Neon Genesis Evangelion Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction ❯ Sic Semper Morituri ❯ Chapter 32-33 ( Chapter 15 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]
Sic Semper Morituri

Chapter 32 - Cthulhu Fhtagn Isn't the Only One
      The Dreamers of the Day are Dangerous Men
      Resignation is Confirmed Desperation
      Puts Man's Best Dreams to Shame
      Hope is a Waking Dream
      Dreams Mortals Never Dared Before
      Vexed To Nightmare
      In the Nightmare of the Dark
      Attachment, the Great Fabricator
      The Most Dangerous Calculations
      Dreams Themselves Are Only Dreams

Chapter 33 - History is a Nightmare from Which I am Trying to Awake
      A Prophet in Reverse
      And I Quote the Fights Historical
      Many Cunning Passages, Contrived Corridors
      People and Governments Never Learned
      Dame Exaltee et Menteuse [Excitable Lying Old Lady]
      The History of a Soldier's Wound Beguiles the Pain
      The Twelfth-Night Duke's Question


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


Stories are available in Plain ASCII at:


ht tp:// r-Morituri

(these are the original versions)

What has gone before:

      About Book 11 of the Tankoubon Manga, 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.

      All of the pilots react to the disaster surrounding the destruction of Cthugha and his cult in there own ways.  Nabiki retreats, Asuka investigates, Jeff attacks the SEELE. supporters, Ranma seeks a decisive battle and is frustrated in this end, Rei and Shinji try to support Nabiki.

      One of the SEELE members is killed in Osaka, and Natsumi Matsuda witnesses the entire event, Jeff and Misato are sent to investigate.

      Asuka takes Ranma to Tokyo University, meeting Belldandy and Keiichi.  Then they return to enjoy the carnival set up on the school grounds.  The arrival of an assassin of Nyarlathotep's cult spoils everyone's evening as attacks the pilots and senior staff, he is destroyed by Asuka in Unit 02.  In the aftermath, Ranma, Rei and Asuka, make efforts to draw Nabiki out of her shell.

      Kaji investigates the facts of recent events, but doesn't realize his contact is a Mi-Go.

      Ritsuko, Rei and Jeff discuss their origins and other facts.

      Shinji and Ranma watch Mirei qualify for softball, then hunt for the `Ghost of Tokyo`.

      Ranko gets dream training from the Scholarly Dragon.

      The S2 engines are tested, and NERV Tokyo vanishes.  Nabiki and Rei escape and land outside Roswell, NM., they must deal with the aftermath and loss at NERV Las Vegas.

A safe night, I'm living in the forest of my dream

I know the night is not as it would seem

I must believe in something, so I'll make myself

believe it

That this night will never go

Self Control - Laura Branigan

The Dreamers of the Day are Dangerous Men

July 6, 1947

      Deep in the cavern below NERV Las Vegas, the man walked along the cat walk.  Bottom and sides of simple open mesh work, because it had to be light enough to span the distance.  While he could feel the tap of his feet on the metal, he could hear nothing, that was not unusual for him.  He'd been born deaf, he hadn't the faintest idea what was the sound of a voice, of a breeze, of a song, of a cry of agony.  Sometimes he wondered what he was missing.  Not now, right now he wouldn't have traded his lifetime of deafness for all the riches of the world.

      In the distance was a tree, or what appeared to be a tree, growing like a sea anemone on the head of an immense worm.  But it wasn't a tree, and it wasn't a worm.  High in the spreading branches, some 300 feet off the ground, was a face, the face of a human infant in pain, some 100 feet across.  It screamed continuously.  No one could survive that sound for more than a few instants and remain sane, no one who knew what sound was.  The lucky ones died of it.  No, he wouldn't have traded his `disability` for anything.

      He looked at the worm, it was easy to think of the tree as tiny, considering how massive the worm was.  It coiled six times around itself, in a vast spiral, he could remember when that number had been twenty, some of the old-timers said it was once 35.  The worm was too stupid to understand what was happening to it, even so, sometimes it moaned loud enough that even he felt it.  He wondered if they'd have to get another one soon, the one the EVA had killed in Tokyo was gone, he had no idea how they'd gotten this one.  Well, he thought, That's not my department.  Besides, we've been feeding the tree something else lately.

      The catwalk above his carried another classification of worker, they had to have been born deaf and blind.  That cat walk ended over the mouth of the infant.  The gray powder they poured into it had been giving them much better results than just the worm's contribution.  Each new shipment from Tokyo gave new and different results.  Tulzscha had made the new armor possible, before that, Nyogtha had allowed them to overcome the problem of the multiple arm coordination.  He was looking forward to what Cthugha's remains would bring forth.

      He didn't speculate what they harvested: sputum, tears, vomit, mucus; again, that wasn't his department.  The new armor, engines and weapons for the project were not his problem, he was the complaint department.  Not just receiving them from others, but taking them to the source.  This catwalk approached a cavity in the side of the tree.  He checked the plastic suit he wore.  If the hairlike rootlets he would pass through found even the smallest gap or imperfection, his fate would be the same as the worm's far below.  But quicker, and he would know every instant of what was happening.

      The brown mass of branches, roots and rootlets came to boiling life as he approached.  Only two things were brought here, the high priest, and special sacrifices.  Depending on the tree's mood, the two could be interchangeable.  It touched, stroked and bored at the plastic sheeting, he passed through as quickly as he could.  Once inside, he marveled at the similarity between this thing and a real tree.  He could almost imagine he was a small insect in a knot hole or other gap.

      Here he began the ritual, a simple thing he could do in his sleep.  He didn't know whether he `heard` the creature's words in his head, but he would transcribe what passed here, for the others, for the experts to analyze.

      Mighty One, we are troubled.  It was a good formula, this creature rarely accepted blame for anything.  The mighty engines your counsel and beneficence have allowed us to labor on for your greater glory have gone awry.

      In what way?

      He was certain the voice actually sounded confused.

      The base in Tokyo, where you are held in much honor, although your name is never spoken -

      Such is as it should be.  The condescension was palpable.

      Mighty One, the base has vanished.


      The force of the `voice` nearly exploded his mind from his skull.  I meant no disrespect!

      Not YOU foolish worm!  Then came the laughter that chilled him to the bone.  Another schemes and plots.  The laughter began again.

      He cowered for a moment, then continued, Mighty One we seek your counsel, how may this be set right?

      Your brave heroes already move to correct the situation.  Do you have no faith in the faithful?  Amusing.

      We beseech your aid -

      My aid is unnecessary, go, tell the faithful my blessings continue.  The rootlet curtain abruptly pulled away.

      The grievance administrator had never seen that happen before, he decided that discretion was the better part of valor.

      As he walked along the catwalk, back to the more human reaches of NERV Las Vegas, he wondered at the strange statements.  It never had faith in mere humans, and if the humans hadn't blasphemed, who, or rather what had?

      He was glad such answers were well above his pay-grade.  He liked being sane and rational.  The overly curious were better off dead.  One of the reason spies hadn't been a problem here: you simply showed them the truth, the whole truth, and let them go.  The desert took care of what was left.

      Shinji wondered whether it was possible to disappear into the walls.  Sometimes he envied Ranma.  Not now, definitely not now.

      "I'll paddle him within an inch of his life!  I'll ground him until he's thirty!" Sammi stopped pacing, stopped shouting, looked at Shinji, "I can't kill him.  But I can make him loong for death!"

      Shinji nodded his agreement, silently praying Sammi would walk away, he'd never seen her in any mood except smiling and happy, with occasional teasing.  This elemental fury was something Shinji hoped to never see again.  No, definitely happy to be Shinji, Shinji thought as the woman marched away.  Shinji kept from sighing with relief until she was well out of earshot.  It would be me trapped in her with her, Shinji silently lamented.  He'd been glad it had been Asuka chosen to go to the EVA bays, then Ranma had disappeared and all the guards acted like they had toothaches, being separated from their charges and sent to a `safe` place.  Sammi was the worst.

      The walls of the power core were the only barriers that could keep the various creatures out.  So all the noncombatants had been taken here.  That included all the pilots, except Asuka.  Ranma had slipped out the door before it sealed.  No one was willing to reopen the doors and let the creatures outside in here.  There was something weird about this place.  All the other engines and machines he'd ever been around made noise, smelled of machine oil.  All he could smell here was a faint odor of L.C.L., all he could hear was a faint sound like someone a long way off calling his name.  He couldn't make out the words, but to had that sound of familiarity.  No one else heard anything.  Weird.

      He hoped Asuka and Ritsuko would be successful in getting to the EVAs, now he thought he should have gone with, and not just to get away from Sammi and her anger at Ranma.  He was the best in Unit 01 after all.  That would have given them two EVAs, instead of one.

      But they didn't want to risk more than one of the surviving pilots, he thought, the memories of Rei-chan and Nabiki disappearing through the bay's roof intruded.  He clung desperately to the idea they had somehow escaped the disaster that had befallen the base, and the rest of them.  Instead of simply being destroyed.  That belief was appearing more and more desperate, and irrelevant.  Even if they endured, they might never escape this odd place.  "Be well, Rei-chan," he prayed quietly.

      The others around him, technicians in lab coats, office workers in suits, all the support personnel that made the base operate, were in the same mess.  Many of the others had been separated from friends and family, as he had.  He wished he could have faith that his father would get them out of this.

      Rei-chan would tell me to have faith . . . if she was here, if she'd escaped, maybe I could, Shinji thought as he looked at the shell-shocked expressions around him.  The tears, terrified glances, occasional snivel, all tore at him.  Then they'd glance at him, as if he could do anything.  He remembered what he'd done when the Lloigor had attacked the school, what Nabiki and Rei-chan did, he stared back without expression.  He had no idea why that made them feel better, but it did, so he kept giving them that expression, when he wanted to run around screaming, in rage, in terror, at the unfairness of it all.

      There were plenty of clues that he was as lost as everyone else.  He had tried to sleep, to reach out to Rei-chan or Raccoon in dreams, but he couldn't sleep long enough to make the connection.  He tried to disappear into the wall again, as Sammi reversed her circuit and headed back in his direction.  Nobody blamed him for being afraid of her.

      Toji nearly jumped out of his skin when Raccoon sneezed loudly.

      "Neva'esjstse msnitotsxemaehihe."  One of the old men in the circle said to Raccoon, who replied in the same language.  All of them were clustered around a fire.  The old men wore the same weird clothes Raccoon had when they went to rescue Hikari.

      Spooky, Toji thought.  "Somebody must be talking about you," Toji joked.

      "That's what he said," Raccoon told him, gesturing to the old men.

      "What exactly are we doing?" Toji looked at the circle of army troops out a hundred yards away, and the two oddly clad old men laying out all kinds of weird paraphernalia, Raccoon's peculiar jacket wasn't the most bizarre.  Toji was worried this was a joke, but with their earnest expressions, and NERV Tokyo simply gone, he was more afraid it wasn't.

      "Remember how we went after the class rep?" Raccoon was preparing his own equipment.

      "Yeah, really freaky," Toji sat down across the fire from them, avoiding their preparation areas.

      "Same process."

      "You mean we'll materialize where they are?  How do we get back?"

      "Ah, Suzuhara-san - "

      "Uh, oh!"  Toji covered his face, when Raccoon got like this, it was bad news.

      "Funny, well, we won't be able to `materialize` at the other end.  But there is a way to interact with the others."

      "How's that?" Toji asked, dreading the answer.

      Why didn't he ask for Kensuke? Toji wondered silently, wishing one really weird experience would quiet his fervid friend.

      "We sync with the EVAs."

      Toji watched the forests turn to blue cloudy skies, he could hear Raccoon a huge distance away, calling his name.  The wind and the birds were so pretty, and far louder.

      "He doesn't seem the stable type," one of the spiritwalkers told Jeff in Cheyenne.

      "I think he'll do all right, convincing him he'll do all right . . . " Jeff shrugged, "Naa, Ma'heo'o, nehne'evavoomemenoo'o mbhnaootsetse."  [And, God, watch over us when we're sleeping.]

      The old men chuckled at the child's prayer.

      Asuka wasn't happy about walking through the NERV corridors in her plugsuit, with all the soldiers around.  It wasn't that she was in a skin-tight uniform around a whole bunch of men, what she really wanted to be wearing was a flak jacket.  Or that those same men would get out of her way and give her a clear field of fire.  The gunfire from the ordinary troopers had little effect on the creatures that drifted out of the walls.  The shotguns with special ammunition and flamethrowers had a greater effect, her pistol was instantly lethal to any of the creatures it hit.

      The elevators were not safe, it was theorized the creatures might cut the cables.  So ladders, and their claustrophobic confines, were the only way between levels.  Asuka would be happier when they reached the EVA bay, with the wide-open spaces, and the distance to line up her shots.

      "I don't see why we couldn't have just gone outside, and come in through the main doors."  Asuka fired at another one of the things.  She then had to punch the spent cartridges out, one at a time, the only thing she disliked about her pistol.

      "We don't know if the atmosphere is breathable," Ritsuko explained as she scanned the area, "So the doors and windows stay sealed.  I don't think we've had time to look outside."

      "Terrific."  Asuka began carefully reloading her pistol, also one shell at a time.  She wanted to tell Ritsuko how ridiculous she looked with the tiny popgun she carried, another flamethrower would be more welcome.  Ritsuko was strong enough to carry one, and small enough to wear it while climbing through the tunnels.

      The team kept moving.  Asuka suspected Wondergirl would have found a better way through the bowels of NERV.  Then they'd already be where they were going.

      I won't cry! Asuka thought fiercely, Not for her!  She still couldn't believe that they were gone, Ice Princess and Wondergirl.  Asuka wasn't sure what to make of that, she knew Spineless was probably crying his eyes out, she couldn't stand Ikari's little doll.  Yet Asuka couldn't deny it, she'd feel a lot better with the robot guarding her back.  She'd miss Ice Princess, if only for her ability to speak German, one of the few bits of home Asuka had in this alien world called Japan.  Asuka realized that was probably why she hadn't freaked out.  She was always in an alien world full of weird creatures who did incomprehensible things.  And that's only my fellow pilots, she smirked.

      She wouldn't think about Raccoon.  If El Nureenen's curse meant anything, he'd be back.  She'd thought he was dead once before.  She'd watched him die in the Dreamlands, been sure of it, and it didn't take.

      She cocked the pistol and took aim at one of the most dangerous and least vulnerable critters, it looked like a floating mineral formation, a rocky center with crystal growing from it.  They weren't aggressive, but they could fire the crystals.  Asuka had seen the effect, and she'd rather not see anyone die with spikes of crystals growing out of them that way.

      The creature died a moment later from Asuka's bullet, not shattering like a crystal, but splattering like a liquid.

      Weird, now she considered whether they'd run out of ammunition before they reached the EVA bays, and worked their way around the other Units.  The Units still spewing radiation from their malfunctioning S2 engines.

Resignation is Confirmed Desperation

      "We have to keep them away from the Magi," Gendo's shout cut across all levels of the command center as another wave of the creatures charged.

      Yeah, yeah, yeah! Ranma thought as he cut and thrust, smashed with the scabbard.  There seemed to be no end to the creatures.  He'd never heard Gendo so panicked, there might be more to the computer than Ole' Stoneface let on.

      Ranma was glad he'd spied on Raccoon and Asuka while they practiced whatever art they were practicing together.  He didn't remember much about using the Art with weapons, but those two had concentrated on using weapons. Adapting their techniques had been simple.

      He spun suddenly, facing one that had materialized behind him, he thrust in a snap, slaying it.  Watching the pair had been very instructive.

      This is nothing more than engaging as many targets as possible, he thought, And killing them.

      It sickened him what he was doing, but he didn't stop doing it.  Cut or thrust or slash . . . pause, search for the next target.

      No one is as good as Ranma Saotome, he thought, as he leapt to engage one coming in from above, Nothing can defeat Ranma Saotome!  He crossed his eyes as he landed, as various parts of him made their presence patently known.  His art was the finest there was, but he was beginning to understand why the techniques Asuka and Raccoon used had been so austere.  After ten minutes, he was warmed up and feeling invincible.  After 60 minutes things were beginning to twinge.

      After three hours, his arms were beginning to feel like lead, he really had to go to the bathroom.  He also knew he was the only one who could do the job.  He also prayed that all the effort concentrated here meant fewer were going after Asuka and Rit-chan.  He'd be glad when an EVA got here to give him a break.  A few moments of 'quiet, too quiet', then back into the fight.  In the battle, he could lose himself, he could forget that Nab-chan, Rei and Raccoon were never coming back.

      Thrust left, smash right, both sword and scabbard felling enemies.  One like a sea urchin halved, another that was a floating blob of slime vanished.  Ranma vaulted over to the other side of the Magi cabinets, thrust through one of the crystal ones.

      "What are these things?"  Kaji thrust a road flare into one of them, it died messily.  Kaji hated that slimy feeling, all over his hand.

      "I don't know," Gendo admitted.

      Kaji wondered if there was some trick Gendo was using to keep the things away from him and Fuyutsuki.  This reticence limited the arc that allowed them to go after Saotome, who was clearly tiring.  Kaji was trying to do his best, keeping the number of attackers down.  His cigarette lighter had more effect than his pistol had, it was long empty, and he was running out of substitutes.  He'd have to find out why Maya kept a package of road flares in her desk drawer.

      "Get clear," one of the third shift crew shouted from down below near the map table.

      Kaji ran for it as Saotome caught Gendo and Fuyutsuki and leapt to the Commanders deck of the stacked levels.

      Nothing apparently changed, but the creatures had cleared the area around the Magi.

      "Congratulations Mr. Aoba, Mr. Hyuga," Gendo shouted from his position, "Stay on that radar unit."

      The two kept sweeping the air defense radar over the area.

      Kaji kept crawling, until he was out of the command center and had some steel-reinforced concrete between him and that radar unit.

      "Innovative," Gendo commented, as Saotome sprinted for the bathroom.  "I hadn't considered using the radar controlled anti-aircraft guns that way.  We'll deploy the other units to protect key areas.  Maybe then we can begin working on the answers."

      You escape by the skin of your teeth, Kaji thought, And you're already congratulating yourself.

      "Very good," he said instead, "How are you going to get us out of here?"

      Fuyutsuki was stoic, Gendo merely stared at Kaji, until he walked away.

      He doesn't have any ideas at all, Kaji realized.

      Toji heard the chanting as it went in and out of phase, the smoke already made him sleepy, he was nodding.  He could barely focus on the line of Marines, Were they really a million miles away?he found he couldn't concentrate on anything.

      He remembered that when they went after the class rep- Hikari-san, he hadn't managed to do anything, until he passed out.  He quit trying to fight the anesthetizing chant.  He simply closed his eyes, let the scent and the sound take him away.

      I'm going to be inside an EVA, Toji thought, 'There are two ways to sync with an EVA, one is by force, like wrestling; the other is gentle, non-coercive, like seduction and making love.'  Boy was Captain Misato shocked by that little revelation from Raccoon!  And 'Remember, you're there to rescue Shinji, keep that firmly in mind.  Tease, advise, cajole, negotiate.'  Despite the advice, he was still scared to death.

      "Open your eyes."

      Raccoon was floating alongside him, as they raced along.  He couldn't see any references, no colors, no other objects except him and Raccoon.  It wasn't black, the color just wasn't there.  So he didn't know why he was certain he was moving, and at nearly incalculable speed.

      "OH!  terrific," Raccoon cursed, "Well, I should take you back, come on."

      Toji looked around, in all the non-color surrounding him, he saw only one spot of color.  A small blotch of red-brown, conspicuous by being the only smear of color.  "What's got you so spooked?  You were certain that you needed my help.  My dad and gramps were at the base when it winked out."

      "Suzuhara-san, that thing," he pointed at the little spot, "Is an Outer God, the Harbinger of the Great Old Ones, its job is to awaken them, all at once."

      "Yeah, so?"

      "It's the size of a planet, Toji.  A supernova couldn't scratch it.  An EVA, forget it.  If that's what we're fighting, we don't have a prayer."

      "Oh," Toji said, the peculiar thing about Raccoon was he was always so sure of himself, if he was scared . . . Toji also remembered the thing from the battle between the monsters.  The distorted human looking ones had been slaughtered, the big dragon had better luck, but it had run away too.  "I'm still going.  Maybe we can evacuate people - before the - well, you know."

      "Yes, I know.  You have to do something.  I know how it is," Raccoon smiled, "Maybe we'll get lucky, maybe it's asleep."

      Asuka picked up the fallen guard's submachine gun.  She wondered if Maya still thought those things were 'cute', the idea to get to the EVAs wasn't particularly inspired, but nobody had expected these things to turn vicious.  Nobody had expected it to become a last stand.  Asuka stripped the clip out and began reloading her pistol.

      "This isn't working," Ritsuko told her.  Asuka knew Ritsuko's gun was empty.

      "Well, we can't back up." Asuka replied as she backed up against Ritsuko, more of the creatures had closed in behind them.

      Some of the creatures looked like worms, others stars, still others shapes that made your eyes water just by looking at them.  All of them were clearly massing to attack.

      "What are we going to do?" Ritsuko asked.

      Why are you asking me? Asuka wondered as she took aim at the nearest ones, You're the adult.

      Arm-thick bolts of white-fire fried dozens of the creatures that surrounded the two women, then a field of haze swept through the rest, reducing them to dust or smaller particles.  Asuka and Ritsuko stood untouched amid the sudden carnage.  Asuka and Ritsuko were completely alone, for a moment.

      "I only know one person stupid enough to parade into Hell to rescue a pack of carcasses."

      Unit 02 walked into sight, followed closely by Unit 01, "Guilty as charged," Unit 02 said in Raccoon's voice.

      "Well, get out of there, I'll take over."

      "I'm afraid I can't, the rest of me is back in the real world," Raccoon/Unit 02 told her sheepishly.  Asuka thought it was nuts, the two huge EVAs actually looked and acted embarrassed.

      "What do you mean?" Asuka was shocked.

      "Uh, shouldn't we get out of here?" Unit 01 asked as it glanced around nervously, clearly fidgety by the state of affairs.

      Asuka was jolted, "That's Toji?  You brought the three Stooges as help?"

      "Well, that's the best help I could find," Raccoon told them, Unit 02 took on a defiant, offended posture, "But he is right, I assume you were going after the EVAs for some reason.  Right?"

      "Yes," Ritsuko cut off Asuka's outrage.

      "All right, Toji, I'll go with Dr. Akagi.  Langley, you lead Toji, he'll need a steady hand."

      "Why don't I go with you?" Asuka asked.

      "Because Dr. Akagi is not a combat-specialist, neither is Toji.  It's you and me, kid."

      Asuka nearly went into hysterics at the sight of her Unit 02 trying to do a Bogart impersonation.  Fury at the taint of dishonor warred with the patently farcical scene.  Asuka's common sense managed to win the day, she kept silent.  She could beat up Raccoon and laugh at him, LATER.

      "Why isn't Shinji with you?" Toji/Unit 01 asked.

      Asuka knew it would take time to get used to this.

      "He's trapped in the power core with many others," Ritsuko said, "Asuka take Toji there.  We have another destination."

      "Oh all right," Asuka grumped, "Lean down here, idiot, then we'll have to start crawling down the corridors."

      Unit 01 leaned over, then held steady, so Asuka could clamber up the arm and into the empty entry plug.

      "I told you our bodies aren't here, like when we went after Hikari," Toji's voice and image in the plug told her.

      Asuka wasn't happy about being in Unit 01.  She was unhappier that yet another boy could interface with the monster.  Maybe it really is Spineless's mother, Asuka silently grumped as she told Toji the best route for the EVA to crawl through to the depths of NERV.  As they crawled, she gave him a rundown of the weapons, the capabilities of their enemy, and what else he needed to know if they were attacked.  She silently prayed the stooge could manifest an AT field, in case something serious attacked.

Puts Man's Best Dreams to Shame

      Ritsuko watched Unit 01 climb down the corridor while she reluctantly dropped into the entry plug of Unit 02, and affixed the A10 nerve clip to her head.  The system displays and multiple external views were a surprise, she could get data and external views from the Magi, but she'd never been able to sync with the EVAs.  Nor was she sure why she wasn't dissolving, being crushed, or going insane.

      "With a pilot in place," Jeff explained, "The EVAs are harmless, a pilot's autonomic nervous system maintains the EVA.  Temperature, pressure, everything.  I'm feeding my inputs directly to you.  Don't use the hand controls for anything except balance, they won't work."

      "Finally got me alone in the dark," Ritsuko tried to joke, she could feel something moving out there in the L.C.L..  She wasn't sure what it was, but she was sure it was out there.  She also knew there were things about L.C.L. they hadn't told the pilots.  If the pilots knew enough to do this, link with the EVAs using a disembodied technique, What else can they do?  Ritsuko worried.

      "Relax, doc," Jeff's voice and image appeared before her, "The EVA won't do anything untoward, nor will I.  We have bigger problems right now."

      Ritsuko tried to calm herself, I have my assistant and a pilot as potential romantic interests, and I do nothing, she thought, I can't even lie that I'm not interested.  I'm such a coward!

      "Why do you think you're a coward?" Jeff asked, "Remember you don't have to speak, just think as if you were speaking."

      "Nothing really," she replied, reminding herself to guard her thoughts more carefully.

      "Doctor Akagi . . . Ritsuko, I'm tied into the telemetry and life support, the EVA's sensors can look inside the plug as well as outside.  Your physiological changes are quite apparent and have been increasing, rather than decreasing."

      "We'll discuss it later, when we're aboard the Bennington, and not so pressed for time."

      "Maya loves you.  I don't understand why you're afraid of that."

      "That wasn't what I was talking about," Ritsuko said defensively, "Not entirely anyhow," she justified.

      "When you lie, your words turn dark red, did you know that?"

      Ritsuko wasn't sure how to take that, was he pulling her leg, or was there some basis to his statement.  "First I want to check the other EVAs, Units 00 and 04, if we can shut them down, maybe we can get back to the `real world`."

      "Has anybody bothered to look outside?"

      "No, we've been otherwise occupied, why?" Ritsuko asked.


      She hated when he said that, it always meant trouble.

      "We have a bigger problem than whatever the EVAs are doing," Jeff told her as they headed towards the doors of the EVA bays.

      "We can't go out there, we don't know what the atmosphere is."

      "So where did you test the other two?"

      "I'll direct you," Ritsuko told him, "Head out of the main bay, to the test stand."  Ritsuko knew that this was potentially disastrous, more than just bringing an S type engine close to the malfunctioning S2's.  The pilots were her major concern.  She'd watched Units 01 and 02 moving.  It had bothered her, those two EVAs didn't move as they should if they were piloted by people with such a low, or nonexistent sync rates.  They were more fluid, nearly matching the grace and smoothness of Asuka and Ranma, Rei and Shinji lacked that pair's natural elegance of movement.  But neither EVA had moved in a completely human manner either, using arms and legs to move along.  Kneeling with one arm on the ground, it reminded her more of the gait of the great apes, like animals, rather than men.  Not at all like the regular gait of the pilots, who should have been controlling the EVAs every move.  She'd had few opportunities to watch Jeff pilot the EVAs, and he had always been in Unit 04, which would disguise any such odd movements and tendencies.

      I'll have to schedule a motion test with him in Unit 01 or 02, Ritsuko thought, Probably Unit 02, to break Asuka of the habit of thinking of it as `her` EVA.  Just to salve my curiosity of course.  She also wondered that the EVAs didn't seem to be under the positive control that the other pilots had to keep theirs under.  Both had twitched, glanced around, again in a nonhuman way, as if the EVA itself was moving, looking around, preparing for battle or danger, independent of the pilot, or acting on the pilots' orders rather under the pilots' utter control.  However, there seemed to be absolutely no sign of the berserking that would accompany an out-of-control EVA.  Ritsuko couldn't reconcile the two sets of facts, EVAs had to be under the rigid control of the pilots to operate and not go berserk.  That was a fact.  A fact that a few moments ago had been proven utterly false.  She wondered what other of her `facts` might be wrong.

      Did Gendo and Naoko . . . and Yui too - did they lie to me? she wondered, If they lied about that, what else did they lie about?  She idly wondered if she really wasn't what she remembered she was.  She chuckled at that thought, that Gendo and the others had constructed her, in the same way she had constructed Sammi, and for much the same purpose, to guard the project.  She discarded that line of reasoning, as tedious as 98% of her memories actually were, there were subtle differences that told her the same thing had happened over and over, with slight variations, over an extremely long time.

      I'm good at running away, she thought bitterly, I spent nearly 250 million years doing it.

      That one of the pilot's classmates could actually pilot an EVA the first time out was also frightening.  She knew all the students at the school were potential EVA pilots, but Rei and Asuka had taken months to master their EVAs.  Shinji had trouble the first time, he could barely walk, only Ranma's experience with unstable footing and his superior, native balance allowed him to avoid that difficulty.  Despite his inhuman grace and speed, the EVA had initially been very clumsy with him at the controls.

      She remembered Jeff's first sortie against the Angels, he'd discovered how to swim an EVA, using completely nonhuman movements.

      She smiled, And I thought I was going to be bored on the journey to the Azores, just make-work projects.  He'll also be less nervous and guarded surrounded by U.S. Navy rather than NERV personnel who `know` better.  She thought about the best ways to ferret the secrets from him, some trick she could teach the others, since he'd obviously taught Toji whatever it was.

