Neon Genesis Evangelion Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction ❯ Sic Semper Morituri ❯ Chapter 55-56 ( Chapter 26 )

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

Sic Semper Morituri

Chapter 55 - Let the Ladies Be Heard From

In conversation she spoke just like a baroness

To absolutely drive you wild, wild

Then momentarily out of action, temporarily out of gas

Drop of a hat she's as willing as playful as a pussy cat

Recommended at the price, insatiable an appetite

Then again incidentally if you're that way inclined

Perfume came naturally from Paris, for cars she couldn't care less

To avoid complications, she never kept the same address

Fastidious and precise

Met a man from China, went down to Geisha Minah

She's all out to get you

Chapter 56 - One Throw of The Dice

Jacks Or Better

Hole Cards

Call Or Raise

Wild Cards

[Ranma][NGE][HPL][AMG][Fusion][Fanfic] Sic Semper Morituri Chapter 55 - Let the Ladies Be Heard From


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.

     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.

     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.

     Several of the students are revealed.  The initial meeting between the pilots and Usagi's group does not go as Usagi planned.  Rei is also shocked that some students insist she is the pilots' leader, her shock deepens as Asuka facilitates the error.  Rei then confronts and defeats Tomoe using Ranma's tactics and training.

     Ranma tells Asuka that he's sensed something new, something he doesn't understand, he also admits he can't live up to people's expectations.

     The train carrying the NERV force across the U.S. is attacked by the Brothers of Chaugnar Faugn, lesser versions of the Great Old One.  Ritsuko and Maya organize the resistance, the search for the pilots, and the repair of the EVAs for later use.  Nabiki and Jeff face the monsters directly.  Nabiki's unease about how she is perceived versus the reality begins to grow.  This unease multiplies as she bonds with a wind elemental who takes the `nom de guerre` Coffee, then she destroys numerous Flying Polyps that were supposed to be used as necessary against the pilots.

     The tensions between the pilots in Tokyo and the cultists begins ratcheting up.  The cultists haze the pilots and their allies, and the pilots plan to strike back, including Asuka going head-to-head with Usagi, the cultist leader.

     Rei detects that another force is intervening in the ongoing conflicts.  Later, Ranma detects the same enemy and helps Sammi engage it.  Sammi realizes that the situation is more complicated, the enemy is more sophisticated and there are possible allies she hadn't considered.

     Toji and Shinji repulse an attack on Ranma's dreamscape, both show unexpected aptitude.

     Sarah, in England, learns that the situation in the Severn Valley has deteriorated beyond what she had known, she offers her services to bring the pilots to aid operations, her offer is accepted.  She reports to the pilots, in dreams, what the situation is.

     The Tokyo group goes shopping for Rei and Ranko.  Asuka tries to embarrass Ranma, Mirei defends him.  Asuka convinced Rei to start wearing her A10 nerve clip to keep her hair out of her face.

     Usagi sacrifices Yuki to Shub-Niggurath, to warn the Goddess from engaging the pilots.

     Shinji reveals to the pilots what he discovered in the dream, that the pilots won't survive, the war between the Outer and Elder Gods is over the secrets of Creation.  Because to get the prize, four of them will have to be killed.  None are happy about that, Ranma and Ranko are especially displeased, but they all see any of the alternatives as worse.

     After the battle with the Flying Polyps, Jeff and Nabiki land the EVA aboard the Boxer, not the Bunker Hill, and are `adopted` by VMF-214.  Jeff also begins teaching Ritsuko and Nabiki about magic.

     Ranma and Shinji receive their first firearms training.

She keeps Moet et Chandon in her pretty cabinet
'Let them eat cake' she says, just like Marie Antoinette
A built-in remedy for Kruschev and Kennedy
At anytime an invitation you can't decline
Caviar and cigarettes.  Well versed in etiquette.  Extraordinarily nice.
She's a Killer Queen, gunpowder, gelatine, dynamite with a laser beam
Guaranteed to blow your mind, anytime

     Killer Queen - words and music by Freddie Mercury

In conversation she spoke just like a baroness

Aug 12, 1947

     "I'm sorry, Doctor" the Marine stood at attention as he told Ritsuko, "The Admiral requests your immediate presence."

