Neon Genesis Evangelion Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction ❯ Sic Semper Morituri ❯ Chapter 49-50 ( Chapter 23 )

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

Chapter 49 - Whether you can hear it or not, the Universe is laughing at you

Strive At All Times To Bend, Fold, Spindle, And Mutilate

Know Yourself, If You Need Help, Call The FBI.

You Are A Fluke Of The Universe, You Have No Right To Be Here

Be At Peace With Your God, Whatever You Conceive It To Be

Let Not The Sands Of Time Get In Your Lunch

Chapter 50 - Big Iron

It Was Early in the Morning When He Rode into the Town

He Came Riding from the South Side Slowly Lookin' All Around

He's an Outlaw Loose and Running Came the Whisper from Each Lip

And He's Here to Do Some Business with the Big Iron on His Hip

In this Town There Lived an Outlaw by the Name of Texas Red

Many Men Had Tried to Take Him and That Many Men Were Dead

He Was Vicious and a Killer Though a Youth of Twenty-Four

And the Notches on His Pistol Numbered One An' Nineteen More

Now the Stranger Started Talking Made it Plain to Folks Around

Was an Arizona Ranger Wouldn't Be Too Long in Town

He Came Here to Take an Outlaw Back Alive or Maybe Dead

And He Said it Didn't Matter He Was after Texas Red

The Morning Passed So Quickly it Was Time for Them to Meet

It Was Twenty past Eleven When They Walked out in the Street

Folks Were Watching from the Windows Everybody Held Their Breath

They Knew this Handsome Ranger Was about to Meet His Death

There Was Forty Feet Between Them When They Stopped to Make Their Play

And the swiftness of the ranger is still talked about today

Texas Red Had Not Cleared Leather 'Fore a Bullet Fairly Ripped

And the Ranger's Aim Was Deadly with the Big Iron on His Hip

It Was over in a Moment and the Folks Had Gathered Round

There Before Them Lay the Body of the Outlaw on the Ground

H1 [Ranma][NGE][HPL][AMG][Fusion][Fanfic] Sic Semper Morituri Chapter 49 - Whether you can hear it or not, the Universe is laughing at you


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:

ftp :// -Semper-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 four senators from Wyoming and Massachusetts begin investigating the Boston incident and Misato's part in it.  Admiral Simson scrambles to begin his own investigation of what has been happening in NERV before and after the war.  Shinji and Rei console and watch over Misato.

     Jeff and the Scholarly Dragon teach Nabiki about control of her dreams, concentrating on infiltration.  Bad dreams continue to plague her.  The Scholarly Dragon prevents a dream attack by Usagi and company.

     The Azores Mission heads through the Panama Canal, and the principals are treated to the effect of their celebrity.  Nabiki and Maya don't like it.  The Russians go over a newsreel of the Azores team, and discuss their growing maintenance problems. 

     Nabiki discusses Hiroko's death with several of her instructors.  Ritsuko looks over Jeff and Nabiki as Nabiki comes under dream attack.  Joma and Ritsuko discuss the desires of made things for their creators/users.

     Ranma begins teaching the others the insult techniques that are part of his art.  He also senses Asuka's growing injuries, cause by ignoring her own limitations and trying to keep up with him.  He disobeys her demand, and heals her injuries.  She accuses him of using his Code of Honor to justify any action he cares to take.  Ranma attempts to discover a way make things right, while Rei tests methods of returning Asuka to normal.

     The Azores group discover a second entry plug port in Unit 04 and begin select Maya and Captain Madison of SAR to accompany the pilots to the bottom.  The recovery itself goes off without serious problems, Nabiki carries the Great Old One which looks like a fried egg, back to the EVA.  She is revolted and horrified by the experience and ashamed of her weakness and terror in the face of a Great Old One.

     The creature awakens and the battlegroup is surrounded by clouds and all the pilots are plunged into a dream, Rei awakens, but the others do not.  Shinji dreams of a city deep in the ocean, and then to the city he designed in the dream challenge.  Rei is with him and they lead the human race of planet and to the stars.  Then Shinji heads off to battle an enemy on the Moon.

     Ranma, Jeff and Nabiki find themselves in a faceless Nerima duplicate.  They join the group who repairs Nerima from the marital arts battles.

     Asuka finds herself walking through the spectrum, eventually falling to hunger and dehydration.

     Rei and Erin temporarily move in with Sammi.

     Rei merges with Sarah and the other Reis to send Shinji to the moon to battle the Mi-Go there.

     Ranma and Jeffrey begin investigating the mechanism of healing spells, and Nabiki's reaction to Jeff and Ranma/Ranko's proximity to her in bed.  Ranma reveals what he did to Asuka and gets advice to deal with it.  Ranma Also investigates why he locked himself in his female form.

     After nearly killing Jeff, Ranma decided to surrender his male identity or his life as redress, Jeff ask forgiveness for his actions instead.

     Nabiki anonymously delivers a large amount food to the Tendos as revenge for their treatment of Ranma.  Ranko/Ranma leads Jeff to Saotome Eiji's home to discover if he has any relatives and a clan.

     Jeff and Nabiki awaken and return Cthylla to her temple.  Jeff uses an AT field to disrupt Cthylla's control over Ritsuko.  He accidentally transfers all his memories, including the dreams from Nerima, to her.  Maya and Nabiki don't understand what to do.  Ritsuko and Jeff are disturbed by events.

     Anna Alise and an American Alpine troop encounter 3 EVAs in Switzerland, Anna captures one EVA and is ejected by remote.

     Nabiki learns the extent Jeff was willing to go to to assist Ritsuko, changes he made to himself and the studies he made.  Nabiki invades Jeff's dream and encounters a family and children.  She later displays her talent to Ritsuko who controls the dream herself.

     The Bennington arrives in Boston, while Jeff, Maya, Nabiki and Ritsuko are having dinner, Major ggreg fights and escaped from something.  Ritsuko finds out the true about the project that created Jeff and Sharon, as well as others.

     Sharon Lauren kills Sgt.Malkowitz, then rescues Nabiki from an angry crowd, before revealing their `shadowless` existence.  Nabiki confronts Belldandy about it, Belldandy has no explanation.  She confronts Jeff, kills Belldandy, then Jeff detonates his prepared bomb.

     Ranma, Asuka and Rei awaken, Shinji remains unconscious.  Rei has a tantrum in reaction to the mission she sent Shinji on.

     Ranma wonders why he's locked himself in female form.  Asuka and Ranma take Rei home with them.  Asuka and Ranma discuss the odd dreams they had.

     Rei's and Ranma's cults assault the last of the Children of Nyogtha.

     Another group of Jeff's cultists capture Urd and threaten her with an Angel Eater, and the knowledge she can't defend against them.

     The Russian cult of the 'Gray Lady' assault a cult and Children of Nyogtha, then celebrate their victory.  The GRU man recruits several of them for an upcoming operation.

     Ranma confronts Asuka over the events of August 1945, Asuka physically attacks Ranma while Rei prevents the guards from intervening.  Then Rei began telling jokes until Asuka laughed.

     Shinji destroys the Mi-Go's moonbase, but cannot see them and isn't affected by their counterattacks.  He releases many of the minds in their containers.

     Keiichi delivers the bicycles, Ranma and Rei begin learning to ride them.  Although Ranma gets badly scraped up and Asuka bandages him.

     Admiral Simson accompanies Asuka, Ranma and Rei on a field exercise.  Asuka lays out her plans and leads the EVAs' attack.

     Ranma develops a new `wire-guided` version of his AT-field-ball attack, he discovers the Ranma and Ranko are subtly different in this regard.  Also Rei, Asuka and Ranma analyze it completely.

     Simson learns that two people in a plug begin acting like each other for a while.

     Belldandy returns from her murder by Sharon with a scream, while Keiichi comforts her.

     Jeff gives Sharon a last chance, then absorbs her and falls into a coma.

     Ritsuko, Maya and Nabiki arrive at the blast site and investigate, they find Jeff, but not Sharon.

     The troops of the Bennington, who will accompany NERV forces to U.S.S. Boxer, give `Brown Bess` a flint to put between her teeth.

In an abandoned warehouse with no lights, just shadows . . .

In the dead of night, a shimmewing wight,

gweam of a bwade, and the devil is made,

When the axe comes down, a chiwwing sound,

And I pwedict, a bwoody Easter,

A scuwwying shadow, and the shadow moves to stab it,

And the night air echoes . . .


Kill the Wabbit (Ozzy Fudd the Wabbitswayer) a.k.a. Mark McCollum

Deteriorata - written by Tony Hendra

August 3, 1947 - Tokyo (GMT +9.0 hr)

Strive At All Times To Bend, Fold, Spindle, And Mutilate

     "I thought we were attacking Tendo again?" Tome asked, glancing around the dream representation of the streets of Tokyo.

     "We were," Usagi replied, "I guess she's dreaming of being back home - what is it Yuki?"  Usagi couldn't completely ignore the girl tapping her shoulder.  "Anyway, she'll probably be at home or at NERV or - WHAT IS IT?"

     "Lo - o - ok!" Yuki stammered as she pointed.  Unit 01 and 02 were charging straight at them.

     Before they could move or scream, the Units were past.  The toe of Unit 02's footprint before them, the heel of Unit 01's behind.

     Usagi whirled around, intent on avenging her dignity.  "Nobody - "  She stared open-mouthed as Unit 02 drew an immense mallet and advanced on the huge lobster that stood its ground and began throwing carrots at the EVAs.  Unit 02 parried the carrots with the mallet until it had closed to range, then it began beating the lobster mercilessly.

     "Scatter!" Tomoe yelled as a column of military dumptrucks thundered down on them.  The girls scattered like chickens as the trucks roared past, each and every truck filled with drawn butter.

     "Was that Admiral Simson and Captain Ramsey in the first truck?" Harumi asked as she stood and dusted herself off.

     "All RIGHT!" Usagi shouted as she stood, "She thinks she can just make fun of us!"  All the girls ignored Unit 01's stern admonishment to an EVA-sized cat-creature.  "That's just wrong," Usagi said as Unit 01 pulled an immense ruler and began administering a through spanking to the catlike Great Old One.  Usagi was livid, "No one defames our believes, no one treats us as jokes!" Usagi announced.

     Tomoe yanked her out of the way of the flatbed truck carrying a huge lemon wedge.

     They had made it to the EVA hanger of NERV.  They had braved many perils to get there.  "I don't care how important this is," Yuki said, "I just want to go home, there are some things man was not meant to know.  What Gendo Ikari looks like naked is one of them."

     "He looked pretty good for an older guy," Tomoe teased their usually sex-crazed ally.

     "Take it from me 'I love pussies, they are so soft, warm and furry', probably did NOT refer to the pink kittens he was dancing with.  By Shub-Niggurath's mercy, I hope it didn't."

     "It just proves we're dealing with a disturbed mind here," Usagi replied, nearly on the edge of hysteria, the battle against Misato's cooking had really gotten to her, "Nothing more."

     "But how does she know these things!?" Yuki demanded, "You don't think she . . . with Ikari?"

     "For all we know, she might have serviced the entire male complement of NERV, and all the female members who could not outrun her."  A blue-haired, red-eyed Nabiki Tendo looked at them, a chicken in each hand.  All the cultists detected the faint smell of cinnamon.  "Here."  She tossed them the chickens.  "I dislike meat, it is too loud."

     Tomoe and Harumi had caught the chickens, and suddenly found themselves completely alone.  Neither moved as the seconds crawled by, and the chickens did nothing more than cluck and squawk occasionally.  Then they felt the footsteps as the EVAs approached.  The chickens began complaining more and more vociferously as the EVAs drew closer.  Harumi and Tomoe exchanged glances and tossed the two chickens behind the largest, most solid barricades.  The fact that Usagi and Yuki were concealed behind then was only happenstance, really.  What followed were two of the loudest, dampest explosions in the history of self-detonating chickens.  Yuki and Usagi were particularly bedraggled as they extricated themselves.

     All of them cringed as Unit 02 drew its mallet and liberally applied it to Unit 01.  "You needed to be more aggressive!" Unit 02 screamed in Asuka's voice.

     "Yes Mistress!" Unit 01, in Shinji's voice, assured the other unit as it cringed.

     "We're leaving," Usagi said, picking chicken entrails out of her hair.

     Tomoe headed towards the command deck.  She saw Gendo, thankfully clothed in his uniform.  Suddenly someone behind Tomoe drew a sword, scaring her.  The woman approached Gendo, she looked like a cross between Pilot Ikari and Pilot Ayanami.  Maybe their mother,Tomoe thought as the woman placed the blade against Ikari's throat.  He sweated profusely.

     "The EVA project will make my son a man among men, won't it?" she asked.

     Gendo tossed his cold tea on himself, the resulting panda held up a sign reading 'Of course dear, would a panda lie?'

     Tomoe started to slip out, when she suddenly felt a draft, Fuyutsuki, about forty-five centimeters tall, shouted "What a haul," as he brandished Tomoe's underwear.  Fuyutsuki the perverted dwarf had also liberated the swordswoman's.

     "I hope she was wearing the red satin briefs with the little bows on them."  Tomoe went chasing after the cackling dwarf.  I'm not running away from the panda and the swordswoman, she silently assured herself, I'm not.  I'm not.

     Usagi was walking through the NERV corridors, all eerily empty.  'DAAAAARRRLLLING!' she heard.  A woman with short, brown hair, and small horns like an oni's, in a lab coat, flew by.  Usagi followed her into the lab.  Inside, the woman shed her labcoat, revealing a tigerskin bikini, thigh-high tigerskin boots, and a verygenerous figure.

     She makes Yuki look like a half-grown boy! Usagi thought.  The oni-girl draped herself on Dr. Akagi, who was absolutely fascinated repairing some device, seemingly unaware of the girl plastering herself onto the scientist.

     Suddenly catlike ears popped out of Ritsuko's blonde hair.  She leapt.  "Ranmmma-san!"  Ritsuko trampled Usagi on her way to flattening Ranma against the floor by sitting on his chest, the bells on her collar jingling.  Ritsuko was too busy purring and rubbing herself on the flattened Ranma to notice how angry the oni-girl was getting.

     "Oh how tragic!  To be so irresistible to women, when my only true love is the Art, the flirtatious bitch."

     He gave Ritsuko a rose before leaping clear, just as the oni-girl screamed, "Maximum Revenge!" and her growing blue aura became a lightning bolt, frying Ritsuko, and catching Usagi, whom the charge dazed.  Usagi crawled away smoldering, as the oni-girl comforted Ritsuko bemoaning that 'Some devil has hurt my Darling Sempai!'

     Yuki normally wasn't concerned about a guy taking her underwear, because he saw it as an obstacle, not a goal in and of itself.  So she was in pursuit of the little pervert.  She followed him into his office and discovered she couldn't affect him or get his attention as he washed and ironed the vast collection of 'silky darlings'.

     Then walked in the most marvelous piece of NERV-Issue beefcake.  Unshaven, ponytailed shirtless and immeasurably yummy.  Yuki was drooling and considering whether the pervert would mind if she used his desk.

     "These are mine," the beefcake said as he picked up a pair of pink panties with a rabbit embroidered on them.

     Yuki and Commander Fuyutsuki shared a horrified look.  "EEEWWWWW!"

     Then Yuki's anger boiled up.  "CURSE YOU NABIKI TENDO!  For trampling on my dreams YOU WILL PAY!!!"

     Harumi walked into the infirmary.  Rei Ayanami stood inside, wearing a plugsuit without sleeves or legs, the bandages wrapped around her lower legs looked like leggings.  Shinji Ikari walked out of the examination room.  "It was only a few strained muscles," he told her.  Rei nodded then nervously handed him a bouquet of black roses.  He thanked her, but kept them at arms length.

     Rei emitted a spine-chilling 'Ho ho ho!' like Santa Claus's scary, little sister, then she bounded away.

     Shinji waited until Rei was out of sight and tossed the roses away.  Harumi caught them.  She took a deep breath of their marvelous fragrance, and instantly became one with the floor tile.

     Tomoe had gotten lost, she'd walked through the corridors for what she thought was an eternity.  Finally, she heard some heavy machinery sounds.  She entered a huge room, Pilot Davis was there, dressed in a bird costume, bright colored plumage.  The four EVAs stood behind him, also dressed as brightly colored birds.  Davis used a pitch pipe.  With flapping of wings, the EVAs began to sing.  "King.  Oh, better far to live and fly under the brave feathered flag I fly, then play a sanctimonious part with a parrot's head and a parrot's heart, away to the mocking world go you, where they who speak are well-to-do; but I'll be true to the songs I sing, and live and die a Parrot King.  For I am a Parrot King!  And it is, it is a glorious thing to be a Parrot King!"

     Tomoe prayed to Shub-Niggurath that the Goddess would blot all the events of today from her mind as she slowly walked backwards doing nothing that might attract attention.  Once outside the door, she sank to the ground, the strains of 'The Parrot King' still emanating from the EVA bay.  "I've got to get out of here," she said, "I'd even follow a white rabbit about now."

     Her god wasn't listening, or refused.

     Usagi had found Nabiki's office.  Usagi wanted vengeance on the girl more than she'd wanted anything in her life.  She was going to make her PAYfor the indignities of this incursion.

     The architects designed the entire room to intimidate with its scale.  The massive Sephiroth carved in the floor, and the desk so huge it made Nabiki look tiny.  Suddenly someone called an alert, summoning the Grand Supreme Magnificent Legendary Invincible Brilliant Exalted Almighty Breathtaking Heroic Omnipotent Glorious Palatial Rudimentary Majestic Humble Leader.  Nabiki picked up a huge stick, easily three times her height, and pogoed past the stunned cultist.  Usagi was shocked that Nabiki was only about 45 centimeters tall.

     Yuki had been following the NERV-beefcake, intent on doing somethingto convince him that his underwear fetish wasn't really a problem.  Then someone splashed the ponytailed NERV-beefcake with water and he became Misato Katsuragi, in Misato's usual clothes.

     That's isn't an improvement, Yuki thought.

     Fuyutsuki appeared from nowhere and shouted, "SWEETO!" before grabbing Misato's chest, while removing her bra.

     Misato peeled him loose and shot him repeatedly.

     Yuki decided she wanted OUT!

     Usagi met up with Tomoe, who had Harumi over her shoulder.  Yuki joined them, and they were all ready to leave.

     Tomoe admitted, "I haven't seen an entrance or exit for hours."

     Usagi looked at the others.  None of the others had seen one.

     "Well, after all this walking, I'm hungry." Yuki complained.

     "After what I've seen, I'm NOT," Usagi said, "Don't look so shocked."

     "It's not that," Tomoe teased, getting some of her old nastiness back, "After what I've seen, I can't imagine - I smell cooking meat?"

     "Chicken?" Usagi asked, then watched Tomoe and Yuki head towards it.  Harumi woke up as they found Admiral Simson grilling meat in the cafeteria.  The smell made all of them salivate, he gave each girl a large chunk.

     "This is delicious, what is it?" Usagi asked, chewing happily.

     "Mermaid flesh."  All four girls turned into mindless monsters.

     "Well, they can't be pilots," Simson commented as he flamethrowered them.

     Usagi woke with a scream.  She carefully examined herself.  She realized, I'm human, not deformed or burnt.  She sighed and threw off the covers, and headed to the bathroom.  She passed the telephone, which rang.  She picked it up.

     It was Yuki.  "We are never going into Tendo's dreams again, correct?"

     "Correct," Usagi agreed.  Then wondered, Why was that girl asleep at such a time?

     'They are alive.  Roku-kun and Nabiki-kun are fine and returning.  Doctor Akagi and Analyst Ibuki are likewise safe.  They will be returning by train and ship by the 19th or 20th.'

     Ranko had heard Rei's announcement, and she was happy.  She'd had a bad feeling for days now.  As if . . . as if they were never coming home.  Now she knew different.  Loneliness, the revelation hit so hard she sat up in bed.  "Loneliness.  It can't be that simple!"  But it is, that's part of my attraction to all the pilots, but especially Nab-chan and Jeffrey, they're lonely, and dealing with their loneliness - and Ranko's own - she had a simple solution: spend time with them.

     "But it's more than that," Ranko assured herself.  There's a - hard to explain - difference between Nab-chan's and Jeffrey's loneliness and say Asuka's, she thought, All Asuka needs is a 'project' to yell at and improve, and she's happy.  I always got the feeling Nab-chan and Jeffrey could be alone in a room full of adoring fans, but both seemed to open up to Ranma and Ranko, respectively.

     "Okay, I'm over - wording - this, think in behaviors, think like it's a fight," she told herself gently, closed her eyes and started going over every time she'd seen Nab-chan and Jeffrey together, with other people, and when the three of them were alone.

     The Scholarly Dragon rested.  The odd dream he'd left for the cultist invaders had been taxing.  I did enjoy giving that pack of idiots a nightmare.  The boy has retreated so deeply even I can no longer find him, he worried, Dragons are supposed to be solitary creatures, and the idea of one of us being lonely would get more laughter from any dragon who overheard it than you could shake a stick at.  But we dragons do form strong bonds,he thought, With our mates, a few friends, even a rival or two, because, oh how we dragons like being talked about,he smiled and considered,And epic confrontations against skilled foes are always good `press` and a reputation is always welcome.  Still, the boy had been particularly bereft when he'd engaged Sharon, the Dragon considered, The boy had been prepared to `sanction` her if necessary, and had been equally determined to do everything necessary to avoid having to do that, and he hadn't been successful.

     While I would be unlikely to admit it, the Dragon thought, I went ahead on this mission into the Passes into Leng, to be alone.

     Now I'm more alone than I like, he thought, and chuckled, I certainly reacted in a typical dragon fashion, I've attacked every Leng Spider or other significant enemy on the Red Dragon's planned route of advance, and was far more brutal in the fighting than was strictly necessary.

     None of them even had a collection of useful artifacts, the dragon thought of the paltry `horde` he'd assembled during his attacks.

     "Mmmmrrrooow?" came the interrogative.

     The dragon glanced up.  How did that get here? the dragon thought, I guess continuing to hide that from the boy is going to be a problem.  Saotome knows about it, Perhaps Tendo, but it seems no one else does.  He smirked at the surprise the boy would get when he encountered it for the first time.  Then something disturbed him, and he turned to look at Saotome's `other`.  First, were the beautiful wings, a feature he'd never seen on it before.  The graceful upsweep of the white feathers on the inside, and the soothing sound their rustling made.  On the outside they were a pale tan that attractively brought out the tawny hide and the dark gray stripes that highlighted the lean, powerful muscles that moved beneath her skin as she glided forward.  The second was the size.  The creature was easily the same length from shoulder to rump as he was.  While his neck was longer, her tail was nearly as long as his as it twitched with her walk so enticingly.

     Trouble here, the dragon thought, turned away from the bewitching apparition and fired off a short shot of his breath weapon.  `Cleansing the palate`, he thought, So to speak.

     Then he smelled it clearly, before it started addling him again.  The other is clearly female, he realized, And just as clearly, in season.

     Except those are dragon scents, not cat scents, he thought desperately.

     "Mrrooooowy," she said throatily.

     While the Scholarly Dragon mused on the reasons why this was happening, he already knew what to do.  Never have a cave without a back door, he thought as he turned tail and ran.  While every instinct told him to turn around and . . . accommodate the luscious creature, he hadn't lived this long by being stupid.  I can't think, if it's a trick, the dragon thought as he cleared the hidden exit of the cave, sucking in huge lungfuls of air that weren't saturated with pheromones, Or if that really is Saotome.  He launched himself into the air and headed to the nearby mountains.  Nothing can match me in the air, he thought, Not even the newest fighter planes.

August 2, 1947 - Boston (GMT -5.0 hrs)

Know Yourself, If You Need Help, Call The FBI.

     Ritsuko knocked on the door to the Harvard home.  She knew that Jeff's aunt and uncle were home.  She had good news that Jeff was alive and Sharon wasn't.  She also had another thing to talk about, something she wanted kept private.

     "Doctor Akagi.  Please come in."  Abigail met her at the door, ushering her in.  "How is Jeff?" she asked carefully.

     "That, is a very interesting question," Ritsuko said, "Is your husband about?"  Ritsuko could feel the man's presence.

     "In the study."

     "Will you join us in the study?"

     "Of course," Abigail said worriedly.

     And worried for a good reason, Ritsuko thought.  Ritsuko removed the papers from the briefcase she held.

     The Dean met her at the threshold of his study.  "I hear you have something to talk to us about."

     Ritsuko held up a photo of Sharon, Jason, Jeff and the six British 'elements', at age 7.  "You might say that," she said coldly.

     The Dean seemed to collapse in on himself.  "Please, come in."

     "I have no explanation," the Dean admitted, he sat in his chair, his hands clasped in his lap.  The papers on the table next to him.  Abigail sat across the bookshelf lined room, staring at the tea cup in her lap.

     "You have no explanation," Ritsuko said as she paced, she was on the verge of murder, but restrained herself for the moment, and for her young charge, "That's all you have to offer?"

     "We didn't approve of what had been done," Abigail protested.

     "What was done?" Ritsuko asked coldly, "That's a pretty euphemism for brainwashing and torture.  I knew you were hiding a few things, I suspected you had a reason . . . but this?  You let him believe he'd killed his beloved, older brother, you let him believe that his parents sent him away.  A child that age will assume it is his fault.  That it was something he did!" Ritsuko thundered at them.  Having a set of joyous memories that were all illusions, made her especially sensitive about this.  Jeff had given her many false memories, but overall they were pleasant.  What has been done to these `children` was inhuman, she thought before continuing, "Then you sent him to us, and you didn't bother to tell us.  We could have dealt with it."  She was having trouble dealing with her temper.  Neither of the two academicians could meet her gaze.  "And the folks in Wyoming.  Did they know?"

     "My brother and his wife, yes; none of the hands, or the kids, especially not Jenny" the Dean said miserably.

     "You do realize he'll eventually find out," Ritsuko said coldly, "So far, no secrets seem to be able to withstand the pilots' combined efforts.  Pilots Langley and Davis have already discovered things beyond what we knew.  Pilots Ayanami and Saotome have also discovered other things we never even considered.  They will discover this."

     "You . . . you . . . won't tell him . . . before we're ready?" Abigail plead.

     "I refuse to promise, I just told you that they'll figure it out, whether I tell him anything or not."  She paused, mastered herself.  "He's unconscious right now.  Evidently he did away with Sharon, why exactly I can only guess."  With a surprising degree of accuracy, she thought.  "You won't be able to tell him anything.  However, I suggest you write something.  I'd advise you tell him everything, including why."

     "He . . . was so much like a real, little boy," Abigail said softly, "So sad and uncertain.  Doctors Davis, his parents, simply dropped him off, they had important work to do."  She looked up at Ritsuko.  "We tried our best.  You assume we could have changed anything.  Samuel was so real to him, as real as sunrise and there would be no way to convince him otherwise."

     "Did you try?" Ritsuko asked coldly, "Someone drove a stake into his heart, and you left it there.  How can you say that, and ever expect him to trust you?  You knew what he was, don't you realize that trust, affection and other expressions of concern are the only control we have?  Do you realize what they are becoming, what we are going to wind up with?  They probably can either withstand, survive or ignore any countermeasures that we can use."  She shook her head.  I've got the perfect countermeasure for Jeff, at least right now.  I know, through his memories, a dozen to use on the other pilots, she thought.

     "The only defense we have, is that they care about us," she said, "And the human race."

     The Meliorist was walking through the camp.  She was worried, truth be told, she was generally worried, but an assault in force into Leng was risky at best, but the idea of actually assaulting the prehistoric monastery to 'seize the Runes of Elder Lore' seemed more like a treasure hunt than a military expedition.  If it were military, they would have taken ships, landed at Sarkomand, driven the moon beasts and other dire things out of it, and either headed overland, or through one of the tunnels to the monastery.  Instead, they were coming from the opposite direction, marching from their new base beyond Zais, to Zais, boarding flying ships, or dragons, to Ignarok, then marching the rest of the way to the Valley of Spiders.  The spiders themselves were the least of their worries.  The dragons seemed to take great delight in ferreting them out of their holes, and the firedrakes enjoyed roasting them alive in their webs.

     Actually the Spiders are a problem, the Meliorist thought, I hear one more conversation/argument about how best to cook them, I'm going to scream, and if I hear one more discussion about how they taste, I'm going to throw up all over the spinnen-klatsch.  [Spider chitchat]

     The rapid arrival of the Scholarly Dragon lightened her mood.  Her old friend could convince the other dragons that they'd carried the joke too far.  He also had been scouting farther out ahead, so he would know what was waiting for them.  Then she noted how tired he looked, and how he kept glancing over his shoulder, and at the sky.

     "Trouble?" she asked as she gripped her sabre-halberd tightly, expecting anything to come dropping out of the sky.

     "No, no spiders or other monsters," the dragon said with an air of calm that didn't fool her, "The pass is clear, even found a good campsite for about two days from now."

     "Good, good," the Meliorist said, "Are you all right?"

     The dragon's head came around so quickly, the Meliorist feared he'd give himself whiplash.

     "Fine, fine, no trouble, really no trouble," he said, then nervously scanned the skies again, "Why should anything be awry?"

     The Meliorist was considering switching to taller boots, considering the quantity of `fertilizer` the dragon was slathering on things.  "Oh, nothing.  You're just as nervous as a cat in - "

     The angry gaze from the dragon silenced her.  "That's - not - funny," he intoned balefully, then went back to searching the skies.

     "Fine, Saotome," she muttered, got another warning glare.  Terrific, now he's gone nuts.

     Anna's arrival lightened her steadily darkening mood.  "Nothing behind us or on the flanks, if they're aware of what we're doing, nobody is reacting," Anna reported, throwing her commanders a crisp salute.  "I did see something, a cat-"

     The sudden departure of the Scholarly Dragon knocked both women to the ground.

     "Wow, jet propelled," the Meliorist commented as she picked herself up and dusted herself off.

     "Have you been feeding him rocket fuel again?"

     "No, I think he's been eating too many undercooked spiders, what did you see?"

