The journey through the NERV complexes, both the subterranean and the Geofront, were blurs to Suzuhara Touji. Of course, there were the urgency of the situation and his newness to the institution preying on his mind; but more than that was the _scope_. Nothing in NERV seemed to be on the scale of anything he had ever known and associated with humanity. The hallways he traversed seemed at once confining and Cyclopean: there was too much of too little. NERV looked to be an institution so unflawed that it was aseptic, and yet its scale seemed to be one that would inspire neglect in some areas and humanizing overuse in others. NERV was a place where no fingerprints were left. His chaperone was leading him to a place, that much he knew. But it was a place without any frame of reference, without landmarks. He could, and did, measure time. Almost exactly 23 minutes after he had left the school grounds, a door was opened for him into a crowded conference room. "Thank you," said Commander Ikari's voice, and the door was closed. Touji stood alone before a crowd. Three people his own age were staring at him. Ikari was dressed in a suit of blue, black and white, with white clips in his hair. His initial surprise had been quickly replaced by joy, and a smile was swelling across his face. He had half-risen from his chair, blocking Langley's view. She was in a bright red suit, and had red clips in her hair. She was confused by his appearance in the room, perhaps hoping he would turn out to be someone else. Between Touji and Ikari was Ayanami. She was dressed in a white suit--_Just as white as she is,_ he thought--and had white clips in her blue hair. She looked over Touji only to perceive his identity, the same way she looked at everyone. At the front of the room, Commander Ikari cleared his throat. In response, all the seated pilots jerked around in their chairs to give him their attention. The Commander was dressed in a dark navy blue uniform with a red sweater; there was some kind of green clasp at the jacket collar. His manner was as stern as a rock in the face of a windstorm. To his right was Subcommander Fuyutsuki. His dress was identical to his superior's, except that his uniform was brown, and the triangular clasp was blue. On the Commander's other side were two women. One Touji immediately recognized as Shinji's roommate, Katsuragi Misato; but she appeared differently from how Touji had seen her in the past. It wasn't only that she had a red beret on her head, complementing her red jacket and dark chestnut dress. Touji realized in a fraction of a second that it was in her manner. Gone was the beer-swilling, t-shirt wearing party animal that he knew: it had been replaced by a woman whose job was to bring order to chaos as quickly and efficiently as possible. He was taken aback. The woman next to her was a blonde woman about Misato's height. Her dress was eccentric. She wore a white lab coat over what looked like the top half of a wetsuit, a black skirt and tights. Her face was well made up, and she had pink earrings in her ears. Touji half-remembered her...Doctor Somebody... There were others in the room, but Touji found he had no time to look at them. The other three children were seated, and the four adults at the front of the room were staring at him. His original problem had come back: he was the outsider. He only knew so much of what was going on, and whispers in his psyche told him that it would probably not be enough. A second passed, and he was still frozen. Somewhere within himself, Suzuhara Touji found the strength to break out of his shell. He bowed to Commander Ikari. "Reporting for duty, sir." "Please be seated, Suzuhara-san." Ikari pointed to the seat adjacent to Rei. Touji walked quickly to the chair, seated himself and slid his bookbag under the chair. As he straightened, someone caught his eye. Shinji was smiling and looking at him excitedly. Touji forced a smile onto his face. From the front of the room the Commander spoke again. "Now that we are all present, we may begin the debriefing. Doctor Akagi, if you would like to speak first?" "Yes, sir." The blonde woman was left with Misato as the other two took their seats. From a manila folder Akagi took out a sheet of notes and glanced at it. "Over the past 48 hours--could I have the first slide, please? Thank you. Over the past 48 hours a tropical storm has come in from the Pacific. Only the fact that it is so early in the year has kept us from calling it a 'typhoon', but we'll call it that. This typhoon presents a danger to the structures here in Tokyo-3, civilian as well as NERV's own buildings, due to the high winds and lightning, as well as the secondary dangers rain can pose. And now, there's another problem. Next slide, please. "Since about noon yesterday there have been multiple water spouts and tornadoes up and down the coastline. We thought this very unusual, so NERV sent a team of investigators to look at one in particular. What they found...next slide...was that the tornado had a Sea of Dirac in its eye. For the benefit of Suzuhara- kun, I won't go into detail of how we discovered this. All that you need to know is that these tornadoes, if not all this abnormal weather, is the work of an Angel. That's where we stood last night when we issued the blue alert. "Next slide. Early this morning one of the two NERV vessels in Tokyo Bay obtained a blue pattern from off the coast of the city, under approximately 100 meters of water. Sonar readings were of no use, leading us to believe that the Angel itself is very flat, able to rest on the sediment itself without disturbing it. Rather than use depth charges, the vessel returned to port, and monitoring began. "Two hours ago, its strategy became apparent. The rain falling over Tokyo-3 now contains measurable, if not yet visible, silt particles. At the same time, the Angel rose off the seabed and is currently south-southeast of the city, if it has not already come ashore. By attacking from the south, it's going to be difficult to see over the forests and between the hills, and by putting sediment in the rain, it has reduced our monitoring efforts to visual only." >From the back of the room came a