     "That explains the aircraft flying in from the other carriers," Ritsuko said, as she turned, glancing around the hanger deck for her assistant, "Keep an eye on them.  They've been waiting for the testing in the EVA for an hour, I doubt they'll be in a good mood."

     "Do I continued the tests?" Maya asked as she ran up to the doctor.

     "No, not with fueled aircraft on board," Ritsuko said, "Better to get them out and cleaned up.  Tell them I'm sorry, but the situation changed."

     Maya nodded and walked towards the EVA.

     "Let's go see what all the fuss is about," Ritsuko told the Marine and fell in behind him, "Do you have anything from the ship's grapevine, beyond what we've already heard?"

     "No ma'am, new dispatch, coded, all hush hush.  I do know that soon after the dispatch arrived, the other captains were on their way here."  The Marine marched through the corridors, headed deeper into the ship, the sailor and technicians got out of his way.

     "The black spot!" two of the deck crew chorused and did a ridiculous dance to `ward off` the evils of L.C.L.  The young Ensign who'd been covered with drops of the foul-smelling liquid was not the least bit amused.

     Maya stood by, doing her best not to laugh at the man, as the pilots headed for decontam.  I was a victim of this, I shouldn't find it funny, she thought, I guess some people don't learn from other people's mistakes.  "It wash off with lemon oil," she offered helpfully, barely keeping the smile from her face, "I'm sure as soon as the pilots will be done, the decontamination showers will clean you."  Serves you right for that comment, she thought.

     "You really should have a warning about that," the irate young Ensign complained, "Bratty bunch of kids."

     "O5's, sir," one of the senior chiefs who'd come with them from the Bennington said, his face as straight as his ramrod-backed posture.

     The Ensign looked shocked.  However, Maya clearly didn't understand.

     "Ensigns are O1's, and Lieutenants like you, ma'am, are O3's, the pilots have an O5 pay-grade," the man added, still standing at attention and speaking in respectful tones.

     The Ensign was getting extremely nervous about this.

     So the kids out-rank him, she thought, Although     . I do think there should be a warning, for people with no common sense.

     "What is your take on this?" Admiral Adams asked Ritsuko as he refilled her coffee.

     She glanced around the wardroom, deep within the ship.  She could clearly hear the noise of the ship's engines.  He must have stolen this from the engine room, Ritsuko thought while she considered her answer, The coffee in 'officer's country' generally stinks, only the snipes make decent brew aboard this ship.  "Assuming that this isn't an intentional leak by NERV or the U.S. Military to help flush the attackers -" Ritsuko looked at the shaking heads in the ward room around her.  "Then someone else is playing games.  What they hope to accomplish     . I don't know.  I assume that there are additional security measures to be put in place."

     "I want the guards checked again, and your technical people, Doctor," Admiral Adams said, waited for Ritsuko to nod, "We have a security leak, one of immense proportions.  I want to make certain it isn't at our end.  I also thought your request for more speed was just homesickness.  I apologize, I was wrong, somebody figured that we'd be out of position to help.  I want to prove them wrong.  Your monsters may be out of my experience, but something vulnerable to .50 API and 500 pounders, that I can deal with."

     "Most of our enemies are resistant or immune to bullets, but other people, the monsters' human servants, are our most dangerous enemies," Ritsuko admitted.  Kehl and SEELE must be trying something.  Since our battle group is trying to be coy about our exact location     . if we can keep it secret, we can't be ordered off at the last minute when we're already in theater.  Which is SEELE's style, let the dogs smell the steak, but make them watch you eat it, Ritsuko thought angrily, sipped her coffee to cover her fury.  When she could manage a passable smile, she continued, "The difference between a monster immune to bullets, and one resistant to bullets can be determined with a short burst of .50 API, if it is merely unhappy and not seriously wounded, it's immune.  Further testing is unnecessary."