      She also felt very uncomfortable in the plug.  They'd theorized that a non-pilot would be at considerable risk riding in an actuated EVA like this.  Experience proved them right, however, she felt nothing unmanageable, although the warmed, oxygenated L.C.L. felt different from she was used to.  Instead of the slimy stuff she had to swim though when she did maintenance checks, it was actually rather pleasant, once you got over the AWFUL taste and smell.

      "How do you get used to the darkness and the smell?" she asked.

      "I remember there are lemon peels in the showers, and I remember the first and only time I got skunked.  That smells worse, only a little worse, believe me," Jeff replied.

      "So what is the problem, Doctor?" Gendo stared at her from his place on the command deck.  He'd been trying to get some kind of idea what systems were working, what wasn't, and what the enemy's intentions were.  So far neither he, nor she, could detect any pattern at all.

      "Patching over, maximum magnification," Davis told them.  The dark brown smudge resolved itself partially.  "I think you two know what that is.  It's also probably the source of all your little friends."

      Ritsuko watched Gendo pale, both of them knew they had no armament that would seriously harm the creature.  She suspected Davis knew it too, "I think we'd better consider shutting down the EVAs might not be the only factor," she told them.

      "Agreed, Doctor," Gendo said, he turned to Fuyutsuki, the two discussed.  She wished she knew what they were saying, but she'd never learned to read lips.

      "Are the base's defenses functioning, Doctor?" Jeff asked.

      "Not many are installed, we depend on the U.S. military and armed guards," Ritsuko didn't need to tell him that the U.S. Military wasn't likely to install the weapons that had been intended when NERV Tokyo was initially designed.

      "Terrific, I'll remind you to get that fixed when we get back," Jeff told her, "The U.S. probably has a few old battleship guns we could use, primary and secondary armament.  I also understand they aren't too happy with the Cleveland-class cruisers, stability problems, maybe we could just bury a few up to the deck on the NERV campus."

      If we get back, Ritsuko was glad the pilots never seemed to share the `adult`s' uncertainties.

      "Two more coming up on your right," Asuka told Toji as Unit 01 picked its way forward.

      Toji expected Asuka to be a high-strung screamer, like she was at school.  Instead, she was cool and competent, she kept an eye on the entire situation, put the threats in priority order, and kept him 'on mission'.  She was still arrogant, but she was no longer insulting, and she really knew her stuff.  Which made her incredible arrogance tolerable, even understandable.  She was teaching him the ins and outs of her idea of an EVA pilot.

      Toji was still scared to death, of where he was, and what he was doing.

      "The door on the left," Asuka's voice snapped him back from contemplating his anxiety, to the present, real anxiety, "Keep an eye on it.  I saw some movement.  What's the power status?"

      "Uh, 4:56.28, whatever that means.  It looks like hours and minutes, but it's too slow," Toji told her.

      "It's minutes and seconds on the internal batteries," Asuka told him.

      "Five minutes?!" he couldn't believe it, "What could you possibly do in five minutes?"

      "Enough," Asuka replied in the same calm tone, "That's why the tethers and external batteries."

      Toji wished he could shake his head to clear it.  He wished Raccoon had collected Kensuke for this job, instead of him.

      He was near the power core.  Now he could see the things were plastered all over the doors and walls, like some kind of mold or lichen.  They moved enough to give a crawling effect, as if the door and walls were actually alive and moving.

      "Scrape'em off," she ordered.

      "You mean kill them," Toji said.

      "I mean kill them to save the people behind that door, yourself, your sister, all of humanity."

      He hated her calm and rational tone.  She makes it sound so easy, killing things, he thought as he advanced.  It would have been easier if they attacked him, but they didn't.  He was just squashing bugs.  He could understand the necessity, and accept it.  He hated it, but he did it.

      Smashing the creatures before his massive hands was too easy.  They didn't flee, instead they simply stayed there to be killed.

      Soon, he had cleared them all away, and at Asuka's insistence, searched the immediate area to make sure none were lurking anywhere nearby.

      "The wheel on the side, just crank it open," Asuka told him.

      Toji did as he was told, looked in at the frightened people.

      "Put out your hand, and tell them to get onboard," Asuka told him, "Then look around, it's too quiet, that usually means an ambush is on the way."

      Again Toji did as he was told.  "You're paranoid," Toji told her as he carefully carried the technicians, office workers, security troops and others out of the power core, but he kept looking around as ordered, expecting an immediate attack.  "What am I supposed to do with all these civilians?" he muttered.

      "Leave that to me," Asuka told him, "Concentrate on seeing what's there, not what you think is there.  A few extra seconds of readiness makes a huge difference.  Considering your best course of action is to run away."

      Toji never expected to hear that from her, "Run away?!"

      "Unprotected civilians in an EVA battle - are corpses.  Running may shake them up, but they'll probably live," Asuka said stoically.

      Toji was confused, this wasn't the Asuka he was used to.

      "Slow down, on the left," Asuka cautioned.

      Toji wasn't sure what she'd seen, nothing was there.  At the same time, he was sure she wasn't playing a game.  He saw a few of the creatures he'd squashed before, they were just circling something.  Toji thought he was being ridiculous, sneaking a 40 meter tall, 700 ton machine past something so small.  They paid no attention to the EVA as it crept past.

      "Keep an eye on what's behind us.  They could be ignoring us until we're past, or until they have the forces necessary to overwhelm us."

      Toji was worried more than he ever had been before, "Why couldn't this be Kensuke?" Toji murmured.

      "You're doing fine, for a rank beginner.  Keep your eyes open, this isn't as bad as going after Hikari.  There's always a chance they aren't hostile and all our vigilance is for nothing.  But don't bet your life and mine on it."

      "Have you looked outside?" Toji asked.

      "No.  What did you see out there?" Asuka asked, she continued checking everything.

      "When we drop these people off, I'll show you.  Where are we going anyway?" Toji asked, "You don't think ole' Shinji wants his EVA back do you?"

      "I think he's willing to let it go," Asuka said, "Only Kensuke is that eager.  Another reason better you than him."

      Toji was beginning to wonder if he was dreaming, loud-mouth Sour Kraut never acted like this, he'd always thought Asuka was ready for a fight against anyone or anything at any time, more even than Ranma.  He looked within, watching her carefully checking systems, glancing around, quiet, virtuoso even.  It was scary, too different.

      "You know what worries me?" Asuka asked him as she had him 'check six' again.

      "I didn't think anything scared you."

      "There's a big difference between being worried, when you are more cautious, and scared, where you freeze or do something stupid," Asuka retorted, "How different you're acting.  You aren't acting like a dumb jock.  It's a pleasant, if unforeseen, surprise.  I'll have to apologize to Hikari, if we get back."

      "When we get back," Toji said.

      "IF," Asuka corrected, "It's part of our job to be ready to die.  Wondergirl understands, so does Raccoon, but not Horseface, or Ice Princess, or Spineless.  If your life would save all the people of Earth, you should be ready to give it up.  Not throw it away, but spend it for a good return."

      Toji squirmed at that, it was an uncomfortable look into the life of an EVA pilot.  Then he realized he was now an EVA pilot, although his body was elsewhere, he was directing this EVA.  Kensuke would go nuts, and would never understand why Toji wasn't doing hurrahs and handstands about the experience.  No kid should have the entire weight of the world land on his shoulders, it explained instantly why the pilots had such extreme personalities.  "Thanks," Toji said, What does that make me? he didn't add out loud.

Hope is a Waking Dream

      "So, what's the matter Ranko?" Asuka asked the martial artist who sat in Unit 01's hand, "Afraid Toji will take advantage of you?"

      "That's not it," Ranko replied, full of fight.

      Toji was amazed at the reaction from Ranko that Raccoon was still alive, and that there was some word about Rei and Nabiki.  She'd hugged the unit's thumb, which made Toji very embarrassed.  He'd also learned the trick that let him talk to only the person in the plug.  "Is she normally this way?  I mean so . . . " Toji didn't have a description that wouldn't get him slapped.

      "Vivacious, exciting?" Asuka replied tiredly.

      She almost sounds jealous, Toji discarded the impossible thought.

      "Well, she acts different from how she does at school."

      "That scene at school where they kissed," Asuka explained.

      Toji squirmed, he would have killed Raccoon for that, if Ranma hadn't arrived, intent on doing exactly that himself.  "Yeah."

      "It was a fake, all a sham to keep you and the others from making complete idiots of yourselves around her."

      Toji felt sick, he'd been tricked.  She was still -

      "However, as the first guy to actually treat her nicely, to treat her as a lady instead of a pretty piece of meat, she fell for him.  She's a girl, girls are weak little things no good at martial arts, that's what her father always told her."

      "She could wipe the floor with all of us, all at the same time!" Toji couldn't believe what he was hearing, "Say, how do you know that?  I thought she didn't remember."

      "You remember that dream you had, where you saw Ghroth before?" Asuka asked.

      "How'd you know about that?" Toji asked, he was getting worried.

      "I am a pilot," she said ominously, "Do you really want to know all the details?  All the unclean, soul-searing secrets?"

      "No."  Toji concentrated on the things around him.  They were keeping their distance from the EVA, which was fine with him.  Their appearance had been nagging at him.

      They look like those things Yumiwashi always claimed were under her bed at night.

      "Say that again!" Asuka commanded.  When he hesitated, "Say it again, word-for-word!  NOW!"

      Toji was frightened by the sudden change in Asuka, suddenly she was so intense, he thought she'd throttle him to get an answer.  He didn't protest he hadn't spoken, he just did as he was ordered.  Asuka was silent, pensive.  Toji got every impression that the artillery was just awaiting orders to fire.

      Far too calmly, she activated the comm system.  Images of Akagi-sensei and Raccoon appeared.

      "Unit 02, problems Langley?" Raccoon asked.

      "Curly here just commented that these little ones remind him of monsters his little sister would see.  Coincidence?"

      Something about Asuka's tone gave Toji the shivers, he also got the impression that she and Raccoon were communicating on levels neither he nor anyone else would ever understand.

      "Makes sense, how many people down from Angel's Malaise, a few hundred," Raccoon said, as if discussing the weather, "That's quite a power source."

      "What are you two talking about?" Akagi-sensei demanded.

      "That the base wasn't brought here by just the accident with the EVAs, there were other forces involved," Raccoon replied, in the same spooky, clinical tone that Asuka was using.

      Toji felt apart from the pair of them, as if they were in there own world.  "What do you think, Akagi-sensei?"

      "I think you should call me Rit - tsuko, and you'd better be prepared for a battery of tests.  I want to know how you managed to do this."

      "It's his fault," Toji made his image point at Raccoon's.

      "Well, that's obvious," Asuka said.

      "I don't see any other possibility either," Raccoon agreed.

      "What are you two talking about?" Akagi-sensei asked.  She wasn't happy about being left out of their deliberations any more than Toji was.

      "An expedition to Ghroth," Raccoon said as if it was the simplest thing in the world, "That's where we'll get our answers."

      "How did you two get that out of what I said?!" Toji demanded.

      "It's obvious!" Asuka said defensively.

      The obvious took the rest of the walk to the EVA bays to explain to Akagi-sensei, Toji was still utterly mystified by the time they arrived.

      The fountains of light from the two stricken Units worried Ritsuko far worse than the ludicrous idea the pilots had come up with, or the way they had come up with it.  One idea built on another, ideas were tested, failed hypotheses discarded, new ones supplanted them.  Jeff and Asuka had been going so fast Ritsuko hadn't been able to get a word in edgewise.  After a few attempts, she simply sat back and quit trying.  The Magi could operate this way, taking a problem to bits, each of the three units working to solve one part of it, with occasional input from the other two so the solution of the entire problem was a smooth and unified whole, but two humans shouldn't have been able to do that, not the way those two did it.  If the pair were telepathic, that could explain their behavior.  Neither had any such skill, yet they finished each other's sentences, spoke in an almost-indecipherable shorthand, took and gave criticism of their ideas without any animosity, all completely without the braggadocio or arrogant condescension they both so often displayed.  When they were done, Ritsuko could see that the effort was not without drawbacks, the two were exhausted, but they quickly bounced back as they explained the idea.

      Ritsuko was further boggled by the way their explanations linked, Asuka dealt with most of the scientific/theoretical aspects, while Jeff handled the technical/engineering aspects.  The odd experience of hearing the details coming from two voices, both of them switching effortlessly and seamlessly, was terribly unnerving.

      They had as much as said that someone or something had assembled the spirits of those who fallen victim to Angel's Malaise, and were using them to move the Outer God Ghroth to Earth, to prematurely awaken the remaining Great Old Ones.  Ritsuko had thought the Commander would instantly put a stop to their foolish idea, to actually travel to the creature and poke around.  The monster was the size of an entire planet.  The EVAs would be needed at the base to defend the personnel, the equipment . . . and other things, at the base.

      'It seems reasonable,' was Gendo's only reaction.  Ritsuko had nearly fainted in shock.

      "Approaching Unit 04," Jeff's voice sounded through the plug, "Are you sure we shouldn't just let Langley and Ranko try to get control of the EVAs?"

      "We disconnect the S2 engines," Ritsuko told him firmly, "That may get us out of here and home."

      "Little bet?" came the subdued reply that meant he was thinking rather than saying it.

      "Okay approaching the Unit, I get no activity on any of the feeds," Jeff told her in a louder `spoken` voice.

      She was amazed at the way he was presenting the information, touch screens, visual readout, various colors and chart types.  This was closer to how the original systems of the Elder Things had functioned.  It made her wonder how much he really knew about the Elder Things and their technology.  She hadn't had time to investigate what the Americans had brought back from their 1930-1931 expedition to Antarctica.  She idly wondered if she ever would.

      The back of EVA Unit 04 came off smoothly, exposing a very ordinary looking brown box, some 4.3 meters along its longest side.  She'd also noticed Jeff wasn't talking while he worked.  According to Asuka, he often complained while he worked, she said he always did.  'It is the surest way to determine if things are going well' Asuka had told her.

      Ritsuko rarely, if ever, heard him complain.  So what does that mean? she wondered.

      Asuka's image appeared, "There are a lot of those things massing at the door.  I think they'll rush us as soon as the radiation density drops."

      "You think the radiation is holding them off?" Ritsuko asked, "According to these readouts, most of it is in the far Ultraviolet, all of it is between 350 and 500 angstroms."

      "That's very interesting, no x-ray, no gamma," Asuka replied, "I find that incredibly thoughtful of them.  Almost as if someone arranged it."

      "I think you're being paranoid, the energy barrier increases as it shifts to shorter wavelengths, you know that."

      "Actually . . . ," Asuka said worriedly as she leaned close to the pick up, "I have been worried about something for a few hours now," she glanced around.

      "What, some enemy?" Ritsuko asked, catching the girl's fear.

      "No, more important than that," Asuka whispered, "Why hasn't he put the moves on you?"

      "ASUKA!!" Ritsuko yelled at the giggling girl.

      "I've seen the way he looks at you," Asuka continued, "Now he's got you all alone and intimate, and he's neglecting you.  It hurts, I can tell."

      "Asuka!" Ritsuko threatened, "Be quiet."

      "Well, I know he's too much of a gentleman, but watching him pine away, like Spineless and Wondergirl," Asuka sighed, "I just have to move young love along."

      "Asuka, you do remember that you've got a physical coming up?" Ritsuko glowered at her.

      Asuka laughed at her, "If you think you're cheating on Maya, you could invite them both over.  Tell him Maya won't be jealous, or maybe a foursome with Maya and Ranko."

      Ritsuko wished she could reach through the picture and strangle the laughing girl.  "Jeff, aren't you going to say something?"

      "When you neglected to remember Toji and Asuka are in the same positions as you and me?  No, I wasn't," came the distracted voice.

      Ritsuko turned to Asuka with a malevolent smile.  Asuka cut the connection and kept blocking it at her end.

      "Accept you lost the opportunity and take your lumps, Doctor," Jeff's voice counseled.

      "You tolerate what she was saying?"

      "Why not?  It's true."

      Ritsuko suddenly felt very alone in the EVA's plug.  Four simple words in a hopeless tone, and the silence that followed, did that.  "I know you told me . . . but I thought you'd - that it was temporary.  Blunted Affect means you . . . well your feelings are . . . you couldn't love someone."

      "I was Ranma in the dream.  All the feeds are disconnected, I can remove the engine now."

      "Check the breakers, make sure the system is shut off.  You evaded my question."

      "No, I just did not give you an answer you wish to accept," Jeff replied.

      She watched the screen with the breaker status go from all red to all green then back to all red.

      "All checks out, removing engine," Jeff told her, in the same slightly detached voice he'd been using.

      The piece of equipment that had caused so much trouble, slid out easily, Unit 02 set it on the floor of the test stand bay, then the replacement S type engine went in, and Unit 02 began installing that one in Unit 04.  One unadorned brown box for another.

      "So are you saying you had normal emotions in the dream?"  Ritsuko felt like she was walking on a frozen pond, with no idea how thick the ice was, and no idea what else was beneath the ice.

      "No, I had Saotome's usual level of emotions, both of them.  The remnant of that still carries over.  It was supposed to disturb my mind, remember?" Jeff voice told her.  He hadn't activated a screen to appear before her.  All the screens showed what the EVA was doing, or the radiation count, or some technical thing.  There was no center for her to focus on, no way to direct her sentiment to Jeff.

      "I don't - I can't feel the same," she said.

      Liar, you can, you just won't, Ritsuko thought of Maya, and all the clues she'd steadfastly ignored.  Even little Rei's attempts to be friends, all of it ignored for the 'work'.  Even Gendo wasn't as cold as she tried to be, she'd seen him react to the death of his wife.  No, only the Akagis didn't cry, Ritsuko thought, I know why Naoko Akagi didn't.  Why didn't Ritsuko Akagi? she asked herself.  Cowardice was the only answer she could come up with.  She could claim an age difference, it was several orders of magnitude after all.  She'd probably lived more years than he'd lived seconds, even if most of it was simply scrounging for food and avoiding patrols, letting the years pass without learning or doing anything new.

      She frowned at that, it was ridiculous to consider, both of them.  They would never understand her.  Maya didn't even know what she really was, Jeff should have run screaming once he found out.  It didn't make an ounce of sense that he hadn't, that Maya seemed not to get the hint.

      "S engine installed," Jeff's voice appeared, still no picture, "Should Unit 01 bring Ranko here, or should I switch with Langley and take Unit 04 myself?"

      "No, let Ranko pilot it," Ritsuko said, cursed herself as spineless for not confronting him about this, while they had some privacy.  She was supposed to be an adult, the adult.  Yet she was afraid of the feelings for her of a college girl and a school boy.  It was absurd, and she was laughable.  She was jealous of the way Shinji and Rei, Nabiki and Ranma, Ranko and Jeff all carried on.  She had the opportunity to have her own part of it, to assuage the loneliness that gnawed at her, and she ran away.

      She watched Unit 01 carry Ranma to Unit 04.  She wasn't sure if Asuka or Toji was 'driving'.  Whoever it was, kept the bulk of Unit 01 between Ranma and the radiation Unit 00 was still emitting, and its hands enclosed the girl, to keep any reflected light off her.  Once in the entry plug they'd already previously positioned, Ranma brought Unit 04 to operational status.  That left Unit 00, Unit 02 was working on that one.

      "Do you think we'll ever be able to use the S2 engines?" she asked.

      "Isn't that what I should be asking?" Jeff replied, "If there was sabotage, I can't detect it."

      "We'll probably have to completely disassemble both units and go over them and the blueprints."  Ritsuko didn't relish examining every wire, pipe and junction in the 27+ cubic meter engine.

      "Assuming it didn't do exactly what it was supposed to do," he replied as the engine slid out.  The installation of the normal power plant in Unit 00 was almost anticlimactic.

      "If you had that other one sitting around, why wasn't it tested earlier?" Jeff asked.

      "I think you can guess the reason.  Besides, the one you installed in Unit 04 was the prototype, the others were based on it."

      Ranma's face appeared, "Well, I'm ready to go!" she proclaimed, "Who do we hit first?"

      An image of Ghroth, and a picture of Earth to indicate the scale appeared.  "That," Jeff voice told her, "That's why we scout first, and shoot later."

      "If at all," Asuka appeared and added.

      Ranma gulped and nodded, her enthusiasm dimmed slightly at the sheer size of their opponent.

      "We have another problem!" Toji's voice and image intruded, followed by the image of thousands of the creatures charging the three occupied EVAs.

      Fire from Unit 02, and a compressed AT field ball from Unit 04 finished off most of them.  Something unseen shredded the rest.

      "That's not a problem," Asuka said smugly, "That's just a warm up."

      Toji's cry of surprise made Ritsuko smile.  "Pilots don't give up . . . ever," she warned him.

      "Just remember that, Rit-chan," Asuka teased.

      "Toji, can you access the ejection system?" Ritsuko asked.

      "Girls!" Jeff shouted over Asuka's retort.

      "Yeah, you can't expect them to be serious," Ranma pronounced, igniting another argument with Asuka.

      Ritsuko noted that Toji and Jeff kept silent, as they drove Units 01 and 02 to their cradles in the EVA bay.

      "How do you plan to get there?" Gendo sat in his chair in the Commander's level of the command center, he was alone, no one else wanted to brave doing their job amid the radar beams.  His level was safely out of range.  The images of Dr. Akagi and the pilots appeared in his mind eye through the nerve clip.

      "Gravity can't be anything except a convention here," Pilot Langley explained, "This base doesn't have the mass to generate it, and the mass of Ghroth should be pulling us towards it."

      "That isn't happening," Gendo agreed, "So, since there is no gravity, are you just going to jump and flap your arms?"  He'd meant it as sardonic.

      "That's the plan in a nutshell," Pilot Davis said, not taking Gendo's words as an insult, "Once on our way, the problem becomes tracking our target.  That's where Suzuhara-san and Saotome-san come in.  If Saotome can trace the unique life energy signature of Suzuhara Yumiwashi, I'm betting we find the force that is holding us here."

      "Doctor Akagi, your comments?" Gendo faced the scientist.  He was worried that the pilots had developed this plan among themselves, he was even more worried that it might be the best course of action.

      "It is a lot of 'ifs' strung together," Ritsuko admitted, "The chief among them is the atmosphere outside, with the EVA bays in our hands, we can use the exit tunnel as an airlock.  Also Unit 00 will remain behind to guard the base, since we have no fourth long-range engine."

      "How soon before all the S type engines are fully recharged?" Gendo asked.

      "Two hours," Ritsuko told him, "Shinji, aboard Unit 00 is already patrolling critical areas."

      Gendo nodded, he wondered about: why that combination?  "Very well, we have that long to develop an alternative plan.  If we have not, we will go with the plan, substantially as proposed."

      The pilots simply nodded, then vanished.  Gendo was getting worried by this turn of events, If the pilots are capable of this level of planning, I may have to alter circumstances in the planning.  He smiled at the headache the old men were going to get if they started dealing with more capable and flexible pilots. 

      He still had a few tools to get them to do what he want - what he needed them to do.  In a way, it had become easier, if they interconnected, he need pull only one string to get the entire web to move as he willed.

      Their plan was not the worry, he knew he could smooth over the rough edges.  He did want to know who had sent them here, and for what purpose.  That was the mystery he needed solved.  No revelation had presented itself, although Fuyutsuki was still researching.

      "I told you, professional," Jeff smugly reminded Asuka.

      "Fine you were right!  I just hope I'm around when you're finally wrong," Asuka shot back.

      "Like Kelbim Harbor?" Jeff asked innocently.

      Asuka paled, "No, I do not want to got through that again."  Then she rallied, "And what's with the flames?  How do you get flames out of MY EVA?"

      "I asked, since it did absorb Cthugha, it stands to reason - "

      Ritsuko tuned out their argument/discussion at that point, the two of them were giving her a headache.  "Let me out, I have to go meet with the Commanders."

      "Not until Shinji completes his patrol, then he'll escort you to the showers," Jeff's voice and image, both this time, appeared.  He was holding his nose, "You'll have a certain . . . piquancy.  I think the Commanders will accept the delay."

      She could defy their `request`, and climb out on her own.  She could easily get to the hatch, but she was still concerned about what was lurking out there in the L.C.L..  She doubted the pilots would try to hurt her, but . . . they could insist.  She had heard the various Reis comment on ghosts, usually as they died trying to sync with Unit 01.  She had dismissed them as dying hallucinations, or seeing the other side of death.  Now she was feeling the reality.  There was something out there, something she couldn't see, or touch, but she was sure it was there.

      "Relax Rit-chan," Ranma told her, "Our job as pilots is to protect the weak and helpless."  The girl had her typical fist in the air, 'I am invincible' pose.

      "Oh deary deary me, an old lady can't just be alone in the cold, cruel world," Ritsuko teased back.  Ranko got completely flustered, denying that was what she meant.

      Ritsuko glanced at Toji's image, even as a projection, he looked at the other pilots and was completely mystified.  She had sympathy for him, she hadn't figured them out either.  The warning about 14-year-olds kept coming back, about them being adults one second and irrational children the next.  She simply sat back and let the three-way argument run.  She could wait until Shinji arrived.

      "Good of you to join us, Doctor," Gendo said with his usual sarcasm.  Once again secure within his own office, his superiority returned full force.

      Kaji wondered why the things couldn't pass the walls of this office. Did the weird designs on the floor have some real effect, other than disturbing the unwary and the easily frightened?  He smiled at Rit-chan as she entered, All the usual suspects present and accounted for, he thought.  He knew this was going to be an interesting meeting, full of half-truths and code-speak, most of which he'd already deciphered. They don't need to know that, he thought as he smiled.

      "All washed up after your adventure.  How was piloting an EVA?" Kaji joked.

      "You should try it sometime.  As long as the pilot trusts you and vice versa, you're perfectly safe."  She smiled back.

      Wonder why she's being so catty about it? Kaji thought, Maybe something else happened in there. He decided he'd have to investigate further, there were rumors about her and Maya, and about her and Davis.  Of course there were also rumors about him and Misato, but those were only rumors, rumors he'd spread.

      "How did Davis and Suzuhara access the EVAs?" Fuyutsuki demanded.

      "Evidently, only the spirit of a pilot is necessary to sync with an EVA," Ritsuko told them, "That may be the requirement that has been escaping us."

      Our pilots have to be `spirited`, Kaji thought, looking at the serious faces around him, And there's something else, something deeper, regarding spirits?

      "That doesn't explain how we get out of here," Kaji added.

      "We will be getting to that," Gendo reminded him, "It is also important to understand how we got here.  Even after an explanation I still haven't managed to fathom that."

      "If one spirit drives the EVA, then 500 could bring us here," Ritsuko told them.

      Kaji nearly fell out of his chair, "This wasn't an accident."

      "Obviously," Gendo said.  The looks from the others meant they had come to the same `obvious` conclusion.

      Gendo wasn't in the mood to explain, "They are actually expecting to locate their target so easily?"

      "The folly of youth," Fuyutsuki said.

      "Not such folly.  If what Ranma said was true," Ritsuko explained, "He should be able to use Suzuhara as a detection device.  Even I don't understand it all, evidently they do, and their demonstration was convincing."

      "So they arrive on Ghroth, and do what?" Kaji asked.

      "Find Suzuhara's sister, Yumiwashi, and hopefully the others," Ritsuko was lecturing now, "If they can `unplug` them from the mystical circuit, we might spontaneously return home.  Or at the very least, we won't have to worry about Ghroth continuing to approach Earth."

      "Again, a great many 'ifs' strung together," Gendo said.  Kaji thought there was something else bothering him.

      "What assembled this trap?" Fuyutsuki asked, "I can't imagine anything strong enough to divert an Outer God this way, even using 500 humans as a power source."

      "That I don't know," Ritsuko said.

      She's lying, Kaji thought.

      "That isn't a major concern," Gendo said, "If it was that powerful, it wouldn't have to resort to this kind of subterfuge.  It may also be something we haven't heard of before, something that has been hidden from us, in our corner of the universe.  Even the oldest source material doesn't cover everything," Gendo said.

      Kaji kept himself from smiling, Now we're getting somewhere, 'oldest source material' is it?  Where is it?  And how do I get my hands on it?

      "If they are not successful?" Kaji asked, "They are just children after all.  Suppose they guessed wrong?  What happens if they have to fight Ghroth?"

      "If they are wrong," Ritsuko breathed, "What kind of back up plan do we have?  Even a supernova won't scratch that thing."

      No one answered her.

Dreams Mortals Never Dared Before

      The three EVAs, Units 01, 02 and 04, marched into the exit shaft.  Within Unit 01, Toji kept silent as they waited while the huge doors closed behind them.  He could sense that the pilots were uneasy, waiting for the outer doors to open.  He guessed that normally they'd rush out to battle, if they only had five minutes, standing there waiting must have seemed wrong and unnatural somehow.

      "Are you sure Nab-chan is all right?" Ranko asked nervously.

      "That's what they told me," Raccoon, still within Unit 02, answered.

      "And you trust them?" Asuka, back in Unit 02's seat, asked him.

      "I'd expect they'd come up with a more inventive lie, if they were lying, I mean, flying saucers and weather balloons crashing outside of the base in Roswell.  Who'd believe that?" Raccoon said.