     "Has he ever been like that?" Anna asked.

     "Never mind him, what - did - you - see -?!" the Meliorist insisted.

     "Oh, three EVAs, in Switzerland."

     "That's impossible, Units 05 and 06 had to be completely reworked because of the S2 engine problems.  Units 07 through 09 won't be ready for months."

     "Well," Anna said, "That's what I saw."

     "What was piloting?" Asuka asked.

     "It was human, from what I saw . . . I dropped a couple of grenades into the entry plug, the U.S. Army was doing an autopsy just to be sure."

     The Meliorist squirmed at that.  I've killed in the Dreamlands, and I know that kills the person in the real/Waking World.  But, Asuka has never killed, not like Anna and Jeff have.  "You have been learning Raccoon's sense of subtlety.  I also found out you helped Raccoon `arrange` to have me delivered to British Intelligence.  Why didn't you go with?"

     "I knew where they had moved Unit 02.  I also knew that only the Americans had the facilities to get it out before the Soviets got it.  Patton got the Lipizzaner Stallions, he got Unit 02 as well."

     "Makes sense.  Why didn't you tell me?"

     "You were so mad about being 'sold out' to the British, you wrote me that you never wanted to speak to me again.  The Meliorist didn't, until the Scholarly Dragon forced us to," Anna replied.

     "I'm sorry, it's just . . . I am going to kill Horseface for doing this to me," she muttered, "After what my dad did, to you and me, I thought everyone had turned against me."

     "Pretty silly thought, considering two people just plucked you out of Hell, at no small effort on their part I may tell you."

     "I was twelve, and I was hurting!" the Meliorist shot back.

     "And I was teasing," Anna replied, "You are sooo serious lately.  You weren't like this when you were mooning over Kaji."

     "HA!" Asuka barked, "Kaji, talk about a waste of time," the Meliorist said, and sighed, "I am worried, being around the Limeys was one thing, I spoke and read their language.  I knew I was a prisoner, but I was well-treated, but they never set me up for . . . "

     "Come on," Anna said and led her away, "Let's get something to drink, and you can tell me all about it."  Anna led her away to the tents.

You Are A Fluke Of The Universe, You Have No Right To Be Here

August 3, 1947 - Tokyo (GMT +9.0 hr)

     Mirei was 'throwing smoke'.  Easy enough for me to hit, Ranko thought as she watched the slider come over the plate, she tapped it just right to send it right back to Mirei.  That's the tough part.  She's also getting a lot better with the distractions and head games, Ranko thought.

     "It's your fault really," Mirei said as she loosed a screwball.

     Nuts! Ranko nearly missed, but caught it, returning it to the mound.  "How is it my fault?!" shouted back angrily.  Why is everything MY fault all of a sudden?!

     "You said it yourself.  'They keep saying 'Ten years is too long to spend learning that stuff.''  And they're right," Mirei said, "The idea is, you are not catering to their needs, or their interests.  You love martial arts so much, you figure everybody ought to."

     "Why should I - ?"  Ranko dodged as the ball passed behind her.

     "That's why," Mirei said, "You have to put it in their strike zone.  They do fight.  Shinji fought before you arrived.  Mr. Davis does some . . . weird stuff.  So they have to have some talents, talents they worked on as hard as you worked on martial arts.  Part of what they're so pissed at you - "

     "Language, young lady!" Mirei's grandfather, their catcher, reminded her.

     "I apologize, grandfather," Mirei said and bowed, "But that doesn't change the fact that those geniuses have made what they loved and thought you, and Ranma-san, should know, easily and even eagerly accessible.  They made you want to learn what they loved.  You're a genius in martial arts, and you can't do the same?  I'm ashamed of you, you should have been able to figure something out.  Unless you aren't that good."

     Ranko was so incensed about the insult, she missed the ball.

     "Strike Three!" Mirei's grandfather called.

     Ranko stood there fuming at both of them.  The worse part is, she's right, Ranko thought.

     Ranko stared at the page of the notebook, she felt Asuka peering over her shoulder at the diagrams and kanji characters that covered the page.

     "What are you doing?" Asuka asked.

     "Each person has a different attitude towards fighting," Ranko said with a faraway voice.

     "Spineless runs away, we have to drag you away from one.  That's obvious," Asuka said.

     "Then why didn't you tell me?" Ranko asked angrily.

     Asuka frowned at the other redhead.  "You aren't the expert I thought you are," Asuka shot back, "So what does that have to do with the pages of chicken scratch and pretty pictures that have you hypnotized?"

     Ranko pointed to one section, "From what you and your dreamself the Meliorist have said, you prefer long-range, your sabre-halberd, with Raccoon in front."

     "So?" Asuka asked.

     "So I should look into that, Raccoon's savate is more appealing to you than my close up stuff."

     Asuka shrugged.

     "That's what I'm talking about," Ranko said, "Rei can run real fast, I should be able to adapt that."

     "I see," Asuka said, "You're going to invent a martial art for each of us."

     "Exactly," Ranko said brightly.

     "I was right, you're nuts."  Asuka walked away.  Ranko stuck out her tongue at Asuka's back.  "I see you."

     "How?" Ranko said in fright.

     "I know you were doing something," Asuka said as she left.

     Ranma took over and went back to his work on the diagrams about Martial Arts.  He remembered what else Mirei had told `her` to drive the point home.  'Have you ever talked to Ayanami-san?  Or Davis-san, or Langley-san?  Asked them about what they feel about piloting?'

     'Yeah, kinda,' Ranko had replied.

     They're always so gloomy about it, Ranma thought.

     'Ayanami-san is honest about it, Davis-san makes a joke about it, and Langley-san always changes the subject, but all of them are the `professional` pilots who understand what it really means,' Mirei had told Ranko, 'And none of them expect to live to see their 18th birthday.'

     'Yeah,' Ranko had replied as she batted the ball back.

     'You don't see it?' Mirei had asked.

     'No,' Ranko had replied while she waited for the pitch.

     And I have been so stupid I didn't see it coming, Ranma thought as he stared at the page, filled with half-completed ideas, My ideas, I haven't asked them yet.

     'You took ten years or so to get that good?' Mirei had asked as Ranko had concentrated on tapping the ball back to Mirei, who then caught it easily, 'So they'll be 6 years dead before they could be as good as you are now.'

     'Strike FOUR!' Mirei's grandfather had called.

     And what a strike four, Ranma considered, How stupid must I have looked.  'Say let's waste what little time you've got left learning something that won't help you until you're almost dead.'  They told me, but it was never enough to penetrate my assumption they were just picking on me.  They really do think they're all going to die.  And they also think if they can teach me, and ole Shinji, and Nab-chan enough . . . we might survive.  I've been telling them to live for nothing except Martial Arts for four years they have, and for six they don't, when they might be doing something to assure some of us get through this.  Ranma threw his head back and sighed.  He grabbed one of his red tresses, stared at it.  They're all so sure they're going to die, and I'm worried about being stuck as a girl.  Mirei reminded me she knew the life we lived, I remember she was at Hiroko's and Seisuke's funeral . . . why can't I remember my other friend's name?  Did I only care about them because they practiced Martial Arts too?  Am I that shallow?

     'But they don't really believe they are going to die!' Ranko had protested to Mirei.

     'Yes, Ranko-san,' Mirei's grandfather had told the `two` girls as he approached, 'Forgive me for interrupting, but those three pilots act as did my grandson's fighter squadron.  They were willing to continue fighting for the Emperor, and for Japan, but none of them expected to live.  Some turned inward, others sought to do everything they could to train others, others lived very - ' he had glanced warily at the two girls, 'Exuberant lives.  Ayanami-san, Master Davis and Miss Langley are picture perfect examples.  They do as children would, but they are still doing it.'

     But being able to fight better means that they won't die, Ranma thought, repeating Ranko's protest, and the icy cold feeling that came with the realization, The one standing in the way of that was - me.  'Learn it the way I did!'  Except I bet they haven't taught me the way they learned, because they figured out a better way, for me and for them.  But I haven't even tried!  He pounded his head on the table.  "How stupid could I be?"

     "Lots stupider, but I have faith in your drive to excel," Asuka called from wherever she was.

     "Thanks," Ranma shouted back.

     'Maybe won't die,' Mirei had corrected Ranko, 'There's always accidents and opponents stronger than you are.'

     And that ended any argument I could have had, with her, or with myself.  I had a task set before me months ago, and because I was reacting to the blows, I never paid attention to defeating the enemy, Ranma thought, Because the real problem actually was me, not because I did something wrong, or failed to do what was expected of me, but because I didn't go way beyond what I could do, didn't seek to really excel.  Like Mirei's grandfather told me, 'So they don't see an investment of ten years they don't have, for no benefit today.  They are all living for today, however they are showing it, that's what they're doing.  If you don't offer them something of benefit today, they won't care.'

     "And our morning practice, all that is, is what Asuka taught me in a few weeks, not what I learned in my ten years.  All preprepared, predigested, and processed because she realized I needed to teach, so she gave me something to spoon feed the others.  She spoon feeds it to me, I send it to the others, but what part of what I know went into those lessons?" Ranma asked himself.  Nothing, he thought, remembering `Ranko` had told Mirei the same, There's nothing of what I arrived with as part of the lessons, no part of my Art or myself.  I AM good at Martial Arts, THE best!  I wouldn't be shortchanging the Art, or them.  It's no crime to break down the Art into pieces the way Asuka taught me to, to see the patterns and similarities.  Simplifying without reducing.  Mirei's grandfather was right, I didn't make it attractive, I didn't `sell` it to them the way they convinced me to learn math or teaching . . . or the other stuff.

     "Selling the Art," Ranma murmured, "I was so offended."

     'What do you think running a dojo is?' Mirei's grandfather had told Ranko, 'If you don't have students, your Art dies.'

     "That's what still bothers me, more than me dying.  If that happened, I wouldn't have to watch," Ranma said, "I can do this, I have my ideas . . . now I have to sell it."  He glanced at Sammi, who'd been silently watching him argue with himself the entire time.  Wonder if either noticed the distance between us, Ranma thought, At least they didn't act like they noticed.  My head hurts and I can't believe how tired I am.  But I've got a few basic punches and kicks broken down like the moves in Talhoffer: start, strike, end.

     Ranma gathered his papers, pushed away from the table and headed downstairs to his room with them.  He closed the door and flopped down on his bed.  She hugged the pillow tightly against her body.  Raccoon's pillow, entered her head.  "AGH!  I am turning into a girl!"

     "I remember Raccoon talking about the reason ki and Martial Arts attacks couldn't affect the Great Old Ones, was they could be 'elsewhere when the attack landed," Ranma said.

     "That sounds like something he'd say," Asuka said, "You make a good parrot, once they train you not to crap on your owner's shirt."

     Ranma frowned, wishing that his best insults could compete with Asuka's or Raccoon's.  "Fine, but do you know what it means?"

     "Of course, it implies a translation from our time -space continuum to another or even a timeless phase space, like a Laplace transform."

     "Oh , right.  That would be obvious to anyone," Ranma said smugly, "It means that we should be able to do the same with the EVAs."

     "Except with the AT fields fully deployed, the spaces coincide, at least the stronger are superimposed over the weaker."

     "It should also be possible for anyone who can manipulate an AT field," Ranma said excitedly, "Imagine, a fist fight where you could be elsewhere when the blow fell."

     "I wouldn't let an enemy get that close," Asuka replied haughtily.

     "That's a dodge, but if some of our enemies are human, then it makes sense.  Raccoon also maintains he won his fights by being the last one standing, so it seems a perfect mix."

     "And - you can offer to teach Wondergirl -what, Cthulhu-fu?" Asuka asked him, smiling as he shuddered at the name.

     "So is that what you've been working on?" Asuka asked.

     "You think Martial Arts is a waste of time?" Ranma asked.

     "If it doesn't have an immediate benefit, it's too late for a long process of learning," Asuka told him.  Eerily mirroring what Mirei and her grandfather had told him earlier.

     "If you really want to teach these ideas, you'll need to talk to Wondergirl," Asuka told Ranma, "After all, she's going to be the hardest sell.  Raccoon will agreed just to humor `Ranko` and to prove she's got a place with the adults at the table."

     Ranma frowned at her, both for the implied insult and worse, she was right, convincing Raccoon would be easy, for Ranko, compared to convincing Rei.  "What do you suggest?" Ranma asked, batting `her` eyelashes at the other redhead, "You wouldn't be taunting me this way, unless you already had a better idea . . . for fear I'd call you on it and you'd look stupid."  Ranma hid his smile while Asuka glowered.  I am learning, he thought, You'll have to work a lot more to beat me.  I just don't brag about it until I'm ready to show it.

     "Very well, invite her over for a cooking lesson, or better yet, invite yourself over there for lunch.  Then you've got the whole afternoon you can even intersperse your persuasion with a few special lessons and basic moves.  She is way behind you and me and Spineless . . . well, he doesn't need the attention until he wakes up, nor does Ranma since he seems to be in hiding."

     Ranma shivered, "She hates me."

     "Wondergirl doesn't hate you," Asuka said sympathetically as she leaned close and gently stroked Ranma's hair, "She thinks you're a waste, and valueless.  Still, cheer up, the Commander values you, so really, you just confuse her"

     "Gee.  Thanks.  So the only reason she doesn't throw me in a trash can is ole' Stoneface doesn't think I'm junk."

     "Exactly," Asuka chirped, "As soon as he does, Wondergirl will rip out your guts and bury you in an ash heap immediately.  Isn't that comforting?"

     At least she didn't say 'Ranko loves her,' like Raccoon did, Ranma thought, then shuddered, trying to keep from thinking about how that might be true.

     "And don't let your crush on her get in the way," Asuka added as she left the dining room, and the floor hit Ranma squarely in the face.  "It's good you can express your true feeling for her, she seems so lonely and Spineless isn't as forward as you are."

     "I wonder if I can find a Great Old One who can eat me on short notice," Ranma lamented.

August 2, 1947 - Boston (GMT -5.0 hrs)

     Adam watched the medical staff carefully load his friend aboard the long-range air ambulance, he remembered the mistake he'd made.

     Adam had walked carefully, he'd entered the carrier's workshop.  The lad had been there, working on a project of his own, oblivious to the clang and rattle around him as the sailors had made their repairs to the carrier and its many machines.  Adam had watched silently as the lad had carefully cleaned and oiled the parts of the massive shotgun.  A weapon that still reminded Adam more of a Bofor's twin 40mm than a hand arm.  He knew only one purpose for such a lethal piece of hand artillery.

     'When were you going to tell me she had escaped?  And was bent on killing not only the Project members, but anyone who gets in her way?' the boy had asked, mercifully in Chinese, so it was unlikely the others had heard.

     'Soon after I learned which way you would jump,' he had sighed, 'Now I know.  I'm not displeased by your preparations, but I am a bit shocked.'

     'I'm going to try to bring her back,' he had said attaching the short barrel and the forward handgrip, 'But I have no illusions about what I'll have to do if I fail.  Since you aren't asking about this, or why I don't seem to have any ammunition here.'

     'Dragon's Breath,' Adam had breathed, remembering that Hellish mix of thermite and phosphorus that Jeff had used in the cane-shotgun he'd carried.  Turning a shotgun into a flamethrower.  Adam didn't blame anyone for being frightened of such a weapon.  The girl had been particularly . . . he had realized.

     'You intend to use her own fear against her,' Adam had said, he had been caught between admiration and disgust.

     'If nothing else works,' the boy had replied, 'There aren't easy answers.  If she's insane, she'll have to be stopped, if she's not, she could be a valuable ally.  She was always a better pilot than I was.  If she gets my spot, or Tendo's, I won't complain.'

     And return you to the shadows where you won't be revealed, Adam now considered what he should have realized at the time, What plans do you have?  You sent England a pilot but no EVA, daring us to use Asuka, the world's best and most experienced pilot, on Unit 03, while America kept a lesser pilot and Unit 02, your plan was to replace yourself with Sharon, a life for a life?  Adam didn't understand, Davis had always preferred draughts to chess.  'Because annihilating the enemy and winning the game in one move was possible,' Davis had explained.  Adam didn't see the difference between this and chess.  But it clearly indicated a very different way of looking at things.

     He remembered when the boy's task had seemed to be completed, he had returned the newly rebuilt shotgun to the large carry case.  'I'd rather you kept Miss Tendo out of this, she's not ready to step so far into the darkness,' the boy, who had ceased somehow to be a boy, had told him.

     'I suspect ggreg and I could divert her, but you are assuming she won't be Sharon's target,' Adam had replied.  There, I said it.  Now let her come, Adam had thought at the time.

     'I'll expect nothing less.'  The boy had stood, but an old man looked out of his eyes.  'Tell me something.  Will you be hoping the two of us annihilate each other, or do you still trust me enough to hope that I can either save or kill her?'

     Adam had looked away, he still had no answer for those too grizzled eyes.

     'At least you're honest.'  Jeffrey had taken his shoulder.  'Don't worry, you aren't the first, you won't be the last, either,' he had added sadly.

     Adam had realized he'd been dismissed, politely, but the meaning had been plain.  Davis had decided Adam and gregg couldn't be trusted in battle, so they hadn't been.

     "Well, old friend, did he know what you were going out to do, while he and his friends went out to a restaurant?" Adam asked, "Should I have gone with him?  We have lost what little control we might have had.  Cowardice and stupidity.  At least Miss Ibuki and Dr. Akagi have retained their hold, if not strengthened it.  Yet do we risk tightening our grip on them, or would he cut off the hand that attempted it?"

Be At Peace With Your God, Whatever You Conceive It To Be

     Shinji waited, in the towers that sat outside the massive city on the ice-covered planet.  Pluto, he thought idly, Yuggoth.  But nobody's around.  He had found many of the minds in containers.  He'd freed them as best and as many as he could.  Nobody else, no enemies, he thought and chuckled, No friends either.  He walked over the huge stairs that looped around an immense central pillar.  He found the twenty-three thrones that dominated the huge upper level.  Shinji walked across the floor, counting his steps.  He found the number of steps exceeded the size of the base of the tower.  He smiled at the possibility.  Bigger on the inside than the outside, he thought, Weird.

     Then he spotted the person sitting in the thrones, so tiny, he almost disappeared within them.  "Who?"

     "Relax," Raccoon the miniature told him, "I'm not really here.  Of course neither are you."

     Shinji approached, and realized just how tiny the figure was.  It would barely reach his hip and it practically vanished in the gray-green stone of the throne, except when he spoke, then he became plain for all to see.

     "I'm here too," a girl the same scale as Raccoon walked around the throne and plopped down next to Raccoon, who squeezed into the corner to maintain his distance.

     American, not just a European.  Only they act like they rule everything without meaning to offend.  She certainly looks the part, he thought.  "Your girlfriend?" he asked aloud.  What did I say? he thought as both turned vaguely purple.

     Suddenly the girl burst into laughter, Raccoon looked like he'd eaten a 10-course dinner, prepared by Misato in a `creative` mood.

     Shinji felt himself smiling in response to the girl's laughter.  "No, I'm just an echo, a last bit of one of the things you fight."

     Shinji was confused.

     "The Americans and British didn't need EVAs," she told him, "You're living proof that neither did the Japanese."

     "HWA!" Shinji shouted as he reeled back.

     "The Mi-Go won't come near this place, but you can walk it with impunity," Raccoon told him, "So can I.  If you really need to fight something, you can make a duplicate or make a copy as good as you can."

     "Make Great Old Ones?" Shinji asked.  That's INSANE, it's also horrifying! he thought.  "I . . . I remember walking the ancient ways.  Seeing . . . people, I guess, as they discussed just such a thing.  'To unravel the true secrets of the world,' that's what they sought, they would have done anything to achieve that knowledge, paid any price.  Is that what my father wants, to - to learn those secrets?"  The implications horrified him.

     "Much as I hate to admit it," Raccoon replied, "Gendo is too wise to go looking into such things.  He knows what it would cost him, and what he'd lose.  No, he doesn't seek that.  His desires are . . . more straightforward.  There are others, however, who seek exactly that.  And they are inexorably drawn to that knowledge, even knowing what will happen."

     "If they unravel the secrets of the world . . . to lay bare the nature of the universe and reach Enlightenment through the revelation.  I see them, over and over again.  Those we destroyed, those they destroyed," Shinji barely spoke above a whisper, reliving the ancient, stolen memories, fighting to avoid becoming lost in their sheer number, lost to their sheer power.

     "But reality is too terrible!" he shouted in horror, finally breaking free, coming back to being Shinji, "Entire races died from what they created.  One became Rhan Tegoth.  He consumed his entire race, reveled in their murder, in the bloodshed.  They were peaceful!  They never hurt anyone!  Why did he kill them?!"

     "Just knowing what you know drove them mad," the girl told him, "As it did me."

     "Why am I immune?" Shinji demanded in shock, "Raccoon are you?  Is Ayanami-san?  Asuka-san?"

     "You and I are immune because we are already there.  You've never fitted in because you aren't one of them, not human.  Nor am I.  The old rule holds, what do you have when you add a spoon full of fine wine to a barrel of sewage?"

     "A barrel of sewage," Shinji said, "What does that -?"

     "And what do you get when you add a spoon full of sewage to a barrel of fine wine?" Raccoon continued over Shinji's protest, "You get a barrel of sewage.  But in the first example nobody really expects to get a barrel of fine wine.  That's you, me and Ayanami.  We could stand on the edge of Chaos, staring into what would destroy everyone else, and the whirlpool would look away in terror."

     "I'm not a monster!" he shouted and advanced menacingly on Raccoon, "And neither is Ayanami-san!"

     "Because you chose not to be," Raccoon replied coolly, "You try desperately to be human, to be accepted.  Why do you want to be liked so desperately?  Because if humans like you, you are like them.  If they reject you, you are failing to be human.  I play the clown, Rei follows orders.  All of us play at being human.  Because we know in our heart of heart, how ever much we want or try to be, we aren't."

     "I'm HUMAN!" Shinji towered over the other boy, trying and failing to threaten him.

     "Because you choose to be.  You understand some small part of it, and it hurts and frightens you.  I understand a much greater bit, and I lie in a coma I may never awaken from.  You understand?  Rhan Tegoth was a monster so weak, a pair of novices could kill it," Raccoon said quietly, "What you are now . . . could destroy him without an EVA.  Chaugnar Faugn was a master geneticist, I see how I so easily could make so many changes.  I could wave a hand and perfect the human race.  Never to die, immunity to disease, regeneration from all but the most violent injury."

     "Then do it," Shinji suggested.

     "To what end?  And why stop there, eliminate our violent streak, prejudice, so many other things?"

     "Then why not that too?" Shinji asked angrily, "If you could erase misery with a wave of your hand, why don't you do it?!"

     "Do you remember the first time you cooked, and it was terrible?  Your most embarrassing moment with Ayanami-san, how terrible you feel when you have to look after Misato-san after she gets drunk again."

     "You know I do," Shinji said and turned away.

     "Humans remember their every failure, they only remember their greatest triumphs," Raccoon said, "Do you know, we've lost more art, literature and music than many of this planet's tenants have created?  We're at most 10,000 years old, pick any culture from the Egyptians, to the Chinese, to India, the Mayan, the Hebrews or the Greeks: songs, stories, myths, legends, paens to forgotten gods, words to seduce lovers long gone to dust, whimsical flights of fancy.  No other race that has walked this planet, some for billions of years, can match what that one culture you picked has provided.  Maybe our memories of failures drive us to greater heights of creativity.  Who am I to undo that?"

     "Allow suffering all for the sake of art?" Shinji scoffed, "And you say you aren't playing being a god?"

     "Maybe," Raccoon admitted with a shrug, "Or maybe I'm choosing not to, because I realize there just may be something greater than the 'secret of the universe'.  You absorbed a creature that achieve godhood by consuming his entire race, do you have any desire to consume other people?"

     "NO!" Shinji turned back and shouted at him, he felt he was arguing with a toy, and losing.  I could crush him with one hand, he thought as he raised his clenched fist to look at it, he unclenched it, That's what he's saying, soon I won't even have to use my fist.

     "But you understand how the process works.  The secret is known, by the others, by The Children.  The Children of what?  Of whom?  Have you ever sat up at night and stared at the ceiling wondering why?  What we are, what makes us different, if there are others, or just us?"

     "Yes," Shinji admitted, "And I thought I was the only one.  Because I was born a monster?  Is that what you're saying?  That I'll never fit in, that people won't care about me because of what I am?"

     "Remember the faces of our classmates when the Illigor attacked, remember how they looked at you," Raccoon ordered, his voice harsh and alien, "Was that fear, was it blind worship?  Or did they see Shinji the EVA pilot, and drew strength from knowing you, and me, and Langley and Rei, and Ranma and Nabiki were there.  They were ready to fight or run at your word, would they have done that for a monster?  Would you take away their right to make their own mistakes?"

     "I - I don't know.  What does that have to do with anything?" Shinji asked.

     "You stand in a fortress, having ravaged an enemy so powerful that a minor expedition holds the might of an entire nation in check . . . and where are your wounds, your bruises?  You have power that matches the gods of old.  Yet you fear acceptance and wish to see you friends strive and grow.  You ask me what you are and what matters?"


     "I haven't the faintest idea," Raccoon said, "Exhilarating, isn't it, finding out?"

     "Ayanami-san?" he stammered.  I should just flatten Raccoon and jump up and down on his corpse, he thought angrily.

     "Does she know or is she the same as us?  Yes, she knows, in some deeper ways, she knows better than I.  Is she the same as us, essentially yes, except they brought her to the knowledge of it before we were, and she is not as far along the path as you and I are."

     "And me," the girl said, breaking the ominous mood.

     "You my dear, stepped off the path, made deals you shouldn't have," Raccoon replied bitterly.

     "In all, you, me, Sharon, Jason, Rei-san, maybe Ranma, a more vague maybe for Nabiki and Asuka."

     "What are we?" Shinji asked.

     "We are what we choose to be," Raccoon told him.

     "Sharon?" Shinji asked, trying to concentrate on anything else.

     "He killed me," the girl said as she held up her hand, then laughed at Shinji's disbelief.  "You see, I made a mistake you all avoided.  Where you humiliated Nyarlathotep . . .  I listened to him.  So Jeff killed me.  He's such a dear."  She laughed as Shinji drew back.

     "How . . . how could you?" he shouted at Raccoon.  This is ridiculous, I'm huge compared with him, and I'm the one who's afraid, he thought.

     "How could I not?" Raccoon replied coldly, although he did seem ashamed.  "What would you do if Rei or Langley fell to our enemies, not killed but recruited?"

     "I . . . "  Shinji turned away, despite his size, he suddenly felt very small and weak.  "I don't know."

     "I do, and I would, so I'd take care of it," Raccoon said without a hint of scorn, "But who would do the same for me?"

     Shinji shook his head.  "Don't think like that!  You're no killer!"

     "Does he normally have these delusions?" the girl, Sharon, asked Raccoon.

     Shinji glanced over his shoulder as Raccoon shrugged.  "Shinji-san, I am a killer, that's what they built me for, trained me, molded me."  Raccoon stood up, walked towards Shinji, despite the fact he looked barely 6.5 centimeters tall, Shinji backed away.  "But I chose to do it.  I cannot be ordered.  I'm good at doing what I'm asked, and rotten at doing what I'm ordered," he told Shinji-the-Goliath as the larger boy backed away.

     "Now I have a decision to make."  Raccoon walked by him and to the parapet peering over one of the low parts of the alternating teeth.

     Crenelations, the thought intruded on Shinji's consideration.

     "Look at them out there."

     Shinji looked over one of the teeth.  Merlons, he heard another memory not his own.  He saw the frozen landscapes and the empty city.  A dark moon rose slightly off to one side.

     "So full of fear, yet so helpless," Raccoon continued.

     WHO? Shinji wanted to require from the other boy, his fellow pilot.  "The rest of the universe?" Shinji asked.

     "The rest of the universe will revel in the fall of the Mi-Go, but they will always wonder who is the strongest," Raccoon answered and turned to Shinji, "Are you prepared to become one of the strongest?  All the power and privileges, as well as the costs and responsibilities?"

     "I - I don't know," Shinji answered miserably, "I just don't know."  I remember the dream, me as the leader, but Rei-chan and Asuka-san, and Nabiki-san and Raccoon were all at my side, all helping, sometimes I felt they'd already made the decisions they were just informing me about what was going to happen.  But without them, with just me, he thought, I don't know, I'm afraid I'll become like my father.  "I want . . . people to like me."

     "A reasonable answer," Raccoon said, patting Shinji's leg, "But there's one thing you do need to understand.  That people show they care their own way."

     "I think I figured it out with Asuka-san.  She doesn't say, or seem to care, in fact she seems to hate you, but she's always driving the people she cares about to be better.  While she drives them away, why is that?"

     "It's not my story to tell.  But I will tell you one thing.  The Germans surrendered in April, why was she picked up in August?" he asked.

     Shinji considered, stared at Raccoon as he and the girl faded away.  He then looked out over the barren, empty landscape and considered what they all had said.

August 3, 1947 - Tokyo (GMT +9.0 hr)

     Ranma arrived at Rei's apartment.  Well, she didn't tell me not to come here when I called, he thought, I know she could hear me over the phone, I heard her breathing.  He knocked, then walked in.  "Rei-chan?"  He'd heard a violin as he approached, someone was playing it beautifully.  As he entered, he realized it was live, not a radio broadcast.  Ranma stood and watched as Rei sat on her bed making such heartbreakingly beautiful music.  Ranma wiped his cheeks.  Good thing I'm a girl, Ranma thought, Guys don't cry over music,

     "You're pretty good," Ranma said when she finished, "Why haven't you played with Asuka?"

     "I have played with Shinji-kun," Rei told him, "I wish to play with him again."

     "Well, if the school starts tomorrow, you'll need to practice, it's a new school."

     "Is there any doubt school will begin tomorrow?" Rei asked.

     Nitpick all you want, Ranma thought.  "They'll probably insult you.  You do look unusual, so you need to practice getting and giving insults."

