I think. You should switch to a five-five six or seven-six two; the old world was awash in those bullets.”
That brought something else to mind. “Didn't I have a rifle when I came here?” Max asked, tearing another chunk of meat off the stick with his teeth.
“Boss Nova – the man who brought you here – took a rifle off you,” replied Suzahara, distracted by a sudden fork in the road. “He said that it was not your property, and he would return it to its true owners.”
Max swallowed. “Good luck with that,” he muttered. “I either shot him or put a sword through his hand.”
“As fitting a punishment as any for those would dare defile the body of a holy pilot,” said Suzahara. “But enough of this. We are here.”
“Here” turned out to be an old world caravan, a motor home. It looked beat-up, and weathered; red sand still poured from a dent on its roof, and one of the tyres was in the process of being replaced. A line of people waited outside the door on its side, which was guarded by... no-one. How did this soothsayer keep people – Tsunderdome attendees no less – in a straight and orderly line? Max watched the line for a few seconds, and there was no stabbing, no blood, no death. It was unsettling, to say the least. Suzahara walked up to the front of the line, producing a ticket from his loincloth (just how much shit did he have in there?). The man at the front of the line, a metal spike through one eye, took a look at the ticket and stepped aside. Something very odd was going on here. No-one else Max had met in the past five years had ever been willing to just step aside and let someone else through, no matter the circumstances.
Max followed Suzahara into the motor home as the mutant opened the door, passing the meat stick to the man who had stood aside. The man said something, but Max was too distracted by the inside of the caravan to listen. It was blue. Very blue. Well-furnished, but blue. Very well-furnished, in fact; the exterior looked old, but the interior looked just like something out of a film or a magazine. He leant in close to the blue microwave, and noticed the tell-tale marks of someone having painted it in a very clumsy fashion. Scratching at it, he saw the original colour was red – an unsightly colour on such an appliance, sure, but for someone to go to such lengths? Despite himself, he smiled. It was familiar, somehow comforting. Like... seeing someone who had changed so much say something that showed they hadn't. Where had that thought come from?
Damn. This visit was meant to answer questions, not raise more!
Suzahara tapped Max on the shoulder, ushering him to a side room. This room was cramped, just as blue as the last, and filled with incense. A table was built into the wall of the caravan here, with two chairs. One was empty. The other was not. The door closed behind Max, leaving him alone with – presumably – the soothsayer. He sat down, and got a good look at their face through the smoke. She had blue hair, and red eyes, facts which sent a shock right into the core of Max's soul. He knew who she was, but so did everyone else worth their brain matter. Every time he saw that face, though, he always felt like he had...
Well, he didn't exactly know how he felt.
“A Rei,” he said, finally. “Not the original, I would bet.” These clones of the legendary Evangelion pilot were a bit of a rarity, this far from Japan, but one still encountered them every so often. The Rei shook her head slightly, but did not speak. “That's what Suzahara meant when he said you could see into people's souls, I imagine. A brain imprint, or some other psychological trick.” Suddenly annoyed, Max got up to leave. “I don't think-”
The Rei's hand snaked out and grabbed his wrist. Her grip was surprisingly tight, and felt like redemption. Max found himself sitting back down. The Rei's red eyes bored into his for an uncomfortably long time, and she did not let go of his wrist. With her other hand, she beckoned him closer, and Max leant over the table.
“Your eyes,” she whispered. “You shall fill them with blood. Travel far and wide, but you will return to where you started, and fill those eyes with blood.”
“For what purpose?” Max asked, not even sure if his actions were entirely his own right then.
The Rei inclined her head, a gesture of confusion in Max's experience. She didn't answer for a few seconds. “I do not know,” she whispered, finally. “It will complete you. That is all I know.” With that, she released her grip on his wrist.
Max stood, and turned for the door. An impulse from... somewhere... made him turn back. “Thank you,” he said, and left.