      From his spot in Unit 01 with Shinji.  Toji kept silent, he felt he was caught in a discussion with college professors.  Even Shinji was more expert than he was, he still hadn't figured out why they needed him there.

      The outer doors opened, there was no in- or out-rushing of air.  "Whatever the atmosphere is, it's at standard pressure," Raccoon told the technical crew.

      The EVAs carefully walked out, Ranko, then Asuka and Raccoon, lastly Shinji and him.

      "The grass is still green, the trees are still alive.  I assume it's breathable by plants," Asuka told them.

      "The EVAs are operating properly," Dr. Akagi told them, "I'd say it was safe to proceed."

      They marched in a ragged line out into the campus surrounding the base, the idea was ridiculous on the face of it, but in this place it might actually work.

      "Are we going to walk to the edge and fall off?" Toji asked.

      "That's what I think would work," Raccoon supplied, "It may work, it may not."

      "What do we do if it doesn't?" Ranko asked.

      "You stand on Langley's AT field and she lifts us there, while Shinji-san carries Unit 02 on his AT field or in his arms," Raccoon replied.

      That sounded as wild as the idea that they could jump or fall there.  He was primarily a passenger now, the EVA felt very different with Shinji in it, rather than Asuka.  He wondered how far the relationship between the pilots and the EVAs actually went, what it actually meant.

      Kensuke doesn't know the half of it, Toji thought as they marched to the 'edge of the world' in silence.  The immense Outer God dominated their view and their thoughts.

      The staff watched the advance as they sat in the auxiliary control room, the strange small creatures had clustered around the radar 'field' keeping the Magi free of them.  They circled and swarmed, seeking a way in.  This left other areas unoccupied.  Ritsuko watched the radar units, the creatures were avoiding them.  She wondered why they would have been interested in the Magi and the power core, yet seemed afraid of radar.  She shrugged and moved back to watch the crew.  Baker, Maya, Hyuga and Aoba kept checking things, they didn't need her to tell them their jobs.

      She glanced up to where Gendo was sitting high atop the regular command deck, although she suspected he was sitting on the floor rather than a chair, so the walls protected him from the radar beams.

      A smile from Maya, she wondered if the girl was putting on a brave face, if she was really that confident, or if she was flirting with her skittish sempai.  Ritsuko watched the EVAs walk to the edge of the `territory.`  She wondered if this would work, or if it was merely bravado.  She looked around at the others who were watching, all of them seemed immune to the nagging fear that plagued her.  She didn't show it, it wasn't a good idea to voice your fears in front of 'the troops'.  She knew fear was contagious.

      All I have to do is have a little faith, Ritsuko thought, Is that too much to ask . . . ? when she realized it was, Why is it too much to ask?

      Asuka looked at Ghroth.  She was completely confident in her part of this.  After all, only she could do it.  She didn't even faintly understand how Raccoon expected to find their target.  He'd explained it all in terms Horseface understood instantly, but the explanation for the intelligent had been a little shaky, especially: what if Curly's sister wasn't with the others.  Still, he'd said it was 'a guess', that usually meant he was pretty sure, but not certain.  In her experience, such plans worked.  Unfortunately, when they didn't, they didn't in a spectacular fashion.  In the Dreamlands, the two of them had walked into an ambush or two, and walked out, because they could outgun and outfight their ambushers.

      Kelbim Harbor for one, she thought.  Here that wouldn't be the case.

      She leapt, and found that gravity released her the instant her EVA's feet left the ground.  She glanced back, Horseface and Spineless leapt after her.  All three units proceeded across the void.  She looked at the image of Horseface, trying to `read` the impressions of the others.  She didn't understand how it worked.  Resonance made sense, but spiritual resonance and the magical jargon of how it worked weren't things she could understand.

      Maybe Gendo is spookier than I thought, Asuka remembered how the Commander of NERV had nodded sagely while offering suggestions and corrections, Only he and Raccoon really understood what Raccoon was talking about.  Although Horseface understood her part, maybe it's just me.

      She could accept that her friend had a few `tricks` she didn't, like her skill with a spear, or her saber-halberd.  Raccoon would never have a pray against Horseface in a fight, spears, polearms or otherwise, the Meliorist might give Horseface a good work out, armed that way.  She just had to trust he could handle the mystical end, she'd guard them on their venture.  So, she kept her temper, and kept silent.

      Magic in the Waking World bothered her, worried her.  She knew a few spells in the Dreamlands, every real adventurer did.  But magic in the Waking World didn't only have a benign effect, nor did it work as well.  It had costs she wasn't willing to pay, and you needed a lot more experience and power to make it work.  She suspected her friend only knew the principles, but he couldn't really do that much.  She hoped that was the truth.  The other possibilities were too disturbing to think about.

      She half-expected to hear all the boys yammering about something, but that didn't happen either.  She kept the images on, to see what they were doing.  Spineless kept looking behind to see if they were being pursued.  Horseface, Curly and Raccoon were working on guiding them, only whispers passed between them.

      What Asuka really wanted was to go over the blueprints of the S and S2 engines.  The best batteries available could only provide power for five minutes at most, with externals increasing that to 30, and AT field usage consumed power at five times the standard rate.  Operating even one EVA with an AT field took about 50,000 shaft horsepower from a warship, or several locomotives.  Yet the S2 engines could operate an EVA indefinitely, and the S types could give six hours before needing recharging, no matter what the EVA did, including simply standing still not being recharged.  That was just one of the maddening things they hadn't told her about these new engines, nor had they told her what the fuel was, as if it was some deep, dark secret.

      Virgin's blood or something, Asuka thought, With Spineless and Horseface around, they'll always have a supply!

      "Up and more left," Horseface whispered, deep in concentration.

      She adjusted their trajectory automatically, then Spineless adjusted the path of Unit 02.

      "Aren't we going to crash?" Curly asked.

      "Gravity is a surface phenomenon here, like glue," she replied, "Even if that thing does have a real gravitational pull, we can handle it."

      We'd have to let the EVAs drop for miles before they could build up enough force to penetrate our AT fields, Asuka thought.

      "At this rate, it's going to take hours to get there," she told them, "So Horseface, why don't you enjoy the zero gravity.  You always wanted to be a frog or a bird bouncing around the way you do.  Now you've got your chance."

      Unit 04 tried one simple maneuver, and wound up spinning helplessly through all three dimensions.  Asuka shook her head, she wondered about Horseface sometimes.  "How can someone be deft and completely clumsy at the same time?" she murmured.

      "Try extending your arms and legs," she told him.

      "Hey!  I'm slowing down!" Horseface exclaimed, then pulled them in as if he'd accomplished something.  "WHAT'S haaaaappppeeennninngggg!" Horseface demanded as he spun faster and faster.

      Conservation of Angular momentum, Asuka thought, then decided against telling him.

      "Put your arms back out, and make an impulse counter to your rotation!" she told him.

      "Which rotation?" Horseface demanded, "What's an impulse?"

      "Pick one," Asuka told him, she cut the transmitter for a moment.  "A martial artist should be able to control himself better."

      "Not if the martial artist doesn't know how to dance or ice skate," Raccoon told her, "At least Unit 04's center of mass is still headed in the right direction.  I just hope Saotome doesn't get motion sickness.  You ought to practice too, give our competitive friend something to shoot for."

      "And have you barfing ectoplasm all over wherever you're hiding in my EVA?" Asuka countered, "No thanks."

      "I was right, you are a jelly doughnut," he told her in German. [ein Berliner].

      Asuka nearly ground her teeth in frustration.  Instead, she reactivated the transmitter, "Like this, Horseface."  Asuka duplicated Unit 04's spinning with Unit 02, then went through controlling it, step-by-step.

      "Good thing he learns quick.  I wouldn't want to do that again," Asuka admitted.

      "I'm very proud of you," Raccoon told her.

      Asuka wished he was really here, so she could hit him, "You do know I hate you, don't you?"  She was a little surprised she didn't get a gibe or taunt in reply.

      Oh, crap!  It's that time of year.  I wish he'd just get over it, Asuka thought, then frowned, Like I got over the destruction of my mother?

      She kept that feeling buried deep inside, sometimes she wished she could look at those memories, without breaking down completely.  She couldn't afford that now, not even for a few days, not even for a few hours.  Sometimes when she was alone, late at night in her room, she'd give in.  She could cry and scream into the pillows, where no one could see or hear, so she could keep the illusion she was still in control, still on top of everything . . . still The Great ASUKA SORYU LANGLEY.  Instead of a scared, little, 6-year-old, girl wearing maturity and confidence like a shroud.

      My, aren't we melancholy, Asuka thought, she wondered why Spineless was so quiet, he should have been doing cartwheels after finding out that Wondergirl was still alive.  Instead, he'd gotten much quieter.

      Asuka was worried about that, and the others.  Curly, normally proof-positive that humans were related to apes, seemed to be shocked into contemplative silence by the EVAs and the realities of being a pilot, so he was behaving as a human being, rather than his usual idiot self.

      They're all worried, Asuka thought, We don't know what we're getting ourselves into.  So we worry.

      She watched Unit 04 spin, stop, spin in another direction, stop.

      Well, Asuka thought, frowning, Some of us.

      "This place looks almost normal," Ranko told the others, mainly because it scared her so much, and getting their reactions would help.  She didn't know what she was expecting, but hills and trees weren't it.  The colors were weird.  But giant mushrooms and living skeletons, something more - alien, was what she had expected, and that wasn't what was here.  The trees, weirdly colored but ordinary, weren't reaching out to grab them as they passed.  The hills weren't raising up and turning into immense ravening monsters.  The ground wasn't sending out tentacles to engulf them, or spontaneously becoming quicksand.  It could either be hugely anticlimactic, or it was all waiting for them to relax.  Then they would be attacked from all sides, by everything.  Ranko shivered at that.  It would have been better if it was extremely weird.  This slight variation to normalcy set her teeth on edge.  The perversion of dullness and banality was worse than plainly hideous things leaping out at her.

      Maybe this place is spookier than I thought, she didn't say out loud.  She was scared enough for everybody.

      "Those aren't trees, they're growths directly from the creature," Raccoon told her, "Everything here is part of the creature.  It knows we're here.  It knows we've come.  It knows what we are, even if only dimly."

      Oddly, that made her feel better, having Raccoon get all scary like that.  It made her fears more justified and generally held, and they didn't seem as bad that way.  She'd heard stories about a planet all being one living thing, she wondered if the source of those beliefs, were cleaned-up legends about this thing.

      "That way."  She didn't understand how she was leading them onward.  She knew it had something to do with Ki, and something to do with Toji and Yumiwashi being brother and sister.  All she really knew was the `note`, if you could call it that, was in a very specific direction.  Raccoon had explained it very carefully three times, and each explanation made her head hurt.  The simplest one was a glass made a sound, a glass like it would make a similar sound.  It might as well have been a foreign language as far as Ranko was concerned.

      The explanation why it had to be Ranko made more sense, if they ran into any cold water, there'd be no need to explain to Toji, the way they had explained to Hiroko.  Ranko expected to run into a geyser, or vat of boiling water however.  That was the way her luck ran.  Although, they might run into anything here.

      The steady, almost boring marching made her anxiety worse.  If it knew they were there, what they were, what they were here for, why wasn't it reacting?  She could feel a presence out there, not what she was tracking, but something else.  She didn't know if it was hostile, but guessing it was and being ready seemed a good plan.  Why something that wasn't hostile to humans was creeping around unseen on the surface of an Outer God . . . was something Ranko didn't want to think about.  Time was the other concern, from base to landing was one hour twelve minutes, assuming the flight back took the same time, they had roughly three and a half hours to find Toji's sister and do what had to be done, or they weren't getting home alive.

      "Doesn't this thing have some kind of defenses?" Shinji asked, mirroring her own worries.

      "A supernova wouldn't scratch it.  Detonating an entire galaxy wouldn't kill it.  What does it need defenses for?" Raccoon explained.

      "From us?" Ranko asked, trying to sound 'Ranma-overconfident'.

      "There's nothing we can do to harm it," Raccoon replied, "We don't matter."

      Normally Ranko hated being ignored, it was one way to really get under her skin.  Right now she was glad she was insignificant.  That makes me feel a lot better, so what is that thing out there? Ranko asked herself.

      The cave was unexpected.  It looked and seemed completely normal, except the signal was coming from inside it.

      "We can't go any farther, it's too small," Ranko told them, peering at the hole that would have been huge for a human.  No EVA could squirm into it however.

      "Walk around it," Asuka told him, "We'll triangulate the actual positions.  That means mark the direction somehow.  From the directions we can determine the actual location."

      Ranko pointed one of Unit 04's arms at the source of the 'signal', while Asuka watched him intently.

      "About 200 meters in," Asuka said, "Do we tear into the cave to get at the signal?"

      "Won't that . . . wake it up?" Shinji asked.

      "That is a worry," Raccoon agreed, "Now you know why Suzuhara-san and I had to come with."

      "Is it safe?" Shinji asked.

      "No," Raccoon replied, "Suzuhara-san, you don't have to come."

      "We've been tracking my sister, right?" Toji asked.


      "Then I do have to go with.  How do we talk with them?" Toji asked.

      "The EVAs?  We go, we look, we come back," Raccoon replied.

      Ranko thought that sounded too risky, it also didn't address the other question Toji might have been asking, 'How do we contact the victims,' like his sister.  She turned Unit 04 to watch for whatever she'd felt out there.

      "I . . . I can see them!" Shinji said breathlessly.

      Ranko glanced back, she couldn't see anything.  And what 'them' does he mean? she thought angrily.

      "Where?  Who?" Asuka demanded.

      "Toji and Raccoon."  Unit 01 pointed.  "Going into the cave."

      There was nothing there.  Ranko glanced at Asuka's image, the other redhead made a winding motion next to her head.

      "I'm not crazy," Shinji complained.

      Asuka smiled widely, Ranko kept silent.

Vexed To Nightmare

      Toji floated along, into the cavern.  It looked different through the eyes of an EVA, not rock, almost alive.  Now he could smell things too, something he hadn't noticed when he was part of the EVA.

      "Hey Raccoon, why are you still wearing your suit, and I'm in a plugsuit?" he asked, he didn't mind, it looked kind of neat. Although he wasn't happy about how tight it was.

      "You are what you think you are," Raccoon said, his attention fixed ahead.

      Toji followed Raccoon's gaze, and immediately regretted it.  He'd seen some terrible things during the bombings of Tokyo, especially the firestorming.  But the boiled and burnt corpses, the torn bodies, even those who were still alive but shouldn't be . . . none of it prepared him for what was the centerpiece of the cavern.

      It was a huge, glistening spider web lying on the cavern floor, hundreds of meters across, anchored in the stone.  All made of people.  Where one body ended and another began was almost impossible to tell.  Arms and legs blended together in a hideous way.  There were heads half buried in stomachs, or two bodies that had interpenetrated each other.  The nauseating, crawling look as the entire mass moved and writhed forced him to realize the people were all alive.  Mixed and jumbled like this.

      "Oh gods!" Toji whispered and ran back down through the cavern, and tried to be sick.  There was nothing in his stomach to empty onto the cavern floor.  Toji glanced back, watched the nearest figures as they quivered and spasmed to the limits of their attachments to the others in the web.

      Gods!  My sister's in that!? Toji thought furiously, anger was quickly replaced by revulsion and fear.

      "What are we going to do?" he demanded of Raccoon.

      The other boy turned towards him, Raccoon was white as a sheet.  No trick of the light, he was as appalled by the scene as Toji had been.  "I - am - working - on it," he managed.

      Toji realized Raccoon was about one step from losing it himself.  Noise outside drew both their attentions away from the grisly web.

      "OH SHIT!" Toji cursed, "They're fighting out there!"

      "Let's hope there isn't fighting in here."

      Toji gulped and looked around for a weapon.

      Ranko was glad she hadn't been lulled into slacking or overconfidence.  The thing looked like a giant human, except humans didn't normally have three legs each ending in a broad clawed foot, and no human had a huge scaled tentacle instead of a face.

      Ranko pulled all Unit 04's many legs in and rolled at the tripod monster like a steamroller.  She figured Asuka and Raccoon were crazy, but they'd survived all those long years in dreams.  Maybe being crazy in a specific way was an advantage.  Unpredictability might be the only real weapon humans had.

      The creature lifted its leading leg, as if it could just allow Ranko to roll under.  But Ranko had a plan, as soon as she was underneath, she had Unit 04's head reach up and grab the creature's raised leg in its teeth.  Ranko didn't pause to let it consider, but immediately used the anchor to swing the Unit's tail towards the creature's face.

      If she'd been fighting a person, she might have smashed them with the tail, but against an Angel, she drove the point of the tail through the creature's face/tentacle.  The creature struggled to dislodge the grip on its leg and the impalement of its head, as the flesh around the tail began to revert to the gray powder of a dying Angel.

      Suddenly the creature vanished.

      Ranko caught herself as Unit 04 fell, and the creature reformed as an immense double headed bat, hovering high above.  The bolt of fire from Unit 02 that caught the creature dead center, blew the thing into fragments, a yellow gas descended on the EVAs.  Ranko felt the grip around her throat, around her chest, keeping her from breathing.  It felt like something was trying to press her eyes back into her head.  But it was close.  She detonated one, two, three, four of the AT field balls directly into the cloud, dissipating it completely.

      Ranko didn't think that they'd defeated whatever it was.  How many times do we have to kill this thing?

      Toji looked at the web pulsing and writhing, he couldn't be sick any more, he was too horrified by what he was looking at.  He could only stare in mute horror, like Raccoon, just stand there and stare at the victims as they moved and soundlessly screamed.

      Somewhere in there was his sister, he was glad he couldn't pick her out, that would be the worst thing to happen, he wouldn't have been able to do anything then.

      "We could cut them . . . no we couldn't, could we?"  He couldn't imagine the damage that kind of butchery would do to the victims.

      Raccoon pulled a large knife from his coat.  "We can start cutting them loose from the substrate.  Taking a little of it with them shouldn't hurt them too much, we can scrape it off later."

      Toji reluctantly took the knife and bent down to start digging the hands/feet of two people out of the cavern floor, while Raccoon walked to some other anchor point and pulled them loose.

      Toji thought about digging people out of the crumbly stone of the cavern floor, like digging up some obscene vegetable in a garden.  The entire cavern shook.

      "Oh no!" Raccoon shouted, "We have to hurry!  It's waking up, and we're on its eyelid!"

      Toji stared at him for a moment, until another tremor shook the cavern and inspired Toji to dig faster.  He remembered the creature when the other things attacked, the eye was the size of a continent, if the eyelid was moving, it was taking something seriously.

      As soon as the first anchor was free, Toji ran to the next.  He glanced up from the grisly work to see Raccoon moving around the circle, trying to free up the web as fast as he could.

      Toji forced himself to ignore the squirming components, the poor people who were mixed with each other, the loose dirt and the rocks liquefying and returning to the Outer God.  He just had to get them loose.

      Ranko watched Shinji in Unit 01 fall gracelessly on his butt, then the entire Unit changed colors a dozen times with Shinji screaming in pain the entire time.  He fell silent and the Unit lay still.  The form of the creature was the size of a squirrel, but Ranko couldn't focus on the shape, it was too eye-watering, changing as you looked at it.  Shinji had tried to stomp on the thing.  It seemed reasonable, except the thing was stronger than the EVAs.

      Ranko didn't even try to go hand to hand.  She merely cupped her hands around the creature.  She summoned that feeling, the duty to protect the others, those who couldn't defend themselves.  She released that golden energy into the creature, then summoned another.  Three, five, ten, twenty, fifty.  The strain was enormous, but she couldn't give the thing a moment's breathing room, this form was small enough to get into the cave with Toji and Raccoon.

      If an EVA can't stop it, Ranko thought as she hammered it again and again, Those two would be killed instantly.

      Rather than succumb to her barrage, the thing returned it as a wave of black oily clouds.  Ranko screamed in agony as the clouds touched the EVA's skin, Ranko couldn't separate the burning of the EVA's skin from the burning of her own.  She tried to hold onto consciousness through main force, but it was too much.  As darkness enfolded her, she saw a red foot intersect the creature.  The pain instantly faded, but it had done its work.  Ranko felt the softness of darkness welcoming her.

      Asuka lowered Unit 02's foot.  She was still a great football player, that shot would have gotten past any goalie in the world.  She still didn't know what to do about the Outer God they were standing on.

      An image of Raccoon appeared in the cockpit.

      He must be done in that cave, Asuka thought.

      "We've got them, but we'll need some help."

      Spineless managed to crawl over to the cavern in Unit 01.  A moment later, Unit 01 withdrew its hand.  From the expressions on the faces of the three boys, Asuka guessed whatever it was, had been fairly gruesome.

      "Okay Spineless, hold it together.  Now we run for our lives!"

      "What about Ranko?" Spineless asked desperately.

      "You get out of here!" she shouted at his image, which retreated, "I'll take care of it!"  She watched Unit 01 jump off.  She was aware of the continuing tremor and had already guessed what it meant.  She had Unit 02 sling Unit 04 over its shoulder, then she jumped after Spineless and the others.

In the Nightmare of the Dark

      "We have to go faster!" Toji's image told Shinji.

      Shinji was shaken by the hideous mass of people they'd tried to put in Unit 01's hand, only to have it sink in and vanish.  Then the other two had vanished within Unit 01.

      Shinji could barely concentrate, the people of that mass had awakened.  Now their pleas, their screams, their prayers and curses filled his head.  Toji screaming at him didn't help.  He was drowning in voices, he couldn't shut them out, no matter how hard he tried.  Shinji wanted to tell Toji he was going as fast as he could, tell the voices to shut up and let him get them to safety.  All he could manage was to move Unit 02 and 04 along, and hope Asuka was doing the same with his Unit 01, speaking was beyond him.

      The voices beat on his consciousness, his sense of self and separateness, he was trying to shut out all the voices, to ignore their calls for mercy, calls for explanations, calling on the gods for intervention.  So many voices should have been a gibberish he could ignore, but he could hear each and every one distinctly.  They threatened to overwhelm the voice in his head that was Shinji Ikari.  Only the knowledge that if that happened, they were all doomed, let him hang onto who he was, and what he had to do.

      One voice called again and again for Toji.  He couldn't answer it.  To give in, even for an instant to that one, would overwhelm him, destroy him completely.  He'd never be able to tell where the voices ended and he began.

      All he could do was drag Units 02 and 04 ahead, and let Asuka drag him and Unit 01 back to NERV.  He told himself that again and again, by repetition driving the other voices out.  If he wavered, the voice shouting at him to do his duty was him and no one else.  He understood that part of why they were moving was because they wanted to, they hadn't jumped off the NERV base, except to get started.  Right now, he wanted nothing more than to move as fast as he could.

      To race home, to escape, to survive.

      But the instruments aboard Unit 01 clearly told him that while he was rapidly closing the distance on the island of stone that was NERV Tokyo, Ghroth was closing the distance on them, even more rapidly.  The best speed he and Asuka could manage, wouldn't be enough.

      They'd rescued all those people.  And it wasn't enough.

      The creature would destroy NERV, then awaken every Great Old One on Earth.  Without NERV and the EVAs, they'd rampage over the helpless population.  All because a bunch of kids thought they could play hero.

      Then Ghroth spoke a word.

      "I'm not Nyarlat!" Asuka screamed as the voice of Ghroth cut through her mind, stripping it raw and leaving her naked before the Outer God's fury.

      Her fervent denials didn't help her at all.  She couldn't get that continent-sized eye and the creature's anger, out of her mind.

      She cried, she begged, she apologized for whatever crime, whatever offense she had given.

      Still the word echoed through her mind, accusing her endlessly of some unmentionable crime against the Outer God.  That naught she could ever do would make things right, no action would ever end the indictment, nothing would assuage the eternal fury of the god against her and all she held dear.

      She plead that it would have mercy and kill her, there was no response except the echo ravening through her mind.

      She barely noticed that her landing at the NERV campus was really a crash.  She kept screaming her denials, regrets, prayers, and pleas for mercy or for death, until darkness took her.

      Simson waited, along with an immense crowd.  Security, Army and Marine troops kept them away.  But the Admiral realized what an explosive situation he had here.  One misstep, and he'd have a riot the likes of which had probably hadn't faced American arms since the New York draft riots.      

      NERV HQ hadn't vanished with a flash of light, or a great column of smoke.  One instant it was there, the next it wasn't.  It was easy to make the blackout of the information complete.  Only the rushing of large numbers of troops to the site gave any indication.  The place's bad reputation kept the curious away for a while, but word had leaked somehow.

      The religious had arrived first.  Some were military chaplains, which embarrassed Tomlinson, but not Simson.  The Admiral knew men fought their battles with whatever weapons were available.  Faith not the least of these.  More had arrived soon after.  Simson was amazed there was no jostling, no arguments over this or that element of faith.

      I guess I shouldn't be surprised, Simson thought, It doesn't take a genius to realize what the loss of the base, and especially the EVAs and the pilots, really means.

      So Catholic and Buddhist rosaries stood next to censers of incense of the Greek Orthodox and the shawls, tassels and skullcaps of Orthodox Judaism.  Shinto priests and exorcists swung their gohei as they said their prayers to whoever or whatever was listening.  The contingents from the pilots' cults were there in force as well.  Strangely, they were taking all that had happened as a good sign.

      The curious had arrived soon after.  Security around the perimeter had to be increased in both strength and numbers.  Because, while the clergy understood the danger, too many of the curious were either `invulnerable` or stupid, often both.  So where a lone NERV Security trooper with a rifle had sufficed, now a Marine or Army rifle platoon and a tank held the same spot.  Orders were that no one pass the perimeter without proper authorization.  Trespassers would be shot on sight, that was the public story, privately the company commanders and platoon sergeants were ordered to avoid bloodshed, if practical.

      Simson was aware of the fine line he was walking.  The mob could get ugly very quickly, and he had little space or time to calm them down or discourage them.  Using entire armored divisions to put down a religious riot was something he'd rather avoid.

      His personal feelings weren't something he could ignore either.  Captain Ramsey had been on the base, and while General Tomlinson was an excellent officer with both feet firmly on the ground, Simson needed the brilliant flashes of insight and paths of thought beyond the well-worn trails that Ramsey provided.  He needed that ability now, because conventional thought, wisdom, and even common sense crumbled at the enormity of what had happened.

      While he had at his beck and call a military force, which before WW 2, would have been reckoned beyond the power of anyone except the gods themselves.  He'd seen what the `gods` they faced did to conventional defenses, no matter how formidably armed or numerous.

      To eliminate the chance of panic, he'd announced that Pilots Ayanami and Tendo were safe at another NERV base, with several EVAs.  Everyone assumed he meant Matsuhiro, and his refusal to comment on that was seen as both proof and an indication of the security concerns.

      Simson felt no overwhelming urge to correct the misconceptions.  Rumors about the pilots at Las Vegas were just that, rumors.  Like the stories out of New Mexico, about a crashed flying saucer that was a weather balloon, or the `Ghost of Tokyo` being some monster or angel that no one had actually seen.

      He'd had a wild idea that Davis's plan would actually work and the base would rematerialize.  But as time went by, and nothing happened, he was beginning to have doubts.  He had to plan for the new contingencies, the first step was get a pilot and an EVA here.  He briefly considered Unit 03, it had never `faced` a trained pilot, only contact experiments.  The orders he had given were to prepare one of the girls at the Las Vegas base for transport, as soon as one of the EVAs could be made ready.  Bennington, which would have transported Unit 04 to the Azores, had been turned around and was steaming at high speed for San Diego, to collect whichever unit could be made ready.

      Simson sighed, looked around.  He saw no panic on the faces arranged around him.  There was no panic in the crowd, anyone who attempted to start it was harangued into silence, or had to be rescued by security troops.  There were no signs of an imminent Angel attack.

      Unless this was one, Simson thought, Then what was the purpose?  What would happen if the base doesn't return soon, or if an Angel does attack?  Without an EVA to repel it.

      He'd have to report to MacArthur and Truman soon.  That was something he'd like to put off as long as possible.  Justifying going along with Davis's plan was going to be hard enough, justifying losing the pilot in the process was going to be nearly impossible.  Neither Davis nor Suzuhara had awakened, and comments from the spiritwalkers that 'these things take their own time' hadn't helped his state of mind.  He knew that was the truth, but he had to explain that to his commanders.  And take their questions and responsibility for his decision.

      Gendo stood at the windows of the abandoned offices, and watched the monster approach.  All three EVAs had beaten it back to the base, then they'd all crashed.  Gendo knew from their transmissions, that the pilots were out of the fight.  They would be of no help.  The conventional and mystical defenses of the base would have no effect on a creature of that size and power.  He'd always hoped the pilots would face the Outer God only after the EVAs had grown strong on the Great Old Ones and some of the lesser Outer Gods.  That hope was ended as the immense bulk of red-brown approached.

      He touched the glass window and thought idly that without the effect of gravity, he would get to see the real effect of a planet colliding with the steel and concrete of this base.  The most impenetrable structure mankind could devise.

      As he stood alone in the aboveground office building, staring at the mustard-yellow sky, he knew it was useless.  The tools of men were fit defenses against men, but were a mere conceit against the gods.  He had no regrets.  He also had no answers, but he wouldn't cower underground like the others.  He would spit in this god's massive eye, even as it destroyed him and all his hopes.