     "I have not changed my appearance," Rei told him, "You are ugly, and your mother dresses you funny."  Rei began packing away her violin.

     "That's very funny," Ranma said, "But not having much effect."

     "Limited shock effect," Rei said.

     "That's right," Ranma said, then took a step back as Rei advanced.

     "You are the most beautiful cat I have ever seen.  Perhaps I should breed you with all the Toms I own."

     Ranma shuddered at the images that sprang to mind.  "Ah, that requires you know me.  You need some more general insults."

     "Why?" Rei asked.

     "You don't want them to pick on you, do you?"

     The subtle change that came over Rei frightened Ranma more than the idea of being bred with cats, he tried to back through the armored walls.

     "They - will - leave - me - alone," Rei said, not as a human, but Ranko couldn't get the idea that Rei had changed into an Angel, something that didn't belong on Earth, something alien and terrible, something so 'other' that the universe should expel it.  Yet Rei remained as she always appeared, towering over Ranko.

     "I do not believe I will be troubled," Rei said, reverting to normal.

     Ranko nearly sank to the floor in relief.  Only her pride and discipline kept her on her feet.  Well, Ranma ran away the only way he could, she realized on noting the change of personality, Weak, vulnerable girl my ass!  She could tear anything apart with her voice and bare hands.

     "Giving your victims heart attacks may not be a good idea."

     "Why not?" Rei asked.

     "You can't kill people."

     "I am quite able, I chose not to."

     "I mean you should not.  I don't think it's a good idea to kill," Ranko said.

     "If it is necessary," Rei said.

     "Learning to deal with insults," Ranko reminded her.

     "I already am," Rei said.

     "Well, humor me," Ranko said.

     "You are short, your feet do not reach the ground," Rei said in her emotionless tone.

     Ranko sighed and hung her head.  "Which gods did I piss off to deserve this?"

     "Cthugha, Rhan Tegoth, Nyoghta, Tulzscha, for certain, perhaps Amaterasu, Hachiman, Adonai . . . "

     Ranko emitted a scream of anguish.

August 2, 1947 - Albany (GMT -5.0 hrs)

     The train had gotten underway without any serious disruptions.  All the senior staff, which included the pilots, had their own small `cabin` on the train.  That wasn't where Nabiki was.  The huge double-wide flat cars directly behind the team of engines held Unit 04.  Nabiki sat there to watch the huge unmoving machine as the wind struck her back and whipped through her hair.  The machine was chained down like Gulliver had been by the Lilliputians.

     Except I piloted it on and assisted with the tie down, she thought.

     She was as alone as you could be on the train.  Too many people crowded into a small space and even in a private room, she could hear the activities of the other soldiers.

     In Japan I could be pressed cheek to jowl with others without trouble, here I want as much S - P - A - C - E as do the Americans, she thought, But I could be just as alone in one of the other cabins, then it would seem I was trying hard to be alone.  Out here I can just be alone, and no one wants to be out here.

     She looked at the huge machine.  "What do you do?" she asked, "Just fight, or do you want to do something else?"  Ranma is such a powerful fighter, but is that all he wants? she asked herself, But no one has ever asked him, not Akane, not Shampoo, and not me.  No, Asuka has, so has Raccoon, even Ritsuko, but not me.

     "What would you tell him?" she asked Unit 04, "What should I tell him?  What should I tell her?  Or is there something I should do?"

     She considered the betrayal by Belldandy.  I was supposed to be here to help Ranma.  I thought that would mean that I would stay with him.  That's not what I'll get.  "Is it enough just to do your job, to protect people.  Why isn't this enough?" she asked.  She hugged her legs to her chest.  The chill she felt had nothing to do with the wind.  "I want Ranma, want to spend my life with him.  Maybe have his children.  But I can't . . . what do I do?  Work on getting Ranko and Raccoon together, or fight Belldandy and her allies to get to stay, with Ranma?  But who can I get as an ally?  Raccoon would help, maybe some of the others.  But would it be enough?"  The tears she felt weren't all caused by the wind.

     The Unit said nothing, no voices descended out of the sky to advise her, comfort her or assure her it would be all right.

     "Sometimes I wonder if there is anything in this universe that really cares about humans and our concerns."  She checked the chains that tied down the EVA and then went back inside for a very late supper.  "So who do I to talk about this?" she quietly asked herself.

August 3, 1947 - Tokyo (GMT +9.0 hr)

     Asuka watched Horseface drag herself in, she looked like someone had been beating her with a stick.  She also muttered and twitched slightly.

     "Play with Shinji again, heh."  Horseface twitched.  "School begins tomorrow, heh."  Horseface flinched.  "Haven't changed my appearance, ah ha ha."  "I am quite able, heh."  Horseface stood up, tried to master herself, then broke down cackling, "But isn't canned corn supposed to be yellow!"

     "Are you - "  Asuka paused and drew back as Horseface stared at her with mad eyes.  "You all right?"

     "I think Rei-chan has the basics of insults and humor down pat," Horseface said, shivering violently, and returning to her quiet muttering.

     "But how do you know?" Asuka asked innocently, earning a venomous glare from Horseface.  "You mean you LOST?!" Asuka asked in horror, hands on her cheeks, to hide her incipient smile.

     Horseface continued to glare at her.  "I didn't realize I was in the battle until too late," Horseface told her tiredly, "And then it really was too late."  Horseface giggled again, and dragged herself into Raccoon's room.

     Asuka headed upstairs and picked up the phone and dialed.


     "Wondergirl," Asuka said, "Good work, if you beat her, you passed."

     "Good."  Click.

     "Well, meow to you too," Asuka said, "Wondergirl, you certainly earned your privacy."  Asuka hung up the phone.

     The Scholarly Dragon stood amid the Council of Dragonmages at their guildhall.  It was a full meeting.  The Dragon had taken human form, although some of the dragons were still in their native forms.  Alwyk and Altara among them.  The Meliorist stood beside him on the floor, looking up at the rows and rows of nervous mages.  He smiled at that, he would have bet on the two of them against most of the council, in any battle, mental or physical.

     "We are glad you acquiesced to our request," the ArchChancellor said, defusing the question of whether the Scholarly Dragon had submitted to a summons, or come of his own free will.

     Always games within games, the Dragon thought, And you don't know what mine is.  Is that what I stand here to answer for?  "There are always questions," the Scholarly Dragon said quietly, the rumble of his basso tone partially masked by his reduced size.  I still have the force of personality, he thought, And you all remember El Nureenen's fate.  I don't need to be a dragon to remind all of you what I am.

     "The question of whether a mage can take an apprentice has always been a concern," the ArchChancellor said.

     "It has always been the master mages' question of who and how," the Dragon replied smoothly.  I know where this is headed and how I will play this, he thought.

     "There are traditions," another of the council reminded him.

     The dragons glanced around worriedly.  'All mages are males', is an element of belief, despite the fact that over half of the dragons who now sit in judgment are female, the Scholarly Dragon thought and smiled, I could take the same route, and send them all into hysterics, but I'll keep that to myself.  I don't think the girl even knows the truth, yet.  It was all he could do to keep from laughing at that thought.  What kept him from laughing was his friend, the Meliorist, who stared at the entire council with a white-knuckled grip on her sabre-halberd, steely gaze, the struggle not to begin screaming at all of them written on every facet of her being.

     'If violence begins, it will begin with her', the Dragon thought of the worry of the others and railed at the stupidity of such `learned` beings, The threat is within me and always has been.  "I will cut to the chase," he rumbled, his voice filling the hall, drowning any other voice or thought, "You will demand that he give up his apprentice, I will refuse for him and you will decide whatever censure or other punishment you deem appropriate."

     The council shifted in their seats.  Much shielded whispering among the members.  The expressions among the dragon members were the least pleased, for the Human and Serpent Man members, he suspected their displeasure came from different sources, different reactions.

     "There is only one appropriate penalty.  Expulsion," the ArchChancellor told him.

     Considering that the boy cannot enter the Dreamlands currently, it isn't as harsh a punishment as it could be, and the good ArchChancellor knows it, politics, the Scholarly Dragon thought, letting the silence that followed the ArchChancellor's pronouncement stretch on and on.  No explosion from the knight?  It must mean worse is coming, he thought as the silence continued, broken only by hastily mumbled protections spells.  The Scholarly Dragon glanced at Alwyk.  "I believe your last apprentice so penalized returned as the ArchChancellor," he said confidently.  Alwyk smiled at that.

     The council frowned, they weren't happy by the deflection of their punishment, others had hoped to see an 'arrogant pup brought to heel'.

     One more lance in your side, the Dragon thought.  "I will inform him.  I doubt you will recover the Staff of Kavon, it will not serve you in any case," he told them.  Surprising, he thought of the explosion of outrage, That was what they wanted returned!  And you fools thought he'd simply turn over the device.  Stupid assumption, but not completely unexpected.  He waited until the `educated men` quit acting like spoiled children.  "As I am no longer a member of this council, even honorarily, if you are done with me?"

     They couldn't agree if they were or weren't, the Scholarly Dragon took the Meliorist's shoulder and led her away during the confusion.

     "You just stood there and took it!" she whispered harshly.

     "When we're on our way back," he replied.  I will not explain while we can be heard, he thought as he led his friend away, And let them hear that much.

     As they flew through the airs of the Dreamlands, the Scholarly Dragon explained, " `Ice Princess` is a natural mage, maybe comparable to the boy's talent.  He MUSTteach her.  Also - you don't have a nickname for 'Rit-chan' she must feel very left out, do you also neglect 'Misa-chan' that way?"

     "My names for Major Katsuragi Misato can't be repeated in public," the Meliorist said, "Military Genius', HA!  Any sergeant in the Wehrmacht is a better tactician and strategist than she is.  Wild and daring as her plans may be, they are also showy and overly complicated.  I'd bet Sho-1 was her idea, including attacking Taffy 3 with the Yamato, and then turning around at the moment of victory," the Meliorist said.

     "Well, Ritsuko accidentally got all his memories, feelings, etc., like what you felt through the AT field, he will have to teach her as well.  The council will go absolutely insane when they learn about that," the Dragon told her, then chuckled, a basso rumbling.

     "I can't believe it," the Meliorist replied, he `heard` through his skin, the wind whipped her words away as they flew.

     "She has the talent, both of them," he replied, "I don't know where Nabiki developed it, but it needs to be trained or it will cause her endless problems.  You know that as well as I do.  Ritsuko likewise has the full training of a mage, having her with that skill will be a useful surprise for any opponent."

     "Isn't she, both of them, kind of old for the training?" the Meliorist asked.

     "No," he explained, "She was already manifesting some talents.  Some people become spellcasters without any training.  Imagine if she actually was from that insane Nerima, she might have been able to sail through the madness without it ever touching her, maybe even shielding another person she cared about."

     "I'd hate to be whoever that was, once the protection was withdrawn," the Meliorist said, "Especially without warning.  So you've got two natural spellcasters without training.  Don't people who go through that go insane at some point of the process?  Well we don't have to worry about Ice Princess on that score, anybody after Ranma that way is already insane -"

     "Me thinks she doth protest too much, or would you like a saucer of cream when we land?" the Dragon said, and ignored the muttered comments from his passenger, he checked the sky for another cat-female he'd been having trouble with.  Saotome is doing that on purpose to repay me for my many `kindnesses`, he thought.

     "You have to admit, for a Japanese, she acts weird," the Meliorist said, in a surprisingly civil tone.

     "But not for a European?"

     "Or for an American," the Meliorist agreed.

     "The point is, the boy isn't about to abandon either of them, he'll teach both.  Another mage would be valuable, two of his level would be phenomenal."

     "Agreed," the Meliorist grudgingly admitted, "Any idea how soon and what kind of mage?  Would Ritsuko follow his way, or make one of her own?"

     "Not really, Nabiki will learn quickly, Ritsuko has the apprentice's usual problem of believing in magic.  Of course Tendo will be interested in learning the flash-bang type spells."

     "The exact kind he is terrible at," the Meliorist interjected.

     "True, it will be some work to get her to accept a more balanced arsenal."

     "Any special talents like he has?" she asked.

     "None seen yet, but that will have to wait until training actually starts," the Scholarly Dragon told her as he dodged around a cloud that was developing into a thunderhead, "It's too early to tell, for either of them."

     The Meliorist fell silent as they continued on to the base camp for the Red Dragons.  The advance into the plateau of Leng had continued without serious opposition, which worried everyone.

     "So," Anna asked as the Meliorist slid to the ground, "What was so critical that you bothhad to charge off?!"

     "Paperwork?" the Scholarly Dragon asked innocently.

     The Meliorist nodded sagely while Anna fumed at the implications.

     "I got kicked out of the Council, so did the boy," the Scholarly Dragon said, as he headed off to confer with the other dragons.

     "They wouldn't!" Anna exclaimed.

     "They did, and he said nothing!" the Meliorist told her heatedly, the old anger returning.

     "I think you're madder about it that he is," Anna pointed out.

     "Shouldn't I be?  You weren't there when he completed his trials," the Meliorist told her, "I was, and I know he could have been placed on the Council itself, if he'd been part of the `Illustrious Orders`, one of the six among equals, instead of one of the `lesser orders.`"

     "Again, you're more angry than he ever was about being snubbed," Anna pointed out calmly.  We go through this every time, she reminded herself, Don't let the frustration show.  Just because he doesn't fly off the handle doesn't mean he doesn't care.  He got his revenge a hundred times over and the entire Council knows it.

     "Well someone has to be angry about this!" the Meliorist replied, "Somebody ought to stand up for him!"

     "Then maybe you should marry him, a wife is supposed to be a husband's advocate."  That cools her down, Anna thought as the Meliorist froze in place.

     "Why do you keep bringing that up?" the Meliorist asked shakily.

     "Because it always shocks you back to reality," Anna said, "I swear, you could have a full-blown psychotic episode and telling you you'd married him would bring you back faster than electroconvulsive therapy."  And it would be the best for both of you.  You both need to grow up a little, then he could calm you down and you could get him a little more excited about being alive, she thought, When you two finally realize you aren't brother and sister, you can be husband and wife, or wife and husband.  Maybe both of you will finally be relaxed and happy.  She watched her friend release the tension and relax.

     "So what do we do?" the Meliorist asked.

     "Continue the advance," Anna said, "Do you think any of the dragons or mages with us will desert over this?"

     "If they do, we didn't want them in the first place."

     "Agreed," Anna said.

Let Not The Sands Of Time Get In Your Lunch

     The rocket stood atop the launch pad, silhouetted against a starry night sky.  The largest and most powerful such rocket ever built by man.  All with one purpose in mind.  To carry a small team to the moon, and return them and their samples to the Earth safely.  The full creative genius of the planet had been poured into this undertaking.

     The byplay of the controllers and monitors could be heard, in English since that was to common language of most of the major backers.  The countdown entered the final stages.

     Mission Specialist Toji Suzuhara checked the fittings of his suit one last time.  Life support for himself and his fellow astronauts was showing all green lights, he'd already reported that to Mission Control at AEC headquarters.

     "OH MY GOD!" came the stunned cry over the line.

     Somehow, Toji saw what had inspired the shocked cry.  The moon was rising, quickly.  Huge, obscuring a quarter of the sky, slowly rotating until the large central plain was predominant.  Slowly the plain withdrew into the mountain range far above, revealing an immense, argent eye.

     Like a silvery instead of a rusty Ghroth! Toji realized as he craned his neck to lookout the tiny windows of the cramped space capsule.  I can't see it, he realized, It should dominate the sky, but I can't see it.

     "There's nothing up there!" he assured Mission Control, repeated himself as two burly men dragged him from the space capsule.  "There's nothing up there!  Nothing!"

     He repeated it to Doctor Akagi as she injected him with tranquilizers as he sat in the straitjacket in a padded cell.

     "There's nothing up there!" he groggily told Doctor Langley, he could see through Sour Kraut's eyes the glaring silver orb as it stared down on the scurrying creatures on the planet beneath it.

August 4, 1947 - Tokyo (GMT +9.0 hr)

     Toji woke, glanced around his room, the sun hadn't arrived yet, but it would soon appear.  "I hate dreams like that," he lamented, "Even more, waking up too late to just go back to sleep.  School starts today."

[Ranma][NGE][HPL][AMG][Fusion][Fanfic] Sic Semper Morituri Chapter 50 - Big Iron

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.

     Ranma begins teaching the others the insult techniques that are part of his art.  He also senses Asuka's growing injuries, cause by ignoring her own limitations and trying to keep up with him.  He disobeys her demand, and heals her injuries.  She accuses him of using his Code of Honor to justify any action he cares to take.  Ranma attempts to discover a way make things right, while Rei tests methods of returning Asuka to normal.

     The Azores group discovers the Great Old One, the creature awakens and the battlegroup is surrounded by clouds and all the pilots are plunged into a dream.  Jeff and Nabiki awaken and return Cthylla to her temple.

     Anna Alise and an American Alpine troop encounter three EVAs in Switzerland, Anna captures one EVA and is ejected by remote.

     The Bennington arrives in Boston, while Jeff, Maya, Nabiki and Ritsuko are having dinner, Major ggreg fights and escaped from something.  Ritsuko finds out the truth about the project that created Jeff and Sharon, as well as others, and about Jeff's history in particular.  Sharon Lauren kills Sgt.Malkowitz, then rescues Nabiki from an angry crowd, before revealing their `shadowless` existence.  Nabiki confronts Belldandy about it, Belldandy has no explanation.  She confronts Jeff, kills Belldandy, then Jeff detonates his prepared bomb.  Belldandy returns from her murder by Sharon with a scream, while Keiichi comforts her.  Jeff gives Sharon a last chance, then absorbs her and falls into a coma.  Ritsuko, Maya and Nabiki arrive at the blast site and investigate, they find Jeff, but not Sharon.

     Ranma, Asuka and Rei awaken, Shinji remains unconscious.  Rei has a tantrum in reaction to the mission she sent Shinji on.  Ranma wonders why he's locked himself in female form.  Asuka and Ranma take Rei home with them.  Asuka and Ranma discuss the odd dreams they had.

     Rei's and Ranma's cults assault the last of the Children of Nyogtha.  Another group of Jeff's cultists capture Urd and threaten her with an Angel Eater, and the knowledge she can't defend against them.  The Russian cult of the 'Gray Lady' assault a cult and Children of Nyogtha, then celebrate their victory.  The GRU man recruits several of them for an upcoming operation.

     Ranma confronts Asuka over the events of August 1945, Asuka physically attacks Ranma while Rei prevents the guards from intervening.  Then Rei began telling jokes until Asuka laughed.

     Shinji destroys the Mi-Go's moonbase, but cannot see them and isn't affected by their counterattacks.  He releases many of the minds in their containers.  On Yuggoth, he meets with Jeff and Sharon, getting some insights into the real nature of the pilots.

     Keiichi delivers the bicycles, Ranma and Rei begin learning to ride them.  Admiral Simson accompanies Asuka, Ranma and Rei on a field exercise.  Asuka lays out her plans and leads the EVAs' attack.  Ranma develops a new `wire-guided` version of his AT-field-ball attack, he discovers the Ranma and Ranko are subtly different in this regard.  Also Rei, Asuka and Ranma analyze it completely.  Simson learns that two people in a plug begin acting like each other for a while.

     The troops of the Bennington, who will accompany NERV forces to U.S.S. Boxer, give `Brown Bess` a flint to put between her teeth.

     The cultists attempt another incursion into Nabiki's dreams.  They are repulsed by the rattlepated scenario the Scholarly Dragon sets up.

     Ranma's `other` torments and terrorizes the Scholarly Dragon, while he and the Red Dragons are moving into Leng.

     Ranma begins developing individual arts for each pilot to incorporate their natural inclinations, strengths and weaknesses.

     The Scholarly Dragon and Jeff are thrown out of the Council of Dragonmages for their plans to teach Nabiki.

     Toji has a nightmare just before the school day begins.

To the town of Agua Fria rode a stranger one fine day.  Hardly spoke to folks around him didn't have too much to say, no one dared to ask his business no one dared to make a slip, for the stranger there among them had a big iron on his hip.  Big iron on his hip.

Big Iron - Marty Robbins

August 4, 1947

It Was Early in the Morning When He Rode into the Town

     Rei walked through the gates of the new school, carrying a backpack with her school supplies and several other tools.  I have examined the grounds, she thought, On previous days.  This will be my first opportunity to examine the interior of the buildings without arousing suspicions.  Especially since they will be unlocked today.  There is something not right here.  I can `feel` it, but without concrete proof, I cannot continue taking my suspicions to either the Commander or Admiral Simson, and expect they will accept them.  So I will get it.  She considered her fellow pilots for a moment.  No, without Nabiki-kun or Roku-kun, there are none who would both accept my word, and be able to act on my suspicions.  If they were more than mere suspicions, I might be able to enlist the others, she paused and considered the pilot she most keenly felt the absence of, I never meant for that to happen.  It was supposed to be a simple mission, we have all since recovered, why do you remain away, why can I not find where you have gone?  Am I alone again?  Having found you again, I sent you away, because the Commander's vision required it.  Others lost to the Commander's vision have never caused me to question, but this cannot be . . . I cannot set aside.  If I had known . . . please, if you can, come back, at least for a moment, end the uncertainty.  Nabiki-kun, Roku-kun, you too should speed your return.  You are both needed, here, now.

     Now I have no need for breaking and entering, she thought as she considered the doors.  She stood just inside the school gates, and considered each of the three buildings looking down on the site.  Lines of sight, escape routes, posting of snipers and counter snipers, she thought as she walked to the edge of the school building, There are places where cover can be maintained, but mobility will be reduced.  She stood before the school buildings and attempted to discern where the enemy could be placed to bring the greatest danger to the pilots.  The main entrance should be avoided, she thought, then noted it in her book, Unless held by our forces in great strength.  It is otherwise a gauntlet coming under fire from all three overwatch positions and the main gate.

     Rei let a smile ghost across her face.  Before the lessons with the others, I would not have had the tools for this analysis.  She began circumnavigating the building, taking note of the entrances, what could be used for entrances or exits, by which pilots.  Saotome could exit from any window.  However, entry below the third floor would be problematic, she stopped at that thought, the image of the Fourth and something else seemed to offer the solution.  The Fourth and . . . hammers, she paused to consider, Olympic Event, the hammer throw, the Fourth could become the hammer, rather than the recipient.  She studied the building, looking carefully at the windows, balconies and gently sloping roof.  The roof should be my target, without practice my accuracy would be too low.  With experience I could throw the Fourth through a window of my choosing.  She walked on, continuing her survey, pleased by the conclusion she'd drawn and the solution to her problem.  If we are trapped above the third floor, I will throw the Fourth through a nearby window, and allow the Fourth to catch the others as I toss them to the Fourth, she thought, smiled, I will of course inform the others of my strategy, but it will be better not to include the Fourth, until the application is required.  Mein Grossfeldmarschall seems to believe that the Fourth operates best on little information and great improvisation.  It will also demonstrate I have adequately mastered the curriculum about teasing and insults.  I do not understand what purpose it serves, but I am no combat expert.

     All three of the school buildings received identical scrutiny and elaborate notations and sketches of lines-of-fire, escape and entrance routes, etc.  That building on the corner will have to be taken and held, she considered, standing at one corner of the school building, It commands nearly 70% of the grounds and gives ideal firing positions for snipers behind its brick parapets.  Her operational sketch of that entire situation went into her notebook.

     She walked around the building clockwise, then counterclockwise to ensure that she missed no detail.  The stars and the streetlights, which would have merely attenuated the total darkness to mere gloom for others, provided her eyes enough light, so she had no trouble making out every detail of and on the buildings.  She stopped below one place in particular, outside the storeroom for the gym supplies.  She looked around, unable to locate what had called on her to stop.  Roku-kun speaks of 'the feeling of a place,' here, there is something wrong here, but this is where it is strongest, she thought, glanced at her feet, An excavation perhaps, something below ground.  She pulled a long knife and folding shovel from her pack, cut the turf and began digging, taking some care not to dirty her school uniform.  It would cause too many questions to arise, she thought as she dug, then paused.  She lifted a handful of dirt her shovel had loosened, and sniffed at it, The smell of death has seeped into the ground, as if a body had laid here and was lately removed.  There is much to discover here.  I wish Roku-kun and Nabiki-kun were with us, this first day of school.  They would know what to look for, what to see and what to ignore.  But this is not the case, so I must go my own way.  She continued to dig as she considered her feelings and the sense of the place.

     "Again, I don't think I can forgive you for what you've done," Nabiki admitted, "But, again, I think I understand why you did it."  She stared down at her comatose fellow pilot, her own anger barely under control.

     "Really?" Nabiki replied, mocking Jeff's tone, "Then why - then would you tell me?"

     "You're always so damned definite, no grays," she said in her own voice, then continued in a parody of his voice, "And forgiveness isn't for me, it's about you not carrying that weight on your soul.  It also doesn't mean that you can ignore what I did."

     "Rotten bastard has the damned answers for everything," she lapsed into Japanese.  She turned away, raising her fists.  The small stateroom didn't allow her to pace more than two steps to release the fury rushing through her.  She mastered herself and lowered her fists.  "Then answer me something?" she growled at the unconscious boy, "Why the Hell are you sitting in that bed unconscious?  There's nothing medically wrong with you.  What did you see that made you run away?  What are you being stupidly noble about?  What do you think we can't handle, and you have to protect the defenseless women from?"  She paused, knelt next to his bed.  "Why can't you talk to us?  Why can't you ask for our help?  Because we're girls?  Or we're Japanese?  Or because you just don't care what happens to you?  But you had to protect us?"  She paced the small cabin two steps at a time, trying to get her anger back under control.  "Well you might want to consider that if you DIE it might hurt us too," she shouted at him in Japanese.  Closed her eyes and shook her head.  I'm starting to act like Akane, jumping to conclusions and wondering why things look so bleak, she thought, All right, I pushed Belldandy, you aren't a goddess, not yet at least.  You wanted me to learn infiltration techniques.  It's about time they got a field test.

     "I'm going to go looking around your dreams, maybe I'll figure out why you always act like a self-disinterested JERK!" she told him, "Any suggestions, regrets, counter-orders?"  She waited several moments in silence, then smirked and continued, "Fine, I'm going in.  To see what I can see."

He Came Riding from the South Side Slowly Lookin' All Around

     Rei saw the janitorial staff arriving through the main gate.  She brushed any dirt from her uniform, made sure the hole was disguised by the turf, and followed them into the building.  As though I belong, she remembered the lesson, 'Act as if you belong, and when confronted, bluster.'  How am I going to bluster? she wondered, The hole I filled in and tamped it down, the sod I replaced, I doubt anyone will be able to tell the difference, Rei considered her earlier handiwork as she passed through the doors without anyone challenging her, Besides, I do have a function here.  I must see that the Commander's plan is advanced.  The safety of the other pilots, outside of combat, is integral to his plan.  She headed towards the school office to examine the class assignments and schedules of the pilots, and the other members of their former class.

     They look at me, but they do not `see` me, she thought with satisfaction, They see only the determination and clear my way.  She thought with amazement, I had never considered simply doing, without regard for what others, even the Commander, would consider of my actions.  That I am certain I am correct presents me with a seeming of invulnerability that others will not question.  Do the Angels act this way all the time?  It is a terrible vulnerability, to be invulnerable all the time.

     She found the door to the school office was locked.  Rei considered the problem.  I could simply rip the door off its hinges, but there is no cause for such `the Fourth`-like behavior, I must remember to mention it to the Fourth.  She spotted one of the staff, peering at her.  She produced her NERV I.D. badge.  The Commander would do this, if he were here, she thought.  "This door is locked, open it.  Please."  Pause, wait a moment, she reminded herself of how the Commander would undertake this task.  "NOW!" she growled low.

     With haste, and much jingling of keys, the locked door ceased to be a barrier.  She avoided the academic records.  Those are not part of my mission, she reminded herself, Class 2-C, in the second building.  I must prepare a map to the classroom, our lockers, the routes to the gymnasium and the cafeteria, as well as actual internal arrangement as opposed to filed drawings.  She copied the names of the others in class, who had not been in the class with her at her former school.  I will also note who are on the teachers' rolls as well.  English, second period, that will be interesting, considering all that I have studied since the Azores Mission departed.

     Rei walked the halls of the second building, pacing off distances, sketching plans, looking out windows to determine from where threats could come, familiarizing herself with the layout.  Should evacuation become necessary before the others have become versed in the ins and outs of the structure, she thought.

     She checked off another element on her list.  Checked the janitors' closest near the class rooms, and the cleaning supplies for cleaning the classrooms themselves.  That also exposes the last points of concealment of possible threats, she thought as she looked at the last element on her list, I must go down to the boiler room, it will be the most likely place for enemies to mass, she considered as she sought it out.

     Nabiki stood.  She reminded herself that Jeff was an adult in dreams, and considerably taller.  The 'young woman', who had just pushed her down, towered over her even when Nabiki stood up.

     And I know the woman is dangerous.  She might not be a martial artist, but she survived on the streets and back alleys of Dicken's and Jack the Ripper's London, not the safest place in the world for a young woman.  Nabiki glanced across the barren, gray field at the floating rock beside the young woman.  That one is equally threatening, Nabiki thought of the large, purple quartz crystal, that appeared it had been separated from its base with hammers, with a few such blows falling on other parts of its surface.

     "Sorry, no further," the `urchin` told her, while she kept her hands in her pockets and kept her eyes downcast.

     Where she could come out with anything, Nabiki thought cautiously, And I can't tell what she's thinking or planning.  Yet she's watching me carefully.  "What's in there?" Nabiki asked of the tall, crenelated battlement of gray stone that stretched from horizon to horizon and nearly to the sky.  That's a mountain range, not a wall.  Keep the tone light, she reminded herself, I've got a vague idea about his history and Sharon's.  I'll lay dollars to sen that what's behind there is what's keeping him this way.  But why don't they want me to see it?

     "I don't think he'd mind me knowing," Nabiki said in a friendly manner.

