Neon Genesis Evangelion Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction ❯ Sic Semper Morituri ❯ Chapter 27-29 ( Chapter 13 )

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Sic Semper Morituri

Chapter 27 - Battalions of Steel and Mathematics
      Cat Scratch Fever
      Price of Doing Business
      Feigning Reversal
      Epiphany or Epitaph
      The Cost of Victory
      Sirdar or Steersman
      Truth's Keen Lancet
      Marring by Blunder's Echo

Chapter 28 - Nabiki's Awakening

Chapter 29 - Restitution
      Return
      Requital
      Redress
      Reckoning
      Retaliation
      Recompense

[Ranma][NGE][HPL][AMG][Fusion][Fanfic] Sic Semper Morituri Chapter 27 - Battalions of Steel and Mathematics

Disclaimer:

I do not own any of the characters from Ranma 1 / 2, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Ah My Goddess, or the Lovecraft Cycle involved in these stories.

C&C, MSTs are welcome

E-mail: dan_s.comments@comcast.net

Stories are available in Plain ASCII at:

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ftp://ftp .cs.ubc.ca/pub/archive/anime-fan-works/Ranma/Sic-Semper-Morituri/

ht tp://www.cs.ubc.ca/cgi-bin/ftp/archive/anime-fan-works/Ranma/type/Sic-Sempe r-Morituri

(these are the original versions)

What has gone before:

      About Book 11, Akane and Soun Tendo throw Ranma out of the house.  Nabiki, in the guise of a wish, follows him.  They meet EVA pilots Shinji Ikari, Rei Ayanami, Asuka Soryu Langley and Jeffrey Davis.

      Asuka and Jeff challenge each other to a cooking contest.  Rei participates as referee and facilitator.  The cooking contest goes to Asuka, although Rei discovers Jeff made sure she won.

      Asuka and Jeff begin continue analyzing the equations to manipulate the AT field, they discover an important side-effect of AT fields.  They begin teaching the other pilots the math to understand it.

      Hiroko accidently discovered the truth about Ranma/Ranko, and is ordered to keep silent.

      Captain Ramsey meets with the cult leaders, laying down the law and arranging for their cooperation.

      Nabiki and Ranko interrogate Raccoon about the nature of their enemies, and the details of his mission.

      The first Sonic Glaives arrive and the pilots train with them.

      Ranko discovers Raccoon knows about the Ranma/Ranko transformation and has reduced the curse (attracting water) but still believes Ranma and Ranko are different people.  Ranko uses this to her advantage against Nabiki.

      An attack by were-tigers causes Asuka and Rei to band together to shoot it out with one group, while Ranma undergoes the Neko-ken, transforming into a large tiger who destroys a far larger group.

      Shinji decided he must move back to watch over Misato.

A prince should therefore have no other aim or thought, nor take up any other thing for his study, but war and its organization and discipline, for that is the only art that is necessary ro one who commands.

Niccolo Machiavelli - The Prince, Chpt. 14

Chapter 27 - Battalions of Steel and Mathematics

Cat Scratch Fever

June 12, 1947

      Rei squatted atop the building, beneath her feet was Dr. Akagi's apartment.  Somewhere within, Shinji-kun slept.  He would sleep safely, as long as she kept watch.  The total number of the attackers accounted for was 55, the captives all reported 60 was their number.  They had taken her pistol, the Second's and Roku-kun's for testing.  She, alone of all the pilots, could engage and defeat the creatures without weapons.

      So she waited in the cold air, she would not have wanted to return to her apartment.  NERV Technical Services were removing the last of the corpses, reinstalling the security door and conducting their tests.  She also hated the smell of blood that had permeated the area.  The scent of blood revolted her, brought up memories she would rather not recall.  She was content to wait, standing guard over the others.  However, after all the hours of wakefulness, she was beginning to nod off occasionally.

      The warm blanket over her shoulders brought her to full wakefulness.

      "You could have asked to stay with Dr. Akagi."

      She focused on Roku-kun, speaking with her and adjusting the blanket around her as he squatted in front of her.  The smile and gentle movements were at odds with the scoped rifle cradled in his lap.  She also noted the other difference.  She squatted with her feet flat on the ground, but he balanced on his toes.  She was waiting, he was ready to attack.

      "I could be more effective here," she told him, she glanced around and saw Kraznyzamok-san and Hiroko.

      "We got them all, the last five," he assured her, "And we found Hiroko asleep on your doorstep."  He leaned close, "I think she wants to talk to you.  If you listen to her, maybe she'll give you some of the food she has."

      Rei nodded, "I will listen."  She considered, "Are you certain?"

      "He's certain," Kraznyzamok-san said with some irritation, "He thought he could sneak past me."

      "I did," Roku-kun frowned, "I never expected one of those things would be right outside the apartment.  Boy was he surprised.  If you don't mind, Langley and I will go over and clean the blood off the floor and walls of your apartment."

      Rei noticed Hiroko pale at that statement.  "I do not object."

      "Just give the cleaners a few hours to dissipate, the smell should be gone by the time you get home."

      "Thank you," Rei said.

      Roku-kun nodded and stood up, he and Kraznyzamok-san walked back into the darkness.

      "The blanket is large enough for two," Rei told Hiroko, who blushed.

      "Thank you, but I dressed warmly.  Strange, in a few hours it will be hot and humid," she opened the basket she carried, "I have rice balls, plain I'm afraid, tea, some pickles."  When Rei didn't respond Hiroko added, "You can have some if you like.  Which would you like?"

      "Rice and tea," Rei said, "You have something to ask?"

      "Yes," Hiroko put the rice balls and a cup of cold tea on a platter, waited until Rei took it to begin, "I would like your help to become a pilot."

      Rei blinked, stared, uncertain she had heard the girl correctly, Why would she want to become a pilot?

      "I'm not like Kensuke, so in love with the power of the EVAs that he'd do anything to see them.  I believe I can be of use to you all."

      "You do not want to be a pilot," Rei told her.

      "I understand about the dangers," Hiroko countered, "I was there when the mortar attack happened.  I was at the school when those creatures attacked, and when that sinkhole tried to eat that girl.  I've been investigating things.  Some of them are pretty awful.  I know I can help."

      "You are helpful," Rei told her, "You do not want to be a pilot."

      "Rei, Ayanami-san, I'm asking you instead of the Boss, because you're truthful and logical.  The Boss would spin me around with words until I'm too dizzy to see straight.  You'll tell me the truth, that's what I've always heard about you, that's what I've always admired about you.  Ever since they put you in my elementary school class.  I've known you had secrets, but in the five years I've known you, you've never lied, not once, and you always try your best.  I want you to tell the NERV officers I want to help, I want them to consider me as a pilot," Hiroko paused, "Unless you already know I'm not qualified."

      "You are qualified," Rei told her, "You do not want to be a pilot."

      "You are assuming a lot," Hiroko said, "You've never understood people that well."

      "I understand death, pilots are for killing, and for dying," Rei told her flatly.  "There was an EVA test pilot before me, Shinji-kun's mother, he watched her die.  There was a German test pilot before the Second, her mother, she went mad, then committed suicide, the Second . . . " Rei's tone softened, "Asuka, found the body.  About the time Shinji-kun battled the Angel, alone . . . the first of the three American pilots died.  Roku-kun watched.  A short while later, the second American pilot went insane and attacked Roku-kun."

      Rei paused, nibbled the rice ball, "All this is public, not secret.  You do not want to be a pilot."

      "Is that why you pilot?  So somebody else doesn't have to?" The revelations had staggered Hiroko, "So others don't have to . . . die?"

      Rei nodded.

      "I'm sorry, I never realized - " Hiroko stammered, "I've been a fool."

      "No.  I would die before another, to save another, you hoped to as well," Rei said, "That is not foolish."

      "Thanks."

      Rei was shocked when Hiroko hugged her, she didn't know what to say or how to react to that.


      Ranma barely made it to the bathroom before he threw up.

      He'd been so distracted by everything else, that he'd failed to realize one thing that had happened yesterday.  When he finally made the realization, it nauseated him.

      I killed them, he thought as he ran some warm water to wash his mouth out.  Simply acknowledging the thought again made his stomach heave.  He controlled it, but decided he wasn't going to swallow any water.

      He could tell himself that it was the 'other', that he had no control over it, but the simple fact was the 'other' - was him.  Less restrained, but still him.  And if the bits and pieces he'd put together from the briefing and debriefing were accurate, he hadn't simply killed them, he'd torn them apart.

      Remembering the descriptions made him go through another bout of dry heaves.  He'd completely dismissed it, until a few moments ago.  He could accept killing Angels, but those things had been at least partly human.  Despite that they turned themselves into ca . . . they'd been human at one point.  And I killed them, shredded them, he thought miserably.  He couldn't square in his mind that the 'other' would destroy so viciously, that he'd destroy so viciously, then rescue another pilot so carefully.  The only saving grace was that only he suspected what had really happened.  He'd truthfully told the interrogators that he remembered very little of the fight, and Raccoon's description of Ranko supported her assertions.  They assumed that the 'other' was a separate creature, not part of him.  Raccoon hadn't known what happened, until Ranma had told him in the EVA bays.  And he didn't put the pieces together for you, Ranma thought, Because he didn't think they were important or unusual.  He's killed before, it doesn't bother him.

      However, Ranma knew differently, he knew that only he and Raccoon were in that alley.  Raccoon hadn't seen what happened, but he had seen the aftermath.  He had seen that it was bad enough, that he'd tried to keep Ranko from looking at it.  Looking at what Ranma, as the 'other', had done to their attackers.  Ranko had nearly thrown up.  Ranma nearly threw up just remembering it, remembering that the thing which did that, was him.

      As he straightened up, a warm cloth wiped his face clean and an arm went around his shoulder.

      "Couldn't sleep?" Nab-chan asked, carefully wiping his face clean, "I think we've all been having nightmares about yesterday."

      "I haven't slept," Ranma admitted as Nab-chan sat him on the edge of the furo.  He thought about the 'other' cleaning Raccoon after the fight.  "I haven't told anyone, not directly anyway."  He sighed, he had to tell somebody, "Raccoon didn't do all the fighting," he bowed his head, bowing to the inevitable, "Or all the killing."

      He expected condemnation, not a chin on his shoulder as her other arm encircled his waist.

      "You did what you had to," Nab-chan told him, "I tried to kill those things.  If the rifle I picked up had worked, I might have done it."

      "But you didn't," Ranma countered, "I did."

      "You've also killed Angels, I haven't done that either," Nab-chan pressed close, "If you hadn't, Rei would be dead, or Shinji, then the whole world.  Ranma, nothing else would have stopped them."  She turned him to face her, "I know you.  You would have done everything you could have, before you took that step.  You're afraid of cat figurines, you wouldn't have had a chance against those things."

      "I had the advantage," Ranma told her, "I don't want to say how, but I wasn't afraid of them anymore."

      "So you fought them, and left Raccoon to be eaten by them?  Or did you do whatever you could to protect him?" Nab-chan asked, "You took off after those things that caught Rei, without a thought for your own safety, no matter how mad it made me.  You couldn't abandon another pilot."

      "I didn't just fight back, I murdered them," Ranma told her, "They never had a chance."

      "They could have left us alone, they could have surrendered when they saw what they were up against."  Nab-chan lowered her voice, "If they were SEELE, they could have told you what they wanted."  Her voice returned to normal, "The one - one . . . we fought, getting scattered all over by a shotgun didn't slow it down.  If Dr. Akagi's door wasn't armored, it would have gotten inside to kill and eat us.  It told us that's what it would do.  You may have killed them, but they were committing suicide coming after us when they saw what we could do."

      Ranma shook his head, he wasn't sure if the 'other' had enjoyed killing them.  He hoped not, but it hadn't shown them any mercy either.  "I lost control," he explained, "I'm a Martial Artist.  I should show restraint, I shouldn't use that kind of force, I shouldn't - "

      "Assume any lesser amount of force would do the job," Nab-chan interrupted, "Maybe you should talk to some of the soldiers, or when he comes by, Tomiyo Tendo.  He didn't even try to use Martial Arts on those things, he shot one three times.  It got back up."

      "Ranma," she said the word so softly, "I know you, I've watched you.  You don't hit anyone, unless there's no other choice.  I don't believe you'd take a life, unless there was another life in the balance.  You shouldn't believe you would either.  From everything I know, from everything you and Raccoon said at the debriefing, the only other choice you had was to die, and leave them to kill Raccoon.  That - you could never do."

      "That doesn't excuse anything," Ranma countered.

      She turned to face him, "Your enemies will never forgive you."

      Ranma thought that sounded oddly like what Raccoon had told him in the EVA bay.  "I'm worried about doing it again."

      Nab-chan finished wiping his face clean, "I didn't hear about anyone else getting hurt," she slid her hand behind his neck, guided his head to rest on her shoulder.  Then she rubbed a hand over his back, "You did your best, you probably gave them every chance to give up and go away.  Now you feel guilty about what they forced you to do.  I don't think your honor has anything to worry about.  I don't think you or your friends have anything to worry about either."

      Ranma squeezed his eyes closed, trying to keep the tears from falling.  Guys weren't supposed to cry, but he was frightened and he needed, and was grateful for, the reassurance Nab-chan was giving him.


      "I'm just saying it was overkill," Sammi accused, enjoyed the sardonic look she got in response.  They were outside her apartment, hoping to get some rest before the morning.

      "I didn't call in the squadron-strength air strike," Jeff countered, "Rockets and napalm, and you call a rifle overkill?"

      "I only shot them while they were alive," Sammi countered, "I didn't walk over and head shoot their burning corpses."

      "It's only overkill if you really didn't need it," he tried the door, "Langley, it's us.  Unblock the door."

      "What's the password?" Asuka's voice came from the other side of the door.

      Sammi thought she could just shove the door open, and she didn't remember any password.

      "Sammi," Jeff said loudly, "Should I tell you about Langley crawling up on my - "

      The sounds of the blockage being removed interrupted him.  "I'm opening it, I'm opening it!" Asuka yanked the open door and glared at Jeff.

      Jeff dropped bonelessly to the floor.  Asuka grabbed him by the collar of his suit coat and dragged him inside.

      "You could help," Asuka told her.

      "Young lovers are - "

      "THAT IS IMPOSSIBLE!" Asuka shouted at her.

      "Of course," Jeff rallied, "She's actually my sister."

      Asuka dropped him, "If that were true, I'd have to kill myself," Asuka replied.

      "Are you still planning to go clean up Ayanami's apartment?" Sammi asked, "I'll see if Technical Services are done.  Knowing what you two must have mixed up to use, I'll order up some air bottles too."  She smirked, "And an armored car."

      She smiled at their frowns.

      "So you got them?" Asuka asked quietly.

      "Gunfire and an air strike," Jeff explained, "I guess a radio is a heavy weapon.  I'm surprised she didn't call down naval gunfire."

      "People were sleeping," Sammi countered before Technical Services picked up the phone at their end.


Price of Doing Business

      General Borodin heard the cursing from the repair bays and the thrown tools that accompanied it.  He didn't usually curse, unusual for a Russian General.  He'd learned a long time ago, that a mild oath used rarely had the effect of a thunderbolt.  Screaming constantly never had that result.  He did however, appreciate the skill with invective that the man throwing the tantrum was displaying.

      "Comrades," the General announced his presence, ending the throwing of tools, but not the hurling of curses.  "Is there a problem?"

      "These," the man launched into a long string of condemnation, profanity, all describing the part he had in hand.

      Borodin carefully removed a pen and small notebook from his coat pocket, and began taking notes.  That calmed the man down immediately.  "Please continue," the General urged, "I give them to my old sergeant as presents."

      A few laughed at that, some laughed because a superior officer's jokes were always funny, but others because they were amused.

      The man, the Ogromniy's senior mechanic, calmed down enough to discuss things, "I repaired the unit.  But not from the spares Moscow sent us."

      The General looked at the collection of parts, and the GM truck, a legacy of lend-lease.  He could guess where the repair parts had come from.  "What is wrong with the spares?"

      "Our comrade is too exacting," the political officer told him.

      "I want our machines and pilots to survive," the mechanic retorted, "'The survival of these magnificent machines is the survival of the Motherland', or doesn't that apply when Moscow is involved?"

      The political officer turned purple, as the mechanic turned his own words against him.  The General saw the GRU man enter, in the black trench coat, seemingly untouched by the heat.

      "For a poor, old cavalry officer, not trained in the modern ways," the General said, "What is wrong with the output of our Socialist brothers?"

      "Electric motors are magnets, a wire winding, and a strong metal casing.  In one, the magnets are set wrong, in another the winding is no good, in two the casings are cracked and will fail.  In short Comrade General, you ordered 10 fine horses, and those govnyuk mudila thought five tonnes of dog food would suffice instead."  [shithead fuck ups]

      "My Socialist brother here," he pointed to the political officer, "Doesn't believe I should go to the factory manager, and crush his balls with a set of pliers!"

      "He is correct," the GRU man said coolly, "You didn't let him explain you would need a microscope and tweezers instead."

      There was some chuckling.  The General nodded to the GRU man, "Then how were you able to get the parts, and what is the real cause of this argument?"

      "The truck had all the parts I needed," the mechanic offered.

      "He wanted a mission to buy American automotive parts for spares," the political officer said in high dudgeon, "As if the Soviet Union could not produce the parts we need."

      "If they have, Comrade Commissar, why can we not get them here?  I do not suggest we depend on them, but that is what will let us overhaul the machines.  Comrade General, the machines need extensive repairs, we simply do not have the parts to do it.  Unless we can get those parts in a week, none of the machines will be able to operate.  There is no swapping parts, they are all worn out."

      "You have a list of the parts you need?" the General asked.

      "Yes, Comrade General."

      "Submit them to me.  Comrade Commissar, you will contact the political officers at the factories who provided these parts.  It seems that the political fervor of the workers and the managers is lacking.  My report will indicate this."  He turned and left.  A moment later the GRU man fell in behind him.  "How do you enjoy this delightful weather?"

      "I grew up in such weather, Comrade General," the GRU man said.  "Have you considered the Ministry of State Security?  This is nothing less than sabotage."

      "I would have thought the GRU would oppose bringing Beria's assassins into this," the General said.

      "State Security is supposed to be their responsibility.  They are supposed to defend we peaceful Socialists from the evils outside.  And even the fascists didn't intend to kill all of us."

      "Agreed.  Comrade, I have seen the American's Sherman tanks.  Even the latest versions are inferior to the T-34's that threw the Hitlerites back from the gates of Moscow, but they made them in vast numbers.  Most were well made.  I wonder why we cannot duplicate such a thing."

      "They have the advantage for the moment," the GRU man admitted, "I have always believed our spies should learn their secrets, and teach them to our workers."

      "You will undertake the mission to obtain the parts."

      "Regrettably, General, my English is lacking.  I do have people I can trust, some are in America.  I think they will appreciate their `secret mission`."

      The General chuckled at that, as they walked through the concrete hallways of the Tunguska headquarters.


      Ranma led the group up to the roof.  He was the first to see Rei awake in a blanket, and Hiroko in a heavy jacket asleep on her shoulder.

      "Did you spend the entire night up here?" Rit-chan asked.

      "Yes, Doctor," Rei carefully roused Hiroko.

      The girl stared at the assembled pilots and their guards, as Rei walked over to Shinji.

      "Where are Raccoon and Asuka?" Hiroko asked.

      "Testing chemical weapons," Sammi said with all seriousness.

      "You want to join us?" Ranma offered.

      "Sure, what are you doing?" Hiroko asked, "Martial arts?"

      "Of course," Rei said, "Perhaps Nabiki-kun?"

      Ranma hadn't seen anybody that red since Asuka and Raccoon had their duel over cooking.  "Good idea, Nab-chan, start with the basics: falls, basic punches."

      Nab-chan nodded, she seemed almost as embarrassed as Hiroko, but neither would refuse.

      Ranma was worried about how tired everyone looked, except Rit-chan looked ready to take on the world.  He wasn't looking forward to today's practice.  He hated when the practice didn't turn out well, it always meant it was going to be a bad day.


      The Ordinance section had the pilots' pistols on stands.  Admiral Simson watched the various armorers chattering excitedly about this or that feature.

      "Admiral, you have to see this!" the chief armorer, a U.S. Army Major bustled up.

      "The extractor of the Schofield allows the use of .45 APC ammo, the Peacemaker has a similar mechanism, the seeming 45 Government has a gas cylinder like the Garand rifle," Admiral Simson said, "I've studied them before, Major.  What about the effectiveness of the ammunition?"

      The Army Major deflated, "I can't explain it, Admiral.  One of the ones we have in interrogation took nine rounds of .30-06, but another died from two rounds of .45 APC.  It doesn't make an ounce of sense.  Some of the bullets, all of Miss Ayanami's, were iron and silver."

      "But that didn't improve the lethality any?" Simson asked.

      "Not that we could tell.  The rounds have better penetration, but they seem to do the same amount of damage as standard military ball."  The armorer picked up several bullets, "These are hollow points, Davis's, they had no more effect than the fully jacketed rounds, it still took two hits to kill them."

      "So you don't know any more than we did before," the Admiral suggested.

      "No, I know one thing."  The armorer carefully collected the pistols, slipping them into holsters and carrying cases.  He added a fourth.  "I know you'd better get Miss Tendo down here to practice with her LeMat, and make sure they all carry them at all times."

      Simson nodded, "I'll have these delivered to the kids.  You'll have instructors available soon?"

      "Yes, a day or three, I don't think a regular drill instructor is the right person to teach them.  I think Miss Tendo is leery of carrying her weapon, but Miss Ayanami and Miss Langley both wanted theirs, not Miss Tendo."

      "Get on it, I think Mr. Saotome will be an even harder sell."  Simson nodded and left.  He was concerned that these `magic` weapons had such an effect, and normal weapons were nearly powerless.  Although napalm works just fine, he chuckled at that.


      Ranma had seen worse practices, but not recently.  Hiroko giggling like a loon hadn't let Nab-chan stay serious.  It also infected the others, and they started messing up and being silly.  Rei demonstrating Rei-fu by picking up Sammi over her head and Rit-chan doing the same with Tomiyo, then threatening to throw them at each other, broke everybody up.  Except the potential missiles who pleaded to be back on the ground.

      He hoped that the others assumed the jokes distracted him, rather than his memories of yesterday.  Or rather his speculations about what he did yesterday.

      "Sorry about yesterday," Sammi told him as they tramped downstairs.

      "There was nothing I could do," he said miserably, Does everybody know about what I did?

      "No, I mean me," Sammi explained, "I should have been with you.  That is my job.  That I couldn't get to you in time.  I'm sorry."

      "Did you hear what happened?" Ranma asked.

      "I heard that no one really knows what happened," Sammi admitted, "Three of those things killed an entire rifle platoon.  Nobody knows how you pilots managed to kill them with pistols."

      "I mean the others that got killed," Ranma pressed.

      Sammi pulled him aside, letting the others pass him by to enter the apartment.  "We'll be in in a moment," Sammi told Nab-chan who lingered with a concerned look on her face.  "There was an animal, a huge, black and white tiger.  It tore them apart, then rescued you and Davis.  I should be jealous, it did my job better than I could have."

      "Aren't you hunting it down?  Worried about it?" Ranma asked nervously.

      "We have an eyewitness who saw it, from the start of the attack, to it taking you and Davis onto the roof," Sammi smiled at him, "If Security or the Military started hunting it, it would be to give it a medal.  I've been briefed fully, I don't think it was trying to hurt you, or scare you.  Don't worry Saotome, if you run into it, all you'll get is wet, when it licks you, like it did `Raccoon`."

      "So you think the others aren't in any danger?" Ranma asked.  I turned into a tiger!? Ranma's mind was racing, I can't do that either, he stopped himself, Or can I?

      "I don't think so.  You were hors de combat, so was Davis, so was our eyewitness.  It could have killed all three of you.  It didn't."  She patted his shoulder.  "Anything with 30 centimeter fangs that carries people up five stories by the scruff of the neck, without giving them so much as a bruise . . . I'd bet money it's not hostile."  She knelt down enough so they were face to face, she hugged him tightly, "I know about your - but I don't think you have to worry.  You did the best you could, considering."

      She lowered her voice, "They knew, they were trying to hurt you without touching you.  You didn't do anything wrong.  I don't know what your orders are in the EVA, but outside it, your first job is to survive.  You did that."

      Ranma couldn't understand, couldn't understand any of it.  He'd felt terrified, then angry, then exhausted.  Somewhere something else, two something elses, saved him.  One was outside him, the other within.  Both mysterious, murderous and beyond his control.  Those two are more alike than any of the rest of us, Ranma thought.


      "Everyone is leaving me!" Dr. Akagi wailed.  The others in her apartment laughed, understanding it was a joke.

      "I am not moving here," Rei told her, hoping it was the correct thing, to say to continue the joke.

      "Ayanami hates me!" Dr. Akagi wailed in the same tone.

      "No," Rei said, "I do not hate you."

      "With enough ketchup!" Hiroko and Nabiki added.  The others laughed, including Dr. Akagi.

      "Yes, we'll help you move back to Misato's place," Dr. Akagi said in a more serious tone, "But we aren't delivering breakfast."

      "Roku-kun and the Second can do that," Rei suggested to Shinji-kun, "You and Captain Katsuragi can daily judge their success."

      Rei was glad the laughter continued, she hadn't discovered how to initiate it intentionally, but she had some success in contributing to the duration.

      Kraznyzamok and the Fourth entered.

      "You're losing your roommate again," Dr. Akagi told the Fourth.

      "`Horseface`," Nabiki-kun tried to sound like the Second, "Once could be an accident.  Twice, you are just being careless!  They aren't prog knives after all."

      The Fourth's confusion was amusing.

      "Shinji's moving back to look after Misato," Nabiki-kun explained.

      "Wait," Hiroko interrupted, "He'll be looking after her?"

      "Yes," Rei told her.

      "Do I want to know?" she asked.

      "We could tell you," Nabiki-kun said in a serious tone, "But then we'd have to lock you in a room with Ayanami and a barrel of ketchup."

      "I dislike meat," Rei reminded them.

      "We'll have you declared a watermelon first," Nabiki-kun told her factor.

      Rei noted the others seemed to enjoy this utterly irrational discussion.  Rei had some other business to attend to.  She walked towards Dr. Akagi, catching Hiroko's sleeve as she passed, pulling the girl along.

      "She has requested to become a pilot," Rei said in low tones, she hoped the others didn't hear, "I was not dissuasive."

      Rei turned and headed into the boys' room, to start packing Shinji-kun's things.  She found that her memories instantly hampered her efforts.  She would pick up an object, his suit coat in the first case, then a box of rosen for the bow of his cello.  The memories of her experiences with Shinji-kun, related to the object, would cause her to pause.  The third time it happened, the clothing she had brought to him after his injury by Tulzscha, she turned to the others.  They were all standing at the doorway, watching her, "I am afraid I cannot be of assistance here."

      "It's all right Rei," Nabiki-kun told her.

      She expected a statement from the Fourth that would embarrass or anger Shinji-kun or Nabiki-kun.  She was very surprised that he said nothing, he simply stared at her.  She had seen him looking like that, when someone demonstrated a new fighting technique, a look of intense study and analysis.

      When he learns to apply the same techniques to non-combat interactions, Rei thought, He might step away from many of his limitations.

      "What interested you?" she asked as she stepped past him out of the room.

      "You, remembering stuff, I guess," he said.

      "Yes?" Rei wasn't sure why watching someone remembering would interest him.

      "I just never saw you do it before, that's all," he held up his hands as if he expected her to hit him.

      "I take no offense," she reassured him.

      "No, I could belt you and you wouldn't take offense," he said with downcast eyes and an odd tone of voice, "But if I laid a finger on Shinji or ole' Stoneface, you'd tear my fingers off."

      "An accurate prediction," she told him, she didn't understand where this was heading, or what it was supposed to accomplish.

      "I don't think they need us in there just yet," the Fourth indicated Nabiki-kun and Shinji-kun laying out Shinji-kun's possessions on the two beds, sorting them for packing.  The Fourth headed into the bathroom, Rei followed.


      Rei's request had shocked Ritsuko.  Both that she of all people had made it to her, and what it entailed.  "You asked Rei to be a pilot?"

      "Yes, Doctor, I've seen a lot of what happens around them."  Hiroko fidgeted.  "I guess I wanted to be part of it, thought I could help."

      "Not everyone can be a pilot," Ritsuko tried to put her off with the standard response.

      "Ayanami-san already said I was qualified," Hiroko said, "Maybe pilots can see other pilots."

      More like Rei knows about the class, Ritsuko didn't say.  "There are also complications to the process."

      "Rei told me about those too," Hiroko said, "I'm willing to take the risk."

      "Why?" Ritsuko asked sternly, she couldn't figure out why Rei had told the girl all these things.  "If you know you might die, why would you want to risk it.  Not for friendship, or love, you have to give me a concrete, logical reason."

      "Twice, I've seen people hurting the pilots, first the mortar barrage, second the attack on the school, then yesterday night.  Seven targets would be better than six."

      I can't tell her that both of those attacks, and the others were to capture Ranma, Ritsuko thought.  "You'd be throwing your life away as a decoy?  I'm sorry, that's unacceptable."  That's Security's job, as if Kaji and his organization would ever do their job, she thought angrily.  She watched Rei and Ranma go into the bathroom, she hoped they weren't going to fight.  Things had been going well between them.


Feigning Reversal

      "You wanted to speak," Rei told him, as she verified both doors were closed and locked.

      "Those things, yesterday," Ranma watched her closely as he ran a little cold water over his hand, Ranko saw the slight change in Rei's stance.  That still doesn't mean Rei has a crush on Ranko! Ranko forced herself to think.  "You and Asuka killed some.  Were they human?"

      "That does not matter," Rei replied, "They attacked, we killed them.  We survived, they did not."

      "Where do you get the right to say that?" Ranko demanded.

      "We did not attack them," Rei replied coolly, even for her, "They could have left at anytime.  They did not."

      "So killing them is proper, honorable, acceptable - just because they didn't leave you alone?" Ranko asked.

      "If you attacked, and were badly hurt," Rei replied, "Would you continue fighting?"

      "No, I'd figure the other guy was better."

      "Your reasoning is poor," Rei said, "However, they could not reason even that far.  Only death would stop them."

      "So you think killing them is okay?" Ranko asked, then backed up as Rei approached.

      "You are inconsiderate, flawed," Rei said, "You are for fighting, nothing else.  Yet you fail in that end, despite your skills.  To allow others to die, to avoid discomfort, is reprehensible."  Rei unlocked the door and walked out, closing it behind her.

      Ranko ran hot water over her hand.  All I am is a body, all I am is for fighting, Ranma thought, Well what else do you have, `Wondergirl`?  A life with Shinji?  Home and kids?  You don't care about anything but your precious mission.  Kill the Angels, you and Raccoon, both of you are . . .