      He knew the fury the creature felt was all for Nyarlat.  The Crawling Chaos had overstepped itself, now it would pay a dear price.  The destruction of NERV was not even a consideration.  The base and its cargo were not an object of hate, or pity, or even of interest.  A bit of debris in the way of more important work.

      Gendo watched the implacable force that was his doom, he looked back with his own imperturbable calm.  He did not accept this, but he did understand his acceptance was not necessary.

Attachment, the Great Fabricator

      The girl watched the baby crawl across the padded, white floor.  Sharon clapped her hands and laughed delightedly.  Then her laughter turned to horror as the baby crawled towards the sunbeam slowly advancing across the room.  She didn't move, she didn't react.  It had happened so often, it didn't affect her anymore.  She trained them, but at this critical time, they always ignored her.

      The kiss of sunlight scorched the infant's flesh.  Blistered and blackened, the stupid thing screamed its anguish.  Sharon didn't react.  If the others didn't react, neither would she.  The silly thing writhed in the sizzling sunbeam, wailing in agony, but making no effort to escape.  The piteous screaming and horrible reek elicited no reaction from those outside the room.  It never had before, there was no reason for Sharon to believe this time would be any different.

      When she had wept and screamed, they had called her mad.  She had reason to cry as the straitjacket had chafed her flesh raw and twisted her arms painfully.  Now she knew she dare not react as the screaming infant dissolved with the mere kiss of the fierce attack of sunlight.  She'd left the darkest corner of her room for the child, tried to instruct it to stay there.

      Night after night, they crawled screaming from her womb, then morning after morning, they crawled screaming into the sunlight and their death.

      She laughed hopelessly at the uselessness of it all, that was the first sound that drew attention.  She smiled at the man who looked in on her through the small window in the door.  The man had a reputation, she hoped it was true.  She was still pretty, despite her ordeal.  He might use a straitjacket to restrain, she knew that wouldn't stop her.  All she needed was him in here, and an unguarded moment.  She could arrange that easily enough.

      The little door in the middle of the locked door snapped shut.  She looked around at the padding on the walls, 'To keep her from hurting herself.'  As if she'd ever do that.  That, and the odd white pajamas.

      She had to wait, she was good at waiting.  She slipped her hand under the shirt of the pajamas.  She felt the faint stirrings of new life that would distend her belly, until she went through the agonies of birth at midnight.  Then she'd have a few hours to be with this new infant, only to have it die at the first touch of sunlight.

      She wept openly and silently.  She would have revenge for her cursed existence, she would revenge herself on the man, no boy, who had done this to her.  He had been out of reach so long, soon he would be within her grasp: close enough to speak with, close enough to make love to again, close enough to kill.

      "Soon, Jeffrey.  Soon you'll die for your crimes, soon you will end my suffering.  Once you're dead, I can escape."

      Now she laughed at the thoughts of the pretty boy with the smiling face, when she would crush it to pulp between her hands.

      Bleak would not describe the world of Sharnoth.  Beyond the normal universe, so the words and ideas of the universe did not fit well to such a place.  The noise of the place, would be the first refutation of the word.  For here, the Million Favored Ones bowed their heads and raised their voices, or their equivalents, to their GOD and KING, the Crawling Chaos.

      At the great court, the strategies were formulated to bring about their god's greater glory.  Sometimes they were even used.  The armories produced weapons for the glorious day when all Creation would be made into a graveyard.  The Great One would stand alone, as master of all, as was his right.

      No, the place was crawling, sometimes literally, with light and noise and activity.  All aimed at ending all that is, and was, and will be.

      The deepest throne room, the holiest of holies, lay deep in the planet.  A huge cathedral for the true form and center of their Lord and Master.  A pool of yellowish slime that could take any form it wished: beautiful and sublime or hideous beyond the bounds of madness.  Although which was which truly was in the eye of the beholder.

      The room itself was equally unsettling.  Whether it was part of a refinery, or the bowels of a great beast, could not be easily answered.  The huge numbers of crisscrossing pipes of all sizes formed the walls, the floor, and the ceiling of the chamber, which were unliving metal or stone, and which were something else, something arguably alive, was a question that could only be answered foot by foot, and sometimes not even by that.

      The priests were ancient, they had served since the days of the War.  They had learned to avoid their master's more violent outbursts.  Those which hadn't, were interred elsewhere, if anything of them remained

      Today they saw and heard something none of them had ever beheld before.  Hovering over the pit it normally resided in, Nyarlat floated in a perfect sphere, pulsing with color, but holding that peculiar, utterly uniform shape.  Then the cacophony began.  The tearing of metal, the screams of the damned, a thousand steam whistles all crammed together until it could no longer be heard, but experienced instead as endless pain.

      As the clamor when on and on, the bright hues of the sphere darkened, blackened, until scorched blacker than jet, it crashed back down to the floor.

      The priests withdrew, 'To leave the god in contemplation'.  All knew that their master would take its vengeance out on whatever fell into its path.  They also wanted to consider what of all things could defeat their master so handily, in its own stronghold.  What propitiations would be necessary to insure their own survival if it attacked again?

      It was a kitchen, Toji could figure that out instantly.  The old woman puttering around the stove reminded him of his grandmother, who he'd never met.  But the iron gray hair in a bun, the precise, yet arthritic movements, all screamed 'grandmother' to him.  He looked at the linoleum floor and wondered if his father and grandfather had survived his screw up, if his sister had.  Or had they all died, him too?

      "This will all take a while, have a seat," the woman told him, "Take a moment to orient yourself before you start asking silly questions."  She used a ladle to put something in a bowl and set it in front of him at the small table in the kitchen.  It smelled and looked like miso soup.

      "I don't cook much for guests, so you'll have to indulge me, I want to get this right."  The old woman returned to the stove and whatever she was working on.

      The room was larger than his kitchen at home.  Stove, sink, lots of cabinets, like at home; but no refrigerator and above the cabinets were bookshelves filled with books.  The table and two chairs were also an odd set, none of the three of them matched, but they all had the same well-worn look to them.  He sat down in one so he could watch her.

      I prefer this to getting chased by Ghroth, but where am I? Toji wondered.  The sudden explosion of sizzling at the stove brought Toji back to the here and now.  The woman seemed to be deep frying something.  Toji relaxed slightly, his cooking made the same noise . . . and smell, doing the same thing at home.

      Home, he sighed as he wondered if he'd ever see it or his family again.

      "I'm afraid you'll have to be my test subject."  That didn't settle Toji's mind as the old woman broke a large, brown disk in half and set the two pieces on a plate that hadn't been there a moment ago.  "Take whichever one, I'll eat the other."

      Toji picked it up, and realized it was a rice ball filled with bean jam and covered with caramelized sugar and coconut.  He took a bite and savored the sweetness, the mix of flavors.  "Very good."

      "Glad you like it, I want to be a good host."  The woman sat down in the chair opposite him, she stared at him while she nibbled her half.  Her eyes were old, but they still had tremendous force and intelligence behind them.  "I'll get the preliminaries out of the way.  No, your mind and spirit are here, your body is wherever you left it.  That doesn't make any of this less real, it's that things aren't exactly what they seem."

      Toji blinked, shook his head.  This went far beyond ordinary confusion.

      "Sorry, an example."  She pointed at the shelves over the cabinets.  "Those are reading material, and reference works.  Yes, I'm an old, female librarian.  And you don't really look as cute as my grandson."

      Toji blushed, shifted his feet.  "So, you aren't - human?"

      "No, I hate to tell you, but to us, your species is pretty hideous.  Most of my people would go mad, or flee if they caught sight of you," she chuckled, "Of course the reverse is also true."

      Toji felt more embarrassed.  "Then, why am I here?"

      The old woman frowned.  "Beyond the physical differences, there are psychological and philosophical similarities.  You and your people are on the front line of what's shaping up to be a major war.  I mean really the front line, have you ever heard of Archduke Ferdinand?"

      Toji considered, then shook his head.

      "His assassination started the First World War, some of us think the Second was only the denouement of the First.  You and your friends are armed soldiers who just spotted the assassin.  You have the chance to stop the whole thing before it really begins."  She paused, waved Toji to be quiet.  "I know it doesn't seem that way to you.  But the last time this war restarted, was 800 million years ago, your moon was physically part of your planet back then.  It was ripped loose during one of the opening battles.  Collateral damage.  The death toll," the woman said sadly, "Well, your number system doesn't go that high.  Our nation had major populations in 15 galaxies, lots of prosperous happy people going about their business.  Loving their families, making things for others to buy, artists decrying that we were losing our soul to commercialism, the prosaic rubbish of all fat, happy societies.  It wasn't perfect, but compared to today, it was paradise.  Six of those galaxies aren't there anymore, the mass is still there, clouds of dust and gas.  Nothing can live there for billions of years.  Nothing even remotely sane wants that to happen again."

      Toji sweated and shuddered at that thought.  The death of six galaxies, he couldn't conceive of it, the idea was just too big.  But the moon! he thought, Maybe Sour Kraut knows what kind of force it would take to rip it loose, but I'm just a Junior High student.  He was wondering why all this was happening to him.  What he'd done right or wrong to be `awarded` this kind of information, and the responsibility of knowing it.

      "Now, you've probably got a thousand questions."

      Starting with 'Why me?' Toji thought.

      "Am I some kind of chosen one?" Toji stammered.

      The woman chuckled. "Hardly, there are dozens if not hundreds all over Earth, there are six like you in NERV Tokyo alone.  We figured a little encouragement wouldn't be amiss.  We'd rather not have to fight this war.  We weren't ready the last time, we really aren't ready for it again."

      Toji figured he'd hit his head and was hallucinating, but he figured he could go along with it.  Give Raccoon and Sour Kraut something to chuckle about later.  "So what am I supposed to do?" he asked.

      "Be yourself," the woman said, shrugged, "And know you aren't alone."

      "Why aren't you having someone else do this?  Like Rei or Raccoon?" Toji asked, he didn't like the way this was heading, even if he was only one of many.  He'd piloted, and he never wanted to do that again, now he was getting a look at the breadth and scope of what the human race was really doing.  He didn't like what he was seeing.

      "Those two already have enough calls on their attention and loyalty," the woman said as she stood and got another of her confections for her and Toji.  "You'd be surprised how many others have their hooks in those two.  I'm a little surprised they aren't crazier than they already are."

      That worried Toji.  "So you're doing this out of the goodness of your heart?" Toji said flippantly.

      The old woman stared at him sternly.  "Look kid, understand this: if it came down to a choice between your whole race and one of the towns my grandkids live in - " she softened her tone, "Well, I like your people, but not that much.  Simple truth, like your Churchill said, better together in your backyard than alone in our front yard.  We want you to win, but not at a severe cost to us.  If you can live with that, we can do business."

      "So . . . exactly what does 'do business' mean, something like Tendo Nabiki and her loan sharking and tutoring programs?"

      "More like an exchange of information.  We give you information - "

      "I won't spy on people!" Toji replied fiercely.

      The woman laughed so hard she shook the table.  That wasn't what Toji expected.  "We can do our own spying, thank you.  What you do, is take what we tell you and act on it, give it first to the people we tell you to, and if you know our straight story and best analysis is a load of crap, you tell us that.  Your planet has dozens of cultures on it, different ways of looking at things.  We haven't quite mastered thinking like you think."

      The woman sobered.  "It's not perfect, it may even be wrong, but it should help you see things clearly.  For example, Asuka loves you."

      "WHAT!  I don't - she can't - I would never - and another thing - !"

      "Calm down!  You're going to hurt yourself.  What does she call your friend Shinji?"


      "And Rei?"



      "Ice Princess."

      "And when did you become 'Curly'?" the woman asked innocently.

      Toji stopped.  He hadn't considered that, it was just 'Sour Kraut' being herself.  "But that would mean - "  That thought scared him worse than Ghroth.

      "Nothing of the kind.  Tell me, if you found Ranko naked in your bed saying 'Lie with me', how would you react?"

      Toji blushed right down to his toes.

      "If you found Yumiwashi in the same situation?"

      Toji turned white.

      "Different kinds of love.  The Ancient Greeks broke them down into Eros: Carnal love, Philia: Brotherly love, Agape: absolute love.  Affection can be expressed in many ways."

      Toji was having a harder time accepting this than the more Angel-related stuff.  It all didn't work.  Either the woman was lying to him, or . . . all his assumptions were wrong.  It was a lot easier believing she was lying, but Toji was too honest to ignore the possibility that he was wrong.  The best defense was to change the subject.

      "Raccoon's plan didn't work, or did it, is the base back?" Toji asked.

      "No.  That's a good example of how brains, good training and a lot of drive are no substitute for natural talent.  The boy got his sums wrong.  Good idea about letting Unit 01 sort those people out.  I do wonder who told him about that."

      "So is my sister okay?" Toji asked excitedly.

      "No, she'll take a while to recover, but she's got a good start."

      Toji relaxed, she was the real reason he'd agreed to this insanity.  "What you said about 'doing business', I keep thinking to Tendo Nabiki."

      "Good point.  Simply this, we aren't some bunch of benevolent do-gooders out to save you out of the goodness of our hearts.  Likewise we aren't softening you up for an invasion.  Frankly our invaders would die of fright just looking at you people.  It's the perfect defense."

      "At least you're honest about it."

      "Kid, I'm a librarian, not a politician.  I want to see my great grandchildren, not some award.  Helping you is the best way to do that.  Making sure you understand the limitations of my help ensures you don't take things wrong.  Like, if I suggest killing your sister would bring an early end to the war, I'm not advocating action, I'm laying out options, and before you explode, that was an example.  Your sister, if she's lucky, is done with all of this mania."

      She let Toji sigh with relief before continuing.

      "If you were a real, tough-as-nails fighting man, I'd tell you to send her someplace safe, but you need her right now."

      "What is that all about?" Toji demanded, "What's this war all about?  Why are they attacking us?  What did we do to them?  Isn't there anybody else on our side?"

      "I'm glad you finally took a breath, you do realize you asked a librarian those questions?"  She smirked as he looked at the books on the cabinets.  "No, I'm not that cruel.  I'll just give you the highlights.  About two trillion years ago, the war started, that's older than the age of your universe.  I say your universe rather than the universe because its only part of a much greater collection of realities.  No one knows what started the war.  Some claim something was stolen, others claim it was a disagreement about treatment of other, lesser races.  It could have been over which end of a soft-boiled egg to open.  It hardly matters anymore.  The fact is, for all but the longest lived races, there has always been a war."  She got up slowly, paced the room nervously.

      "Then, something happened.  Something we do know the details of.  Two of the most driven and powerful factions in the war stole something from each other, the ultimate weapon, the means to twist reality as they saw fit, even to create entire other realities.  The two sides were led by Kthanid, the Elder God, and by Azathoth of the Outer Gods.  The Tablets of Destiny some called them.  What they are is knowledge, the exact translation is 'The Elder Key'.  With them, the Outer Gods created the little pocket universe you live in, they went to hide there, and reconstruct what the Elder Gods had stolen from them.  Once they had both, they would be all-powerful."

      "What!" Toji cried, "Those monsters created the universe?!"

      "Your universe," the woman corrected, "The Elder Key contains the spells and rituals to do it.  The technical term is a hyperinflation bubble, like a soap bubble attached to a much larger one.  Now you understand why the war is so intensively fought.  But the laws of nature were very different within your universe.  The tactic should have worked, Ubbo-Sathla used the Key, then hid on your planet.  for a while it worked, both sides were stalemated.  They were even caught up fighting the powerful creatures your universe spawned, the so-called Great Old Ones, until 300 million years ago.  The Elder Gods were more organized, that allowed them to use greater numbers and strategy against the Outer Gods.  Azathoth was caught and lobotomized, and its body was imprisoned within the center of your universe.  Then they arrived on Earth to retake `their` property.  They found several powerful civilizations and a number of godlike creatures.  Unlike the Outer Gods, these creatures, the Great Old Ones could negotiate, make alliances among themselves and with other races.  The Elder Gods weren't able to get the Elder Key, so they laid a curse on these `lesser` beings, and imprisoned them in their homes.  Cthulhu in R'lyeh, Tsathoggua in N'kai, Bateris in center of your home galaxy, dozens, hundreds of others all over your world, your universe.  The Elder Gods figured they'd let these secondary creatures stew for an age, to reconsider.  Except the Great Old Ones had gained their power by glimpsing bits and pieces of the same knowledge that went into the Elder Key, the same knowledge that created your universe, and there were a lot of them.  They fought back the only way they could, the Elder Gods were trapped in your universe as surely and as strongly as they'd trapped the Great Old Ones."

      "You make them sound like heroes," Toji said bitterly.

      "Almost everything wants to survive," the woman told him, "They weren't necessarily allied with the Outer Gods, but the Elder Gods couldn't be trusted either.  From what I understand, the assumption was that once they had the Elder Key, the Elder Gods would eliminate that universe and come back here and win the war.  If that really is the case, and the Great Old Ones stopped them, then I'd shake their hand.  But I don't want them to win the war any more than I'd want anyone else to.  If your people win their war, it goes back to a complete stalemate, none of them can do anything.  All the rest of us live out our lives not having to worry about them."

      "So we can't trust them?" Toji asked.

      "Depends on what exactly you want to trust them to do.  They don't understand humans any more than you can really understand them.  Dangerous combination.  The Elder Gods are still prowling around, so there are cycles of defeat and victory, all going on for millions of years."

      "So are the Great Old Ones really gods, like the gods of Shinto?" Toji asked.  Being told the enemy might have done good, was hard for him to accept, even if they hadn't intended to do it.

      "No, the Outer Gods and Elder Gods personify some cosmic element or truth: Chaos, Fertility, Time, etc.  The great Old Ones are scientific alchemists or philosopher-kings who stumbled across the real nature of your universe, and were able to embrace it.  That makes them vastly more powerful than any god limited to just one nation or one planet.  That also makes them unkillable, even by the Elder Gods.  As long as that - your - universe survives, they cannot be permanently destroyed by any means."

      "What?  The pilots killed . . . a half dozen or so, I guess!"

      "They didn't kill them, they absorbed them, the pilots and their EVAs.  The power and knowledge continue, in the pilots and their EVAs.  Your friends are becoming Great Old Ones.  As soon as they can comprehend and accept that reality, the reality, they will be Great Old Ones themselves."

      Toji stood up, stepped away from the table in shock.  He was completely thunderstruck.

      The others are going to be like those monsters?  Do they know? he silently screamed his question at an uncaring universe, If they know why do they go on?  If they don't know, why hasn't anyone told them?  Do the bosses at NERV know?  Do my dad and gramps know?  If they do . . . why didn't they tell me?

      "Can I . . . do anything?" Toji stammered miserably, he knew he could tell them, and have them never pilot again, that would guarantee the death of the entire human race.  Or he could withhold the information, and watch in horror as his friends, the people who trusted him, devolve into monsters.

      He looked around the normal-appearing kitchen.  His horror at the two terrible paths that lay before him exceeded that generated by the planet-thing or the web of bodies.  "I have to do . . . something."

      He faced the older woman.  "But I don't know what to do."

      "You have to decide that on your own.  The Great Old Ones vary dramatically.  Some, like Cthulhu are builders, others like Bokrug are guardians, some are slavers, some like Rhan-Tegoth are mere appetites, some are simply insane, even by their own standards.  But the pilot's own personality is the best assessment.  That's something I can't do.  Also, there's never been a group who made the breakthrough before.  There have been `arms races` before, but whoever won made sure they didn't have any competition.  But never a situation where a group or team all walked that path together, depended on each other.  That may or may not change everything, or anything.  There are a thousand different opinions, and they are all based on so much wind."

      Toji felt tired and lost, it wasn't what he'd expected.  The pilots didn't seem all that pleased about piloting, not like Kensuke and a few others.  Did they suspect the truth, or was it something else?  He'd operated the EVA under Sour Kraut's direction, and he'd killed.  He wasn't happy about that, he had to think that wasn't all of it.  "Why didn't Kensuke get this job, instead of me?"

      "Because he'd want to do it . . . ," the woman told him, "He wouldn't think about what he was doing, he'd be enjoying himself too much doing it.  'Wee powers, responsibility, babes.'  We don't need that, we need someone who will keep their eyes open.  We aren't omniscient, just more experienced, but not with humans, sometimes you're too confusing."  The old woman shrugged, sat down and urged Toji to do the same.

      "But Sour Kraut and Ayanami-san are - well, not happy, but pleased to be pilots!" Toji protested as he sat down.

      "Are they happy they are pilots, or are they happy others don't have to be?"

      Toji paused to consider, he hadn't looked at that possibility, he also had never considered that Sour Kraut would turn into a real person inside an EVA.  A scary one, to be sure, no kid should be that calm and competent, a real soldier.

      I guess that's what I'll have to be, he thought as he squirmed in his chair at the table.  He found himself flexing his hands nervously.

      "It's almost too much to think about," Toji admitted.

      "I'm not asking for a decision, or some grand display and proclamation of loyalty.  I wouldn't believe you if you gave one, but you'll need to start seeing things you haven't looked at before."

      Toji nodded, "How do I contact you?"  He had a feeling the interview was over.

      "Dreams, you'll find your way here.  Although I would appreciate, if you'd check in periodically, even if you don't have anything to talk about."

      "And you'll be here?"

      "Or you can leave a note."  She indicated a pad of paper.  Toji nodded as the room faded around him.

The Most Dangerous Calculations

      "The dampers are fading," the doctor checked his chart, "She has dreams of birth at midnight and death at dawn of her baby."

      The other doctor nodded, "It will eventually fail, that was always a possibility, and she'll have to be put down."  He was casual about it.

      "What about the last subject?" the first doctor asked.

      "Contact with the EVAs may reinforce the limiters, or it may have erased them already.  But, I think we would have heard . . . something."

      "Unless he's smarter than that," the first doctor corrected, "We need to test him."

      "Oh, I can see that!" the second doctor laughed, "'Has one of your pilots suddenly turned into a ravening monster?'  'Has he suddenly garnered insights into our enemies?'  'Can he generate an AT field without an EVA?'  They'll laugh in our faces.  It will also expose that we were tampering with those children, that's the last thing we want revealed."

      "Well, there is good news on that front," the first doctor said, "We'll have unlimited access aboard the carrier.  We can drop an operative and determine the extent of the damage.  Perhaps we can even make repairs."

      "And if he exceeds the safety parameters?"

      "We destroy him, of course," the doctor told his colleague, as if the other man were a stupid child, "We don't take chances with this.  The carrier will provide us with the privacy to do it quietly."

      "We never should have tried to interface them with the EVAs."

      "We had no choice, and the alternative would have offended the delicate sensibilities of those paying the bills.  It also would have been horribly dangerous.  The EVAs provide a measure of safety.  Separate the pilot from the EVA and they can be destroyed much more easily, and the restrained element can be mated with another part.  It isn't as if we really need our subjects anymore.  And a heroic death would keep the politicians happy."

      "What are the chances of him accidentally receiving the final treatments?"

      "Virtually none.  Even he isn't aware the process is incomplete, and no one is stupid enough to correct that oversight."

      Admiral Simson watched the two pilots awaken, and NERV HQ did not reappear.  Both pilots were nearly incoherent after their experiences.  Simson didn't want to push, but he had little time.

      Far from the shores of Japan, a line of picket destroyers had picked up something.  Something large and approaching Japan.  Whatever it was, was too deep for depth charges or torpedoes.  Hydrophones picked up the steady tread of its advance.  When whatever it was entered shallower waters, the full might of the Pacific Fleet in Japanese waters could be brought to bear.

      Simson had even asked for, and received, nuclear authorization.  From his understanding of physics, an atomic bomb would make a marvelous depth charge.

      He would have preferred an EVA or two, and pilots.  He had pilots, but the EVAs in Las Vegas were days or weeks from readiness.  He'd hoped NERV Tokyo could be returned before this new enemy arrived.

      Even if he'd trusted it, Unit 03 was too far away.  In his office, awaiting the results of the debriefing of the failed mission, he silently considered sending one of the pilots to England to match up with Unit 03, and that he'd hoped Ikari and company could find their way back.  Neither solution seemed likely to succeed in the time available.  He also wondered about the nature of their incoming opponent.  If it was one creature, miles across, or hundreds, or millions marching in formation.  He was hoping for the last.  Millions he could deal with.  Among the Mythos, the larger it was, the more likely it was to be immune to any force brought against it.  Or that it would regenerate so fast, that the effect was the same.

      So he waited.  General Tomlinson's authority would supersede his when it made landfall.  In the meantime, all the guns and rockets and bombs at his disposal were awaiting a target.  The B-29's with their atomic loads were already in the air.

      "Admiral, subs report the enemy is coming up to a depth where the atomics can be employed.  Captain Reynolds' best estimate is that there are many large and small targets."  The lieutenant who reported this looked very young, and very frightened.

      "Thank you, Lieutenant," Simson nodded as he followed the young man into the map room, "Is the area clear?"

      "Yes, sir," the officer coordinating the subs reported.

      "Drop the bombs, pattern delta," Simson ordered the Army Air Force officer.  The President had already released tactical use of the weapons to the area commander, Admiral Simson, who devoutly wished someone else was going to have to make these decisions.  MacArthur and Nimitz both outranked him, but these weren't here.

      May God have mercy on us, Simson thought, Oppenheimer was completely wrong, we aren't Death, we're just chaff in the furnace.  All we can do is burn a little hotter.

      Far out to sea, an object dropped from a B-29, it deployed a drag chute that slowed it as it dropped into the water.

      The pilot orbited farther out, he'd seen the Bikini tests, he knew what to expect.

      The column of water erupted out of the ocean, thousands of feet in the air.  As the column dropped back into the sea, two more B-29s some miles apart made simultaneous drops, mere moments apart.  Moments later, twin columns erupted into the air.  Strange objects were hurled into the clear sky where the shockwaves of two or three bombs met.  The pilot got photos of these things, then turned for home.  It was clear the ultimate human weapon had not had a decisive effect.

      Admiral Simson listened quietly as the report came in.  He had a fleet, a powerful air force, artillery, he was wondering if it would be enough.  General Tomlinson's HQ was miles away, so the enemy's counterstroke couldn't get both commanders at once.  The artillery, both ashore and afloat, would be the heaviest arm.  Aircraft were better suited for the close in attacks.  The heavy bombers had their shot, they would be little use unless he executed the nuclear option again, something he was loathe to do over land.  Especially with no guarantee of success.  He'd already used more atomic firepower than any human before.

      "And it may not be enough," Simson murmured in the privacy of his office.  His subordinate commanders knew their jobs.  They had deployed to their best effect, others were assisting with the evacuation.  Since no one knew where the target was headed, the evacuation was general, the entire city.

      The time he spent here was in thought.  He wondered if he was like the Emperor Honorious, presiding over the end of the world.  He left his office and those thoughts, and reentered the command center.  The troops waited, they would track the advance of both the enemy and the forces arrayed against it.

      "No contact, Admiral," the officer in charge reported.

      After clearing the area for the atomic depth bombs, they had lost contact with the enemy.  The estimated next point of contact, a line of picket destroyers, waited alert for any sign of the enemy.

      "Contact," one of the sailors announced as he plotted the position on the charts, which was copied to the sand table.  "Multiple contacts, most large, some smaller," the man continued the litany, repeating what was being reported to him through his headphones.

      The position firmed up as other destroyers vectored in.  Depth charges were dropped in vast numbers, a veritable rain of exploding steel.  Other antisubmarine weapons were deployed as well.  The artillery was sighted in on the path of approach, both ship and land-based.  Battleships, cruisers, rocket battalions, artillery battalions, some of whose guns exceeded the weapons of the cruisers, all adjusted, tracking a target they could not yet engage.  The silence was greater, because the promise of the cacophony was greater.

      Everyone waited as the destroyers tracked the advance.  All the other ships kept their speed up, to prevent any attack on them.  Warships had no guns beneath to protect them, and no armor over the steering and propulsion gear.  Soon the guns they did have would thunder to life.

      "General Tomlinson reports he is standing by for handoff," an officer reported to Admiral Simson.

      "As soon as they're ashore, they're all his," Simson said.

      He waited until the first target appeared.

      The South Dakota got off another salvo, sailing close to fire directly at the huge, winged humanoid-octopoid, smaller versions of their master.  Cthulhu walked ahead, absorbing all the fire their pitiful enemies could throw at him.  Nothing stopped his advance, straight through the harbor, then straight through the city.

      Admiral Simson had left General Tomlinson in charge of the more standard defense, he had special troops and equipment.  A dozen sorcerers were preparing to Dismiss the mighty one, and begin the rituals to sink R'lyeh back into the ocean depths.  They would cast their first spell when their target came into range.  There seemed little doubt he was headed directly for where NERV HQ had once stood.  They hoped that the spells would take the fight out of the rest of the force, or they'd retreat entirely.

      The last was probably wildly optimistic.  As Cthulhu and his personal bodyguard came in range, the spell was cast.

      The mighty Great Old One actually stopped, hesitated - for a few seconds, a minute, several minutes.

      Simson actually had a few moments of wild hope that he might live to see another day.  Then that hope was dashed as the octopoid horror marched forward again.  Followed by the smaller ones moments later.  Simson felt all aspirations and belief in a future drain away, nor could he understand the actions of Cthulhu and his spawn, as they piled wrecked vehicles, pieces of buildings and other large scale debris in the pit where NERV Tokyo had been.  Not much, and each piece inspected and placed at the direction of Cthulhu himself.