     "M'be," the urchin said not moving, no fidget or clue to her intentions, "But without his say-so, y'don' pass, sorry mum."  She looked at Nabiki and smiled.

     Like a friendly predator, she thought, I've used that smile often enough.  Nabiki considered her chances.  I might be able to take her, but the Monolith, I don't know about its powers, personality or attitudes, she thought, Without that, I can't even begin to form a threat assessment.

     "I don't think you could stop me," she said politely, "Without hurting me, and I don't think he'd like that."  She hid her smile.  Ah, score one for the Ice Queen, she thought as both shifted slightly.

     "True," the Monolith said in a surprisingly musical voice, "You would have to stop yourself."

     Before Nabiki could respond, she heard a voice that filled her with dread, one familiar from long ago.  "Nabiki-chan!  I'm ashamed of you!"

     Anaya Hasegawa quietly frowned at the two scrambled eggs and the thin miso soup that would be their breakfast.

     "I should quit school and go to work," Anaya said morosely, "It's not like I'm learning anything, except how to get beaten up."

     "You're going to school," Sora told her younger sister when she arrived at the tiny kitchenette Anaya was working in, "That's the main reason I'm working so hard."  Despite her age, Sora was much shorter than her younger sister Anaya, much to their mutual embarrassment.

     Why don't you lay on the guilt with a trowel? Anaya thought, Besides, if they didn't pick on me, they'd pick on Moribe.  She smiled at the thought of her little brother, The one bright light in all of this.  "Do you miss mom and dad?"  Anaya concentrated on the final preparation of the meal.

     "Every day," Sora admitted, drywashed her hands while staring at the floor, "Sometimes I wish it was me who died, not them, then you two would be happy, and at home, instead of crammed in here with me."

     "I . . . I don't really mind . . . " Anaya stammered, "Being with my big sis, and little brother.  It's just . . . sometimes I wish we had more."

     "I did get paid for those bicycles," Sora said, brightening, "And Miss Ayanami took me to the PX to get you some new clothes, so no more 'patches on patches'."  Her enthusiasm brightened the tiny apartment.

     Anaya looked away in embarrassment, "I didn't think you knew about that."

     Sora smiled.  "I do pay attention, like to those bruises.  Maybe I should get someone to teach you how to fight?"

     "No!" she urged, "They'd just stop pushing me around and start really beating me up," Anaya admitted, turning the eggs and stirring the soup.

     "I should really do that, I am - "

     "No," Anaya said firmly, paused to consider, "I have to contribute somehow."

     "And I can't cook," Sora said, smiled, "Thank you for not saying it aloud.  I did have a few lessons, and I am better."

     "Not as good as me," Anaya said with some pride.

     "No," Sora admitted and smiled.

     "So when are you going to arrange an audience with these glorious gods of NERV who have so favored you and your friend Keiichi?" Anaya teased.

     "Oh, soon, soon."  Sora stepped back in the tiny apartment to wake Moribe for breakfast.

     Then two shifts at the college, any special projects that happen to drop your way, Anaya thought bitterly, And drag yourself home exhausted, all to pay for that damned school neither of us want to go to.  Anaya shook her head, she loved her big sister, but Sora could be stupid sometimes.

He's an Outlaw Loose and Running Came the Whisper from Each Lip

     Rei heard the comments from the janitorial staff.  'What's she doing here?', 'Who does she think she is?'  He said it loud enough for even a normal person to hear it, Rei thought as she put herself again in the mind and attitude of the Commander, to ensure her success.  Once within the attitude and persona of the Commander, she drew her NERV ID, simulating the Commander's confidence, and approached the man.  "I am here, because I have the right and responsibility to be here," she told him, stared at him as the Commander would.  The way that seems to so bother the Fourth and the others, she thought.  The man turned away, and Rei returned to examining the nooks and crannies of the boiler system and the electrical distribution network, familiarizing herself with the layout and making notes in her notebook.

     Strange, she thought as she entered a storeroom off the girls' locker room, that corresponded to the location outside.  What is the purpose of this garment?  She held up a brown poncho, covered with embroidered lightning bolts, stars and some European letters that she did not recognize.  She sketched them in her notebook.  It does not appear to be a rain poncho, lacking waterproofing, and it is too elaborate to be the cover for something else, although the inside is very plain, she thought.

     "Hey, what are you doing in here?" the gym teacher demanded.

     Rei removed her ID, assumed the Commander's manner, and gave her stock answer, "Checking for threats to the pilots."

     "You've got no right to be in here!" the chubby matron told her, fists on her hips.

     Rei stared at her.  "I have every right," she said, intentionally imitating the Commander's method of intimidating subordinates.

     The woman blanched and moved away.  "Well, if . . . I mean -"

     Rei moved towards the exit, as the woman exhaled as Rei quit staring at her and left.

     There is something further to investigate, she thought, Too much data and none of the tools necessary to draw the conclusions.  She buried her frustrations.  I will present it to the Commander, she reassured herself, He will know what to do.

     Ritsuko had been waiting in the cramped confines of Jeff's room, while Nabiki 'went looking for the problem' of why Jeff hadn't reawakened.  So, your plan was to slip in and have a look around, Ritsuko thought, But how long does that take?  Minutes?  Hours?  When is it reasonable to get worried?  What could catch one pilot, could catch another, and as tricky as you think you are Miss Tendo, you aren't as tricky as the one you're going in to rescue.  Ritsuko glanced around as the minutes dragged on.  Aside from her lips moving, there's no clue she's anything other than asleep, Ritsuko thought, I wish I could read lips, it almost looks like she's having a conversation, although I'd guess it's an argument.

     Then Nabiki's features contorted.  Not fear, but something similar, Ritsuko thought as she knelt next to the girl in the chair.

     Nabiki's eyes shot open and she leaned back abruptly in her chair, Ritsuko caught her as she toppled backward.  Nabiki had pulled herself into a ball, her eyes squeezed shut, tears streaming down her face.  Ritsuko held the girl.  Did something paralyze her, she wondered at Nabiki's rigidity, She isn't moving, not even shivering, she's barely breathing.

     Ritsuko held her, until exhaustion claimed Nabiki and the girl relaxed, going from a rock to gelatin.  Okay the extremities go first, and move to the center, Ritsuko thought, And I'm watching this with a scientist's detachment, rather than a mother's concern.  "Is that because I trust you?" she asked the relaxing girl quietly.

     Hands, arms, legs relaxed, then the rest.  Nabiki simply lay still in Ritsuko's arms as the older woman glanced from one of her charges to the other and back.

     "Sorry," Nabiki said it so quietly Ritsuko barely heard it, "Sorry, sorry, I'm so sorry.  Don't hate me, please, I'm sorry."

     "I don't hate you Nabiki-chan," Ritsuko whispered to the girl as she stood, lifting Nabiki easily, "You know that."

     Nabiki blinked, stared at Ritsuko in disbelief.  "You aren't my mother - I'm sorry I mean - I - " Nabiki paused, collected herself as Ritsuko hugged her.  "I'm not going back in there alone.  The counteroffensive was more subtle, and more devastating than I'm ready for.  Getting a lecture - from my mother - that went on and on . . . after all that happened . . . about all that's happened . . . " Nabiki sighed.  " . . . was not something I was prepared for."

     "I'll go with you next time.  There's little he could do in defense that hasn't been tried . . . and has failed," she added softly, felt Nabiki hug her back as Ritsuko set her down on the edge of the bed.

     I'm not absolutely sure, but Nabiki needs the reassurance, Ritsuko thought.

     "We need to try one of the `less protected` areas," Nabiki said.

     Judging from what happened, Ritsuko thought, I'd agree.

     "Jaime!  Time for breakfast!"  The lieutenant looked at the long-limbed girl who walked out of the bathroom.  Too gawky by half to be pretty, he thought, But it's not my job to second guess a disguise.

     "So you don't wear your black suit around the house?" the girl asked bitingly, "And do you really think anyone's going to believe your wife is still visiting her sister back in the States?  She took off.  What does she have to do?  Write you a 'Dear John' letter?"

     This is going to take a lot of getting used to, he thought tartly.

     "Look, I may have to seem like this, but I'm not a kid," Jaime told him flatly, fists on her hips, a disgusted expression on her face.

     "You could have fooled me, you act like every other teenaged girl I've met," he told Jaime.

     "It's a role," she explained with all the patience a teenager could typically muster when speaking to, ugh, parents, "I stay in character, all the time."  She rolled her eyes at his obvious stupidity.

     "Okay fine, what's your mission?"

     "Get close to Ayanami, BORING!" she said in a huff.

     "You really do that well," he said, a mix of admiration and distaste.

     "Wait until I run away to join the circus," Jaime shot back, "Just because I like doing a part doesn't mean I have to like it, if you understand.  Why couldn't I have gotten the pilots who're actually alive, like Asuka or Ranko?  At least with them I could do my job and STILL have fun."

     "You could have gotten Shinji or worse, Ranma."

     "Great, a potted plant, a coma patient, or a stuck up nerd-jock, some choice."

     "I understand Mr. Saotome is quite popular with the ladies," he said to bait her.


And He's Here to Do Some Business with the Big Iron on His Hip

     Rei poked into the last of the buildings' structures, and walked back outside.  I feel an odd joy to this . . . investigation.  I have not felt so, since the construction of the NERV headquarters, or the reconstruction of the buildings into the U.S. Navy base.  At the orphanage I have seen such reactions, such a feeling of joy and light-headed abandon, when new toys became available, or perhaps I should say, new playthings.  Blankets and card board boxes are not properly toys.  Like this building, the entire area, I am investigating as my duty requires, but I am also enjoying myself as I rarely do except when I am with Shinji-kun.  Perhaps these new buildings are toy-simulacra, and that is why I never saw the purpose of devices that simulate tools, or the utensils of adults, they had no purpose.  The actual equipment is far more complex and interesting than the simulations, and not substantially more dangerous to the watchful.  The steam plant here, it was trivially easy to avoid the dangerous moving and hot sections, and it was vastly more interesting and more real than a drawing, description or model.  Such are metaphors, and other such tricks of language, they lose the reality of the thing in all their attempts to contain its entirety.

     Rei sat on the steps of the school, she carefully converted her hastily sketched drawings into a coherent map.  Likewise, she took note of the people in the class who had not been part of the original class, some of those names she recognized from elementary school.

     Did they no longer wish to be associated with me and my peers? she wondered, Or were they no longer qualified and were transferred here?  The security services should have investigated them, but perhaps not adequately.

     The Fourth, she reminded herself as she noted sources of hot and cold water near each area of interest, Should the Fourth require them.  Troublesome, she lamented, More useful and interesting to have investigated the music library.  She continued to unfold the outsized piece of paper, transferring her sketches to the scale of the map, and making detailed orthographic diagrams of the most important areas.  She added the possible hiding places that would have to be swept regularly to maintain adequate security.  On additional sheets of paper, she outlined the buildings that overlooked the campus, what available lines of fire they presented.  Should their garrisons be defeated, she thought, Or compromised, or should they prove traitors.

     She considered all the extra effort she was going to.  I am not required to do this, however, the NERV security service has not been successful ensuring in the security of the pilots.  Therefore, my report will simplify their problems, she thought glancing up and staring at the early morning sunrise.

     What are the others doing? she wondered, Seeking their own beginnings?  She considered the friction that had grown between the pilots and their guards, There is nothing I can do, she concluded and returned to her work.

     Ranma walked into Asuka's room.  I think I'm beginning to understand why I `trapped` myself as a girl, he thought, Asuka was dressed, But would have yelled at a boy.  But not another girl who's wearing a lot less than she is.  He braced for the onslaught.

     "You want something Ranma?" Asuka asked, glaring at him.

     Ranma closed the door behind him, then perched on the chest of drawers next to the door.  "Just, I don't know, it's . . . "

     "Spit it out!" Asuka snapped as she moved to the door.

     Ensuring her escape route, Ranma thought, Or so she can easily toss me out.  That's fine.

     "I'm scared."  There I said it, the world will be coming to an end any second now, he thought sarcastically.  He saw Asuka's confusion.  "Maybe you and Raccoon are used to it.  You've always faced accolades, Raccoon plays the clown, when he isn't being Patton . . . how do you deal with this?"

     "Deal with what - specifically?" Asuka asked sharply, but not unsympathetically.  Her face still a mask of confusion.

     Ranma fidgeted.  "How do you deal with their faces, the looks they give you?  All I am is Ranma Saotome, which is a lot.  It isn't the Fourth Children, a good guy, but not a hero.  I fight, I'm the best there is . . . but so often . . . it hasn't been enough," Ranma admitted quietly, "And every time I thought I could get away with something . . . I'd come up against the certain knowledge that I'll get caught by you, or Raccoon, or Nab-chan, or Rit-chan, or even Rei-chan, and the LOOK you'd give me.  Not angry, just silent disappointment, I'd rather you'd hit me, it would . . . I guess then it would be over," Ranma said, looked at Asuka and the room, trying to focus, on something besides how nervous he felt, "So, it's been easy to be `good`, I HATE disappointing people, besides I can be sneaky against the enemy, but there too you, heck even Shinji is better with that playing 'possum trick.'"

     He paused, trying to gather his rambling thoughts as Asuka stared at him with a neutral expression.  I can feel your impatience, but you won't show it, he realized and hurried onto his next point.  "You all drag me up by my pigtail to be . . . something I'm not.  I'm no hero, I'm not brave, I just lose myself in the fight and do my job, like 'Ikari's robot' I do what's expected of me, like a reflex, I do what I'm told.  I bet I was trained the same way, Ranma do this, Ranma do that, from what you, Raccoon and Nab-chan said, it was the same for everything else.  I never had to be anything except what people told me to be.  I'm a fighter, yet . . . I'm beginning to understand why you all kept saying that wasn't enough."  He saw her confusion and impatience.  "In the back of my mind, I know Raccoon or Nab-chan will pull some trick I never even thought of, and we'll win the day.  But what happens if I'm the one who has to pull the trick?  If it's just me fighting, that's easy, I'll just do it.  But I can't get others to . . . they'll follow because I'm a pilot, but that isn't the same as when people follow you, they are partners, not . . . thoughtless bootlickers.  There's something coming.  Something big and I don't know what it is, and I don't know if . . . me, Ranma Saotome, will be enough.  The Meliorist has talked about doubts and concerns she had, but you never show any of them.  How can you be 'The Second Children' all the time?  If . . . what almost happened to you - happened to me, my girl form, I couldn't get out of bed in the morning, but you go on.  How do you deal with people you've never met expecting so much of you?  I thought my Martial Arts made me better than everybody, less than a week later I had it rubbed in my face it didn't mean anything I thought it did.  But you didn't even have that, yet you taught me how to teach, so I can be more than Ranma Saotome Martial Artist Extraordinaire . . . cue the laugh track."  Ranma saw Asuka smile at that.  "But there's still something out there, a disturbance I can't even describe, and . . . I don't want to go through what I did with Capt. Everett, and I definitely don't want to go through . . . what happened after Hiroko."

     "Nor I," Asuka agreed.

     "But I can't get them out of my mind all of a sudden.  That next time I won't be enough.  I am grateful, but I need to know how to be the 'Fourth Children', deal with everybody's expectations that I'm . . . something I'm not, without letting them down.  I'm a really good fighter.  I'm no hero and I don't know if I can be."  Ranma paused, stared at the girl's hands, his hands, these hands had been the hands of a Martial artist, now they had to be the hands of a hero.

     Asuka sighed, turned away.  "Horseface, for one thing, that's three problems, three separate problems, not one," she said quietly, then growled, "It's too early for this."

     Okay, she's thinking, not rejecting me, Ranma thought as he read the other girl's stance, Defiant, self-assured, but . . . tired?

     "Three problems, something's coming, something's always coming, so table that one.  Second, as for your martial arts . . . for every hour you spent learning some new technique or practicing, Raccoon spent the same hour in a lab or a library learning everything he could about those things.  I ignored it at the time, but that's what he was doing.  He also learned the scientific language so he can tell me in shorthand what has to be none, and leave out the squishy details.  He'll figure out a way to let you punch, kick, etc. these things, don't you worry."

     He already has, Ranma thought, I just haven't figured out how to make it work.

     "On the other hand, most of the `monsters` you meet, will be humans.  And those will be just as vulnerable to your antics as any building or car that comes into range.  And if they have to be taken alive, you can do that better than any of us.  If they can be killed, leave it to Wondergirl or Raccoon, and stay out of their field of fire."

     "Thanks," Ranma said, "That helps."  Knowing it's not all one big tangled problem helps even more, he thought as he watched her lecture, When she's like this, she moves like the Meliorist, flowing, confident, I wonder if she knows that.

     "Third, always keep track of the main point, there was a third point," Asuka snapped at him, becoming more `Asuka` than the Meliorist.

     "Didn' wanna interrupt," he offered.  That cooled her down, file that under 'Successful Anti-Asuka' techniques.

     "You can't be anything except the 'Fourth Children' in public.  You can tell people how scared you were, and it will be taken as permission to be scared while they do their job.  You have to be more than you are.  We all do."  She turned back, staring intently at him.  "You wear the mask, eventually you'll convince yourself of the truth of it.  The legend isn't the truth, it never is, and it's difficult to live up to.  But think about what we're fighting and what's happening to us.  Some of these beings predate the existence of the planet.  They have been fighting each other and other things we are only beginning to understand, for most of that time.  The Meliorist can kick your butt in dreams not because she's `better`, but she has a lot more experience, her manipulations are too subtle for a novice like you to pick out until it's too late.  So these things are so experienced that we should have no chance.  Stoneface knows that, it's probably why he's so grim, Simson knows that, and puts a good face on, because neither of them wants to break the fragile spell of victory we've cast.  We win, we've been winning because none of us will ever give up, that is who we are, all of us.  Wondergirl may not seem like it, but she's as stubborn as you are.  If you got into a boxing match, Marquis of Queensberry rules, you'd have to kill her to get her to quit.  Spineless may whine and whimper and hide behind Misato's skirt, but put him in an EVA, and I wouldn't want to take him on.  Raccoon is methodical and controlled, and just as dogged as the rest of us.  Ice Princess will probably worry a foe like a terrier with a rat, while maneuvering to achieve the kill," Asuka told him.

     "But the people out there?"  Asuka gestured to encompass the whole world.  "They aren't like you, like us, they know when to quit, they know when enough is enough.  So they need us.  They have no use for Shinji Ikari, Ranma Saotome or even Asuka Soryu Langley, not as we really are.  They need the 2d, 3d, 4th, etc. Children as big and bold as they can get them.  We have to be so much bigger than our foes, so they'll know we'll win, and they'll survive.  That the monsters under the bed they've tried all their lives to convince themselves really aren't there, not only are there, but can be handled.  I hate Stoneface, but dammit if his subordinates aren't more afraid of failing him than they are of our enemies."

     "So be the arrogant MARTIAL ARTIST," Asuka told Ranma, "Or be the 'aw shucks twert nothin' ma'am'.  But don't let them know you ever consider you can't do it.  You don't have to think and plan, leave that to me, Raccoon or Ice Princess, but you do have to exude confidence, breathe certainty.  The day we can't, really can't dredge up one last idea, one last burst of strength or inspirations, that's the day we are all dead, the Children, the entire human race in it's squalling, stupid mass all led to the slaughter.  That is the day our enemies can shovel humanity, the people, the history, music, ideas, everything, into a lime pit, and cover us over and forget about us."  Her face took on a fierce aspect, Ranma drew back.  Her voice was frighteningly calm, "I'll die before I let that happen, so will the others.  You have to be ready to as well, and everybody has to know it."

     "All that?" Ranma asked, shaking himself loose of the fright.  Now I don't think I want to go outside again, he thought, Ever.

     "Of course there's more," Asuka assured him, patting his cheek, "While you can talk about how scared you were, how you seemed out of ideas or strength, or hope, but you got the job done, you or somebody had some last bit, or it was all part of a grand plan you weren't privy to.  You can not admit your fears about the job you are doing, or worse the job you haven't done.  Fear is contagious, you can't show it.  You can be a clown like Raccoon, a stoic like Wondergirl, appropriately confident like me, or whine about everything that doesn't really matter like Spineless does."  She leaned in close, practically speaking into his face.  "But when you're in it, you concentrate on the battle.  Like you usually do, so that's not the problem.  The problem you've got, is how people react.  You and I both know what happened on June 15th."

     Ranma blanched, he wanted to run and hide, but stayed on the dresser.

     "But you can't let anyone inside where they can hurt you with that.  It was a victory, and you don't want to talk about it.  Otherwise you can let them know you're just a human being, because everyone knows in their heart that human beings can't stand against those things, but heroes can - " Asuka's voice caught.  "And so can monsters," she added quietly.

     Probably doesn't think I heard, Ranma thought, filing it away for later.

     "So that's what we have to do.  We can't be anything except the very best," Asuka said proudly, "As for you and Wondergirl competing, her you can lose to, it goes without saying you can't be as brilliant as I am, but you will have to excel at academics as well, to the limits of your ability."

     "Oh, joy," Ranma said.

     "We'll all help, after all, you are teaching us."

     Oh joy, Ranma thought, At least now I've got something concrete to worry about.

In this Town There Lived an Outlaw by the Name of Texas Red

     Tomoe woke slowly, she looked at the calendar and cursed her luck.  "Back to school," she lamented.  Got to get to the bathroom before Usagi! she thought as she hurried to the bathroom, closing the bathroom door as Usagi opened her bedroom door.

     "Hey!" her older sister protested her slowness as Tomoe washed herself and rinsed.  "Don't forget that the new kids are coming to school.  We'll have to welcome them," Usagi told Tomoe.

     Tomoe poured another bucket of cold water over her head to keep from cursing the world's unfairness.  "Yes, but they aren't in any of my classes," she told her sister through the door as she toweled off and dried her hair, "So all I have to do is greet them."  Especially Ranko, she added silently with a smile, She supposedly doesn't hit girls, that should make this easy.

     "Do you remember the proper greeting?" Usagi asked sweetly, setting Tomoe's teeth on edge.

     She does that on purpose, Tomoe thought of revenge on her sister, Maybe get her smitten with some wimp.  "Yes, Princess," she muttered as she headed to the door to let her sister use the bathroom.

     "You'll be so adorable," Usagi told her while shoving her out of the bathroom and closing the door in her face, before Tomoe could clobber her.

     Tomoe headed for her room to get dressed.  Her father had already headed off to work, she heard her mother below, preparing their lunches, despite the servants available to do the job.

     Think some morning you might get up the nerve or the will to actually poison your darling daughters? Tomoe laughed at the thought, But can't forget to renew the compulsion spell on her and father.  If `her Highness`, Beloved of the Goddess hasn't already done it, she added acidly.

     They stood in the Great Hall of the Camilenn Order sanctum.  Nabiki glanced across the room, trying to take it all in.  The elaborate stonework, the inset patterns in the floor, the stained glass windows made the building seem more like a church than a meeting hall or secular schoolhouse.  Although I can't place the `religion` Nabiki thought, But these are all fervent participants/acolytes.  I'm not sure if this is Raccoon's memory, Ritsuko's or a mix of both, she thought, But since we aren't actively interacting, they shouldn't `notice` either of us.  Nabiki thought as Ritsuko picked her way easily through the milling crowd.

     "It was a confirmation, an advancement from apprentice to journeyman mage," Ritsuko explained to Nabiki, "They can't see us?"

     'Confirmation,' Nabiki thought, Another religious term.  "They see us, but they really don't notice us, we blend into the background."

     "Ssh!" someone warned the assembly as the most resplendent looking people in the crowd walked to the high-backed chairs on a dais that had been hidden by the crowd.  As they began walking, the crowd fell silent, hence the warning, Nabiki realized.

     Several more people, in unadorned robes arrived, five of them, young, proud and uncertain.  One of the mages from the crowd detached from the knot he'd been part of, and walked towards the newcomers.  Then another.  In a moment, with each newcomer, a more senior escort.

     Apprentice and master, she thought, And elaborateness of the robes seems to mark the progression, except . . . why am I not surprised?  She looked at the man who stood with Jeff, the gray-haired man's robe was as plain as Jeff's, so was the gray-haired woman the man had been talking to, whom Jeff now nodded to.  Of course, he's calm, does anything get that guy excited? Nabiki wondered, What scheme are you going to unfold on these poor victims? she kept her derisive question to herself while she frowned at her future colleague.

     The first would-be mage presented himself to the raised dais, the rest of the group took lower benches off to the side, masters and apprentices sitting together, silently chatting, pointing, gesturing.  Shielded from making any sound, she thought, Last minute instructions, pep talks, who to impress, who not to insult and how, etc.  She felt a little surge of jealousy.  I had to learn all my skills myself, no mentor, no teacher, no one to help me, she thought with a trace of anger.

     Another group cleared the center of the room, revealing an elaborate magical circle permanently built into the floor.

     "Who are you?" one of the mages on the dais intoned.

     "I am who my culture, my family and my teacher have made, as I enter my own, I seek to find who they made."  The apprentice spoke as if reciting a speech, badly.  The boy sweated heavily as he stood trying to look near the raised figures without looking at them.

     Calm down or you'll mess up, Nabiki mentally `warned` him, And no reaction from the figures, I wonder if they're even there, mentally or physically.

     "What is your expression?" came another question from the dais.

     'Expression'? Nabiki wondered, What is that?

     "Light and movement," the apprentice answered with a more confident tone.

     Not a good answer either, Nabiki thought, C-, passing but barely.  You aren't getting into Tokyo University.

     "Can you give us a reason to elevate you?  So you may find who others have made?" another question from the dais.

     Why can't I actually see them speaking? Nabiki wondered, Doesn't he remember, or didn't he care.  She glanced at Ritsuko, She isn't watching Jeff, or the dais, she's scanning the crowd, what does she know?  Or rather, who is she looking for? Nabiki wondered.

     The young man nodded and entered the circle with a rather sick expression on is face.  The circle and the associated sigils flared briefly, then dimmed.  The man raised his staff and drew several glowing sigils in the air.  He set these dancing over his head while he drew another, and another, setting these dancing in and among those already there.  The runes changed to different shapes, different colors.  The dance became more complicated, faster and more intricate, the shapes blurring as they changed.  Many of the blurs became a ring.  The ring solidified as many rune-spun rainbows became strips of the same seven colors, other runes wove through it, crossing, blending colors, and emerging unaffected from the other side.  The ring began to rotate around the apprentice through all three dimensions, centered on the apprentice while he hovered a few centimeters over the floor.

     Then the man canceled the spell, erasing the ring, the runes and returning to earth.

     Nearly messed up your landing, Nabiki observed the man nearly buckling with exhaustion, then he straightened and walked out of the circle to his place on the bench, No bow to the judges?  Bad form, the East German judge gives a 2.0, but at least you know to walk out with head held high.  Even if you weren't very impressive.  You could always entertain at kids' parties.

     The next apprentice offered who he was and his expression, sound.  The chorus he summoned sounded like the voices of angels, so beautiful he had half the assembly openly weeping.

     Now that's a magical performance! Nabiki thought as she dried her eyes, glanced it Ritsuko who was doing the same.  Lab rat cry like us!

     The next two were as lackluster as the first, to Nabiki's way of thinking.  Where's the useful magic?  If you aren't going to blow something up, how about healing, or shields or something? she thought angrily, Or how about a spell that makes everything in the room except your lost keys, paper, book or whatever, transparent like plexiglass or Lucite, so you can easily see where it is and go get it?  That would be a useful, if low level spell!  She noted the old gray-haired man commenting to Jeff, his apprentice, the cowled apprentice nodded as the old man critiqued each of the offerings of the others.  It's clear he saw things I didn't, she thought, And he knows about lipreading, I'm getting nothing but gibberish, unless they're speaking a language that has nothing like English, German or Japanese words, she thought, And Jeff, if you think you're going to do some dramatic reveal, you should learn to stand differently.  Nobody but you, well and Ranma, can just sit there and be that arrogantly overconfident.

     Now for the main event, Nabiki thought as Jeff, eyes downcast, the very epitome of humility, stood and walked into the circle, Nobody is going to buy that act, buddy boy.  Not me and not them . . . or I could be wrong.  She watched him bow to the examiners.  Lay it on thick why don't you, she thought and frowned, Haven't they learned you're just setting them up?  She was used to the theatrical tone to the questions now.

     "Who are you?" came the same patrician, near-monotone.

     "I am called many things, most often . . . " he said something Nabiki wouldn't have tried to pronounce on a bet.

     "Literally translated," Ritsuko whispered over the chuckles of most of the assembled mages, "It means Dark Walker."

     Pretentious like - Nabiki's thoughts were interrupted.

     "It has overtones of someone willing to walk into the alimentary canal singing about how wonderful all the fertilizer is."

     Nabiki added her own laughter to the assembly's.  Those seated on the dais let the laughter subside slightly, then in unison, rapped their staves on the dais.  Silence reigned.  Spoilsports, Nabiki thought acerbically, still smiling.

     "What is your expression?"

     The apprentice raised his head.  Nabiki shook hers.  "Spirits, enchantments . . . deals."

     That's Raccoon through and through, Nabiki thought, Now lower the boom on these clowns so we can figure out why you're out cold in the waking world.  She glanced at Ritsuko, who seemed to be enjoying watching the events unfold, outside her own `misappropriated` memories.

     "Can you give us a reason to elevate you, to let you again walk where you have, only now as a mage?"

     Rather than walk to the circle, Jeff walked to the dais.  With a flourish, he removed a walking stick from beneath his robes, kneeling to set it on the dais before one of the mages.  It stood upright on its own as he removed his hand and moved away.  The old mage stared at it with deep suspicion.

     "You admired the stick, but since you already had a staff, you were forced to leave it.  Now that you no longer have your staff, I thought this might be suitable," Jeff said quietly, almost deferentially.

     The old man took the walking stick.  Nabiki still thought it reminded her of a sword.  That's Jeff's staff, why is he giving it to that old man? she asked herself as she noted the hand guard, hand grip and pommel.

     The old mage stared at the odd device with a look of longing, confusion and joy, his mask of indifference shattered completely.  The others on the dais were glancing around in confusion.