      "All three if us, are just killing machines," Ranma said quietly, "That's what all this is about.  She and Raccoon . . . are what, weapons?  They both think that's what I am?"  I have to admit, Ranma thought, It fits.  The greatest Martial Artist on the planet, I can pilot an EVA.  There's probably not an Angel who could take me in Unit 04 in combat.  But is that what I'm for?  Just something to fight battles, is that what they're for?  Just to kill the enemy?  With Raccoon's tricks and Rei's AT field, if they worked together, they could take one of those weak Old Ones without their EVAs or any help.  I can see why they'd make people like that.  But is that what I am?  All three of us have been training a lifetime.  Just to fight, and if - to die?

      "There has to be more than that," Ranma said, trying to make himself believe it.  But with the 'other' in his head, he wasn't sure.  Ranma might just be the `carrier` for the 'other'.  It seemed more like what Ayanami expected, Ranma thought, It killed, and felt nothing.  Did it rescue Raccoon 'cause it's programed to, or is it my `flaws` affecting it?

      Ranma opened the door and walked out to see if the packing was done.


      Asuka walked some 10 meters from the entrance of Wondergirl's apartment, before she took off the air mask, "Gott im Himmel!  I can taste that scheisse you're using!"

      Raccoon kept scrubbing at the blood stains with a wire brush.  Both of the Security guards had moved upwind of the stench.

      "Earphones," Raccoon told her, "I did warn you."

      "Yeah, yeah, it comes through the eustachian tubes," Asuka replied, "Can you take a break or something?"

      "You feeling okay?" Raccoon asked her as he removed his mask.  He left on the gloves and heavy lab coat.

      "It isn't the chemicals," Asuka wanted to wipe her hands off, but was mindful of what was on the heavy gloves she wore, "I don't resent rescuing Wondergirl.  She's helped us out often enough.  But the killing - I - Asuka Soryu Langley, never killed a human before."

      "I think your record's holding," Raccoon told her, "Those things weren't human.  Not by a long shot."

      "They became human when they died," Asuka countered.

      "Well, you show me a human being that can survive a hit from a rifle, or getting cut up, or any of the other things they did.  I'll show you something that doesn't qualify as human."

      "It's not that easy," Asuka replied, she felt unclean about killing them.

      "Ashamed you survived, Langley?" Raccoon asked softly, "We've both seen it before.  We've both felt it before.  Some twit challenges you to a duel.  In ten seconds you know, you've got him completely outclassed.  You start looking for a way not to kill him, but he doesn't let you.  Survivor guilt, you lived, they didn't."

      "You of course, are immune.  You killed them and . . . no remorse, no regrets?"

      "If they'd been innocents drugged or brainwashed into attacking, yes.  But they kept coming, even after the outcome was obvious.  At 10% casualties, I'd start reassessing; at 30%, maybe I'd break off the attack; at 50%, I'd start negotiating; and at 70%, I'd be getting out of there.  They kept coming, so I kept firing.  I'm just glad they quit when they did, I was down to two bullets," Raccoon paused, "No, no remorse, no regrets.  Beyond wishing they didn't make me do it.  They could have talked, I would have listened."

      "If only to await reinforcements," Asuka replied, shivered at the thought.

      "To change the subject," Raccoon said, "Did you finish those graphs?"

      "Of course!" Asuka said angrily, "What did you think I did?  Slept after you shot that thing right outside the door?  Played cribbage with Erin?  I still don't know what you needed them for."

      "First to give you practice doing three view drawings - "

      "You want to turn me into an engineer," Asuka accused.

      Raccoon frowned at her.  "The girl who designed the Sonic Glaives, the girl who designed those rotary cannons for EVA use, thinks she isn't an engineer."  He covered his face with his coat, like a bad movie vampire.  "We will seduce you into ee-vil!  Or me-vil, you're more a mechanical engineer."

      "As my first act, I'm considering throwing him over the balcony," Asuka said, "Are you done?"

      "Yes, let's get back to cleaning."  Raccoon pulled his mask back down and headed back.

      "How many centimeters of cement do we dissolve off the walls and floor with this stuff?" Asuka asked as she pulled her mask on.

      "Just two and three respectively."


      "Dr. Akagi," the Marine guard snapped to attention, and held the door for her as she entered her lab.

      That's the fourth time that's happened today, she thought, normally she didn't mind the admiring looks, or the whispered compliments.  Gendo had made it clear 'look but don't touch', Admiral Simson had quietly supported the policy.  Only Misato seemed to resent it.  And I've never figured out if it's the 'look' or the 'don't touch' she resents, Ritsuko thought.

      Ritsuko picked up the phone and dialed her home number, "Akagi residence," Nabiki's voice came over the line.

      "Nabiki, could you put Sammi on the line?"

      A moment later, "Kraznyzamok Samantha.  Akagi-sensei?"

      "Don't 'Akagi-sensei' me!  What did you tell them?" Ritsuko reproached her.

      "Oh, nothing nothing.  I just pointed out, that after we two poor, helpless women killed one of those things, for the second time, with our bare hands.  You decided to rip its spine out, as a way of keeping it dead," Sammi told her, "It did work."

      Ritsuko had covered her face during Sammi's explanation, she wasn't sure whether she should laugh or cry.  "Well, thank you for the explanation.  I notice you did include yourself."

      "Well, I couldn't tell them I just held your coat, while you did all the work.  They'd never respect me."

      "Good bye, Sammi."

      " 'Bye mom."

      Ritsuko frowned as she heard the connection go dead.  She glanced at the Marine at the door, he caught her looking and braced himself up.  Make his drill sergeant proud, she thought, Or he's trying to hold up the entire building.  She was wondering where Sammi got her bizarre sense of humor, Ritsuko had a limited list of sources.


      "They look like lampshades," Ranma described the two odd frames with the sheets of paper on them.  The swirls of color with dots on them didn't help.  There were sheets on the top and bottom, as well as all four sides, so it really was a cube.  Ranma still didn't understand what their purpose was.

      The pilots had assembled at Dr. Akagi's apartment.  They were waiting for the truck to arrive to take Shinji's stuff to Misato's apartment.

      "This represents the AT field in a standard vertical plane."  Asuka moved the first one towards him.  "This one represents an AT field in a horizontal plane."  The swirls were different on the second one, so were the dots, but Ranma couldn't decipher the full meanings.

      "The lines within," Rei stared at the two objects, "Represent what?"

      "The lines are the field at zero dimension," Asuka explained the lines that went through the center of the colored swirls, "In effect a horizontal or vertical line.  Strangely," Asuka traced her finger over one of the structures, "A line of inter - " Asuka glanced at Ranma before she continued, "That would be the same in both structures, doesn't graph the same."  She looked a little chagrined.  "We still can't figure that out."

      "So the various colors, represent, what?" Nab-chan asked.

      "There are fifteen dimensions, so, we represented five different groups of three dimensions.  The little colored dots represent where that structure intersects the other of that color, mathematically, rather than physically as indicated here."

      "Why all this?" Ranma asked, he still couldn't figure out what they were doing.  It was as if he was missing the piece that would all make it understandable.

      "The drawings are what you would see if you were looking through a window at the object.  Front, back, right side, left side, top and bottom."  Raccoon turned each frame to show each side.

      "So all these swirls, on all these sides are really one thing you're looking at?" Ranma asked.  He could almost feel the answer, it was there right in front of him.  He was groping around blind, he didn't even know what questions to ask to find it.

      "So how do the differences . . . ," Shinji began, "Why are there fifteen dimensions?  Aren't there only three?"

      "Four," Asuka said, "Height, width, thickness and duration.  The dimensions have to be defined.  Here we have assumed a one-to-one correspondent and a standard arithmetic gradient."

      Ranma didn't understand anything they were saying, except the words.  The flames, that's how he thought of them, twisted and swirled in front of him.  One set representing a horizontal wall, the other a vertical.  That much he understood.  Raccoon's admonition, 'Don't think with your head, think with your whole body' came back to him.  He started to `sculpt` the shapes with his fingers, watching them move, feeling the different flow of the muscles, how the joints worked as they moved through space.  It's almost like a kata, or a dance! he thought.  Still understanding eluded him.  He knew he could master any move he saw.  But these weren't moves, they were just the beginning and the endpoints.

      " . . . but setting it to a natural logarithmic base would make it nearly impenetrable at the center, or the edges, but not both," Asuka was defending an assertion from Rei's probing question.

      "Only if both the correspondence and the gradient were so.  If just the correspondence were set so, and the gradient was arithmetic, what would the effect be?"

      Asuka sat back to consider.

      "Guys," Ranma said, he felt like he was half-dreaming, he almost had the answer.

      "Thank you."

      Raccoon shushed Asuka, "What is it?"

      "What about something with no size, no cor - anyway and no grades?" Ranma asked.

      "Mathematical point?" Raccoon asked Asuka.

      She nodded and started sketching.  Ranma caught a glimpse of a lightning fast move from Rei, grabbing Nab-chan's hand before she touched him.  He was grateful, he was afraid this thought was as transitory as his memories.  There, but a mere glance would blow them away like smoke.  Tempting him to try to follow them, but he could only guess what they were.  This idea was that way, as he tried to find the key to unlock it.

      "Front, right, top."  Asuka set the papers in front of him in an L-shape.

      He stared at the colored lines, tried to convert them to the flowing full shapes he saw on the frames, how one moved into the one frame, the sheets, to the other frame, and back.  He'd always felt the sense of foreignness that surrounded their enemies.  THEIR AT fields, he realized, Shaped around them, not like we do it.  It replaces their ki and its flows.

      He heard only silence around him, he was aware the others were staring, for once he didn't care what anybody else thought.  "What range is this, how close to the EVA?"

      Asuka snatched back the sheets, she made a series of lines, Asuka only changed some of the colors.  But Ranma could already see the patterns forming.  Some of the entire lines moved, others kinked in one or two places, some were untouched.

      "From zero range, and at 50 meter intervals, straight out from the center of the EVA's mass.  Flat, straight and level," she explained, shot Raccoon a sour look.


      Gendo waited patiently for Kaji's report.  He sat at his desk, in his office, fingers steepled.  Fuyutsuki stood, slightly behind him and to the left.  Kaji sat down and discovered the chair was just a little too far away to let him put his feet up on Gendo's desk.

      "You set it here on purpose," Kaji accused after his feet hit the floor.

      "You have something to report?" Gendo asked.

      "Whoever sent the message to SEELE, about SEELE Japan, decided to punctuate the message.  Someone with a very sick sense of humor."

      "The poison?" Gendo tried to keep the meeting on track.  He considered Kaji's need to prove how clever he was, while Gendo also had pilots doing the same, when all of them were actually wallowing in ignorance.

      "No record of it.  They have something like it that would induce a heart attack like that.  The Assassins of Cthulhu use it, but it has to be injected.  Its effect is instantaneous."

      "I never came in contact.  No one else did, once he ushered me into the room," Gendo said, considered the facts, someone had penetrated mystical security he would have considered impregnable to all but the Great Old Ones themselves.  That almost invited an assumption it was a physical poison, But everything had to have been checked, Gendo thought, Those who failed would have been severely punished.  It all made no sense.  "His planned replacement suffered some accident?"

      "Someone dropped an anvil on him," Kaji said flatly.

      "You're joking!" Fuyutsuki's outburst mirrored Gendo's own thoughts.

      "No.  Out of a clear, blue sky, an anvil hit him right on the head.  You could have buried what was left in a large sponge."  Kaji seemed as mystified by the event as Gendo himself was.  "No aircraft on radar or that the bodyguards saw."

      "The Northrop company's flying wings are reportedly impossible to detect on radar, put lights on the leading edge of the wings," Fuyutsuki explained, "The plane becomes effectively invisible."

      "Or someone had a catapult set up," Kaji added, "But an anvil?  Why not an explosive device, or just a rock?"

      "You already explained it," Gendo said, "The assassin had a very sick sense of humor.  What was SEELE's response?"

      "Considering it happened only 15 miles from their Zurich headquarters?"  Kaji smiled broadly.  "They panicked, what else.  I've seen a barnyard full of chickens taking more coherent action.  It's going to cut into our budget, as they increase their security outlays to protect themselves."

      "That assassin has done us a great favor," Gendo commented, "Their attention is diverted, for as long as it is, we have a free hand to act."

      "We just have to use it," Kaji agreed.

      "I have another project for you to undertake," Gendo said.

      "I expect to get paid for what I've just brought you . . . "  Kaji smiled at Gendo.  ". . . First."

      "Very well," Gendo said.  He sat back, sighed.  "I fear you won't like what you find."

      "Never-the-less," Kaji insisted.

      "Professor Fuyutsuki," Gendo told his friend, "Please take care of this."

      Fuyutsuki nodded and led Kaji out.  Leaving Gendo alone, to gloat.

      He walks deeper into my web, Gendo thought, Of his own free will.  Soon I might consider ensnaring the others.  All I need is suitable bait and rewards.


      Nabiki looked worriedly at Ranko.  She carefully arranged the cold cloth on her forehead.

      "She will survive," Rei assured her.

      "I just can't figure out why Raccoon and `Langley` aren't joking about him overheating his brain."

      "The structure of benzene appeared to Kepler in a dream," Rei told her, "They hope for such a revelation."

      "I guess."  Nabiki hadn't thought Ranma could actually think so hard he'd faint.  Despite the opinions of some in Nerima, she thought.

      The hard stare he'd been giving the drawings on the frameworks had frightened her.  Then he sat up so suddenly, with a look of comprehension on his face, then keeled over.

      "So."  Asuka stuck her head in the room, "Has he recovered from his epiphany?"

      "No."

      "We shouldn't have been pushing him so hard," Asuka admitted.

      Nabiki stood up to confront her, "Why!?  Because his brain couldn't take it?  Because he's not a super-genius like you?"

      "Oh good," Asuka said sarcastically, "You're going to give yourself a stroke too."

      Nabiki's shoulders slumped, "I'm sorry."

      "You `martial artists`, who solve the world's problems with your fists, forget thinking takes a lot of effort and energy too, and it is possible to think yourself into fainting or a stroke.  That's not me being mean, that's a fact.  For all his physical durability, I doubt he's thought that hard before in his life."

      "So you think he'll recover?" Nabiki glanced back at him.

      "Probably just fainted," Asuka said, "Like gripping something until you choke off all the blood going to your hand, and put it to sleep."

      Nabiki wasn't exactly thrilled with Asuka's explanation.

      "Since he's a she, why don't you let Raccoon in, to take a look at her, while you work on the AT field stuff.  Raccoon understands it, you don't.  Besides, the truck's here.  You think you're so smart, you're in charge of the loading and unloading."

      Nabiki reluctantly agreed.  She wasn't sure what Asuka said to Raccoon as he headed in, but the nod she got seemed a lot more purposeful than personal.


Epiphany or Epitaph

      Gendo had been expecting the summons to a conference with SEELE.  The monoliths were there, indicating the real members rather than their front men.  Gendo saw each of the 15 monoliths softly glowing in the darkened room.  The fact that SEELE 01, always Kehl, was having difficulty keeping the meeting on track, and that there were no comments from SEELE 03, 06 and 11, convinced Gendo that much more was going on than they wanted him to know.

      Which one of you three got squashed, Gendo wondered, And where are the other two.  By the panic in the rest, Kehl should be ruling with an iron fist.  Instead he's desperate, Gendo analyzed as he listened to the crosstalk, sorted out exactly who was arguing with whom.  From that, he could analyze what the arguments were really about.  So, Kehl, one murdered, two go renegade, your latest operation goes sour.  Do you know we captured three of your operatives? Gendo wondered as he sat patiently, enjoying every moment of the maelstrom.

      "Ikari," Kehl finally had to shout over all the others, "We will require heightened vigilance from you and your organization for the foreseeable future."

      So you do have renegades, Gendo thought, he nodded, "Of course.  Is there anything in particular to watch out for?"  That should set a cat among the pigeons, Gendo thought, keeping a straight face.

      After several long moments of argument, Kehl finally got control of the meeting again, "There is nothing specific you need to know."  The images of the monoliths faded.  Gendo stood, stretched and headed out.  He was surprised that Fuyutsuki was waiting for him.

      "There is another, complication," Fuyutsuki said, he seemed to be both frustrated and smiling.  "It will definitely simplify some things, and seriously complicate others."

      Gendo nodded, "My office."

      The pair headed off in silence.


      "Not there!" Asuka complained, as she saw where Nabiki was directing the cargo in Misato's apartment.

      "You said I could be in charge," Nabiki complained back.  She remembered the seeming hours of standing around while Asuka and Misato argued about what would be in the apartment and what would be elsewhere.

      "Fine, be in charge," Asuka countered, "But why are you sticking Spineless in the closet?  I'm not ever coming back here."

      I hate it when she's right, Nabiki thought.  "Okay, move the bed in there!"  She then jumped out of the way as Rei picked up the entire bed and threaded it through the door.  How strong is that girl? Nabiki wondered.

      "We should have gotten more help," Shinji said as he dropped off another load of boxes.

      "And had Kensuke mooning about how marvelous being in Katsuragi's apartment was?"  Raccoon dropped off his stack of boxes.  "I would have had to throw him out the window.  No offense, but if I'm never here again, it'll be too soon."

      "I think it's kind of nice," Shinji said.

      "You're young, you're naive, you didn't see what Langley and I did, nor do you remember her trying to poison us before she tried to burn the place down around our ears."

      "I get the message," Shinji mumbled.

      "Then there was the time . . . "  The two boys and their guards walked out.

      "SHUT UP!"  Nabiki and Asuka heard Shinji yell in the corridor outside.

      "I think he irritates people on purpose," Asuka confided as she helped Rei set the bed in place.

      "Which one?" Nabiki asked as she collected a couple of boxes.

      "Good point," Asuka agreed, then started hanging up Shinji's clothes.  "Well, we know what to get him for his birthday," Asuka told the other two.

      "Birthday?" Rei asked.

      "The anniversary of your birth, it's a celebration like the Saturnalia, 'Congratulations you aren't dead yet!'"

      "A reason to celebrate," Rei agreed.

      "What do we get him?" Nabiki asked as she pulled the empties out, and replaced them with full boxes.

      "Some decent clothes, these are pathetic!" Asuka insisted, "Wondergirl's too embarrassed to admit it, but she likes the way he dresses, so we'll need to take her."

      "It is the thought that counts," Rei added.

      "Do me a favor," Asuka said, "Tell me Bartlett's Quotations haven't been translated into Japanese."

      "What's Bartlett's Quotations?" Nabiki asked.

      Asuka shook her head.


      Ranma was used to weird dreams, that's all he'd been having for the past months.  Even when he was just talking to another person, it had a surreal element.

      This was no different, five flames of different colors danced and wove around each other.  A tiny blue-white light orbited around it.  The circle it followed was flattened out.  Asuka told me what that was called! he thought, but he couldn't remember the name.  The dance repeated as the orbit did.  He reached out and tugged on the invisible string that defined the orbit.  The dance was different, but it stayed consistent with the orbit.

      He couldn't see his hands or feet, but he felt himself moving along with the dancing flames.  Two hands, two feet and his center, all moving along with the flames.  He would adjust the orbit, and `feel` how the necessary patterns would change.

      What frustrated him was that he couldn't adjust the orbit much beyond a narrow arc that would be in front of him.

      "So," he heard his own voice, "If it's directly in front of me, within a certain range . . . I can hit it.  Then I let my AT field take on the shape of it's AT field - "  He instantly saw a possible flaw, "Would it travel through them?  Or would it be at their center, then on their outside?  I FORGOT TO ASK!" he shouted his lament.

      Then he realized one other thing, "I can bet Raccoon and Asuka are going to be really happy about me asking about different angles, left, right, behind, above and below," he sighed, "Too bad there're no machines to turn math into pictures.  That's what I really need."


      Asuka slammed the refrigerator door and shook her head in disgust.  "She still has some of the food we made for her on the 31st.  Some of her beer cans are actually rusty!" Asuka told the other pilots in Misato's apartment, "No wonder she's been acting weird.  Heavy metal poisoning."

      "Dump the rusty beer," Ice Princess told her, "Go with Carter-san to get some replacements."

      "You can't get decent beer in Japan," Asuka replied.  The idea of anyone drinking the swill Misato liked made her cringe.  She wouldn't have used it to cook sausages in.

      "Go to the PX, they've got a wider selection," Raccoon suggested, as he and Spineless exited the bathroom.  The two looked like they'd just taken on Horseface in hand-to-hand, with predictable results.  "Cleaning up that mess is your punishment for standing up to your dad."

      Spineless's frown and glare were priceless.

      "You expect me to buy beer for you?" Carter asked.

      "No, for the Captain," Wondergirl told her, "They will reimburse you."

      "I never agreed to that!" Ice Princess complained.

      "No one asked you," Asuka shot back, "Let's go."

      "You'd better," Tomiyo added, "Or she'll just steal the jeep."

      Asuka waited for Carter, she understood why the guards hadn't helped them unload or carry.  With all the weird stuff going on lately, she would have loved to have her own gun back.  The pair headed down the stairs.  She could understand why Spineless wanted to move back in with Misato.  She wouldn't have wanted to be a boy living with Horseface, he was always one step short of picking a fight with other boys.  She knew it was typical, but neither Spineless nor Raccoon did it.  Because with both of them, Asuka thought, Once the fight really began, you'd have to kill'em to get them to quit.  Horseface doesn't realize that.  He still thinks fighting's a game.  She sighed, she didn't mind working with Raccoon on those kind of projects, like the AT field.  It worried her that they seemed to be doing the first work on it at all.  How would they test it? Asuka reminded herself as she climbed into the jeep.  Without Raccoon's field, all my brilliance would just be theories, Asuka thought, then grinned, Raccoon wanted a fait accompli, now we've got one.  I can't wait to see `Rit-chan` and ole Ikari when we tell them about this.


      The pair met in a secreted area beneath the ground.  The large number of celebrants disguised them.  No one could call this artificial cavern poorly lit.  Fires, from single candles, to the three huge bonfires at the center, provided ample illumination.  They watched as some devotees leapt over the flames to show their contempt for the danger.  The smell of burnt hair and flesh filled the air as others held hands and feet in the fires.

      "How soon?" one of the pair who watched, asked the other hooded men beside him.

      "Two days," the man told the shadowed figure, "The aviation gasoline is the last."

      "Can our brethren wait two days?" the figure asked.

      "Even now we show our devotions," the man indicated the men dragging the screaming, struggling figures forward.  "No more of Kehl's foolish caution, we strike now."

      Another figure wearing a mask like a sun and a robe with yellow and orange streamers approached.  No one paid attention to the victims' pleas while they chained them in place.

      The robed priest spoke words that were ancient when the world was still a molten ball.  As he finished his entreaties, he stepped back.

      The victims looked around in terror, as the revelers stepped forward.  All could feel it permeating the room.  The air becoming hot and thick, the feeling of hunger from the fires.  The victims screamed in terror, the revelers in joy.  One of the victims brightened, light shining out of his eyes, from his screaming mouth.  Fire poured out from him as it consumed him from within.  Some of the other sacrifices shared the same fate, others were taken by the Fire Vampires that had manifested through the first victims.

      "How beautiful," the priest crooned, he reached out, let a tendril scorch his flesh.  The rest of the `congregation` did likewise.

      The pair withdrew a short distance, "They will serve, the plan is sound."

      "Two days - ?"

      "We must move quickly.  Besides, what can Ikari do in just two days?  Kehl will tell him nothing, that means he'll have to guess.  So many forgotten men and women, no one will notice if we take lightly, from the most desperate."

      "Agreed.  Did you ever see it?  The firestorms?  LeMay achieved more than any of us ever could, whole cities made over as seas of fire.  Rivers, ground stripped to the soil for a hundred yards were no barrier."

      "Dresden, the Nazis and their pitiful ovens.  The Allies showed them what a real fire could do.  We should have realized this years ago, no wonder we have displeased the gods."

      "We will regain their favor, an entire city of sacrifices consecrated to them.  Our reward will be great."

      "Agreed.  Do we really have to wait two days?"

      Their laughter drown out the last screams of the victims.


      "Come on!" Misato urged the guests in her apartment, "Drink up!"

      "So, Rit-chan," Kaji asked as he maneuvered around the embarrassed pilots, "How many more beers before she does a striptease."

      Ritsuko considered, "With what she's wearing right now, I think we're past that mark."

      "What's wrong with you two?" Misato confronted her friends, "It's a celebration!"

      "Oh, we're celebrating."  Ritsuko looked at the pilots, who were clearly not pleased by the outcome.  Their guards weren't sure who they were guarding the kids from, Misato or something else.

      "Not everybody's here!" Misato insisted.  "Where's . . . ?"  She lurched a bit as she searched through the room.

      "Where are Davis and Saotome?" Kaji asked.

      "Davis said something about having to see a man about a horse," Ritsuko shrugged.

      The pair watched Misato `dance` with Maya, the two of them sort of spinning around a common center, until Maya became too dizzy to stand.


      "So," Asuka sidled up behind Spineless and Wondergirl, she'd been staying away from both Misato and Kaji, simply observing them.  "Was this what you had in mind?"

      "Dinner - party," Spineless said, shrugged.

      None of the food had gotten prepared.  Only by the most strenuous effort, had she and the others managed to warm up the long frozen leftovers.

      Considering the amount of beer everyone is having, a tenderized manhole cover would be haute cuisine, she thought sadly, I don't miss this one bit.  She liked parties, but this had too desperate an air.  The `adults` were having fun, not as if there were no tomorrow, but as if they had to prove they knew how.  So far only Maya and Ritsuko have managed to prove it.

      "You should have suggested a poker game," Ice Princess brought them some of the remaining food.  She helped herself as she served them.  "Call me an old stick in the mud - "

      "Very well," Wondergirl said, then smiled at Spineless.

      "As I was saying," Ice Princess continued, "At least with a poker game, we'd be getting some dividend for this."

      "STRIP POKER!" Misato announced, to the entire prefecture, "Na-breeki wansa play STRIP POKER!"

      Ice Princess hung her head, "When am I going to learn?"

      Misato dragged the pilots to the table.  The guards merely stood, and glared at anyone who suggested they participate.


      "This is nuts!" Ranko told Raccoon, It would have been better if he just laughed at me, Ranko thought as they pair walked through the corridors of NERV towards the command deck.

      "We're gonna get in trouble," Ranko insisted.

      "Why?" Raccoon asked, "We're allowed here, we've got security clearances, our guards would tell us if we were headed into an area we weren't supposed to be in."

      "But at night?" Ranko protested.

      "What, you have to be up early for school?" Raccoon asked, then tousled her hair.  "I came here a few weeks ago.  Technically, the pilots are supposed to be trained as watch officers, what Maya does when the EVAs are out there.  Getting you familiar with the equipment won't get you into trouble.  Frankly, I did a few things the regular watch officers can't.  Considering your sync rate is even higher than mine, you ought to be even more impressive."

      "Oh, so I shouldn't be scared to death if Rit-chan or ole' Stoneface catches us?" Ranko asked.

      "Only if he heard that new nickname you've got for him," Raccoon warned.

      Ranko glanced around, rumor had it that ole Stoneface wired the entire base for sound.  She could just imagine Gendo stepping out like some villain from a movie, glaring maniacally, and walking away.

      They arrived on the command deck without incident.

      "Hey you two," Raccoon hailed a long-haired Japanese guy and an unhappy looking American officer.

      "Look time no see," the Japanese guy said in English.

      "We really need to concentrate on our work," the American said in a whiney voice, in Japanese.

      That officer's hair is shorter than mine! Ranko realized, And my English is better that the other guy's.

      "Just showing Ranko how the Magi and the sensory systems work," Raccoon told them, "Considering I could treat this whole building as if it was glass, I wondered what Ranko can do."

      "Ran - ma," the American insisted, "Her name's Ranma."

      "Isn't that his name's Ranma, after all if Ranko and Ranma were . . . "

      Ranko tuned out Raccoon's argument, it was clear to her why both of these two were working the night shift.  The Japanese guy looked like he was having nervous tics while he was sleeping, the other was an officious ass.

      "So, Aoba-san, when are you actually going to buy a guitar?" Raccoon asked, after reducing the other officer to a shivering, quivering blob of flesh.

      Ranko could sympathize, talking with Raccoon had that effect, although she rarely argued with him, for that very reason.

      "When I can go without eating for a month," the Japanese, Aoba responded.

      "Good grief, you can buy a decent one for around 10 bucks!" Raccoon replied.

      Aoba looked at his comrade, Ranko hadn't figured out if it was a really ugly man, or a really, really ugly woman.  "At the risk of being reduced to that . . . we aren't in America."

      "The PX, is in Japan, I can - " Raccoon was interrupted by a $10 bill appearing in his hand.  "Six or twelve string?"  Another $10 bill.

      "One of each, I have $50 saved, I thought I'd need another 60 more," Aoba said.

      "You want a banjo too?" Raccoon asked.

      Aoba shook his head.  "Hey, you brought your own A10 Nerve Clips, those are the ones from the EVAs?"

      "Yep," Ranko told him.

      "Good, we won't have to dial them in."  Aoba took the end of the cord and fitted it into the console.  "That's what we're looking at."

      The idea of a glass building didn't describe it.  Ranko looked around at the NERV campus, the city of Tokyo and beyond.  Up, down, side to side.  She could see the building and the people around her, but she could see through them as well.

      "This is wild!" Ranko said.

      "She must be having the same effect you did," Aoba said, "We only see a little bit, what we concentrate on.  The picture's really fuzzy, and gray.  But looking at Angels, not being able to clearly see them isn't a problem."

      "It's all in color," Ranko said, she staggered back and grabbed the chair as Misa-chan's apartment building became solid and rushed up at her.

      "Focusing on something," Raccoon told her, "The machine magnifies it.  You'll get used to it."

      "Can you - " Ranko gulped, "See through people's - clothes?"

      "Hyuga never could," Aoba said, "Looking at Captain Katsuragi's apartment?"

      "I thought they were playing cards, but I - "  Ranko looked away, looking at the ships in the harbor, then towards the mountains to the west.  "I can't see that way."

      "Sensor coverage over the mountains is pretty poor.  As we make more packages, we install them," Aoba explained, "That's why the sand table and the Observer Corp.  Fortunately our enemies aren't smart enough to come at us from the west, instead of straight through the harbor.  Or over the hills to the north and south."

      Raccoon had plugged in his nerve clip, "There are also some additional things, take a look at the harbor."

      Ranko did.  Steadied herself as it zoomed towards her.  She stared at the brightly colored people moving through the buildings.  "What am I looking at?"

      "That's the heat traces, there's something that realizes there isn't enough light, so it goes looking for other parts of the spectrum.  Infrared and Ultraviolet seem to be its first choices.  I wish we could get x-ray and gamma ray," Raccoon explained.