     The Navy men and Marines chuckled.  "Okay, Bob, work up a couple of strike plans, both with the EVAs and without.  Charles, get your Marines spun up.  If we have to make a hot landing, I want them ready," Admiral Adams ordered.

     "I'd suggest an overabundance of flame-throwers, bazookas, and incendiary or tracer ammunition for everyone," Ritsuko suggested, "Before I left, Admiral Simson and General Tomlinson were working out a TOE with two platoons of engineer-armed troops and one platoon of standard composition per company.  I don't know what that means exactly, but they seemed very proud of their solution to the problem."  Ritsuko endured the chuckles of the men, found their chuckles didn't hurt as they once would have.  They accepted her expertise and she could accept her ignorance, even if it was feigned.  "I'd also point out that you have over 5,000 additional `troops`.  Every mother and every child old enough to carry a gun should be prepared."  She saw the vaguely horrified looks on the military men's faces, but continued, "I'm not suggesting they be put on the front lines, but when their quarters are swept, additional eyes and guns may be the difference between a lark and a tragedy."

     "We'll get Marines on that," Admiral Adams said in a shaky voice, "Too bad we can't test those new mortars, I'd really like the pilots to be familiar with them     . if things will be as bad as you say."

     "They can be dry-fired, and the pilots trained on mortar tactics."  They are going to love this, she thought.  "I hope I'm wrong and all this is over-reaction," Ritsuko said, "I just don't want to bet anyone's life on that.  Not mine, not yours, not your loved ones'."

     The military men nodded.

     Nabiki sat across from Jeff in the ready room that had become the private training chamber, where things 'Man Was Not Meant To Know!  tm' were taught.  Or so Nabiki had teased Maya.  "There are things you need to learn.  If you received the powers of Chaugnar Faugh, as I did," Jeff told her, "You could call it 'the Stare', but it doesn't require eye-contact, just to look at the target."

     "That mind-zapping power you used on me," Nabiki countered, both infuriated and expectant.

     "Yes.  The original could make a target docile and compel them to approach and be eaten.  Maybe it can still be used for that, I've only been able to calm and sedate people.  You've felt it, it's of temporary duration."

     "But you used it when you wanted to calm me down," Nabiki stated sharply, "So now you're going to teach me, so I can use it on you?"  She smiled at the prospect, leaning towards him.

     "Perhaps, but I suspect I'll be immune."  He shrugged.

     "Why?  I'm not."

     "Because I knew how to defeat the technique," he told her.

     "And you didn't feel a need to share that little tidbit?" Nabiki accused, shaking a finger in his face.

     "You couldn't do it anyway," he told her smugly, "You're still human."

     Nabiki shivered at that, sitting back.  "Okay, what do I do?"

     "You empty your mind of everything except the target.  Now for me, I push a wave through them that sweeps away thought, emotion and any actions they were planning to take.  I don't yet know if the activation is like magic and therefore these are spells that are vastly different ways to access the power, or if it would be the same for everyone."

     Nabiki paused to concentrate.  "You do realize the Unit 04 took out Chaugnar Faugh, and the agglomerated Brothers, right?"

     "Yes."  Jeff nodded, not seeing where she was going.

     The thought resisted forming.  "So     . is it now Chaugnar Faugh     . ?"

     "Or are we?" intrigued, Jeff finished her question, "I think all three of us are."  He considered the possibilities.

     "You realize what that means, don't you?" she asked worriedly.

     "I realize a lot of what that means," Jeff said, not seeing what she saw, or not worried by it, "What in particular?"

     Nabiki sighed and collected herself.  "Chaugnar Faugh would resist destruction by nearly any force, for a short time.  He could be knocked unconscious or wounded, but he couldn't be destroyed or even made discorporeal for some time.  We could teleport into the heart of an exploding supernova, and as long as the recording devices were in the plug with us, they'd still be recording the data for retrieval," Nabiki explained passionately, "There are spells, a time delay.  Teleport in with one spell, wait five minutes, teleport out."

