Touji rolled back his head and closed his eyes. The LCL was rising. He tried to clear his mind. He failed. PONYTAILS "We've gone from the Pathetic Duo to the Three Stooges!" ALONE AFTER SCHOOL "I could make you a lunch." BEDSIDE "You've been asleep for three days." Suzuhara Touji's mind, left alone to rule his body, had seized upon Horaki Hikari and refused to let her go. The LCL was halfway up his calves. Touji nodded to himself. There was no denying, he was fighting to win her back, to prove himself to her and her alone. IKARI Missing for a month. LANGLEY Raped in the cockpit. AYANAMI She walked into the classroom one day, just before classes began. She had approached Kensuke and done nothing more than look straight into his face and say his name, carefully; then she had repeated the exercise with each member of the class. He had taken a seat far from the door, so she reached him last. He had been staring at her in disbelief; when she was finally up close to him, he saw that she had looked different from the day before. Her skin was immaculate, almost shining, and every hair of her eyebrows was in place. Something was wrong with Rei, he decided. During lunch, he repaid a favor he owed Rei. He found her on the roof of the building. She was staring at her hands, touching each finger to each and every other one. "Uh, Rei?" he said, uncertain of how to begin. She stopped. "Yes. You are Suzuhara Touji. I remember you." "Um, good. Look, Rei, I don't know how to say this, but is something wrong?" "No." She turned and faced him. She was obviously confused. "My body is functioning perfectly." It hadn't been the reply Touji had hoped for, not quite. "Oh, that's good...look, Rei, you've been acting kind of weird today, and since you..." "'Weird'?" "Yeah." She took a step towards him and he said, "You've seemed kind of lost, that's all." "How do I act...not weird?" Touji felt a headache. "Like usual. Like you usually do." "How?" For the first time since they had met, Touji thought Rei was pleading with him. He laughed nervously. The conversation was going nowhere. Then he remembered why he had started it in the first place, and he decided to resolve their talk. "You're usually just...so quiet. You don't let anything get to you. You're stoic. And today you've seemed like you were confused about something. I just wanted to make sure that everything was all right." "I see." Rei nodded slowly. "So I will be stoic now." She turned her back on him. Touji stammered something, but gave up. She was done talking to him. "See you later, Rei." She neither said nor did anything in response. The LCL passed his collarbone. Touji felt fear nipping at him; and then fear was followed by depression, for he wondered what his next time in the hospital would be like. _Now that I've gone and lost Hikari...I guess nobody's going to come and visit me in the hospital. I could live, and I could die, but if I'm wounded, my God, I'd need her so badly..._ He groaned, and the LCL slipped into his body. -- Shinji opened a communication channel between his EVA and Touji's. Touji was looking placid, if somewhat bored, on the screen. Shinji was surprised, he had expected his friend to be more dazed than he seemed. "How did it go for you?" Touji shrugged. "Once you've swallowed mouthwash, I guess nothing's too bad." Shinji laughed. Beside the first screen, Asuka's face appeared. "Are you idiots ready to go or not?" "Take it easy, Asuka," said Touji. "S'matter? That time of the month for you?" Asuka's face grew much bigger and redder as she lunged in her own EVA. "Watch your mouth, you philandering son of a--" Misato's face appeared. "We're ready to sortie. Touji, no more menstruation jokes, please." "Sorry." "I'm going to kick your..." Shinji leaned back in his seat and laughed. He found the antics of the people around him incredibly funny; and for some reason, Touji's making fun of Asuka gave him a thimbleful of dreams. _He got her good...I wonder what she would have done if I'd said that..._ He closed his eyes and opened them twice; then he looked up above his head. He tensed as he felt the safety locks on the EVA release. From outside he heard the gouts of electricity crackling as the launch mechanisms charged; and then he was flying up the launch path, through the elevator door and into Tokyo-3. The sight that greeted Ikari Shinji was bleak. The sky, even though it was midday, was pitch black. The storm clouds hung low over the city, and he could see them tumbling over each other and rushing about at the mercy