      Ranko sat down and looked around, amazed at the vistas this device opened.  She also saw the little pictures and keyboards that appeared in front of the two watch officers, and the much larger one that appeared in front of Raccoon.  She could zoom in and see the hiragana characters on the keyboards the watch officers were using, but the keys on Raccoon's keyboard baffled her, they were blank.  The pattern was like a starfish, a large central button and five legs of five buttons each stretching straight out from the center.  The other difference was that Aoba and the other one typed at their keyboards.  Raccoon's screen just had the patterns of dots appear, Raccoon sat back with his eyes closed.

      "Hey Raccoon - " Ranko began.

      A little window with the person in the middle of it appeared.  Raccoon's image shushed her, "Don't disturb them, we can talk just like in the EVAs."

      "What are you trying to hide?" Ranko sent to Raccoon.

      "The system is a lot more complicated than they think," Raccoon explained, "You mentioned that you wanted to convert the math to pictures, the systems are available.  I'd rather not let them know what we're working on, until everybody can do it."

      "Oh," Ranko said.  She wasn't sure why the keyboard, the weird characters on the screen, and Raccoon not having to touch either of them worried her so much.  Those characters aren't like any writing I ever saw, not that I'm the language expert Raccoon is, Ranko admitted to herself.

      She looked around again, trying to see the room she was in, and the areas around her at the same time.  She tried not to stare at Raccoon's guard, she still didn't know the man's name, or what his voice sounded like.  She wondered why Raccoon had been saddled with someone who could give Rei lessons in non-communication.

      The screen appearing in front of her surprised her.  A white dot in the center and the same five, colored, intertwined flames off to one side.  Ranko stared at it.

      Another window with Raccoon's image appeared to one side, "Is that what you had in mind?  Touch the white dot and move it to where you want it, you can expand it by holding one corner with a finger and dragging with another."

      "You came up with this so fast?"  Ranko reached out and moved the dot with her finger.

      "No, there was already a set of instructions to do that, I just had to find it," Raccoon's little image admitted, "Then plug in the data.  The view is actually three dimensional.  The center is your center, looking deeper is you looking forward.  So any movement or change is from your point-of view."

      Ranko moved the little dot around, and watched the flames twist and change.  She sketched out the square that was typical of an AT field.  "How big is it?  Relatively.  One meter to one centimeter, or what?"

      "There isn't a scale, besides the obvious, twice as far is twice the distance.  This isn't an exact duplicate, just to give you a relative idea.  It is accurate though."

      Ranko nodded, glanced over at Raccoon.  He seemed to be looking at more of those patterns of dots, suddenly a bunch of them changed color and a duplicate of those appeared in another place on the screen, with another group of the dots.  She thought he was collecting important bits to read through separately.


The Cost of Victory

      Asuka was glad they'd managed to escape before Misato lost too many clothes.  She idly wondered why Kaji had agreed to play cards, and especially why when it was clear Ice Princess was winning most of the hands.

      She wasn't happy being alone in the apartment, but it didn't prevent her from getting to bed.  Her pistol was with her in the bathroom, and then under her pillow, if something nasty visited.  She'd been tempted to invite Wondergirl to stay over.  Better to fight fire with fire.

      Not that she was lonely!  But considering what was waiting outside the apartment last night, and what had attacked Wondergirl's place, Asuka didn't like the idea of any of the pilots being alone.

      She'd decided she wasn't going to spend the entire night awake, waiting for Raccoon and Sammi to return.  She also wanted to see the effect that Spineless being back in Misato's apartment had on her.

      Finding herself in the Romanesque banquet hall with Misato trapped in the central pillar, again, disgusted her.  She wasn't disgusted that nobody seemed to have any shame, inhibitions . . . or taste, in whom they were doing what with, but that Misato had placed herself as a non-participatory element who controlled things.  Misato couldn't enjoy the fun everyone else was having, but she could disrupt everyone else's good time at will.  It infuriated Asuka, so it wasn't pity that moved Asuka, but disgust at her selfishness.

      "Enough of this."  Asuka put her foot on a sobbing Misato's behind, and shoved her right through the surface of the pillar.  Misato's sudden appearance didn't affect anyone's activity, although everyone did look at her for a moment.  "You want a nightmare," Asuka asked Misato, as she walked past Misato to the banquet table.  Asuka selected a large tureen of thick lobster bisque that didn't seem too hot, and a glass drum filled with rolls.

      Misato seemed terrified of Asuka, as the pilot walked back to her, trying to get back inside the pillar to get away from her.  Asuka had prevented that from happening by changing the details of the dream.  Asuka yanked open the front of Misato's shirt, and poured the entire tureen of slightly-warm, very greasy soup through the stretched collar.  Misato stared at Asuka in a mix of terror and rage.

      Good, Asuka thought, And I thought Spineless was gutless.  Asuka picked up one of the rolls, selected Horseface as a target.  "FOOD FIGHT!"  The roll struck Horseface, distracting him from the attentions Ice Princess was lavishing on him.  A handful of peeled grapes came sailing back in reply, but Asuka was safely within the pillar, leaving Misato as the only target.

      Asuka watched quietly as the fight became general.  Unseen servants refilled the various containers, Asuka guessed that Misato had intended the servants to disconnect the debauchers from any concerns about some dainty running out.  Now it gave them an unlimited supply of ammunition.  Asuka noted that the various participants favored specific ammunition, even if it hadn't been at hand when the battle began.

      Spineless throwing cream puffs seemed almost a cliche, except they were light, easily thrown with accuracy, and made a mess on impact.  Raccoon lobbed pomegranates to land near the targets, spraying them with pulp.  Misato was concentrating on pistachios, trading a handful of inaccurate shots for the precision shots most of the others were making.  Asuka did wonder how much of the missile choice was Misato's opinion of the person, rather than the choice that person would actually make.

      She chuckled at that, Ice Princess had dragged Horseface under a table and pulled the table cloth back down to conceal them.  She doubted they were fighting.

      Asuka sat back and watched the entire episode with some satisfaction.


      Ranko sat at the console in the headquarters, she glanced over and watched Raccoon select and collect more of the funny writing.  Ranko was drawing a line, complicated, jagged, that completely surrounded the center point.  Once that was done, she started expending the line along a vertical plane, and a horizontal plane, simultaneously.  She had to use all five fingers on one hand to do it.  She was proud of the manipulation, and the flexibility it required of her to do it.  She also could almost predict what the flames would do when the expansion took place.  Several hours of moving the things around had helped, so had the assumption that the colored flames were actually the paths taken in an elaborate kata by the hands, feet, and center.  She was very proud of herself for figuring all of that out. 

      As she released the dot to start it's work, the entire screen went blank, then vanished.  She looked over, she could only see the room, not any of the screens or anything beyond the walls.  The huge boxes that housed the Magi were all making sounds like dozens of shuffling feet.  Aoba and the other officer were checking things, Raccoon was looking around.  When his eyes fell on her, she wanted to run away.

      "Relax, it's happened before," Aoba told them, "Just not very often."  A moment later he reached out and started typing on a keyboard only he could see.

      Ranko concentrated on him, so she didn't have to meet Raccoon's eye.

      "We're back," Aoba sounded relieved.

      "I think having two pilots hooked up, probably isn't a good idea," Raccoon said carefully, staring at Ranko the whole time.

      "I think that's probably right," Aoba didn't sound any happier.

      Ranko tried to smile charmingly, the angry glares she got in reply reduced it to a sick-looking grin.

      "I'll have the guitars in a day or two," Raccoon told Aoba, finally looking away from Ranko.  He stood and disconnected his A10 nerve clip from the console.  Then he walked out without a backward glance.

      Ranko pulled her connection loose and rushed after him.  "Raccoon, Raccoon!  Raccoon, come on, don't be mad!"

      Raccoon neither slowed, nor turned, simply marching ahead, using his longer stride to force her to run occasionally to keep up.

      "I didn't mean it," Ranko urged him, "I don't even know what I did!"

      "Nor do I," Gendo stepped out in front of them, both pilots halted.  "I do intend to find out.  You and the others will meet in my office, with Dr. Akagi, tomorrow morning.  You will now return to your apartments and sleep."  Gendo walked off.

      "That - is why I am upset," Raccoon said, then headed towards the locker room at an even quicker pace.

      Ranko looked at Sammi, "What did I do?"

      "Shut down the defense center of NERV, and the whole world," Sammi told her, "Or he did, or both of you did."

      Ranko sighed, then walked slowly after Raccoon.


      Jeff woke in a brightly lit room, surrounded by elaborately robed men, meaning males, some were humans, some had the heads of rattlesnakes, Serpent men.  Several dragons lounged at the periphery of the light.  One in particular had silver scales, when she, and it was a she, didn't move, she looked like an ice sculpture.

      "Hi, Altara.  My first step to the Archchancellorship I take it?" Jeff asked.

      Her only movement now was a wry smile.

      He also noted the metal chair he was sitting in, it looked like a single crystal of hematite, silver, mirror bright.  It would flash red if anyone told a lie while seated on it, even a dragon couldn't obfuscate while in it.  He was rather proud he'd been able to make such a device.  It also told him he was still asleep in his bed in Sammi's apartment.  He wasn't the only one who could manipulate dreams.

      "What in the father's name were you thinking?" one of the Serpent men demanded.

      From his tone and his robes of the Camilenn Order, Jeff guessed he was the contact he'd met a few times before in the Waking World.

      "Sleeping, you'll have to be more specific.  It seems this is my week for interrogations."  Jeff hadn't minded providing Nabiki and Ranko the answers they sought, the only part that bothered him was that they weren't secure enough to ask the questions while he had all his faculties.  He'd only kept the secrets, to keep them from getting back to SEELE and Ikari.  Better he doesn't know all that I do, Jeff thought, His bosses keep him in the dark too.

      "The meeting you arranged!" the Serpent man insisted.

      "Went well did it?" Jeff's question elicited laughter from some of the others.  "The 'Why' should be obvious, someone's been mucking around with things.  Altach-Nacha wanted out of the game, but he doesn't care about anyone.  The Father of Serpents has never been hostile to humans, at least those who showed him a modicum of respect.  Arranging the meeting prevented a useless conflict, one that would have cost both sides."  Jeff's tone changed from explaining to thundering anger, "MAYBE YOU'VE FORGOTTEN MY MISSION, BUT I HAVE NOT!  Those chained souls weigh on me, as heavily as almost anyone else in this room."

      He calmed down, "If pointing out common cause and opening lines of communication is contrary to that mission, then why did neither participant object?" Jeff asked.

      "How many others are you working for?" one of the others, a human, asked.

      "I'm only working for my mission.  I started that long before I got any offers of help, and you all knew that, or should.  I'm supposed to give you all the secret details, then watch as you get scooped up by the Cthonians?  How many secrets did your predecessor give away before he died?"

      "You are here to answer our questions," the first Serpent Man reiterated.

      "Than ask questions that can be answered."  Jeff remembered what the creature wanted to be called, he already knew his name, but you didn't use that in Council.  "Ciril, you know why security is that way it is.  How long have you been working to this goal?  Ten centuries, a hundred?  I'm not claiming all the recent progress has been my doing, but I certainly have been removing many petty obstacles.  Having two groups on the same side not talking to each other is lunacy.  You told me yourself, you were wounded at Breed's Hill, two of your kids were wounded at Gettysburg, and one is buried there.  Considering what would have happened to you or them, if you'd been discovered . . . I would think you want to avoid a war with American military forces.  Hell, you didn't come over on the Mayflower, you were already here when the Amerinds arrived."

      "That isn't the point," Ciril ignored the chuckling of the dragons.

      "That's exactly the point," Jeff insisted, "I am not disloyal.  I just take a little wider view of things."

      "And if they ordered you to move against us?" Ciril asked.

      "The meeting was an effort to prevent that from happening.  I am well aware of the advantages and the costs of my divided loyalty.  I'd also remind you that you came to me, not the reverse."

      "That - thing - in your head, it still works?" Ciril sounded almost sad.

      "Oh yes . . . perfect memory, reduced need for sleep, everything as advertised.  As is seeing everyone around me as pawns to be moved around on a chessboard, and being able to look at a naked, pretty girl, and feel almost nothing."  Except what some Great Old One put there, Jeff didn't say.  He was glad the chair didn't give him away.  "You were correct, the price was hardly worth it.  But I didn't have a choice, did I?"

      Ciril didn't have anything to say.

      Altara did, "The meeting was very successful.  Your, Brother Jonathan, was quite reasonable in his requests.  The Father of Serpents also apprized him of your mission, goals, et cetera.  He was quite amused."

      "I'll bet he was," Jeff murmured, "Both of them."

      "Yes, 'The sharpest hammer in the shed'.  Something about the right tool for the right job."  Altara paused to let the chuckling of their colleagues die down.  The pause extended longer, everyone was looking around worriedly.

      The change in the atmosphere was palpable.  Mighty dragons and wizards of great dominion all looked around in fear.

      A deep, gravelly voice spoke, "I am not intruding, am I?"  The Scholarly Dragon's tone indicated that anyone who thought he was, would get a few moments to complete their last will and testament.

      "Would you cut it out?!" Jeff told him, "They were just asking legitimate questions."

      "No, I shan't.  Not when there is talk of your expulsion.  From your seat on the Order, from the Order itself, even from the Council as a whole."  The Dragon stared at all of them, "Reason enough for my presence, boy?"

      "Re - reason enough," Altara said, "But expulsion isn't death.  I myself has - have been, expelled."

      "The boy might not have thirty years to mend bridges and gather allies," the Dragon said, "Do you object to his methods . . . or his successes?"

      That, Jeff realized, Was the real nub of the problem.  There had been no serious progress on the `Great Work` for almost eight centuries.  Arguments that were old in Roman times had hamstrung the Council.

      The Camilenn's were a second-rate order, competent, but not one of the six `Upper` Orders.  Jeff had started making deals, 'I'll help you get the wand of Skymos if you let me read the Book of the Ages.'  A few others in the minor orders had begun cooperating.  Agreeing with Jeff's reasoning that it was better that another benefits, if I benefit more, rather than nothing ever getting done.  He'd collected allies and favors across all the orders.

      It had all come to a head when Jeff's web of alliances let the minor orders displace the `strongest` of the Upper orders.  From first among equals, to being given a `provisional` place out of tradition.  Nineteen of the minor orders had risen in power, not to that of the remaining five Upper orders, but too much to be discounted anymore.  Jeff had earned many allies, and a reputation as a dangerous and shrewd operator.  He had also gained many enemies, some personal, some professional.  But the Council was moving forward again, that was all he cared about.

      "So which is it?" the Dragon asked quietly.  Both he and Jeff realized the danger, when no one would meet their eyes.  "Very well," the Dragon said, "Ask what you need.  There are other places to protest this."


      Jeff sat just in front of the shoulder blades of the Dragon, as they flew through the realms of dreams.

      Other people's dreams, Jeff thought bitterly, Not mine anymore.

      "I can . . . " the Dragon rumbled.

      "No, thank you."  Jeff rested his chin on his knees, "I've seen enough death and destruction for one night."

      "Even if they do, throw you out I mean, that won't change anything," the Dragon assured him.

      "That's - not - what I'm worried about.  Have you ever wondered how we're supposed to accomplish this?  All of it?"

      "No," the Dragon rumbled a laugh, "That's been your job."

      "Oh, thank you," Jeff said quietly.

      "There is talk, about the end approaching," the Dragon said wearily, "They aren't talking about victory.  While your efforts have reduced casualties from what should have been friendly fire.  Our enemies have also woken from their self-imposed exile.  The chess master approach of the past centuries is failing.  They don't believe in your checkers approach, a single stroke can gain that victory."

      "I never said that," Jeff replied, "Only that we should quit playing there games."

      They flew on silently for a while, the Scholarly Dragon keeping the flight smooth.

      Jeff was not happy with the possibilities, the problems and the recent insights he'd gotten about their enemies.  There were simple solutions, which would drown the world in blood, Ours, theirs, and a lot of innocents caught in the crossfire.  Letting the whole world die just to win is not an option.

      "I have also been investigating, talking to some others, including Altach-Nacha.  Separated from your efforts of course."

      "They can't help but connect them it seems," Jeff replied, "Langley at least sees the truth."

      "Langley is unusually perceptive, and she was there," the Dragon replied, "Is it true they've found the Chosen One?"

      "They think so."

      "You aren't sure?" the Dragon asked, "You always have doubts."

      "I've never believed that the Chosen One would save us.  So, of course they make it my job to provide training and protection.  I wish it were Shinji or Rei, it would make my job a lot easier."


Sirdar or Steersman

June 13, 1947

      Gendo knew the pilots, their guards, and some of the senior staff had been assembled in his office.  He knew if he made them wait, it would increase tension, make them more likely to give away what they actually knew.  He didn't like the idea that the pilots had been working on something that hadn't gone through the correct channels.  Miss Langley's Sonic Glaives were bad enough, but this might have been something even worse.

      What he saw as he entered his office shocked him, again, the pilots had made a shambles of his careful plans.

      "What the Hell did you think you were doing!?" Ritsuko shouted at Ranma and Davis as she stood over them.  Both boys cowered, and their guards seemed ready to take action.

      "I made a mistake, I underestimated how clever Ranko could be," Davis admitted.  That revelation stunned everyone.

      At least until Gendo could take control of the situation.  "Dr. Akagi sit down," Gendo told them as he took his seat behind his desk, "We will get to the bottom of this."

      "I hope I'm not intruding?" Admiral Simson, and his lapdog Captain Ramsey strode in.

      "Of course not," Gendo said, while inwardly fuming.  "What exactly were you doing with the Magi?  Davis-san, I want to hear from Saotome, you keep silent."

      He watched Ranma squirm a little under his gaze.  The boy evidently expected the others to provide cover for him.

      "We were working on the AT fields," Ranma said, staring at the floor.

      Even though Gendo knew to expect that, simply hearing it staggered him.

      Simson was not as controlled, "How?  You were no where near the EVAs."

      "Raccoon and Asuka figured out how to manipulate them," Ranma admitted, glancing side to side at the others, as if expecting them to suddenly speak up and cover for him.

      "Wait a moment, manipulate the AT fields?" Ramsey interjected, "I thought they were just up and down walls."  He stared at Gendo, "That's what our briefing said."

      "The briefing was accurate," Gendo replied calmly, glad Ramsey was unintentionally being his stalking horse, "Saotome-san, please continue.  I want to know why the briefing is no longer accurate."

      "What briefing?" Ranma asked, again glancing around.

      "Since Roku-kun and I can generate an AT field without EVAs," Rei said, "We could test our theories."

      It was all Gendo could do not to shout, he knew about Rei's and Davis's fields, but he also knew he was the only one who did.  Now she'd told everyone.  Is this a rebellion on her part? Gendo thought desperately, Or an extension of my order to Saotome?

      "When did this happen?" Ritsuko demanded.

      "Why didn't you tell us?" Misato added.

      "You had no need to know," Davis replied, "Only Langley can control the field, and then only in her EVA.  Once we had it all figured out, we were going to tell you."  Then he stared at Gendo, "Besides, Mr. Camber must have told you everything he saw.  Funny, I thought he was working for the U.S. Navy."

      Davis's guard shifted uncomfortably, both from the revelation and from the Admiral's gaze.  Gendo was disinclined to help him.

      "This can't be possible," Misato said.

      Ah, good, deny what's right in front of you, Gendo hid a smile.  Then Asuka stood up, stepping in front of Davis, then stepped up on something unseen.  She stood there suspended about 30 centimeters off the ground, then stepped down.

      "Yes, impossible, like the Sonic Glaives.  If you didn't invent it, it doesn't exist, and never will."  Asuka retook her seat.

      "The point of the meeting was discussing what you two did to the Magi," Ritsuko said angrily.

      Gendo couldn't guess whether she was more angry at the deception, or the possible damage to the computer.

      "I think we'd like to find out more about this AT field business," Simson said, "How you've been working on it, what you hoped to accomplish . . . the effect it has on the EVAs' combat capabilities.  I think that's a little more important that the computing engine shutting down and restarting."


      Hiroko looked at Kensuke and several other members of the photography club, who had collected outside Toji's apartment building.  Since the destruction of the school, their source of free photo developing chemicals had vanished.  Toji had lent them the closet his sister had used as a dark room, the use of which, and the supplies of chemicals, was their pay as 'eyes and ears'.  They were currently trying to make good.

      "Are you sure about this?" Hiroko asked.

      "Pictures don't lie," Kensuke pointed to the men photographing the ships, and the pumping stations.  "That says bunker fuel.  That was one of a dozen tankers.  There's enough fuel somewhere to run the whole American Pacific fleet for a year."

      "Why would someone be interested in that?" Hiroko asked, "Could they steal it and sell it?  Or could they burn it?"

      "No, bunker fuel is like tar.  You could extinguish a match in it.  Unless they have some special process to turn it into gasoline or propane, they have no reason to steal it.  Only ships use bunker fuel," Kensuke assured her.

      "So, you're the military expert," Hiroko said, "Why would someone be taking pictures of that?  Unless they were some ship enthusiast, or fascinated by pumping stations."

      "Those aren't all."  Kensuke reached behind him, another club member handed him several more pictures.  "We also took these."

      They were again, pictures of people taking pictures.  Hiroko noticed some of the people taking pictures of different things at different times were wearing exactly same clothes.  That implied concerted action, the same people acting to a plan.

      "You've mapped these," she tried to sound as controlled as the Boss would.  Inside, her guts were doing flips.  She didn't need Raccoon's chemistry to know what bunker fuel storage, a paint factory, the Navy's new welding shop, and a huge propane storage all had in common.

      The map showed all these locations clustered around the harbor.  Near where the Coral Sea, Alaska and Hawaii were docked.  "They destroy those ships, the EVAs aren't going anywhere, unless they walk."

      "That's what I thought," Kensuke admitted, "I was hoping I was paranoid."

      "That's what we pay you for."  Hiroko opened the satchel she carried.  She could see the ill-disguised greed on some of the faces, others waited for her to tell Toji they could use the darkroom.  She extracted, not the bag of coins, but a wad of bills.  Several of the 'eyes and ears' looked ready to faint.  "Keep me apprized," she said sternly as she gave each one a single, crisp $1 bill.  She knew the pilots earned five times that in a single day.  But for the rest of them, that was a couple days' wages for their parents.  Her talk with Rei let Hiroko realize why the Navy paid the pilots such an exorbitant amount, NERV expected them to die. She did wonder who would get their back-pay if they did die.

      Hiroko turned to Toji, who'd been lounging a short distance away, "Give them what they need, I'm going to steal somebody's bicycle," she said as she collected the map and the photos, "The Navy has to know about this, right now."


      Gendo had managed to keep his composure during the entire interview, so far.  The revelation of how far the pilots had gotten in their investigations, before he became aware of it at all, disturbed him.  That even his spy had ferreted out so little of all they had discovered, disturbed him even more.  It did explain what Rei had been trying to explain for the past few days.  She couldn't break a confidence to them, or me, he thought, I'll have to correct her misconception about her loyalties.

      Asuka had revealed her successful use of the new system in combat.  Gendo also noted that Simson didn't seem surprised that Davis and Rei could manifest an AT field.  He realized he'd underestimated the man.  The idea that they might create fields of various shapes and sizes made the capture of one of their enemies a possibility again.

      "Can we at least get back to why and how you shut down the Magi?" Ritsuko asked Davis.

      Saotome's initial explanation had even managed to confuse Gendo, while the pilots had comprehended most of it.

      "Ranko mentioned that if there was a way to turn math into pictures, she might be able to teach Ranma how to use the field," Davis explained.

      "Ranma and Ranko are the same person," Misato blurted out.

      Gendo noted Saotome covered his face, Probably trying to keep from laughing.

      "Anyway, there is such a device built into the Magi, that's how the keyboards and screens were set up," Davis's statement got Gendo's and Dr. Akagi's full attention.

      "How did you find that out?" Ritsuko asked.

      "There's a huge file of notes on the system, all in Japanese," Davis explained, "How it was set-up, repair procedures, the internal tools it uses, that kind of thing."

      Gendo and Ritsuko glanced at each other, they had wondered where Naoko had hidden all her notes.  They would get Davis to lead them to that file.

      "It is interesting that the system used to detect the Angels, was originally used for detecting seismic events."

      "That's beside the point," Simson said.

      "We will want to know later, all of what you found."  Gendo exchanged a glance with Dr. Akagi.

      "Next time," Davis said, "When someone steals Elder Thing technology, they should at least steal a manual."

      "What!"

      Gendo wasn't sure which of all the people yelped.

      "It's not like we built the first EVAs either," Davis added, "They were all dug up."

      Saotome and Shinji were staring, Rei and Tendo were quiet.

      So some knew, and some didn't, Gendo thought, "Can we get back to the induced failure of the Magi system?"

      "Well I set up the matrix to represent the calculations and a visual image to show Ranko how it looked."

      "All I did was draw a line, then extended it into horizontal and vertical planes," Saotome complained, "What?  There's nothing wrong with what I said."

      "Did the line overlap?" Asuka asked.

      "Of course not.  It just sort of spiraled around."

      Davis and Asuka covered their faces.  Gendo heard a comment about 'ingenuous fools' from someone.

      "The overlap would result in a drastic discontinuity in phase space," Ritsuko explained, "The mathematical model couldn't resolve discontinuity.  The limits would approach zero and negative infinity simultaneously."

      Gendo doubted Saotome had the faintest idea what she meant.

      "Math go boom," Tendo said.

      That everyone understood and agreed with.

      "You will show me exactly what you did," Ritsuko told them, "Both of you."

      Neither boy was inclined to argue.


      Ranma walked towards the command deck.  "What did I do wrong?" he complained, "You should have told me something like that could have happened, Raccoon."

      "I never expected Ranko would decide to doodle, and then do that calculation," Raccoon replied.

      You're probably mad that you lost all the dots you were collecting, Ranma thought, but he knew enough not to say that.  Raccoon was mad enough he'd probably cut him in half if he mentioned it.  Raccoon was keeping secrets from Gendo.  Ranma didn't trust Gendo either.

      Ranma also wished he could figure out exactly what Raccoon was looking at, and hiding.  Evidently it took a pilot to access the full capabilities of the Magi.  If I know Rit-chan, Ranma shuddered at the thought, She'll chain him in a chair until he shows her absolutely everything she wants to know or even thinks she wants to know.  Then it will be my turn.  Ranma actually wouldn't have minded if Rit-chan and Stoneface had locked him in an EVA to practice the AT field.

      "You sit here," Rit-chan pointed Ranma at a chair, "Plug in, but DO NOT touch anything!"

      "You, young man," she told Raccoon as she dragged him to a particular station, "Plug in here, and bring up those files."

      "As you wish."  Raccoon put on the nerve clip and Japanese text began scrolling across the main screen.

      Ranma tried to read it, but he hadn't the faintest idea what half of it meant.  He waited until it was his turn.


      "Miss Ayami, am I pleased to see you?" Admiral Simson asked as he entered his office.  He had been more than a little boggled by some of the revelations.  He'd already resolved to do a little poking around the Magi himself.

      "That depends," the girl told him as she laid out the photos on his desk, "If knowing about this in advance is good news."

      Simson looked over the photos, and the similar figures in several of the pictures.  "Mr. Ramsey, please get in here, now," he said into the intercom.  Then he turned his attention to Hiroko.  "Where did you get these?"

      She set a map out in front of him.  She had numbered the pictures, to correspond to the spots on the map.  "Fire has always been a real cultural phobia for my people.  It would seem good cover for their real targets."  She pointed to the mooring points of the capital ships of Task Force 7N.

      While that threat chilled the Admiral, he also knew it could serve as a diversion for any of a hundred targets.

      Ramsey entered.

      "I think we need to turn out the Marines," Simson told Ramsey as they examined the evidence in front of them.


Truth's Keen Lancet

      Ranma learned one of the side-effects of sitting while Rit-chan interrogated someone else while awaiting a similar fate.  Ranma had to sit and listen to her drawing ideas out of Raccoon, like pulling threads out of a piece of cloth.  It got him thinking.  The idea he was at least a murderer was bad enough.  But there were other things.  Little pieces of data that only Rit-chan's persistent `mining` of Raccoon's knowledge brought up.  Asuka's and Raccoon's descriptions of the other world had some differences, but a huge number of similarities.  He'd realized, the feeling of correctness caused by their descriptions, were similar to the odd sense of rightness that occurred on other occasions, when he felt certain behaviors or actions were `typical` of him or weren't.

      However, this time it wasn't something inside he was comparing with something outside.  He was comparing two things he'd heard, two things that he now distinctly remembered.  The feelings of anger and betrayal that accompanied the recollection were not new either.  Although their intended target definitely was.

      Ranma burst into the girls' room and angrily faced Nab-chan . . . Nabiki, "You lied to me," Ranma bitterly accused, "You knew the whole thing, you are from my home, wherever, or whenever it is!"

      Nabiki had the smarts not to deny it, "How did you come to that conclusion?"

      "On the approach to San Diego, you told me exactly what the situation was back home.  Your 'mysterious stranger' affianced to your sister, which was exactly what Raccoon and Asuka described too.  Just how stupid do you think I am?  That I wouldn't figure it all out?  That you'd be able to keep lying to me and I'd never know?"

      "I didn't lie!" Nabiki countered, "You died.  You blew yourself up, and all you left was a hole in the concrete!  Should I have told you all that, and had you rush off back there?!"

      "You should have told me," Ranma insisted, he forced his anger down, "Let me have a choice in the matter, instead of deciding everything for me!"

      "And what would you have done?  Run back there?  To let them destroy you - again - I suppose because honor and duty demanded it?" Nabiki was shouting at him.

      "It would have been my choice!" Ranma shouted back, he felt like hitting her, but he wouldn't.  She may have betrayed me, but I won't betray myself! he thought.

      "You don't have the right to kill yourself, when so many people are counting on you.  So, I didn't give you a choice!"

      "Are you going to say you did it, because your love," he spat the word, "Well save it!  If you really cared about how I felt, you wouldn't have hidden the truth."

      "THE TRUTH!" she exclaimed, she pushed him against the wall, she spoke clearly, right in his face, clipping each word, "They MURDERED you, and would do it again!  NONE of your so-called fiancees did anything except beat you up!  Is that what you want?  I can tell the others, and they can start beating you with sticks to show how much they care."

      "That isn't it."

      "THAT'S EXACTLY IT!!" Nabiki shouted, then stepped away.

      In the back of his mind he knew he'd really struck a nerve with Nabiki.  That he should back off and let her cool off, but he wanted answers.