     "Yes, of course," Jeff said, nodded, "Of course, in certain circumstances, we'd be rendered unconscious and inactive almost instantly."

     "But we could act as a delivery system," Nabiki told him firmly.

     "Thinking of delivering a few thousand tons of antimatter to the Court of Azathoth?" Jeff teased.

     "NO!" Nabiki countered, "But Nyarlathotep has to have a base, a seat of power somewhere!" Nabiki said fiercely.

     "Sharnoth, we can be there and back in a few hours."

     Nabiki stared at him.  "You're joking     . you're not joking?!" she demanded, "If you knew - why haven't you -?"

     "Because it wouldn't necessarily kill him," Jeff replied calmly, "The only way to do that would be to kill him hand-to-hand, face-to-face, and Sharnoth is not the place to do that.  It has to be someplace he can't or won't escape from, and that I haven't figured out yet."

     "I still think we could try it," Nabiki told him, "Prove he can't mess with us willy-nilly!"  She shook her fist.

     "No.  Because it would provoke a response we couldn't deal with.  We're very much on the low end of the power scale right now, when we are stronger, when we have more pieces on the board, then we can move decisively."

     "Until then, we skulk like mice along the baseboards," Nabiki told him, frowned, "You do realize it was probably him that told the people to use those Flying Polyps?"

     "And he probably assisted the U.S. development of the atomic bomb, and is probably working right now to help us develop the hydrogen bomb.  Both so we'll use them, and to think, wrongly, we have a weapon to use against them."

     "And so a country which believes in its nobility, is the only one to have used such a weapon in combat     . not that any other country would have hesitated, but they can always deny they would have," Nabiki added, nodding as she understood the enemy they faced.

     "They also helped the Germans, French and Japanese recover and figure out their EVAs," Jeff continued, "Heck, he probably developed some of the techniques they used to create me.  I don't think dropping a brick on him is such a good idea, we should wait until we can drop on him with both feet, all of us."

     Nabiki held up her hands in frustration.  "Okay, discussion tabled.  How can we be so powerful and so weak at the same time?  I know, it's all relative     . how did you know it was Sharnoth?" she asked, "Chaugnar Faugn didn't know, at least the Brothers didn't."

     "All those books I read in that dream, everything about the mythos has proven true and accurate," he told her with a shrug.

     Nabiki slapped her face with little force.  "Only you would go along with a Great Old One's mad dream to use it as a reading room."

     "Well, Asuka would, so did Gendo," he told her, And if you knew them well enough, so would you."

     "Let's get back to the exercises," Nabiki suggested.

     "Very well, clear your mind, focus on me, not as a person, but as an object.  Now push the wave at me."

     Nabiki did it.  I could have used this in Nerima.  Most of those idiots only had one thought at any one time.  Stop!  Concentrate!  She refocused, pushing at him the wave that swept away all thought and emotion.  "Anything?"

     "No.  Don't expect too much, don't assume it will work," he reminded her, "Don't know it will or won't work, just do it."

     "Trying again," Nabiki said as she centered herself, emptied her normally racing mind, and tried to push a wall of non-thought, non-emotion at him.

     The package was wrapped and the carrier prepared. One doesn't mail such a thing, or teleport with it, Hiro thought as he watched General Tembris and his coterie, The courier exits their minds once he is out of their sight.

     "We did well," the General said, "Let the Twins complete its summoning, keep the cultists' agents from moving any further, and set the stage for our victory."

     The gloating made him sick.  "I'd like to get back to my cover job," Hiro said as submissively as he could, "Now would be a good time to get some background material and check in on them."

     "You aren't supposed to get attached to your target," Tembris chided.

     "My only 'target' is on its way to our bosses.  To disappear now, would arouse suspicions," he countered.  The fact is, I do like the kids, he admitted to himself, I see no need to be nasty.  We've won.  My 'mission' is over, unless and until they have another.  I just want to make sure our defeated kids are all right.

     "SEELE and the others will no doubt order them all exterminated," Tembris said, smiling to show his opinion of that action.