      Simson knew he should be running away screaming, in the finest tradition of those who'd encountered the Great Old Ones `face-to-face`. Instead he couldn't ignore the creature's dread majesty, and that of his mightiest spawn.  Simson also felt the curiosity about the creatures' actions had overwhelmed any fear he could have felt.  He realized he'd gone insane, no rational person would remain as he was, but he didn't care about that either.  He'd done the best he could, to the end: of his duty, of his life, of his world.

      Others tugged at him, urged him to flee, as they did, he ignored them.  He fully realized he was watching the end, the rout of civilization into a dark age it would never recover from, whether it survived it or not.  The end of Humanity, not just as dominant species of the planet, but as one of the thinking creatures who lived on Earth.

      He felt someone had to watch, had to remember, had to know and understand the how, where and what of the transformation.  He was empty of everything else, fear, duty to his doomed nation, confusion.  He might as well fill himself with memories.  So one human mutely watched the Great Old One summon NERV Tokyo back from wherever it had been.  For a shining moment, hope was reborn.  Admiral Simson remembered fully who and what he was, why he was there and what his oath really meant.

      Then the purpose of the debris became clear.

      Two material objects cannot exist in the same place at the same time.  Nature tends to banish the transgressors to the realm of energy.  The blasts that erupted from the lowest levels of NERV Tokyo destroyed any hope, as it destroyed every human for 10 miles in all directions, as it scoured Tokyo clean of anything light or remotely inflammable.  The sea of fire lasted just long enough to broil the human defenders alive.  Then it blinked out, taking with it the light of the world.

      The first atomic bombs went in a few minutes later as the survivors reestablished the chain of command.  The last commander of the defense of mankind was an Army Air Force brigadier general commanding one of the conventional air wings.  He had no problem ordering his nuclear-armed brethren into a saturation bombing attack that their combat loads were supposed to make unnecessary.  Some of the bombers actually tried to engage individual targets with their loads.

      He watched in horror as bomb after bomb hit, and failed to detonate.  Someone commented they should be throwing rocks.  The Navy bombers and fighter-bombers were getting closer.  One bomber collided with one of the largest spawn, the plane disintegrated, but its bomb failed to detonate, and the spawn recovered from the impact and fire within minutes.

      Another bomber pilot reported the spawn had pulled most of a red EVA out of the rubble.

      The Air Force crews listened to the Navy officer's calm description of the monsters pawing through the rubble of NERV base, pulling the dismembered EVA from the twisted wreckage.  Most of them were crawling in their seats as he described the spawn cracking the EVAs armor, and consuming the material within.

      The brigadier could hear his flight engineer retching at the graphic, and probably wholly accurate description.  He expected that the Navy pilot had gone insane, and was focused entirely on reporting the actions of the enemy.  There was no stopping or helping him.

      Then his tone changed, "It's got an entry plug, it looks intact!  I'm going in for a closer look, stay with me!"

      The brigadier offered a silent prayer for the madman on the other end of the radio, that he'd hold together long enough to complete his mission.

      "One of them shook the pilot out, a flash of red.  I don't know which pilot, Saotome or Langley.  They're carrying the pilot to Cthulhu, I can see it now, all red, Langley.  The little one's handing her over, I don't know if she's alive - wait, she's moving, I see her moving.  Cthulhu's got - he swallowed her whole!  Just popped her in his mouth - " the pause went on a long time.

      The brigadier thought they'd lost the man.

      "They've got two more plugs, both heavily damaged.  The others are still digging, most in the southern sector.  I guess they're looking for the other pilots to feed to their master."

      In Nevada, Nabiki-kun and Rei stood outside, and stared at the desert night sky, the stars seemed to be mocking them.  In the complex below them, crews were frantically trying to complete at least one EVA, but they were hoping to cram weeks of work and testing into a few hours.  Even with adjustments and further work on the train and carrier, the task was clearly hopeless.

      "Even if they do finish it, how fast can we get to Tokyo?" Nabiki-kun asked, "Can either of us defeat the hundreds of creatures massed there?"

      "No.  Nor would two.  Nor would all six," Rei said.  She, among all the others, felt no despair.  She'd been yanked back and forth between hope and despair too much, so now she simply accepted waiting and hopelessness.

      "So we're all doomed?  Is that it?"

      Rei watched Nabiki-kun sink to her knees and begin sobbing.  "I do not know what the Great Old Ones hope to accomplish.  In any case, despair will accomplish nothing."  Rei paused, weighed her next words carefully, "I have lost many.  I will not despair.  I will avenge."

      Nabiki-kun looked up at her.  "I . . . I can't, I'm not you."

      "Then mourn, but be ready."  Rei patted Nabiki-kun's shoulder.  It was a strange thing to draw comfort from, but Nabiki-kun did.  There was really not anything to do, until the EVAs were ready.  Rei knew she'd take the first, she doubted a second could be made ready in time.  Rei accepted that she would die as she had lived, a pilot, the first to die.

      "He just ate a handful of dirt."  The Navy pilot was up and reporting again, he'd landed just long enough to refuel his plane, get something to eat and use the head.  Obsessed was a word easily applied.  "If all the reports are true, that may have been Simson's command post."

      The brigadier had landed as well, trying to concentrate on what the enemy was doing, while the higher-ups, who'd finally arrived, worked out a counterstrike.

      "You suppose it - it ate the remains of the pilot?" he asked his copilot, and the other flight officers of his bomb wing, those who were still sane and hadn't fallen into the pit of depression and hysteria.

      "What for?  They're all dead, the radiation would have killed them even if the blast didn't."

      The brigadier agreed, a few eggheads had speculated that the radiation was all gamma, and mostly contained within the base.  The explosion was due to the violent vaporization of materials around the points of interpenetration between the debris planted and the base as it returned.  So the base was probably still recoverable.  Those things were digging, looking for something that might have survived.  The huge creatures had been casting aside huge sections of steel reinforced concrete and other debris.

      "They're pulling back," the Navy pilot reported, "All except the big one."

      That got everyone's attention.

      "He's spitting something into a tank they just broke open . . . now he's flying away!?"

      "What did that thing spit into the tank?" the brigadier shouted, "Report!"

      "It looked like - "

      The brigadier looked at the brilliant glow on the horizon.

      Rei held Nabiki-kun close and tightly, while she held her AT field as close around them and at its greatest strength.  The heat blast had set everything around them on fire.  People, vehicles, plants and buildings went from looking at the glowing cloud wall fast approaching, to being torches and infernos.

      Despite her AT field, she could heat the heat seeping up through her shoes, into her skin.  Much of the sand had been fused together.  Rei knew they had to get back underground, to see if anyone had survived.  But the heat was too great to allow movement yet.

      "What was that?" Nabiki-kun asked, on the edge of hysteria.

      "The beginning of the end," Rei replied as she waited for either the ground to cool, or the next step to come.  She remembered a story Ritsuko had told her, the `older woman` trying to reach out to another living thing, after days of `training` at the hands of Naoko Akagi.  The day the era of the dinosaurs ended.  The heat blast was only the first part.  Las Vegas would be inundated by the tsunami, if the explosion was even a percentage of the blast 65 million years ago.

      Rei wondered if the bunkers deep inside the base would survive.  She also wondered what the other effects would be.  Had the creatures completed what they were doing in Tokyo?  Would they wait for the heat blast and darkness and cold to finish off humanity, and most of the other species?  Without them having to raise a hand?

      Rei could appreciate the ruthlessness, the intricacy and good planning, although she did wish it was going to achieve a different goal.

Dreams Themselves Are Only Dreams

      Toji leapt up from where he had fallen over, grabbed a bucket of water that was nearby and dumped it over his head.  The old men around him stopped their chanting and stared at him.  He felt kind of strange, the dream of the old woman oppressed him.  He needed something unexpected to make him accept he was back in the real world.  He was about to explain this when Raccoon started screaming.

      It was an inhuman, almost sawing sound, as the other boy leapt up and started slapping at himself, turning and twisting violently.  It almost looked like a wild dance of some kind.  And the scream went on and on.  Toji didn't know how anyone alive could make that kind of noise.  It raised the hair on his neck, and paralyzed all the others, except Captain Katsuragi.

      She moved in to intercept him, grabbing him.  Toji thought that was a bad idea.  Then she slapped him, which Toji thought was a terrible idea.  Raccoon's reaction told the Captain three things.  First, she'd been promoted to Major, Admiral Simson's shouted warning told her that.  Second, her nose was a lot softer than Raccoon's forehead.  Toji wasn't sure if that was an accident as Raccoon tried to twist free of her grip.  He hadn't stopped screaming, it set Toji's teeth on edge.  The third, and Toji was sure this was intentional, a knee to the groin hurt girls as well as guys.

      Toji watched Raccoon move off in a screaming spiral, as Cap - Major Katsuragi crumpled to the ground in her own world of pain.  "I think he thinks he's on fire."

      "How do you know that?" Simson asked.

      "I was here when you firestormed Tokyo," Toji admitted, he felt sick as he remembered, people boiled in the river, people burned in their homes, people aflame running through the streets, running and screaming.  "Extinguish him when you throw a net over him."

      "What would make him think that?" one of the old men asked.

      Toji was confused, he thought he recognized the language they'd used with Raccoon when they left.  But this time he understood it.  What is happening to me?! he thought.

      "I'd like to see my sister," Toji said.

      "A quick look, then we have to debrief you," Simson said as he signaled for two jeeps.  One took off after Raccoon.  The other would take Toji to the hospital.

      As the jeep threaded its way through the crowd, Toji wondered if there would be any lasting effects, would his sister remember it, be traumatized by it.  Or would it all be a dream, he wondered, Even I can't be sure what was real and what wasn't.  How long were we gone, did we do any good?  He quit asking questions he'd never be able to answer and settled into the rear seat, as the jeep headed to the hospital.

      Sammi crouched low in the back of the halftrack.  Erin, Tomiyo and Jun were crowded in there with the crane and some of the heavy lifting gear, and the block and tackle that would be needed if the auto-eject didn't work.

      She was glad of the canvas cover, it blocked out the sight of the rapidly approaching Outer God, as it coursed through the violet sky.

      She didn't think a few dozen meters of steel and concrete would make a difference when that thing hit.  At the same time, she didn't know that it wouldn't.  She was just glad she didn't have to look at it.

      So she and the other guards joined the SAR teams as they raced out to collect the fallen pilots.  Orders from Ikari were unnecessary, recovering the pilots was SAR's primary mission, standing orders made that very clear.

      As they piled out of the halftracks, Captain Kuroda was already shouting orders, mainly to keep everyone focused on their tasks.  Even so, the eye tended to stray towards the sky and the doom that was rapidly approaching them.  A shouted order kept everyone focused on the task, they only had a few minutes.

      On the plug of Unit 04, the autoeject worked, Sammi practically tore the side hatch off, and raced through the torrent of L.C.L. to get Ranma.  The girl seemed so tiny and fragile to her, as she ran back to the medical halftrack with Ranma cradled in her arms.

      Tomiyo had arrived with Shinji, another terribly small and fragile-looking package.  Erin, Jun and Captain Madison had Asuka, who was screaming, thrashing and struggling.  Sammi knew all the languages Asuka did, and all the languages Jeff did, logical considering the part they played in her creation.  She still didn't recognize what Asuka was screaming.

      A syrette of morphine had no effect on the girl.  Sammi had to help hold her down as they strapped her in.  The halftrack was turning around slowly.  Once Asuka was secure, it raced back to the SAR bay, with the other vehicles in close pursuit.  All raced for the greater, if relative, safety of the bay.

      Once they were inside, the doors started slamming shut.  Sammi had her hands full helping carry Asuka to a gurney to get her to the medical center.  Regular SAR troops carried the other two pilots.

      "How long?" Tomiyo asked as the pilots were carried through the corridors.

      "It should have happened by now.  Maybe we're home."

      "Maybe Gendo scared it off," Tomiyo joked, "He sure scares me."

      "Or it's playing with us," Sammi said, she wasn't happy with that possibility.  "There aren't any of those things, what happened?"

      "Beats me," Captain Kuroda said, "Whew!  Get cleaned up, or stay down wind.  We should probably decontaminate."

      "What about the kids?" Erin asked.

      "Standard medical procedure.  It's harder for us, because they have to be conscious."

      The group headed back for the partitions and containers to complete a decontamination procedure on the rescuers.

Sic Semper Morituri Chapter 33 - History is a Nightmare from Which I am Trying to Awake

What has gone before:

      About Book 11 of the Tankoubon Manga, 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.

      All of the pilots react to the disaster surrounding the destruction of Cthugha and his cult in there own ways.  Nabiki retreats, Asuka investigates, Jeff attacks the SEELE. supporters, Ranma seeks a decisive battle and is frustrated in this end, Rei and Shinji try to support Nabiki.

      One of the SEELE members is killed in Osaka, and Natsumi Matsuda witnesses the entire event, Jeff and Misato are sent to investigate.

      Asuka takes Ranma to Tokyo University, meeting Belldandy and Keiichi.  Then they return to enjoy the carnival set up on the school grounds.  The arrival of an assassin of Nyarlathotep's cult spoils everyone's evening as attacks the pilots and senior staff, he is destroyed by Asuka in Unit 02.  In the aftermath, Ranma, Rei and Asuka, make efforts to draw Nabiki out of her shell.

      Kaji investigates the facts of recent events, but doesn't realize his contact is a Mi-Go.  Ritsuko, Rei and Jeff discuss their origins and other facts.

      The S2 engines are tested, and NERV Tokyo vanishes.  Nabiki and Rei escape and land outside Roswell, NM., they must deal with the aftermath and loss at NERV Las Vegas.

      NERV Tokyo, in another reality, becomes the battle ground between the crew and alien invaders.

      Toji and Jeff transfer there to aid the fight.  With the base is the Outer God Ghroth, on the Outer God's surface is the device that brought the base there, the trapped and intermixed spirits of the victims of Angel Malaise, including Toji's sister.

      Ritsuko and Jeff in one EVA and ASuka and Toji in another lead the initial attack and begin to understand each other better.

      Ghroth awakens and takes revenge on the Pilots and especially Nyarlathotep.

      Toji visits an unusual woman's kitchen, and gets a commission.

      The other pilots all suffer nightmares.

So if your son and daughter seem too lazy,

sitting there watching bad TV,

just remember you should be quite grateful,

at least they are not making History.

'Cause . . .

History is made by stupid people,

clever people wouldn't even try,

So if you want a place in the history books,

do something dumb before you die.

History is made by Stupid People - The Arrogant Worms

July 6, 1947

A Prophet in Reverse

      Gendo looked at the mustard colored sky.  He had survived, Ghroth simply vanished.  Gendo would accept he was alive, there were still possibilities.

      "So that's the color of a hangover," Ritsuko stepped up next to him, "That is the most disgusting green I've ever seen."

      "Green?" Gendo asked, "It's not that color."

      "Hmmm," Ritsuko stared at the sky, "The pilots are in the med center, the three of them are deep in the grip of nightmares.  We can't wake them, and I don't know when they'll recover."

      "If they recover, if we can get back to the real world," Gendo said flatly, he felt numb.

      "Well, do you have any ideas how to get home?"

      "We have to figure out where we are, specifically: what kind of universe we have found ourselves in."

      "How do we go about that?  Radar goes on forever, gravity seems a point to point phenomenon.  I don't know what other tests you do on a universe," Ritsuko admitted.

      Gendo mastered himself.  "The Hall effect, test other universal constants, once we discover where it is the same, and where it is different, then we can make our assumptions about how to attack the problem."

      Rei woke suddenly, looked around.  White walls, not flames, surrounded her, she saw Nabiki-kun in the grip of a nightmare, not a tsunami rapidly approaching.  She was in a hospital room, Nabiki-kun was in the bed next to her.  Rei slipped out of the bed and approached the other girl.  She was expecting the scream and the look of horror.

      "It was a dream," she said firmly, holding Nabiki-kun's face solidly between her hands.  She repeated herself over and over, as Nabiki-kun's eyes and attention focused on her.

      The troops bursting in were not a concern, compared to Nabiki-kun painfully gripping her, burying her face in Rei's chest.  Rei told them it was a nightmare, common enough for pilots.  Nabiki-kun had relaxed enough that when the doctor arrived, a sedative was not necessary.

      Rei was uncomfortable about the sobbing girl clinging to her, she understood the reasons for Nabiki-kun's reaction.  The dream had disturbed Rei as well, but she took it as clues to the enemies' motivation.  She could hardly wait to return and tell the Commander.

      She was concerned that this dream might have affected the other pilots as it had Nabiki-kun.  She did not know why or how she knew this.  However, even though Nabiki-kun had not confirmed it, Rei was certain that other pilots had received the same dream.  She wondered if this also meant that the other pilots had survived.

      "Be at ease," she told Nabiki-kun, stroking her hair as Nabiki-kun had done for her, after washing her it.  As Shinji-kun had done for her, on that terrible night when Nabiki-kun had tried to take her own life.  Rei remembered how the sensation had soothed her, she hoped it would have the same effect on Nabiki-kun.

      "Only a dream?" Nabiki-kun said in a small voice, "Only a dream."

      "Yes," Rei reassured her.  Rei let the other girl relax and fall asleep again, before she released her, arranging her in the bed.

      Rei returned to her own bed and tried to remember all the details of the actions of Cthulhu, his spawn and what they could possibly have been doing that would result in such a titanic explosion.

      Gendo looked over the others in the conference room, then out the window at the sky.  Ritsuko watched him, hoping for some clue to his mood or his thoughts.  The sky bothered her, Gendo said it was mustard-yellow, she thought it was a bilious green, Captain Ramsey said violet, Maya a pale pink, everyone had a different opinion.  Assuming all of them were telling the truth, then all they saw and felt was subjective.  How could they develop a solution to their current problems if they literally couldn't agree on the facts of physical existence?

      "The pilots' plans were not wholly successful.  The attacks have stopped," Gendo told the assembled officers, "But we are still here. Dr. Akagi, pilot status?"

      "Asuka, Shinji and Ranma are in the infirmary, under sedation.  Unit 00, using the dummy plug, was able to recover units 01, 02 and 04, and lock them back in the bay.  I never expected it could be used for something like that."

      "Will they recover?" Gendo asked.

      Ritsuko shook her head, "There's no way to know.  We have found no traces of either Davis or Suzuhara.  We don't know if they are in a state like the others, or if they somehow returned home."

      Ramsey glanced around, "What progress has been made in figuring out how to get home?"

      "We aren't sure where we are," Gendo replied, "Until we discover that, we cannot even attempt to get home."

      "Are you going to tell the rest of us what that was all about?" Kaji asked, "Davis called that thing Ghroth, and Asuka was screaming 'I am not Nyhar,' or something.  Why would two of those things be fighting each other?"

      "Why would they involve us in their battle?" Gendo asked.

      Ritsuko remembered what the kids had mentioned, about the pilots being used as executioners.  Ritsuko wasn't sure if the paradigm still held, and Nyarlathotep had overestimated the pilots.

      "Could we reverse the S2 engines, get home that way?" Ramsey asked.

      "Which of the hundreds of processes within them do we reverse, or what combination?" Ritsuko asked in reply.

      Gendo said, "Can we fully access the Magi's systems, they might have some record or analysis that might help us."

      Meaning: maybe the Elder Things encountered this before and left records, Ritsuko thought, Only they might not have installed that information into the computer system.

      "What's our fuel status?" Ramsey asked, "We've been using a lot of power."

      "Our stores are adequate for some time," Gendo replied.

      Like for the next 10,000,000 years, Ritsuko thought.

      "The stores of food and especially fresh water are more worrisome.  The air seems unaffected by events, as if something is refreshing it somehow," Gendo continued.

      Aoba and Hyuga had been silently absorbing all this, completely out of their depth.  Baker was unwilling to speak up with Ramsey still asking questions.  Maya was lost in thought.

      Ritsuko knew that either she and Maya, or Gendo and Fuyutsuki were the ones who would likely find the answer, if there was one to be found.  Until one group or the other found an answer, they were stuck here.

      Ramsey piped up again, "This may be stupid, but what are the walls of this place?  I mean, are we in a finite space or an infinite one?"

      "How could we find out?" Gendo asked archly.

      "We still have a few Long Toms, we fire them in several directions, and see what happens."

      "What if the shells come back and hit us?" Maya asked worriedly.

      That stopped Ramsey for a moment, "What are we going to do otherwise?  We have practice rounds, no explosive warheads."

      "One round, just to find out what happens," Gendo ordered, "Then one to each cardinal direction."

      Ramsey nodded to an aide who stood and headed out.

      "Are there any other comments, questions, suggestions?" silence answered Gendo, "Dismissed."

      Everyone except Ritsuko and Captain Ramsey filed out.

      "What didn't you want the others to hear?" Ramsey asked, in a tone that suggested he would have an answer from both of the others.

      "The EVAs may be able to get us out of here.  Their AT fields are non-dimensional," Ritsuko ignored Gendo's glare and kept speaking, "Our enemies have the ability to be 'elsewhere' when any attack lands.  But not in an AT field, there is no 'elsewhere'."

      "So we encase the base in an AT field?" Ramsey asked.

      "Asuka can probably do the manipulations, but she doesn't have the raw power.  Saotome and Ayanami do, but Saotome can't do the math in his head and Ayanami isn't here."

      Outside, a Long Tom 155 mm gun fired.  A few seconds later, the sky changed color.

      "Did you see that?" Ramsey asked.

      "That may not prove anything," Gendo commented offhandedly, "The shell may have caused that, or the noise of the gun," he warned.

      The sky was returning to normal, to Ritsuko a bilious green.

      "But at least we can affect this place," Ramsey countered.

      "I assume you want me to wake one of the pilots," Ritsuko said, "Despite any risk to them?"

      "What other alternatives are there?" Gendo asked angrily.

      Ritsuko suspected Fuyutsuki was prepping another `suitable candidate`.  She knew that was what was inside the dummy plug that had dragged the other EVAs inside.  She had euthanized the poor misshapen thing after they'd removed it from the entry plug.  `Born` without enough skin to keep everything, all its bones and organs, inside.  And unable to breathe air.  She almost didn't have to kill it, as it was dying before her eyes.  Only the face had been recognizable as Rei.  The concoction she'd used was instantly and painlessly lethal.

      The wretched thing had looked so grateful.  Ritsuko wasn't eager to risk the pilots in the same way, but if that's what they needed to get them home . . . .  Ritsuko didn't like the alternatives, she wondered if Shinji could make it work.  She doubted it.  Ironically, she needed to talk to Asuka, perhaps the girl would have some solution they hadn't thought of, or spark some answer none of them had seen.

July 7, 1947

      Rei waited in her dreamscape.  She had felt them `activate` another one.  Wherever they were, they still had the tanks, so they still had a large supply of Reis.  This time she was going to try something different.  She idly wished Nabiki-kun was a Dreamer, she could have used some help doing this.  But none of the Dreamers were available.

      The square was the first thing she remembered about the place when she first dreamed herself here, she'd collected the 'Baby Wondergirl' the first Rei, who confirmed that she too had first arrived here.  The level of intimidation and threat Rei had been forced to use, just to get the little one to pay attention to her long enough to get a coherent answer, amazed her.  It was more than impoliteness or apathy, it was as if the little one did not believe Rei existed, that all the other Reis were not figments of her imagination.  She would need help from the other Dreamers to confirm her theory, but each of the other Reis must believe that this was their private place, that all the others were phantoms.

      Or was it more? Rei wondered.  She held the little one by both shoulders, to prevent her from leaving.  This new Rei would at least have a welcoming committee.

      The girl appeared, screaming in pain.  Rei released the little one.  Rei knew that had happened before, it was 'normal' for the Reis who died to react that way.  What was different was Rei's reaction to the other girl's distress.  Before her experience with Nabiki-kun, she would not have been brave enough to do this, she would not have known how effective this was.  The girl materialized as a misshapen thing, probably what she actually looked like, then changed into a girl who looked exactly like Rei.

      Rei knelt down and tentatively held the other girl, as she had held Nabiki-kun, saying nothing, stroking her hair as she had Nabiki-kun's.  Pacifying her.  The little one had run away when Rei released her, she evidently had little loyalty to the others of her `kind`.

      Exhaustion finally silenced the girl's cries and Rei held her, stroking her hair, saying nothing.  It was an odd feeling, comforting herself.  She wished she could understand all the changes she was going through, she wished she could understand if they would help the mission, or harm it.  As she became stronger in some ways, she became more vulnerable in others.

      Depending on the other Children gave her a sense of well-being she had not had before, but they could also manipulate her or be used to manipulate her, as Belldandy had.  She knew she was `unclean` in the Goddesses' eyes, her entire race was `unclean`, long fallen.

      No, Rei thought, We did not Fall, we rejected Heaven for Earth and the pleasures there.

      She idly stroked the girl's hair, the trusting life in her hands.  Although the girl was another her, she could still kill her with ease.  Yet she would not, there was something seductive about being trusted.  Being stronger, yet not using it against them, having the 'right' to be vulnerable around the others as well.  It was new, disturbing . . . and very attractive.

      She let the girl in her lap sleep, they would have time to talk when she awoke, then . . . then she did not know what would happen, despite the theoretical similarity between them.

      Rei raced through the dreamscapes.  The other her, the other `Rei` had told her what had befallen the pilots.  Rei had told her about Sarah, invited her to explore the new world.

      As if someone like I am would not explore every millimeter without being told to, she remembered all the places Gendo, Yui and Ritsuko had found her while they were building NERV, until she knew the corridors, pipe alleys and air shafts better than the architects did.

      Then she stopped, and realized she had thought 'someone' instead of 'something'.  It was a subtle change in her thinking, as was her desire to connect with the other Reis as she had connected with the pilots.  She wondered if that was why she had contacted the 'people' she had for help.

      She had not tried to contact Sarah, nor recruited the new Rei.  Instead she had gone straight into the Dreamlands, confronted the ones there, told them the problem and begged on her belly for their help.  Only the last had angered them, during the rest, they had been amused.  Now she raced to Shinji's aid, she could only guess to which the Meliorist and the Scholarly Dragon would go.  It was not important, what was important was that they went.

      Ranma ran, he hadn't seen his actual pursuer, but he heardit.  A huge, growling cry that even the 'other' in his head feared.  There was no question about the wisdom of flight, he simply couldn't manage anything else.

      He thought he had opened the gap on it several times, then woods or rocks or something would slow him down, and it would close again.  Once it had closed enough, he glimpsed it.  Round face, tufted ears, and only one red, slitted eye.  It hadn't been looking at him, so he couldn't guess about the other eye.

      Of course if it had been looking at him, he wouldn't be here now.

      It yowled again and the same corkscrew sensation went up his backbone, nearly made him fall again.  He didn't waste any breath screaming for help.  It would never come, even if it did, it could never move fast enough to reach him.

And I Quote the Fights Historical

      She waited in a small defile, her crossbow at the ready, her sabre-halberd within easy reach.  The Meliorist would have preferred to rescue Asuka, but the Scholarly Dragon had warned that Asuka's fears might overwhelm both of them.  Both had instantly known that Rei was going after Spineless, so she was stuck rescuing Horseface from his silly cat-fear.

      One day she would find out the whom and the how; and that day, whoever had done this would live just long enough to know all the fear an expert could inflict.  On that day, someone(s) would spend their last moments in abject terror, pleading for the mercy of death.

      She heard running feet and the sound of a tomcat, a very large tomcat.  But not today, she raised the crossbow as she thought, That doesn't sound like a fighting yowl, that sounds more like . . .   Now she wondered whether Ranma or Ranko would appear.  Kittens, she thought that would have been Horseface's ultimate nightmare.  She was a little confused to see the boy run over the ridge and jump over the defile she was in.

      Surprise didn't prevent her from putting the bolt right into the pursuer's immense eye.  She cursed as the mass of the dying thing still carried it forward.  It would probably collapse into the defile with her, so she scrambled out as quickly as she could.  Dignity be hanged.  There were worse things than losing your dignity, not many, but a few.

      The rock bounced off Asuka's already bloodied hands as she clawed at the rope.  Gripping desperately, as her other hand slipped due to the blood from earlier wounds that slickened the rope.  Her arms were tiring and the rope was already cutting into her neck.  If she couldn't hold on, she'd slowly strangle to death, no drop to a broken neck as her mother had done.  Another rock bounced off her, as well as a string of curses.  Cursed for things she had done, and also things she'd failed to do.  All her sins in the catalog.  She had too little energy to complain about the unfairness of it all.  Things had gone her way when it was important, life had not been fair, on the whole, she thought she had `won`.  But dying in a filthy, blood-smeared shift, dangling at the end of a rope was not how she wanted to go.  Her arms ached from the effort of holding off that fate, her fingernails torn and fingers bloodied to buy her a few more minutes, she accepted those as part of the game.  An unseen crowd throwing rocks and insults didn't help at all.

      A rock bouncing off the back of her head nearly cost Asuka her grip on the rope.  She was beginning to wonder if she should concentrate on repositioning the rope, getting enough height and just . . .

      "No!" she croaked.

      Not like my mother.  Not like my mother! she vowed.