     And fear, Nabiki realized, They're afraid.  What did you do?

     Jeff stepped backward, bowing to the dais.  "I will let Master Kavon decide.  His staff was lost, is this a suitable replacement?" he asked humbly.

     "You built this in four weeks?" the old mage, Kavon, demanded, his voice a threatening storm.

     "One only has to know how to do it," Jeff replied respectfully.

     "He, Kavon, had to destroy his staff a few weeks ago," Ritsuko whispered to Nabiki over the growing murmurs among the crowd.

     "The work of a Master is the work of a mere Journeyman, eventually," Jeff explained meekly.

     The mages on the high dais were arguing among themselves, the other apprentices and mentors on the bench sat with pursed lips and waited, sending Jeff and his mentor occasional angry glances.

     "Legend has it that Lengo-Nuen took two years to make that staff, and took the secret to his grave, even his summoned shade refuses to explain," Ritsuko leaned over and whispered to Nabiki, "Jeff found a reference that he actually took two years, less a week to make the preparations, a day to fabricate it, and rested six days, before presenting it to the ArchChancellor."

     Nabiki nodded.  Seems like him, she thought, And throwing not a cat among the pigeons, but stuffing a tiger into the chicken coop.  Don't you ever grow up?  No wonder Ranko likes you, you're alike: arrogant, overconfident trouble makers.

     "There are still questions of your abilities," came the voice from the dais, breaking the deadlock among those seated there.

     Jeff walked into the circle, it flared, as it had for the others.  Jeff bared his arm and began wrapping his hand in cloth.  The old gray-haired man brought an anvil into the circle as if it weighed nothing.  As he withdrew, leaving the anvil behind, a woman in a tabard and slacks, tall, proud to the point of arrogance, and red-haired, entered the circle carrying a large sledge hammer.

     "Asuka?" Nabiki recognized the woman, and read her lips, a German comment, " 'You know I've always wanted to do this.'  NO!" Nabiki screamed and scrabbled at the shield as Jeff laid his hand on the anvil, and Asuka brought the hammer down with her full force.  Nabiki's cry was joined by many others, and the horror was real.  "Does he have to show off that way?" Nabiki asked as she turned away in disgust from the initiation spectacle.

     Ritsuko watched the dream Asuka's face and saw the revulsion on it.  Like Nabiki, she hated what was happening, Ritsuko thought, And she's a good deal less guarded than our pilot.  Interesting.  I'll have to look into that.  I wish he hadn't done that, even knowing what to expect and that he recovered, I still want to rush forward and help.  I'd need to be a sorcerer to help . . . but I am now, aren't I.  At least partially.

     With Asuka's strike and withdrawal out of the circle, the field had come up, preventing anyone or anything from passing through in either direction.  Ritsuko examined the faces of the examiners.  They're convinced that the injury is no illusion, she thought as she watched them squirm, Always the showman, never do something when you can overdue it.  The healing of such an injury, especially when suffering from the pain of it . . . but heal it he did, this is a memory.  Why did Nabiki bring us here . . . or did Jeff bring us here?  Something to consider.  Ritsuko writhed at the memory of the pain and the healing.

     Then the circle's protection faded, he raised his arms, and he unwrapped the wounded arm.  Ritsuko recognized the hidden exhaustion.  He remained on his feet only because of his pride, Ritsuko's borrowed memories provided, One too many slights and smirks from the `high and mighty`, so he had to rub their noses in it.  She sighed and shook her head.  "All he had to do was remain upright until the trial was over," she said quietly to Nabiki, "And listen to the murmurs."  Some I can hear, some I just remember, she thought, 'Bad taste', 'missing the point', 'retreating to a baser time', all that garbage to reduce what he did, not that he'll be surprised by what follows.  Gendo figured it out during the first meeting that Davis and Langley would be trouble, and that trouble could be directed in useful directions.  Okay, point to you Gendo, you are a bastard, but a cleverer one than I initially thought.  Jeff knew, even in the days of the Battle of Britain, that a war was coming, and he needed others to believe as well.  Once the Battle of Russia began, as predicted in Mein Kampf, the war would widen quickly, and what it would unleash in dreams would be unknown.  God help us when either you or Gendo guess wrong.

     "We have something to discuss," Kavon intoned, tossing the staff he'd carried into the room to Jeff, who caught it one handed, with his once-wounded hand.  Kavon retained the staff Jeff had given him at the beginning of his trial.  "The High Council has always been called to conclave, to select those who are not journeymen, but masters," Kavon told them, "Alwyk, the boy must be a grave disappointment to you, your first apprentice who makes master without being thrown out of his order, if not the entire council, at least once."

     "Yes," Alwyk said, he bowed his silver-haired head, "No acceptance of tradition, no understanding that the old ways are the old ways, because they are the best ways."

     "You have my sincerest sympathies," Kavon told Alwyk.

     All the wizards on the dais trooped out.  Ritsuko was sure that Nabiki would want to follow and observe their deliberations, instead she was making a beeline after Jeff and Asuka.  That pair had left the room and separated themselves from the others by a good distance, and no one seemed willing to interfere with their talk.  Besides, anyone with ears could hear Asuka's side, Ritsuko thought, And anyone with eyes could clearly deduce Jeff's.  Ritsuko had no need to eavesdrop, she knew what Jeff had said and what he had thought during the exchange.  And what he'd had to offer Asuka to get her to go along with his plan, she thought as she watched the two soon-to-be-pilots.  Ritsuko let Nabiki wander close, but stayed back and watched carefully.  You didn't expect they'd be so much like the people you already know, did you Nabiki? she thought, They were younger and more innocent, less hardened.  They'll lose so much so soon, but not yet.

     The doors opened again after an interminable wait, calling Jeff back to be questioned.  Asuka instantly fell into formation beside him, with a furious yet protective expression that said 'I and only I am going to kill him, and soon'.  Nabiki headed after them, Ritsuko followed.  You don't like not being part of it do you? she thought of her young charge, then glanced around fearfully, So far we haven't been noticed.  This intrusion may change that.

     Two mages on the dais waited until the door closed.

     "How?!" the leader, Kavon, demanded, barely controlling himself.

     Rage, surprise, joy? Ritsuko wondered, All of the above?  Just accept how lucky you are, dealing with just oneI have to deal with three, at once.  She smirked at the two elder mages made overwrought by her charge's machinations.

     "Deals," Jeff replied, "I simply found the spirit.  It only wanted to look after its old friend in his final days.  Once that agreement was reached, the rest followed."  Jeff rested on the staff Kavon had tossed him.

     "The staff he's got, is an old Camilenn Order artifact," Ritsuko whispered to Nabiki, "Powerful, but not a patch on the Staff of Kavon."  I still can't figure out how they can neither see nor hear us, Ritsuko wondered about their situation, These aren't static recordings.  The mages turned towards each other and it was impossible to hear or see what they were saying.

     Kavon turned back to Jeff, a veneer of solemnity covering the clamor within.  "The High mages have always overseen the trials of the Orders in case just this occurs."

     "What's going on?" Nabiki asked nervously.

     Not according to the script? Ritsuko thought to Nabiki, A distrust of all authority figures perhaps?  "That a mage has already done a Masterwork, and will be raised clear out of journeyman.  Going from apprentice to master.  It's rare, but it occasionally happens," Ritsuko explained.  Rare as in 10 to 20 years between occurrences, she didn't add, And planned this time, to shake things up?

     "Figures he'd do something like that," Nabiki said in a vexed tone.

     You don't know the half of it, but just wait until Asuka gets him alone, Ritsuko thought, She'll give him the blistering he deserves, one even you couldn't match.

Many Men Had Tried to Take Him and That Many Men Were Dead

     Usagi led the group towards the campus.  "Is everyone clear on their targets and the actions needed?" Usagi asked her fellow cultists.

     "After what Tendo did to us," Yuki said, "I'd suggest we wait until she shows up, and concentrate on her."

     "No," Usagi told them as she walked along, ignoring the glares from Yuki and Tomoe, "We have to cut the legs out from under her, her support staff."

     "I think trying to hit Tendo in her dream has shaken you up," Kiki said, one of the `inner circle`, but not part of the innermost circle.

     "You go after her," Tomoe said angrily, "Be my guest.  You didn't enjoy the cinnamon chickens that one time.  We ran into a lot worse."

     "You actually sound like you respect her," Kiki pressed, "Am I hearing you correctly?"

     "She can have your place anytime she wants it," Tomoe confronted the other girl.

     "I'M" Harumi began loudly, "Looking forward to a new school year full of work."  She nodded to the crowd which had formed just inside the school entrance.

     "You said 50 to 80 maximum," Yuki said, looking at all the unfamiliar faces, "That looks more like two hundred."

     "I'm beginning to think going into dreams is looking easier," Usagi said flatly, making her own headcount of the newcomers, "We should have been informed, somehow."

     "I still don't think we should waste time trying to bring them in," Tomoe said, refusing to give up her argument, "Accidents happen."

     "There is a time for us to be hidden, and there will come a time for us to be open, and now, especially now, is a hidden time," Usagi said firmly, "If we get the pilots fully on our side, then nothing can touch us."

     "Until then," Tomoe complained quietly, "WE creep around like mice."

     The image of Tomoe as a mouse brought a smile to several of the members, Usagi included.  "As we discussed, Asuka Soryu Langley will be Yuki's primary target.  Since she doesn't have a boyfriend, maybe you can find out, if the fiery redhead prefers girls and just hasn't been able to express herself."  Usagi inwardly shuddered at Yuki's predatory smile.  She seems to relish the idea of getting `caught` with a girl, Usagi thought with revulsion, And that challenge appeals to her voyeuristic side.  I just wish I could tell her to be discreet and have some hope the order would be followed.  Perhaps Miss Langley is seeking a judicious lover, better to leave Yuki to her methods.  Even her failure would be useful.  And I do have plans of my own.

     "Tomoe," Usagi continued, "You'll challenge Ranko Saotome, who is an expert martial artist, but doesn't hit girls.  That should be an interesting exchange."  Usagi was privately disgusted at Tomoe's gleeful smile at victimizing the helpless.  There's no sport in either Tomoe's or Yuki's attacks, Usagi lamented, That's why I'll want Tendo all to myself, what games we can play.  "Harumi, keep an eye out for Ranma Saotome, Ranko's brother, he's yours."

     "Oh joy," Harumi said, to the other girls' consternation.

     "The yummiest guy in the school and all you can manage is 'Oh joy', and sarcastically at that?" Yuki asked petulantly.

     "He's an uncouth bar - barian," Harumi said, sniffing disdainfully and complaining again as was her wont, "Some of us want a boy who is more than a . . . plaything, we want to be able to talk to him."

     "You have a cricket in your pocket or is that the royal `we`?" Tomoe asked, "Cause I think you're in the minority."

     "Kiki," Usagi said, to forestall the impending explosion, "If Shinji Ikari shows up, he's your responsibility."

     "If he's a musician," Kiki said, "I've got him."

     Usagi nodded at the girl.  Too bad she'd never countenance the true worship of the Goddess, Usagi lamented, It would be nice to have someone stable on the Council, besides me.  "We should stride boldly and enjoy this new day," Usagi said happily.

     "Better to get creamed by it later," Tomoe groused.

     "I am looking forward to my assignment," Yuki said cheerfully, "It should prove very interesting, and Miss Langley's reaction ought to be enjoyable too."

     "It will certainly increase your chances of getting a date."  Harumi sniffed disdainfully, again.

     "I've never had a problem getting a date," Yuki said airily, "That has been your area of expertise.  Maybe `Raccoon` would be your speed, if he'd have you."

     "Well drawing Saotome out should be easy," Tomoe said, for once preventing an argument instead of starting one, "Looky who decided to show her face again."  The others looked at the trio Tomoe was pointing to.  "Fresh meat can wait, old meat - "

     "No," Usagi said, "Not because you don't have the right, but Saotome isn't here yet.  Besides, let the big sister remove herself before you make Anaya remember who run things here."  Besides, watching Saotome hand you your head will be very entertaining, Usagi thought, Whoever heard of a girl unwilling to hit other girls, ridiculous.

     "You aren't as clever as you think," Harumi sought to reignite her argument with Yuki.

     "And nobody is as clever as you think you are," Kiki interjected.

     "Except Her," Usagi said warningly, as much to avoid blasphemy as the battle.

     "Agreed," they chorused, relenting for the moment.

     Ryuu, another of the innermost circle approached.  "We aren't going to have much work," she said breathlessly, "Ikari hasn't been released from his hospital bed, and Ranma Saotome is doing a deep sync study.  Something about considering how to link EVAs with conventional forces.  The EVAs beat an entire armored infantry division a couple days ago.  Saotome is concentrating on seaborne gun power and carrier aviation."

     "Naval contemplation?" Usagi asked incredulously.  What sick mind came up with that one? she wondered about the recruitment potential of such a person.  "All right, everyone tasked to Ranma and Ikari will be redirected to finding out who all these people are."

     "Already done," Ryuu told them, "The U.S.S. Boxer will be deployed along with the Coral Sea, so there's some guys who sent for their families, that's who they are.  The school is protesting 238 new students, but with the Navy and NERV providing a lot of the money to run the school . . . they could complain, but couldn't say 'no'."

     "Well, the pilots aren't the only newcomers who will have to find their place," Usagi said, "WE don't want Tendo recruiting from them.  When she arrives, she's going to find herself . . . reduced.  She'll be out of resources when she does return.  Harumi, Ryuu, Kiki, get everyone whom we tasked to Ikari and Ranma Saotome, find out if any of these newcomers are . . . suitable.  Go get Sakura, I want to talk to her about Ayanami."  Usagi sighed and considered how she was going to manage all of this.

He Was Vicious and a Killer Though a Youth of Twenty-Four

     Sora bowed down to look into Moribe's face, so proud of his new school uniform.  "Now try to keep it clean, but don't go overboard," she told him, "It's a new year, full of new chances."

     Moribe nodded, but glanced at Anaya.

     "I wish you'd let me report them," Sora said to Anaya as she straightened up.

     "They'd throw us out, and you wouldn't get a refund," Anaya said firmly, "With all these new kids and our new uniforms, maybe they'll find someone else to pick on."

     Sora could tell her little sister was trying to give her a gentle brush off.  "Very well," she said, bowed and received one in return, "I'll see you after school and after work.  You might find some nice people to pal around with."  Sora smiled.  As `outgoing` as I am, Anaya is even worse.  But in one case, that might be a good thing, Sora thought as she walked away, But I think the `newcomers` will shake things up even more.  She looked down the road and saw the greatest 'shakers up' she'd ever met.  She smiled at what the pilots would do to any schoolyard bullies they ran into.  Or ran over, she thought happily.

     "Come ON Horseface!" Asuka shouted back at her fellow pilot, who was standing on one pedal of the bicycle and not moving, "I thought you said you learned how to shift the gears."

     "I forgot!" Horseface shouted back at her, "I don't see why we can't just use the jeep."

     "The Invincible Ranko Saotome is surrendering to a bicycle," Asuka said, all aghast, "We have to get to the base!  The world is coming to an end."

     Asuka watched Horseface jump down and race alongside the bike she was pushing, until it was going fast enough for her to shift the gears.  It's too easy sometimes, Asuka thought as she rode on towards the school, Seems a lot more crowded than we were told.  I wonder if Wondergirl is sitting at the ruins of the other school waiting for someone to unlock the doors?  Maybe we should send someone to check.

     The pair rode into the school grounds, Erin and Sammi in the jeep following them.  Asuka spotted the bike racks and headed towards them.  She heard whoops and hollering behind her.  As she parked her bike, she saw Horseface performing an elaborate gymnastic routine on the seat, handlebars and frame of her bicycle as she moved slowly towards the bike racks.

     "Now who didn't expect that?" Asuka thought, she spotted Hikari and Wondergirl both heading towards her.  "Now that is an ill wind."

     "I have prepared maps, lists of important features," Wondergirl said, handing over the hand drawn map and a list of exits, escape routes, and other 'important features'.

     "This is . . . surprisingly thorough," Asuka said, honestly impressed by the job Wondergirl had done.  "What did you do?  Get here at daybreak and map all this out?"

     "0300 hours," Wondergirl said as she headed towards Erin and Sammi, who were trying to watch everything at once.

     "She did a good job," Hikari admitted, she seemed to be waiting for Asuka's reaction.

     "Something about her still bothers me," Asuka said, "It's like she can't leave well-enough alone, always having to do more than what's reasonable."

     "Oh," Hikari said, nodding her understanding, "You're jealous.  I never expected you to act like Ranma."

     Asuka growled at her friend and the scurrilous insult.  Hikari made it worse by laughing at Asuka's expression which threatened dire fates.

     "What's with all these people?  There were 80 from our school, but this looks like more than 300."

     "Newcomers, Americans, British, Canadians, Australians, a couple Germans, to work in the shipyards on the new carrier.  It seems Tendo-san and Davis-san wrecked the other one."  Hikari took her hand.  "I want you to meet some of them."

     "Always making new friends," Asuka said of her friend in German.  She put on her best smile as the people clustered around her.  She lost track of the names after the first dozen.

     "The thing that concerns me is Ayanami," Sakura, who'd been assigned that pilot, complained, "There's almost nothing known about her.  Even her classmates don't know much about her, and there's already a bunch of the underclassmen all talking about how 'beautiful, delicate and exotic' she is.  It makes me sick.  She just keeps making notations in that stupid notebook of hers and that drawing.  A real weirdo if you ask me.  She hasn't said more than one word to anyone who tried to talk to her, real queen bee, let the others flutter around and she barely acknowledges them."

     "That . . . doesn't sound like the Ayanami I've heard of," Yuki admitted, "Real stuck up prig, too good to talk to you."

     "I heard she was some kind of weird, nihilistic philosopher, never saying anything and playing her violin in a darkened auditorium," Harumi said.

     "WHO CARES?" Tomoe let her opinion be known, "Just - "

     "Tomoe," Usagi warned, "We have time to find out."

     "Yeah," Tomoe said, "Why don't you walk over and ask her?"

     "Have you ever had her stare at you?" Sakura stared at Tomoe and shivered, "You wouldn't talk that way if you had.  She is . . . really spooky, like she isn't really there, in the head I mean.  And that soft little voice, it gives you the creeps."

     "You have your assignment," Usagi said, ending the discussion, then looked up at the pilots and their guards arriving, "Well, it looks like the main event is about to begin.  Already making friends.  Should we go over there and make our presence known?"

     "I'm going," Yuki said as she headed out.

     "So am I," Tomoe said as she headed towards her target.

     Nabiki stood, watching events unfold.  Ritsuko stood beside her.  "This was what led him to the breakthrough that let him do what he did at the confirmation we watched," Nabiki told Ritsuko.

     "I don't see why you keep doing this," Ritsuko whispered to her.

     Nabiki knew that whispering, hiding, etc. wasn't necessary.  We won't be noticed by the living memories unfolding before us, I'm getting good at this infiltration, she thought proudly.

     "I don't see why you keep doing this!" Alwyk shouted to his apprentice following behind him.

     Nabiki pointedly ignored Ritsuko's expression.  The young man following the silver-haired dragonmage had a bemused smile that Nabiki easily recognized.

     "It's never been done before, else we'd have a record of it," Alwyk continued the argument with an air of hopelessness.

     You already know you can't win, Nabiki thought, You just want him to make an informed mistake.

     "If you are going to pose questions, only to answer them completely," Jeff, as a 20-ish man, told his teacher, "I may cease to speak altogether."

     "Ha!" Alwyk retorted, "As if that would ever happen."

     "But it did divert you long enough, your own tactics of verbal combat, divert, obfuscate, slip in the truth in an hundred bits and let them stumble over it," Jeff replied, "I am a good student."

     Ritsuko and Nabiki exchanged shocked looks, then both glared at the image of their ally.

     "The answer is, as you quite rightly said, there are no records of anyone having done this," Jeff explained, "That seems reason enough to try."

     Alwyk turned back to face Jeff, his expression one of fatherly concern.  "Did it ever occur to you, that the reason there are no records, is that there was no one left to make the records?"

     "That's why I wanted you and Altara here, to document whatever happens," he told his mentor, then smiled, "I have considered the risks, but the potential gains vastly outweigh them.  So much of the magic we do is merely glorified copies of what the Great Old Ones and the Elder Gods let slip in their fighting.  This is a chance to bypass the brewers and distillers and touch the source directly."

     I can see, I can feel the enthusiasm, Nabiki thought, I've seen it on Ranma often enough.  'Ooo!  A new technique!  Must have!'  The boy would do anything to master 'Martial Art X', so Raccoon is the same way with magic.

     The old man was joined by an equally silver-haired, but still vigorous woman.  The same one from the confirmation.  She wasn't beautiful, age had relieved her of that, but she was still striking, a presence to be noticed and admired as she entered a room.  "You haven't dissuaded him," she said, not asked, amused by it all.

     "I'd considered putting him in stasis, but that would merely transfer the insanity to whoever woke him up," the man replied, "And they might not be able to stop him."

     The two unseen watchers examined the room carefully while Jeff laid out the robes, drew the magic circle and set candles and oil lamps at specific places, acting very much like the apprentice he still was.

     "He told Gosenkugi you didn't need all that stuff," Nabiki murmured.  And he doesn't seem as subservient as an apprentice would be, she added mentally.

     "Maybe an apprentice does," Ritsuko replied, "I mean look at all their junk, this is a real wizard's lair."  She gestured to all the books, bottles, jars, etc. adorning the room and every horizontal space except the floor.

     The trio of mages began robing themselves, black cassocks and gray skullcaps.  Nabiki noticed the tassels that touched the floor and wracked her brains where she had seen that, and the metal pectorals that the two older mages fitted to Jeff's chest.

     "Static discharge," Ritsuko supplied, "Earth any electrostatic overloads."

     "I was thinking of Orthodox Judaism," Nabiki admitted, "Why would a rabbi need to be shielded against E.M.P., electromagnetic pulse?"

     "That's why the Elder Things used doped diamond semiconductors with gallium arsenide as a second choice," Ritsuko told her, then explained at her incomprehension, "Their electronics could ignore most EM.P.."

     Nabiki shook her head.  "How backward are we . . . really?"

     "No cold fusion, no cloning or genetic manipulation, except by breeding.  Pretty backward," Ritsuko told her frankly.

     "So have you figured out what he's planning to do?" Nabiki asked as she walked the perimeter of the magic circle, "I've no clue."

     "I'm nearly hopeless at magic," Ritsuko answered.

     Nabiki stared at her.  "That isn't the question I asked," she accused, "You know, you remember, you know what's going to happen."

     "He'll live through it," Ritsuko said, seemingly disinterestedly "If that's what you're worried about."

     "Control is the key to all magic," Altara intoned, "Mastery of self, and mastery of magic, leads to mastery of the universe."

     "Unless there's another way," Jeff replied in the same tone, "If you are trying to break a horse, you can bust him like a bronco, or like a thoroughbred.  I'd like to try the thoroughbred method and see what happens.  Surrender myself to the magic, see what it does if I let it do as it wills.  We've always speculated there's an intention behind it.  That indicates goals and desires.  Time to make a deal."

     Altara shrugged.  Nabiki glanced at Ritsuko, who had a thoughtful expression.

     "What?" she asked the older woman, "You figured out something."

     Calm down, Nabiki told herself, He survived, and Ritsuko isn't worried.

     "Just that . . . he said the same thing about syncing with the EVA, that you could overpower it, or try a gentler approach."  Ritsuko paused and looked around.  "So his experiment was successful, if not wildly successful."

     Nabiki nodded.  I want to know about magic, how to cast it, how to control it.  I could never match any of the martial artists `back home` force-to-force, as Ranma and Akane did, and confronting them that way was worse than useless.  The methods I and Kasumi used of turning their weaknesses back on them, were much more successful, she thought, then admitted, "Maybe."  I won't admit I'm worried, she thought, I've been fascinated by the stories of magic since I was a little girl, since I believed magic might actually exist, since before it was proven to me there was no real magic in the world and no miracles.  Akane still believed in the stories of the brave, honorable, wonderful, honorable, and so on and so forth martial artists.  But I learned, that both of them turned out to be lies and hoccum, used by the clever against the gullible, and so I'd be the clever one, always, and not the gullible one, ever!  The ideas of magic and the ideas of a truly 'honorable' martial artist, even Ranma, were all disappointments.  While he was a good deal more honorable than the other two masters of the Anything Goes School, or three masters I should say, he treated their pronouncements and protestations about honor as if they had more meaning than any other kind of flatulence.  And he would take advantage where he could as well, no underhanded tactic was too low to win or learn a new technique, and people thought I was shallow and deceitful.

     But magic . . . she thought hungrily as she watched the final preparations.  She stepped into the magic circle.  I want to see what he sees, experience what he felt, and most important, to learn what he did, she thought covetously, To discover the secrets he has uncovered.  She glanced up and saw Ritsuko's knowing smile as she prepared, Nabiki disregarded it.  This is a dream, a memory, we saw him pass from apprenticeship to mastery, so maybe what he found here really worked, Nabiki thought, It must really have been good.

     Nabiki ignored Ritsuko's warning glance as she knelt down beside the dream-shade Jeff, and touched his head, waiting for her ability to see into a dream shade's experiences to kick in.  The chanting and drumming of Jeff and the two masters washed over her, forgotten.  She felt herself falling away, all the cares, the worries, the day-to-day struggles that took up so much of her time, so much of her life, the concerns about her place in the world, and in the grand scheme of things.  All such things fell away.

     Now she saw filaments, like glowing lines that traveled and tangled with others, sometimes briefly, sometimes so strongly they never separated again.  Entranced, she reached out, as Jeff had reached out.  Unlike her, he tried to touch several strands at once.  She sought out only one.  It calls to me, she thought, mesmerized, It's no different from the others, she thought, entranced by it, Same color, luminosity and thickness, but I could tell this one out of millions.  It calls to me.

     Her hand brushed it as Jeff's hand connected with a knot of dozens of threads tangled together for a moment in time and space, then separating to their own distant domains.

     "It's so beautiful," she said enraptured, hearing the echo of the same tone from Jeff's voice.

And the Notches on His Pistol Numbered One An' Nineteen More

     Ranma watched the school populace smile and shout and laugh at his antics.  What was I ever worried about? Ranma asked himself as he parked his bike next to Asuka's with a flourish.  He noticed some people continued staring at the bikes as the riders walked away from them.  Okay, are they staring at it because it's a good bike, or because it belongs to the pilots? Ranma wondered.

     "Hello Ranko," Toji said as he smiled at her.

     Okay, this one is easy, Ranma thought as he smiled back as cutely as he could, without throwing up.  "I could never have anything to do with a man who'd leave his true love for a pretty face," Ranma said as coquettishly as he could, pouting cutely and batting his eyelashes.  I need a bath, Ranma thought while holding the smile as his cheeks ached, as Toji blushed and stammered, then Ranma smiled at Hikari and Asuka's matching shocked expressions.  Ranma joined the shocked pair.  Act two, he thought as `Ranko` took Hikari's hands and used `her` full power of cute on the class president.  "You'd better keep a tighter grip on him," Ranma whispered to Hikari, "Or somebody might just steal him away."  He remembered the cooking contest.  "You should offer to cook for his family sometime."  She leaned close to Hikari, enjoyed Asuka's absolutely stunned expression.  "Or you two should get together and cook for both families, a big pot of something, split it up and take it home," Ranma suggested, whispering in her ear, "Working together."

     He giggled girlishly at Asuka's jaw-dropped, bugeyed expression.  "You just have to be yourself, but let him be who he is at the same time."  Got you! Ranma thought, smiling broadly at Asuka, It's just a role, I'm still me, but if that's what's needed, that's what I'll show them.  Me is just for those I care about.

     "Thank you," Hikari said, blushed furiously, then her blush redoubled as `Ranko` hugged her.

     "I'll help how I can, like we've been helping Rei-chan and Shinji-chan," Ranma whispered in her ear.  Then grinned ear to ear at Asuka who was swaying, almost falling down.

     "I do believe I'm going to be ill," Asuka muttered in disbelief, than added something in German Ranma couldn't follow as she turned away from the scene.

     "Ranko-chan!" Mirei charged out of the crowd shouting, "It's so good to see you!"

     The young girl hugged Ranko enthusiastically.  Ranma hugged her back, carefully.

     "So you're going to be on the softball team," Ranma said, "When are they going to make you the pitcher?"

     "I have to be a third year to pitch," Mirei said with a frown, "Why haven't any of you tried out?"

     "Pilots would have to leave games too often," Ranma explained, "Besides, you haven't seen us play," he whispered loud enough for Asuka to hear, "It wouldn't be fair."

     Mirei pointed at Asuka, "She can't be any good, she's German, what do they know about baseball?"

     Before Asuka could explode, Ranma answered, "She's American-trained, same as Rei, she's . . . " Ranma seemed to deeply consider while letting Asuka hang for a moment on how good she was, "She's not bad . . . "  Wait for it, wait for it, Ranma told himself as he watched Asuka's temper rise, Now.

     "For a pilot, which means she's real good," Ranma said, smiled at Asuka who was on the verge of an explosion.

     Asuka visibly unwound, as she had to put away her anger.  "I've figured it out," Asuka said sourly, "You're a vampire, if you don't have adoring crowds, you curl up and die."

     "Asuka!" Hikari warned.

     "Well, it's the truth," Asuka countered.

     "It's nice to see you're all such good friends," one of the softball players approached them, "Yuki Yamajima, yes I've heard all the jokes, snowy island mountain, Aleutians they're called I think.  If you're interested in . . . playing, something could be arranged . . . I'm sure."

     "Team Captain Yamajima," Mirei said nervously, "Saotome Ranko-san, my coach, Hokari Hikari, she was class president at their old school - "

     "We've dispensed with such silly notions as class presidents," Yuki cut Mirei off, "Leaders are evident, or they aren't."  She stared at Asuka and smiled warmly.  "And who is that?"

     "Asuka Soryu Langley," Asuka said staring back defiantly at the invader.