of the wind. Lightning bolts flashed around them. What had been rain splattering against the screen before him was now mud; even the buildings of the city looked off color. Shinji looked around. To his right one block was Asuka, and behind and to her right was Rei. To his left and behind him was Touji, though Shinji had to strain to make him out; the color of his Evangelion was hard to see in the darkness. The four mecha were arrayed in the shape of a trapezoid. They held their formation as they sprinted to the south end of the city. In position on the very outskirts they each switched to new cables and took their weapons from separate NERV buildings. Shinji switched on his Heads-Up Display. "Asuka and I will start moving south now. Touji, Rei, you guys follow us to the second ridge and then hold there. Touji, I guess you'll want the time to practice with your EVA." "Yeah." "HOLD IT RIGHT THERE!" Asuka shouted. "Who the hell appointed you generallisimo, Shinji? Why are you giving orders now?" "Uh, I'm just echoing what Misato told us to do," he said. Before Asuka could come up with a response, Touji said, "Shinji, you guys better take off. We'll wait here." His display disappeared. Shinji nodded. "Let's go," he said, and started marching at a brisk pace to the south. Asuka trailed behind him. "Scheisskopf." Their path took them alongside a series of powerlines, across rice fields and along hillsides. When they were four kilometers south-southwest of the city, Shinji and Asuka changed course. They moved up the side of a hill to a point a quarter from the top, and spread out fifteen meters apart from each other. Their vantage point was just below the cloud layer. Before them was a large expanse of forest, clinging to the sides of mountains and sprouting up from the foothills. In the darkness and the mud- rain, it looked ominous. Asuka spoke. "Geofront, can you hear us?" "Just fine," said Misato. "Are you in position?" "Affirmative...but I don't see anything." Asuka squinted and looked from horizon to horizon. "Nope, nothing. How are we supposed to see a big, black circle in this weather, anyway?" "We can't do much for you," Misato replied. "Our long-range surveillance systems are useless right now, and it's too dangerous to send out UN forces with searchlights...Asuka, are you listening to me?" "I was just noticing," said Asuka, "that there's a lot more lightning since we got into position. Are the EVAs acting like lightning rods?" Ritsuko replaced Misato at the HUD. "Yes. You're out in the open, it's only natural. Fortunately, the EVAs should be able to handle the power surge from a direct lightning hit. "I have an idea. Use the lightning to your advantage. During the split second of illumination you have, look around you and try to spot the Angel." "Yes, ma'am," Asuka said. She was armed with a missile gun; and over the next minute she practiced aiming it as soon as she saw the flash of light. Shinji could do nothing similar. He had been issued an axe rather than a projectile weapon. "Asuka." "Yeah." "Just checking." "Oh. Why? Getting a little scared over there?" "No, it's just I lost sight of you a moment ago." "What? What do you mean?" "Well, you were there, and then I couldn't see you or anything, and then..." Asuka's EVA shoved Shinji's out of her way as she raced over the mountain. At the mountain's summit there was nothing but clouds, but she fired two shots blindly, ignoring the protests that came over her speakers. She smiled in grim satisfaction as an orange pulse shot from the cloud. She switched to her HUD. "Hey! You guys in Tokyo! Pay attention! IT'S COMING STRAIGHT FOR YOU!" -- "Roger," said Touji. _God, it's actually happening..._ He had been allowed twenty minutes during the first phase of the foray, and it was enough to give him some familiarity with and security about his controls; but combat was a different matter entirely. He spoke to Rei. "What do we do?" Rei's unemotional manner calmed rather than irritated him. "I will take point, since I have more experience. Move away from me and be on your guard. Have your weapon ready, and know where your Progressive Knife is." "Sure thing, Rei." Rei took two steps downslope in her EVA and trained her pistol towards the horizon. She saw nothing. She knew the direction that her comrades were in, relative to her position; so she concentrated on looking for an anomaly, a black shape moving on a black background. With an unconscious shudder, she saw it a few seconds after she had begun. "Suzuhara. Geofront. Our