      "Fine, I didn't tell you, what good does it do you?" Nabiki spoke calmly and rationally, although Ranma could tell it was a thin facade, "Are you happy now, do you even remember any of those people?  Your father got you or himself into trouble all the time, and it was your fault, always blamed on you, and the solution was perpetually your responsibility.  Your fiancees fought you and fought each other, over who would possess you.  They didn't care about you, they cared about who won!"

      "So you're trying to protect me from that?" Ranma asked carefully, trying to reign in his own anger, he could see her point, She didn't have to lie to me about it, he reminded himself, "And you don't think I could?"

      Nabiki's face darkened, she too spoke carefully, "You never could in the past."

      "Well, maybe I've learned."

      "You said you wanted to be given a choice in your future, they wouldn't let you."

      "That's what you assume, but you don't know."

      "Yes, I do."  Nabiki just shook her head and left the room.  A moment later the outside door slammed.

      Ranma walked out of the girls' room.  Rit-chan glanced at him, then shook her head.  Raccoon gave him a flat stare that was even less expressive than Rei's or Gendo's.  Ranma ignored him, he walked into his bedroom and climbed into his bunk.  As soon as he had, Raccoon walked in and closed the door behind him.

      "You must feel really proud of yourself Saotome, put a good polish on the old honor."

      "So what, she lied to me."

      "When you grow up, maybe you'll learn to trust other people's judgement, sometimes you don't need the information."

      "I want the facts about my life," Ranma countered sullenly, "I deserve to know."

      "Okay, I can understand that," Raccoon said, he knelt next to the bed.  "From my and Langley's dreams, here are some pertinent facts: The Grandmaster and originator of your Art - was a filthy, little pervert who spent all his time stealing womens' underwear and molesting girls, because he had devised a method of immortality based on a lifetime of doing these two things.  When he wasn't trying to douse you with cold water to molest you, he was beating you up for standing up to him.  He never taught you anything, because if he did, you wouldn't have had to put up with him.  Your father was a lying, honorless, cowardly thief.  All you were to him - was a meal-ticket - not a son, but a way he could retire and live the good life at your expense.  He probably planned to live off your hosts, the Tendos, until they got tired of it, then he'd marry you off.  Once that was done, he'd sell your new home and dojo out from under you, and leave you behind to clean up the mess.  That mess would have been Nabiki, her older sister, their father, and your new wife.  And at that point, all of them would probably rather spit on you than look at you.  The other Master of your art, Nabiki's father, was a manipulative, cowardly bastard who sacrificed his honor, the honor of his House and his daughters' - daughters, plural - honor and safety to the 'master' because he'd already decided that defending them was your job, not his.  And Heaven help you if you didn't.  His plan was to sacrifice one of his daughters to a Saotome son, so he could live the easy life.  If your father had dragged in a shoggoth, they would have had the priest perform the service, as soon as they got its `bride` sedated.  That's what Nabiki had to look forward to, selling herself to whatever your old man dragged in."

      That shook Ranma, He's guessing, based on a dream and what Asuka said her dream was, Ranma thought, There's no proof, "It's still my choice, my obligation, and my honor," Ranma angrily countered.

      "Since you seem to be a little slow," Raccoon replied coldly, "Let me sum it up.  You didn't have any honor.  Your family, is honorless, your school, is honorless.  Those two facts erase any personal honor you might have.  Nabiki saw an opportunity to let you actually gain some honor, the one thing you proclaim to the sky and gods is more important to you than life itself.  She wanted you to get some honor based on what you actually do.  However, you are correct, she was quite wrong," Raccoon told him, "She should have left you back there, and come here by herself.  After this tantrum, good riddance to you sir.  To Hell with your honor, sir, your family's, your school's and especially to you.  Unfortunately, you wouldn't notice the difference."

      Ranma was on his feet confronting the other boy.  "You take that back!"

      "Or what?"  Raccoon stared at him.  "You'll hit me?  Are you really that stupid, as well as deaf?  You would abandon billions of worlds to their fate, because of petty commitments made by people who didn't care that those commitments were mutually exclusive, even fatally injurious to their own plans and schemes?  Are you really that wrapped up in yourself?  Are you so desperate for your imagined parents illusionary love, that you'd tear yourself to pieces, just to get the people who are supposed to care about you to actually love you?  Is that all your honor is?  A desire to be loved and accepted by some arbitrary list of people?"

      "Honor isn't about me, it's about - "

      "What?  Your parents who don't have any of their own, your school which never had any?  You talk about people lying to you, but you don't have to look any farther than inside your own skin, Saotome.  You refuse to see that, the honor you get so worked up about, you never had it to lose in the first place.  The only way you could have gained it, was by accepting the real truth, and making decisions for yourself.  That means defying your parents, maybe getting banished from your school, to start fresh.  If you go back there, unwilling to do that, all you're doing is putting a noose around your neck, enslaving whoever you do marry to an endless pattern of servitude and random attacks by whatever nut happens by.  You also hurt a lot of people who depend on you a lot more than those idiots ever did or will.  Some even, for reasons that completely escape me, actually care about Saotome Ranma the person.  So you want to give up all of that, just so your marvelous parents can go back to threatening you with dishonor or disembowelment the instant you don't do exactly what they say."

      "You're exaggerating," Ranma said weakly.

      "Fine, believe what you wish.  I don't care about your illusions, because I know one very important fact."

      "What's that?" Ranma asked.

      "Nobody knows how to send you back there, except maybe whoever sent that dream.  Are you going to make a deal with Cthulhu or Nyarlathotep to send you `home`?" Raccoon asked as he headed towards the door, "I'm sure they'd be more than willing.  Your father and mother, or the other members of your school would make that deal in a heartbeat.  One less pilot, and considering the abyss you'd be descending into," he paused, considered, "Yes, they'd gladly send you back, think about that little bit of truth.  There's even a way of contacting them.  But I'm kkeping that from you, so I guess I'm as guilty as Miss Tendo."  He closed the door behind him.

      Ranma shivered, crawled back under the blankets, trying and failing to get warm again.


Marring by Blunder's Echo

      Nabiki was in a foul mood when Raccoon caught up to her.  "I don't want to talk about it."  She continued walking down the darkened street.  The streetlights were few and far between.

      Raccoon shrugged, walked on in silence.

      "I did the right thing," Nabiki told him.

      "Actually your shoes are on the wrong feet."

      Nabiki glanced down, saw he was wrong, "I'm not in the mood for jokes."

      "I was speaking metaphorically.  You should plant one of those firmly in Saotome's butt, the other firmly between your jaws.  You shouldn't have lied to him, you knew how he'd react.  That was stupid.  You should have said nothing."

      "Considering the whoppers you tell," Nabiki replied angrily, "You're one to talk."

      "Tall tales and sea stories aside, I don't lie.  I let others lie to themselves.  It saves having to remember all the lies I've told."

      "So what do I do?" Nabiki asked sarcastically, "Since you know so much."

      "Time, let him stew.  You're expecting maturity from a outraged fourteen-year-old, only one with deep psychological problems could give it to you.  Although if you have a secret way of sending him home, one you haven't told him or us about.  I'd suggest you destroy it."

      "You actually want him around?" Nabiki asked, feigning shock.

      "We need him.  If the U.S. could ally itself with Stalin, who was as big a butcher as Hitler, I can put up with Saotome Ranma, who is merely an irritant.  The original definition of an asshole: unpleasant, not discussed in polite company, but absolutely necessary."

      "Because of his 'hidden depths'?" Nabiki asked caustically.

      "No, because I can run faster than he can, the pursuers will eat him first," Raccoon replied.  He peered into the darkness, "Isn't that Hiroko?  She's in an awful hurry.  That usually means offal things."

      Nabiki ignored the pun, wondering how Raccoon could see through the gloom.

      "I'm glad I found you two," Hiroko gasped, as she ran up, "I gave Admiral Simson a heads up, but I figured I should tell you two too."

      "Great, more puns," Nabiki griped.

      "Fight with Ranma," Raccoon said.

      "You can stay at my apartment tonight," Hiroko suggested.

      "What's the news?" Nabiki asked.

      "A cult, a bad one."  She laid out what the eyes and ears had found.  "One possibility is they'd make bombs or burn down a building.  Security is getting a heads-up, but since they never tell you anything . . . "

      "Thank you," Nabiki said.  She sighed, "I guess I'd better get back.  Can you walk her home - oh, that's right, you don't have a guard anymore."  Nabiki glanced at Juri Kon, who had stayed a discreet distance behind the two pilots.

      "I'll take her home.  I also promise to keep the death toll down."

      Nabiki patted his cheek, "That's so sweet."


      Hiroko watched the Boss depart.

      "I heard you asked to be a pilot," Raccoon said.

      "Yes, Ayanami tried to convince me otherwise," she said, "Are you going to try and convince me too?"

      "Of course, how far do you live from here?"

      "About 5 kilometers, why?  Eeep!"

      Raccoon had scooped her up in his arms, "What time is it?"

      "21:45, put me down!" she insisted.

      "I'll put you down in about two minutes."  With that he took off at a dead run.

      Hiroko had to bury her face in his shoulder because of the force of the wind of their passage that tore at her clothes and hair.  Her screams of fright were carried away by the same wind.  As quickly as it started, it was over.

      "What time is it?" Raccoon asked as soon as they stopped.

      The trip so disoriented Hiroko, she had trouble focusing on her watch, when she finally could, it was 21:48.  She also recognized she was at the door to her apartment building.

      "That's impossible!" she exclaimed as Raccoon set her down.

      "That - is one of the more innocuous manifestations of what it means to be a pilot.  The 'Boss' hasn't experienced it yet, she's still human.  Ayanami-san knows what being a pilot really entails."

      "Most innocuous?" Hiroko squeaked, "Can race cars go that fast?"

      "Not carrying their own weight.  I showed that to you because no one will believe you.  As the pilots - advance - or is it devolve, they, we, will need a human anchor far more than a colleague going down the same road."

      "I understand."  Hiroko paused.  "You said innocuous, what other . . . ?  I shouldn't really ask, should I?"

      "If you really want to know, but the knowledge often brings insanity, to humans.  Yet, I'm immune, completely, think about that."

      "That's more answer than I wanted, thanks."  Hiroko bowed.  "Thank you for telling me.  You haven't convinced me, but I think I'll put it aside.  At least until school starts."  She smiled.  "Wherever they decide to send us."

      "I think they'll be keeping the class together, as much as possible."

      "Good night, Raccoon-san."  Hiroko went inside.  She was not looking forward to dreaming tonight.  Too many nasty possibilities.


June 15, 1947

      Unit 04 bounced eagerly from foot to foot, mirroring the impatience of its pilot.  Ranma wasn't thrilled about getting woken up at 3:00 in the morning.  But there was an Angel on the way in.  That was a good reason to be up that early.  There was nothing confused or confusing about what he was to do, he'd fight it, he'd kill it.  It was an easier formula than all the stuff with Nabiki and Raccoon.  Or the questions about whether he should be in this place, or trying to rescue his family's and his school's honor where he came from.  Or even what the 'other' really was, and what it would and could do.

      He wasn't worried about facing another Angel.  He knew he had it.  What he'd done that first time out, he knew he could do it again.  Asuka's stick knives made going hand-to-hand with these things a game.

      "Relax, Ranma," Ritsuko told him, "It's too high for you to engage.  We have to wait for it to descend a little more."

      "Yeah, okay," Ranma admitted as he waited for his quarry in the cockpit of Unit 04.  The other EVAs in the bay showed none of his impatience.

      "Relax, Horseface."  An image of Asuka's face appeared in front of him.  "I'll get it, you won't have to do anything except hold my coat."

      "Like HELL," Ranma shouted, "I'll get it, by myself, just watch me."

      "I hate to interrupt your lovers' quarrel," Misato broke in, "But get ready to launch, its almost in intercept range."

      "Captain," Rei's voice and image appeared, "Do we have visual?"

      "Just a moment," a ball of glowing gas replaced Misato's voice and image.  The glow was bright enough it dispelled the night over Tokyo.

      "That looks like those things around the hospital," Shinji said.

      "This one's a lot bigger," Ritsuko told them.

      "Launch!" Misato commanded.  The tethers were fully energized as the heavy doors rumbled open.

      Ranma could feel the flow of chi, ki or whatever energies the AT fields were made of.  A tiny ball of white-hot fury formed between his hands, Unit 04's first pair of hands, and several similar ones formed in a half-dozen pairs of the centipede-like EVAs hands.

      Ranma intended to release them as a salvo, once he was out ahead of the others.  He shouldered through the half-open doors, racing into the open, into the Angel-defined twilight.

      He saw the creature, the Angel of Fire, 'Cthugha' the remnants of the others he'd killed echoed through his mind.  He narrowed his eyes, and released the first missile.  It streaked straight and true at the target.  He released a second and a third, but they both vanished immediately.

      I guess only one active at a time, Ranma thought as he raced towards his target.  He watched with expectation as the first one sailed over the harbor and hit the creature's AT field, detonating violently.  He released the next immediately.  He ignored Misato's order to wait for the others as he raced towards the waterfront.


      "Asuka, you too!" Misato ordered, watching the pair race ahead of Units 00 and 01.

      "AT field down 70%," Lt. Baker reported the effect of the third of Ranma's AT 'bombs', as Ranma released a fourth.

      "Doctor, are you analyzing this?" Commander Ikari called down from his place on the command deck.

      "Yes, Commander, but other than an immense power drain on firing, there's not much to analyze."

      "I'm sure Ranma will be only too happy to show you," Misato complained, "Ranma, Asuka, wait for the others!  Take up position at grid reference 81 by 20!  Are you listening to me?"


      Ranma easily dodged a number of poorly aimed fire bolts.  His shots actually sought out their quarry, so they were more accurate and effective.  Cthugha was spiraling down drunkenly.  After the pounding he had given it, it looked like a half-deflated beachball painted like the sun, not a monster from the depths of time and fire.  He hadn't headed towards Misato's grid reference.

      Ranma caught a flash of red, "Hey!"

      "First blood!"  Asuka's lance shoved deep in the creature.  Her tether flying after her like a kite's tail.  She landed in the harbor, but Unit 02 managed to keep its footing in the mud.

      Ranma heard the sound/thought from Cthugha, he interpreted it as a scream of agony.  He couldn't fire another of his AT bombs with Asuka that close, so he set his lance and charged.  He was glad the creature was drawing them away from the place Misato had tried to send them.  Ranma knew it was full of people.  He'd first saw it was full of people when he'd looked at it through the Magi days ago, then today he'd watched people scrambling into the abandoned buildings as he charged towards the Angel.  He didn't want to think what having an EVA/Angel battle in the middle of them would mean.  I'm not going stomping around in a crowd, he thought.

      There was a better, more empty place closer to the entrance to the harbor, he had hurried and caught it over the mouth of the Ara River.  He and Asuka were holding it there.  Many of the smaller creatures were swarming around Asuka and her lance, but they couldn't get through her AT field, a pair of cylinders, one around Unit 02, the other protecting the lance.

      "Okay," her image and voice showed the strain she was under, "Horseface, catch."  She flipped the huge creature at him.

      Ranma braced himself, then charged when he realized Cthugha still had some control.  Ranma felt as if his own arms were plunging into flames as the lance pierced the Great Old One.  He felt the spells it cast coiling around him, they joined dozens of the little ones, trying to find away in, a way through his AT field.  But he held it, it couldn't advance.

      "Ha!" Asuka's face reappeared in his screens as Unit 02 slammed its lance in, meeting the tip of Unit 04's lance outside the core.

      "Shove it in, Horseface!" Asuka ordered.

      The heat and resistance soared, then faded.  Ranma felt the familiar sick, sweet sensation as the creature's intellect and experiences tried to find a new home.

      But here too, Ranma was ready: Ranma, Ranko, and even the 'other', cat and moused the force until it weakened too much to be a danger, it simply faded into the background.  He felt the changes, the knowledge, but still he remained him.  Unlike the first two times when the Angel nearly overwhelmed him.

      Ranma glanced at the outraged expression on Asuka's face, The one she killed before was only a little one, Tulzscha was hard to grasp and lacked the mental force of the others, he realized, "Asuka, don't throw up!" he urged, Ritsuko had warned of acid burns and lung infections.

      "THAT'S DISGUSTING!" she shouted, before covering her mouth with both hands.

      The disintegrating corpse had rolled against a small hill, residual heat let it burn into the ground.

      A moment later, a huge column of fire erupted into the air.

      "Whoa!" Ranma exclaimed, "Even dead it's got some kick."

      "Ranma, Asuka, get back with Rei and Shinji to deal with the little ones!" Misato ordered.

      "You could give us a little time to celebrate," Ranma griped, "That's got to be the fastest kill ever."

      "Well, you aren't done yet," Ritsuko reminded them, "They're attacking a fuel dump and a paint factory.  That could be a serious problem too."

      "Yeah, yeah, come on 'Langley'.  Let's help the slowpokes with the small fry."

      "Yeah," Asuka's tone was subdued.

      Ranma knew she was still trying to deal with the new realities in her mind, the memories that weren't hers, the feeling of power and poisonous contamination she'd never felt so strongly before.  Ranma felt a little sorry for her, it wasn't something he'd wish on anyone, But if you can handle it . . . Ranma thought about the 'other', and weird stuff they said it did.  He wondered how much of that he could do himself.  If I wanted to give up my humanity, he reminded himself.


      Misato marched into the locker room.  Shinji tried to cover his nakedness as Misato angrily marched past, she flipped the release on the dividing partition, letting it retract into the ceiling with a crash.  Asuka screamed and tried to cover herself, Rei unashamed of her nakedness, continued dressing and merely stared.

      "Asuka, Ranma, did I, or did I not order you two to wait for the others?"

      "Yeah, Misa - to."  "Yes."  Ranma and Asuka answered.

      "Why didn't you?"

      "There were people all over where you sent me.  I thought we could get it somewhere else," Ranma said, "And we did," he added defensively.

      "Orders are given for a reason," Rei countered, as she stood.

      "Thank you," Misato said.

      "The Commander has summoned me," she told them as she left.

      Misato's attention returned to her two targets, "I won't tolerate that kind of showboating in the future.  It could have been a trap or a diversion.  Command has a better view of the situation than you pilots do.  You're expected to follow orders!"  She waited until they both nodded.  "Don't bother showering, you've got an appointment in the simulators, and you," Misato faced Ranma, "Ritsuko has some special tests for you."  Misato walked out.

      Ranma fumed, ignoring Asuka's attempts to pull the divider back down, without jumping and dislodging the towel she was barely covering herself with.  Shinji managed to get on his shorts, and recovered the pole used to lower the partition.  He pulled the curtain down into place, then he stripped down and put his plugsuit back on.

      "Better view," Ranma complained, "What does she know about piloting an EVA?  All she knows about is paperwork and beer.  I could see what I was looking at."

      "If the fuel dump had gone up," Shinji told him, "Or that paint factory, a lot of people could have gotten hurt."

      "From those little ones?" Ranma scoffed, "The big one was the real danger, it could have set half the city on fire.  There was a line of burning ships under it, and it didn't even try to set those aflame."

      Shinji shrugged.


      Ranma looked across the open field at the target, an EVA breastplate.  The flows were correct, he did exactly what he'd done in combat against Cthugha.  The only difference was, there was no real target.

      "Nothing," Ranma admitted as he sat in Unit 04's plug, "It just isn't working."

      "Okay, Ranma, you tried," Ritsuko was trying to hide her disappointment.

      Ranma remembered something about 'emotional energy', "I guess maybe I have to actually be in combat."  Or have something that actually has an AT field to target, he didn't add, he didn't want to risk shooting at another EVA.  He didn't have that kind of control over the balls he fired, until he did, he wanted to avoid endangering others with his abilities.

      "All right," Ritsuko said, "We'll plug you into the systems, so you can run a harmonics test along with the others."

      "Where'd Raccoon and Nabiki disappear to?" Ranma asked, as he headed back into the EVA bay, "I figured they'd be getting yelled at like the rest of us."  He walked back to where the other EVAs was waiting.

      "They went out with Search and Rescue."

      "Waiting for us to screw up," Ranma joked, but he felt some irritation, at Misato and the others for the implied insult, She sits behind concrete, looking at little radar pictures and listening to radio reports, and thinks she knows better what's going on than someone who can see what's going on, someone who is actually out there.  Then she sends the two know-it-alls to watch over us, in case we screw up too bad.

      Ranma backed Unit 04 into the restraining frame and as soon as it was locked down, he dropped into the deep meditation that went along with the harmonics test.


      Maya looked out over the EVA bay at the various EVAs, orange, purple, and red humanoid Units 00, 01, and 02, and the sandy-gray snake-headed centipede that was Unit 04.  She always smiled at that, the Americans always had to do something weird, which either worked well, or not at all.  She, Lt. Baker and the rest of the team were monitoring the systems and the four pilots.  Rei had returned from her mysterious errands, and was participating as well.  She'd been more laconic than usual, barely acknowledging Maya's instructions.

      Normally, Rei shows at least a semblance of courtesy, to me at any rate, Maya thought, Her errand must have been very troubling.

      "Asuka's up five full points on average, her fluctuations are nearly plus or minus 20%," Maya told her sempai as she went over the tapes from the chart recorders.  "She might be more disturbed by her experience than the others have been."

      "We should check the pilots after a mission from now on."  Ritsuko was walking through the observation room, checking the EVAs' systems.

      "Well, Shinji and Ranma are closing the gap," Baker reported, "Ayanami's better, but she's firmly in fourth."

      Maya watched her sempai check Baker's analysis, then she nodded.

      Misato burst into the room.  "Cut the comm lines to the EVAs," she ordered.

      Maya switched the mikes off immediately.

      "We will not discuss the details of this after-action report on today's sortie.  Understood?"  Misato shook the papers in her hand and glared at the others.

      Maya and the others nodded in confusion.  We never discuss the after action reports, Maya wondered at the concern, That's your job, Captain.

      Misato threw the papers in the trash and left.

      Maya couldn't figure out if Misato had been extraordinarily angry or extremely shaken, or both.

      Ritsuko retrieved the papers, "I want to see what exactly we're not supposed to talk about."

      Maya watched Ritsuko's smirk vanish, then sempai walked slowly over to the phone.  She dialed a number.  "Search and Rescue, where are pilots Tendo and Davis?" she listened, "Hospital!?  Oh, working, yes.  Security is still keeping an eye on them?  Thank you."  She hung up the phone.

      Maya was worried, Ritsuko's face was colorless and frozen as she dropped into the chair next to Maya.

      "Sempai?"  Maya's concern overrode any considerations of privacy.

      "Oh, Maya," Ritsuko whispered, "There's been a disaster."

Back to Index


Chapter 28 - Nabiki's Awakening
WARNING: This chapter includes the depiction of Mature themes.  There is no sex or splatter and little profanity.  However, this is not for young children or the sensitive.  The events of this chapter will be discussed in subsequent chapters.  You will not lose the thread of the story if you skip this chapter.

I am not trying to tantalize you into reading this, I sincerely mean this as a warning.  Thank you for your indulgence.

[Ranma][NGE][HPL][AMG][Fusion][Fanfic] Sic Semper Morituri Chapter 28 - Nabiki's Awakening

What has gone before:

      About Book 11, Akane and Soun Tendo throw Ranma out of the house.  Nabiki, in the guise of a wish, follows him.  They meet EVA pilots Shinji Ikari, Rei Ayanami, Asuka Soryu Langley and Jeffrey Davis.

      Asuka and Jeff challenge each other to a cooking contest.  Rei participates as referee and facilitator.  The cooking contest goes to Asuka, although Rei discovers Jeff made sure she won.

      Asuka and Jeff begin continue analyzing the equations to manipulate the AT field, they discover an important side-effect of AT fields.  They begin teaching the other pilots the math to understand it.

      Hiroko accidently discovered the truth about Ranma/Ranko, and is ordered to keep silent.

      Captain Ramsey meets with the cult leaders, laying down the law and arranging for their cooperation.

      Nabiki and Ranko interrogate Raccoon about the nature of their enemies, and the details of his mission.

      The first Sonic Glaives arrive and the pilots train with them.

      Ranko discovers Raccoon knows about the Ranma/Ranko transformation and has reduced the curse (attracting water) but still believes Ranma and Ranko are different people.  Ranko uses this to her advantage against Nabiki.

      An attack by were-tigers causes Asuka and Rei to band together to shoot it out with one group, while Ranma undergoes the Neko-ken, transforming into a large tiger who destroys a far larger group.

      Shinji decided he must move back to watch over Misato.

When I was a young man I carried me pack and I lived the free life of the rover.

From the Murray's green basin to the dusty outback, I waltzed my Matilda all over.

Then in 1915, my country said, "Son, it's time to stop ramblin', there's work to be done."

So they gave me a tin hat, and they gave me a gun, and they sent me away to the war.

THE BAND PLAYED WALTZING MATILDA Lyrics as performed by John McDermott

June 15, 1947

Chapter 28 - Nabiki's Awakening

      I sat down in the darkness, on one of the logs that separate the parking spaces. There are no cars in this part of the lot, only gravel out for a dozen yards in all directions.  I can't go home yet.  I can't face my `fellow pilots`.  My hands and arms are clean, but the coveralls I'm wearing are blood-spattered and covered with concrete dust.  I still smell smoke and antiseptic on my skin and hair.  My face is streaked with blood and sweat, and tears, only the last wholly my own.

      I hear the crunch of boots on gravel, and the log shifts as someone sits next to me.  I can't even muster the interest to turn and look at them, staring at the lights of the city traffic driving by, without seeing it.

      He leans into my field of view, Jeff, my fellow pilot and Search And Rescue member, grim determination and a growing concern.  "Nabiki, are you alive in there?"

      I want to react, to look at him, to move, to say something, but I can't.  It's not weariness, or apathy, it's almost shock or fear: to move would make me shatter, fall into pieces, or fall over and die.  I lack the words to even describe it, an emptiness and fragility perhaps, like hot glass in a cold wind.  I wonder what my family would think of their 'Ice Princess' now, the cold-blooded one who doesn't care about others.

      Jeff puts his arms around my shoulders and waist, pulling me close.  "It's okay, it's over," he tells me, and other pleasant things.

      I feel the stiffness leaving, my body seems to automatically mold itself to the body holding me, like a newborn does.  That too would shock my family, who always lamented I loved money more than any other person.  With the trivial people I dealt with on a daily basis, that might have been true.  Not here, not with these people.


      It had been an early morning, the alert coming in at 3 A.M..  My roommates were up and ready, Morning people, I remember complaining inwardly.  By the time the car arrived, Ritsuko had a quick breakfast for both of us to eat on the way to the base.

      "No school today," Ranma had crowed.

      At the time I didn't consider that entire families would be heading for the shelters, instead of fathers going to the`bomb `shelters near work, children at school shelters and only the housewives to the evacuation shelters near their homes.  It just wasn't something I'd considered before.  More the fool me.

      Again, with four machines and six pilots, Raccoon and I were left behind.  The enemy was quickly defeated, our two most aggressive pilots raced out ahead of the other two.  Our two more circumspect pilots, in fact, arrived after the `Messenger` was dead.  The machines hadn't even suffered any damage, so they could dispense with Search And Rescue, but SAR wasn't done.  The `Messenger` wasn't either, it decided to cause a greater injury to us.  There were five evacuation shelters built into a sandy hill.  The five shelters had been christened with poetic names by their users.  The U.S. military had a 10 character alphanumeric, detailing location, size and protection level.  For SAR, and the other rescue workers, the five were to be: Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog and Echo.  The `Messenger` dove straight into Charlie, and violently died there.

      We arrived at the pillar of smoke pouring out of the ruined structure.  The idea of evacuation training and the shelters never entered my mind.  As pilots, we'd be in our machines, or as part of Search And Rescue, we'd be out in the half-tracks.  I was always amazed that the shelters are feet or meters of steel-reinforced concrete, the machines have tons of armor and other protections.  In Search And Rescue, we're protected by the wisdom of our drivers, and a layer of armor that wouldn't stop a rifle bullet.  And still I didn't think about it, I don't know why.  We deploy in 15 to 20 American M3 half-tracks filled with equipment.  Someone told me that with the redundancy of our load-outs, we could suffer 35% casualties and guarantee we'd stay 100% mission capable.  I don't think that's what I wanted to know, they could kill a third of us, and we could still do the job.  Grim thoughts, but only thoughts, comments without context.


      "You ready?" Raccoon asked as he settled the steel hard hat on my head, before we'd even stopped.  It looked like an art deco hub cap.  The goggles, we all wore, were from the Army's desert warfare section.  The two offered better protection than nothing, but not as much as the goggles and helmet I wore in High School Chemistry class and at baseball practice.  Raccoon's concern for me seemed mildly silly, but was very serious from his point of view.  We and the entire team piled out of the vehicles, carrying the equipment that we might need.  A column of smoke, firelit from below, poured out of Charlie.

      I think if anyone tells me burning people smells like pork, they're going to get a fist in the face.  There's something viscerally horrible about the smell, as if you recognize the difference at the back of your mind.  Even if you've never smelled it before.

      "I think we leave Charlie for Graves Registration," Raccoon told the SAR Captain, I wanted to scream at him that we should try to save everybody, or start in the worst area.  Before I could start, the Captain sent me to shelter Baker to start dealing with cuts and other minor injuries.  I went.  I was confident of the first aid training I'd received in my native Tokyo of 1992.  It gave me a huge advantage in the `primitive` 1947 Tokyo I now lived in.  I'd even shown the effect of 'mouth-to-mouth resuscitation' and CPR, to the locals.  Then had to explain my father traveled and studied in China, an equally mythical and mystic place to both Americans and Japanese.

      The interior of Baker was surprising, many people were hurt by falling objects, others had been cut by flying fragments of cement.  Pieces of the wall facing Charlie had literally exploded into the shelter populace.  I would learn later it was called spalling, it didn't matter to me at the time, or to the wounded.  Cuts and broken bones were the main effort, splinting, bandaging, comforting.  On the few moments between helping, I wondered angrily what my fellow pilots were doing.  A quick debriefing, and the rest of the day in school or at home.  But we're still working, sigh, I volunteered, I'm doing my job, I can't feel the anger, I have too much to do.

      The occasional trips into the clear and lightening sky - revealed the dozens of military and Red Cross carrying the stream of wounded away.  Shouts and orders, and the pervasive stench in the air.  Then back into the darkness below, here the sounds were screams and cries, the smell was blood, urine and antiseptics.  Much better than in the light.  We were starting into deeper levels.  There, the damage was heavier.  Some of the floors had buckled.  One of the reasons Jeff and I were accepted into SAR, our smaller physical size, was put to use.  As I crawled into crevices the adults couldn't fit into, to determine if anyone was alive inside the piles of rubble.