Another day, another fight. Max climbed into the entry plug, giving Suzahara a thumbs-up on the way in. The hunchbacked mutant returned the gesture uncertainly, his hand shaking slightly. With ease that came with experience, Max slid into the pilot's chair, the throne of the soul, and wrapped his hands around the control levers. His feet found a pair of unfamiliar pedals at the bottom of the leg wells; they were, apparently, a little investment for the future, whatever that meant. He took in a deep breath of regular, stale air, then flipped the makeshift switch for the LCL pumps. The precious fluid came rushing in, flooding the plug slowly. As always, there was the urge to hold one's breath, to think that one was about to drown, but as always Max pushed that feeling into the deepest part of his brain.
The fluid reached his mouth and nostrils, but he breathed it in as easily as he did the air. It stung a little as it reached his eyes. Expelling a breath, watching the bubbles rise to the top of the entry plug, Max pushed the control levers forward. In an unmodified entry plug, the levers did next to nothing aside from fire whatever weapons the Evangelion was carrying; they were mostly there to make the pilot feel better. Max had taken them, and wired them into the mechanism that governed plug depth; the further he pushed in the levers, the closer the plug got to the Evangelion's core. The hatch to the entry plug sealed, leaving Max in darkness, and he felt the plug move forwards.
A rainbow of colours flashed over the walls of the entry plug, washing away the blank walls and replacing them with a 360-degree view of the area outside the Evangelion.
“Synchronisation at fifty-two percent and stable,” the on-board computer reported.
The Evangelion rose suddenly, carried upwards by the floor. Someone in the control centre must have noticed that Max had finished synchronising with the Eva, and sent him upwards for the fight. He closed his eyes, running the conversation he'd had last night with the soothsayer Rei. For the eighth time, he tried to puzzle out what she meant when she had said that he would fill his eyes with blood, or that the act would complete him. The message was easy – when his eyes were both fully red, something would happen. But how was he supposed to make them red, and what exactly would happen?
The lift carrying his Eva came to a halt, jerking Max out of his thoughts. This was no time to get distracted. He opened his eyes, and took a look at his opponent...s?
“What is this?” Max asked, exasperated. Today, his opponent in the Tsunderdome wasn't one true Evangelion, but a whole squad of fakes. Mechs. A command-type in the back, a giant dish making up most of its visible structure, with two rifle-types and two sword-mechs making up the damage-dealers. Annoyed, Max activated the exterior speakers, cutting off the announcer before he even began his usual spiel. “You idiots can't even get through an AT field,” he said. “What's your plan here?”
“An early challenge by the blood-and-bone!” cried the announcer. “To be sure, this is an unusual matchup. A true Evangelion versus mechs? Unheard of in the Tsunderdome! How will Boss Nova's champion respond?”
Ah, so that was it. One of Boss Nova's underlings must have gotten annoyed at the attention Max was getting in the form of that LCL pack used to heal his wounds and the high-grade refined LCL now flowing through his lungs.
A high-pitched, squealing, squeaky voice responded from the command-type. “Rest assured, blood-and-bone, I, the Nerdherder, am fully capable of putting you in your place, mmm yes! I see your arm has not yet fully recovered from your last bout; perhaps I shall allow you to make the first move to make up for such a handicap.”
It was true; his Evangelion's left arm below the elbow was still little more than a jagged piece of bone and a few blood vessels. “Let's just get this over with, shall we?” Max said.
The announcer spoke before the Nerdherder could respond. “That you shall!” he declared. “I don't think I need to introduce the fighters, so let's get to it! Two fighters enter! One fighter leaves! This is...”
Max was moving almost before the announcer had finished his speech. The ground was mercifully clear of the shanty town that had occupied it just a few hours before – a feat of logistics so impressive, that Max took the time to admire it as he charged. He kept his AT field up, a solid orange hexagon between him and the two rifle-types, as he closed the distance to the closest sword-mech. It was a little unfair how they got weapons and he didn't, but then their weapons would be toys in his Eva's hands.
He punched out with his good hand, aiming for the sword-mech's head.
And then everything went to shit.
Out of nowhere, something sang. It was a continuous “Ahhhh” sound, rising in pitch, bursting through Max's ears. On instinct, he jumped backwards – if this was some trick, perhaps the reflex would save him.