target is about one kilometer distant. I'm sending visual data to you now." She focused a camera on the shape. The Angel was coming in at an angle, parallel to the way the rain was falling. It hovered a few meters above the treetops. There was no sign of activity from it, other than its approach. "Should I fire?" "When ready, Rei." "Roger. Suzuhara, move forward and away from me, and then draw out your Progressive Knife." "OK." Touji walked away, shifted his gun to his left hand, and took his knife out with his left. Rei watched with satisfaction as the Angel altered its course. Then she fired twice at its proximal side. Both shots rebounded off the creature's AT Field. In response, however, the Angel slowed and tilted so that it was parallel to the ground. Rei said, "It's trying to lure us away from the city. I'll go. Suzuhara, stay here. If it attacks me before I hit the AT Field, fire on it. Ikari, Langley, what are you doing?" Shinji's HUD appeared. "We still have power, so we're trying to get back and help you. But it's starting to get muddy." Asuka added, "We'll have to get out of this valley before we see the Angel. Wonder Girl can keep it busy until I get a good shot." "Yes." The distance between EVA-00 and the Angel was less than 200 meters over flat terrain. Rei dropped her pistol in mid-step and readied her knife. At 100 meters the Angel stopped moving and deployed its AT Field. Without hesitating Rei slashed at it, then changed her grip to stab. It was to no avail; the field held. Then the field dissipated. Rei's EVA, off-balance, slipped down and fell into the mud at the Angel's feet. She planted her hands and tried to push up, but the soil below them gave way and she landed on her face. For an instant she was powerless, and in that instant the Angel acted. It warped into a teardrop shape, and its apex formed a pseudopod that bent perpendicular to the ground. The pseudopod pressed against her neck and held her helpless. Rei let out a cross between a gasp and a grunt, smarting from the pain and the foolishness of the act. "Dammit!" Touji fired his gun, one-handed, towards the Angel. It missed by such a margin that the Angel didn't react. Touji cursed again. "Shinji! Asuka! Where are you guys?" Asuka's HUD showed her sweat visible within the LCL. "I just got up the mountain. We're at least a kilometer away. I see the target. I'm firing--now!" Touji watched the projectile flash through the air and smack against the AT Field. Its force was significant, and the field shuddered. The Angel withdrew its pseudopod and began floating silently away from the flatland and the city it bordered. Touji, mindful of the wet ground, started to jog over to Rei. "Rei, are you OK?" "Yes. The Unit is functioning perfectly." She struggled up from the mud. "Langley, you may fire when ready." Asuka hadn't waited for directions. She fired off a three round burst and watched the impact of the missiles; the Angel held its course and did not threaten Rei. Asuka walked her EVA along the ridge, careful in the mud to keep her weapon aimed. "Shinji," she said, "get in closer to the Angel. I'll--SCHEISSE!!!" She stumbled, and the EVA sprawled prone, its gun falling and tumbling down the mountainside. Shinji watched in horror as her fall was cut short with a jerk on her power cord. He looked to see the Angel, once again teardrop-shaped, with its apex wrapped around one end of the cord. _The Angel's pulling her right toward it!_ he thought. "SHINJI! HELP ME, DAMMIT!" Shinji jumped up into the air, letting his own safety escape his mind. His Evangelion landed with its belly on Asuka's back. He clamped one hand around Asuka's power cord, and swung his axe with the other. Asuka was free. A moment later, he had jerked his own power cable out. Free from assault, they skidded in a muddy mess to the foot of the hill. Rei had redrawn her progressive knife and charged at the Angel again. The Angel immediately raised its AT Field; but it was weaker, and Rei's knife began to cleave it. She groaned with the effort. Battle tired her. She succeeded in cutting into the AT Field, but her efforts were in vain: her opponent replaced it with yet another field, so weak as to be nothing more than a haze. Rei stepped back, still on her guard. "Suzuhara," she said, "fire." Touji was a moment in responding. He clasped the pistol in both hands, took careful aim, and fired. The bullet did not seem to affect the AT Field, nor did the second or third shots. Touji threw down the pistol. "Gimme a bigger gun!" Misato