      "Not like my mother!" she screamed as the tears came, she couldn't stop them.  She was so tired and hurt, she didn't care about the jeers of the crowd, the stones they threw.  She would survive, no matter what.  Not for her mother, not for them, but for herself.

      The sudden drop as the rope broke was unexpected.  Now she was falling, she clawed the rope loose, but as she fell, she started worrying about the landing.

      "And will you not forgive yourself, even for that?" the Scholarly Dragon gently asked the bloody, disheveled girl in his hands, as he swept them both through this realm of nightmares.  "You couldn't have saved her."

      "Like I couldn't help Jeff after Samuel died!  Like I couldn't save you!" Asuka snapped back, full of hatred, of herself, "I hate losing.  I don't even know if we succeeded here."

      "No, and until we get you out of your nightmare, you will never know."

      "Aren't knights supposed to save maidens from dragons?" Asuka asked archly.

      "I can always put you back at the end of your rope," the dragon offered.

      "NO . . . I just wanted to test my memories, see if I retained the old formulae."

      "This is a new age," the dragon banked, searching for a way out that wouldn't overly traumatize his passenger.  There were things about Asuka and the Meliorist that were, frankly, none of his business.  He could ignore any lesser nightmares.  None could match him, and what he once represented, not even here.

      Rei swam through the fluid.  It was warm, clear, and smelled of blood.  She could also breathe it, like L.C.L., and it conducted sound.  The slow steady booming drew her forward.  It sounded like two immense heartbeats, slightly out of sync.  She was not sure of what she would find, but it seemed like the best place to start.

      The lack of the train seemed strange.  Shinji-kun had always retreated to the train in his dreams.  Not this time, that worried her.

      The sound now got particularly louder as she approached.  Despite the clarity of the liquid, she could only see 50 meters or so.  So when she reached her destination, what she saw amazed her.

      A baby in a womb, she thought as she swam closer, A baby as large as an EVA.  But as she swam around the black-haired boy, she could not find the source of the second heartbeat.

      Then it all became clear.  Rei fled in terror.

      He cannot know!  He can't possibly! she thought desperately as she swam away as fast as she could.

      She could not help him, she couldn't do to him what revealing the truth would do.  It was better if he only suspected, or feared.

      One of the others will have to do this! Rei screamed in her mind, I cannot do this!  Not to him!  Not to the Commander!

      Her own fear nearly overwhelmed her before she escaped.

      As she stood outside the nightmare, the once warm and inviting liquid chilling and became slimy on her skin, her body ached from the exertions.  She pulled her legs to her chest and buried her face in her arms.  "I cannot, I cannot, I just cannot."

      He will find out, she told herself, Not from ME!  She knew she was losing control, she was also being `spineless`.  But a few facts would undermine everything, as if the trap had been set for her rather than him.  Then she realized perhaps it had, for Shinji-kun to see her running away from him in fear was perhaps the thing he feared most, the fear that hurt him the deepest.

      But she could not convince herself to go back, no matter how badly Shinji-kun needed her.

      "That's it?!" Ranma was incredulous, "That's what I've been running from?" Ranma asked the . . . he wasn't even going to try to pronounce her impossible name, he'd just think of her as Asuka Senior.

      "Fear magnifies things," she replied calmly, like Asuka at her self-satisfied worst.

      'It' looked like one of the temple koi with the huge eyes.  It had one eye staring forward instead of two staring up.  The rest of the body was a long-bodied cat.  The eye had been perhaps a half-meter across and the body was less than a meter long.

      "I could have taken this myself!" Ranma complained.

      "Not with your bare hands you couldn't."  The woman tapped the thing with the back of her odd, ax-bladed nagitana.  The corpse rang, like metal.  "You haven't learned much from your earlier experiences?" she asked, "Have you?"

      "What was I supposed to do?!" Ranma asked defensively.

      "How about summon an electrical storm?  How about shoot it with something?  How about use the sword and scabbard someone gave you?" she fussed at him, "How about using your brain for something besides keeping your hair out of your mouth?"

      She's Asuka all right, Ranma didn't say, he was aware that the nagitana was probably sharper than her tongue.

      "He taught you all that, why didn't you use it?" she stepped closer, let Ranma get a good look at how sharp the blade really was.  "I expect an answer."

      Ranma uncrossed his eyes, "I was scared - ALL RIGHT, I ADMIT IT!  I was scared!"

      "And you think that's something to be ashamed of?" she asked, "Getting scared, running away from an Outer God?  Now you know why Wondergirl didn't want to fight the inspector.  You wouldn't have lasted against it."

      Ranma frowned at her, then heard the cries of many cats, "I don't think we're out of this yet."

      Ritsuko stood at the door to her medical lab, preventing entrance.  She thought it was strange that normally mousy, dutiful Maya was behind her, backing her up.

      "I heard what you said, Commander, and I said 'It is too dangerous'."

      "It is a direct order," Gendo repeated.

      "Then I want that order in writing, sir, both your signature and Captain Ramsey's.  In the interim, I will continue using less extreme, and more effective, methods to awaken them.  I don't disagree with your premise, Commander, but I am the medical expert, and I will decide the means to achieve those objectives."

      Gendo glared, and turned away.

      "I'm proud of you, sempai," Maya whispered, she probably didn't expect Ritsuko to hear.

      "Don't be.  My objection to electro-shock is that it probably won't work, and I know the Commander didn't discuss this with Captain Ramsey," Ritsuko turned to Maya, "If I thought it would work, and it had the blessings of the Navy, I wouldn't have hesitated.  We have perhaps an hour to find something else."

      Ritsuko ignored Maya's shocked look and returned to her patients.  Chemical stimulants, mild pain, noise, hadn't roused them.  Heavy-duty electro-shock probably wouldn't affect them either.  "We need a different approach."

      "Maybe discomfort hasn't reached them.  There is an obvious alternative."

      "You aren't suggesting what I think you're suggesting!" Ritsuko accused.

      Maya blushed, "NO!  Sempai.  Morphine, give them a sense of bliss, something they can differentiate from their nightmares."

      Ritsuko considered.  Morphine hadn't quieted Asuka when they first brought her in, so she wasn't eager to find out what effect it would have on the others.  Nevertheless, she didn't have another solution immediately available and Maya's plan made sense.

      "Okay, doctor, what dosage do we use?  A small or a large dose?"

      Now that the decisions seemed to be hers, Maya looked a lot less confident.  "I think we'll have to go with the largest dose we dare."

      "Then we have to weigh him, then calculate that from his body weight.  Let's also get an idea what the recommended dosage is as well," Ritsuko said.

      The Meliorist looked at the tree, at the ring of cats surrounding it, and at the terrified boy as high up as he could climb, screaming his head off.  His yowls had become particularly catlike, the Meliorist devoutly hoped it was just her imagination.

      The cats ignored her unless she got too close, then they all stared at her, and their eyes glowed an unearthly blue.  At that point she backed up, reloaded the powerful crossbow, and began picking them off, one at a time.  They didn't react, but that also wasn't helpful, there were too many for her to kill them this slowly.  She knew better than to wade into the middle of them.  They contented themselves with having 'treed' Ranma, and they weren't even climbing after him.  She wasn't sure of the action she would have to take, she also got the distinct impression Ranma was stuck here until he faced his nightmare.  As satisfying as the thought of shooting him out of the tree was, she doubted it would have the desired effect. She sincerely hoped somebody was having better luck than she was.

      "Left!  Left!  Left!!" Asuka pointed and shouted.

      "What do you think I'm doing?!" the dragon shouted back as he banked sharply.

      Whatever was chasing them was much faster, but nowhere near as maneuverable or experienced in air-to-air combat.  Asuka didn't want to look behind, the occasional shot from behind, when the dragon ceased his frantic zigzagging to make a tight maneuver, was all she needed to know they were still being pursued.

      Under a fallen pillar, between two columns, through a 3-D chicane, all without comment.  The dragon hadn't lost a bit of his skill in aerial maneuvering.

      But neither had they lost their pursuers.  The enemy was raising a portcullis across their path, at least she thought it was rising, she wouldn't have bet money on what was up, down, or sideways right now.

      The dragon breathed a bit of jet black material on the heavy wooden crosspieces, damaging them enough that the portcullus collapsed as they flew through it and into the clear.  They were out, no barricades, no obstacles.

      A bolt of blue fire missed her by centimeters.

      "I thought you said once we were out, it was over!" the dragon shouted as he started a series of frenzied evasive maneuvers.

      "Would you let me think?!" she shouted back, "These things are the last obstacle, we take care of them, we're home free!"

      "We?" the dragon asked, "I don't have a lance or a crossbow, and there are 50 of them."

      "Well then, I'll take a nap.  I'd hate to interfere in your fun."  Asuka nearly giggled at the stream of grumbling and insults about 'ungrateful humans', as he began a series of maneuvers that would end up as an attack run.  She knew they'd get out, because she'd never seen anything fly like the Scholarly Dragon.  It was like watching a B-29 dogfighting a Zero, and knowing the Zero didn't have a prayer.  She remembered Galland's word about fighter pilots, she wondered what the General Ace would make of this 'Spirit of Attack'.

Many Cunning Passages, Contrived Corridors

      Shinji floated free, he'd been floating for a while, but he had such a terrible sense of loss, of incompleteness, that he hadn't been able to enjoy it.  Now he was enjoying everything and the earlier feeling didn't matter.  The funny faces hovering over him made him laugh, they looked a little like Ritsuko and his father, but like weird masks.

      "They're going to lock you in a chair and run electricity through you," Ritsuko-grotesque said.

      "Crispy," Shinji laughed at the thought.

      "And how is this better?" Gendo stared at Ritsuko, as both of them ignored the inane ramblings of Shinji, who at the moment thought Gendo's beard was extraordinarily funny.

      "He is awake," Ritsuko answered.

      "Nooo IIII'mm nooot!!" Shinji taunted.

      "We'll use a much smaller dose on Asuka."

      "And turn me into a giggling idiot like him?" Asuka sat up painfully, looked around the room, "I must have done something really bad to wind up in the same Circle of Hell as you two.  Still, Spineless is right about your beard."

      Gendo frowned.

      Ritsuko thought he'd order electro-shock treatment for that comment alone.

      "How do you feel?" Maya asked Asuka.

      "Like I've been drunk."  Asuka moved slowly, as if all of her hurt, she kept rubbing her neck.

      "Hangover?" Maya asked.

      "No, swallowed, digested and excreted."  Asuka slipped off the bed, and managed to stay upright only by hanging onto Maya.

      "Get her started on the problem, inform me of any progress."  Gendo turned and left.

      "His gratitude in this regard is overwhelming," Asuka said, scraping her tongue on her teeth, "Can we just leave him here?  We can tell Spineless and Wondergirl how honorably he died."

      "I'm afraid not," Ritsuko said, "Any other questions?"

      "Yes," Asuka scraped her tongue across her teeth again, made a face.  "Why did you let your cats go to the bathroom in my mouth."

      Asuka felt a little sorry for Spineless, he was still a little loopy, but he was doing his best to stay in this reality.  "I've seen you look better," she told him.

      He glared at her, swaying slightly, neither of his pupils were the same size.

      Asuka suspected he wouldn't be happy tomorrow.  She also would put Ice Princess and Raccoon on the job of watching him, keeping him away from certain things.  She'd seen people lost to morphine after recovering from injuries.  The all-consuming need was all that was left of them.

      She found Spineless irritating, but she'd never let someone fall into that trap.  If I can help it, she thought as she smirked at him, Considering he's looking after our Tactical Officer, he'll probably avoid it himself.  But she would still set those two bloodhounds on his trail anyway.

      "So when do you want us to do this?" Spineless asked, and started to lean.

      "As soon as you are able," Ritsuko told them, pushed Spineless upright again.

      "How much coffee do you have, the stuff Misato brews?" Asuka asked.

      "We don't want to mix those."

      "Antiparticles?" Asuka asked, then explained when neither understood, "Antiparticles are the opposite of regular particles, when they meet: POOF!  Just energy left.  What's still in his system, plus Misato's coffee - BOOM!  Blow us all the way home," she paused, "Now there's an idea."

      "No, I'm afraid he'd dissolve, or turn into a moose, or see the world as it truly is," Ritsuko said gravely.  Unfortunately, Spineless had fallen asleep again.

      "I think you gave him too much."

      "Yes, Dr. Asuka, we know that," Ritsuko said crossly.

      "No, you couldn't be afraid of just ordinary cats!" the Meliorist shouted at the statue under her arm as she ran, "You have to be afraid of anything even remotely catlike."

      Ranma's only reply was an embarrassed 'meew'.

      "Yeah, right!" the Meliorist thought as she ran, I ought to just throw you at the thing, serve you both right.

      She glanced over her shoulder at the lion-headed snake, with the butterfly wings.  It would have been ridiculously cute, except it was 20 meters long, and extremely interested in them.  Even that would have made it ridiculous, until she hit it with enough crossbow bolts that you could add porcupine to the list of ingredients.  Even if she'd missed every vital spot it had, it shouldn't have been able to get airborne with the additional weight.  It was definitely still alive, and smart enough to avoid closing with her, although it desperately wanted to get at Ranma, who had completely flipped out.

      She had chased Ranma over all manner of landscape until she caught him, then he curled up and froze.

      Somebody should tell him that catatonic, has nothing to do with cats, the Meliorist ran, looking for a good spot to make a stand, where she could bait it with Ranma, and kill it.  But a landscape filled with balls of yarn and flippy cat-toys swaying in the breeze didn't give her many opportunities.  She wondered if the entire landscape was under his control, including or excluding the monsters chasing them.

      Ranma suddenly twisted out of her grip, ran about a hundred meters ahead, and stopped, standing on all fours.  Back arched, his hair all sticking out, even his pigtail standing straight up and bristling.

      The Meliorist prepared to confront whatever had set off the mad boy.  Horse-face, nothing, she thought as she approached slowly, Horse-cat.  She smiled grimly, then more grimly as she saw what Horseface was considering confronting.  She glanced back at the approaching lion-snake.

      Oohh!  This ought to be good, she thought as she left Ranma apparently alone to face the creature.

      The monster yowled its warcry and dove.  Ranma flattened all his hair and hunkered down.  The lion-snake spared a glance at the Meliorist, who was too far away to intervene, and was ignoring Ranma's plaintive meews.

      "'The enemy of my enemy, can usually be eaten in peace,'" the Meliorist said, "Introducing - "

      "WOOF!!"  The huge head of the Scholarly Dragon rocketed out of the depression, propelled by its massive legs and wings.

      The lion-snake's hesitation lasted just long enough for the dragon to get a solid grip with its teeth, just behind the head.  It whipped the creature up and down, breaking its neck.  The Meliorist watched the huge monster toss the smaller one farther back in its mouth, then the heavy shearing teeth separated the head from the body.  The body disappeared down the dragon's gullet like a strand of spaghetti.

      "If you say it tasted like chicken," the Meliorist threatened as the head followed the rest of the lion-snake, "I'll slug you."

      "Escargot sans armoure, magnifique," the dragon said, then glared balefully at Ranma, who suddenly took refuge behind her.  The boy or cat couldn't look at the pupilless, glowing, yellow eyes.  "Bad kitty!" the dragon said, with the odd harmonics dragons use when they are truly angry.  The unheard sounds that tell the most primitive part of every brain that 'since you are already dead, playing dead might be a good idea'.

      "You have never been good at training animals," the dragon told her, while Ranma lay with his arms and legs in the air twitching, "The Little One ran into problems with Ikari, and he left on his own, maybe you should enlist her help.  Your analog escaped, and is no longer available."

      The Meliorist grimaced, "She's got even less tolerance of his foolishness than I do."

      The huge creature shrugged, "I have to see a spider about some real estate, I'll send some help.  Good luck."

      "I'll settle for an idea of how to get out of this," she complained.

      "Only the boy can get you out, evidently the cat can't," he told her as he spread his immense wings and leapt into the air, "How you do that is your business."

      "If you weren't so much bigger than I am . . . " she shouted and shook her fist at the dragon, obviously retreating from her in overwhelming terror.  It's laughter not withstanding.

      "What happened?" Ranma asked as he stirred, stood up, "I remember a tree and . . . nothing."

      "Ignorance is bliss in this case," she told him, "I'm sure we can get the marriage annulled.  You never managed to consummate it."  She ignored his horrified expression.  "I'm just waiting to see the next nightmare you come up with."  She glanced around, the yarn and cat-toys were all gone. It was flat ground plenty of warning for the approach, good footing for the fight.  "You don't happen to have a couple of 88's buried around here?"

      "What's an 88 supposed to do?" the question mystified Ranma.

      She just sighed, "If I explained it, you'd just tell me 'Guns don't solve anything'.  I'd like to put that to the test against the next nightmare you come up with."

      "HEY!" Ranma protested, "It's not like I want to be here!"

      "Spineless and Asuka already got out," the Meliorist told him, "You're the only one still trapped in your own delusion."

      Ranma stalked off in a huff.

      The shivering, blanket-wrapped figure, still in his hat and coat, would have looked laughable.  Except for what he had just told Admiral Simson and General Tomlinson.

      "Davis," the Admiral asked, "What did the tank you saw look like, and where would you guess it was located in NERV?"

      "Near the lowest levels, a huge gray metal, not like steel, more like lead, no reflectivity, open topped," he told them through chattering teeth, "Dumped all the pilots or their remains in, all mixed with something else, huge explosion, big as wiped out dinosaurs.  Wall of flame, wave miles high, hit California, stopped in Kansas City."

      "Do you believe this was a prediction, or an explanation?" Tomlinson asked.

      "Explains, why destroy everything, burn down house you're fighting in.  Something else, something else to kill in th' house, something need th' whole house to kill."

      Simson sat back, the dream, if that's what it was, was too accurate to be anything but a sending.  The obvious questions of by whom and why hung over the questions of accuracy, and what should be done with the information.  "Several of the victims of Angel's Malaise have regained consciousness.  They all report nightmares.  Suzuhara's sister Yumiwashi among them, he was quite upset.  This could be your nightmare."

      "Then why you two so scared?" Davis managed and shivered, "Maybe I'm just the carrier, nightmare's yours."

      Simson frowned, "Well, NERV Tokyo is not here, and I'm not sending you back.  I'll have the orderly get you a hot . . . make that a warm bath, and a place to sleep.  We'll talk again later."

      Davis nodded as the orderly entered and practically had to carry the boy from the room.

      "Suzuhara was right about the fire extinguishers," Tomlinson said, "Saw a man try to escape from a burning tank, acted just the same.  I guess he really thought he was being incinerated.  Not a good way to die."

      "The dream," Simson turned and stared at the shipyards and the harbor.  The nagging feeling he should be up at the site wouldn't leave him alone. He also had another decision to make.  "How much do you know about our enemies?"

      "You mean SEELE?" Tomlinson asked, smiled at Simson's confusion.  "I may be a stodgy, old stick-in-the-mud, but I know enough to learn all I can about our enemy."

      "I was surprised you said SEELE and not the Angels," Simson admitted.

      "I was in Europe, Admiral, not in the Pacific.  There were rumors from France to Czechoslovakia that Hindenburg and Lenin died neither peacefully nor accidentally.  Amazing coincidence.  Two maniacal paranoids achieved absolute power in two of the most powerful nations in continental Europe, two countries with a long and glorious history of hating each others' guts."  Tomlinson smiled at the Admiral, "Even I can figure out two plus two plus two is six."

      "What would you say if I knew we had, well allies . . . from the other side?" Simson asked.

      "I'd ask if you ever sat in on a General Staff conference at SHAEF.  Patton, Montgomery, DeGaulle, Bradley . . . damn lucky the Krauts were even more messed up than we were.  With those kinds of `friends`, anything is possible.  What exactly are you trying not to say."

      "I get the distinct impression there are a lot of, well people, in the broadest sense of the word, who are as confused and unhappy about this war as we are."

      "Fine, let them send in a few divisions, or police their own," Tomlinson said breezily, "I know that will never happen, but I can - dream - can't I?"

      Simson realized he'd badly underestimated the man.  There were ways of hiding things, and camouflage was one of the best.  "Then you can sit in on Suzuhara's further interrogation, you might find it interesting."

      The Dread Lord Gendo has once again summoned all his faithful servants,Kaji thought as Ritsuko and Asuka entered the conference room where he, Gendo, Fuyutsuki and Ramsey already waited.  A few moments later, Maya bustled in with a stack of files in her arms.

      Gendo dispensed with any pleasantries or preface, "The Great White Space," he intoned, adjusted his glasses, "That is where we are."

      "As the senior member here," Ramsey said, "I claim the right to sound like an idiot, if this is the Great White Space, why do all of us see it as different colors, and none of us see it as white?"

      And why does Gendo suddenly look so suspicious? Kaji noted the swiftly hidden look on Gendo's face, So, Gendo and Fuyutsuki aren't the only Mythos experts, Mr. Ramsey, sir, you just made yourself our Dear Commander's Number One Target.  Kaji leaned back to listen to the explanation.

      "Perhaps it is the nature of the effect that brought us here," Gendo told them, "A disguise, to prevent us from guessing our position and taking action."

      Kaji noted the discussion took on an esoteric bent, and he couldn't follow a bit of it.  Until they mentioned the magnetic rings, then he and Asuka perked up.

      "So we generate a powerful enough magnetic force and we get out?" Asuka asked, glanced at Ritsuko, rather than Commanders Ikari or Fuyutsuki.

      "No," Gendo said, "The best we can hope for is to navigate to the nearest opening, legends place it in Burma or China.  There we can offload all the critical supplies and equipment, as well as all the personnel who wish to leave - "

      "That's unacceptable," Asuka insisted.

      You go get him! Kaji hid his smile, surreptitiously glancing around the table for any other smiles or signs of approval, Why Ritsuko, you naughty girl.  Why aren't you backing the Commanders' play?

      "The magnetic fields required are well beyond anything that can be generated by the equipment on this base," Ritsuko explained to Asuka, "The abstract mathematics required for that kind of manipulation are beyond even the Magi."

      "Well, if it's all mathematics," Kaji said, "I guess we are doomed."

      Asuka's head came around so fast, Kaji was afraid she'd get whiplash.  Her hurt expression turned to fury as she saw the huge grin that Kaji was wearing.  She glanced around for something to throw.

      "You could just leave him here," Ramsey suggested to Asuka in German.

      Kaji really didn't like the look Asuka gave him, Davis had given him a smile like that once.  Kaji still had bad dreams about that smile, very weird, very bad dreams.

      "There is also the problem of shielding the base and it's inhabitants from a magnetic field that strong," Ramsey pointed out.

      "Faraday cage," Maya muttered, at a moment of sudden quiet, so everyone heard her.  She turned beet red and tried to sink into her chair behind Dr. Akagi.

      "We certainly have the cable necessary," Fuyutsuki said.

      "Make a net large enough to cover the buildings, all of them," Kaji scoffed.

      "Give the job to Horseface," Asuka said in a disgusted tone, "Tell him it's martial arts netmaking.  If he ever wakes up."

      Ramsey and Gendo exchanged glances, both seemed satisfied with the suggestion.  Waking Saotome would be the sticking point to the plan.

      "Doctor Akagi, see to the awakening."

      God, Gendo makes it sound portentous, Kaji thought.

      "We will prepare the data, using the Magi's data on this phenomenon," Gendo said, then he stared at Asuka, "I expect your best effort."

      Asuka had some trouble meeting that stare, "You've always gotten it," she replied in Japanese.  "Whenever you've bothered to ask," she added under her breath in German.

      "The cable is stored in various locations, it will be assembled and positioned to speed construction.  Are there any questions?"

      You mean questions you'd actually give a straight answer to? Kaji thought, Nope, I thought not.  The groups filed out of the room.  Kaji noted a rather strange glance between Ritsuko and Gendo, enigmatic and swiftly hidden.  Once out of the conference room, Ramsey and Ritsuko shared a nod, Ramsey smiled at Asuka, who was storming away in a huff.  Kaji considered, So, who is playing whom, and for what purpose?  Kaji decided to follow Asuka, she liked to hear herself talk and prove how smart she was, he could find out a lot from her right now.

      "Hey wait up," Kaji called to her, as Asuka headed down the corridors.  "You did pretty good in there," he told her as he caught up and draped his arm around her shoulders, "Standing up to the Commander that way.  You saw how Maya crumbled when she thought they were all paying attention to her."

      "You'd better remove that arm," Asuka said, desperately trying to keep her temper under control, "They'll think you're molesting little girls now."

      And they amputate in cases of frostbite, she didn't add.

      "Oh, my reputation is secure," Kaji said breezily.

      She wanted to forgive him for how he'd ignored her for the past months, and all the time he ignored his `fiancee` in the dream, and - and - , I guess I shouldn't, Asuka realized, But it's easier to be mad at him when he isn't standing with his arm around you.  She shrugged his arm off her shoulders, concentrated on what she knew about controlling magnetic fluxes, frequencies, field strengths, and how she was going to use the AT field to generate it.  It all kept coming back to a crazy idea she and Raccoon had come up with while they were working on the AT field math.  Actually I came up with it, she thought, We just carried it along.  A bomb-pumped AT field, literally using the AT field to shunt all the energy of a nuclear explosion into the `frequencies` that an AT field operated in, creating, for a few microseconds, an immensely powerful AT field.

      "Saaayyy, Kaaajiii."  She smiled and snuggled up to him, smiling her cutest, "You couldn't get me an atom bomb, could you?"

      Kaji looked like she'd just bitten him in a rather sensitive spot.  "Uh - I, uh - why do you want an atom bomb?" Kaji squeaked.

      Asuka sighed, turned dejectedly, "If you don't want to help, I understand," she sniffed, looked at him, her lip trembled and she appeared on the verge of tears.  Then she turned, covered her face and ran down the corridor.  Once she was out of sight, and more important, out of earshot, she started laughing, laughing so hard her cheeks and her ribs ached.

      "Oh, I think I hurt myself, but it was worth it," she laughed remembering Kaji's expression when he thought she was going to break down and cry.  "I'm just a little girl.  A baaaad little girl," Asuka chuckled.  She stood, brushed her dress off and continued to head towards the Magi level of the control room.

      Toji sat with his sister, Hikari was there as well, sitting silently.  Yumi's eyes still streamed tears, her lips trembled.  Toji didn't know what he could do, he wanted to hurt the things that had hurt her.  Right now he wanted her to stop crying.

      But what am I supposed to tell her about dad and gramps? Toji wondered.  He glanced at Hikari, who smiled encouragingly, but he couldn't figure out what she was encouraging him to do.  He was just glad she was quiet.

      "Mr. Suzuhara?" one of the Admiral's aides stuck his head in, "I'm afraid I have to interrupt."

      "Yumi' I have to go again."  He turned to Hikari, "Can you keep an eye on her?"

      "Of course, Suzuhara-san," Hikari said.

      Toji let himself be led away, he didn't know what else he could tell the military.

      "Is he gone?" Yumiwashi asked.  Her plaintive tone and trembling voice tore at Hikari's heart.

      "Yes, I can get him back - " Yumiwashi's raucous laughter interrupted Hikari.

      "He hit Shinji and got beaten up by a girl!" the younger girl laughed so hard it worried Hikari.  "I would have loved to see that!"

      "That's terrible!" Hikari chided.

      "Like you making a picnic for him every week?" Yumiwashi laughed at Hikari's embarrassment.  "And you never offered me a bite!  That's rude!"

      "Well, I should check with him, to see if you were always this way," Hikari chuckled, it did look very strange, when you looked at it from the outside.

      "After all, if I don't know how you cook and clean house, how can I ever approve of your marriage.  I am the lady of the house."

      Hikari giggled at the ridiculousness of it, "Well, I was going to make him cook, did you hear about the cooking contest he was part of?"

      Yumiwashi sat up in her bed, "No, tell me!"

      Hikari reproachfully stared at her.


      Hikari smiled, "Well Raccoon and Asuka . . . do you know who they are?"

      Yumiwashi nodded.

      "Well, they were in class . . . "

      Ranma looked at the Meliorist and her opponents.  The creatures were like the hybrid form of the were-tigers.  They would no longer close with the Meliorist, because the few who had, had arms, legs, and heads cut off.  They advanced, probed, but would not commit.  Ranma felt ashamed, he couldn't help this woman who was risking life and limb to protect him.  He wanted to rush up and help her, as good as she was, he could help her . . . if he could shut out the sight, the sound, even the smell of the enemy that paralyzed him with fear.

      He could watch her fight.  The sword blade at the end, the ax blade below it, the end of the haft, her armored boots all were part of the offense and defense.  There was a good deal to learn.  Elements of the economical style Asuka and Raccoon used were there, and other bits he didn't recognize.  Then the enemies started to widen the front she was forced to defend.  A few managed to get blows through her guard without reply.  A few also overcommited and died.  He shrank from the killing, no matter how necessary it might be.

      He also realized more of the creatures were appearing, more than making up the heavy casualties the woman was delivering.  What had started as eight had grown to nearly 40.  He could see the pattern the enemy was taking, keep extending the line in both directions and strengthening it uniformly, until they could overlap the limits of her defensive line, or overwhelm her at any point.  The armor she wore was taking more hits, he watched her turn and twist, the armor wasn't simply a metal wall, but an extension of her.  He also knew that the energy of the blows wasn't disappearing, merely being dissipated over a larger area, holding off the inevitable.