      Now it was starting to get to me.  I'd dealt with minor injuries all the time back `home`, even major injuries occasionally, broken bones mostly.  I'd never encountered a dead body before, now I'd just put my hand on one, in one, something taboo to many Japanese like me.  I forced myself to keep from throwing up, to keep moving, swinging my helmet light around the confined darkness.  There might have been someone alive in these ruins.

      There was.  A little boy and his dog, huddled in the corner, shielded by a wall of his parents and siblings.  All unmoving bloodied corpses, terrible to see and to smell.  Fortunately he was in shock, and easily moved to the opening, and handed through.  The dog paused, looked at the rest of the dead family, then climbed after his sole remaining master.  I checked the rest of the hollow.  They were all dead, no pulses and no time for more careful checks.  Now shouting out, then listen to, creep around to pick up the faintest sound, a tap, a whisper, anything.  Nothing.  I crawled back out.  Screams are bad, silence is worse.  The look in the faces of the other rescue workers horrified me.  Then I realized, I must look terrible, I don't have time for that right now.  I thought that, at the time.


      I was on the surface again, taking a break, breathing the foul air, when several of the team members rushed up, "Come on!  Someone had propane cylinders in Able.  They blew!"

      I was running after them, before the echo died.


      The air hoses on the floor are a constant danger to trip the victims and the rescue workers, the air is bad.  The cylinders must have been leaking the entire time, just awaiting a spark to set them off.  The people are dazed from the concussion, many with hair and eyebrows burnt off.  The blast also sucked up most of the breathable air, so while we try to fight the flames from the cylinders, we're also pumping air into the bunker.  Air must also be brought in to power the pneumatic tools the rescue workers must use.  We don't dare use our electric or gasoline powered equipment.

      And we're trying to get the people out, so many are confused, wanting to stay and look for loved ones.  We have to keep them moving to the surface.  Once on the surface, they see and smell the carnage they were spared, and we have to keep them moving to clear the way for more people coming up from below.

      In the bunker, the lights are all out.  The blast shattered every light bulb in the place, and the power was cut the next moment because of the danger of additional sparks.  Noise, heat from bodies and residual fires, darkness, confusion surround everything.  The babble of frightened voices, the press of bodies going one direction while you must go the other.

      Finally, I arrive at the disaster site, it's worse than I thought, several floors were buckled by the explosion.  Many people are lying around, seemingly asleep.  I touch one to take a pulse, they're dead.  Killed by the blast or suffocated, not a mark on any of them, not a hair out of place, it is truly frightening.  One of the Marines is motioning me forward, a new smell, like raw sewage, and a new sound: jackhammers, several of them.

      There is a slab of concrete, fallen from the upper level, cutting across the floor.  Dividing the lower levels.  They were protected from the blast by it, only to be trapped beneath it.  Through a gap in the slab, I can see many people are clustered, hands and fingers thrust up through the gap, a cacophony of prayers, pleas, demands, impossible to sort out over the noise of the hammers trying to cut through concrete and rebar to make an escape route.  The shelter was designed to resist damage, now that hampers rescue efforts.

      "Sewer line ruptured!" the man in charge yells English directly into my ear, the only way you can be heard.  So these people, on what was dry land, are facing drowning.

      "What do I do?" I shout back, the hammers are cutting and I doubt I'm going to make a difference cutting the hole.

      "Tell them in Japanese, we're trying to get them out, tell them to stay calm."

      I do that, but I can see the liquid level, it isn't water, rising.  The people cling to my words as they try to cling to my hands.  Desperate glances to the crew indicate all is not going fast enough.  The slab is thick, the rebar reinforcing rods are plentiful, only explosives could cut faster, and it would take an expert to place them.  In Japanese I'm ordering people to move to the higher ground, change to English to shout at the crew to work faster.  Other teams work, cutting at tangles of rebar with boltcutters and smaller air chisels.  A few people are able to escape.  Then the slab shifts, sealing the escape, crushing some awaiting rescue.  I can hear the curses from above and below, I wish I could join them, but I have to stay calm.  Swallowing my anger and frustration.

      A new site, the cutting begins again, more frantically.  Cries from below that the ordure is lapping up around even the high places, there are wounded down below.  Lower in the slab it begins to pour out, a noisome slick, I only hope that slows its ascent.  Cutting is too slow.  More screams of panic from below, as people slip into the foul liquid.  Some drown.  There is no fighting for the high places, some are even surrendered by those who can swim to those who can't.  An odd kind of heroism.  But it's rising too fast.  I move up the slab to try and see to those who might be saved.  One woman thrusts her daughter at me, pleading that neither can swim.  I reach through the gap in the concrete and rebar, barely able to get my arm on her, a solid grip on the nightshirt she is wearing.  She cries for her mother who has slipped away with the rising reek.  A half dozen men surround me, cutting at the twisted metal and prying the rubble away from the opening.

      The cutting continues, encouraging cries from the crew.  "Hang on," I urge, "They're almost through!" I tell her, trying to take her mind off her mother and her impending doom.  The web of metal is steadily thinning, the opening is nearly large enough to start pulling people through, once the metal is out of the way.

      The little girl is clinging to my wrist with both hands, pleading with me not to drop her, she can't swim.  It's a ridiculous thought, if I could, I'd pull her through.  I'd do it.  But the gap is too narrow, choked with twisted metal.  The water level rises, I pull her as far into the gap as I can, give her as much time as possible.  But the sewage bubbles up through the crack, covering her.  The crew continues working, I still hold on, willing for the crew to finish, for some kind of rescue to become possible.  Her grip slackens.  I try to get a better grip, to start moving her to a safer height.  Her hands fall away, the person I was holding is just a body now.  There's nothing more any of us can do anymore.  Those below will remain until they can be dug out, and disposed of.

      I've never felt like this, so helpless, so small, never felt the press of time so severely.  Another few minutes and we could have saved them, couldn't the universe have spared us a few minutes?  No, the universe doesn't keep score, it just keeps rolling along.  One of the men pulls me away from the site and gestures towards the exit.  We head up out of this level, before we ourselves are trapped by the rising sewage.  I stare at my hands during the climb.  The other workers can't meet each others' gazes, as all of us look around.  If we're searching for answers, we don't find any on our long tramp to the surface.


      Fire hoses clean us off on the surface.  I can't get the image and the memory of a life slipping literally out of my hands, out of my mind.  A true, deep horror rises in me, that I'm tainted with death now.  It's a ridiculous thought, Death doesn't come hunting like some specter of ancient legend, it's simply a natural part of existence, of the cycle of rebirth.  The limited religious upbringing my father gave me tells me this.  I doubt father, Soun, ever considered these things before mother got sick, and his emotional disintegration after she died showed both, how much he didn't believe, and how cold comfort it was in the face of a dead loved one.
      More orders, only the professionals are needed for rescue now, we and many others who are first-aid trained are given clean coveralls and sent to assist at the nearby hospital.  Extra hands to deal with the wounded we've been rescuing for . . . I look at the sun, it must be nearly noon, eight hours, give or take an hour.  A full day's work and we still have more to do.

      "You okay?" Jeff has found me in the crowd.  He gives me an encouraging smile, but it isn't very reassuring.  Too many recent thoughts, too many hurt people.  I wonder what he has seen in the last few hours, he smells of smoke, oil and burned metal.  There's soot and dust on his clothes, hair and face, and the clean outline from his goggles make him look like a real raccoon.  We're walking along with the walking wounded.  Burns, abrasions, parents carrying wounded children, children dragging wounded parents on carts or improvised sleds.  I want to help, but Jeff pushes me forward.

      "They'll make it, or they won't, our job's up ahead."

      I don't curse him for his callousness, however much I want to, but I know he's right, there are many more seriously hurt at the hospital and that's where we're supposed to be.

      The hospital parking lot is filled with wounded, doctors and nurses passing through the huge crowds.  They make marks on the foreheads of all the people brought in.  Jeff and I are separated, they need strong backs to haul in the casualties on stretchers.  And he is a big boy.  I'm helping a nurse with triage.  I wish Jeff was still here, I need to talk to someone about the rescue, about the deaths, all the pain and suffering, and why it seems to be bothering me less and less.  I should have done it while I had the chance, something else to consider.

      What we are doing is horrible.  Earlier today, I would have assaulted someone doing this to people, now I follow the orders of the nurse without comment.  These patients who cannot be helped . . . we are dosing them with morphine and leaving them to die.  I bring some of them water, take down information about address and family, anything to keep them quiet and comfortable.  We give them injections.  My main job is cleaning the syringes between uses, and holding the bottles the alcohol and morphine are in.

      Some of the people are clearly unsalvageable, bones sticking out, massive burns.  Some howl in agony until injected, I have to help hold them down.  Worse somehow are the stoic ones.  They understand they cannot be helped, and accept it.  They politely ask for their names to be taken down and pinned to their clothing so their families can identify them later.  They apologize for the trouble they've caused, or they thank us for our attention.  I want to scream at them, can't they find any outrage at us, at the `Messengers`, at God, at something for the unfairness of their plight.  It isn't just the Japanese, some of the wounded aid and Red Cross workers are the same way.  Some offer words of comfort and encouragement to me.  It's horrible in a way I can't understand, they're dying, and they don't want me to feel bad.  I'd be demanding help, a doctor, something.  'Please it's all right, see to the others,' 'Thank you my dear for humoring an old man,' 'Please don't cry lady, I'll be with mommy soon.'  It's almost more than I can take.

      How many more are left out there?  A dozen, or several?  A hundred, or several?  The action becomes mechanical.  We cross the parking lot, checking on those who have been dosed to see if they've died, if they have, we summon a stretcher bearer to clear the space.  I hadn't thought there were so many people in the shelters, so many of all ages, both genders.  Families clustered around a dying relative.  Young parents weeping over a dead or dying child.  I wanted to curse Jeff for his callousness, oh God, how few hours ago - now I am the one warehousing the dying, waiting for them to become the dead.  I offer what words of comfort are left in me to the family members who wait.  Normally, I can lie through my teeth, suddenly the comfortable lies stick in my throat.  I want to shout, 'They're dying!  Go away!'  But I can't, those faces so desperate for hope, for any good news, looking at me, seeing me and the nurse as a potential savior, the terrible realization when we tell them to keep their loved one comfortable.  I can see their spirits die, even the children look with understanding, knowing that the end has come, the children are the worst, many try to be so brave.

      There are desperate cries for some attention, until they realize it is over, then the only demand is to record their name and address, and some a brief message.  They compose themselves on the stretcher or the ground to be easier to cart away, to avoid being a burden.  It's obscene, it should be trite and saccharine.  Until you watch it happen, then it defies comprehension.

      Their bravery makes a mockery of the bold shouted oaths of the martial artists back home, and the audacity of the pilots here.  I know I could never do this, to go quietly.  I'd be kicking and screaming the whole way.  The nurse and I move through the rows.  'F' on the forehead is a death sentence, an injection, a few words and on to the next.  Only the sun makes any progress.  Occasionally people come with more morphine and alcohol, fresh syringes, Jeff is one of these.  We're both too troubled to speak, a nod, we're still surviving.  Neither of us want to loose the emotions we both feel.  He's haunted, dark circles under his eyes, an impotent anger shines through the mask of sanity.  I expect I look the same.  He passes over the fresh supplies, and collects the empties and dirty syringes.  That we have to clean the syringes between injections and periodically send them back to be autoclaved, it's so ridiculous, an affectation of humans.  Trivial ritual, warding off the insanity surrounding us.  When it intrudes too strongly to be ignored, we adapt.

      Anger bubbles up, No rational gods would allow this!  Where are the others, the `real` pilots?  Home, clean and safe?  Were they chastised for this slaughter?  Why did Jeff drag me into this?  Why did I let him?  Handing another clean syringe and the nearly empty morphine bottle to the nurse are my only reaction.  The anger is smothered by the enormity of what is happening around me.

      "Nurse?  Where can I put her?" a young Marine asks me, he carries a Japanese girl in a night gown, in another context, he might be carrying his bride over the threshold on his honeymoon, except the expression on his face.  Worried, anxious and earnestly trying to keep his grip on his emotions.  I reach up to brush her hair from her face, looking for the 'F' that will mark the girl as much a corpse as the grisly cordwood being stacked in the far corner.  There's not a mark on her, I pray silently to find no mark, a mistake, a man brought the girl to the wrong place.  The same prayer I've prayed a dozen times and more, just this once I wish it had gone unanswered.  There is no mark, I would thank whatever gods are listening - except I recognized the face - Hiroko.  All I can do is remember.


      "You're new here," she had greeted me, "I'm Ayami Hiroko.  You probably need someone to show you around."  I did, and more than just the around school, and I was immensely grateful.

      "Hurry up Boss, I mean slow-poke!" she ran in front of me in gym class, "How can you be a pilot if you aren't faster than that?"  I gritted my teeth and pushed myself to keep up with her, the speed-demon.

      "Did you hear the ghost last night, Boss?" she shivered, "Like a thousand tortured souls, but it sounded happy at the same time."  I'd told her it was just someone playing bagpipes, like the Navy said.  She hadn't really accepted my explanation.

      "Yamato can't pay what he owes, but Raccoon arranged for him to tutor Ken-san in exchange for Ken assuming the debt."  She told me.  "You know," she teased me, "If you don't show him more interest, some girl's going to steal him away."  I growled at her 'We're just business associates', she'd smiled at me, she knew he was more than that, he was my friend, like she was.


      I touch her neck as a reflex, feeling for a pulse, the man must have seen the horror on my face.  No pulse, cold skin.  I step back, I cannot speak, cannot hear.  My vision narrows to a tunnel, I'm unable to breathe, I keep staring at the face of the girl, my friend and confidant.  She's been with me since my first day at school.  Another hand touches the girl and gives a curt order, and the Marine takes her away.  I reach out to touch her again, she's running away, this time I can't keep up.  Someone is holding me back.  I struggle weakly, I can't take my eyes off of her.  I can't leave her, I have to do something!

      "Nabiki, Nabiki!  Snap out of it!  Look at me - focus!" Jeff turns me to face him, his face is stern, "Focus.  I'll take the tray.  Go to the kitchens.  They're washing and sterilizing the instruments, go."  His tone softens, "I'll take over here."

      "I can - I can continue," I manage, straining against a current of despair, all those people around me mourning their loved ones.  I disdained them, their foolishness.  I'm no better than they are.  There's no anger at anyone, and no sadness, I just want her back.

      "You don't have to, you've got nothing to prove," he tells me sympathetically.

      "It was Hiroko, you know?"  I need confirmation, maybe it wasn't real, maybe I was hallucinating.

      I see the pain on his face, the boy under the `devil-may-care` attitude, "I know."  A gentle hug that confirms my worst fears.  And he pushes me gently but firmly in the direction of the kitchens.

      I wander aimlessly for a time, as if nothing around me is real, nothing matters.  I finally find myself there.  "Reporting."  I want to sound collected and in control, it sounds like a croak.  An older nurse and a half-dozen girls almost as young as me, Japanese and Europeans.  The girls all have the same shattered, horrified look as I must have.  This is the dumping ground, the people who can't keep working outside, are sent here.  I'm ashamed, I should be stronger than this, but I'm not.  All my arrogance and smug superiority didn't mean anything in the face of reality.  I'm at the lowest level of those still working.  I won't fail here, I won't.

      It's clean here, the first time I've been somewhere clean in hours.  Sinks full of surgical instruments and hot soapy water, a trio of autoclaves in one aisle.  The nurse has me wash my hands and arms to the elbow, put on a fresh smock over my dirty coveralls.  Then I put on heavy rubber gloves, a face mask and a strange cap over my hair, and go to work.

      My English is good enough, the head nurse can explain to me how to pull instruments from the autoclave to assemble surgical kits: collections of clamps, scalpels and other tools of surgery.  Others come in and carry the covered trays to the surgeries.  It is clean and quiet in here, the same quiet professionalism as outside from the nurse, no jokes, no smart remarks from the shell-shocked.  The workers are lost in their own worlds, to a greater or lesser extent.  But I can respond to calls for some specific type of instrument or other, I'm able to remember the names of these strange pieces of metal.  The task is mechanical, one of these, one of those, three of the other, cover with a sterile cloth, put it aside, start the next.  I help with a few special trays, a half-dozen syringes to be taken to the storeroom for alcohol and morphine.  I almost can't do that.  Too many memories, too many dead and dying faces looking back at me.       I know I could leave, no one would think less of me.  I'm a kid.  I'm not supposed to weather this.  I shouldn't have come, now that I'm here, I can never leave, who else can do it?  I hold on and continue working, it's getting dark outside.  I can see through the kitchen windows.  The demand ebbs, some of us are allowed to wash up and eat something.  I can't imagine putting anything in my stomach, I'd throw up immediately.  I don't want to stop working, the moment I do: I think, I remember, I conjure up the images.  I don't want to remember, I don't want to think.  I'm ashamed of who I was this morning, I still want to go back.

      The thought of sleep and dreams terrify me now.  Of going back into normal life, to answering where Hiroko was, and how many others at the school?  I hadn't considered that!  Tomorrow, how many empty seats in class tomorrow, later today?  How many people, how many holes?  I can't go back there, I can't face that.

      "We're done, honey."  The nurse tells me.

      I stare at her in incomprehension.

      "We're stood down, official," she smiles sympathetically, "You should talk to one of the Chaplains, no shame in that."

      I'm not religious.  I've seen the things, the self-proclaimed `gods` we're fighting.  I don't need spiritual comfort.  I need my memories of the day erased.  The hopeful faces, the desperate cries, the people . . . the friends, dying around me, in my hands.  "Thank you," I manage as I wander out.


      The air outside is cold compared, to the heat and humidity of the kitchen.  The stars look down on mere mortals, are they pitying us or despising us?  Silly, soppy thoughts, I condemn myself for them, Stars are all balls of fusing elements, some aren't even there anymore.  My nice rational and ordered universe ended, I can still smell the plume of smoke from Charlie, still smell the blood from the parking lot.  Trucks are loading the bodies to take to the make-shift morgue.  I can't go home, I don't want to move, I don't want to see or hear anymore.

      "Well you're too young to get drunk."  I manage a smile, I always thought in the old movies it was a cliche, that the heroes would do something unpleasant, then have sake or whiskey to dull the pain.  Not the pain, there is no pain now, it's to dull the memories.

      "Nabiki, are you alive in there?"  I almost wish I wasn't, it would be easier.

      Jeff's holding me now, he seems to be exempt to all the horror around us.

      "Why are you immune?" I ask.  It's callous and cruel, but he isn't affected by it like I am.  Doesn't he care?  How can he not?

      "I'm not immune, I'm immured, I've seen it before.  It's easier the second time, and the third, the fourth, ad nauseam.  You expect to win, but you can't win this.  It's a negative sum game, all you can do is lose as little as possible."

      "That isn't an answer," I tell him, it doesn't explain what happened, why it happened.  I can smell blood and chemicals, and burnt meat in his clothes, on his skin, in his hair.

      "I can't tell you why, later you'll understand for yourself.  Once the hurt goes away.  And you'll feel guilty about that too."  He paused, "Nabiki, it's 3 A.M., we've both been up for 24 hours straight.  I don't intend to sleep in this parking lot, not when there's a bath and bed only a jeep ride away."

      "I, I can't, I just can't."

      He misunderstands, picking me up easily.  I want to cry out, afraid of moving, afraid to see more.  He walks a short distance to where a jeep and driver waits.  The driver has the same SAR armband Jeff and I still wear, he looks as haunted as I feel.  The two of them settle me in the back seat.

      "Home James, and don't stop for tea."  Jeff tells the driver, who manages a weak smile to match mine.  It's a dumb joke, but there's been nothing to smile about for so long.

      "Is she okay, sir?" the driver asks.

      I must really look a mess, for someone in his condition to ask that.

      " 'Bout like the rest of us," Jeff sighs, "This is a yes-or-no question, anyone get the final count?"

      "Yeah." The driver concentrates completely on the road.

      "That bad?" Jeff asks.  The driver nods.  Jeff leans back, pats my knee, "Home soon.  A bath and sleep will do wonders."

      "Don't want to sleep, don't want to dream."  I curl up tightly, a little ball trying to keep the world out.

      "I think I have something that can help with that," Jeff tells me.

      "You got enough for two?" the driver asks.  Neither of us know what he went through.  I don't know what Jeff went through, or anyone else.  I don't want to know.

      "Probably."  Jeff pulls his hat over his face and manages to catch a nap on the drive home.  I can't believe it!  How could anyone sleep after what we just went through?


      The driver helps Jeff carry me to the apartment.  He sets me in the bathroom while he heads back to the driver.  I can barely move, the aches of the day are finally reporting in, pain tells me I'm alive.  I manage to stand under my own power, before Jeff arrives.  He's got a small glass of water, he pours a brown powder into it and stirs it with a knife.

      "Can't use silver, it'll take off the plating."  He hands me the glass, "All of it, all at once.  Ignore the taste, it works."

      The stuff is awful!  Bitter, sour, too-sweet all at once, but I get it all down.  "What is that stuff?"  I start washing my face.

      "I don't know the word in Japanese, it's from the Latin for pleasing.  Shower quick, the side-effect is extreme grogginess and it hits fast.  In a hour you won't be able to keep your eyes open.  And no dreams.  You'll probably wake up very hungry.  It's not perfect, but it does the job well enough."

      "Are you going to carry me to bed if I can't stand up," I tease.

      "Just hurry up, I want to clean up too.  Get rid of this smell."  He stares at his hands, clenching his fists.  Then he forces himself to relax.  He touches my chin before he leaves, closing the door after him.

      I shower quickly as he suggested, water as hot as I can stand.  Washing the dust, blood and smells from my hair and skin.


      I walk out of the shower, the medicine, or home-remedy, is already taking effect.  I'm stumbling to my room.  I spot Jeff sitting on the floor at the entrance to the kitchen.  His legs are tight against his body, chin on his knees, his hands cover his head.  I can't tell if he's crying.  I wouldn't blame him if he was, evidently he isn't as immune as he made me believe.

      I can't stay awake, I don't know what to say, what to do.  So again, I walk away from someone who needs help, because I can't help them.

      Sleep claims me almost before I can crawl into bed.


      Jeff's cooking, lunch by the angle of the sunlight.  It isn't breakfast with sunlight coming straight down.  Is it even the same day?  I really don't care.

      He smiles, nods.  No one else is here, at school or at work instead.  He leaves the kitchen for a moment.

      When he comes back in, he freezes, staring at what I have on the counter: brown sugar and quinine water.

      "Placebo.  You think I wouldn't figure it out?"  I put some of the sugar in the glass of quinine, brown powder in water.

      He has the decency to look embarrassed, it tastes just like the `medicine` from last night.

      "No bad dreams, it worked."  I am trying to forgive him, I know why he lied.

      "Sorry."  He shuffles his feet like a schoolboy, "I couldn't think of anything else."

      "Thanks.  How are we going to . . . deal with . . . the others I mean?" I ask.

      "I don't know."

      Neither do I, but we're going to have to.  And next time, and the time after that.


Chapter 29 - Restitution

What has gone before:

      About Book 11, Akane and Soun Tendo throw Ranma out of the house.  Nabiki, in the guise of a wish, follows him.  They meet EVA pilots Shinji Ikari, Rei Ayanami, Asuka Soryu Langley and Jeffrey Davis.

      Asuka and Jeff begin continue analyzing the equations to manipulate the AT field, they discover an important side-effect of AT fields.  They begin teaching the other pilots the math to understand it.

      After a session with the Magi computers, which he crashed, Ranma understands enough to use the AT field the way he had against Nyogtha.

      Hiroko accidentally discovered the truth about Ranma/Ranko, and is ordered to keep silent.  She asks to be a pilot, both Rei and Ritsuko try to convince her not to.

      The cult of Cthugha, under direction of SEELE renegades, launch a massive attack, and are defeated at heavy cost.

      The first Sonic Glaives arrive and the pilots train with them, then use them in combat.  Cthugha was destroyed, as well as many fire vampires.

      The reaction to the attack by were-tigers causes Ranma to accept that the Neko-ken is part of him, and is far more animalistic and ruthless than he is.

      Shinji decided he must move back to watch over Misato.

      The Russians are low on spare parts as constant combat operations has worn out their Ogromniy Units.

Kanashikute mo nakenai basho ga aru

hoshi no hikari mo kooritsuku danger zone.

Nagusame sae muimi na toki ga aru

However sad I may be, there is a place where I cannot cry;

the danger zone that freezes even starlight.

There are times meaningless even to consolation;

Thrill no Odoru Angeltachi (Angels Dancing in the Thrill) Lyrics by SHOW

Chapter 29 - Restitution

Return

June 16, 1947

      Rei knew what she was planning violated the law, but after the Commander's explanation, she was beginning to understand that sometimes, differing calls on morality and necessity made different requirements and standards of conduct.  Was Law above Justice, was Law above Survival?  The concept of lesser and greater goods and evils was a new and difficult one.

      She walked across the open field around the apartment building.  In the early morning light, she saw the figures, moving and not.  Only a few walked among the many blanket-wrapped figures who lay around them.  The smell that assaulted her was unbelievable.  So strong, it nearly drove all thought of continuing from her mind.  The others wondered why she disdained meat, the smell almost physically curling around her was a far more eloquent explanation than anything she had ever managed.

      One figure in particular caught her eye.  The coat and fedora were unmistakable, even the handkerchief covering his face could not disguise him.  He would pull a blanket aside, and make some comment to the soldier in the gas mask following him with a clipboard, then on to the next.  She knew she was capable of doing the same, identifying the fallen, but she could never be that detached.  She could never separate who they were, from who they were to her.  Instead, she walked on, into the building and her destination.  No one looked at her, she guessed than none of them wanted to see anything anymore.

      The door in the empty hall cracked easily, a very different, equally unpleasant smell assaulted her as she opened the door.  The beginnings of the Ayami family's morning meal and the packaged lunches had been left to rot where they lay abandoned.  As below, the mere presence of a Great Old One, dead or alive, had accelerated the putrefaction.  The blast had scorched the draperies that had faced the shelter, they added to the acrid smell in the entryway.  She looked at the apartment, so different from her own. Logical, Rei thought, It houses - housed, a family.  She scanned for clues, a label, a photograph.  It would not be in the kitchen, Rei was glad to leave that smell behind.  There were no sounds at all in the apartment, as there had been total silence in the rest of the building, not even the mechanical sounds of an inhabited building.  The bedrooms were shared, two and three people in each.  The largest pair were clearly for adults, the mix of male and female odors clearly indicated that, parents and grandparents, Rei guessed from what Hiroko had said.  The other two rooms were separated by gender.  She entered what she guessed, from the scent, was the girl's room.  She made no light and little sound.  She doubted anyone would detect her, so she could search thoroughly.

      Three girls of different ages shared the room, each would have a place - their own private hiding place.  By trial and error, they would be difficult to access by the others.  As she walked over the futons, which were still on the floor, she hoped in their haste, they had not taken what she sought.

      She opened the closet where they would put away the rolled up futons.  She began methodically pressing the wall, until she found the loose boards.  She removed them.  In the small hollow were two books and a few other mementos of Hiroko's life.  The only thing that really felt like stealing was the saving passbook and the small collection of American Treasury bills.  She considered replacing those, but decided it was better to let others settle that question.  She slipped them into the small bag she had brought with her.  She scanned the room carefully for anything else that might be important, admitting silently she had little idea what she was looking for.

      She had found several other hiding places, but did not think what she found there would be useful.  Except, to their owners perhaps, so she left them out in the open and carefully closed the hiding places.  Despite the stench, she examined the kitchen and the living room for anything that would meet the parameters of her search.  She lamented that she could not bring help with her, but the only two who she trusted to help were either needed elsewhere, or would have prevented the search.

      She closed and relocked the door behind her as she left.  The place, the entire building, already felt like a tomb, she wondered if that would ever change.


      Ramsey walked leadenly along the blacktop, barely listening to the reports from the cult leaders and the Marine commander who walked with him.  The lives freely given had measured the margin between victory and defeat here.  They had made no separation effort, other than to separate the fallen from those whom they might save.  Even that had proven meaningless in part.

      "The Fourth's Brigade lost roughly 200 troops."  The black suited man, practically the uniform of the Sixth's cult, nodded to the man in the martial arts gi.  "Our own, over 300," the man in the suit told the three men who walked with him.

      "Are you saying we should have offered training?" the martial artist grilled the other cult leader, "Are you saying we should have coordinated better!?  Are saying we wasted these people?"

      "No," came the soft answer, "I was not saying that, if you believe I was implying that, I apologize.  We had to stop them, whatever the . . . whatever our cost.  No one who stood here failed to do their duty, to the end."

      Ramsey looked at the rows and rows of gas cylinders thought on the troops they had lost to defend them.  Oxygen, nitrogen, helium, acetylene, hydrogen, propane all in their own areas, all with their own dangers.  That 'lost' meant dead, missing and wounded didn't salve his sense of loss any.  "I saw some drunk turn a cylinder like that upside down and break off the valve, instant incendiary rocket.  If those - "  He gestured to the still smoking truck frames, surrounded by a burnt area, some nearly 30 feet across.  "With their flamethrowers, had gotten in here . . . "  He glanced at the others, they knew that, he was just rambling.  He needed to talk about it.  Talk to someone who had seen it themselves.  He doubted anyone else could understand what he felt, pride, anger, sadness, guilt, all rolled into a package he couldn't untangle himself.

      "Whatever customs for . . . " the Marine Colonel offered, "For honoring your dead, we will of course respect them."

      "Thank you, Colonel," the martial artist said, "Normally we would favor the Japanese custom of cremation . . . after this, it somehow feels wrong."

      "Burial at sea," the black-suited man said, "If you could arrange it with your Admiral."  He pointed to Admiral Simson who was picking his way towards them.

      "Of course," Ramsey said, he was oddly glad to have the distraction, although he doubted the Admiral had any better news.

      "Sir."  Ramsey saluted, "The other locations?"

      "The other four are as bad as this one," Simson looked around, "Hell of a thing to say after a victory.  I am glad you got those people on our side.  Even with their help, it was a bitch of a job."

      "Vehicle-mounted flamethrowers, considering who they were and what they were after.  We shouldn't have been surprised."

      "Don't beat yourself up for not being able to think like them, Captain."  Simson glanced at the trio standing together, "How is the black suit taking it?"

      "Considering he's the High Priest now, and his predecessor died in a sorcerous duel.  He's taking it as well as can be expected," Ramsey answered.  No one wanted to speculate where the enemy had gotten a mage of that power level to help them, or where the other one had gone.

      "You know," Simson began, "I always thought Katsuragi was just a drunk, now I may start drinking whatever she does.  Gutsy move, splitting the EVAs that way.  Brilliant, considering who went with whom."

      "I was kinda busy here, Admiral.  What are you talking about?" Ramsey asked.