It wasn't a trick. Or, at least, it wasn't the Nerdherder's trick. A disk floated in front of Max's eyes, purple and green. Evangelion shoulder pylons were embedded vertically at the edge of the disk, and even from a fair distance away Max could feel its AT field. Was this an Angel? A remnant of the war? Paralysed, Max could only watch as the Nerdherder's rifle mechs opened up as one – they had to be drones, he vaguely realised. The second sword-mech was already gone, taken down without Max even noticing, and in an instant it was the rifle-types' turn. A beam of pure light emanated from the centre of the disk, cutting through both mechs with no effort whatsoever. The beam didn't stop there; it cut right through the walls of the Tsunderdome, only avoiding the spectators through sheer chance. Explosions followed in the beam's wake, the brightness rendering Max's vision useless for a second. Another instinct told him to move, to make sure that the thing wasn't about to cut him into pieces, and he took a step forwards. As his vision cleared, he realised his mistake.
The disk, if it could look, was looking right at him. It began singing again – he hadn't even realised it had stopped – and Max charged it. He couldn't fight it at range, after all. Jumping towards it, he drew his left arm back, intent on ramming the bone spike into the disk, and came up against a solid AT field. Growling, Max switched his own AT field to a neutralisation pattern, stabbing forwards with his bone spike. It touched the AT field, felt like it was going through, but bounced off. Shit.
The disk's laser lanced out towards Max's face, terrible heat on his entire body. Pain racked his very soul, and he screamed in rage and fury. He was going to die here, wasn't he? Uselessly, for no reason he could discern, and so would Suzahara, who had helped him, and Rei, who had given him a clue to unlocking his past. The scream continued long past the point where the air in his lungs ran out, as he pushed the control levers as far as they would go.
“Warning. Plug depth exceeding safe depth. Safeties are not activated. De-synchronise immediately.”
Max ignored the computer. He could feel more and more of the Eva's pain the closer his plug got to the core, but perhaps, just perhaps, there was something he could use if he got close enough. No, not perhaps – he knew he would find something deep inside the Eva. Suddenly, he found it-
and he opened his eye.
There was something in front of him, trying to burn him with some sort of energy weapon. He tilted his head, a little confused. Energy weapons, to kill him? That was just inefficient. A spike would work far better for less effort. Well, whatever. He held out one hand, projecting his AT field as a solid, angled wall. The energy beam that had just been about to cook his core reflected off of the field, carving a hole in the roof of the strange dome he was in. He raised his other hand to deal a blow to his foe, only to find it wasn't there. Oh, yes, he'd broken it fighting the red woman, hadn't he? Annoying.
A thought from somewhere flashed across his mind, a picture of a blue-haired girl sitting at a table in a smoky room. She'd be hurt if this kept up. The thought filled him with a hot feeling. Anger, was it? He let loose a roar, still holding the enemy's beam at bay. He pushed his legs off of the enemy's AT field, jumping backwards and cutting the annoying tether that had prevented him from doing so before. Then, he jumped forwards, pushing himself through the enemy's AT field like the wet paper it was, grabbing the floating disk that was his foe in his mouth. One bite, and the thing crumpled, imploding with a singing hiss. Well, that seemed to be that.
He closed his eye.
Max vomited, slumping against the side of the entry plug. It had happened again! Everything hurt – every last scrap of skin on his body, every last inch of blood vessel, every micron of neurons, all of it. Even the fucking vomit hurt! Tears streamed down his face, and he took in a hot, ragged breath. “FUCK!” he screamed, just trying to get the feeling out of his body. Why did it have to hurt so damn much?
“HOLY PILOT!” someone shouted from below. It took Max a second to process that it was Suzahara's voice, and he pulled himself up to peek out of the open hatch. “A voluptuous bounty indeed! Four mechs to scavenge, and no guards in sight!” Gunfire rang out from somewhere, probably someone taking advantage of the chaos to settle a few scores in this supposedly neutral ground.
What the fucking shit was the mutant asshole on about? “...what?” Max called back, weakly. Heat bore down on him from above; the sun was at its highest now. That only made him hurt more. He just wanted to crawl into the plug and sleep for an age.