      "Relax, kid," the woman growled, "Help's on the way."

      The two burly, heavily armed and armored men looked at the battle, then at each other, and lowered their visors.  The Meliorist's two bodyguard werewolves had a fair share of their own experience in dreams, and in combat.  They were about to charge when someone tapped on their armor.

      The three girls were very similar, two were practically identical, the third was different only in the black hair and brown eyes.  The bodyguards recognized them.


      Each girl quirked an eyebrow at the guard's question.  Nodded to the Meliorist who had been knocked down and managed to get back up.



      "Me."  They said sequentially.

      The guards shrugged, drew their swords as they raised the Roman-style scutums, "Us too."  The quintet charged into the battle.

      Ranma watched the two men flank the Meliorist to form a line, then behind them formed a second, more dispersed line of Rei, a second Rei, and a Rei-like girl who looked more like a normal girl.  The six of them stayed between him and the attackers.  He could hear the snarls and cries, smell the cat odors from the living and the dead, and see those furred faces and bodies, it all chilled him to the bone.

      It doesn't make sense, Ranma thought, Cats make the . . . other - come out, it's frightened too.  Ranma could feel that strange force in his mind squirming, trying to burrow deeper, avoiding any contact with these creatures outside.  He backed up another pace, tried to concentrate on the battle.  The three armed and armored adults were doing the bulk of the fighting.  But if one enemy got past, one of the Reis would hit it, with lethal results.  He watched the brown-haired one literally knock the head off one of the catlike attackers, the body staggered a step and then fell.

      The numbers had grown to more than a hundred, but they were cowards.  Even a hundred Shinjis would have overwhelmed the defense, once he got into the screaming straight ahead charge he did when he got mad at an enemy.  They seemed to be intent on tearing through the defenders before they came after him, like the were-tigers only worse.  He could only stand there and do nothing, he was the martial artist, he was supposed to protect the others.  Not cower behind them.  His defenders' lack of condemnation was worse than any accusation.  He couldn't protect them, he couldn't even protect himself, so they had to.  It had been better when Asuka Senior was insulting him for his fears.

      The attackers suddenly parted, and a team hurled a rock the size of a man at them.  It exploded violently on some unseen barrier.

      Rei's AT field, Ranma realized.  But the shock was enough, the attackers surged forward in a wave, they would overbear the woman and her friends, then the Reis.

      The blast covered the first wave with something black as tar, but where it landed, nothing remained.  Attackers hesitated glanced over, and were struck from the other side by an absolute shower of blue-white lightning bolts.  No enemy within 10 meters of the tight knot of defenders survived, they weren't just dead, they were gone.

      Ranma glanced left, and saw the Scholarly Dragon, smiling.  Even though the monster was on his side, Ranma felt a chill at that smile.  To the right was a smaller silver dragon smiling the same smile.  Ranma actually felt sorry for the catlike attackers, facing these two monsters.

      With the oddest war cry Ranma had ever heard, the two dragons attacked.  'Lunch' echoed over the field as the two tore into the pack.  Legs, tails, wings smashed great swathes of the enemy.  The more human defenders pulled back, taking a breather.  But Ranma saw the reinforcements pouring in, dozens became hundreds.  Even these two whirlwinds of destruction would be overwhelmed.

      The old woman who gripped his face was a surprise.  She wasn't there, then she was.  She turned his head one way, then another, her long fingers gripping his chin and jaw firmly.  Then she turned him to face the attackers, holding his head to force him to watch.  One finger brushed Ranma's pulse, which was racing.  Then she yanked his gaze away, forcing him to stare at her.

      "Well, it isn't the cats that are the nightmare," she released him and considered, "You don't like depending on others.  That's a terrible weakness."

      Ranma bit back his automatic retort, there was something scary in her eyes, he'd seen the same thing in the Scholarly Dragon, in Asuka and in Raccoon.  "Yeah, so what?"

      "So, you are causing all this."

      He wanted to deny that, but it made sense.  He'd been able to see how the enemy was wearing down any defense he could put together.  The others interposing themselves were the worst.  He knew they'd be torn down and destroyed, that somehow he should be able to solve this, without anyone else's help or interference.

      "Consider that asking for expert help is not weakness, isn't that why you seek out a teacher," the woman smiled at him, "Someone who can do what you can't?"

      "Oh all right . . .  I'm asking."

People and Governments Never Learned

      "Pull back!" Altara commanded.

      The Meliorist looked at the ancient dragon in her old woman form, as Horseface stumbled towards them.  She could hardly believe her ears, even the three Wondergirls were confused.  As Horseface walked past them, hand out as if he'd gone suddenly blind.

      The two dragons, Alwyk and the Scholarly Dragon, launched themselves into the air, leaving the bloody field and a few dozen of the attackers to Horseface.  They surged over him throwing him to the ground.  Only the hand on her shoulder kept her from throwing herself forward.  She looked over her shoulder at Altara, who held her back.

      "We should be ready to go," Altara, the dragon in woman form glanced at the sky where the Scholarly Dragon and her husband Alwyk circled.

      Ranma felt his face pushed into the dirt by the weight of the bodies piled on top of him.  He heard the sounds, but they could have been anything, he could detect there wasn't enough light to see, but nothing else, he couldn't even smell the tightly packed bodies, or the blood wetting the ground.  Dozens of tiny scratches and bites from his attackers drew a little blood, but it was hardly more serious than falling badly on the roof of Ritsuko's apartment.

      His thoughts were elsewhere, protecting the others was his job, it was his vow and duty.  Not to leave it to the others, not depend on others to defend him, and make no effort to reciprocate.  The outrage built within him, he focused on it feeding chi into it, until he couldn't hold it within him anymore.

      The blast scattered the pieces of the attackers far and wide.  From her perch in the Scholarly Dragon's claw, the Meliorist looked down at the exhausted boy in the center of the crater.  "Pick him up," she ordered.

      "Yes, Mistress," the Scholarly Dragon said as he banked and reached out.  A moment later he climbed, Horseface firmly in hand.  "Should I leave now?"

      "You don't want to stayyyyyyyyyyy?" the Meliorist shouted as the dragon closed his fists slightly, and accelerated to full speed.

      Ranma opened his eyes, focused on the light fixture on the ceiling.  He could see and smell and hear again!  The spell was broken!  There were no cats around him, but there was a person.  He sat up and looked over at Asuka.  She was peering at him.  She was worried about him!

      "Hey Spineless, I think Horseface is awake," she announced, "As awake as he ever is."

      They're alive! Ranma thought, overjoyed that the others had escaped the trials he'd suffered.

      "Asuka," he said as he extended his arms suddenly, completely ignoring her apprehension, "I'm so glad you're - "


      Maya carefully placed the icebag on the side of Ranma's face, covering the purple, hand-shaped bruise.  "I don't think she minded the hug, Ranma," she explained, "She's just tired and you surprised her."

      "You're leaving out where he put his hands to hug her," Shinji giggled at him.

      "Was wi' h'm?" Ranma mumbled.

      "We kind of drugged him," Maya admitted, she glared at Shinji, "But he should be over it by now."

      "I'mmmm nooottt," Shinji smiled.

      "Lik'm bet'r glum," Ranma mumbled.

      "Well, you rest, we'll need your help in a little while," Maya said as she left the med lab, Shinji trailed after.  "I know very well you should be back to normal."

      "I know," Shinji frowned, "I just wish I could have felt like that for a while longer.  I just quit worrying, about everything."

      "I know," Maya said, "But you have to live life like the rest of us."

      Shinji smirked, "Like you and Ritsuko?"

      Maya blushed, wanted to run away.  It was so embarrassing, why did all the pilots seem to know how Maya felt, and nothing she dared do told her sempai how she felt.

      She entered the conference room, sempai, Asuka and the technical staff had the table and walls covered with diagrams and equations.

      "Will he survive?" sempai asked.

      "I didn't hit him that hard!" Asuka protested, frowned at the smiles of the adults around her.

      "I'm sure he didn't mean anything by it," Ritsuko said in a soothing tone.

      "You're never going to let me off the hook for you and Raccoon, are you?" Asuka asked morosely.

      "Not in this lifetime," Ritsuko replied with a smile.

      Maya looked at the diagram of the base and the line drawn around it.  "You've made progress."

      "We are investigating a sinusoidal or coil pattern," Asuka said in a detached manner, "Getting the AT field synchronized is going to be the real problem."

      "Maybe if you explain it, to a couple of dummies," Shinji suggested, sitting next to Asuka.

      She looked tiredly at him, sighed.  "Oversimplified, a change in an electric current creates a magnetic field, a change in a magnetic field induces an electric field.  That's how the coil in a car's ignition works, turning 12 volts into hundreds of volts, for a short time.  That's why we need a sinusoidal curve or a coil.  Following so far?"

      Maya watched Shinji nod, Asuka sighed and continued.  Maya walked behind sempai and sat down, watching sempai's face while she watched the two pilots.

      "If we can create a powerful enough magnetic field, and intersect it with two AT fields all mutually orthogonal - "

      "Mutually orthogonal?" Shinji asked.

      "All perpendicular to each other," Asuka said, "The problem is the only way to generate the field is with multiple sets of EVA batteries and tether cable, and you know what happens if you intersect two different AT fields."

      "They knock each other down," Shinji agreed, "So we need the magnetic field, and the AT fields all to occur at once.  But all of them won't last."

      "The magnetic peak will last less than 0.023 seconds, the AT fields only a little longer," Ritsuko said, "That's too precise to be under human control."

      "Isn't there a way to . . . like the weave of a basket?  With the AT fields?" Shinji asked.

      "No, the fields have to be of a particular set of frequencies and uniform throughout.  There's no way to interweave them that way," Asuka said tiredly, gestured at the pages of equations.

      "Maybe you should all get some sleep," Maya suggested to sempai, "Get a fresh start in the morning?"

      Sempai nodded, "Okay let's all get something to eat and some rest.  We aren't going to solve this by running ourselves into the ground."

      There was some grumbling, but even Asuka simply stood and walked off.  Shinji followed her, leaving Maya and Ritsuko alone.

      "You should rest too, sempai," Maya said.

      "I don't need a mother," Ritsuko said.

      "Without you, we can't make it home," Maya said softly, "I want to go home, if that means tomorrow, I can wait until tomorrow, or the next day."

      Ritsuko turned and frowned at her.  Maya wilted a little, but held firm.

      "Are you going to tuck me in?" sempai teased.

      Maya blushed.

      CLICK.  Ranma glanced from the paper from the conference room to the `screen` that the nerve clip on his head produced.  CLICK, another key stroke and a glance from the paper to the screen.  CLICK.  Ranma ignored Gendo entering, picking up his own nerve clip and then peering at the text on the screen.  CLICK.

      "What are you doing Mister Saotome?" Gendo asked.

      CLICK.  "Raccoon showed me a tool in here."  He jerked his thumb at the Magi.  CLICK.  "If I can put this math in there."  CLICK.  "Then all they have to do is check it."

      "Do you even know what those equations mean?" Gendo asked, amused by Ranma's efforts.

      "No, all I have to do is make them look the same."  CLICK, glance up glance down.  "At least my fingers work."

      "You are supposedly able to learn movements just by watching?" Gendo asked.

      "Yeah - "

      "Then watch," Gendo commanded, summoned a keyboard of his own and began typing.  The words appeared on the screen faster than Ranma could read them.

      Ranma began touching the keys as Gendo was doing, he saw the patterns, areas for each finger, just like precise strikes with his fingers on exact targets.

      Asuka thought Horseface was incredibly smug about his latest triumph.  She wasn't sure if she was hoping Ritsuko would find a mistake in the formulae he'd typed in, or if she wouldn't.  The worst part was that he was looking as anxious as everyone else, instead of hopping around crowing about martial arts typing or martial arts secretary or some other such nonsense.

      "This doesn't solve all the problems," Ritsuko removed the nerve clip, ran a hand through her hair.  "But at least we can see what the two interlocking fields actually look like."

      Horseface smiled, preened and postured as he accepted the congratulations from the technical staff.

      "Unfortunately," Ritsuko said and Horseface froze, "This will give you nothing to do."

      Horseface looked around with a stricken expression.

      "Only Asuka could manipulate these equations," Ritsuko said.

      Asuka gave Horseface a cute and demur smile.  Got a frown in return.

      "I think we can reduce this to one set of equations," Ritsuko said, "There should be no problem holding the necessary single resulting AT field, then Asuka can switch the electrical field on to generate the magnetic pulse."

      "Don't worry, Horseface, you can still weave the Faraday cages," Asuka said in her most sympathetic voice, "Protecting all these people is very important."  She couldn't figure out why he just nodded.

      That's no fun, Asuka complained inwardly.

      "Very well, Mr. Saotome get whichever unit you need to speed the manufacture," Gendo said, "Miss Langley, you and Dr. Akagi finalize the calculations.  Very good."  He walked away.

      "What happened to him?" Asuka asked.

      "'That he is alone, abandoned on Earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities,'" Horseface quoted Sartre, in Japanese.

      Asuka stared at Horseface, kept staring as he started to sweat.  Kept staring at him, moving slowly forward, step by step, each step narrowing her gaze as he tried mightily to avoid her eye.

      "All right!" Horseface backed away making a warding gesture, "It's part of something Raccoon told the EVAs.  Leave me alone!"

      "HA!" Asuka snapped her fingers under his nose and walked off.

      Ranma had threaded the nets together, using Unit 04's multiple arms, with the speed Asuka had predicted.  Asuka was going over all the calculations, for the third time.  Captain Ramsey was out with the team checking the cable placement, the connectors and all the welds.  Gendo was standing on the Commander's level of the control deck, surveying his domain like a god well-pleased with the devotions of his worshipers.  Maya, Hyuga, Aoba and Baker were all checking and rechecking all the systems in preparation for - Cue ominous music, The Return,Ritsuko thought.

      And here I stand, utterly useless, and scared to death, Ritsuko thought as she checked the survey reports versus their calculated values.  There is absolutely no reason for these fears.  She caught herself, the last time she'd had this crawling sensation of wrongness, she had been correct, if she'd listened then, they wouldn't be in this mess.

      She walked out of the command deck, trying to decipher whatever her mind was trying to tell her.  She entered the Commander's level, Fuyutsuki and Gendo were there, talking privately.  She paused, waited to be acknowledged.

      "Doctor?" Fuyutsuki asked, "Is there a problem?"

      "I think so, but I can find no data to support my supposition."

      "A hunch?" Gendo said dismissively.

      "I had a similar 'hunch' when we began testing the S2 engines.  Shinji had a similar hunch when . . . " She saw the pained look on Gendo's face.  'Mommy don't go,' Shinji had told Yui, on that fateful day, she was beginning to wonder if he'd actually known something, something he couldn't put into words.

      "Why would Nyarlathotep have brought us here?" Ritsuko asked.

      "To battle Ghroth?" Fuyutsuki glanced between the two, he hadn't been at NERV at the time of the accident, but he had seen the effects, as had everyone else.

      "The Inspector knew we wouldn't have a prayer," Ritsuko countered.

      "But another Outer God . . . would," Gendo said thoughtfully, he looked up at Ritsuko, "I think you know what to check now, Doctor, see to it, immediately!"

      Ritsuko nodded and headed out, the power core was her first stop, then the L.C.L. manufacturing plant.  She silently thanked whatever had been nagging her for the warning.  She could imagine the possibilities, if the main component of that reacted badly to the transition.  "Make 65 million years ago look like a firecracker."

Dame Exaltee et Menteuse [Excitable Lying Old Lady]

      Misato pulled back.

      "Bitch, you think you can escape me?"

      She swung her fist at her tormentor, missing by inches.  His hand closed around her throat, his longer reach giving him the advantage, a thumb and finger closed her carotid arteries which fed blood to her brain, he was trying to knock her out or kill her.  She lashed out with both legs, all she succeeded in doing was positioning herself so his free hand could rip her skirt and panties down around her knees.  "Damitsu!  Don't do this!"

      The boy smiled at her, ran his tongue across his teeth, "Afraid of a little sex, huh?  All the propositions and leers were just talk, eh . . . ?"

      She knew rape was about power, not sex or violence, and she knew she was powerless to stop him.  He reared back, it struck her that the motions were exactly like the knife training she'd been given in basic, the underhand stab.

      "Now, Captain." He thrust in painfully, as his teeth pierced her breast.  She screamed.

      "Captain.  Captain!"

      She woke, opened her eyes.  Looked around the cabin of the crashed airplane where she was lying.  Crashed in the mountains, she remembered, winced at the pain in her head.

      "It's all right, it was just a dream.  Are you all right?" Daifitsu asked from some 5 meters away, as far as you could get in the ruined C-46.  He had the two handie-talkies and pack radio disassembled, working on them in the dim light coming in through the frost covered windows.

      "Fine."  She tried to smile, "Bad dreams.  I thought you said you couldn't repair the transmitter."

      "Yes, I guessed about the dreams.  With the schematic, it occurred to me that I might get a receiver working, then at least we'd know when the help was on the way.  By the way, who or what is Dai Mitsu, you kept screaming that, I'm surprised it didn't start an avalanche."

      "Trying to get a little hope?" she teased.  He ignored her.  "Sorry about that."  She smiled, he ignored it, "What do you want?  A formal, written apology?"

      "I want it to be something more than empty words.  You're sorry, but in twenty minutes you'll do it again.  Saotome's sorry, but he doesn't see that what he did was wrong.  Langley's sorry, but turn around and she's doing it again.  You people don't grow because you won't change, I'm through excusing bad behavior.  You and Asuka complain about Shinji's 'Gomen, gomen, gomen!' but it's as empty as from the rest of you," he paused.

      She looked at him with his coat collar turned up and his tie wrapped around his mouth and throat like a muffler, a patch of frost on the front over his mouth.  She was going to ask where his blanket was, when she realized she had both of them, the only two that survived the crash.  "It was nothing, really."

      "It sounded like you were being assaulted."  He bent low over the radios, examining the jury-rigging closely.  Not giving any sign the cold affected him.

      Misato jerked, then realized he might have meant beaten up.  "Yes, something like that.  Actually, Dafitsu was you."

      He paused, looked her over once, "Don't worry about that, Captain.  It will never happen."

      "What the hell is that supposed to mean?" she threw off the blankets, intent on marching over there.  The cold knifed through her sweat-soaked clothes, she rewrapped herself in the blankets instantly, shivering and teeth chattering from the short exposure.

      "You will give yourself hypothermia if you do that again.  Sweaty clothes and cold killed and injured a lot of bomber crews."  He started turning the crank of the pack radio's generator, while with the other hand tuning the makeshift radio.

      "I thought I told you to get some sleep," Misato said angrily.  Anger at him and at herself.

      "Actually you ordered, 'Get some sleep dammit!'  But, between your snoring and screaming in nightmares, that hasn't been possible.  So I figured I'd get this radio working."

      "I don't snore!"  She couldn't deny the nightmares.  "You didn't have to give me both blankets.  It must be cold."

      "Rules of the game, Captain." He was only getting static and occasional unintelligible squeaks from the radio.  "Ayanami-san is right about one thing, if we pilots die, you officers can replace us, it may take a while, but it can be done.  That does not seem to apply to the senior officers and staff, so I'm expendable, you aren't."

      "What makes you say that?" Misato was getting angry, again.

      "Your behavior, the Commanders', the pilots are treated as expendable robots.  I can live with that.  There aren't any powerful transmitters close enough, but it works."  He quit cranking the generator.  "Since it works, I'll make this a little more rugged.  Then either one of us can use it."

      "You really think of us that way?  Some privileged class?" Misato said bitterly, "Like some feudal lord of old?"

      "The feudal lords usually led from the front, putting themselves at risk with their troops.  You and the Commanders are like the Chateau Generals of the First World War.  Too far removed to be affected by the fighting, or to have an accurate view of the field.  The pilots put life, limb and sanity on the line, all you and the Commanders face are paper cuts, bureaucratic infighting and lost sleep."

      "If you fail we all die!" Misato shouted back.

      "WE pilots can all die, and still not fail, it doesn't wash, Captain, sir," Demitsu replied calmly.  "Well, that should get things running."

      "If you feel that way, why don't you just quit?" Misato asked.

      "Captain, I'm sorry for shocking you, but the world doesn't revolve around you and the Commanders, and your pitiful, private crusades."  He started cranking and tuning the radio, getting the same squeaks and static, "Some of us are working to save the world."

      Misato grumbled and stared at him as he carefully tried to tune in any of the squeaks to make sense of them.

      "Well at least you tried.  Get something to eat.  Is there any food left?" she asked.

      "A little, I stashed it."


      "You ate the last of the C-rations last night."

      "Don't you have anything else in your pack?  I thought you were a Boy Scout, 'Be Prepared'!"

      "I was never a Boy Scout," he said coldly, "I'm not going to show you where I have my food stashed, I will parcel it out to both of us when I can."

      "And that means, what?  You think I'm going to gobble up all the food?"

      "We have to conserve what we have, it may take several days to find us."

      "A human being can survive for weeks without food," she told him.

      "Not at 15 below zero.  I don't think your jungle survival skills apply while buried in snow above the tree line.  I've had practical experience, in Wyoming."

      "So you know everything?  That is refreshing, what do we do about food?" Misato asked, realized she was taking the wrong tack if they were going to be stuck together in cramped conditions, perhaps for a week.

      "Conserve what we have, if necessary I can hunt something up.  I'm not getting anything, I'll try again in half an hour."  He let out a long breath, a cloud of fog forming in front of him.

      "Then I'll stay awake and let you sleep.  I don't snore when I'm awake."

      She stopped, softened her tone, "You could come closer, we can share the blankets and body heat.  I don't bite you know."  After her dream she was half-afraid he'd accept.  She noticed how stiff he got when she broached the subject.

      "Considering your nightmares, Captain, that is not a good idea."  He dropped his hat over his face hugging himself tightly.

      "I guess I should be flattered," Defitsu said, "You're very beautiful, Captain . . . on the outside.  Inside, you are only death and the dead.  Your anger and their pyres may keep you warm, but there's nothing there for anybody else."

      "What is your problem?" she demanded.

      He lifted his hat up and looked at her cooly, shook his head, letting his wall of reserve smother the flash of anger she'd seen.  "Just trying to follow orders, Captain, remember."

      "Call me Misato," she told him, "We're alone up here, nobody but us to worry about proprieties or rank."

      "Being alone would increase the need for proprieties I would think, Captain.  Let me tell you a little story.  Misato is the name of a beautiful woman.  She had hopes and dreams: family, peace, maybe children of her own someday.  She loved to be, she loved to talk and she loved to be loved.  Ritsuko-chan and Kaji-san have told us all stories about her.  Some funny, some touching, some ribald tales.  I will not repeat them, because one does not speak ill of the dead.  I do not know who to send flowers to, I do not know where to place a bowl of rice and offer prayers for a brief light in a darkening world.  Why she had to die?  I do not know.  But I have seen the thing that killed her.

      "Gendo's little tin-god.  Empty except for the thoughts he puts there.  Carved indelibly on its carapace are its watchwords: 'Victory' and 'Death', although I suspect the order is irrelevant.  Sometimes I have watched it, it will put on a smile, sexy clothes, use soft words, to fabricate an ill-fitting parody of life.  But under that shell, thin and fragile as rice paper, is a crocodile.  One ill-considered step and SNAP."  He slapped his hands together.  "No, that's not completely true.  I have seen it smile of its own accord.  When an enemy has died, or it has crushed someone weaker into obedience.  Something destroyed, something forced to feel its emptiness.  A little pain transferred to another, then it will smile, and you'll see a bit of the fire, the lonely hatred that drives it.  A simulation of warmth."

      "Is that what you think of me?" Misato asked, "Something more inhuman than the monsters we fight."

      "I was only telling a story, and I don't think of you, Captain.  Ranma-san is right about that, if you're walking a tightrope, you do as you're told and don't think . . . you pay a penalty, for thinking."

      She clenched her fists in frustration, "In case you haven't noticed, we're trapped in here, alone, you might want to unbend a little!"

      "Unbend."  Again Misato almost broke through, but the wall of reserve came down again.  "Captain, are you going to let me carry out your last order before you went to sleep, or are you going to rescind it?  I can't very well carry it out under these circumstances."

      She muttered about his stubbornness, and turned away from him, she wanted to march across the distance and slap him, he deserved it.  But the cold was still cutting into her through the blankets.  Instead she let the anger add to the little knot in her guts, let it keep her warm.

      Misato woke suddenly as the radio crackled, Deimitsu tuned in the voices, they were unintelligible to Misato.  But she wasn't the linguist he was.

      He listened intently, she kept silent despite a burning desire to demand answers, explanations, to take action that would assist in their rescue.

      But once the transmission ended, Daimisu merely hung his head.  "Well, someone knows approximately where we are, and have search parties looking for us."

      "That's great," she brightened, "We'll launch a flare, or start a fire or - !"

      "No," he interrupted, "They are hunting us down to kill us.  There are at least eight search parties with orders to locate and destroy us."

      "What do we do?" Misato asked, more to herself than anyone else.

      "Check your hand weapons, and hope somebody sees the search parties and realizes they aren't ours."

      "What languages were they using?" she asked.

      "Chinese.  Cantonese specifically."

      Misato nodded, the cold was biting into her and she stayed under the blankets while she checked her pistol and waited.  Now every creak and groan of the plane became the enemy closing in.  She couldn't shut it out as she had before.  She wondered if they had enough ammunition.  She wondered if there were any other weapons aboard the plane.  The pilot's compartment was smashed, all the cargo was available to them, but it was technical gear.  She had her 7mm 'Baby Nambu' and two extra clips, Damitsu probably had his .45 and three clips.  That wasn't enough.

      The sudden attack of nausea had her ready to throw up.  Damisu had suddenly stood up, pistol in hand and was looking around for something.  The hatch opened slightly and a man wormed through the impossibly small gap.  He leapt at her with a knife, she barely got her gun up and fired before he slammed into her, bashing her head against the aircraft's framing.  She noted Dafisu was fighting another man, their pistols knocked from their hands, Damitsu hit him with his cane.  She wondered if her bullet had killed her unknown foe as everything went dark.
      A quiet argument was going on as Misato opened her eyes.  The plane was much warmer.  Someone piled several heavy coats on her, and wrapped a bandage around her head.  Her clothes were still damp from her earlier sweat.

      She looked at the bench across from her.  The head of a huge rattlesnake glanced at her, nodded, then settled back down, someone had covered it too, with coats and one of the blankets.

      She glanced at Daimitsu for an explanation.  He was sitting next to a fire with a large cooking pot a top it.  He was locked in an argument with another man-sized rattlesnake.

      Despite the alien `guests`, the smell of food made her mouth water, "Dafisu!" she said, immediately regretted it as her head started aching, more quietly, "Why are you arguing with a giant rattlesnake?" she thought she was going mad, a hallucination from her head injury.

      "Because he can't cook any better than you can."  Daitsu glared at the creature, who stared back.  It surprised Misato that the snake looked away first.

      "Who would have thought a hot-blood could fix Kirsensishi."

      "I studied." Damitsu ladled out a bowl, "Captain can you hold this bowl for him?"

      Damisu handed her the bowl, the warmth felt good in her hands.  Her stomach growled at the scent.  "When can I get some?  It smells terrific."

      "Never," the boy replied.

      "What?" she held the bowl so the prone rattlesnake could drink it up.

      "Cannibalism is contraindicated," the creature said between sips.

      Misato felt sick.

      Damitsu shrugged, "We took their coats, their radios, and their equipment.  I wasn't about to waste anything.  By the way, you owe your life to Siphil here."  Daifitu pointed at the rattlesnake across the fire from him.  "Pistasta owes me," he pointed at the snake she was feeding, "So the species debt is balanced."

      "You killed them," she said, it wasn't as warm in here as it had been.

      "We," Siphil said.

      "Evidently we were shot down close to a secret operation.  Two commandos were left behind to sanitize the area.  They learned that the Chinese shot us down, and they are working for an enemy sorcerer group.  We called a truce."

      "We are cold-blooded, not optimized for cold weather, and you aren't our real enemies," Pistasta told her, "Good shot by the way."

      Misato put the now empty bowl aside.  Staring at the other three, not sure which of the three was the most incomprehensible.

      Siphil carefully handed Misato a large bowl of rice, meat and vegetable lumps, with sauce on it, "We took it from them, it should be safe.  You've had monkey I assume?"

      Misato was about to refuse when her stomach complained loudly.

      Daibitsu chuckled, the other two made ululating hisses, their form of laughter.

      "He did properly cook it," Siphil assured her.

      "There's no wrong way to eat a Rhesus," Daibisu added.

      She ate eagerly after watching Demitsu eat also, the two rattlesnakes finished off their grisly soup.

      "So what do we do?" Misato wasn't eager to remain.

      "I thought we'd discuss it," Pistasta said, "They aren't coming back for us."

      "And NERV is in the area," Deifitsu said, "I couldn't hear clearly, but it was on NERV SAR frequencies."

      "Can we evade their patrols?" Misato asked.

      More ululating hisses.

      "Captain," Damitsu explained patiently, "Humans radiate a great deal of heat, for them it would be like evading searchlights in the dark."

      "Then we head down the mountain," Misato insisted, "They can get to the town and, I don't know, slip away."  She was worried that the pilot seemed more at ease with these - creatures, than with her.