     "Why?  Just to maintain their monopoly?  Besides, it's too early isn't it?" Hiro gasped.  He looked around, and saw he was in the minority

     "No, with the defeat of the Children, the entire plan can move forward.  Only Cthulhu can move against us, and he won't," Tembris's master mage assured Hiro and the others.  His mad expression showed both his zeal for the subject, and that he'd studied it far more than was healthy for a human.  "Cleansing the Earth and rebuilding it afterward, that is the goal."  He seemed in the grip of religious ecstacy, the others regarded him with amusement.

     And if you believe one word of that tripe, Hiro thought, You just want to see the world burn, and to dance on the ashes of your enemies.

     "The only one who might oppose is the Lord of R'lyeh, and he clearly wants to avoid any confrontation," the mage continued, almost giggling, "If he had the chance to destroy two of them, and he didn't take the opportunity, he doesn't want a fight."

     Unless he is willing to wait and let it all drop into his lap, Hiro thought at the smiling faces surrounding him, A strategy half-a-dozen of the NERV personnel, both pilots and officers, could come up with.  Why fight and kill to get today what will be a gift tomorrow?

     Because you want to see the misery.  Who is the monster?  You, Tembris and your pack, SEELE who pulls your strings, or our `enemies` who do what they do to us out of apathy?  "I still want to check on the kids," Hiro said, "I still have to maintain my cover, or it will attract attention, all those inquires may lead back here."

     "Agreed, go," Tembris told him, waving him away, dismissing him from his mind.

     I think you lost my loyalty with all that 'burn the world' crap, Hiro thought, I fulfilled my mission, that's all I owe you.  Don't expect blind loyalty next time.  I know you'll kill me for it, but I find there are some things worth dying for.  Pity you don't feel the same.

     Asuka stood in Stoneface's office and stared at him and his hands-folded pose, controlling her temper with strenuous effort.  "Commander, respectfully," she nearly choked on the word, "I understand the need for security."  She paused to keep from screaming the next.  "I just don't see how such a tiny piece of information could cause the calamity you describe."

     "It does," Stoneface told her, "They can do math, it would allow then to put other bits of information together.  That's all there is to it."

     Asuka shook her head, clasped her hands tightly behind her back to keep them from closing over something else convenient.  "So, no hints, no consideration of the effect it will have on operations?"

     "Is this truly for your benefit?" the Commander probed gently.

     "I'll concede the point that I do have a vested interest in seeing this through," Asuka admitted, "Which is why I need the information."

     "Why not simply pick a value?" Stoneface asked, "There will never be any official conformation or repudiation, I won't contradict you, 'Wondergirl' won't contradict you, and we are the only ones who could."

     "Something arbitrary doesn't have the same effect," Asuka countered, "Besides, Wo - Ayanami-san would know."

     "I think there is a significant flaw in your logic."  Stoneface leaned back and stared at her over his interlaced fingers.  "Hypothetically, do you lock a door to keep people from accessing what's behind it?"

     "Yes," Asuka replied, letting herself think rather than get angry.  She rocked back and forth on her heels to burn nervous energy.

     "Is that the only reason?"

     Asuka felt his eyes on her, gauging her as she worked on the problem.  He's probably thinking, 'For someone with such a temper, appealing to logic seems to be having the desired effect'.  Smug bastard, she thought, Okay, what would Stoneface     . oh, it can't be that simple!  Somebody would figure it out!  No, it's that someone goes poking around to find out - that's what sends up all the flags!

     "No," she managed, giving Stoneface a nod for his cleverness, "Hypothetically, you might lock a door, so people would speculate on what is behind it.  To make them change their plans, to deal with what they are most worried about, of all the things that could be behind it."

     "And what needs to be behind the door?"

     "Nothing at all," Asuka sighed in admiration, "You don't know either!"

     Stoneface nodded.  "Who would it serve to answer a question they spent time and effort ferreting out?"