“An engine, holy pilot, an ENGINE!” was Suzahara's reply. “With the four mechs left here, I can assemble you an engine – or, rather, combine four into one - and we can leave this forsaken place! I just need but one hour, and for you to lie the blood-and-bone down so that I may haul the engines into place!”
Oh, right. “I'll get right on that!” said Max. “Just keep out of the way for a second, okay?” Without waiting for Suzahara's reply, Max slid into the pilot's seat and ran through the startup sequence.
“Synchronisation at ten percent and unstable. Warning: Synchronisation is unstable. Please desynchronise and restart.”
“Fuck off,” Max said to the computer. Carefully, he pushed the Evangelion forward, trying to kneel and lie down slowly.
He messed it up, of course. Rather than kneeling, the Evangelion fell forwards, and Max wasn't able to correct. The impact jarred Max's already damaged body, and he curled up in a ball at the front of the plug. His brain shut down a little, not quite sleeping but not exactly awake either. Images flashed through his brain, from his dreams, of the soothsayer Rei, each image burning a hole in his mind. If this is what it meant to truly pilot an Evangelion, Max didn't know if he really wanted to. Then again, it had never really been about whether or not he'd wanted to, had it?
Slowly, but surely, the pain receded and the pictures stopped coming. Max uncurled from his ball, and stood up. He couldn't afford to sit around doing nothing, especially in such a dangerous place. Climbing out of the entry plug, he saw Suzahara was already hard at work, physically dragging a huge engine block up the side of Max's Evangelion. The man definitely had some hidden depths. Oddly, the gunfire Max had noted earlier was still going on – if anything, it had intensified. Even raiders had to have restored order by now, right?
“You need a hand?” Max asked.
Suzahara spared him a glance. “No, no, holy pilot! I am more than capable of handling this base task! You should rest, and prepare for our escape.”
“I just took a rest,” Max said, shrugging. Well, the man probably wouldn't accept his help. “Do you know what that thing was?”
With a final tug, the engine tipped over onto the Evangelion's back, and Suzahara set about the arcane task of getting it hooked into the one he'd already mounted. “Only rumours and whispers,” he said. “An offshoot of the Evangelion program, perhaps. Some manner of drone, or autonomous weapon, I think. It was surely sent here, though – this was no random occurrence.”
Max tilted his head, a little confused. “How can you be so sure?”
“It appeared in the centre of the Tsunderdome, descending from above,” Suzahara replied. “Only if it were searching for something does that behaviour make sense. I feel it, holy pilot, but I cannot truly put it into words.”
If it was searching for something, then... him? It wasn't the Red Eva, and it couldn't be any of the others that were supposed to be here. But then, it had taken three days to find him, and his Eva had to be easy to find. He didn't know much about AT fields, but he knew they had a unique pattern and were very powerful; if someone wanted to find him, then they could do so easily. If not him, then...
Without a second thought, Max dropped down the side of his Evangelion, the pain completely gone from his mind. “Get those engines mounted fast!” he called to Suzahara. “We're leaving as soon as I get back! And make spare seats for two passengers!” Not waiting for the reply, Max broke into a run and drew his weapons. Again, the revolver would be useless for a time, but in the heat of the mid-day sun it would dry out in a few minutes.
The exterior of the Tsunderdome was... well, Max simply didn't have the words. “Chaos” only went so far, really. All of the buildings that had been inside before the fight were out here – presumably, the occupants just picked them up and walked/drove/whatevered them outside – and half of those were on fire. The screams of mass combat filled the air, along with gunfire, the roaring of the fire and an occasional explosion. Max didn't slow down at the sight, just ploughing out into the chaos. People ran in every direction, no two groups agreeing on a direction to flee (or rather, knowing the locals, to get into the fight). He pushed through the crowds, heading for a tall structure he could just about see in the distance. If he got height, he should be able to find the soothsayer's caravan. He turned a corner, and came face-to-face with the enemy.