      "This was Leyte Gulf stood on its head, Captain.  Saotome and Langley took on the big guy, which was actually a diversion.  Ikari and Ayanami took on the small fry, all of them.  Which left the cultists to us.  That made it a stand up fight, and that was the real purpose.  Not to mention she filled the air with misleading messages.  I can't wait to read the transcripts of what went out over the tether comm lines.  The attackers had a command radio, they were listening in on everything we did and said.  Their `god` was only here to keep the EVAs occupied and to receive the entire city of Tokyo as a burnt offering.  Nice people."

      Ramsey shivered at that.  There were facts about those things he didn't want to know.  He was learning there were things about his fellow humans he didn't want to know even more.  "Have the pilots been informed?"

      "No," Admiral Simson said, "For once I agree with Ikari.  No fourteen-year-old should have to know about this.  They won, let them savor their victory.  They'll be faced with real carnage soon enough."


      Ranma entered Ritsuko's apartment.  Raccoon was cooking lunch.  Nab-chan was confronting him in the kitchen, neither looked happy.

      Nab-chan must have caught him at something, he thought, I bet I can cheer them up.  "Hey, did you two hear?"  He wondered why both of them shrank away like that.  "The battle, did you hear about the battle?" he was so excited, he just had to tell them, "And all the great news?"

      "Great news?" Nab-chan asked in a strange voice, she still hadn't turned around.

      Ranma figured she and Raccoon were really pissed at each other.

      "Maybe you should tell us later," Raccoon suggested, "After you get some more information about the battle."  He hadn't taken his eyes off Nab-chan.

      "Misato already gave us a hard time about showboating," Ranma complained, "You sound just like her.  You'd think she'd be happier we won, and how fast.  No, not her.  You should know, I figured out how to throw those exploders, just like the first time.  Thanks to you.  Then Asuka had to butt in."  Ranma had to admit, that rankled, so did the complete lack of reaction from Raccoon and Nab-chan.  "What's the matter with you two?  You act like - "

      "Enough!" Raccoon cut him off.

      "Jeff . . . no," Nab-chan said softly.

      Ranma was beginning to suspect he caught them doing a lot more than just arguing.  He knew the obvious conclusion to jump to was the least likely.  They wouldn't have wanted me to stay here, he thought, If that's what they were doing.

      "I . . . I'm not hungry any more."  Nab-chan turned around.  Ranma saw her expression, she looked like a lot of the ladies he saw on the street, downcast eyes, hiding all her feelings.  He expected a snide comment or an ambush, but she just walked past.

      Ranma was getting angry, I'm not jealous, he told himself.  Ranma reached out, she shied away from him.  "Oh, I give you two a hard time about hiding my past from me, so you come up with this conspiracy of silence?  Try to ignore me?  Is that it?"

      "This has nothing to do with you, Saotome.  At least not directly."  Raccoon was putting the pots and pans away.

      "Well, it's that, or something else?  Or are you two pissed that we let it get away?  It's not like we expected it to blow up after it was dead!"  Ranma ignored Raccoon's signals to be quiet, "I will not be quiet.  We got stuck in the simulators for hours, I come back, and you two are playing house.  Fine, you're mad I yelled at you, I figured you'd get over it."

      Raccoon walked past him into the hall to collect his boots.  He heard the door to the girls' room close.

      Raccoon's tone was surprisingly mild, "Then you haven't heard?  You didn't hear about what else happened yesterday?"

      "I don't know what you're talkin' about, I told you - "

      "Yes, I heard you.  After the battle, you were in the simulators, all day.  Trust me, drop the subject, until you hear more."

      "I can hear more right now!  From YOU!" Ranma replied angrily, "I'm sick of you two thinking you know what's best for me.  There's nothing you can say that I can't handle.  I don't need you two protecting me from everything.  And I'm sick of you clamming up and telling me only what you think I need to know.  I want to know it all, let's start with what you two were doing."

      "Very well, after you."  Raccoon gestured for him to head outside.

      Ranma stepped out and waited for Raccoon to join him, and close the door behind him.  Ranma watched him lean against the door, like a tired old man, he had to wait while the other boy gathered his thoughts.  Or makes up explanations, Ranma irritatedly thought.

      "After you left the area, about 3:09, SAR, Search and Rescue, moved in.  For the next eight hours, I was crawling through dark holes, looking for survivors among the scorched pieces of people.  I assume Nabiki did that same, we haven't talked about it.  I spent another four hours working in the hospital: carrying stretchers, supplies, anything that needed doing.  The burn victims are the worst, the smell permeates everything, your clothes your hair, L.C.L. would be preferable.  Standing by while the doctors peel off their burnt clothes, piece by piece, is very bad.  Should I go on?"

      Ranma felt numb, he couldn't answer.  Raccoon scrubbed his face with his hands, as if still trying to get rid of the smell, "Then I relieved Nabiki, who was helping with the dying.  After they quit bringing in new victims, they needed people to help move the dead to the trucks to take them to the morgue.  At midnight, I was mopping floors in the hospital, you'd be amazed at the variety and quantity of things that escape from wounded people.  I finished up about 3:00 A.M. this morning.  I'd go on - but we weren't having an illicit love affair, if that's what you inferred.  So why don't you go back to the limelight and the well-deserved accolades, and just leave us alone?" He tipped his hat and walked off.

      Ranma just stared after the other boy, "I . . . I didn't know."  Ranma barely recognized his own voice.  You didn't care, until a moment ago, he reproached himself, he'd never considered what Search and Rescue would do after the EVAs returned to base.  He felt like someone had kicked him in the guts, he almost wished Raccoon or Nab-chan had, he could understand that kind of pain.

      He headed back inside, it was unbelievable.  They would have told us! he thought, considered the help the EVAs could have been, It can't be.  He couldn't believe what they'd told him, but he couldn't believe they were lying about something like that either.  He knew one person he could ask, one who seemed to know everything.


      Ranma stood in the kitchen, waiting with the phone in hand until he heard the phone pick up at the other end. 'Yes?'  "Rei, when we fought Cthugha, were there a lot of casualties?"

      "Yes."

      "How many dead and wounded."  He rested his head in his hand, bracing his arm on the kitchen counter, he didn't know why he was asking her, why he needed to know.

      "Nonmilitary casualties: 813 confirmed dead, 4083 wounded requiring medical attention, 1623 missing, all presumed lost.  There is not yet a firm count of military casualties."

      He felt his guts bunch up and turn to ice as he slid to the kitchen floor.  Possibly twenty-four hundred people dead, because of him and Asuka.

      "What rescue agencies were involved?" he asked in a monotone.

      Rei replied immediately as if she'd been eager to give the answer, "NERV SAR, the U.S. Military, the American and Japanese Red Cross, Japanese Disaster Recovery.  Tokyo Police and Fire Departments - "

      "Thank you.  Nabiki and Raccoon deployed with NERV SAR that day, didn't they?"

      "There are reports and recommendations for decorations on file at headquarters.  You can ask Dr. Akagi to read them."  The girl's mild tone was almost accusatory.

      How much hadn't he paid attention to?  What was going on right under his nose?  He hadn't even asked about those two after the debriefing, or during the congratulations on a job well done after the simulator time.  Only Misato chiding us about showboating, but no mention of the dead, no real criticism, no urging us to go and make it right, he thought, No.  The two schemers got their hands fouled, again, for the good of everyone else.

      "No thanks, Rei.  You don't happen to know where Rac . . . Roku-kun is, do you?"  She seems to know everything else, he thought.

      "He may be visiting Hiroko, at 158 Sakura Street.  Seisuke and Kenta are there as well."

      "Oh, I guess I need to - "  He wasn't sure what he needed.  "I said something stupid and he. . . ."

      "I research other locations."  Rei's voice was more neutral than usual, she had no opinion whether he should or should not accept her offer.

      Rei's automatic assumption he wouldn't at least try to do the right thing hurt worse than Raccoon's quiet tone.  "No, it's all right.  Thanks, bye."  He stood and hung up the phone.  He knew why Raccoon left.  Because anyone that mad would eventually start a fight, but no one could beat Saotome Ranma in a fight.  So Raccoon said his piece and left, waiting for Ranma to cool off, so he wouldn't have to fight him, and get beaten.  He walked to Nab-chan's bedroom door.  He could see the bunk bed in his room, another effort not to start a fight.

      Ranma was getting really angry now.  Misato and the others had to know about what happened, and they'd kept the pilots in the dark.  Except Rei, Ranma thought, It explains her weird behavior at the briefing before they let us go home.  Every time Misato congratulated us on our progress, `Wondergirl` looked like she was getting stabbed.  "So I walk in crowing about it."  Ranma wondered just how stupid he looked to both of them, and how callous.

      He considered all this as he walked to Nab-chan's door.

      "Nab-chan."  He knocked, "You in there?"

      The door was stiff, she'd blocked it closed somehow.  She's probably blocked the bathroom door too, he thought.  He could crawl out the balcony and go in through the window.  He decided against it.  She wanted to be alone.  Obviously, you idiot! he cursed himself.  He headed for the door, he needed to find out what had happened.  And, what?  Apologize?  Let him hit you? he wondered.

      He could figure out something.


      Rei stood in her apartment and stared at the phone.  Normally she hated the thing.  Now, she suspected that there other things that needed to be done, and this thing she had not wanted would help her do them.

      She dialed the phone number from memory.  "Hokari Hikari," she said in reply to the 'Moshi moshi' at the other end, "This is pilot Ayanami."

      "Ayanami-san?" the class president's voice came over the line.

      "You will assemble the class, all you can, at Sakura and Silver River streets, at 13:00 hours.  It is important."

      "I don't know . . . " the other girl said, "There may be a way.  It's awfully short notice."

      Rei considered what the Commander would say, then a faint smile crossed her face, a direct quote would serve, " 'You will follow my orders, or face trial, and I will find someone who will.'  Do not involve Tendo Nabiki."

      She heard the girl gulp.  "I'll do my best.  Sakura and Silver River Street, 13:00."

      "Yes."  Rei hung up the phone.  She considered what else she would have to do.  She did not understand how people interacted.  She took things apart, fascinated by how the parts and pieces fit together, worked together.  She was far less skilled at reassembling things.  The Second had joked that 'a jigsaw puzzle is the ultimate Wondergirl torture implement,' the Second had been more right than she knew.  Even knowing exactly how something went together, was not always helpful.

      Interacting with people was the worst, the most intricate and most confusing of all.  For years she sat as she watched and listened, trying to determine exactly what was said, why it was said, and why saying the same words in the same tone at a different time yielded completely different results.  The parts never fit, she had a huge `library` of remembered interactions, but the events never seemed to exactly fit.

      Then the Commander had explained that the context, the events surrounding the interaction, were the determining factor in many cases.  Not just duty, but in any interaction.  To Rei, that sounded like the color of an airplane determined how fast it could fly.  Something she had considered irrelevant was the key.

      She had just experimented on the Class President, and it had worked.  She realized she had many of what she considered 'almost-but-not-quite' experiences.  She would consider the successful use of them while she walked to the rendezvous.  She would arrive early, but that did not matter.  She had several other phone calls to make first, details she needed to know.


      "I have to apologize, Doctor," Jeff told Ritsuko in her office.

      She was seated behind her desk, he was pacing the office.  Ritsuko had never seen him that agitated, although she knew he had good reason.  She was alarmed that his tone and grimace hid that seething inside.

      Jeff continued, "Ranma made a stupid statement, and I blew up.  I don't think much property damage was done.  No cats lost."

      Her horror turned to a smile, "As long as I don't have to sign an autopsy, I think I can live with it."  She shot back.  "Are you going to be all right?  Not that you'd tell me, I guess."  You wanted to beat someone up because of what happened, I'll bet, Ritsuko thought, Except you're afraid of Ranma, although you'd never admit that either.

      "No, I'll survive.  I don't think Nabiki is feeling too good about it either," Jeff said, continued pacing, "It's no fun being told that kind of trauma isn't a serious thing."  Jeff stopped pacing, stood there nervously.  "I am curious why no one even told him about what happened, so he came charging in like a bull."  When he got no answer, he continued speaking and pacing, "Well, I thought I'd better tell you before you walked into it by accident."

      "Have you ever considered sitting down and talking to him about this?" Dr. Akagi asked, as she considered the absurdity that about the only thing Jeff was afraid of was Ranma, and that Ranma was equally afraid of Jeff.  Though they both would deny it with their dying breath.

      "No," Jeff replied, "I don't really want to talk about it at all, to anyone, I just lived it.  I'd just end up more frustrated that if I'd just left it alone."  He shrugged, "So I'll leave it alone."

      "Eventually that sentiment is going to bubble up," Dr. Akagi warned, "You know that as well as I do."

      "I've got a leave coming up, as you remember.  I can let it bubble then," Jeff told her, tipped his hat as he left.

      "That isn't what I meant," Dr. Akagi pulled the preliminary after-action reports from SAR and some of the other rescue groups.  It had taken some doing to get those, she wanted the information before it was sanitized for posterity.  What the pair had gone through made her shudder, it was almost more than anything she'd ever had to deal with.  She also had copies of the papers recommending commendations for all involved, from the military, Red Cross and the Japanese Interior Ministry.  But she hadn't shown them to the two alternates, on Misato's advice.  'The failure of Ranma and Asuka to control the Angel after they'd wounded it,' Misato had said.  Killed it actually, Ritsuko thought.  'It wouldn't do anyone any good to harp on it,' Misato had concluded.  Except the two who went above and beyond to help clean up the mess, our mess, and serve the cause in ways the others didn't even consider, Ritsuko thought.

      She considered the treatment her mother had given her, and decided she was not going to ignore the needs of her charges.  Even though they weren't as 'sensitive' as the others, they were all kids, and they needed adults to stand up for them.  Or they're going to keep getting the short end of the stick, she thought.  She also resolved to call Sammi to warn her about Ranma and Jeff.  There was going to be an explosion on that front, and soon.

      And no one can stop it, she sighed.


      "Kamis, Rei!" Ranma stormed out of the building, garnering many shocked and outraged looks, and not a few of sympathy as well.

      That's a morgue! Ranma thought, as he gasped for breath, You could have just told me they died.  Hiroko!  Kamis, no wonder Nab-chan is acting that way.  He shivered, despite the heat of the day.

      He looked over at Sammi.  "You - you knew . . . about this?"  The shock of discovery still disordered his breathing and heart beat.

      "Some, but not all the details," the woman admitted.

      "Do the others know?  Besides Nab-chan and Raccoon," Ranma demanded, "They lived through it.  Did you keep this from the others?"

      "I don't know."

      Ranma couldn't believe it.  He squared himself, he had to go back in.  To finish what he had started.


Requital

      Rei watched her classmates assemble.  She had called Shinji herself, so he had arrived first.  Rei also realized that no one had told him what had happened.  The others had not a clue either.  She did not understand the reasons for that.

      The others collected in their usual groupings.  The Second arrived with Hikari, Rei considered that no coincidence.

      "Trial, Wondergirl?" the Second told her, "She isn't an officer, you can't put her on trial, or court martial her."

      "An incompetent president can be tried, an impeachment," Rei replied.

      The Second returned to her friend, frowning and grumbling about 'Robots gone amok!'

      Less than a third of the class had assembled by 13:10, Rei decided that was all they were going to get, and was tired of trying to deflect the 'Why are we here?' questions.  Roku-kun might have intentionally misinterpreted the questions, the Second might have yelled at them to be patient.  Rei had simply stared at them, until they fell silent.

      "This way."  She started towards 158, down Sakura Street, a tall office building, eight floors.  She wondered if the original builders had ever considered such a use for it.

      The rest of the class picked up that this building, on an otherwise ordinary street, was different.  Something odd was happening inside.  Since Rei knew what to expect, she could watch the changes in her fellow students' faces, their demeanor and speech.

      I am pleased Shinji-kun detected it first, Rei thought when Shinji-kun had started staring with greater intensity, then his face went blank as the people, mostly adults, left the building, they were either openly weeping or stoic, men and women.

      Shinji-kun took her arm in alarm.  She faced him, "We must go in."

      He swallowed, nodded, continued to accompany her, his face a stoic mask.

      Just short of the entrance, where Kraznyzamok-san waited for the Fourth, Rei halted the group.  "Yes.  They are dead.  Ayami Hiroko, the . . . Saotome's friends: Hijo Seisuke and Adachi Kenta, and many others."  I want to blame the Fourth and the Second for failing to follow orders, Rei thought, But that is not correct, orders would not have prevented disaster.  "The Angel's death did this."

      Which is the truth, Rei admitted to herself.  She felt Shinji-kun take her hand, she shook her head and removed her hand.  It is not the time, she thought.

      "Asuka?" Hikari asked in a small voice, seeing the terrified look on the Second's face and her trembling.

      Rei ignored both of them.  "Noncombatants, there were 813 confirmed dead, another 1623 missing, presumed lost, and 4083 wounded requiring medical attention.  Combatants, military and rescue workers, another 647 dead, 235 missing and 2658 wounded requiring medical attention."  Rei glanced at the building.  "Many of our classmates and their families are within."

      Some shook their heads, trying to deny reality.  I have no time for deceit or softheartedness, Rei thought.

      Rei headed towards the entrance, Shinji-kun accompanied her, along with many of their classmates.  Those who did not wish to follow, did not.  Rei was disappointed that the Second was part of that group, but not surprised.  There had been no reaction by their leaders to what the Second and the Fourth Children did, nothing beyond a comment on `showboating`.

      I knew what happened.  If the Commander had not had another task for me, I would have gone out to assist, Rei thought, If not the people, then my fellow pilots.  I still do not understand why Captain Katsuragi decided not to divulge the cost to the others.  Did she expect they would never find out?  Did she think it unimportant?  Both such attitudes are dangerous, to be confronted with the facts or with the consequences later or not at all, would foster a dangerous overconfidence.  Captain Katsuragi has punished and threatened the pilots severely over trivial matters in past, yet does nothing over an occurrence of this magnitude.  I do not understand her reasoning in these matters.  It would be more reasonable to 'Let the punishment fit the crime.'

      Just before they entered, Rei stopped those accompanied her.  I feel an explanation is necessary, and a warning, she thought, It is clear that what they encountered, deeply affected both Nabiki-kun and Roku-kun and they are two of the most durable individuals I have ever met.  I suspect my classmates will be affected.

      "I am here to honor friends," she paused and was daunted by the intensity with which the others followed her words.  "If you are uncomfortable, I understand."  She was glad Shinji-kun accompanied her inside.  I am surprised that Toji and Kensuke also remain, Rei thought.  Perhaps the 'Three Stooges' as Hikari and the Second referred to them, felt more comfortable together.

      "The rescuers, including Nabiki-kun and Roku-kun, are to receive 11 honors for their actions that day," Rei told them, pause, "Including one already signed by the Emperor and General MacArthur jointly."

      "I didn't know," Shinji-kun said, his voice and expression betrayed none of his feelings.  The others were silent, thinking their own thoughts.

      Rei could sympathize, it was just too big to comprehend.  No thoughts or emotions could encompass it.  She herself felt odd, Hiroko's loss to her had spurred her to take these actions, actions that should have terrified her.

      Instead, Rei thought, They seem wholly inadequate.

      Rei knew Toji's sister, and many others were wounded in Shinji-kun's first sortie.  However, the death toll here was greater than any disaster since the end of the Pacific war, and had been heavily suppressed.  Again, she wondered why.  Why it had happened, why it had engendered the reactions it had, and why it fell to the pilots to deal with it?

      "Ayami Hiroko," Rei told the desk clerk at the entrance, "Eighth floor," she added as she waited at what would be the main reception desk in a normal office building.

      "Room 8027, are you family members?" the Red Cross woman asked with an interest that seemed out of place.

      "No," Shinji-kun said, "Hiroko-san was a classmate.  I guess, we're just saying goodbye."

      "Why did you ask?" Rei asked.

      "There are no living relatives.  After that other young man asked, I was hoping . . . " she fell into a shamed silence.

      A ray of hope gone.  Rei understood that family, gave a sense of continuance.  As I have, Rei thought, It may not be exactly the same person, but intents go on.  The annihilation of the entire family, ends all of it, as if events ended all the other Reis, there would be no more, no one to continue the goals, to carry on the objectives.  That disturbed Rei, she suspected from her reaction, and the others, this information would disturb Roku-kun and Nabiki-kun as well.

      Toji spoke as they walked upstairs, "Nobody to pay for a funeral, that's bad, no one to visit the graves."  He shivered.

      I must investigate this, Rei thought.  The smell was not what she expected with so many bodies, she guessed the authorities cremated or embalmed many as rapidly as possible, to reduce the chance of disease.  The shuffling tread of others, sniffles and sobs were the only sounds to be heard.  The conversations among her classmates had not merely muted, but ended completely.  Room 8027 was no different from any other.  An office hastily converted to its new, temporary purpose.

      Eleven wooden boxes of various lengths on saw horses dominated the space.

      "I didn't even know she was Catholic," Kensuke whispered his reaction to the crucifix adorning the coffins.

      Hiroko had always been quiet, until Nabiki-kun arrived, like Shinji-kun . . .  Rei thought, And myself, she reduced her reclusiveness when Nabiki-kun arrived and made the girl her assistant.  Rei had seen the jealousy that caused later, but Hiroko had reached out to Nabiki-kun first.  There is an answer there, Rei considered her next problem.

      Less than a dozen students were there with them now.  Some had quietly slipped away, of those remaining, some offered prayers, some stood mutely, stunned by this almost sterile marker to the carnage and the end of life.  Rei did not need to pray, or waste time with words to the dead.  I will save my words for the living, she silently vowed, They will need what comfort and explanation I can offer.


      After the others had trooped in,  Asuka gave Sammi and Erin a hard stare, "You knew about this, didn't you?" she asked in a calm tone, desperately trying to keep the volcano inside from exploding and preventing her from getting any answers.

      "We knew about some of it," Sammi admitted, "I don't think anyone except the U.S. Military knows everything."

      "Then how did Wondergirl know to bring us all here?" Asuka asked.  Her expression revealed she was losing her struggle with her temper.

      Neither guard had an explanation.

      "Very well," Asuka said, "I'm going to get some answers!" she said as she headed off to the Naval Base.  Everything about her broadcast the dire fate of anyone or anything that tried to stop her.

      Erin gave Sammi a shrug and headed after her charge.


      They found the Fourth in Kenta and Seisuke's room.  Dozens of small wooden boxes, ash boxes, lined the walls, note cards were before them.  On some of them, small notes or messages.  Rei recognized the handwriting on most of the messages.  It was Nabiki-kun's, or Roku-kun's.  Neither Seisuke nor Kenta left such messages.  Saotome was clearly devastated.  He made no move to acknowledge the others in the room.

      Rei had no pity for him, and little anger now, There are mistakes, and there are consequences, to separate one from the other hinders learning.  Rei felt her own anger building, I am not angry that he is here with his friends, saying nothing, Rei thought, trying to defuse her anger, There is nothing to say, he made a mistake, I doubt he will repeat it in the future.  But he too needs time to absorb what has happened, what he has done, and what it cost him now and in the future.  She was glad these had families who would take care of arrangements, carry on whatever goals they had.  To continue them.  Her anger found its focus in an odd place, the people who had decided to enhance the Fourth's considerable and irritating ignorance.  As if they intended to use him to hurt Nabiki-kun and Roku-kun.


      Rei took Kensuke aside as the others prepared to leave because he . . . knew Hiroko, Kenta and Seisuke, and seemed at least capable of explaining the front desk clerk's enthusiasm, and her subsequent distress.  The classmates fell away from Shinji-kun and Rei as they walked to Dr. Akagi's apartment.  He never asked her why they were going, where they were going.  He either knew, or had faith in Rei, or both.  He took her hand as they walked.  I am concerned how to handle the next step, Rei thought, This is not a matter for the Commander, and my other `mentors` are the ones I need to speak with.  "How do I tell them, about the Ayami family?" she asked Shinji-kun.

      For several moments he did not answer as they walked, finally he came to a decision, "Why don't I tell them.  Just stay by me."  He smiled nervously to her.

      She nodded her agreement, returning a faint smile of her own.

      The Fourth charged up to them.  Rei put a hand up to stop him, she considered using her AT field to stop him if he tried to bypass them.

      "I," he began breathlessly, "I have to . . . "

      "No," Rei told him firmly, "Let them be."

      He did not understand, he tried to step around her.  She moved to keep him blocked, Shinji-kun moved to support her.

      How do I tell him that they will not thank him for his clumsy demands for forgiveness? Rei wondered.  "They cannot give you absolution," she told him.  Rei caught his arm when he tried to step past, she forced her anger down, It is not his fault, she reminded herself.

      "I . . . What can I do?" he demanded plaintively.

      I do not have any answers, Rei thought, He has made me angry in the past, he is making me angry now.  "There is no secret technique.  No one you can hit to restore things.  Do not hurt others to ease your pain," Rei told him, she tightened her grip on his arm until he winced, "Do not assume that a death will balance things, yours or another's."  She stared at him until he looked away, she released him and he left.

      Her outburst surprised Shinji.  I do not know what to tell him, she admitted to herself.

      "Rei-chan, how do you know these things?" Shinji-kun asked.

      Rei could not lie to him, she also knew she could not tell him the truth.  "I would protect you," Rei told him, "Your family."

      "I think I understand," Shinji-kun said, took her hand and led her up the stairs to Dr. Akagi's apartment.


Redress

      Asuka didn't bother announcing herself.  She just barged past the Admiral's yeoman, and into his office.  He and Captain Ramsey were looking over some papers.  They looked up in surprise at the invader, neither immediately reacted.

      "What the Hell did you think you were doing keeping that kind of information from us?" she loudly demanded, fists on her hips, "That kind of cover-up might have worked, except Wondergirl of course knows everything, and Ice Princess and Raccoon were part of the rescue and medical teams."  She marched over to the desk to confront them closely.  "Common courtesy and common sense would have made you warn us.  I bet Horseface charged in on the two of them crowing his victory to all the world, while they were mourning their losses and licking their wounds."  She paused for a moment.  "Well don't you have anything to say!?"

      "Nicht sprechenz Deutsch," Ramsey mangled the German.  [I don't speak German.]

      Asuka squeezed her eyes shut, covered her face with both hands.  I was screaming at them in German, she thought.

      She paused.  In a more controlled tone and posture, she went over everything she'd said, in English this time.

      "We weren't aware of Davis and Tendo being in the thick of things, that's a clear violation of standing orders," Simson told her.

      "What?  You're telling me they violated orders by being out helping people?" Asuka shouted in disbelief.  "I suppose you're going to discipline them for that.  You do know that Ice Prin . . . Miss Tendo, lost her best friend."

      "We aren't completely heartless," Ramsey replied.

      Then what are you doing working for NERV? she didn't ask aloud.  "So, what are you going to do?"  She leaned over the desk, to look at the papers.  "I suppose Horseface . . . and I, are looking at some . . . severe discipline."

      "We're still analyzing the situation."  Simson indicated the papers.  "From what we've pieced together, we got lucky."

      "A few thousand dead and missing hardly sounds like luck," Asuka commented as she stood up straight, frowned at the situation.

      "It's luck when you consider one or two - or three - orders of magnitude worse was a distinct possibility," Simson told her, "We're still going over it.  In a day or two, when we've had a chance to wargame it out, we'll have an idea how bad it could have been.  Right now our experts are saying 'Very much worse!'"

      Asuka felt cold clutch at her guts.

      "As bad as it was, it's not completely out of line with some of the other sorties," Ramsey told her.

      "What?!  This debacle was typical?!"  Asuka shook her head to deny it.

      "Do you really want to see the casualty reports?" Ramsey asked quietly.

      Now Asuka felt cold all over.  "I think I've been coddled quite enough."


      Rei and Shinji-kun had entered the silent apartment, walking noiselessly through, they found Roku-kun and Nabiki-kun sitting in Nabiki-kun's room, facing each other, saying nothing, unmoving.  The seated pair turned to face them as Shinji-kun and Rei entered.  Rei saw the red eyes and tear tracks on Nabiki-kun's face.  Roku-kun was less affected, clearly more concerned for Nabiki-kun than for Hiroko or the others.  Rei was gravelly disturbed by the lack of talk between the pair, normally they talked constantly.  Not now.

      For a moment, Rei despaired of accomplishing anything with either of them, Why do I believe I can accomplish -

      "Nabiki-chan," Shinji-kun knelt near Nabiki-kun, facing her, he bowed slightly, "I don't want to add to your troubles, but . . . the Ayami family has no one to make the final arrangements.  I believe we can help."

      Nabiki-kun looked at him with shock and horror.  She let out a stuttering breath, but could say nothing.  She nodded with a look of determination, she glanced at Roku-kun, he nodded as well.

      Rei knelt next to her and reached over, taking Nabiki-kun's shoulder.  I am not comfortable doing this, with touching or being touched, but I can comprehend the need.  The few times I needed the contact with another person to steady my thoughts or emotions . . . and touch is the easiest, I have no words, Rei thought.

      Nabiki-kun put her head on Rei's shoulder, her arms around her.  Rei's instinct was to shy away from the roughness of her touch, but it was necessary.  Rei forced herself to relax, stroking Nabiki-kun's back, as if she were washing it, as Nabiki-kun sobbed and screamed, voicing her pain, her frustration.

      Shinji-kun followed Roku-kun's example, laid one hand on Nabiki-kun's shuddering shoulders, the other on her arms.

      Rei neither knew nor cared, how long they sat together like that.  That was a first for Rei, who normally kept meticulous track of time.  The cries quieted, the grip weakened and fell away.  Rei helped Roku-kun arrange Nabiki-kun on her futon after Shinji-kun had pulled it out, they put the blankets over her before they left for the living room.  Rei noted how much Roku-kun was leaning on his cane, moving slowly, almost painfully.


      "Thank you," Roku-kun said quietly, as they sat at the table in Dr. Akagi's dining door.  "Actually doing something will help her immensely."

      Rei nodded, watched him carefully.  Nabiki-kun had been acting very peculiarly, she expected Raccoon would be the same.  Instead he was more of who he really was: withdrawn, secretive, and the sequestered foreigner.  He is having trouble maintaining his facade, she realized, then she considered what other effects this would have.

      "What about you?" Shinji-kun asked.

      Roku-kun frowned, Rei thought it was artifice, a remembered requirement, or an act upon a stage.  There was little behind it.

      "I'll survive."  Raccoon paused looked around.  "What became of Saotome-san?"

      "He did not like my sending him to the morgue," Rei said.

      "This isn't his fault," Roku-kun said tiredly, "It's nobody's fault, except the ones who sustain this war."  He rubbed his face, "The last one we faced was Nyarlathotep, then Cthugha.  I thought those two hated each other."

      "They do," Shinji-kun said, then glanced at Rei and Roku-kun in alarm, "How did I know that?"

      "Memories," Rei explained, "Of what we've fought.  I too have them."