     "And depending on what you allow them to find, they would reveal where and how it was stolen."  Asuka noted Stoneface's swiftly hidden look of confusion.  Not as 'all-knowing' as you thought, Asuka thought triumphantly, We mere mortals can still steal a march on you.  "Hypothetically, of course."  She smiled happily at him.

     "Yes, of course," Stoneface said distractedly.

     Probably itching to get me out so he can steal my idea, she thought, still grinning, I'll let him.  It's not what I wanted, but I have what I want.  Asuka turned and left.  Okay, there is no answer, she thought, So any answer will be acceptable.  It will also set the precedent, that's not a bad thing.

     Outside the ready room that had become known as 'The Pilots' Playroom', Ritsuko spotted the two Marines standing guard.  I guess the place's reputation has gotten around, Ritsuko thought, I know I didn't order a guard.  As she walked by, she caught sight of a clipboard, and several pages titled 'NERV's Official But Unwritten Rules'.  The two Marines developed an aura of expectation as she picked up the clipboard and read the two entries in Maya's clear printing.

'NERV's Official but Unwritten Rules

1.) Do not tease pilots who have just exited L.C.L.'

     Ritsuko guffawed once at that, remembering Maya's `dusting`.  True, very true, she thought as she caught a smile from one of the guards.  "Someone didn't hear?"

     "Evidently not, ma'am," one of the Marines said, struggling to keep a straight face, "He was cussing a blue streak about it, beg pardon, ma'am."

     "At ease, Marines, I've heard some of the things said about them, and me," Ritsuko told them as she read the second.  I'm not sure if I should be offended or pleased, she thought as she read.

'2.) Do not do anything to Dr. Akagi's coffee you would not want done to yourself or your children.'

     She frowned at that.  I think I need to make that more - accurate, she considered the best way to correct the entry, Don't erase what's there, just amend them.  She carefully wrote under Maya's entry.

'2a.) This applies to Commander Ikari's, Admiral Simson's, Major Katsuragi's as well.'

     The second was in Jeff's flowing script.

'3.) Yes, they are `nasty-minded little S.O.B.s`, they were recruited because of that, not in spite of that.'

     That earned a stifled laugh, and a guilty glance to the two guards who were enjoying her reactions.

     "He heard some people talking, ma'am," one of the guards offered.

     Ritsuko nodded.  She considered what the Marine had said.  She handed the clipboard to the Marine.  "Include this in the regular housekeeping traffic to NERV, include it under my authorization."

     "Yes, ma'am," the man saluted.

     "No profanity," Ritsuko said, "There are clean ways to say anything."

     "Yes, ma'am," the Marines said in unison as Ritsuko walked off.

     This isn't too bad an idea, she thought, It lets people have an acceptable and anonymous way to blow-off steam, and to comment.  Good job, Maya.

To absolutely drive you wild, wild

     Ritsuko looked closely at Nabiki, knowing that she should have dealt with this earlier, but she'd demurred.  Now I can't anymore, she thought, I hadn't wanted to press my `advantage`, of having Jeff's memories, especially his memories of a family from Nerima and the two newcomers/trouble-magnets who had appeared in their midst.  Now I have to use that wedge to crack her open and get her to accept who and what she was, and who and what she has become.

     The pair sat in Nabiki's cabin.  The girl seemed a little shell-shocked and was hugging a pillow tightly to her chest as she sat on her bed.

     Ritsuko watched from the chair beside the desk.  "Do you want to talk about it?" Ritsuko offered.

     Nabiki shook her head firmly, once.

     "How about Nerima?  The 'Ice Queen of Furinkan High'?  The 'Junior Yakuza of Nerima'?"

     Nabiki's eyes had grown wider with the mention of each of those names.  She still wouldn't look at Ritsuko.