Or, to be more precise, he came face-to-blank skin with the enemy. On impulse, he raised his revolver and pulled the trigger, but the only thing he got was a wet snick as the hammer failed to hit the bullet hard enough for it to fire. His enemies were literally faceless. Featureless humanoids, clad in black armour with red highlights, a strange digital logo on their breasts. The two he had encountered both carried modern-looking rifles, and they were bringing them to bear on his head. Adrenaline coursed through Max's body as he sprang forwards, rapier extended. The blade met armour, then flesh, and tore through the leftmost thing's arm. A normal opponent would stumble back, but this creature simply grabbed at him with their other arm. The other creature fired its rifle, not caring that its ally was in the line of fire, the gunshots painfully loud this close. Max sprang a bit more to the left, and the bullets tore through the creature he'd just wounded and through the building behind the two of them as well.
Dying, the thing tried one last futile swipe at Max, but he kicked it towards its team-killing friend. That got the rifle out of the equation, and then it was a simple matter to just cut the second creature's throat.
Max blinked the dust of the fight out of his eyes, and took a second look at the weird things. They didn't seem to bleed, nor did Max see any signs of internal organs. What were these things? No time. Scooping up the fully-loaded rifle, Max raced towards the high ground. Said high ground turned out to be the top part of some sort of food stand, covered in paint and words in some language Max couldn't read. Panting, exhausted from the exertion, the heat and the questions running through his mind, Max scaled the wooden scaffolding. From the top, he surveyed the scene. Things were still chaotic, to say the least, but given that those things died just as easily as a normal person, they would soon calm down. There were probably more guns in one square kilometre of this shanty town than an entire pre-Impact country, and even more blades. That wasn't what Max was looking for, however. What Max was looking for was... There! That caravan, just a few buildings away. Max had to restrain himself from jumping off the stall, and climbed down gingerly instead. He hadn't seen any of the black-clad things between him and his objective, but he kept his rifle up as he walked anyway.
As he reached the caravan, his vigilance was rewarded. Seven of the creatures appeared from a gap between a mobile bar and what seemed to be a gardening exhibit, in single fire. Max aimed down the rifle's sights, careful to make sure no-one else was in his line of fire, and squeezed the trigger.
The kick was like nothing else Max had ever experienced. He'd once fired a 20mm cannon converted into a sniper rifle (fully braced, of course), and that hadn't kicked even half as much as this rifle. It glowed as it fired, an orange glow in a pattern not too dis-similar to that of an AT field. Luckily, it seemed to be on single-shot – anything else would have broken Max's shoulder, he was certain. The round certainly did damage worthy of the kick; it tore open a hole the size of a man's head in the stomach of the one he had shot, and the one behind them, and the one behind that one, and then through the side of the car behind them. If the stakes hadn't been so high, Max would have whistled in appreciation. This was a gun he could get behind. However, there was no time for that; there was only time for killing the remaining four enemies.
Casting aside the rifle for the moment, Max drew his sword and charged. The creatures reacted with their usual speed, but Max had enough time to close the distance before they could shoot. He ducked, thrusting his sword through the closest creature's chest, and span, slashing a second across the head. Both fell, silently, and Max turned his duck into a roll towards the last two, who had spread out. Both fired their rifles. Both missed. Max kicked one down, and stabbed the other through where an eye would normally be. Then, he finished off the last foe, a simple thrust into its head.
Max fell to his knees, the adrenaline finally draining away. He'd survived. Again. Despite how tired he was, despite the numbers, despite the disparity between sword and gun, he'd won. Again. On the other hand, now he was so tired he couldn't move. He tried to stand, but simply couldn't. Out of the corner of his vision, he saw one of the black-clad things he though he'd killed stand up, and raise its rifle at his head. It was the one he'd stabbed in the chest, his brain told him.
A shot rang out, but still Max wasn't dead. Instead, a massive chunk of the creature's head simply vanished, turned into a haze of disintegrating flesh. Max turned his head, somehow finding the energy to do so. The soothsayer Rei stood in the doorway of her caravan, a sawn-off shotgun held in front of her. Her desert robes fluttered in the smoke. Max smiled, stupidly.
Then, he fell unconscious. Again.
He ran, leaving blood in his wake. It was his blood, for once, from the open wound on his arm, but he'd never been one to let something as small as a bullet wound stop him. Hell, that high tolerance to pain had landed him this job in the first place. Now it would help him make things right.