     Something's wrong with her, that Yuki, it's like she smells real bad or something, Ranma thought, he felt as if a battle had begun, and he had no idea how to fight it, Insult or fist, neither would work.  "You can call her 'Your Majesty'," Ranma suggested, watching Yuki's reaction while smiling like an idiot to disguise that he might not be able to launch a frontal assault in this war, he could still support Asuka's moves from the flanks.  Just like she and Raccoon did for me their first day in Japan, Ranma realized, When we rescued Hikari.  But where's Rei?  Normally she'd be here.

     Yuki smiled, stared at Ranma.  "Very droll, I'm sure," she said, with all the warmth of her namesake, "I'm surprised your brother isn't here."

     "Pilot Davis isn't her brother," Asuka said, matching the genuine warmth of Yuki's smile, "They're just friends."

     "And you," Yuki asked Asuka, "Are you allowed friends?  Or just people who kiss your ring?"

     "My rings are at the jewelers getting a new slobber-proof coating," Asuka replied, waving airily, "It is such a bother, but tradition is tradition."

     "Of course," Yuki said, obviously disappointed by the reactions she was getting.

     This is more like what we did to the `Inspector`, Ranma saw the battle, but couldn't understand the rules or the patterns of the fighting.  Asuka doesn't like this newcomer, and I can't blame her.  I don't know why, and that troubles me, Ranma considered as he looked back and forth between the pair, analyzing the battle, Well, now I know one thing at least, there's no where Asuka or Rei can go, that Ranko can't.  That's why I stuck myself like this.  I needed practice being a girl, so now I can be one all the time and not draw attention . . . other than what any pretty girl would draw anyway.  'Don't try to understand the pilots, their incomprehensible, even Saotome Ranma.'  Ranma smirked at that, breaking the deadlock of frozen smiles between the two.

     "Something amuses you?" Yuki asked as if she'd stepped in something while barefoot.

     "Just how much you remind me of Katsuragi Misato," Ranma said innocently, and watched the girl's face contort in fury.  Ranma saw that Asuka caught it.

     "Yes, I think you're right.  The Major is so . . . distinctive," Asuka said smiling all the time, "But also very high maintenance.  I could never be that way.  But I give you credit for carrying it off."  Yuki looked like she wanted to kill both redheads, slowly to savor their torture.

     Okay, I can smash it open, Ranma thought, Then let the cavalry storm through.  Ranma noted Hikari looking around with a confused and frightened look, and that Mirei seemed to understand completely what was happening, and was staying carefully neutral.

Now the Stranger Started Talking Made it Plain to Folks Around

     "Come on breathe!"  Ritsuko breathed for Nabiki, who'd suddenly broken the dream connection and fallen out of her chair.  "Breathe!" Ritsuko ordered as she remembered Jeff clawing his way back to consciousness, when he'd succeeded in 'touching all magic', all the while Ritsuko knew that something terrible had happened.

     Nabiki gasped, drawing breath as if it was her first ever.  He did it, I saw, Ritsuko said, Now she's done it, why that place and that time?

     "Beautiful," was all Nabiki said before falling unconscious again.

     Ritsuko verified Nabiki was breathing, shallowly, and her pulse was still beating, slow and strong.

     Ritsuko sighed.  "You two are going to drive me crazy!" Ritsuko complained to Jeff who lay there, still unmoving, but alive, "I'll bet you did that to poor Alwyk too."

     What happened during your confrontation with Sharon? Ritsuko wondered, How did you come through that explosion without a scratch but unconscious, and we couldn't find any trace of Sharon.  Of course ground zero for an explosion like that, maybe there wasn't anything left to find, but you made it through.  I know what you could have done, but there was no where you could have hidden from the explosion that she couldn't have gone too.

     Ritsuko carefully picked up Nabiki, she toyed with the idea of putting them in bed together, then decided against it and carried Nabiki out of Jeff's cabin.  Between teenage hormones and battle stress, I'll be having enough trouble on that score soon enough, Ritsuko thought, No use encouraging it now.

     Maya was waiting outside of Jeff's cabin.  "No change?" she asked, very concerned.

     "We nearly lost Nabiki to something," Ritsuko said, "When she wakes up, she may be able to give us some clues about what has happened."

     Maya nodded, then dashed down the corridor to open the door to Nabiki's cabin for her Sempai.  Ritsuko followed along, then settled the pilot in her bed.

     "I'll watch her for a while," Maya offered, sitting on the chair beside the bed, "So you can rest and maybe eat something?"

     Ritsuko caught the faintly accusatory tone in Maya's voice.  "Very well, Mother Ibuki," Ritsuko bowed and told her assistant, "I'll go be a good girl."

     "I'm not your mother," Maya said.  "And I don't want a good girl," Maya told her, eyes blinking cutely, like a Disney cartoon animal.

     Ritsuko retreated before she went into sugar shock.

     "This is the map of the facilities," Rei said to Sammi as she handed over the oversized pieces of paper, she glanced at the crowd which had trailed her to the jeep and now surrounded them, "It contains all the relevant elements."  I hate being so vague, Rei fumed silently, But are all these people cleared to know?  Have they all been vetted?  If not, they cannot know our needs.  "As well as a list of security concerns," she gave Sammi the sheets covered with her precise handwriting, detailing the points of concern.

     Sammi scanned the paper and looked around.

     Her eyes pause on the important spots, Rei thought, relieved, Without drawing attention that they are the important spots.

     "Thank you, Rei," Erin said.

     "Yes, thank you," Sammi said as she removed the pack radio from the jeep and began contacting additional security forces, speaking quietly in German.

     Rei moved away, drawing many of the onlookers with her, as she moved back to her spot.  It is still unoccupied? she wondered as several girls cleared a path so she could return to it, In this crush someone must have desired a seat out of the main crush.  This makes no sense.

     As she sat down, she noted that she retained clear lines of sight across the entire campus, over the heads of most of the students.  This is why I picked this location, she thought, It is out of the way and lets me watch, why are these others here, and quiet, instead of making noise with their friends and fellow students?  Perhaps they are under the influence of an enemy, I should observe.  Or should I retreat?  She was aware of the weight of the pistol and ammunition concealed within her skirt, as well as her own hand-to-hand abilities.  I will remain and observe, she decided, Gunfire will draw the help I would require.

     She sat, watched the milling crowds, and the crowd before her who sat also.  She removed a notebook from her pocket and noted in it the bizarre behavior she was observing, as well as her questions and possible conclusions.

     "Do you always write everything down?" a small boy in the front row asked.

     "Sometimes" Rei answered, not raising her head from her study.

     "How can you 'sometimes' always do something?" the boy persisted.

     "Easily," Rei replied.  You don't ever always do something, even breathing, she thought, But you always do some things when appropriate.

     "What's it like being pilots?" one girl breathlessly asked.

     Rei glanced at her, saw the fascination and unbridled enthusiasm she'd seen on others.  But it was never directed at me, always the others, Rei thought, I believe I prefer to be ignored.

     "Difficult," Rei told her, "Dangerous."

     "Do you always answer in one-word sentences?" one boy near the back asked disgustedly.

     So this is theatre, the Fourth has discovered that, she realized as she noted her fellow pilots' actions, Then perhaps a show, like we gave the Inspector.  "Asuka.  Soryu.  Langley."  She pointed to the two redheads.  "Talks."

     Rei blushed at the laughter of the crowd and the embarrassment of her interrogator.

     "What's the scariest situation you've ever been in?" another girl asked, leaning close.

     "Now," Rei said.  She stared at them, a stare that had repelled her classmates before.  There are too many, she realized, And they are not repulsed.

     "Give her room to breathe!" another girl pulled the leaner back, "It's no wonder she's nervous."

     "She means have you ever been scared in combat?  You know, were you afraid when you were getting ready to fight?"

     "Name?" Rei said, trying to deflect the question.

     "Oh," the girl stammered, blushed, stood and bowed awkwardly, "Nie Bisai, we, well most of us are in the classical music club or the school orchestra . . . we don't get the attention that the softball team does, but we do all right, the conductor is very good.  We'd . . . some of us know kids in your old school, and they say you play the violin, and we thought . . . before you joined the softball team, we'd ask you to join the orchestra and classical music club."  The girl looked ready to faint as she stood there holding her bow.

     Such anticipation of my answer, Rei considered, bowed slightly to `release` the girl, Why is it of such importance?

     "We heard you were coming to our school, and we had to ask," another boy announced breathlessly, to the nods of many of the others.

     "My duty is first," Rei said, buying time to analyze her feelings and those of the people around her, "Pilots Ikari, Langley and Davis are also musicians."

     "We heard.  But if you say yes, the others will join too," one boy said, "After all you're the First Children, that means you're the leader."

     Rei stopped in confusion, blinked, and stared in amazement at the boy.  For several moments she couldn't think.  It is such an impossible statement, she finally reflected, as she glanced at the others, who seemed to all nod their support of the impossible statement, Yet they all agree with it, my designation and our `rank` have nothing to do with one another.  We don't have `rank`, we all follow orders.

     "I do not lead," she finally said, "The Commander leads."

     "Yes, in a battle," the boy continued breathlessly, as if he might not get it all out, "But when you're outside, you have to be the leader, while Langley and Saotome stir things up, you stay back and watch, then you send in Tendo and Davis to hit the targets hard.  We've all heard it, everybody knows it.  That's how you took out the gang who ran the school you used to go to.  Once you had your strike team assembled, you moved in.  Then you selected people to run things while you sat back and watched."  He took a step back and inhaled deeply.

     Rei was speechless.  I can see how the conclusions were reached, she thought, trying to find words to explain things, But the premises are so completely fallacious . . . where do I begin?

     "I am not the leader," she said, blushing furiously at the implication.  If Mein Grossfeldmarschall hears such ideas, Rei thought, She will either laugh until she does herself an injury, or will injure me to the same degree, or both in sequence.

     "Oh!" Nie said suddenly, swatting the boy who'd spoken on the head, "We're supposed to keep it secret!" she hissed at him, "We're sorry, we haven't told anybody, we just thought everybody knew!"  She bowed, touching her forehead to the ground as did several others, "Please forgive us."

     "You are," Rei said, unable to think of anything else to say.  She looked at Mein Grossfeldmarschall and the Fourth studying her map, and wished she had some way, short of firing her pistol, to summon them to her aid.

Was an Arizona Ranger Wouldn't Be Too Long in Town

     "What's up with Wondergirl?" Asuka asked, pointing to where the other pilot was sitting, "She looks like she found out her quiche is steak tartare."

     "What?" Horseface asked, finally dropping the cute act that had so nauseated Asuka.

     "Food, Horseface, food," Asuka told him, put her hands on her cheeks, "You mean there's some kind of food you don't know about and haven't eaten in huge, dripping messes?"

     "There's peanut butter."  Horseface stuck out `her` tongue at that.  Asuka agreed.

     "And hagris," Horseface added.

     "Haggis," Asuka corrected.  Okay, point taken, Asuka mentally added.

     "You missed them bowing to her," Stooge-Aida said as he and Natsumi walked over, "Full kowtow.  Maybe you aren't worthy."

     "Excuse me I - " Yuki began.

     "You're excused," Asuka and Horseface chorused, she glared at Horseface, `she` beamed back at Asuka.

     "Asuka, that wasn't very nice," Hikari said.

     "People are bowing to Wondergirl and she asked for absolution," Asuka replied, "With the world ending any second, I had to be quick."  She turned to Yuki.  "By the power vested in me by God, evidenced by my obvious superiority, I absolve you.  Go and sin no more, accent on the go.  The world is ending, spend it with someone you love.  What are you doing Horseface?" Asuka asked the faux-girl in the martial art's stance.

     "The Art is my one true love," `she` explained innocently, again back on `cute`.

     "I am surrounded by idiots."  She looked at Aida, Toji and Horseface.  "And the insane," she said as she pointed to Wondergirl.

     "Which am I?" Hikari asked, tapping her foot, one eyebrow raised.

     "Why can't the Angels attack when it might be useful?" Asuka lamented quietly in German.

     "Let's go over and find out," Asuka suggested, "It can't be any weirder than the day has already been."

     "Why are they making us wait anyway?" Aida asked as he and the others followed Asuka, "Class should have begun ten minutes ago."

     "Instead of homeroom today," Mirei told them, "The Principal gives a big, rousing speech about duty, honor, diligence and the sacred trust of students to learn and teachers to teach."

     "Goes on the whole period, huh?" Toji asked.

     "No," Mirei explained, "He's still talking through lunch, but they let us go after the second period starts.  I hear he gives it again during detention, and it prevents rec - resit - "

     "Recidivism," Asuka said as they approached Wondergirl, who was still fielding questions and giving one word answers, "Why does Kant's Categorical Imperative have a wider intellectual following than the Biblical Golden Rule, although they are similar?"

     "Intellectuals are stupid," Wondergirl said, with a look of genuine desperation on her face as she stood and dragged Asuka away, "Privacy."

     "Easy Wondergirl!  The arm's only attached by flesh and bone!" Asuka protested to no avail, Wondergirl didn't stop until they were some 5 meters away from the others.  If I'd have fallen, Asuka wondered while massaging some life back in her arm, Would she have dragged or carried me?

     "You must tell them you are the leader Mein Grossfeldmarschall," Rei said breathlessly, a hunted, frightened look Asuka had never seen bedecking Wondergirl's face, "They take my denials as further proof of the fact.  The fact is false," Wondergirl added as if she had committed some crime against God and Man.

     Asuka was having a hard time keeping a straight face.  Horseface asks about being scared and Wondergirl claims people believe she's the leader, Asuka thought.  "That's it, either I've gone insane," she shouted at Wondergirl, "Or the whole world has!"

     "I cannot dispute that statement," Wondergirl said, "Yet the facts remain."

     "You know, ever since Spineless didn't wake up, you've been acting particularly sonderbar, even for you," Asuka confronted the girl, "Is there something you'd like to tell me?"

     "No," Wondergirl said miserably.

     Asuka closed her eyes and did some triple integrals in her head, soothed by the rationality of mathematics, as an anodyne to her suddenly deranged colleagues.  "You cannot prove a negative," Asuka explained through gritted teeth, "So you are going to have to live with it.  You try to give me an order though, and I'll give you concrete proof you don't control me."  Asuka realized her error the instant she said it.  Scheisse! she remembered how literal Wondergirl was.

     Wondergirl charged over to her coterie and took what she probably considered a commanding tone and posture.  "Mein Grossfeldmarschall, you will be a mouse."

     Bad move, Asuka thought as she squatted down, scratched behind her ear and announced to the world, "Squeak."

     Wondergirl looks like she's ready to lose it, Asuka thought as she `cleaned her whiskers`, Serves her right.

     "Oh Ayanami-san!" Hikari plead with her, bowing low "You have to change her back!  She'll eat all the cheese!  And she sheds something awful!"

     Always glad to spread the misery, Asuka thought, pointed at Horseface.  "CAT!" she screamed and took off through the crowds of dazed students, trying to hide the tears of laughter running down her face.

He Came Here to Take an Outlaw Back Alive or Maybe Dead

     Usagi stared at the tableau, from Sakura not being able to get close to Ayanami for the press of the crowd, to Yuki's repulse by Asuka, to this latest insanity.

     "These are the people that NERV has to save the world?" Harumi asked, equally slack-jawed and cockeyed as her leader, "We're all doomed."

     "I'm beginning to rethink my idea of recruiting them," Usagi said numbly, "Maybe euthanizing them isn't such a bad idea after all."

     "You suppose maybe Tendo had . . . some kind of . . . rationality spell on them?" Harumi asked.

     "Only She could cast a spell that powerful," Usagi said morosely, "And they all seemed so . . . normal - at that picnic."

     Tomoe could careless about the gaijin running past her laughing so hard she was crying, she had a long-service victim in her sights.  These crowds keep hiding, then revealing you, Tomoe thought, But I'll find you.  She determinedly picked her way through the crowds.  I swear these people are intentionally getting in my way, she thought.

     "Ah, Miss Katsuragi," the senior Senator's aide welcomed her to the conference room.  Misato glanced around, the senators, the translators, stenographers and the other staff were all there.  She noted to her horror that both Admiral Simson and Commander Ikari were in the gallery, watching.  She let herself be guided to her usual seat, as she watched the pair quietly discuss something, the Commander looking grave, the Admiral looking unconcerned.

     This is it then, she thought, They're here to verify that I've been disgraced, thrown out.  Well, after all that's happened, I guess I shouldn't have expected anything different.

     "Very well, please raise your hand and repeat after me," another aide said.

     Misato repeated the meaningless oath, as she had all the other days.  As if your God had any meaning, she thought bitterly, the limit of her defiance, If he was so powerful, why are the Angels even out there?  Why hasn't he struck them down?

     She sat up straight, took the proffered tea, and braced herself for the questions.

     "At this point we'll only be clarifying your earlier responses," the senator said, through his translator "Nothing more."  "It really is the end," the translator added quietly, "They're flying out tomorrow."

     This really is the end, she thought hopelessly, I guess it is.  She nodded her thanks that the ordeal would be over soon.  Then what will I do, she wondered, This is all I've been trained for, all I know.  Will I be able to see them again, talk to them?  Or will I be an outsider, those who are always kept at arms length?  Will they even tell me if Shinji recovers?

     "In the flight from the submarine to the mainland," the senator began, scanning his heavily annotated notes, "You state that the operations of the aircraft still warranted a wartime footing, despite the surrender of Japan several days earlier and his Imperial Majesty's, the Emperor's, broadcast had already occurred.  Would you care to comment on that?"

     "We had no real certainty that his Majesty's broadcast was factual," Misato began, "The information I and most people around me had at the time, was that your fleet had suffered horrible losses, your bombers were being knocked down in incredible numbers.  And few of the crew of the sub or the aircraft could easily understand the dialect of Court Japanese he used.  So we suspected it was a clever ploy by Hollywood, or the American radio experts, all a hoax.  Like the Orson Welles 'War of the Worlds' broadcast, used as a weapon of propaganda."

     She watched them making their notes.  I can practically feel them tightening the noose around my neck, she thought despondently.

     "The German's surrendered in April 1945," another senator asked, "Did they not?"

     "Yes," Misato answered.  Where is that going? Misato thought as she scanned the faces of the Commission and the gallery, Even Commander Ikari doesn't know what's next.

     "Then why was Asuka Soryu Langley rescued from the Russian Sector in August?" the senator asked sharply.

     "I had nothing to do with that!" Misato insisted.

     "True, why did you have nothing to do with that?" the senator pressed, "You knew she and Anna Alise were the other pilot candidates.  You knew that from your trip to Germany and reports from your colleague Kaji Ryoji.  Yet you took no action.  Don't you find that the least bit curious?"

     Misato gulped, but kept staring straight ahead despite her desire to look around, to seek some avenue of escape.  How can I be charged with something I had no control over? she thought desperately.

     "That is curious, yes," she said, her voice shaking, "But I was in no position to do anything about it, even if I had known of the events."

     "An interesting opinion, considering NERV had the resources to operate in the United States, but not to rescue the important assets of a former ally."

     Misato felt the walls closing in on her.  There was nothing I could do!  We were in the U.S. during that time, she thought, How would I have arranged a rescue even if I had known?  I was only a Lieutenant.

     Admiral Simson watched the proceedings with equanimity.  They really have her rattled, he thought admiring the senators' techniques, I bet they wish they could call `ole Stoneface` and compel testimony.

     "Thank you Miss Katsuragi, please remain in the building, we will be recalling you," the translator said, "Commander Ikari, will you take the stand please."

     Admiral Simson stared as Ikari calmly walked down to the table, eyes straight ahead.  Katsuragi stared at her Commander as well, as the most feared man at NERV meekly submitted to the order from four mere senators.

     They administered the oath as Katsuragi sat next to Simson.  "I thought he had immunity," she whispered, mystified by the situation.

     "He must have volunteered," Simson whispered back equally confused, then fell silent as the senator called for order.

     "Commander Ikari, you heard the question we asked Miss Katsuragi about the lack of actions when she was a Lieutenant.  As a Colonel of Intelligence and Propaganda at the time, I put the question to you, the fall of Germany occurred in April, yet pilots Langley and Alise weren't rescued until August.  What part did you and your organization play in this lapse of - if not judgment, then operational thoroughness?"

     "We sought a convocation of other intelligence elements within the Allies who, heretofore had not fully cooperated," Ikari said in excellent English.

     For all the hyperbole, Simson thought, That's a surprisingly cogent answer, from him.

     "The action was a success, and it was undertaken because we simply lacked the resources to undertake the operation ourselves.  It was a tribute to your excellent antisubmarine work that we lacked the assets to undertake two such missions."

     "So you tricked the Allies into doing it," the senator said.

     "No, merely arranged a leak to allow them to know they could," Ikari said crisply.

     What the Hell is going on here?! Simson silently shouted while he tried to watch all the participants for clues.

And He Said it Didn't Matter He Was after Texas Red

     Tomiyo Tendo and Juri Kun exited the school building with part of the security team.  "Let's go give Rei-san a 'Well Done'," Juri suggested to him, "She got a couple places we didn't."

     "Well, we got a few places she didn't," Tomiyo said in their defense, "We'd better hurry, the natives are getting restless."

     "Have you heard the principal's speech?" Juri asked, made a face, "Delaying things until second period is a mercy, not a hardship.  Besides, it will let them get to know each other.  The Children will need that, it's always hard to fit in at a new school.  My family traveled a lot."

     "Is that really Ayanami?" Tomiyo commented on the crowd surrounding the First Children, and the girl's hunted, haunted expression.

     "Looks like," Juri said as they pressed through, "Ayanami-san, may we speak with you, privately."

     "Certainly," Rei said with surprising enthusiasm, "Excuse me."  She was at their side as if teleported.

     "We checked out the areas you suggested," Tomiyo said as he handed over the Security checklist, "We got most of the areas you were concerned about."

     "I missed the dropped ceiling in the office," Rei said.

     "It's an amateur's mistake," Tomiyo said, "Don't take it too hard."  I guess she's broken up by her failure, he thought.

     "What's with your fan club?" Juri asked, stopping Rei dead in her tracks.

     "They believe I command the pilots," Rei said with a now recognizably stricken expression, "They desire that we join the orchestra or Classical Music club, and I can command compliance."

     "You could ask the Commander - " Tomiyo began.

     "No, that I could command compliance," Rei corrected.

     Poor kid's really shook up about that, Tomiyo thought.

     "And when I attempted to prove my incapacity, Pilot Soryu submitted to a ridiculous and demeaning `order`," Rei insisted shivering at the memory.

     "She was just teasing you," Juri said.

     "That is not how the Fourth outlined the techniques," Rei countered, then considered.

     "Think about it as a `soft` version of Ranma's `hard` techniques," Tomiyo said, "Like Aikido versus Karate."

     "Yes," Rei said and visibly relaxed, "That follows, and is consistent with Mein Grossfeldmarschall's previous behavior."  Rei let out a small, almost inaudible sigh.  "Thank you."

     "Sure, Ayanami-san," Tomiyo said.  She charges into battle without a qualm, Tomiyo thought, And Asuka teasing her nearly throws her off the deep end, strange.

     Rei bowed and headed back to her seat.

     "Let's go report to Sammi," Juri said, "The building's clear at least for today."

     "Who gets the duty tomorrow?" Tomiyo asked.

     "With the FUBENS in charge of school security," Juri said with a nasty grin, "Guess."

     "Terrific," Tomiyo commented as he headed for Sammi, Erin had taken off after Asuka.

     Rei felt her equilibrium returning.  It was merely Mein Grossfeldmarschall displaying an advanced technique, she thought as she felt her heartbeat and thoughts slowing to acceptable levels, I will have to be aware of such different methodologies.

     She dreaded returning to the circle of people.  Admirers, she thought, feeling her terror rise, I would greatly prefer anonymity.

     Her eyes fell on Anaya Hasegawa.  I remember seeing her when I thanked Hasegawa-san for the bicycle, and her brother, Moribe, Rei thought, She seemed unimpressed with pilots in general, and me in particular.  Rei headed in that direction.  I desire to be unimpressive once again, she thought, Ignored, passed over and forgotten, until the Commander calls.

     "I desire to return to that state," Rei murmured.

     "Asuka," Erin tried to sound stern but kept laughing, "That was an awful thing to do."

     "What -?" Asuka gasped between laughter, as the other students cleared a region about the pair of gaijin laughing like crazed loons, "Just - made - her - pop - ular.  Noth - ing wro - ng."  Asuka was bent over holding her sides.  "Too ser - i - ous," Asuka managed, slowly getting control back, "Oh, that hurts, I'll tell her I'm sorry."  Sorry I couldn't have done it earlier, Asuka thought, Wondergirl needs a look at the big, bad, beautiful world outside of NERV and books.

     "Okay, let's go find her," Erin said, "You're lucky I won't make you listen to the Principal's entire speech.  That would be a real punishment."

     "I'm so scared, according to Wondergirl's list, my first two classes today are English and Math," Asuka countered, her cheeks still red from laughing, "I could probably teach them better, so what's the difference of listening to some idiot drone on about stuff I already know, or about something I don't care about?"

     There you are, Tomoe thought, I've got you.  Tomoe closed in on her favorite target and punching bag.  No escape, she thought, You'll remember who is in charge.

Wasn't Long Before the Story Was Relayed to Texas Red, but the Outlaw Didn't Worry Men That Tried Before Were Dead.

Twenty Men Had Tried to Take Him Twenty Men Had Made a Slip, Twenty-One Would Be the Ranger with the Big Iron on His Hip.  Big Iron on His Hip.

The Morning Passed So Quickly it Was Time for Them to Meet

     "Well look who we have here," Tomoe said to Moribe as she came upon the brother and sister.

     Anaya was about to tell the girl to leave him alone.

     "You are playing Shortstop, Who is on First," Ayanami practically materialized behind Tomoe.  The younger girl jumped, then gauged her size against the pilot's.  Tomoe smiled as she realized she was taller than the small and delicate-looking pilot.

     "Ayanami-san," Anaya said, "It's taken care of."

     "No, it is her line," Ayanami said flatly to the confused girl.

     Did she smile?  Well Tomoe is grinning now, Anaya realized worriedly.  She pushed Moribe behind her.

     "It's all right," Anaya assured her, "You don't have to get involved."

     "A pilot's duty is to destroy monsters," Ayanami said, a trace of disgust in her voice, she hadn't shifted her stare off Tomoe.

     "Are you calling me a monster?" Tomoe shouted, her fists on her hips.

     Anaya watched several others arriving, especially the two redheads, one tall, elegant and determined; the other petite but fierce.  Close behind were the circle of girls who'd tormented her and her brother at the school.  She couldn't identify many of the other girls and boys, or the adults who seemed as fierce as the two redheads.

     Can't be teachers, they always just let it happen, she thought, then saw the other long-term students moving away, as they always had in the past, and more newcomers arriving.

     "Well!" Tomoe shouted again.

     "Please define monster," Ayanami said flatly, staring at Tomoe.

     All the color drained out of Tomoe's face at the implied insult.  Usagi and Yuki pushed their way to the front of the circle, but merely watched.

     "Rei-chan, you can't eat her," the petite redhead said, Anaya realized she was Ranko Saotome, "We don't have enough ketchup."

     Anaya began looking for an escape route for her and Moribe.

     "I can eat vegetables," Rei said, staring straight at Tomoe.

     "Don't . . . it isn't worth it," Anaya said.  I don't want to be expelled for starting a brawl, Sora would never let me hear the end of it Anaya thought.

     "What's gotten into Ayanami?" a tall boy in athletic clothing asked.

     "Somebody must have peed in Stoneface's miso," the tall red head, Asuka Soryu Langley, replied offhandedly.  None of them looked like they were ready to intervene.

     "Then they deserve no pity," Ayanami declared softly, "Do you believe you are a monster?  Can you prove you are not?"

     Tomoe was already past reasoning.  Even Usagi can't control her when she gets like this, Anaya thought, When she's bothered to try.

     The sound of the slap echoed off the silent circle of observers.  Ayanami's cheek reddened at the point of impact.  Anaya saw the other two pilots draw back, in preparation to charge, or retreat.

     Nabiki shook Ritsuko `awake`.  "We have to try again," Nabiki insisted.

     "You quit breathing last time," Ritsuko countered as she sat up from her berth, letting the sounds of the speeding train ground her again, "I don't want that happening again."

     Nabiki smiled and began eagerly, "I know what I did wrong - "

     "That's good," Ritsuko interrupted, "Go back to your bed and go to sleep, real sleep and not wandering around in other people's dreams," she ordered.  Just let this go, she thought, But you won't will you.  You're charging into a minefield and I don't know if you'd care if I told you.

     "Don't you want him to wake up?" Nabiki changed to a pleading tone and posture, "It isn't his magic, that's the mistake I made.  It's he's ashamed of not saving her.  Sharon.  That's what we have to look into."

     "No," Ritsuko said.  I know the memory, the event you need to see, she thought, But not now, not until you're ready.  You don't want to know what you'll find.  I don't want to see what I know is there.

     "You know, don't you!" Nabiki said, grinning in her eagerness, letting her yearning for the solution and triumph blind her to all warnings, "Then you can guide us in, you'll know what to expect.  We can avoid all the pitfalls."

     "The whole thing is a pitfall!" Ritsuko insisted, "Those others kept you from looking at something, they will probably prevent you from looking at it now, and if they don't, I will.  There are things - "

     " 'Man was not meant to know'," Nabiki said angrily, "I've heard it, I've heard it from people hiding things that later came back to bite us.  I'm not stupid or a child."

     You are a child, Ritsuko thought.

     "You're acting like you're both," Ritsuko insisted as she stood up, "Now you are going back to your berth and back to sleep."

     "I'll go look alone," Nabiki said petulantly.

     "Then I'll sedate you."  Ritsuko had had enough of this behavior.  "If you were older, I'd say you were drunk, but you are going to rest."  When Nabiki didn't agree, Ritsuko picked her up and swung the girl over her shoulder.