      "We'd never survive the cold," Siphil said, "Not at night."

      "Captain, I don't think you would either," Damisu added, "Surviving isn't the same as healthy.  Either Siphil or I would have to carry you."

      Misato was not eager to be carried by a giant snake, despite his civilized behavior, "We should be ready to move at a moment's notice."

      "Agreed," Siphil said, "In an emergency, I will carry you, your subordinate will take Pistasta.  We'll need your body heat to survive."

      "So you get to play constrictor to the pit viper."  Dafitsu seemed to find it amusing.

      "In the morning we will move, agreed?" Siphil's unblinking stare swept the room, "We'll be rested, fed, and have a better idea where your allies are."

      Misato agreed.

      Defisu shrugged and prepared some more food for each group.  Misato's stomach churned at the thought of the meat he was using to feed these creatures, but they had helped them, and humans were trying to kill all of them.  Misato wondered about the weird web of conflicts among their enemies and the humans that made this kind of alliance possible.

      The first enemy mortar rounds blew up the plane, and detonated the charges Misato and Pistasta had set, which started an avalanche that buried the screaming attackers under tons of snow.

      Misato noted the grim approval on the three other faces, how it matched her own, an enemy tried to kill them, and died in the attempt.  They at least had that in common.

      "The beaten path will be our best path," she said as they stuffed Misato into the rattlesnake's makeshift overcoats while Davis situated the other one in his cold-weather gear, and they started walking.

      To keep from thinking what she was in close proximity to her, Misato dozed during the trip.  The body was soon warm enough she didn't mind, although the smell she would never get used to.

      The assassins had tried to get troops into the debris field of the avalanche.  Dafitsu moved ahead in `sprint and drift` mode.  Moving rapidly forward, then stopping to listen and examine the territory.  He proved as much a marksman with the Rattlesnakes' silent rifles as with his pistol.

      None of the enemy ever spotted Siphil or her.

      They had been walking downhill for almost two hours when they spotted a small village just inside the NERV SAR patrol area.  They transferred `parcels`, Siphil and Pistasta disappearing in the distance as Damisu carried her at a smooth jog towards NERV SAR HQ.

      Misato felt a soft pillow under her head and the warm blanket over her.

      "Welcome back to the land of the living, Captain.  I was afraid you'd sleep until we got all the way back to Tokyo," Dabisu leaned over her in an ambulance.

      "What happened?"

      "The team who mortared our plane ran into some heavy opposition, the rest evaporated.  We can talk about the whole thing at the debriefing, but I need to check on a few things."  He stepped out of her field of vision, there was a blast of cold air as he left the vehicle, a slamming door and a moment later the vehicle drove off.

      Misato closed her eyes again, determined to give a full account of what she saw and what happened.  Damisu's divided loyalties were now a fact she could prove, not a mere suspicion.

      Misato sat back, after relating her tale to Admiral Simson and General Tomlinson.  Dafitsu had been nervous and fidgety the entire time.  She stared at him triumphantly.

      "Is there anything you'd like to add?" Simson asked, matching the intensity of Gendo's stare.

      Under the withering glare, Damisu squirmed, "The description of the crash, and our conversation in the ambulance was an excellent rendition.  But, Major Katsuragi, you were unconscious after we crashed, and you woke up when I put you in the ambulance.  I talked to you about what I was doing, and I heard you saying things.  The plane did get mortared, I did kill a couple of enemy commandos to steal their jackets, food, radios, et cetera.  But, I was never able to wake you . . . and talking, giant rattlesnakes . . . ?" he shrugged.

      "Are you saying I dreamed it all?!" Misato rose from her chair.

      "No, Major, I believe you are reporting exactly what you remember," Damitsu said, backing away and making placating gestures, "But I don't remember what you're reporting.  Sorry."  He smirked, "'Cannibalism is contraindicated', that does sound like me.  But I'd never talk about my fellow pilots that way."

      And 'Gendo's Little Tin God'?  You'd never say that either, I bet.  Not a high class gentleman like you, 'It just isn't done', Misato fumed inwardly, I didn't imagine all that!  She sat back in her chair, glared at Daibitsu.

      "We will debrief both of you under truth serum," Tomlinson said, glanced at Simson, who agreed.

      Misato didn't like it, but didn't object.  Damitsu shrugged.

The History of a Soldier's Wound Beguiles the Pain

      "Repairs are complete," Ritsuko reported to Gendo, "Containment will more than handle the magnetic surge and any impact."

      "Very good, Doctor," Gendo replied into the phone, "Get back up here, we are going through the final checks."  Gendo hung up the phone.

      "No more jokes about feminine intuition," Fuyutsuki commented.

      "True."  He raised a phone, "Captain Ramsey, how are the nets coming?"

      "Saotome has them strung, SAR teams are making sure they are all thoroughly grounded.  I am not comfortable risking all the batteries and the tethers on a single attempt."

      Gendo considered the Captain's arguments, they were using all nine available EVA external batteries, and all the tether cabling except the small amount still needed to operate Units 04 and 02.  "You are aware of the chances of success of using half that amount.  This operation gives us the greatest chance of success."

      "Just voicing my concerns," Ramsey replied over the field phone, "If I have anything concrete, I'll say so."

      "Let us know, immediately," Gendo waited to hang up the phone, technically Ramsey outranked him.

      Gendo hung up the phone, "Is everything secure?"

      Fuyutsuki nodded, "All the critical components, dangerous chemicals and fragile samples are all prepared."  Fuyutsuki smiled, "Unless you drop us from too far."

      "The major worry is that we arrive back exactly from where we left."

      Fuyutsuki smiled grimly, "Yes, considering how far the planet, even the entire galaxy will have moved, I wonder if we'll even be in the same star system."

      "I hope that the magnetic ring will bring us in correctly," Gendo looked over the workers beneath him.  The phone rang again.

      "Commander, all stations report ready," Maya reported, "Standing by."

      "Very good."  He hung up, picked up the 1-MC, they would hear his voice over the entire base.  "We are preparing for transition, secure all stations, brace for impact.  Pilot Unit 02."

      "Langley here."  Asuka's voice came back.

      "Stand by," Gendo told her.  He wasn't about to offer any prayers, he trusted nothing that might answer them.  "Miss Langley, now."

      Asuka let the equations fill her mind, let them alter her AT field.  It hurtto stretch her field that far, over the entire `island`.  She couldn't see or feel the shape of the AT fields that surrounded the base, she had to depend on her understanding of the mathematics to define it.  Once she was sure of it, she closed the huge knife switch that released the electricity held in the batteries.  The only clue that power flowed was the cables bursting into flame, covering the area with smoke.  Horseface had his AT field protecting her from the immense magnetic flux.  The Faraday cages sparked a little, but that was all that was obvious.

      The blue of the sky hadn't changed a bit, Asuka felt exhausted and hurt, as she left her field fade.  She let the EVA sink down to its knees.  She wanted to sleep, she really hurt to much to care if it worked or not.  There were no calls that it had worked or it hadn't.

      The man burst in on them.  Nabiki looked up from her poker hand.  Rei glanced at him, then returned her attention to the cards.

      "We just got the confirmation, this is absolutely official, NERV Tokyo is back where it was.  All the pilots and senior staff aboard, safe and sound.  Major Katsuragi and Pilot Davis are there too."

      "Thank you," Nabiki said, "You can go."  She concentrated on the cards.

      He obviously expected a greater reaction, "Don't you understand?  They're alive and well."

      "Until and unless they transfer us back, it's just information, thank you," Nabiki told him, inside she was terrified that this was just a dream.

      The stunned man turned and left the girls' room.

      Nabiki had seen the panicked reaction on Rei's face, although you'd have to be an expert to see it.  Nabiki didn't tease the other girl as she tried to concentrate as first one tear, then another crept down Rei's face.

      "I am happy," Rei said, "Why are there tears?"

      Nabiki smiled at Rei's embarrassment.  "Because you are happy."  Rei stared in confusion at Nabiki, the occasional tear traveling down her cheek.  Nabiki couldn't help laughing, Rei looked almost comically tragic.  Nabiki gave the other girl a hug, caught one of the tears with her finger.

      "They're salty," Nabiki explained while she waited for Rei to carefully lick the tear off her finger.

      "What does that have to do with the others?" Rei asked.

      "Nothing.  You just looked so sad."

      "I did not feel sad," Rei told her, "You did.  Have you not noticed you also are crying?"

      Nabiki wiped her face and found her hand came away wet.  "No, I didn't.  I guess I'm happy too."

      Rei caught one of Nabiki's tears, and held it out, as Nabiki had done for her.

      "Show off," Simson commented as the fire fighting teams extinguished the flaming cables.  Another team was checking for radiation, while the third was trying to make physical contact with the people within.

      The initial screaming, cheering crowds had sobered, they were waiting for news of the survival of the crew and the EVAs.  The energy, the raw anticipation, was palpable.

      The landing had been almost perfect, the base had rotated some 0.25 degrees, otherwise perfect.  The smoke had been a seemingly theatrical touch.

      Davis and Tomlinson were there, waiting with the same veneer of patience Simson himself wore.  Simson wondered what they'd find in the base, he hoped they could explain what had happened and prevent it from happening again.  The radio messages had been clear, they had some wounded, but could handle them internally, once power, water, etc. were restored to the med center.  Admiral Simson had dispatched doctors and medics, helicopters were waiting to evacuate any serious casualties to the base hospital.

      The vibration came up through the ground, a rhythmic pounding.  The crowd was unsure, murmurs ran through the crowd.  Simson and his party recognized the tread of an EVA, so they stood firm and confident.  The huge red EVA walked out of the dissipating smoke with one hand outstretched and several reels of cable paying out behind it.  It walked without speaking toward the high-tension towers, depositing the work crew atop it, to reconnect NERV to the main power grid.

      "Langley must be playing to a script," Davis whispered as the red EVA stood quietly, taking directions from the tech team who were restoring the electrical connections.

      "Reconnection complete, please restore power," Asuka's voice came from the EVA, cool and businesslike.  The cheering from the crowds blanked out anything else the EVA's loudspeakers could produce.

      "Restore power," Simson ordered, "We'll have to get engineers out here to relay the sewer and water lines."

      "And the telephones," Tomlinson added, "I have engineers standing by, and a few people to hold the Seabees' hands."

      Simson could wait for the official word, but the crowd was sure the danger was over.  The celebrations will be going on all night, we're going to have to deploy a lot more troops in case the celebration gets out of hand.

      Misato looked at the world through the glass of beer.  Truth serum hadn't revealed anything new to her story, or Damitsu's.  She'd been humiliated by the little bastard, calling her crazy, implying she'd lie.  Especially when she knew what she saw.

      Damn Americans stick together, she thought angrily as she drained the beer and signaled for another, she wondered if she should have worn her NERV uniform.  If she had, she probably wouldn't have had to pay for her drinks.  She'd heard the parades and fireworks since the sun went down.  The city hadn't seen a party like this since they announced Pearl Harbor, they'd sunk the U.S. Navy.  She'd made sure Shinji and the others were all right.  Then she'd decided to drown her shame.

      The new beer arrived, the new beer disappeared.  She wasn't even tasting them now, so far they'd failed to make her feel better.  Her depression was fuzzier, but it was still there.  She stared at the empty glass and signaled for another.

      Shinji could barely stand upright.  All the eager young faces, all the hands trying to touch him.  Asuka had insisted he go to one of the parties, the orphans were the people whom he was comfortable with.  The adults there were as amazed as the kids that he wanted to be herewhen he could have been anywhere.  Raccoon had come with, bringing food and drink for a party.

      They fired questions at him too fast and too loud to answer individually.  He told them what he could about what had happened, some parts were still classified, the battle, and how scared he and the others were.  When he started talking all of the kids fell silent and listened with rapt attention.  He was actually more scared of that, than facing the Outer God.  He glanced up at Raccoon for help, the other boy shook his head 'no', and went back to serving food and drinks.

      Thanks a lot, Raccoon, Shinji thought.  He was looking forward to seeing Rei-chan again.  The report was, she was on her way back by express aircraft.  He didn't want to wait, but he would have to.

      Shinji wasn't the only one who would have preferred to be facing the Outer God again.  Ranma looked at Sammi and Ritsuko who had been staring angrily at him for a few minutes.  He knew he shouldn't have tried to explain 'Just what did you think you were doing?'  Now he knew, a little late.

      It was better when Sammi had been pacing, and suggesting appropriate punishments when she got close to Ritsuko.  She'd said them just loud enough for Ranma to pick them up.  From spanking, to being forbidden martial arts for a month, he would have preferred the spanking.  Ritsuko had sat there, quietly tearing eight newspapers in half.  Not one at a time, and not holding one hand down and lifting with the other.  She had all eight in her hands, and pulled outward, slowly tearing them in half.  Ranma knew he couldn't have done that particular trick.

      In the end, Ritsuko had told Sammi it was not the guard's decision, it was his guardian's.  She'd looked at Ranma and said, 'I am very disappointed in you', and fell silent.  He would have preferred the spanking, or being denied martial arts, rather than that look of hurt on Rit-chan's face.

      He suspected he was supposed to figure out what he had done wrong, and apologize for it.  Instead he was completely bewildered, everything he had done would have been worst if he hadn't acted.  The things would have damaged the Magi, which meant no going home, he thought, She couldn't be mad about typing in the formulae?  I was under orders to make the nets and protect Asuka . . . what did I do wrong?!

      "Eye-on-ahmee-sahn?" the voice drew Rei out of her reverie, staring out the window, watching the ocean going by.  The copilot continued when Rei looked at him, "We're about 20 hours out, but we have to stop on Guam to refuel."

      Rei nodded, she didn't know what else he expected her to do.  She could hardly protest, if the plane needed fuel, it needed fuel.  She returned to staring out the window.

      Shinji-kun is alive, the Commander is alive, she thought desperately, wondering if some cruel fate would separate them once again.  She had heard others say 'I just couldn't stand it.'  She thought that was ridiculous, losing the Commander and Shinji-kun would hurt more than anything she had ever known.  Nevertheless, she would carry on, the Commander's vision would survive him, if she had anything to say about it.  She could finally trust the others with it, letting them see the grand design, and understand the terrible weight he bore.

      She wished she could tell someone about it, perhaps Roku-kun or the Second would understand its scope and genius.  Perhaps even Nabiki-kun would see it.  Until then, it was hers alone of all the pilots.

      The ocean and the tiny lights far below were the only clue that there was anything beyond the plane.

The Twelfth-Night Duke's Question

      'I shouldn't have shut you up.  I should have asked for your help,' Ranma had finally figured it out.  Sammi had been despairing he'd ever get it, it seemed you needed a star drill and explosives to get anything through that skull of his.  She wondered how he'd react to the rest of the news that he'd be staying with Sammi and Asuka while Ritsuko, Maya, Nabiki and Jeff headed out to the Azores, for a month.

      He'll probably think he's being punished, she thought as she unlocked the door to her apartment, she really wasn't in the mood for any of the parties going on all over the city.

      "I'll let Major Katsuragi celebrate for all of us," she said disparagingly.  She also knew Shinji and Jeff were out celebrating, that she would have considered an impossibility, "Maybe Gendo's out dancing the night away too."  She had a hard time even imagining the dour man doing anything even remotely fun, even curling up with a good book.

      The sound in Asuka's bedroom drew her instant attention.  "It never ends," she said to herself, put on a happy face and opened the door.  "I would have thought you'd be out there, soaking up your share of the limelight.  Even Shinji is out there celebrating."

      Asuka sat on her bed, chin on her knees, staring at the wall.  She hadn't reacted to Sammi invading her privacy.

      This is worse than I thought, Sammi thought as she sat on the edge of the bed, when Asuka didn't react Sammi ran her fingers through the other girl's long hair.  Still no reaction? Sammi thought worriedly.

      "I don't feel like a hero," Asuka said quietly, "I just feel tired."

      "Well, it has been a stressful couple of days," Sammi said soothingly, "It's only natural that - "

      "No," Asuka quietly cut her off, "This place, the people . . . all of it.  Let Horseface and Spineless play the hero, I didn't do anything."

      Sammi was about to protest when she remembered the cries in the street, the 'hometown heroes' had been getting most of the credit.  Asuka was feeling left out and put upon, even Jeff and Shinji had taken off without her.

      "Well, are you going to let people determine how you feel?" Sammi asked quietly, she suspected Misato would shame or jolly the girl out of her depression.

      One of the reason she's here and not in Katsuragi's `care` anymore, Sammi thought as she stood up and selected a brush and the finest comb from Asuka's dresser.  She carefully ran the comb through Asuka's hair, pausing at any tangle.

      "You are being very magnanimous," Sammi told her, "Letting them take credit for your work.  No one can ever say that Asuka Soryu Langley isn't generous to those lesser lights around her."  Sammi switched to the brush, she had expected some reaction to that, and hadn't gotten one.

      The only sound for a few moments was the long, steady strokes of the brush through Asuka's hair.

      "I heard that Rei will be returning soon, Nabiki will be flying in with the new and improved Sonic Glaives."  More silence, the long strokes continued.  "It's all right to feel out of place, homesick."

      "It's not that," Asuka said quietly, her eyelids drooping, "I was safe in Germany, even when the Russians were hunting us.  Even when the British captured me.  Never here.  Idiots out there celebrating a disaster avoided."  Asuka's head drooped, "We d'n't win.  We survived.  Used luck inst'd of skill.  Luck runs out.  What'll we do th'n?  Who'll save us then?  God?  We're abom'nations, jus' too stupid to realize it yet."  Asuka snorted, "Used to hate Wondergirl, little monster robot.  What am I now?"

      "I don't think you're a monster," Sammi said soothingly, was shocked by the intensity of Asuka's stare.

      "Who cares with you think?" Asuka said coldly, her voice full of desperation rather than anger or venom, "They don't care about us, they don't notice us because we're so far beneath them.  We're unimportant in the grand scheme of things."  The calm of her tone cracked, letting a glimpse of the hysteria beneath show through.  "But they noticed us, they reached into our minds and found what we were really afraid of.  Not just me, but Spineless, Wondergirl, Horseface, even Raccoon and Ice Princess."  She was screaming now, "They know us!  They see us!  What does that make us?  We can't be human!  Not anymore!  When are you going to have to put us down?  Shoot us in the street?  Have us kill one another to save humanity?"  The tears came, and Asuka made no attempt to hide them.  "We're supposed to protect people, how can we do that if we're becoming monsters too?  When should I look at my friends and just blow their brains out?  When should I ask the same of them?  Could Spineless or Horseface do it?  Does Ice Princess have the guts?  Misato doesn't!  Does Stoneface even know how?  Have any of you ever considered that?!  Huh?  What if Wondergirl and Raccoon go first?!  Who'll protect the rest of you from - me?  Could you?  Can you just kill?  Look past the child and just kill?  See through all my tricks and kill me?"

      Asuka took a deep breath, regained a little control.  "Those idiots are out there celebrating raising a pack of monsters to fight other monsters.  They should be terrified, trying to drive us out of town, have us locked away from normal people, from decent people."  Asuka stood up, backing away from Sammi.  "How can you even stand to look at me, to touch me?  You know what I am, you've seen those things!"

      "If you are, why are you worried about the rest of us?" Sammi asked, she hadn't moved, she felt like she was coaxing Asuka off a ledge.  "Why are you so torn up inside that you might hurt someone by accident?  Doesn't that mean - "

      "WHEN!  WHEN!  Not NOW!" Asuka shouted, pounding her fist on the wall, "Not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon."

      Sammi stood up, walked over to the girl, "And you'll change so much between now and then?  You'll just wake up and decide to eat someone off the street for breakfast.  That the rest of us will ignore all of that, that the others will?"

      "As long as I CAN STILL PILOT . . . they won't care."  Asuka slumped to the floor, "They won't care."  Still softer, "They won't care."

      Sammi sat next to the sobbing girl.  "Like 'Wondergirl' and 'Spineless' looking after 'Ice Princess'.  Like you going with Shinji to look after Rei?  Like all the times you've looked after Ranma and Ranko, no matter how mad Saotome made you?  That isn't going to switch off suddenly, you'll notice it, and so will the others."  She grasped Asuka's chin tilting her head up to face her.  "I know you Asuka, I know you, maybe better than you know yourself.  If you were really vulnerable to that, it wouldn't worry you so much now."  Sammi ran her hand over Asuka's hair.  "If being human didn't mean so much to you, it wouldn't bother you to surrender even the slightest bit without a fight."  Sammi leaned close, "You see I know your most shameful secret, you actually love these people.  No matter how stupid the rest of us are, you will never walk away from us, never let us be without your opinion and advice.  You could no more do that, than you could exist without breathing."

      Sammi could see the tired resignation on Asuka's face.  The girl was spent, her outburst had taken whatever strength the day's events had left her.  She collected Asuka and put her in bed.  "We can talk about this more in the morning."  Sammi smiled.  "Maybe 'Raccoon' can talk sense to you."

      Asuka fell into an exhausted sleep.  Sammi stayed up to watch her.

      Monsters huh? Samantha Kraznyzamok thought about the irony of that, You don't know monsters, Akagi: Red Castle, Krazny - Zamok: Red Castle, so who was the real monster, Dr. Frankenstein who dabbled with Creation, or his benighted creation?  The desperate monster masquerading as a woman who built a fortress, for her human charges, out of other monsters, or the humans who drove her to it?  She idly stroked Asuka's hair, Sammi loved the pilots, all of them.  She didn't have any choice in the matter, and would have chosen to be the way she was even if she had one.  She also knew that they might be doomed, as Asuka feared, just not the way the girl feared.  Sammi didn't know how, but she knew the powers that swirled around the darker reaches of NERV would never allow Asuka's nightmare scenario to come to pass.  They were investing these fragile Children with all the weight and stress they could, so they could break them at the right moment.

      But what do you do with a broken god? Sammi asked herself, not for the first time.  She had some theories, and in their own way, they were worst than what Asuka feared.

July 8, 1947

      Shinji dragged himself into Misato's apartment, it was nearly morning.  The party and the clean up had gone on through the night.  There were still revelers out when the MPs picked him up and drove him home.  He was glad of the ride, and also glad that his voice had given out.  The MPs had been as curious as everyone else about the disappearance/reappearance of NERV.  But the loudest squeak he could manage was barely audible over the road noise.  So he didn't have to talk about it - AGAIN!

      Penpen popped out of his refrigerator, walked pointedly to his bowl and stared at it.

      Shinji realized the bird hadn't been fed in days, and started searching for something, anything, to tide Penpen over until he could get some much needed sleep.  He managed to find some sausage and a few leftovers that were acceptable.  As well as a few that probably could have been used to good effect against the Angels.  Those he disposed of.  He also found several empty plates, the obvious answer was that Penpen could actually open the refrigerator door.  If he couldn't . . . Shinji didn't want to think about that.  Wondering about Misato-san's cooking was worrying enough.

      The knock on the door brought him back from idle speculation about the fate of the contents of the fridge.  A glance through the peephole in the door gave him a look at Misato's backside.

      "And how much has she been drinking?" Shinji muttered as he opened the door.

      The man carrying Misato-san over his shoulder was a surprise.  He ignored Shinji, spared Penpen only a glance, as he carried Misato-san to the dining room table and poured her onto a chair.

      "There you go Captain, safe and sound."  The man was round, not spherical, but no sharp angles, round face, round body, pudgy hands, he looked like one of the better fed Buddhas.

      "Ma-jURP!" Misato belched at him.

      Shinji smirked as the man straightened up suddenly from the blast of beer breath, or tried to as Misato grabbed his tie.  She lifted herself up on it and dragged him down, until she was staring him owlishly in the face.

      "Whoooo, 're yoooou?" Misato demanded, as she lost her grip and slid back into the chair.

      "Hiro Takemono."  He bowed to Shinji.  "I'm the one who found you."  He turned to Shinji.  "I couldn't let her get stepped on anymore, or run over.  I - "

      Misato's laughter interrupted Shinji's thanks.  "How can a hero be a bakemonoooo, ha aha ha?"  A moment later she put her head on the table.

      Hiro was trying to keep his temper, "That was funny," adding quietly, "The first 10,000 times."

      Shinji had seen the man smiling when he'd entered, now that he had a chance to look closer, he saw the scar across his cheeks and under his nose.  It pulled the ends of his mouth up, making him look like he was perpetually smiling.

      "Thank you, TA-kemono-san," Shinji said, bowed, hoping Misato-san would take the hint, or at least stop laughing before she threw up.

      "Shinji!"  Misato stood up.  "We should go to bed!"

      Shinji stood there transfixed, a glance confirmed that both Hiro and Penpen were staring at him, and Misato-san was expecting an answer.  He could feel the sweat crawling down his back.  An immediate refusal came to mind, but he also knew what a mean drunk Misato-san could be, and she wouldn't take 'no' for an answer.  What he really wanted was rest and some quiet.

      "He seems awfully young, Captain, but you NERV people do what you have to," Hiro said offhandedly, as he turned to leave.

      For a shining instant, sobriety infused Misato, as she realized what she'd said.  "I didn't mean THAT!" she shouted, pursuing him.

      "It's not my place to judge," Hiro replied, increasing his speed to the exit.

      Shinji took the opportunity and headed for his bedroom, he could get a shower after Misato-san was snoring.

      'You can't think I'd do that!' Shinji heard Misato shout, then the sound of running feet.

      A few moments later, he heard a knock on the door.  He returned to the door and again saw Misato's backside through the peephole.  Again Hiro carried her over his shoulder to the dining room table and put her in the chair.

      "I'm going to get out of here before she wakes up," Hiro said, "Don't give her too hard a time, no matter how bad you want to.  She's just lonely."  For a moment the smile vanished, he bowed to Shinji and left.

      Shinji stared at his commanding officer, already snoring like a bandsaw.  A plan was forming in his mind.  He knew he could get Asuka's help, she was mad at Kaji for some reason.  Ritsuko-sensei would help, just to bother Misato.  He was smiling as he went to take his shower.

      Nabiki had seen big boats, she'd seen big planes.  She'd neverseen a plane this big, not a plane that was also a boat.  She sat in the motorized whaleboat and let them take her under the massive wing.  The officer with her was chattering about the government helping complete this huge plane to give them the ability to transport EVA equipment anywhere in the world there was a body of water.  It seemed amazing to Nabiki that with eight massive engines and this huge wing, that this machine couldn't carry an EVA.

      The other thing that had her excited was that HE was going to be on board, the plane's billionaire creator.  She was afraid to even think his name in case she jinxed her chance to meet him.  She knew he'd eventually become a demented recluse, but that was decades in the future.  If she could meet him, if she could talk to him, it was a contact that would be worth her weight in gold.  She didn't know much about planes, but what she did, could help the two of them make a vast fortune.

      The officer helped her aboard while he went to oversee the securing of the new sonic glaives.  Nabiki saw the immense EVA weapons looking small in the cavernous space of the huge cargo bay.

      "This is a plane," she said, looking around.

      "It certainly is," a man she didn't recognize said, "Would you like to see where your berth is?"

      "Berth?" she asked.

      "Yes, we can't let a VIP like you sit in the cheap seats like the rest of us," the man said as he smiled, "Also you might like to see the flight deck and meet the crew.  The first hop is the short one, here to Hawaii."

      Nabiki followed the man, the berth was plain, but it was private.  There was a bathroom, and a galley, those weren't private.  Nabiki could hardly contain herself as she was led onto the flight deck.  Not only was the view spectacular, but HE was there.

      Nabiki introduced herself, shaking the man's hand.  She told him how much she admired his work, how much she admired his airplane.  The man's expression went from friendly, to slightly panicked.  She suddenly realized she had been babbling like an idiot for several minutes, shaking the man's hand during the entire time.  Completely mortified, she let go, apologized, and ran from the room.

      Nabiki was in her berth, the covers over her head.  The only reason she was still alive was she hadn't decided if hanging herself with the sheets, or throwing herself out of the plane to drown would be less embarrassing to the others aboard.  I blew it,she lamented silently, I blew it, I blew it, I blew it!

      "I'm an IDIOT!" she shouted to the covers.

      "Knock, knock."  She recognized the voice.

      She pulled the covers down and saw Brother Jonathan sitting next to her berth.

      "You're a priest, maybe you can give me Last Rites."  She covered her head again.

      Brother Jonathan pulled the blankets and sheets off her head.  "You didn't do too badly."

      "I was a gibbering idiot, I couldn't even remember to let go of the man's hand!" Nabiki lamented, "I wanted to make a memorable first impression.  I did sure make one.  He probably thinks I'm a complete psychotic, not just a blithering idiot.  And you know what, he's right!"

      "Oh, you're lookin' at it all wrong," the man said in his 'aw-shucks' folksy tone.  "Pretty girl meets him, gets all flustered.  She's obviously enthusiastic about the plane, she's obviously enthusiastic about him.  There's worse first impressions to give a man.  Especially a man like him."

      Nabiki felt marginally better, she smiled.

      "In fact, I know he wants to talk to you again," Brother Jonathan told her with a reassuring smile.

      "He does?"  Nabiki suddenly saw avenues reopening, a chance at redemption and wealth.

      "Yep, he wants a translation of what you actually said, see he's never met a Japanese-talkin' chipmunk before."

      Nabiki draped the covers over her head and moaned in despair.