voice, "What happened to our radar?" "The silt in the rain acts like a smokescreen," Akagi replied. "The radio waves are scattered and absorbed by the silt particles. It's a very shrewd thing for the Angel to be doing, really. "Now, I'm going to turn this over to Major Katsuragi, who will detail the operation itself. Major?" "Thank you," said Misato as Akagi took her seat. "Doctor Akagi has explained the why..." She broke off as a muffled ringing came from under Asuka's seat. Asuka sheepishly pulled out her purse and extracted her cellular phone. She gave a curt "Call back in ten minutes" into the receiver, then hung up and replaced her handbag. Misato recovered her composure and continued. "The responsibility on the four of you will be higher than it has been in any mission before now, because we won't be able to give you much support and advice out there. In addition, Suzuhara's inexperience will have to be overcome, and quickly. We're counting on you, Touji." "Yes, ma'am." "Your objective is to locate and destroy the Angel. Our last data put it as being circular, approximately 25 meters in diameter, and black in color. It can't be very thick, as Ritsuko explained, but it is three-dimensional. We will sortie you, then issue you weapons. Shinji and Asuka will act as vanguard and try to intercept the Angel along its last known vector. Rei and Touji will act as rear guard and defend the city as best they can. Is that clear?" It was. Misato paused and took on a serious tone. "Because of the bad weather and the possibility that something could go wrong, you'll each have one of these in the cockpit with you." From her feet she lifted a plastic box the size and shape of a personal cooler. "This is an emergency survival kit. Do not, repeat, do not hesitate to use it. It contains a flashlight, a first aid kit, matches, a space blanket, rations for two days, drinking water and a variety of other things. It even glows in the dark, so if the power in the EVA goes out it'll be easy to find. That's all I have to say. Commander?" >From the back of the room Commander Ikari announced, "You have a quarter of an hour before you sortie. Shinji, please show Suzuhara-san to the changing room. All other pilots are dismissed." -- The four filed out of the room, leaving the other attendees to receive their orders. Shinji slipped up beside Touji. "Touji, I can't--I can't really believe you're doing this." "I'm kind of amazed myself, to tell you the truth," he replied. "But, here I am. So where are we going?" "Down here." Shinji led the way down one of the corridors and pushed open an unmarked door. Inside there were two rows of lockers, separated by a screen. "We're on this side. Normally, the girls are here. Hey, that must be your plug suit, Touji." "I guess so." It was the same blue suit he had been dressed in on his first fateful mission as a pilot, lying neatly folded on the bench. In addition, there were two black things lying beside it. One was in the shape of an arm, one was in the shape of a leg. "Turn around while I change, would you." "Uh, sure...I can go, you know..." "Nah, I want to ask you some stuff." The glove fit perfectly onto his cybernetics. Touji pushed a button on the wrist, and the upper end clamped onto the interface between his shoulder and his arm. He turned his attention to the legging. "Got any advice?" "What do you mean?" "About being a pilot. Like, I remember when the yellow stuff started pouring in, I panicked. How can you breathe it day after day?" "Well, for starters I don't look into it." Shinji fidgeted. He didn't feel comfortable giving advice like this to anyone. Or any advice. "I tilt my head back and, when it's up around the edges of my mouth, I try to suck it in." "Did, uh, the doctor lady, did she ever tell you why it's so cold?" "Yes. It's so that there's as much oxygen in it as possible. But they figure that it's a waste of energy to keep it cold, so after it's been poured in they don't make it any warmer or cooler." "OK, whatever. Oh, another thing I was wondering, how come they don't have to pump your lungs?" "Because LCL has a low evaporation temperature. It's warm enough in your lungs..." "YOU BASTARD!" Shinji saw the red blur, but Touji was unprepared. Asuka's punch sent him sprawling across the floor. He tried to get up. Asuka kicked him in the flank. When she threw another kick at him he grabbed her ankle with his cybernetic hand. She lost her balance and landed on the floor. "Asuka!" "Stay out of this, Shinji," she said, watching her opponent as she and Touji rose. "This is between him and me and Hikari." "Huh?" "What do you mean 'huh', you big dumb idiot?" Asuka snarled. "You just broke her heart in front of all her classmates, WHAT THE HELL DID YOU DO THAT FOR?" "'Cause she was sleeping around behind my back, that's why," he retorted. "I found out that she had an abortion over the weekend, and didn't think to tell me." "Yeah. Well, it's her choice, isn't it? If she doesn't want to tell the father, that's the way it's going to be." Shinji, not sure of what to do, glanced at the clock on the wall. "Uh..." "I'm not the father, or she would have told me." "WHAT? How the hell did you get that idea into your little pinhead? Of course you're the father, she said so." "Probably to protect the guy." "Don't be stupid." "Uh..." "Why," Asuka went on, "should she have to tell you at all?" "I'll tell you why." Touji moved up right into Asuka's face. "Because, if she cares about me enough to share her body with me, and only me, she should care enough to tell me that I've got her pregnant, and to let me know what her decision about the pregnancy is, and if it's going to involve me. Now--I think Shinji's trying to tell us that we've got an Angel to fight. You're welcome to get pissed at me when we return to the base, but you'd damn well better work with me when we're out there, 'cause we DIE if we don't work together. C'mon, Shinji. You too, Asuka." With that, Touji ran out, and Shinji followed in his slipstream. Asuka was allowed the luxury of feeling her wrath in silence and solitude. Daniel Snyder in his new abode at email@example.com If I wasn't such a strange person, this would all seem so confusing.