     "No, you can't, you wouldn't!" Nabiki protested as she wriggled, but couldn't overcome Ritsuko's strength advantage.  "It's just one more trip!  Why are you getting like this about it?"

     "Why are you?" Ritsuko asked.

     "I'll scream!" Nabiki threatened her.

     Why am I suddenly dealing with a 5-year-old? Ritsuko wondered, Whatever she saw in Jeff's dream was a lot more than Jeff saw, he didn't act like this when he came to.  "Considering I have to sedate you," Ritsuko said, "I think everyone will understand."  She carried a suddenly quiet Nabiki over her shoulder through the barracks and into the infirmary car.

     Rei touched her cheek.  The pain is welcome, this girl, her companions, she thought, They are the source of the wrongness I have felt throughout this entire building.  With dilute exposure it merely irritated.  This concentrated exposure is worse than any physical pain.  Perhaps I can discover if they are the source, or merely the conduit.  I will inform the Commander, but the Fourth claims 'only by fighting can the truth be found'.  Through conflict might be more accurate, but here they are the same.

     "Yes?" Rei asked the other girl, who immediately slapped her other cheek.  Rei blinked, stared at her, grinned, then returned to her usual expression.  The girl grew as red as Mein Grossfeldmarschall did at her most furious.

     "This is no longer about you," Rei told Anaya and Moribe, she glanced at several of her `followers`, "See to their security."  She felt ill using them that way.  But they are what is available, she thought, Like poker, the cards you are dealt.

     "You think you're so much better than us!" Tomoe screamed at her, spitting while she did.

     "We speak more dryly," Rei observed.  A lack of reaction, Rei analyzed, And allowing her to fill in the insult seems most efficacious.  Perhaps the Fourth's lessons are not as useless as I thought.  The Commander is wise to have retained him.  I should have understood him.

     Rei sidestepped the punch, turning and stepping around the girl who ran into several in the circle.

     "You're enjoying this," Asuka accused Horseface as `she` watched Rei slip two more punches.  So is Wondergirl, Asuka thought.

     "She's a good student," Horseface replied happily, mimicking Wondergirl's evasions, her smile growing at Wondergirl's continuing seemingly effortless success.

     Something is wrong about this, about all of it, Asuka thought while she watched.

     "So," the softball captain stepped up beside Asuka, "Who's going to win."  Asuka stiffened at the closeness, moved away slightly.  Those girls make me feel . . . unclean . . . somehow, Asuka thought, I wonder if that's why Wondergirl picked this fight, to take out her frustration on a source.

     "Unless that girl gives Wondergirl a cold," Asuka said flatly, "Wondergirl is going to mop the floor with her, or we'll have to, after she hits her."

     " 'Wondergirl'?" another girl asked.

     "Because she's so ebullient, expressive and talkative," Asuka said disgustedly, "Get her talking and you won't get a word in edgewise with a cannon."  Idiots, Asuka thought.  "Just hit her and get it over with," Asuka told Wondergirl, "Quit playing with your food."

     "Tomoe isn't exactly unskilled in the martial arts," the softball captain told her confidently.

     "That's good to hear," Asuka said scornfully, "I'd hate to think she's looking so WEAK and STUPID, by accident."  Asuka smiled at the fuming softball captain.  Okay Wondergirl, I'll back your gambit, Asuka thought, I just wish I knew what you were really doing.  I hate to admit it, but when you finally explain it, it will make perfect, logical sense.  I just can't see it now.

It Was Twenty past Eleven When They Walked out in the Street

     Rei caught the girl's fist.  It is easy.  As the Fourth said, Rei thought with amazement, she gave the girl another exaggerated grin as she held the fist.

     Soon, the feeling of wrongness has increased, Rei thought as she pushed the girl's fist back and forth, keeping her off balance, The source will reveal itself if this continues.

     "You hit like a girl," Rei stated.

     The girl yanked her hand free, paused, her face a mask of fury, then she hurled herself at Rei with a shriek.  Rei simply wasn't there as the girl passed by.

     "Olè!" Mein Grossfeldmarschall shouted, then laughed.

     Rei glanced at the other wrong girls, several of them had approached Mein Grossfeldmarschall.  All were fuming at Mein Grossfeldmarschall's and the Fourth's 'this is entertaining' attitude to the fight.  Their wrongness is damped down, Rei realized, They are attempting to disguise themselves.  That is why my fellow pilots have not detected them.

     The girl had disentangled herself from some of the other students and was charging in again.  Rei ducked suddenly, the girl tripped over her and went sprawling in the grass.  "You struck me, congratulations," Rei said, "However, the ground has given you no offense."

     Now!  I can feel it, she thought watching the girl's mouth twist obscenely, as if pronouncing the word to a spell, I know now.  She braced herself for the spell to fall, prepared her own defenses against it.

     Another girl, the softball captain, grabbed Rei's opponent before she could complete the casting.  "Have you lost your mind?!" the softball captain shouted, shaking the younger girl, then she turned to Rei, as if offering an apology, "She's headstrong and quick tempered.  All this waiting."

     "She is a bully and a fool," Rei said, "She is being humiliated by her inept tactics."

     "You pilots all think you're better than the rest of us?" the girl screamed and squirmed in the larger girl's grip.

     "But we are better," Rei said firmly, stepping between Mein Grossfeldmarschall and the Fourth, all three smiled charmingly, breaking hearts for miles around, "We are all definitely cuter than you are.  Yuck."

     Rei braced herself as the girl broke loose, her fingers twisted into claws as she threw herself at Rei.

     "Why are we allowing this?" Erin asked Sammi in German, so they couldn't be overheard.

     "Rei hasn't hurt the girl," Sammi told Erin in German, "And she seems to be in complete control.  She wouldn't have started this, without a very good reason.  Like her going over the school with a fine-toothed comb.  Something has set her off.  I'd like to know what."

     "Well, I'm ready," Tomiyo whispered in Japanese, "When you give the word."

     "Keep an eye on your charges," Sammi warned in Japanese, "I think this may be more than meets the eye."

     Tomiyo nodded and moved closer to Ranma.

     Ranma watched Rei with a growing affection and pride.  She has learned, he thought as Tomoe sailed past Rei, and again crashed into the crowd, Irritate the girl into irrationality, then keep dodging, until she makes a mistake, or does whatever Rei is trying to get her to do.

     Ranma continued to analyze the battle.  She isn't bobbing, weaving, duckin' and twisting like I do, he realized, She's running a few steps, to be completely out of the way when the attack lands, then she runs back a pace in reverse to appear to have ducked out of the way.  I bet I'm the only one who caught it! he thought smugly, I'd eventually figure out a counter, but right this moment, Ranko thought with a warmth and pride she didn't understand, I'd be hard pressed to even touch her.  But I guess I'd better figure out how to beat Rei-chan's tactic, then figure out a way to teach her to beat the counters.  That's my job, it's the real reason I study the Art, not just for me, but for those who depend on me.  For the people to watch, while we protect them.

     "Rei-chan," Ranko shouted, "Do you need a breather?"

     "No," Rei-chan said as she darted in, pulled Tomoe to her feet, then darted out again.

     So that's how you tease without words, Ranko thought happily, watching Rei-chan solve a problem posed to all of them.  Rei-chan glanced at Ranko for a moment, Ranko brushed off her own shoulder.  Realization dawns, Ranko thought, watched with delight as Rei-chan darted in, brushed some dust off Tomoe.

     "You are well?" Rei-chan asked her target as she darted back out of range of the wild swing.

     Just run a couple of steps, and no one - except me - has figured out what Rei-chan is doing, Ranko thought, she scanned the others, to discover who was watching which combatant, and with what expression, Like Rei-chan told me, 'They don't need you.'  Maybe now they do.  She wasn't telling me they'd never need me, just that at that moment they didn't, because they were training each other.

     "Now I'm training," Ranko said quietly, "And she's showing off . . . for me?  No, she's just 'displaying what I have learned.'"

     "What are you mumbling about Horseface?" Asuka shouted over to him, as Rei-chan sidestepped several more charges by the other girl.

     "Just wondering if the girl -"

     "Tomoe," Asuka shouted, "Tomoe Tomoe, with a name like that, she's got a lot of pent up anger."

     "Yeah, so she's going to keep losing like this for a while," Ranko shouted back, found herself confronting Tomoe.

     "You - want - a - part - of - this -?" Tomoe panted, barely able to stand, let alone fight.

     A healthy sneeze would knock her over, Ranko thought, Naw, leave it to Rei-chan.

     "I think Rei-chan is so cute doing this!" Ranko said sweetly, clasping her hands before her and taking up a `cute` stance, "Don't you?"

     "You - are - not - worth - it!" Tomoe staggered away to renew her humiliation at Rei-chan's hands.

     Ranko started working her way through the crowd to the girl whose intimidation had set Rei-chan off in the first place.

Folks Were Watching from the Windows Everybody Held Their Breath

     "Don't you think you'd better have your guards intervene?" Usagi apprehensively asked Miss Langley as Tomoe crashed into another group of students.  That Rei is even more formidable than I thought, Usagi considered, Maybe she's the one who taught Ranma.

     "Naw, Wondergirl needs the practice dodging," Miss Langley responded, catching Tomoe as she stumbled into her, "You got her on the ropes champ, just keep on slugging," Miss Langley told Tomoe and pushed her back into the engagement.  "You see Wondergirl has only been practicing a few days," Miss Langley told her, stared at her intently, "Are you feeling all right?  Maybe you need to go to the nurse."

     "No," Usagi said as she tried to remain upright.  Practicing a few days! Usagi's mind was racing, Was she fostered by another god?  How could we not have noticed that?  Is she sustained by one?  "You're joking?" Usagi asked desperately, "Correct?"

     "Oh no," Miss Langley replied, "Horseface is a good teacher, after I taught him how to teach.  Although it is good that we haven't gotten to the lessons on actually punching someone, or your . . . sister isn't it?  Your sister would be in trouble."  She smiled and turned back to watch the fight.

     Usagi felt ill.  "She doesn't know how to punch?" Usagi stammered, "How can she not know how to punch?"

     "We wondered about that too, that's why we call her 'Wonder - girl'," Miss Langley said and smiled again at Usagi.

     Usagi was feeling worse about this by the second.  She looked at the three pilots in turn.  They're playing with us, she realized, The . . . incidents . . . Tendo, now this.  Maybe they don't know enough to connect the two, but they know!  Usagi began seeking a way for Tomoe to disengage.  Dragging her out of there by the scruff of her neck comes to mind! Usagi thought as she glanced to the others in her group.  All they returned were blank stares.  Wonderful, Usagi thought dejectedly and hung her head.

     Wonderful Rei, Sammi thought as she watched all the silent signals passing among the girls who'd contacted Asuka and Ranko, So, that's the clique who run things, now I know who you are.  Time to bring a stop to this, before somebody gets hurt.  And it isn't going to be Rei.

     "We should separate them now," Sammi told Erin in German.

     "No, I think we watch," Erin said, watching intently, "Besides, it gives us a chance to sweep those areas Rei suggested.  Besides, like you, I've noticed that there seems to be a shift in the wind.  Take a look at those who were trying to talk to Rei earlier."

     Sammi did, watching the enraptured expression as their new hero dealt with one of the local bullies.  Humiliating her target completely, while not actually striking her, Sammi realized as she looked at more than just the potential threats to the pilots, Okay, point taken.  If the weakest fighter can do this to the biggest bully, then the others won't have to intervene in schoolyard scuffles.  She glanced at Ranko, who watched the fight intently and seemed to be doing an odd little dance as she observed.  Figuring out how to counter Rei-fu, she thought happily, Just so you teach that to Rei later.  She paused to analyze Rei's `fighting style`.  She's intentionally trying to draw them out, I'll have to talk to her about why.  And why she does - not - no I know why she doesn't trust Security to do their job, when have they?  The Navy swears they got worse when Kaji arrived, diverting agents to Kaji's and the Commander's private projects.  Well we're here now.  And from what I've heard, the Navy has taken a rather proprietary interest in Miss Tendo, `Brown Bess`, I know she just loves that.  Well, we'll have a few more people to recruit from then.

     "NO YOU IDIOT!" Sammi shouted as Tomoe changed direction and charged, not Rei, but the Hasegawa boy.  Crap!  Rei really will clobber her now! Sammi thought as she and Juri began bulling their way through the school kids, Erin's pulling Asuka out of the press and Tomiyo's heading around the outside to get Ranma.  Good, just like we discussed.  "Rei no!" Sammi shouted as she closed.

     Ranma watched in horror as his target was snatched away.  He felt the crowd getting ugly around him as Tomoe dragged the boy off his feet.  It feels weird that they aren't angry at me, he thought, As if it's . . . wrong somehow.

     "Let her go!" Ranma shouted as he closed in.  Before Rei tears you to pieces, Ranma thought as he closed in, I've never seen her so mad, she actually looks mad to the untrained eye.

     "Come on," Tomiyo said as he grabbed Ranma's shoulder.

     "But - "

     "No, buts," Tomiyo ordered, "Move."

     Ranma spared a glance at Rei, Tomoe and the boy, while Tomiyo pushed him forward.  I actually feel sorry for the kid, but Tomoe's gonna get a pounding unless Sammi-chan and Juri-chan can drag Rei away, Ranma thought as he followed Tomiyo through the school kids.  They stopped a short distance away, a bunch of Marines surrounded them.  Ranma hopped up and down to get an occasional glimpse of the inevitable confrontation.

     "Sammi and Juri aren't going to be able to intervene," Ranma told them, "Not as mad as Rei is.  I think she thinks that girl is an Angel."

     Tomiyo glanced worriedly at Ranma, then signaled the three up, three down Marine.  Ranma spotted a couple of larger groups of troops entering the grounds.

     How many soldiers did they have around here? Ranma wondered in amazement as every gate and even the building had troops pouring onto the grounds, But not enough.  If Rei really is that mad, it will take an EVA.

     Rei was furious at herself.  I have miscalculated, she thought as she circled the girl, I am ill-prepared to separate them and I must complete this before the guards intervene.  Rei mastered her rage before she committed an error.  She simply closed deliberately on the girl.

     "I had not heard you were a coward," she said.  The Fourth seems to put great stock in that insult, Rei thought, Although the one thing the Fourth is not is a coward.  Although it seems to be working.  I must remember not to let my anger make me make the mistake I hope she will make.

     "Don't hurt my brother!" Anaya pleaded with Tomoe.

     That will not avail you, Rei thought as she steadily closed in, she saw that every deliberate step sapped the other girl's confidence, Soon, soon, but not too slow.  Like poker, bet enough to draw your foe in, or so large they retreat.  The battle is mine, and we both know it.

They Knew this Handsome Ranger Was about to Meet His Death

     Ritsuko glanced around the hewn rock corridors, her panic grew.

     "Nabiki, we'll discuss your disobedience later," she said firmly, "We must leave, immediately.It was only a dream, but it seemed so real, Ritsuko thought, Only a dream!

     "No," Nabiki said firmly, "This is the cornerstone of the block.  We work through this, we've disassembled the whole thing.  What are you so worried about?  Nothing can touch us here.  Jeff wouldn't hurt us anyway."

     "You're leaving out the word 'intentionally'," Ritsuko angrily told her, "Nabiki, trust me on this."  Ritsuko turned Nabiki so she was looking straight at her.  "We do not want to be here, we do not want to see what happens, we do not want to watch people we know go through this.  Do you understand?!"

     "What happens?  Okay . . . dumb question," Nabiki admitted, "Ritsuko I have to do something.  He ran off because neither you, nor I, could help him.  We've got to help him now, I have to do something useful."

     Ritsuko's agitation grew by the second.  She looked around frantically, listened intently for the sounds that would signal the end.  I know what's going to happen.  I don't what to see it again, she thought desperately.

     "What?" Nabiki asked, worriedly, "Is this like . . . what happened to Hiroko?"

     "Worse, much worse.  We have to leave!" Ritsuko said, "Like I said, you left out 'intentionally', he didn't intend that either, but it happened."

     Ritsuko watched as Jeff's dreamshade walked through the corridor.  "Get us out of here NOW!" she ordered, as she stared at Nabiki, deep in concentration.

     "I can't, I can't get us out," Nabiki admitted, her fear and shock growing.

     "Damn," Ritsuko said, "Let's at least leave this room!  It's going to happen, but we don't have to watch."

     "Oh God!" Nabiki shouted, "I can see . . . I can hear.  No!"

     "Yes," Ritsuko said, she shook her head, to clear her own memories.  She couldn't keep them out, they overwhelmed her.  She became those memories, losing herself and watching things unfold helplessly through her memories of the dream.

     Jeff walked through the deserted corridors.  In his mind's eye, he could still see the two drown bodies.  His wife . . . and their son.  The child's body expelled from his mother's body in death.  I don't know the mechanism, he thought, to distance himself from the pain and anger, it wasn't working, But I do remember the look of horror on her face. As Gendo, Yui and I discovered their bodies. I -  He crumbled to the floor, wanting to scream or lash out at something.  As he had since he'd entered this place.  The Phoenixi had challenged him, and died, none had come after him in quite a while.  He was glad, he was almost out of magic.

     "My . . . what happened, he looks like he's been wrestling chainsaws," Nabiki's voice drew her out of her memories, and Nabiki blanched.  Ritsuko remembered the fighting, it had seemed the Phoenixi had been coming out of the woodwork, and fighting to the death.  Crippling or unconsciousness merely postponed the inevitable.

     "Yes, Ranma would have done it differently, but Jeff came straight through," Ritsuko said, fighting to thrust the memories behind her, fighting to be the passive observer, not one to feel the torment herself.

     She had no idea how he'd survived, and she fell again into the memory.

     He stood up, couldn't even completely close the cuts he had all over his entire body.  He had managed to stop the bleeding.  All he wanted to do was get his hands on the one who'd kidnapped then killed his wife, from her baby shower no less.

     "Why would they have done that?" Nabiki's question freed Ritsuko again, "If Akane, Kodachi and Ukyo were there, there would have been a Hell of a fight."

     "There was," Ritsuko said coldly.  Hold on to you! she ordered herself, Don't let what happened get the upper -

     Koda-chan and Uc-chan had died facing the enemy, protecting his wife and unborn child.  Their sacrifice had been in vain, he remembered, They'd merely postponed what the Phoenixi had planned.  Leaving Kuno and Xian Pu behind to guard each other, and to keep them from participating.  The plan, by Gendo and me, was one of extermination.  We tried negotiation and non-interaction.  They kept pressing us to be their slaves.  How do you like this way of us 'coming to your arms'? he asked the dead and his last targets.

     "They wouldn't have," Nabiki breathed, "I `see` the slaughter that took place."

     Ritsuko heard her, but could no longer break free, the fear and the anger of it all had too strong a grip.  Now she's succumbing to it, Ritsuko realized, She can't escape either.  She remembered that Maya-Akane had avoided serious injury by being knocked unconscious early.  Misato-Kasumi hadn't been a combatant so she had also escaped, only having to witness Ukyo and Kodachi being ripped to pieces.  Nabiki shivered, Ritsuko gathered her in.

     "Don't watch, don't listen," Ritsuko urged.  I can't escape, she thought, Maybe you still can.

     "I can't!  As he remembers, I know!  It's like he talks right into my mind!" Nabiki protested.

     Too late, Ritsuko realized as she was dragged under again.

     The Musk and many of the Phoenixi cannon fodder had fallen.  Then he and Gendo had found the charred remnants of the Amazon village.  Then they'd found the body in the pool.

     "NO!  NO!  NO!  NO!  No!" Nabiki screaming herself hoarse made it clear that no one here could hear them.

     They'd hear her over an artillery barrage, Ritsuko thought of the shrieking girl, She's reliving memories I had days to process and get used to.  Easy 'old lady', you cried yourself to sleep all night, she urged, she who knew what was coming, if Nabiki wouldn't come to her senses, they'd both have to go through it again.  I have no desire to do that, Ritsuko thought, He's going to do it, I can't stop him, I don't even think I want to.  Ritsuko remembered that the `nuisance` attacks by the Phoenixi and the Musk had bothered them more every time they considered raising a family 'They wouldn't be a nuisance to small children', she remembered their worry, It was why I believe he killed Taro, who kept boasting he'd steal any children and raise them away from them, or maybe he'd just kill them.  Taro had meant much more than just a boast to win a fight.  Then Jeff disappeared, he returned after a few days and Taro never returned, nor was a body ever found.  I remember Taro's face, Ritsuko remembered as the recollections overwhelmed her, Learning that while he was the only ruthless tiger among the sheep, there was a dragon there too.

     Now he was in their mountain, his enemy's home.  They would never threaten anyone again.  Three thousand years of wars, skirmishes and assassinations all would end, he thought, You and the Musk saw to the Amazons' Gotterdammerung, we exterminated the Musk, you're the last, he thought to the entity he could now feel, And you'll see it coming.

     "So, you came," he recognized the voice, Ritsuko knew it too, riding behind her `husband's` eyes.  The appearance, even the pregnant belly promising new life, of his dead wife.

     "That's you, oh no, that's what they did," Nabiki said, turned to face Ritsuko, "Why would they do that?"

     "There never was a good answer," Ritsuko said coldly, her fists clenching and unclenching as she gazed at the Phoenixi woman wearing her face and body.  She wished she could have gotten her hands on the real one.  To express her `thanks` for the `woman` who tortured her husband.  There never was a good answer to 'why?'  It was their tradition, it was to prevent a challenge to their `god`, it was for a thousand reasons.  None of which made any sense, she thought as she eagerly became one with the memories again.

     But not the look in the eyes.  That was a vicious predator, Ritsuko remembered Jeff's thoughts.

     "Kiima," he said coldly, his rage had deserted him, he had gone too far beyond it.  He had no idea what they had wanted to accomplish.  He had no idea why the harassment had begun and continued.  He'd assisted the Phoenixi in maturing their God King, rather than opposing them.  Then the harassment had begun.  It had culminated in this.

There Was Forty Feet Between Them When They Stopped to Make Their Play

     "They aren't going to . . . ?" Nabiki asked.  I know, I can see it all, Nabiki thought.

     "They are," Ritsuko told her.

     "After all they did?" Nabiki asked incredulously, "He's not Ranma."  I know what he's going to do! she thought her horror rising, If he did that to an old friend like Sharon . . . he'd do . . . oh GOD!

     "They haven't figured that out," Ritsuko said quietly, "Do you think they will in time?"

     NO!  NO!  NO! Nabiki mentally screamed, as much to pull her mind's eye away from events as to prevent them from occurring at all.  "Oh yeah, sure," Nabiki said with a confidence and an arrogance she felt no part of, she wanted to flee.  I shouldn't have come here, but I can't get out.  I can't keep his memories and thoughts out, she thought, I want to run from this room, but I'm not strong enough.  I've tried and tried!  Just get my legs to move, but I can't!

     "I haven't really taken anything from you," the arrogant godling told him as he stepped out behind him, Jeff could feel the heat.  He knew he had no place to go, not as a man, not as a mage.

     "Maybe I'm not your wife," Kiima said, rubbing her belly, "But I could come to love another servant of Lord Saffron."

     That's it, Jeff thought.  "Why?" he asked.  Why ask?  I don't really care, aren't blackmail and slavery obvious enough? he asked himself, It's not like they'll truthfully answer.  It isn't as if they even know.

     "Bastards!" Nabiki cursed as her fists clenched and unclenched and she managed to come back to herself, her punch at Saffron had no effect, they were clearly `outside`.  "Couldn't you just leave him alone?" she shouted in the godling's face.

     "No," Ritsuko said as if she were barely there, "Like some of the creatures you pilots have fought, they only care about growing, metastasizing."  Ritsuko's expression glazed over and Nabiki realized the older woman was reliving the moment as Nabiki was.  "Ritsuko!  Rit-chan!" she shouted in Japanese.  "Doctor!" she shouted in English.  "Don't leave me here," she whispered, "Alone."

     Nabiki glanced at Ritsuko, who had shaken herself loose and was trying to burn a hole in Kiima with her stare.  Ritsuko reached out and caught Nabiki's shoulder before the girl could shy away.  The grip was very different from the gaze.  Nabiki had never seen Ritsuko so ferocious, with anyone.  But the grip was comforting rather than painful.  "Not alone," Ritsuko growled.

     She does have his memories, she considered, She is reliving this.  "I'm sorry, I didn't think," she told Ritsuko shamefaced, putting her hand over Ritsuko's.

     "No, you didn't," Ritsuko replied angrily, redirecting some of her anger at Kiima to Nabiki, "He was worried you'd stick your nose too deep in something and get it chopped off, so was I.  Congratulations, you have.  And neither of us can save you.  You took both of us to a place we can't think our way out of, it just hurts too much.  All either of us wants is to hurt them back.  To destroy the pain, at its source.  By any means."

     He heard the chuckling from behind both of them, and the arrival of Saffron's vizier, broke their hold on themselves, each other, and the present.

     It was obvious to them, Jeff thought, That's enough, for them.  He slowly exhaled, and letting go of the tension, the anger.

     "That's what a pilot will become?" Nabiki breathed, in repugnance.

     "Perhaps the others can avoid it," Ritsuko replied quietly.

     Then he let go of his humanity.  It was not a characteristic, but a series of behaviors and values he normally held onto like a barnacle.  Now was not the time for it, it prevented survival.  It dropped away like a cloak.  What looked up from the floor of the Phoenixi palace with such indifference and detachment was old.  As ancient as the Phoenix was, reincarnation after reincarnation, it was a mayfly.

     Saffron stepped back in alarm for a moment, then steeled himself and he took a step towards it, but couldn't manage another.  What stared at him had been ancient when the sun that birthed this planet had been young.

     It looked at the laughing little creatures not with the hot anger, or the searing pain of a few moments ago, but with the cold indifference of the universe.  The laughter had ceased to matter, the laughers had ceased to matter.

     Nabiki felt cold, like her blood had been frozen, as she looked at her fellow pilot.  She could taste the blood where she'd bitten her lip.  No hope, no humor, no warmth, a cold merciless logic was all that remained.  Calling it inhuman is like calling the ocean a 'damp spot', she thought with dread, stepping away from the dreamshade of her one-time friend and colleague, I can never look at him the same again, but the clues were always there.  Like his plans with and for Ritsuko.  No human, nothing human should be able to just stand there.  She shook her head, to deny what she was seeing, what she was feeling, but more of the same poured in to replace it.  Cool, indifferent and so rational, it was insane.  And that should calm me, but I'm just getting more frightened, I don't want to become - THAT!  If that's what happens to the pilots, I don't want any part of it!  Maybe I'm not good enough, but if being good enough means becoming like that . . . .  But he's not human, now he's really not human.  He's like what we fight.  She glanced at Ritsuko, she knew they had raised their family after this, but it seemed impossible.  How could he take back that step? Is this why they don't mind I haven't piloted?  Because they know the `real` pilots will turn into this?  She looked at `Ranma` who inside was Raccoon's mind and intellect, not Ranma's code of conduct, but Raccoon's, she shivered.  Ranma at his maddest, isn't as dangerous as this calm - artifact, she thought, glancing from Saffron to Kiima, both laughing.  They don't realize what's here, what they've summoned.  Maybe Ranma would buckle, scream his heart out, and eventually forgive, but not Raccoon.  He'll break before he bends.  I don't want to be that way, I don't want to think that way!  Get out of my mind!  Please!

     The murder of another was an accepted part of the universal order.  It happened.  The godling's laughter increased, it found the bland expression amusing, the vizier alone realized the expression heralded change, an old man, he recognized death when it approached, he hadn't quite understood that death had arrived.

     The laughter was tedious, but he laughed along with them.

     "Are you certain, no matter what happens it won't affect us?" Ritsuko asked Nabiki fearfully.

     "Yes, other than escaping," Nabiki replied tiredly, "What's going to happen?"  It's not like I don't have a vague idea, she thought, But his plan is . . . difficult to understand.

     "Drowning the two-headed calf," Ritsuko told her, "I didn't laugh at your suggestion of an atom bomb."

     Nabiki felt her eyes widen.  I didn't imagine I could be shocked, Nabiki thought, I supposed he was thinking abut poison gas.  Then she was lost in the memory again.

     They fell silent.  The other one squawked some message, perhaps a warning.  It hardly mattered, no message would change what would come.  Perhaps they could be of use, he already realized that they would serve, alive or dead.  He raised his hand, in it was a sphere seemingly of glass, with a liquid inside.

     "What is that?" Nabiki asked as she pulled herself free of the memory's hold and stared at the sphere.

     "A force field with a large amount of air teleported within it."  Ritsuko was also staring at it, her voice and expression filled with a mixture of resignation and weariness.  The anger which had gripped her earlier had burnt out, leaving only remembrance behind.

     "That's not going to do anything," Nabiki said, not quite believing it.  The vizier and Kiima suddenly seemed worried and sober.  It's only fun until someone loses an eye, she thought, she had a terrible perception that it had passed that point.  What could compressed air do?  She focused on that ignorance and the problem, to keep herself from falling back into the memory's grip.

     "It depends on what the air becomes when it rematerializes," Ritsuko said, staring with almost expectation, at the sphere.

     No!  Going back in! Nabiki fought the pull mightily, but hadn't a fraction of the needed strength.

     He released it, allowing it to float towards the godling, while he transferred into other, parallel dimensions so he could be seen and observe, but wouldn't be present.  A detached observer of the godling's intelligence and aggressiveness.  He could predict the likely outcome.

     Nabiki watched in horrified fascination.  I know what he expects will happen, she thought distantly, then added with terrifying immediacy, And he doesn't care.  "Is that why normal weapons can't hurt Angels?" Nabiki asked, her voice shakier than she'd like, "They are . . . elsewhere - when the weapon hits?"

     "Yes, I hope so are we," Ritsuko replied, glancing around nervously.

     Nabiki barely noticed the transition this time.

     The attack on the others had been stupid and aggressive.  This thing would continue to be so.

     The godling ignored the only warning as he struck the floating sphere, with a weapon.

     Ritsuko grabbed Nabiki, to bury Nabiki's face in her chest.  Nabiki felt Ritsuko's head on her own head.  The light was still almost unbearable.