      "Me too," Roku-kun told him, scrubbing his face with his hands again, as if trying to efface the memories or his fatigue.

      Shinji-kun covered his face, shook his head.  "I have enough trouble with just my life.  I don't need any others."

      "It'll get worse, before it gets better," Roku-kun explained.

      "Assassination," Rei told them.  Got stares for a moment, then realization dawned on the boys.

      "You think . . . Nyar - the inspector - sent his rival in, so we could kill him?" Shinji-kun asked, in confusion and disbelief.

      "Let us clear the field of the small fry," Roku-kun agreed, "Build us up, bit-by-bit, until - what, he kills us, sacrifice for some purpose?"

      "Fuel, food, or offering?" Rei wondered aloud.  I must tell the Commander.  If we are serving Nyarlathotep, however obliquely, he must be told! Rei told herself, felt herself descending, drowning in anxiety.

      'Are you all right Ayanami?' she heard Shinji-kun asked.  His voice drew her back to them, away from the edge.

      "Yes."

      "You looked mildly perturbed," Roku-kun said, "For you, that's like realizing the world is ending."

      "It might," Rei agreed.


      Ritsuko looked at the darkness outside her bedroom window, then at the lump a short distance away.  Nabiki hadn't eaten much, had said even less.  Even Ranma had finally realized that his speaking to her wasn't a good idea, as if his every word crushed her spirit further.  Night and sleep had come as a mercy for both of them.  All three of us, she corrected herself.

      So Ritsuko had thought.  Then the nightmares had started.  She thought she knew Nabiki's sleep patterns.  The dreams came with moving eyes, later in the night, this was different.  Nabiki sat up suddenly and started wailing, convulsing to ward off something that wasn't there.

      "Nabiki, Nabiki!" Ritsuko tried to restrain the flailing girl, to keep her from hurting herself.

      Nabiki glanced around, she didn't know where she was.  Ritsuko could feel Nabiki's heart racing, for a terrible instant she thought the girl was going to explode.

      "Nabiki, what was it?  There's nothing to hurt you!" Ritsuko reassured her, "It was only a dream."

      Still Nabiki didn't react to her words, struggling at random, looking around desperately for what had terrified her.  Ritsuko tried to placate her again and again, to no effect.  It was as if she wasn't there, neither of them.  Ritsuko was just holding a twitching ball of fear, Nabiki wouldn't let anything else exist except her fear.

      All my science and intellect, Ritsuko lamented, And I'm helpless here.  She could only wait, hoping whatever fear had gripped the girl would release her soon.  She had barely heard Ranma's tread outside the door, she knew he felt as powerless as she did.  She didn't know what to do except wait, she had no advice for him, except 'Wait.'

      "Rit - tsuko?" Nabiki finally asked, squirmed a bit in Ritsuko's grip.

      Ritsuko knew that only a few minutes had passed, but her own fear made it seem like hours.  "Yes, I'm here.  It was only a dream."

      "No . . . " Nabiki said, "if it were a dream . . . wouldn't I remember it, some part of it?"  Nabiki crumbled, ashamed of her outburst now, of her weakness.

      "Maybe not," Ritsuko said.  She was torn whether she should offer her a sedative or not.  "There's nothing to be afraid of."

      "Maybe I shouldn't have investigated Raccoon's magic potion, I sure could use it right now."

      "Potion?" Ritsuko wondered how much was imagination.

      "A placebo," Nabiki admitted, "But it worked.  But they don't work anymore, if you don't believe in them.  But I was stupid, thought I knew better than anyone else, again!"  Nabiki abruptly broke down and began sobbing.

      Ritsuko sat there, holding her, there was nothing else she could think of, nothing else she could do.  She was also aware of her other charge standing outside the door.  She knew Ranma knew he shouldn't come in, and she couldn't go out and leave Nabiki alone.  She knew he would stand there, the entire night if necessary, each of Nabiki's cries carving a hole in him.  She thought ironically that a return to the old living arrangements, and a glass of cold water, and Ranma would have someone to cry on, a way to relieve the guilt he had to be feeling.

      "It's not fair," Nabiki said, mirroring Ritsuko's own thought.  "She wouldn't have died, if we'd done our jobs.  If I'd looked harder, I would have found her."

      "That's not true," Ritsuko said, "We all did our best, you couldn't have done any more."

      "I could have!  I could have!" Nabiki countered angrily.

      Ritsuko could only hold the girl until she exhausted herself.  She arranged Nabiki on her futon, debated adding the blanket, decided against it, then glided over to the door.  She opened it and saw Ranma standing there, staring inside, as if some grand mystery was within the `girls'` room.

      She saw the pain on his face.  He might claim to the skies that he was all right, there was nothing wrong.  He wasn't alone among the pilots to do that.  But unlike all the others, he perpetually wore his heart on his sleeve, he couldn't hide what he was feeling from anyone with eyes.  She didn't ask, because he'd refuse, she simply collected him, laying his head in her lap as she sat.  She wouldn't comment if he cried or if he didn't, for all his attempts to be `manly`, these were times even a grown man would cry.  None of the Children were grown, none of them were expected to be unaffected by this.


      Rei climbed the fire escape, she hadn't the catlike grace and silence of the others, so her stealth left much to be desired.  She remembered climbing another fire escape a long time ago.  She had handled that approach badly, and wound up impaled on a wrought iron fence six stories below.  She had died that day, not the first time, nor the last.  She would approach more carefully this time, she could not afford the overconfidence that had doomed her the last time.

      She was actually disappointed her quarry had not noticed her as she approached.  She debated the wisdom of making a noise to attract his attention.  No, she thought, I can better gauge preparedness by making a quiet approach.  She also knew she would better make her point if she could approach to contact undetected.  She remembered the pattern that the response would normally take, and she prepared an immediate counter.

      She slipped around the last obstacle and closed on the figure huddled near the corner of the roof, peering down through a small telescope.  She reached out, at first tentatively, then like a striking snake, turning the figure to face her.

      She caught Raccoon's gun hand with her other hand as she dragged her fellow pilot away from the edge of the building.  She ignored his quiet protests until they were out of sight of the street below.

      "Do you really value your life so little?" she was amazed at the anger, even the fury she felt towards Roku-kun at this moment.  She intellectually knew he did not mean his presence here, alone and unsupported, as a betrayal, but her response to it was appropriate only if he were doing exactly that, especially if he did it to hurt her and the others.  "As I told the Fourth, a death will not equalize things.  Not yours, not another's."

      "Who else could kill that thing?  You?" he replied.

      Even she could hear the despair in his voice.

      "What do you expect me to do?  Sit back and do nothing?"

      "You are not competent to defeat him now.  I was able to approach, you did not react."

      "I'm just tired," he replied.  The anger had not left, she suspected he had turned it on himself.

      "Then leave it to others and rest," she told him.  She could understand his anger all too well, the Fourth's need to do also overwhelmed common sense.  If her past failures, and death, had not proven the utter futility of such responses to her so thoroughly, she might now be making the same mistakes.  "You can either accompany me back to Kraznyzamok-san's apartment, or I can carry you there."  She was glad she had talked to the Second about how best to approach this.  She had warned Rei than nothing less than overwhelming force would distract him from his goal.  She had spoken with experience, and Rei had no reason to disbelieve her.

      "You wouldn't dare," Roku-kun confidently told her.  Proving the Second's point.

      She knew she could never outargue Roku-kun, she fell back on one of the absolute advantages she had over all the other pilots, brute strength.  She also knew that between his fatigue and his `gentlemanliness`, he would be unable to fight back effectively.  As long as she took pains not to injure him, she would have an insurmountable advantage.  His struggles were slow, uncoordinated, she soon had him completely trapped.  With her arms behind his knees pinning his folded legs against his chest, his back against her chest.  Rei lifted him easily.

      "I would dare," Rei told him as she balanced under the unfamiliar load.  It disturbed her that a boy, who towered over her, was only heavier than she was because of the weight of his coat and the equipment he carried.

      He was shivering now, she was unsure whether fatigue, emotion or both elicited this reaction.  She shifted him to an arrangement more comfortable for both of them, but she did not release him, until they arrived back at Kraznyzamok-san's apartment.

      She was extremely surprised that Roku-kun had fallen asleep on the run home.  She wasn't certain if she should be pleased, embarrassed or concerned.  The Second's silent acknowledgment was another ambiguous element in a day overflowing with them, the Second's expression was a poker-faced mask.  Even Rei knew it covered deep emotions, the Second's rigid movements were clear indication of that.

      The Second turned down his bed as Rei sat Roku-kun in a chair in his room.  Rei removed his overly heavy coat and loosened his tie.  Her actions did not awaken him.

      "He'll run himself into the ground," the Second told her emotionlessly, "Nothing can change that."

      Nevertheless, Rei felt the pending explosion.

      'You two are the same,' the mentor of the Meliorist had told Rei, when he thought she was the Second's dreamself, 'You'd take a deathblow, and act like it's only a flesh wound until the job is done.  You'll both pay a price for that.  There are people who'll help you, if you only let them.'  Rei had wondered at the time if the same applied to her, now she decided it did, both parts.  "You have learned the truth?" she asked.

      "All those deaths, all they kept from us?" the Second asked.  For a moment the mask slipped, Rei recognized anger, horror, and a dozen lesser passions parading across her face before the mask was firmly in place again.

      "Nabiki-kun and Roku-kun were the most badly affected," Rei said, trying to gauge what she could ask for, what she could expect.  "Shinji-kun cannot watch them all hours of the day.  Even `Wondergirl` cannot."

      "So you want me to watch over him when you can't?" the Second asked, she frowned, "I suppose I'll have to look after Horseface as well, considering how famously you two get along."

      Rei had not expected that, but she had learned in her chess games 'when you're winning everything, don't argue'.  She nodded, "I would not ask you to," her comment elicited a deeper frown from the Second.

      "No reason to get sarcastic," the Second told her as she headed towards Roku-kun.  "You want to help me wash him off?  He stinks."

      Rei noticed the faint odor, but her experiences of the day had temporarily killed her sense of smell.

      The Second gave her an evil grin, a clear marker she had the advantage and worse was yet to come.  "Surely you've wanted to do that to Spineless, but you haven't figured out how."

      Rei's embarrassment at the truth of that statement was coupled with her pleasure that at least part of the Second remained as she was.  If the enemy attacked, she could count on herself and perhaps Shinji-kun, now she could add the Second.  The others were questionable.  "How?" she asked, "If soap and shampoo could not do it . . . "

      "Lemons and tomato juice, I got them ready."  The Second slung one of Roku-kun's arms over her shoulders, waited until Rei had duplicated her action.  "And it's just a basic sponge bath, nothing to offend your delicate sensibilities.  So, relax Wondergirl, I'll show you."  Then she muttered so quietly Rei barely caught it, she evidently wasn't supposed to, "Turn about is fair play."

      She would have to determine the meaning and specifics of that, later.  Now she lifted with the Second.


Reckoning

June 17, 1947

      Ritsuko hated these meetings with the NERV Commanders, she'd hated them when she was forced to listen to Yui and Gendo Ikari, Naoko Akagi and Kozo Fuyutsuki argue the same things.  Even with both Yui and Naoko long dead, their stamp on these arguments still remained.

      She felt unclean, while Gendo and Kozo were looking absurdly pleased with the events of the last few days.

      "I was concerned that Tendo and Davis seemed to be falling behind the others," Gendo began, "Now it seems they've made up lost ground and even pulled ahead of the others."

      Pretty euphemism for having an experience so terrible you've got no choice except to hide it way in your deepest recesses, Ritsuko thought, I can remember when you agreed with me, that providing them something to fight for would return better results than giving them experiences they would try to hide from the world.  "Naoko and Yui would be pleased," she said, "Perhaps I should schedule them for testing, to see how it has improved the strength of their AT fields."

      "I think a short delay would be in our best interests," Kozo said, "Let them get the full benefit of their experiences.  What they try to hide from the world, strengthens their AT field, you know that Doctor."

      Of course, Ritsuko thought, I've heard the theories, but that's all they are, theories.  "I remember you once held a different opinion."  The opinions of the dead have become holy writ, she thought, kept her expression placid, despite the tempest within her.

      "Well, now you can confirm the theories," Kozo said, "I am curious about the long-term effects.  This ironically advances both competing points of view, if we can handle it properly."

      "That will be your responsibility, Doctor," Gendo told her, "I hope you understand the necessity of the imposition and the possible achievement placed in your hands."

      "I do, Commander," Ritsuko agreed, keeping her expression neutral.  She knew the rest of the meeting would be details, couched in equally banal terms.  Plans to protect and change the world, in terms of assembling the weekly grocery list.


      Ranko walked through the rain.  It seemed appropriate that even the sky was dumping on her.  Ranma had seen Mirei a couple of hours ago.  He'd thought it was a great opportunity to talk to someone.  Then the skies had opened up.  Mirei and her grandfather ran for their car and drove off, leaving Ranko soaking wet, and alone.

      She'd been walking ever since.  Talking to Sammi wasn't an option.  Ranma had intentionally lost the woman a few minutes after he left Dr. Akagi's apartment.  Ranma hadn't, and Ranko still didn't want any adults around.  She didn't feel like running away, because there was only one thing left to run away from, herself.  Everything and everyone else had either shut him out, or he'd run away from it.

      Running away hadn't accomplished what he, then she had hoped.  Running around Tokyo in the pouring rain, she had only gotten wet, not solace or answers.  The problem with getting answers, was her most trusted sources were not available, and they'd lied to her.  They both believed they'd done it for her own good.  Then she'd screwed up and cut those ties completely.  She didn't have ties to the others.  Nor were they good at solving the problems she was having.  She looked around her, the rain seemed to have cleared the streets of all the dirt, and all the people.

      Despite the millions of people around her, she was completely alone.

      She hated being alone.


      Asuka lowered her binoculars as she held the umbrella in her other hand.  "Of all the stupid promises I could have made to Wondergirl . . . If she thinks a little rain will make me break my word, she's got another think coming.  I'm not sweet and delicate like Spineless, I won't melt in the rain," she grumbled as she followed the other NERV redhead, "Not even smart enough to get out of the rain," Asuka complained, "That's Horseface to a fault."
      Rei stared at Nabiki-kun, she did not have to envision her building a wall around herself, specifically around the burnt out area in her emotions, the place the pain and loss concentrated.  Rei did not need to know Nabiki-kun well to guess this.  She knew because she had done it herself.  Trying to keep anyone from seeing or `touching` the pain, the survivor guilt, the irrational anger at the deceased, and the shame of feeling that anger.

      The pilots were all the same, they kept a lot to themselves, she did, Shinji-kun did, the Second and Roku-kun were particularly 'skilled' at it.  Assuming that Nabiki-kun was the same was not hard.  Now, she also remembered how Nabiki-kun and Roku-kun had found a way to infiltrate her defensiveness.  They had broken down her defenses, slowly, carefully, drawing her out almost without her noticing.  Now, she did not fear being with them or the other pilots.  The attendant responsibilities of being with them, being one of them, daunted her, but that wasn't the same.

      She knew she had no skill with such subtle machinations, as with Roku-kun, her only answer was carefully measured brute force.  She would have to watch for the reactions to her actions, and decide whether to continue, or change her approach.

      She removed the first book she had taken from Hiroko's hidey-hole, Rei believed it was the girl's most treasured possession.  She opened the book to a photo of the entire group, perhaps when they had gone to the movies.  Rei set the picture in front of Nabiki-kun, watched her glance at the photo, neither girl showed any reaction to the smiling face in the photo.

      "She loved you," Rei said, showing the way Hiroko was holding Nabiki-kun's arm, almost a mirror of Rei and Shinji-kun holding hands.

      Nabiki-kun stared at her in shock.

      "She knew you loved the Fourth, Ranma, her chief desire was your happiness."  Rei stopped, she had delivered the blow, now she had to wait for the reaction.

      Nabiki-kun covered her face and bent down.

      Rei moved beside her, holding her shoulders while the girl silently sobbed.  Rei waited.  If Nabiki-kun followed Rei's own path, there would be sadness, and rage, mixed inexplicably with each other and more.  Nevertheless, Rei had plans prepared for many such possibilities.

      She knew the emotion had to be relieved.  Holding it in was usually called festering, like an infected wound.  Dr. Akagi had let her rage fester, until the other pilots arrived.  Rei wondered if the scientist realized the strength of her reactions was due to the force she had let build since Yui Ikari's murder.

      Rei could wait as Nabiki-kun absorbed this latest information.  She did wish Nabiki-kun would begin speaking again.  It would make this easier.


      Ritsuko wasn't sure where she was.  The park she'd found herself in was like any of a dozen parks in Tokyo, although only the plethora of Japanese families suggested it was anywhere in Japan.  It could have just as easily been Sapporo, Osaka, Kyoto, or any other city.  Grass, trees, small hills like sand dunes, a packed dirt path meandering through it, and a small lake, with ducks floating and swimming in it, a short distance from where she stood.

      She was wearing her usual clothes, including her lab coat.  It was sufficiently out of style with the majority of people around her, men and women, she felt no need to try to blend in.  She would have broken out a clipboard and started taking notes, if she'd had one.

      She suddenly found two girls racing around her legs, and they were vaguely familiar.  The one in the yellow gi looked a lot like Ranma, not just because of the martial arts attire, but the combative attitude and the hairstyle.  The other looked very like Ritsuko would have expected Nabiki to look, at about six-years old.

      I'm in a dream again, Ritsuko realized.

      "Can't catch me, can't catch me!" the younger one in the yellow gi proclaimed.

      The Nabiki-like one stopped, waited and caught her . . . Sister? Ritsuko wondered, as the younger girl ran past.

      The two girls turned it into a tussle, the martial artist shouting 'Cheater!' as she got the upper hand in the physical contest with her older sister.

      Ritsuko grabbed each by the collar, glad her strength was undiminished, and lifted Nabiki up to sit on her shoulders, and swung the Ranma-like one under her arm.

      "See!  See!  Akane!" Nabiki shouted at 'Akane', "Rit-chan likes me best!"

      Well, she knows who I am, Ritsuko thought, "Nabiki-chan," she chided the girl, "Don't taunt Akane."

      "You're taking her side?" Nabiki accused, nearly in tears.

      "No."  Ritsuko swung Akane up until she was hanging upside down, with Ritsuko holding her by her ankles.

      Akane was shrieking, although Ritsuko could recognize the difference between a happy shriek and a warning shriek.

      "Torturing her is my job, watch this."  Ritsuko swung Akane back up until she was seated in the crook of her arm.

      "More!  More!" Akane demanded.

      "No," Ritsuko told her firmly, as she crested a rise.  She smiled at Nabiki, who was smirking at her little sister.

      A man in a brown gi approached up the hill, he needed a haircut, and his moustache trimmed.  Below, in a shadowed hollow, a woman who looked like Ranma or Akane's mother sat with another little girl.  Nabiki apparently took after her father, as far as facial structure was concerned, assuming the man was Nabiki's father.

      The man bowed, "I hope my daughters weren't troubling you."

      "This is Akagi-sensei," Nabiki chirped, hugging Ritsuko's neck tightly.

      "No, no trouble."  Ritsuko hoped she could get some insight into why she was here.  "I've never met the rest of your family.  In all my time with Nabiki-chan, she hasn't discussed the rest of you very much."

      "Please join us for lunch," the man offered.

      Ritsuko thought it was an excellent chance to get her answers.  She also suspected that with the screaming awakenings Nabiki had lately, she could probably put a stop to this nightmare, before it became one.  She recognized Shinji and Rei's efforts with Nabiki for what they were.  While she was amazed that Rei of all people was doing it, the nightmares and night terrors had intensified.  If I can stabilize this situation, Ritsuko thought, She can get some respite from all of this.

      Ritsuko watched Nabiki's mother and oldest sister pass out the food.  Well, I know the eldest takes after mommy, the baby takes after daddy.  So where does Nabiki fit in? Ritsuko thought, as 'Akane' played with her father.  Ritsuko doubted Nabiki's parents intended to shut Nabiki out, but that was how Nabiki perceived it.  Little Nabiki simply didn't have the interests her parents did.

      Ritsuko watched Nabiki look longingly at her sisters and her parents.  Ritsuko recognized the 'middle child' syndrome, not the pampered baby, not as responsible as her elders, caught between.

      "So, Nabiki, are you going to tell me their names?" Ritsuko asked with an eyebrow raised in disapproval.

      Nabiki sighed, "That's Kasumi, she thinks she's mommy, that's Akane, she thinks she's daddy, Soun."

      She didn't tell me her mother's name, Ritsuko thought, focusing her attention on the woman, then she felt the corruption growing inside her.  Ritsuko twisted the dream to put a stop to it, then reversed it.  You will not die.  Not while I'm here, she thought, realizing one of the things Nabiki was torturing herself with: the death of her mother, that she hadn't been a `good` daughter because she wasn't carefully, even slavishly, following either of her parents' paths.

      Except Nabiki is the finest martial artist I've ever seen, except for Ranma, Ritsuko analyzed, Did she take up martial arts because her mother died?  Ritsuko had no answers.

      She chatted amiably with the other woman, joked with the father, Soun, about martial arts and that even Nabiki was a match for her.

      The most telling thing was the jealousy Nabiki displayed when either of her two sisters showed 'her parent', Ritsuko, any interest.  While that flattered Ritsuko, she understood it was Nabiki's craving for someone or something all her own.

      That also explains why Hiroko's death hit her so hard, Ritsuko speculated, Someone came to her, not her family, not her sisters, not even her money and skills, her.  Ritsuko also saw the constant tug-of-war that Nabiki must have lived through, she and her older sister were constantly directed to 'behave like ladies' by their mother, while the youngest tore around like a hellion because she 'Is a martial artist.'

      I'm beginning to wonder if 'martial artist', is code for 'socially inept', Ritsuko considered.  Nabiki was naturally more rambunctious, and younger, than meek Kasumi, she could not live up to the standard set by her mother and older sister.  She also suspected Nabiki was exaggerating events considerably.

      After the meal was over, Ritsuko thanked her hosts and prepared to leave.

      "Don't go Ritsuko-sempai!" Nabiki shouted as she desperately clung to her legs.  "They don't need me!  They don't want me!  If mommy lives, then they won't ever need me again!"  The girl stared up at Ritsuko and burst into tears.

      Ritsuko glanced at the family, the parents were chagrined, but the two little girls were shaking their heads, as if they expected this kind of outburst.

      "Don't you love your family?" Ritsuko asked, ignoring the painful memories of her own `family` growing up.

      "They don't need me!" little Nabiki insisted.

      Ritsuko decided to take a risk, she banished the picnic, the park and the other Tendos.  She and Nabiki were in her lab at NERV HQ.  "Is this what you want?  To be alone here?  Cut off from your family?"  Ritsuko could not return Nabiki to her correct age, the little girl still clung to her.

      "They never needed me until mommy got sick!" Nabiki assured her breathlessly, tears still streaming down her face, "They never wanted my help.  But you need me, don't you Ritsuko-sempai, you need me?"

      "Yes, we need you."  Ritsuko picked the little girl up.  "We need you very much, and you are helping your family," Ritsuko added.  The girl's continuing tears made no sense, but it was a dream, she knew it didn't have to make sense.


      Ritsuko woke suddenly, as Nabiki squirmed in her lap.  Despite the warmth of the room, Ritsuko pulled the bedding over Nabiki.  She examined the little ball curled up in her lap, she dried her own tears before she dried Nabiki's.  She knew she'd done all she could, but it didn't seem enough.  She didn't know how to make things better, despite the clues the dream had given her.

      She remembered Davis and Nabiki going into Search and Rescue 'to be useful', and that Nabiki seemed to be sabotaging her boyfriend-girlfriend relationship with Ranma at nearly every step, but tried to preserve their sempai-kohai affiliation at the same time.  Unless you assume her main drive is to be needed rather than loved, Ritsuko realized, Then it explains a lot of her odd behaviors, but it can't be that simple, can it?

      Ritsuko glanced at the clock, it was still hours until daybreak.  She could watch over Nabiki until Rei and Shinji arrived, then she smirked at that thought.  Her trusting Rei and Shinji to look after someone else, when the two of them could barely look after themselves.  Then she smiled at that thought, and that many others had often whispered the same of her.

      Strange, we can't look after ourselves, but we can look after someone else, she thought how off-center a world was to allow such things.


June 18, 1947

      Shinji was washing the breakfast dishes, he knew Rei-chan would be here soon, he idly wished she'd come to Misato's for breakfast.  He was rather proud of his skill, and he wanted to show off a little for her.

      "You going over to Ritsuko's place again today?" Misato asked, sitting at the dining room table, still in her T-shirt and shorts.

      I wish she'd wear some decent clothes around here, Shinji thought before answering, "Yeah, it's not the best way to spend summer break . . . but I think we're doing some good."

      "Sounds like fun to me," Misato teased, "Spending summer break with your harem."  She smirked at him and his embarrassment.

      Shinji felt his ears burn with that statement.  He did like spending time with Rei-chan, but he understood he was mostly there for Nabiki.  Even if all he did was listen and fetch tea, urge her to eat something.  "Well, maybe when Nabiki is well, we can help you," he replied.

      Misato's face went through a series of expressions, from shock to pain, settling on resignation.  "I'm fine," she said flatly.

      You don't sound fine.  If you were `fine`, I wouldn't be here, Shinji thought about revealing the content of Misato's own dreams to her, then hastily decided against it, In fact you sound exactly like Nabiki, and both of you are lying.  Maybe if you admitted you were a person like the rest of us, we could accept that and go on.  "I won't argue," he said, waiting for Misato to say more, or Rei-chan to arrive.


      Shinji glanced over at Rei-chan as the two of them walked closely under one umbrella.  The guard trailed a short distance behind them.  The presence of an adult embarrassed Shinji he could almost ignore, while he and Rei-chan talked privately.  The slight rain sprinkles dotted the road ahead of them.  He blocked out the buildings and the people around them.

      He did wish that Tendo-san would either drop back more or join in the conversations, maybe he could answer some of his questions.

      "Rei-chan?" he spoke quietly, waited until she nodded, "Do you feel . . . guilty, I guess.  We didn't get hurt, not really."

      "Do you believe you were not hurt?" Rei-chan asked, "Perhaps, that others were hurt, has hurt you."

      "What about you?" Shinji asked, took her hand.

      Rei-chan nodded, "I - I do not like what has happened.  I -," she paused, her face twisted in wrath, a ferocity Shinji had never seen before, "Hate - what has happened to Nabiki-kun.  While Raccoon attempts to disguise it, he too is wounded.  Even the Second and the Fourth were damaged."

      Shinji looked at her expression, others thought she was emotionless, he'd seen hints of that snarling look when she was in battle.  It was more frightening than ugly, but Shinji knew he had much the same expression.  Both of them would fight until there was nothing left.

      "Is that what we're doing?" Shinji asked, "Finishing the fight?"

      "No," Rei told him firmly, shook her head, returning to `normal`, "We cannot give the enemy another victory.  Not Nabiki-kun, nor Raccoon . . . I do not know what more to do for the Second or the Fourth."

      "Is there anything else I could do?" Shinji looked at her and asked.

      Rei-chan considered a long time as they walked along.  "I do not know.  The Second would not accept your help, the Fourth would never admit any weakness."

      "So we help Nabiki-kun.  Has Raccoon been planning things?  The funeral I mean," Shinji asked, "That's kind of gruesome.  I mean, Hiroko was his friend, how can he - "

      "He is not Japanese, he is not you, he is not me."  Rei squeezed Shinji's hand as she gave him a small smile.  "He must do, but there are dangers."

      "What kind of dangers?" Shinji asked, he wondered what else could go wrong.

      "You felt it, I did," Rei explained, "To force it away, gives it great force when it finally returns."

      "Is there anything that we can do about that?" Shinji asked.  What does Rei think he's forcing away? Shinji wondered, Grief, fear, anger, what?

      "I believe so," Rei-chan said, "But now is not the time."  She turned to face him, she had a calculating look that would have been more appropriate on his father's face.  "When the time occurs, there must be no hesitation.  Or we will lose him.  Nor can we hesitate in helping Nabiki-kun, or we will lose her."

      "I'll help all I can," Shinji replied, he shivered at Rei's expression, then warmed as Rei smiled at him.  He wished he could ask her why she felt so strongly about this.  He felt a little jealous about the closeness, and even protectiveness Nabiki and even Raccoon elicited in Rei-chan.  He felt a little ashamed of wanting Rei-chan all for himself.  Mainly he wanted to understand.  Coward, he chided himself, Why don't you just ask?  Instead of running away!

      All such thoughts vanished as Rei rested her head on his shoulder for a moment.  An instant later she was back to `normal`, all her emotions wrapped up and buried deep.  In a way, that made them more his and her's, theirs.  Nobody else believed she even had such passions, he knew she hid them, from most people, because they frightened her.  They frightened him, but he wasn't frightened of her.

      He went back to feeling guilty, because he was happy, he still had the people he cared about.  Nabiki needed him, needed them.  He hoped that Rei-chan could help Raccoon when the time came, that he could help her help him.


      'Saotome-san, I offer my most humble . . . '

      Ranma thrust the letter, all three pages of it, back in the envelope.  Under other circumstances, he might assume Raccoon was being sarcastic, or playing a trick on him.  But he didn't think it was the case, not this time.  Mainly because Ranma didn't think his luck was good enough to have that happen.  He wished Raccoon, or Nab-chan, or Rei, were mad at him, but Raccoon gave a heartfelt and humble apology, even if he delivered it stiffly.  Rei was as polite as ever but adamant about not 'disturbing' Nab-chan, and the way Nab-chan was acting, he doubted she'd react to anything he did with anything except some kind of retreat.  He actually wished one or all of them would try to beat him up.  It would make him feel better.  He might just let them hit him.

      However, that seemed about as likely as one of the EVAs flying.  He was glad Sammi had a radio, finding where Asuka was had been easy.  He never expected to find her at the ruins of the school.  He watched her walking along, drawing in the dirt with a long stick.  She didn't normally look that intense, unless she was fighting an Angel or a math problem.  He expected to get a verbal beating from Asuka at least, he thought it was rather perverse, that he was actually looking forward to that.


      Asuka checked the map she was drawing, comparing it to the handful of maps and sketches she'd gotten this morning at the Navy H.Q.  They simulated things on sand tables there, she wanted one that at least approximated the entire area in question, to see it all at once.

      "Stay on the bench, Horseface," she told the arriving boy, "Don't step on my circles."  The way she felt, she might not have minded sharing Archimedes's fate for uttering those words.  Horseface surprised her when he didn't ask, 'What circles?', instead he just squatted on the bench, watching her intently.