spoke. "Touji, there's a projectile cannon behind you. You'll have to go back to the city to pick it up. Rei, engage the Angel. It can't attack you with its AT Field in place. And Shinji, Asuka, HURRY UP! You have less than three minutes left!" "Yeah, I KNOW!" Rei stepped up to the Angel. She thought that it was rotating at a constant velocity, greater than her own, but it was hard to see. A third time, she attacked with her Progressive Knife, but she didn't catch the AT Field. She slashed through space. The Angel had dodged her attack by warping itself. Its pseudopod now reached out and grabbed her left arm, wrapping around and around her wrist. Rei shrieked and hacked at the pseudopod. To her surprise, she cut through it with ease. The Angel reacted to the attack and drew back into itself, reforming the circle; the material on Rei's arm melted and started dripping off. Bolstered by her success, Rei lunged at it. She missed. Her knife arm shot into the air well above the Angel. Quicker than the eye could follow another pseudopod was against, around, pulling Rei's right arm. It whipped her halfway around the circle in an eighth of a second and then threw her against the side of the mountain. The feedback from the Evangelion was concentrated on her neck, the location of the impact; and Ayanami Rei, unable to assimilate the force of the impact, was thrown into shock an instant before her body could realize the pain. Asuka and Shinji were powerless to intervene, but eager to avenge. With an awkward battle yell, Shinji leaped down at the Angel, swinging his axe. It caught against the AT Field; weak though the resistance was, the axe was kept from its target, and Shinji slipped and sprawled along the muddy slope. Asuka took more care, stalking down to meet the Angel midway up the slope. A pseudopod reached out towards her, but Asuka stepped aside, contenting herself with a surgical slice at her opponent. To her satisfaction, few blobs of Angel flesh were cut off. The Angel changed its tactics. It reared up, serpentine, and struck out towards her. Asuka ducked, almost kneeling. The Angel rose again, only to have a piece of its middle blown out. "YATTA!" "Touji? Was that you?" "Yeah! LOOK OUT!" Without hesitation, Asuka swung her knife up above her head. Her aim was true but her strength was lacking, and the tip of the knife was cleaved off. A moment later the Angel's pseudopod caught her on her shoulder, sprawling her against the ground. >From 20 meters away, Touji blew the pseudopod off of the Angel. He could see that it had shrunk in diameter, and he chuckled, finding a bit of confidence in his heart. He dropped to one knee. The Angel was above and a few meters in front of him. He fired, tearing a new hole through the middle of the Angel. But the Angel fell onto him, wrapping the EVA up tightly... "What the...???" -- The three control room operators turned dumbly to Katsuragi Misato, who looked in turn to Commander Ikari. Speaking from beneath his fingertips, he said simply, "Well?" Ibuki Maya glanced at her monitors. "Uh...we've lost all communication with the EVAs. All power supplies have been cut. Our sensors aren't indicating a blue pattern, and...hey, here's something...the seismic sensors recorded a tremor a few moments ago. That's all the information I have, sir." Major Katsuragi's gaze returned to her commanding officers. "What should we do? We can't contact the EVAs, and we can't recover them in this weather." "The thing to do is obvious, Major." Ikari adjusted his glasses and stood. "If the blue pattern is gone, then the Angel isn't a threat anymore. If the Angel is not a threat anymore, then the EVAs have done their duty. If they have done their duty, and if there is no way to recover them, then we can afford to leave them there until the weather has improved. "Please alert the civil defense to keep all civilians in the shelters overnight--I don't think that that will cause a problem. Issue rations. Provide medical attention. As for the Geofront, all personnel are to switch to blue alert until such time as we can recover the EVAs. The pilots are expendable, but we should save them if they're still alive, or recover their remains if they're not." He turned to his second and lowered his voice. "Fuyutsuki, order the backups to monitor in the control room for four hours. Let's give these people some rest, we've had a long day." "Yes, sir." Daniel Snyder in his new abode at firstname.lastname@example.org If I wasn't such a strange person, this would all seem so confusing.