     It watched the sphere dissolve and the contents flash to gas.  Anti-air, a mixture of anti-oxygen and anti-nitrogen met their positive matter equivalents, and became energy, by the rule discovered by Einstein.

     The woman looked ready to scream as radiation sleeted through her, and she vaporized.  The godling lasted scarcely longer.  Fire was an element, but he was limited by his human mind.  Fire did not truly encompass a power beyond that which drove a star.

And the swiftness of the ranger is still talked about today

     Hikari had been trying to separate Asuka from that new girl, but one of the new clique kept elbowing her out of the way.

     Oh, they were polite enough about it, Hikari thought, glancing over to Toji, glad he was there, And glad I had to keep him from just bashing his way through, it kept me from trying.  Then I heard Asuka-san speaking, and I was glad I wasn't closer, she was cutting those girls apart, Hikari thought, Not that they didn't deserve every word.  But I should disapprove and correct Asuka-san.  Somehow I just can't, shame on me.

     Then they'd hustled Asuka-san away, now Ayanami-san is charging at that . . . she thought worriedly, Ranma, Ranko and Tendo-san are the fighters.  Not Ayanami-san or Shinji-san.

     She watched fretfully as the guards raced to intervene, it seemed they would arrive too late as Ayanami-san approached the other girl in a straight line, marching with deliberateness, but moving too fast for it to be a walk.  Suddenly she was at the girl's side, gripping her arm.  Hikari watched in amazement as Ayanami-san, who weighed nearly nothing, pushed the girl's arm down and forced her hand open.

     No strain, Hikari boggled at the scene, She simply did it.  That's . . . that's impossible.

     "Anaya!" the boy scrambled out of range as the Tomoe girl performed a kick Hikari was certain only Ranko or Ranma Saotome could do.

     "Ayanami!" Hikari yelled a warning.  As if that would make a difference, she thought as the kick landed, Or failed to land, she added in confusion.

     Ayanami-san simply stared at the girl as though nothing had happened.  Then she struck, her fist moved perhaps half a dozen centimeters, Tomoe whuffed in surprise and crumbled.  Ayanami-san released her grip on the girl's wrist to let her sprawl on the grass.  Hikari watched the expression on Ayanami-san's face as the guards slowed their approach.  They don't know what to do either, she realized, No, they want to know what she'll do!

     Ayanami-san looked down at the helpless, gasping girl coldly, not with her usual disinterest, as if it didn't matter.  But actual disdain, as though she planned to crush the life out of this bug.  I must have dreamed it, Hikari thought as Ayanami-san hoisted the girl onto her shoulder and started marching on the circle of people.

     "I . . . I've never seen anything like that," one girl gushed to Ayanami-san.

     Ayanami-san turned and stared at her.  "Why did you tolerate it for so long?" Ayanami-san asked coldly, before resuming her march with the still-gasping girl on her shoulder.

     Hikari moved to follow, leaving the stricken students in their wake.  As to the point as ever, Hikari thought as the other pilots fell into step with Ayanami-san.

     "What got into you, Wondergirl?" Asuka asked.

     Ayanami-san considered for a moment, then turned to Ranko fixing her with a stare.  "Tell Ranma, 'The circuit is now complete'," Ayanami-san dryly ordered Ranko, " 'When I left you I was but the learner, now I am the master'."

     "Yeah, okay, no problem, roger wilco," Ranko said, holding up her hands and edging away from Ayanami-san.

     Asuka and Ranko let Ayanami-san walk on to the school with only Juri and several Marines following her.

     "Do you know what's gotten into her, Horseface?" Asuka asked Ranko.

     "No, but I hope it can be removed."  The other redhead shivered.  "Brr.  I don't think she's happy."

     "When was she ever?" Asuka asked with her fists on her hips.

     Ranko nodded.  The bell for second period sounded.  "You don't think she did all this just to avoid the principal's welcoming speech, do you?" Ranko sounded dubious.

     "Of course not -" Asuka began in a condescending tone, then stopped, "You know what scares me?  All this might have been her idea of a joke.  A `present` to the entire school, since everyone was complaining about having to listen to it."  Asuka looked troubled about the idea.

     Ranko stared at Asuka.  "I think you're saying what you want to be true," she said carefully, "Not what you think is true."

     "You're just mad she's now the best martial artist on campus," Asuka said as she stormed away.

     "HEY!  I AM the best Martial Artist!" Ranko shouted as she ran after Asuka.

     "I didn't see you racing to that girl's defense," Asuka shot back.

     Hikari simply let them bicker all the way into the school.  She caught Natsumi's and Kensuke's eyes.  We'll talk about this later, she `told` them.

     It watched the stone try to contain the radiation as the vizier flashed to plasma, then to subatomic particles, right along with his master and mistress.  The stone could not contain it as even the air raced away from the source, or was dismantled by heat that only occurred naturally in supernovae.  The stone sublimated into gas.  He did not spare Phoenix Mountain even the milliseconds of thought it took for it to be reduced to dust and gas.  It realized it might have one more use for the ones who had drawn it here.  It smiled, and shifted.

     The spirit plane was not what it had expected, despite having seen it before.  Many armed warriors waited.  Another of the tribes, they waited for their murderers.  It thought this was amusing.  Their anger did not matter in life, it mattered even less in death.  Even death and genocide could neither increase nor erase the hatred the groups held for each other.

     They gave ground to it easily, less protected by their delusions of adequacy here.  Then there were the three, finally they recognized, and were afraid.  It reached out and stripped the spirits from their souls, releasing the latter to go to whatever awaited them.  Now it had the power, it ignored their cries as it reduced their spirits to fragments, as one ground coal into powder to make it a better fuel.  The spirits bit and fought, but knew nothing of war on the spirit plane, their arrogance and outrage, their unabashed ignorance would only fuel the difficult spell.  It also noted the spirit waiting, alone, having seen and understood the emptiness, the callousness of the universe firsthand.  How the strong did as they liked to the weak, the endless never-hanging cycle.

     It collected that one as well, but with a gentleness, like a collector trying to preserve the beauty of a butterfly, until the killing jar and the pins would add the beauty to its collection.  It knew the collection was another's, but it still took the care.

     It returned from the spirit world, to where they waited.  Where the bodies waited.

     "Oh, Ranma, I'm so sorry," the female told him, then hugged him, he tolerated her outburst.  The male remained silent, it doubted he didn't care about the corpses at his feet.  But he was disguising it.

     Of the dead, it could only affect one.  It knew which one was most necessary, the choice was never in doubt.  The corpse was simply dead.  That could be remedied.  The godling's `purpose` was rebirth, that feature it would deprive the godling of.  The future would no longer include the godling's inevitable rebirth and attacks.  The godling and its servants were merely power, especially with the soul and spirit watching closely.

     The spell wasn't cast without forewarning, the spirits and soul were reunited with the body, the fragments of the Phoenix provided the spark of life.

     Then, it took up the mask again, the seeming and habits of Humanity.  It considered the illusions and delusions laughable, considering the reality of the universe, but the hallucination provided an amusement it hadn't known in an age.  It accepted occasionally playing the knowing fool, to continue the sport.

     Jeff took a deep breath, even as Ritsuko-Nabiki did, he held his wife while she sobbed and screamed.  He had no words, they seemed small and insignificant in the face of what had been done to her.

     Gendo and Yui-Nodoka stepped a short distance away, waited.

Texas Red Had Not Cleared Leather 'Fore a Bullet Fairly Ripped

     Ritsuko woke and threw off her bedding, she briefly noted she was still in her night shirt and slacks, she ran from her berth and towards Nabiki's.  When are you going to learn? Ritsuko thought, ignoring everything except her destination.  She could already hear Nabiki's cries, mirroring her own raw emotions at the memory.

     But I've had time to deal with it, she thought as she passed the guards and entered the room.  Nabiki hadn't thrown up, but she'd curled herself into a whimpering ball.  Ritsuko pulled that ball into her lap and sat there, holding the girl and letting her cries lessen.

     You didn't believe me, you had to go find the `source` yourself, Ritsuko thought, Now I wonder if you find the price of knowing was worth it.  She closed her eyes, willing her own memories to fade as well.  And I'll bet you didn't enjoy bobbing around in someone else's thoughts any more than I did, Ritsuko thought, But I had millennia to get used to it, that was one way the Elder Things controlled us.  I never wanted that to happen again.  Not to me, not to anyone.

     "Ah, Miss Ayanami," the English teacher said as she entered, "Since this is the first day and you probably have a note from the nurse for the girl you BEAT UP, maybe you'd like to give us an example of English poetry."

     There were chuckles from most of the students, Rei wasn't certain why.  It is a reasonable request, she thought, And Roku-kun left me his favorite book to read.

     Rei paused, composed herself.  I dislike being the center of attention, she thought as she glanced at Mein Grossfeldmarschall, and the Fourth, One reason to tolerate the Fourth, it is easy to disappear in her or his shadow.  Perhaps one that describes our purpose?

     She breathed in and began to recite.

     Asuka looked with some pity at Wondergirl.  So far she's stepped wrong at every step today, she thought, Okay, it was funny to start with, now I actually think the robot deserves a break.

     She glanced at Hikari who looked as nervous as Asuka felt.  The `Class Rep` knew better that Asuka how seldom Wondergirl got called on.  I can't remember the last time she was, Asuka thought as she watched Wondergirl pull herself together.  She glanced at the guards, then at Horseface.  Why don't you do something to distract everybody, she thought, Jump out the window, scream a battlecry, have an Angel show up?!  Horseface merely looked lost.  Asuka frowned at `him` and raked the class, students and guards, with a scathing look to make them shut up.  Best I can do, Wondergirl, she thought, feeling the smallest bit guilty.

     Wondergirl's voice drew her back.

     "The strength of twice three thousand horse that seeks the single goal;

     "The line that holds the rending course, the hate that swings the whole;

     "The stripped hulls, slinking through the gloom, at gaze and gone again --

     "The Brides of Death that wait the groom -- The Choosers of the Slain!

     "Hit, and hard hit! The blow went home, the muffled, knocking stroke --

     "A shadow down the sickened wave long since her slayer fled:

     "But hear their chattering quick-fires rave astern, abeam, ahead!

     "Panic that shells the drifting spar -- Loud waste with none to check --

     "Mad fear that rakes a scornful star or sweeps a consort's deck.

     "Now, while their silly smoke hangs thick, now ere their wits they find,

     "lay in and lance them to the quick -- Our gallied whales are blind!

     "Good luck to those that see the end, good-bye to those that drown --

     "For each his chance as chance shall send -- and God for all! Shut down!

     "The strength of twice three thousand horse that serve the one command;

     "The hand that heaves the headlong force, the hate that backs the hand:

     "the doom-bolt in the darkness freed, the mine that splits the main;

     "The white-hot wake, the 'wildering speed -- The Choosers of the Slain!"

     Wondergirl paused, looked at the teacher whose condescending smile seemed to have evaporated early during Wondergirl's recitation.  "The Destroyers, Rudyard Kipling, written in 1898," she said.

     Anybody else would be smirking at that, Asuka thought, Quite a pick, Wondergirl, then shivered as Wondergirl bowed and headed towards the back of the classroom.  Asuka glanced around at the shocked expressions of their classmates.  They're getting it that Miss Tomoe Tomoe got off very lightly, Asuka thought, And those three look like their in love.  Even She-Horseface looks pleased.

     "Move," Horseface warned the kid who was sitting in the seat, that in the old school, was Wondergirl's.  The boy scrambled out of the chair as if it were on fire.

     Wondergirl bowed.  "Thank you."  She sat and started staring out the window again.  Asuka relaxed, she noticed that so did Horseface.  The rest of the class, especially the teacher, got the hint and relaxed as well.

     "Do not give lions

     "your arm to eat, you still have

     "a report to write," Asuka said.

     "Yes, thank you," the teacher said, trying to appear composed, but he kept nervously glancing at Wondergirl staring out the window.

     What is she looking at? Asuka wondered, Or does it just seem easier to ignore all the people around her?  It's as if she heard my and Horseface's little talk, I guess I'm the one who has the catching up to do, to refine who Asuka Soryu Langley is, and who she needs to be.  She smirked at that thought, But I'm perfect! she `whined` to herself and chuckled, then sobered, Other than becoming a monster with each `victory`.

And the Ranger's Aim Was Deadly with the Big Iron on His Hip

     Rei heard Mein Grossfeldmarschall's laughter, she heard the gossiping of the student around her, she heard the teacher interpreting Keats as if he were Yeats, she heard it all, saw the reflection of the others in the window, yet saw the outside world as well.

     Mainly she remembered her discussion the previous night with the Commander and Admiral Simson, it had been both disturbing and enlightening.

     "Commander, I believe that sending the pilots to this new school is unwise," she told the Commander as he and Admiral Simson sat in the Commander's office and discussed the situation that would occur tomorrow.

     "We've got a battalion of Marines on stand-by, and we've swept the entire school," Admiral Simson explained pleasantly, "We'll sweep it again before the pilots go in.  We are more thorough than the previous Security operations."

     "Admiral," the Commander cautioned, the Admiral nodded, "Rei, what is your concern?"

     "I . . . I cannot quantify it.  There is something wrong in that school," Rei explained, "I apologize."  She bowed, shamed by her inability, her failure.

     "There's nothing wrong, Miss Ayanami," Admiral Simson said, Rei saw that the Commander nodded, "A scout's instincts are as important as what they can count.  What do you want from us?"

     Rei sighed, she looked at the Commander, then to the Admiral.  I am comfortable with the Commander, she thought, But not the Admiral.  Yet the Commander seems to think I may speak freely . . . I will only speak of my concerns, not the Commander's plan.  "What do I do with an unseen trap?" Rei asked, "That is what this seems to be."

     Admiral Simson smiled, glanced at the Commander, who was also smiling.  Rei relaxed at that, felt her worries settling.  If the Commander and the Admiral are in accord, Rei thought happily, Perhaps I may speak to him in the future.

     The Commander nodded to the Admiral.  "The submarines were an unseen enemy in both World Wars, in the First World War, they developed a vessel called a Q-ship, it would lure the submarine into range by appearing as a harmless straggler, then destroy it by superior firepower.  In World War Two, the more sophisticated submarines required the use of Hunter-Killer groups.  One destroyer would fix the sub's location while other ships attacked."

     "The Hunter-Killer operation would seem more effective," Rei said, glanced at the Commander and got a nod to continue, "The personal guards would appear to be more competent than previous security forces.  My actions can perhaps lure the enemy."

     "I'm not comfortable with that," Admiral Simson said.  He leaned close.  "You are valuable Miss Ayanami, I understand you accept that dying in combat is acceptable, but that's in an EVA against Angels, this is neither and you shouldn't be so willing to sacrifice yourself for such a small return."

     "I . . . " she gulped, her eyes darted to the Commander's, then she continued, "I believe that this may be similar to an Angel . . . it feels that way.  I apologize, I cannot explain it further."

     "That's not a problem," Admiral Simson assured her, he did not try to pat her on the shoulders or head, as others did.

     "We know you are reporting what you have experienced accurately," the Commander added.

     "Thank you," she said and bowed.

     "All right," Simson considered deeply and explained, "The best bet is to give the enemy a wrong impression, it's called disinformation.  You have studied the other pilots, could you assemble a series of behaviors you could emulate, from their behaviors."

     "Play a role," the Commander suggested, "To draw out the enemy where they can be destroyed."

     Exactly like his plan! Rei realized, But in miniature!  But who would be the most . . . ?  "Characteristics . . . rather than entire personalities?" she asked.

     "Whatever you think would be of greatest benefit," Admiral Simson explained, "Honestly, Pilots Saotome, Davis and Langley are the most . . . conspicuous personalities, if what you are hoping to do is get someone else to react, they - those personalities would be the most likely to set them off."

     The Fourth's arrogance certainly sets me off, Rei considered the Admiral's words, Roku-kun and Mein Grossfeldmarschall also tend to provoke powerful reactions when they act.  Elements of all three would be the most effective action.  But which elements?

     "Don't pin yourself down," the Admiral advised, "Consider a series of options, and assume your plan is merely a framework for making changes around."

     Rei was appalled by that idea.

     But I did consider several plans, Rei thought as she stared out the window.  In the background Mein Grossfeldmarschall was shouting at the math teacher about a much simpler proof and derivation of the mathematical principle.  Even then, I was unable to carry any of them out as I desired.  I was forced to take pieces from all of my plans and in some cases, I was without a plan.  She shivered at that realization.  But I have discovered the threat, and the guards saw it as well, Rei considered, But I am trapped in a role I do not want and never sought.  I am a pilot, following the Commander's orders is my function.  I do not understand why others would seek to follow my example.  They are not me, they are not what I am.  Mein Grossfeldmarschall would be a better authority, yet they sought me out.  Why?  What will happen when Shinji-kun returns?  Will they seek him out, will they take him away from me?  Will my actions drive him away?

     Ikari looked at the board over his clasped hands.  He was pleased by the situation, what did not please him was Admiral Simson's equally confident expression as he sat across the desk from Ikari.  The dark room, softly glowing Sephiroth on the floor, and the other disquieting accouterments had not dimmed the man's apparent confidence.

     Ikari surveyed the board, he'd managed a steady attrition of the Admiral's forces, yet there was one double-stacked black piece sitting in the protected corner of Ikari's `home row`.  It galled the Commander that not once, but twice the Admiral had penetrated to the core of Ikari's defense and once escaped, and the second time left a reminder of his failure.

     The effort cost the Admiral over half his strength, Ikari thought as he considered, Yet the Admiral has not lost his confident air.  "The strategy cannot be that difficult," Ikari said to distract his opponent while he considered a counter to whatever the Admiral did.  I've placed bait he will have to take, Ikari considered the placement of pieces in this childish game, That will draw out the enemy from his `protected` position, where it can be destroyed.

     The Admiral picked up a single-stacked black piece and began an incursion into a sea of red, gobbling up opponents as it advanced to the elements besieging the home row intruder.  But turned aside? Ikari wondered.

     "King me," the Admiral said.

     Ikari angrily placed a second black piece atop the first, and the intruder then continued its reign of destruction.  When it finally stopped, the balance had shifted dramatically.  My pieces still outnumber his pieces, Ikari realized, But they are two widely separated forces, each of which can be destroyed in detail.  Ikari frowned at the reversal of fortune.  The Commander of NERV saw only one move that might begin to recoup his sudden and devastating losses.  "King me," he said, not letting his anger at underestimating the Admiral and this simple game show.

     Rather than place another red disk from his substantial reserve atop Ikari's piece, the Admiral reached across the table to the black pieces and put that atop Ikari's.  Then the Admiral sat back and smiled broadly at Ikari.

     Gendo's eyes darted across the board, his mind ran through the events of the last few moments, and their war against their enemies, both public and private.

     So that's it, he realized, It makes perfect sense.  Gendo couldn't help it, he laughed, long and hard.  So he does understand, Gendo thought as he laughed.

     "Checkers," Ikari managed.  Nixon's dog was well-named, he thought.

It Was over in a Moment and the Folks Had Gathered Round

     Jamie watched the abnormal way the girl, her fellow `student` approached.  The mincing steps pointed to someone habituated to the confines of a kimono, rather than the freer movement the western-style uniforms allowed.  Not dropping character during lunch, Jamie thought.

     "So what have you learned?" Jamie had no idea how she'd become the de facto leader, even the one-time leaders deferred to her.  Perhaps I was the first to embrace that we still serve Nyogtha, through serving his true heirs, she considered.

     "I have learned that the Grey Lady could recruit for her cult very easily," the girl-form said and sat next to Jamie, smoothing her uniform in precise and fastidious motions, "Also, the others have had a good deal of trouble.  Our arrival en masse has diluted their strength, thus fragmenting their plans and actions.  That opens opportunities, but it also generates hazards.  Usagi seems the only stable one of power in the group."

     "Probably the leader then," Jamie said offhandedly, "Do we really have to eat this stuff?"  She stared at her `lunch`.  I saw a couple of perfectly edible mice scaring those twits in the locker room, she remembered her meal, I took care of them all right, then took my shower.

     "It could be used to trade for other food, and to gain intelligence," the girl said, displaying her much pillaged lunch as proof of the success of the method.  "Yuki desperately wants to take Asuka out . . . and deep fry her.  Ayanami-san's 'We are all definitely cuter than you are.  Yuck', has all of them boiling.  That and her performance are almost all anyone is talking about."

     "You'd think Langley would object to that, but she hasn't," Jamie commented idly, "Strange."

     "That is all I have heard."

     "It certainly will be interesting," Jamie commented, surveying the students tracing out the paths, disseminating their ideas and opinions to others.  The pilots' advocates were moving more swiftly and covering a much larger area than Usagi's.  The difference between the true believers new to the faith, and those grown complacent, Jamie considered, They've lost, and they don't even know it.  Those who would oppose them have found focus, Hikari, Natsumi, Toji and Kensuke provide direction.  They should have been your first target, but you can't think that way, can you?

     "Do you regret the change?" the girl-form asked.

     "Not really," Jamie said, "It is difficult serving our Master's slayers, but . . . perhaps they are learning.  Ayanami-san certainly showed a flexibility I had never expected.  Maybe we had become moribund."

     "So did Saotome, definitely not moribund," the girl-form said, "I would have thought him far too proud to remain a `she`, even to protect the other two."

     "Then you missed it," Jamie said, "It isn't just the two pilots `she's` protecting, have you seen how `she` watched over those two guards?  I wonder who is really protecting whom."

     "I wonder if they know," the girl asked, chuckled daintily.

     "I'll kill her," Tomoe said quietly to Usagi, "I'll rip out her guts first."  Glanced around the room, only other members of the inner circle were there.

     "If she doesn't defeat you first," Harumi said, then sniffed, "Brawling."

     "Like your plan worked," Yuki told the girl, "She got more of a rise out of Ayanami than you did."

     "You certainly got a rise out of Langley, what did she call you again?" Harumi asked innocently.

     "SHUT UP!  All of you," Usagi ordered them, using a compulsion spell to make it stick.  "What are we going to do, now that our original plan is in tatters?" she asked rhetorically, "Tomoe, we can't use you.  Don't smirk Yuki, you've put yourself out of action as well.  Harumi, you will concentrate on Ayanami, the best way to reach Saotome is through her little tag-along, Mirei, Sakura, she's yours and Kiki's.  I'll take care of Miss Langley.  This is a set back, not a defeat."  She sat back, sighed.  We miscalculated badly, she thought, How did we mess up so badly?

     "Yes, of course," Yuki said, "You of course aren't affected by any of this."

     "I am aware of what is happening," Usagi said calmly, then stood and confronted Yuki, "Did you think this was going to be easy?  That these were mere mortals that we could bend and shape as we wished?  Fool!  These are gods, and we are the mortals trifling with them.  We're all lucky they didn't turn on us completely.  They are toying with us.  We can use that overconfidence against them, mark my words."  She stared down the few who dared challenge her assertion.

     The others grumbled but agreed.

     Other eyes watched the school from beyond the security perimeter.  It smiled as it watched the two factions squaring off.  It knew it now had a clear field to operate in, any action it took would be blamed on the opposing faction.  It quietly decided on the strike it would first deliver, to draw out one side, then the other.  Once they were openly at war, it could move against its real target.

     It turned away to consider what actions would most swiftly remove the restraint of one group against the other.  Where were the lynchpins that when threatened, would move both to the most precipitous actions?

There Before Them Lay the Body of the Outlaw on the Ground

     Ritsuko pulled the covers over Nabiki.  You might as well sleep until we get to Japan, she thought, Because when you wake up, you are going to be in so much trouble.  Ritsuko sat back in the chair, letting the rattle of the rails and the gentle sway of the train relax away her anger at being dragged into that mess again.  We wanted them to be fearless, Ritsuko reminded herself, It's our own fault that we got what we asked for, in spades.  She stood up and stepped outside the small cabin, she nearly collided with Sergeant Kilrain.  "Can I help you?" she asked.

     The Marine snapped off a salute.  "Beg pardon, ma'am," he said, "But half the train heard her screaming.  Is she . . . ?"

     "Part of the war we fight is fought in dreams," Ritsuko explained, "Nightmares in the Waking World - "

     "Thank you Doctor, I've had a few of those dreams meself," the old man said, "So she'll recover."

     "Well enough to get the punishment she deserves for disobeying a direct order," Ritsuko said, sagged against the door frame.

     "After what she went through, you might let her stew a bit," Kilrain suggested, "After what we all heard, she may take you actually punishing her as a relief."

     Ritsuko nodded, spotted Maya in her uniform coming down the narrow corridor, with two cups of coffee.  "Please tell me that's the absolutely awful stuff they brewed on the carrier," Ritsuko begged, "The stuff they usually put in the airplanes."

     "As fuel?" Kilrain asked as he squeezed into a doorway to let Maya slip past.

     "No, to drop on the enemy," Ritsuko said, taking the cup and inhaling the fumes.  "Thank you, both of you, I'll take it under advisement."

     "I didn't say anything, Sempai," Maya said in confusion.

     "You're going to volunteer to watch Nabiki while I get some sleep," Ritsuko told her, smiled, "I accept.  We'll be stopping in New Mexico, and I have to meet with Jeff's parents."  She looked down at the coffee.  "Maybe an I.V. of this stuff would wake him up."

     "It violates the Geneva Convention to use that on unconscious people," Kilrain said, "Only on volunteers."

     Nabiki heard the muffled voices outside her cabin.  She squeezed her eyes tightly closed.  I won't cry, I won't cry! she told herself, pulling the covers tightly around her.

     " 'Again, I don't think I can forgive you for what you've done', the laughs on me," Nabiki said softly, "This time I can't understand, I've never felt anyone that angry.  You just slaughtered them, you and Gendo.  If that's what love is, I want nothing to do with it."  She felt her tears fall.  "I couldn't stand the idea of Ranma actually killing somebody to protect me.  But I can't live with the idea of him dying for me, yet that's what I'll face if I actually pilot in combat.  I might have to kill or be killed to save Ranma.  I don't know if I could do that."

     She strained her ears, to assure herself that the adults were outside and still talking.  Is that why father fell apart when mother died? she wondered, He was so mad at the whole universe that he just gave up?

     " 'Rotten bastard has the damned answers for everything', I got my answers, and more questions," she murmured, letting the tears go now, "If you could do such a thing, what did you see that made you run away?  What are you hiding from, or what are you hiding from us?  Ritsuko would have known, now I do, what could be worse than that?  What could be worse than loosing that thing on . . . on people?  What could be worse than not caring what it would do?  You were so certain, so damned definite, no grays.  Except there had to be a better way, another way," she said, then fell silent.  To listen to the adults, she thought, Not because I could ever be that ruthless against anyone who repeatedly threatened my family, not that I could ever be angry enough to fix things so . . . permanently.

     "Will Ranma become like that, so . . . inhuman?  Will I?  If I do and he doesn't . . . ?" She asked herself, hugged her pillow more tightly, "Maybe it is better to only 'touch the world lightly', to care about nothing except the mission, to avoid . . . entanglements."

     She heard the door open.  "Good, you're awake," Ritsuko said, "You'll stay in there until we stop at New Mexico, it will give you time to think about what you've done."  She closed the door, locking it from the outside.

     Think about what I've done, Nabiki thought mirthlessly, As if I could ever forget what I saw.  As if I could.  How could you do that?  How could anybody?

     Misato watched the deliberations, she hadn't been asked to participate.  But I was asked not to leave.  The Admiral and the Commander felt it wise to absent themselves, she thought as they, the senators, debated, I can't follow their English and no one thinks I need a translation.

     The four `great men` were passionately discussing what they had discovered, their heads together and their expressions mobile.

     Cordial, but passionate, she thought as she looked around the conference room, Discussing whether I should be dragged out and shot, or if I should go to the War Crimes trials first?

     She waited and fretted.  Can't even see outside, she brooded, To see the world continuing without me.

     "So, is this a private Hell or can anybody join in?" Takemono-san asked as he sat down beside her.

     "What are you doing here, Hiro?" Misato asked, aghast that anyone would willingly walk into this lion's den.

     "Figured I'd see what all the fuss was about," he said, "After all, you keep saying that this is torture, I wanted to see what it was all about."

     "It's bad.  They've dismissed everyone, except me," Misato said morosely, bowing her head.

     "We can wait for the end of the world together," Hiro said, and sat back.

     How can you be so calm? Misato wondered, Of course you aren't facing criminal prosecution.

     Finally the four men handed a paper to the translator, and filed out without a word.  The translator approached her with a sour look.

     "See, no firing squad," Hiro commented.

     "The panel wishes to thank you for your time and trouble, Major," the translator said.

     Misato reacted to being referred to by her rank.  "So there won't be any charges?" she asked hopefully.

     "Of course not.  Someone pushed through a pardon for all your crimes during the war," he said and handed her the envelope he'd been passed.  "Someone decided to defend you at the last minute when they thought we were closing in on who'd supported you.  Well, now we can't charge you criminally.  But we will find who pardoned you, and that person won't be able to hide."

     "So I haven't been exonerated?" Misato said sourly.

     "No, you've been included in the Operation Paperclip amnesty," the translator said, it was clear he didn't approve.  "The Senator had a special message for you."


     " 'Stay out of civilized areas, Japan and NERV may not care about your actions'," he said, " 'But the citizens of the United States will.'"  The translator bowed and left.

     Misato sank in her chair.  "Not exonerated at all, just slipped under the door and forgotten."

     "This coming from someone who complained she 'wanted to get dirty'.  Now you are an unindicted Public Enemy Number One."  He raised his voice and fist.  "I always say, achieve your dreams in as big a way as you can!"

     "I have to wonder if they'd notice a homicide?" Misato asked.

     "Well, we could find out.  Who do you want to kill?"  He smiled at her.

     Misato closed her eyes and shook her head.

Oh He Might Have Went on Living but He Made One Fatal Slip

When He Tried to Match the Ranger with the Big Iron on His Hip

Big Iron on His Hip

When He Tried to Match the Ranger with the Big Iron on His Hip