He turned a corner, burst through a door-
a flash, a fall.
Max opened his eyes. The ceiling above him was unfamiliar, a phrase which somehow sounded familiar itself. It was blue, and Max got the feeling he was moving. He tried to swing his legs out of the comfortable bed he was in, but instead only managed to fall out of it entirely. That hurt, but not as much as the earlier pain had. Gritting his teeth, Max managed to reach a hand out onto the bed and haul himself so he was, at least, on his knees. He took stock of his situation. He was in the soothsayer's caravan. His weapons had been placed carefully into their holsters, and the rifle he'd just scrounged was between him and the wall of the caravan. They were moving.
Slowly, agonisingly, he dragged himself out into the main area of the motor home. The soothsayer was just about visible in the driver's cabin, steering the massive vehicle like it was no effort at all. “We need to go to the Tsunderdome,” Max called.
The Rei gave him a thumbs-up sign, and pulled hard on the steering wheel. Max went flying into the side of the caravan, which was fortunately occupied by a sofa. Burying his face in the cushions, Max tried to gather himself for the inevitable next fight. Given the pattern so far, it wouldn't take too long for them to encounter yet another foe. The caravan rocked, but the sound of gunfire was no longer present. Maybe, just maybe, that meant the battle was over.
After an interval which Max could not time, the caravan came to a halt. He tried to sit up, but was still just too tired. The sound of footsteps rang on the steel floor from the driver's cabin, and he felt warm hands on his back. They turned him over, and he was suddenly staring right into the Rei's eyes. Her expression was blank as she picked him up onto his feet and helped him out of the caravan.
“I told you to rest, holy pilot!” sang Suzahara's voice as they stepped down onto the red sands of the Tsunderdome. “Soothsayer, he best not be injured! He is the only one who can provide answers to this world!”
“He is unhurt,” whispered the Rei. “He is simply tired.” The two of them walked towards Max's Evangelion. Suzahara lowered a rope down as they approached, and Max wrapped it around his hand. The mutant dragged him up onto the Evangelion's back, and pushed him towards the entry plug.
“It is all ready,” said Suzahara as Max tried to figure out a way to get into the vertical plug without falling and breaking his skull on something. “The engines are hooked up, and they have fuel. We should leave now, before those who run this place restore order and come looking to put us in our places.”
Carefully, Max climbed into the plug and sat himself in the pilot's seat. Or, rather, he precariously balanced himself on the pilot's seat. The hatch closed behind him, and he activated the LCL pumps. The precious liquid soon filled his lungs, and he pushed the control levers down, synchronising with the Evangelion. He could feel the four engines on his back pumping power into him, slower than he'd expected, not enough to fully synchronise. Was this really the obstacle that would get him? Not the Tsunderdome, not Boss Nova, not the Samurai, not the raiders, not those weird black-clad creatures, not Red or even that freaky disk thing, but this?
In frustration, he pushed down on the pedals Suzahara had installed, and power flooded through his Evangelion's core.
“Synchronisation at forty-two percent and stable,” reported the computer, as the walls of the entry plug became transparent.
Max looked around, and saw Suzahara and the soothsayer Rei sitting in a booth atop the stack of engines. Alright. Time to move. He stood, the weariness and pain suddenly gone, and slowly, falteringly walked out of the Tsunderdome. Max broke into a light jog, not too worried about his fuel.
Not too many minutes later, the metal and concrete structure was just a speck on the horizon.
They were free.
This one took far longer to write, and I have to admit I lost a bit of steam by the end of it. I think I should have just let myself post sections earlier, rather than try to stick to a three-parts-only deal. On the other hand, it also wraps up the first part of this whole mess in a neat bow. Yes, there's more where this came from, although I don't know when or if I'll get around to writing it. As I said in an earlier post, EVA MAX II: BEYOND TSUNDERDOME is the working title thus far, and I do certainly have the bones for a longer story here. Yes, I do know what's going on here, for once I'm not making the plot up as I go along.
I hope those who read this enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed writing it, because I had a blast coming up with this stuff. It's pretty late where I am and I've only proofread this once, so let me know if there's any egregious spelling or grammar mistakes.