      "What do you want, Horseface?" she picked her way carefully across the map of Tokyo she'd spent most of the morning drawing.  Once she could see the whole problem, a lot of things became clear.  The cold lump in her guts tightened up, feelings of despair and frustration warred with intense guilt at having a hand in this, and being unaffected by it.  She hadn't lost Hikari, or any of her circle of acquaintances, she hadn't paid any price for her actions right or wrong.  It seemed terribly unfair, not that she would have traded places with Ice Princess.

      "Nab-chan and Raccoon . . . " Horseface began, as he bounced impatiently on his toes.

      "Yeah, funny isn't it, they were the only ones who violated orders," she hoped he understood she didn't think that was the least bit funny, "Although I doubt anyone is planning on punishing them."  She brushed her hands off on her slacks, she wasn't going to wear a skirt while marching around in the dirt.

      "You heard?" Horseface seemed a lot more subdued, he sounded more like Spineless, or Wondergirl.

      "My landlord is your bodyguard, so I hear a lot."  She carefully walked across her map.  "I heard that Wondergirl sent you to Sakura Street."

      "You think that's funny?" he asked as she arrived at the bench.

      "I don't think I'll be laughing about the past few days anytime soon," she said neutrally as she surveyed her work.  It was all so clear to her now.  She wondered how much any of the others knew, if they'd assembled it all.

      "What are you trying to do?"

      "Trying to figure out how our 'insubordination' becomes discussions about medals."  She saw Horseface's confusion.  "This is a map of Tokyo."  She pointed at the environs.  "The harbor, we're seated at NERV headquarters, that's the Ara River."  She pointed to each feature with the same long stick she'd been drawing the map with.

      "What's that supposed to show?"

      "Walk where I walk, I'll show you."  Asuka picked her way across the map.  "This is the waterfront, this is where we were ordered to go."

      "It was full of - "

      "Let me finish!" Asuka insisted.

      "Sorry."  He hung his head.

      Asuka pointed with her stick, lecturing on her findings, "Aviation fuel, 10,000 tons.  Bunker fuel, 70,000 tons.  Over there is the Navy's new repair depot and welding shops.  Lots oxyacetylene torches," she explained.

      "We're surrounded."  Horseface looked around at the spots she pointed to.

      "Correct.  And none of it on NERV's maps, a little bit of lost paperwork here and there.  So 'Misa-chan' and the other idiots didn't even know about any of it.  Unless they actually pulled their heads out of a hole and went and looked.  Add a major propane storage over there."  She pointed at a spot a few meter away.  "The paint factory."  She pointed back down the route they had taken.  "There are four other potential targets, all of flammables: fuel, ammunition, aircraft."  Asuka pointed them out.  "Do you have any idea what would have happened if that thing reached this point?"

      "Boom?"

      "Boom!" Asuka agreed, "But you didn't do that.  Follow me."  Asuka walked to the representation of the Ara River.  "This is where the battle began.  There are no major paint, oil or other stores.  Apartment buildings, food storage, which while flammable, isn't explosive.  Two hospitals, metal stamping plant."  Asuka pointed to the buildings surrounding them.  "All in all, not a bad place to intercept."

      "As long as it doesn't get behind you," Horseface said despondently, staring at where the apartment shelters were, where the people had died.

      "There's only one place better in the immediate area."

      "Oh great."

      Asuka started walking through the `harbor`, then suddenly turned and shouted, "STOP!  Don't cross that line if you want to keep your tether, and before you answer, you lose the tether, you lose your ability to fire those balls."  She watched Horseface consider.  "Now this point."  She stopped at a spot beyond the line.  "This is where you could have attacked without worrying what would happen."

      "Except I'm on internal batteries, one minute."

      "Or 20 seconds of AT field time, or some combination, don't strain yourself.  It's a bad choice.  The tethers need to be another kilometer or two long, or another, closer power hook up."  She saw Horseface glancing around, obviously seeking a solution to the problem.  She knew he wouldn't find one that had evaded her, besides, she needed him thinking along these lines somewhere else.  "Head back to where we fought it on the Ara River."

      Horseface turned around, Asuka trailed him.  She took up Cthugha's position with Horseface standing where he had with his EVA Unit 04.

      "So we're here, now you know a lot more, you have all the time in the world to think about it.  What do you do?"

      Horseface looked at his feet, at the lines indicating the river.  "Shove you under."

      "No," Asuka told him, shook her head, "That raises a huge cloud of steam, it can escape and it will be wise to your tricks when it returns."

      Horseface glanced over his shoulder again, where the apartment buildings, and more importantly, the shelters were.  "Hold it here," Horseface suggested.

      "Do you know why both our sonic glaives failed when we were fighting the little ones?  The power leads finally burned through.  The Navy and the SeaBees are redesigning and upgrading the remaining ones.  Do you want to think about attacking with a fist or a prog knife?"

      "No," Horseface said, shaking his head.

      "Come on Horseface, what else could you do?"  She knew she was pushing, but she wanted to see if he'd come up with something, come up with what she had.

      "I couldn't blast it with you in so close," Horseface said, "There's nothing else I could have done!  You keep shooting down my answers!" he shouted at her.

      "Not me, the War College, they've been studying this.  So far they've come to the same conclusions you just did."  She paused.  "What's with the confetti?" Asuka asked about the paper Horseface had started shredding.

      "Huh?"  He looked at the nearly disintegrated envelope.  "Oh, a formal apology, from Raccoon."  He stared off across the school grounds.  "I was actually hoping he was giving me a challenge letter, a formal duel, pistols or sabers at dawn, that kind of thing."

      Horseface turned to look at her, he looked extremely angry, "But what was it?  I got three pages of neatly written hiragana, top to bottom, then left to right.  Probably half a dozen haikus about apologies and `intemperance`!"

      "And you don't know why?" Asuka asked, she didn't expect him to understand.

      "I know that - that . . . that Hiroko, and Kenta, and Seisuke - got killed, by us!  By what we failed to do!"  She watched the anger and tears on his face.

      "There's a lot more, Horseface."  Asuka walked across the drawing, patting his shoulder in passing.  She didn't care about scuffing it now, since the clouds were promising more rain.  It had served its purpose to clear her mind.  "Wondergirl and Spineless fought the Flame Vampires . . . how did I know that name?!  I just - remembered it."

      "It happens, bits and pieces of the things get stuck in your head."

      Asuka felt like scratching her head until it bled, to erase the images that had sprung up in there.  "How can you stand it?" she asked.

      "The dreams are the worst," Ranma admitted sheepishly, scuffing the ground.

      Asuka considered how she'd been spending her time protecting Ice Princess in dreams lately, and decided she didn't have to worry about her own nightmares.

      "Well, their EVAs fought them here, Wondergirl with that flat AT field sticking out of her chest, like a giant flyswatter.  Spineless driving then ahead of him with his normal field at the paint factory."

      "Yeah," Horseface said, "I was there too, remember?"

      "That - is the point.  All four of us were here, while we were here, at five other locations, the cultists attacked.  Trying to burn the city down.  Because Spineless and Wondergirl were here and had already worked out a good plan, if we hadn't raced out and killed the thing so fast.  If they hadn't seen both and lost heart . . . " Asuka left him to consider, walking to where she had marked the bunker fuel storage berms.  "Set this on fire, the only real way to put it out is cooling with water while you pump out the non-burning part.  I don't even know if that's possible.  The big problem is the water goes to the bottom, the weight of the oil on top keeps it from flashing, that is explosively changing to steam."  She turned to face Horseface.  "Guess what happens when the weight drops below the minimum."

      "Steam pours through the oil, scalding everyone around."  Horseface's expression was screwed up from the effort of actual thought.

      "More like it sprays flaming oil all over the place.  Square kilometers!  Horseface, everything - for a couple of kilometers.  Understand?"  She watched Horseface shudder at that.  "The welding shops and the propane store: hundreds of flammable gas cylinders, lots of explosive gas under pressure.  Aviation fuel, ammunition storage, do I need to tell you, or can you guess what would have happened?"

      "Fine!  It was bad!  It was terrible!" Horseface shouted at her, "Lots of people died!  What we did was wrong!  What's the answer?!"

      Asuka felt pity for him, as she watched him wrestle with the truth she had verified for herself only a few minutes ago, and what it really meant, while her own words chilled her to the bone, "We didn't do anything wrong.  Until they found out the truth, the U.S. Military was calling this a superbly orchestrated and coordinated action.  We did all that could be expected of us, and more."  She paused, searched his shocked expression for any trace of understanding.  "Congratulation Horseface, you are a military genius.  Lots of people still died.  Even more who were expected to, did not."

      "There had to be a better way!" Horseface insisted, almost in tears.

      "Sorry.  This was the best we could do," Asuka told him.

      "That - " he sounded a lot like Wondergirl, even looked like her, "That's not possible.  All those people . . . Nab-chan and Hiroko . . . "

      "Sorry, Horseface."  She did feel sorry for him.  He hadn't learned the casualty figures from each of their previous sorties yet, even her launch with Raccoon had cost them a sub and its crew, more than a hundred men.  "Nobody's figured out how we did so well."

      She considered telling him about the other casualty counts Captain Ramsey and Admiral Simson had provided to her.  She wasn't sure if the deaths horrified her more, or that the `adults` had kept it from the pilots.


Retaliation

      Ramsey watched Davis walk into the cavern, not surprising, considering it was his information that led them here.  The rest of the investigation team was going over the place painstakingly.  Ramsey considered telling Davis to go home and get some sleep, then something in Davis's expression caught Ramsey's attention.  That, and the bucket and toolbox he was carrying.

      "How'd you get past security?" Ramsey asked the young man.

      "I didn't kill anyone one."  Davis raised his arm to display the NERV SAR armband, "You'd be amazed at the difference in treatment you get.  While NERV Security may be FUBENS, NERV SAR is more esteemed."

      Ramsey didn't like the flat tone of Davis's voice or his expression.  He didn't understand how anyone could be so calm after those events.  He had been working himself and his staff like mad.  Just to do something, to blot the memories out.

      That's probably it, Ramsey thought.  He realized he had seen people look and sound that serene and focused before, usually before they did something that won them the Navy Cross or Medal of Honor, posthumously.  "What's in the bucket?" Ramsey asked, the bucket was full of sawdust, and two bottles, one brown glass, the other white wax.

      "Something to dissolve our friend's invulnerability."

      Ramsey was getting worried, he knew what had happened, what Davis and Tendo had been doing during and after the attack.  He didn't know what in this place would attract his attention.  Nor did he know how Davis had discovered that Marine and Army snipers had shot the man trying to get back to this base.  Four confirmed shots, including two to the head hadn't stopped the man, although gunfire had killed all his companions/followers.

      Davis walked inexorably to a wall no different than the others in the cavern.  He set down his burden and opened the tool box to remove a pry bar.  He attacked the wall, prying loose a hidden panel.

      "How did you know?" Ramsey asked.  He helped the boy removed the roughly square foot piece of wall, disguised to look like any other part of the sandstone wall.

      They had uncovered a small niche containing a jar with a lid carved like an animal's head.  "Canopic jar," Davis said, he touched the jar.

      The small animal head began shouting words that made Ramsey cower and cover his ears.  Davis shoved a glass-lined metal funnel into the creature's mouth, silencing it instantly.

      "Aqua Regia and Hydrofluoric acid," Davis pulled on a pair of heavy gloves.  "Only platinum would stand up to the combination."  Then he uncapped both bottles and began pouring them into the funnel, stopping when he had filled the canopic jar.  He removed the funnel and waited.

      "So you're going to dissolve - " Ramsey was interrupted by the jar screaming as it dissolved.  "Good GOD!"  Ramsey backed away in terror from the writhing screaming container as parts of it ran like wax.  Ramsey spared a glance at Davis who was carefully and nonchalantly putting the recapped bottles back in the sawdust-filled bucket with the funnel.

      "He will be considerably more vulnerable now," Davis told him, "I suspect some of the others will be similarly protected."

      Ramsey didn't need to be reminded who the 'others' were.  SEELE was no longer a bogeyman whispered about like 'The Deathless Chinese' or 'Count Falkamiren and his Court' as sorcerers and cultist puppetmasters, the leaders of a worldwide conspiracy.  Recent events had proven they were real, a direct threat to the pilots and therefore to the world.  Ramsey didn't know why the massive British and American armies occupying Germany didn't just roll south and put paid to SEELE's Zurich and Geneva strongholds, once and for all.

      Actually he did, friends in high places, as either allies or possibly even members.  Still, one had died, added to the other one murdered in front of Ikari, Ramsey effectively had proof that SEELE had enemies of their own, powerful enemies not fettered by leaders or politics.

      Ramsey saw the stunned looks on the other workers' faces as the screams of the bottle faded, as the bottle and its contents dissolved and ran onto the floor, still dissolving the sandstone.  "Will that burn its way all the way to the center of the Earth?"

      "No."  Davis put the gloves in the bucket and closed up the toolbox.  "It will be diluted and lose strength.  This doesn't make any sense.  Their most effective attack to date, and it appears that it was entirely sacrificial."

      You wouldn't think it was useless if you looked at yourself in a mirror, Ramsey thought, gauging the haggardness of the boy, and considering what Langley had told them, how it hurt the other kids.  "Why don't you wait outside, get some sleep in my command car?"

      When Davis glanced over at him and simply nodded, Ramsey considered that even a sacrificial attack had succeeded, if the enemy could follow up fast enough.  I just hope they don't, he thought.  He signaled one of the Marines to keep an eye on the boy.

      One of the senior chiefs on Ramsey's staff walked up to him once Davis had left the area.  "Sir, there are some things that really scare me."

      "I know, Chief."  Ramsey looked at the narrow pit burnt in the floor.  "Screaming bottles to give immortality."

      "No, sir," the Chief corrected, "A kid that age, completely unaffected by all that's happened around here.  That's what scares me, sir."

      Ramsey nodded his agreement, considered there hadn't been no effect, just that the effect hadn't fully manifested, yet.


      Shinji sat in the darkness, one point of a tetrahedron centered on a luminous pearl.  Rei-chan, Raccoon, and Asuka made up the other points.  He knew enough to know what they guarded was a dreamscape.  He could easily guess who's.

      He felt useless, despite flat statements from all three of the others that he was not.  He smiled at that, 'It is useful', 'I assure you, Mr. Ikari, you are helping', 'Spineless!  I wouldn't waste time and effort dragging you along - do you think I'm stupid?'

      He heard the hiss, the sizzle, and the clink, of unseen things moving in the darkness.  When they got too close, a word from Rei or Raccoon, or a gesture from Raccoon or Asuka would drive them away.  For a time.  He merely sat there, watching, not speaking, not moving.  Focusing on the darkness, denying it a chance to get at their prize.

      He knew that apparent sizes were meaningless in dreams.  The bowling-ball sized object could never contain whatever images ran through Nabiki's mind.  Nor could a similarly-sized object hold the train, the villages or the mountains and forests of his imaginings.  He remembered the invasion of his dream space, by his own fears, the assault to rescue Hiroko from hers.  This felt more like the latter than the former.

      He glanced over his shoulders at the others, each sat as he did, but their orientation was crazy, as if ignoring gravity or logic.  Rei's head pointed at him, Raccoon's head pointed directly away, Asuka sat as he did, but 'upside-down' from his perspective.  He could almost see lines of force from one to another sketching out the bonds between and among the pilots who guarded.

      Staying with Nabiki through the day, at least he could do something for her, even if it was only nod, agree, listen and bring tea.  Nabiki admitted things he thought he'd never want to repeat to anyone, despite Misato's teasing about 'spending summer break with your harem'.

      Her response of 'I don't need that,' and her maudlin silence, even into the evening made him suspected his joke might be more necessary than he guessed.  He wondered what of that he should share with the others.

      He'd always wanted people to like him, to stop hurting him.  Now he was seeing how little that meant in the face of Nabiki's real pain.  If it wasn't for `Robot` Rei-chan's steadiness, I'd have run away, he considered how ridiculous it was, that just sitting there like a lump actually helped.  Nabiki said it did.  The grand gestures he couldn't do, were useless, the simple, boring daily support that came easily, worked better.  No matter how difficult it was for him.

      I can't run away, he joked to himself, glanced at the others, wondered about their thoughts through all of this.


June 21, 1947

From the Journal of Ayanami Rei

      The funeral was today, Saturday, all the pilots were in attendance.  The speed of the burials was considered necessary, the sheer numbers and swift putrefaction required this.  The locus of the new burial site was the hill where the shelters once stood.  Only one of the five was still usable, the others were wrecked beyond any chance of repair.  The number of those who could never be identified, entire families destroyed, also affected the selection of the site.  People would know their relative lived in the apartment and could come to this place.

      The idea that a place was necessary to `visit` the dead seems ridiculous to me, but it is becoming clear that all the ceremonies and customs surrounding the dead, their burial and mourning, and the memorialization of the dead, are entirely about the living.  How does a person who lived through the situation react to the new situation?  How do they continue in the new life they have?  I remember my reaction to the death of Ikari Yui, and my reaction to the actions of those around me.

      I hope that my current actions have been more useful and acceptable than my actions were then.  I also believe that Akagi Ritsuko did not make the mistakes, my judgment of her actions, that she made previously.


      Rei glanced around at the crowd on the hill around her.  The pilots were all present of course, along with the orphans from the orphanage, a few of the students from school.  Most of the surviving students planned to attend the service for the masses lost beneath their feet.  All the pilots pitched in to purchase the plot and grave marker.  The other students who attended purchased flowers, food offerings, and other trappings.

      Everyone wore somber clothes.  Rei noted that most of the assemblage wore white, or light colors.  The Second and Raccoon wore darker colors, and there were dress uniforms of the military.  The day was cloudy, gloomy.  That is somehow appropriate, a gray sky, although they forecast no rain.  All colors, all equally somber, Rei thought,All indicated mourning and respect.

      Rei had seen military funerals, but this did not appear to be one.  The uniforms were 'friends and family' rather than an honor guard.  The Commander could not attend, nor did Commander Fuyutsuki.  Dr. Akagi had made attendance mandatory for the technical Branch.  Search and Rescue was there in force, of course.  Rei guessed they were there for their members, rather than any other reason.

      The large portrait of Hiroko that Nabiki-kun held was a painting of one of the pictures of Hiroko taken by Nabiki.  She didn't seem to react to the reminder.  Rei noted that the Americans and the Second seemed uneasy about the picture, while Raccoon and the Second's suggestion of an open casket viewing had horrified the Japanese.  Rei couldn't see the difference, both were ways of reminding everyone of the appearance of the deceased.  There were other baffling arguments.  Rei had been glad Nabiki-kun had been willing to argue passionately and loudly with Roku-kun about such things.  The differing burial customs, despite a similar religious background confused Rei.  Would Nabiki-kun know better because of the cultural similarities, or would Roku-kun's familiarity with Hiroko's religion give him the insight?  Shinji had visited the orphanage on several occasions, to get answers from the monks there, who were also Japanese, and Catholic.  It all seemed meaningless to Rei, the body was dead, it was little more than fertilizer.  But no one treated it that way.

      A military chaplain handled the service.  He was Catholic, Captain Ramsey had seen to that.  The priest seemed to be uncertain about the mourners, since there was no family.  Evidently the `incident` also killed the priest of Hiroko-san's church.  The Chaplin spoke of various themes on the loss of loved ones, resurrection of the body, eternal life.  All of them Rei found confusing if not outright hypocritical.

      How many of `me` would be affected, or would it be an agglomeration of `me's`? she wondered, If I would not simply fade away.

      None of what the man said inspired any reaction.  Rei believed that any of them, including herself, could have spoken more eloquently and on more important matters, or at least matters that touched the people around them.

      Rei waited through the speech the man gave, without glancing left and right at the shuffling feet and muffled coughs of the attendees.  The people she could see were bored.  She suspected that the sheer numbers of people who had died had tired the man out.  She wished they had asked the priest from the orphanage.  Instead, he seemed professionally offended by the delivery.  It was a difficult experience for Rei, full of questions that went unanswered.  What followed was equally unsettling, actions that made little if any sense.  Music, singing along with tears and sobs.  She joined in on the first two, did what she could for the other two.

      Nabiki-kun tried to be `strong`, but broke down twice during the singing of one song.  Shinji-kun practically had to kick the Fourth in the shin to get him to walk over and take the picture Nabiki-kun carried, just to let her cry.  To their credit, no one objected to Nabiki-kun's `show of weakness`.

      How is acknowledging your loss weak, and ignoring another person's value to you strong? Rei wondered as Shinji-kun and Roku-kun offered comfort, the Fourth looked offended and embarrassed by turns.  The Second moved to his side, told him something quietly and moved away, leaving him silently nodding and stoic.

      Towards the end of the ceremony, everyone was encouraged to come to the podium and say something.  Nabiki-kun was clearly not ready to speak, and neither Shinji-kun, nor Roku-kun wanted to leave her side.  Others looked at each other.

      Ironically, Rei found she had the words, she spoke first.

      "I am not sure if Hiroko-san and I were friends," Rei said to those around her, "I am pleased we both could act as if we were, and the time we had together."  Rei found she had nothing else to say to the crowd, she stepped down.  But this allowed others to speak, some went for much longer than Rei, Rei doubted they said as much as she.  But they must speak the words for themselves, Rei remembered her own experience, Not for others.  Or for the dead.

      Nabiki-kun spoke of her friend eloquently, of her kindness, of her dreams, of her courage.  Nabiki-kun spoke first of her as her factor, then her guide and finally her friend, the first person at the school to reach out to her.  She broke down several times.  No one hurried her, Roku-kun speaks of her courage and patience in dealing with the pilots and their schemes, that gets some nervous laughter.  Then told an embarrassing story about the 'kilt', which made everyone laugh.

      The students spoke of their memories of Hiroko, it was not mandatory, but when all the pilots spoke it made it fitting.

      Rei wondered if anyone else realized at this point, that the ceremony was in an odd way, a call to action to complete part of the lost dream and a chance to release some of the emotional burden.


      A strange juxtaposition of solemnity, to a party afterwards, Rei thought.  Even more unusual, it was held at the school grounds.  Now that they were declared safe for use.  The pilots had vetoed Captain Katsuragi's designs for a party, too much useless noise.  Shinji-kun and Roku-kun had arranged this: food and talk, some soft music in the background.

      Rei watched as people gathered in small knots, then disperse to form with others.  Rei understood the necessity of this activity, they sought out those who might understand what they had to say, who shared a certain memory, would appreciate a certain anecdote, or who would simply listen.

      Shinji-kun asked me to accompany him, Rei thought as she trailed him from group to group, I suspect both Nabiki-kun and Roku-kun would want me here.  She glanced worriedly at the pair.  Nabiki-kun sitting at a table with some of her organization, Roku-kun rushing around making sure everyone had something to eat or drink, unable to sit still.


From the Journal of Ayanami Rei

      As the party continued, I took Nabiki-kun aside, out of sight of the others, giving her what else I had taken from Hiroko's apartment: her diary.

      I had intended days ago to tell her that they should be hers to keep or dispose of, but her reaction to the photo album convinced me to wait.  The hug frightened me.  Both its suddenness and its strength.

      'Thank you, Rei,' was my first clue that she was not strangling me.

      'I could think of nothing else,' I admitted to her, with my hands full, so I couldn't properly reciprocate her gesture.  I believe she understands.  She took the book after she released me.  She and I sat and went through the pictures again, and the diary.  This time we concentrated on the photos of her family, and fewer of her activities with the pilots.  I had replaced the large picture of Nabiki in her plugsuit in the album, it caused her to blush and giggle when she found it.

      'She loved you.'  I do not understand why I told her this again, perhaps I too had things to say that made no sense, except to a select few.

      Nabiki burst into tears, but did not flee.  I still think I did the right thing.  Her tears reduced to sniffles, then she confessed, 'I'm an idiot.'

      I said nothing, I do not believe she had time or opportunity to analyze her factor's feelings, or to understand them.

      I saw, because I was looking.  I do not know why she was not.  I think it important to find out.


Recompense

      Ranma could hardly stand it, as he walked around the periphery of the `wake`.  He kept glancing at Nab-chan and Roku-kun.  It would have been better if they got angry, or hit him.  That he could deal with.  But instead they were painfully polite, they weren't even giving him the cold shoulder, they didn't speak to anyone, except Rei and Shinji, if they didn't have to, and when they did, it was with the same quiet, polite tone of voice they used on him.

      For the last few days, if he challenged Nab-chan in any way, she'd draw into herself, acting like a cross of the worst parts of Rei and Shinji.  She'd offer quiet apologies for whatever she had done to offend him.  Then she'd return to her room.  She didn't practice with him, made no comments that made him uncomfortable, no double entendres or lascivious comments or groping.  He wouldn't have believed not expecting a verbal or physical ambush at any minute would be something that he not only missed, but it actually hurt, that she wasn't `attacking` him anymore.  Shinji and Rei walked around him as if he were a foul-smelling landmine, they avoided him, and acted as if he'd explode at any moment.

      That Raccoon did the same was almost worse, he'd always know his manner irritated the other boy.  So Raccoon tolerated Ranma, now he simply took whatever comments Ranma made, even a few insults, without reacting in any way.  No corrections, no irritated riposte, nothing.  As if whatever Ranma did didn't matter to him anymore.

      Ranma didn't know what to do, there was no attack to be countered, there was no enemy to stand up and fight.  Worse, everyone was telling him it wasn't his fault, that he'd done nothing wrong.  He'd killed Hiroko, and if Nab-chan bursting into tears a dozen times a minute with Rei, and Raccoon looking like he was going to drive his head through the first brick wall that didn't get out his way, were any indication, he'd effectively killed them too, and there was nothing that was his fault.  'It was bound to happen', 'There was nothing you could do', 'The only thing anyone did wrong was Tendo and Davis shouldn't have been anywhere near that place,' All the words were useless, Ranma thought with despair.  He wished school were back in session, he needed to talk to someone about this, someone who might know how to deal with this actively.  He almost wished he could cry, like Nab-chan, But guys don't cry.  Raccoon hadn't cried, Shinji hadn't cried.

      Ranma had talked to both Admiral Simson and Captain Ramsey, over the last couple of days, both told him to let the healing proceed at it's own place.  They said that grief came in stages and there was as many different ways of grieving as there were people.  They'd tried to send him to Dr. Samuels, the last thing he needed was a psychiatrist to just talk about it.  He needed to solve it.  They also confirmed all of what Asuka had told him, and more she had kept from him.  The shock had been deep.  After it faded, he didn't feel angry, he just couldn't find the energy to get angry.  Not at them, not as Asuka, not at Gendo, not at Misa . . . Captain Katsuragi, who'd kept all this a secret.

      Ironically, he finally understood why Nab-chan had lied to him about knowing his past.  The pain he was feeling about being . . . Heck, I might as well say it, unloved, he thought, They just don't care.  About me, about themselves, or doing anything that matters.  The descriptions from Raccoon and Asuka, partially confirmed by Nab-chan and his own expectations, told him the same, the battles `back home` never solved anything, and they dominated everything.  They fought to win, because they wanted the bragging rights, he thought sadly, Not to capitalize on the victory or bring peace, he actually felt sorry for those others.

      Still, the insight didn't help the current problem.  Without an enemy to fight, he couldn't win.  He'd taken a little solace that Asuka's tongue was as sharp as ever.  He'd insulted her and got a response so fast it nearly took his head off, but it wasn't the kind of response that led to verbal sparring.  She'd told him not to repeat that in front of 'Ice Princess', or she'd never speak to him again.

      He'd also followed Rei following Raccoon on one of his early morning forays.  While it was obvious Rei was watching over Raccoon, Ranma still hadn't figured out what Raccoon was looking for, or who.  Ranma felt a little sorry for who or what it was.  He doubted it would be happy when Raccoon found it, he wouldn't have bet it would survive Raccoon finding it.  But it remained invisible, to Raccoon and to him.  That just made him feel more useless.


      Nabiki had made her decision.  It was far easier than she'd thought it would be.  She guiltily added that lying to Ritsuko about what she was going to do was also very easy.  A long soak in the furo after a long day, that's what she'd told Ritsuko.  Technically, she prevaricated, It is the truth, it's just not the whole truth.

      All week she'd been having these feelings, not just anger, but rage, at Hiroko . . . and at Ranma . . . and at her mother, for renouncing life and forsaking her.  As if they had any choice in the matter.  She hadn't been able to get them out of her head, and she could not talk to Rei, Shinji, or Raccoon about them.  Such thoughts were too shameful, and too perverse.  She had even raged at the woman who died after thrusting her child at Nabiki, only to have the child die in her hands.

      Why did she give ME that responsibility?! Nabiki raged as she stepped into the water, I didn't want it, it wasn't my kid!  It wasn't my job!  She felt the tears coming again, this time she savagely squelched them, she needed clear eyes for this.  She'd been crying like a baby for the past few days, she wanted a little dignity now.  She was blubbering and carrying on worse than her father and Akane put together.  Further proof, as if she needed any, that she had made the correct decision.

      She unwrapped the small package of razor blades, "As if this world needs a Soun or Akane Tendo."

      She'd been cut before, in various scuffles, getting cut again didn't worry her.  With the bath filled with hot water, she'd bleed easily, and it would make cleanup remarkably easy.  Yes, she'd thought about this and planned it carefully.  She'd even left instructions how her remains were to be treated.  She'd been so angry with Hiroko, she'd almost let Raccoon do the stupid things he'd suggested.  But that wouldn't have been right, she thought as she sat in the hot water, felt the flush as the blood rose to the surface, As if it knows what it has to do.  Even it wants to leave me, she thought that was amusing somehow.

      She thought about Ranma for a moment, and how awful she'd been to him.  The rest of the fiancee brigade would have killed to have Ranma alone and all to themselves.  But her anger at him killing himself without telling her, without leaving a note, without explaining himself, nothing, poisoned everything she tried to do.  As well as her terror that his string of victories still convinced him he was invulnerable and unconquerable, and that certainty would kill him.  She could not live through that, not again.  I don't plan to, she thought, I left my apologies where they can be easily found.  I won't make the same mistake.  He was innocent, he didn't deserve to die.

      "For how I treated him - " She clamped her mouth shut, she knew she deserved what she was about to do, she had to make amends for what she had done, but she must not give them a chance to intervene.  Even the smallest suspicion they could have done anything to stop her had to be eliminated.

      I wonder if Ranma would think I was regaining my honor, Nabiki wondered, As if I ever had any to begin with.  None of my family does, nor does the school.  We're all a sad joke, Kasumi trying to be mommy, except never disciplining us; Akane with her 'I'm a martial artist too', never seeing the duties and responsibilities of a martial artist; and me, I must be mother's worst disappointment, hating her all those years for abandoning us.  As if she wanted to.  Dishonoring her, dishonoring her memory that way, an undutiful daughter, who just loves money, and walks around hating and despising the people around her who are looking at `silly things` like love and honor.

      Yes, the decision was far easier than she'd thought it would be.


Chapter 12
Chapter 14
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