     "Jeff was sent to Nerima as Ranma, by Cthulhu I'd guess, and he remembers it.  Remembers it all.  It's one of the memories I picked up."  She paused to let that sink in.  "Now, do you want to talk about it?" Ritsuko asked while Nabiki stared at her.  Better start with the top of the list, Ritsuko thought as she broke the silence, "How about how you broke your hip, and how it healed wrong.  That sway you've managed to turn it into, probably caught a lot of boys' attentions, but I've seen your x-rays.  That kind of break normally only - "

     "All right, let's talk about the Ice Queen!" Nabiki blurted out, staring at Ritsuko in fear.

     So, you do have some sensitive spots, Ritsuko thought, If Jeff hadn't mentioned it, I would have continued to ignore it on your x-rays.  But now that I know how fast you heal, I know it wasn't a birth accident, as I'd originally thought.

     "What do you want to know?" Nabiki offered, trying to steer the conversation, and Ritsuko, away from the other subject.

     "The obvious question I guess     . why?"

     Nabiki smiled, then buried her face in the pillow.  When she raised her head a few moments later, it was as if Ritsuko was looking at someone else entirely.  More like Asuka, or Shinji in a fight, Ritsuko analyzed Nabiki's twisted expression, A lot of unresolved rage there.

     "What do you know about being hurt?  By people you cared about, and you thought cared about you?" Nabiki asked, not accusing, but trying to find common ground.

     "Quite a lot, actually," Ritsuko told her, torn between dropping the subject and holding the girl to make the pain go away.  It has to be dug out and exposed, like any other infection, Ritsuko reminded herself as she looked at the very different girl sitting on the bed.  Only the pillow-clutching posture told her that the Nabiki she knew     . and loved, was still in there somewhere.

     "By lying and blackmail?"

     "I never had much, so blackmail never really worked on me.  My biggest secret isn't useful, I'd literally just slip away.  For Megayears I was a slave, threats were bread and butter to me," Ritsuko told her, conscious of her own adjustments in posture, her own sudden wariness of this newcomer.

     "Where I grew up, you were either a bully or a victim.  The only way to remain unmolested, was to either be the biggest bully, or to keep the upper levels of the `food chain` focused on someone, or something else.  As for anyone actually caring about anyone else -" Nabiki shook her head.  "That was just to get them close, so you could blackmail them: physical threats, emotional blackmail."  Nabiki sighed, and some of the girl Ritsuko was used to, came peeking through the stonyhearted mask.  "If you know what Jeff saw, you probably have it pretty clear.  I grew up happy, until my mother died.  Everybody wanted something after that.  Everything had a price.  Everything had strings attached.  My father's love, my sisters', safety in the neighborhood, peace at home.  I learned real quick that Tendo Nabiki wasn't worth anything more than what one person or another could get out of her.  Lunch money, favors, whatever.  When I - quit - practicing martial arts, after my injury     . I realized I had to come up with another way.  Another way to make people respect me," she stopped, composed herself and wiped away the tears forming.  "Everyone has secrets, people so wrapped up in themselves they don't care about anyone else think everything about themselves is a secret."

     She looked at Ritsuko and asked, "Can you see where I'm going with this?"

     Ritsuko nodded.  I also know you have to go the whole way, she thought, Get it all out of your system or you'll keep tearing yourself apart.  I also know somehow we have to do the same for Ranma.  "You figured out that if they didn't want their 'terrible secrets' revealed, they might be willing to pay."

     "More than that," Nabiki said with a disgusted pride, "If I got there or figured it out a few moments ahead of absolutely everyone else, I could make them pay dearly.  Or I could find out little things they needed, or obsessed over.  It was easy, I didn't have to work at it.  I just had to be quicker with my mind than they were with their feet.  None of them bothered to think of a dozen different ways to get the exact same thing.  They couldn't be bothered, or they couldn't risk getting caught.  None of them ever considered 'publish and be damned', despite the fact they should have known not only was everything going to come out shortly, but everyone else was so wrapped up in themselves -"  Fury boiled up in her.  "That nobody else really cared! ABOUT ANYONE BUT THEMSELVES!"  Nabiki laughed mirthlessly, smiling a tired, revolted smile, "No, I was omniscient, omnipotent and feared by all!"  She chuckled at that, then buried her face in her pillow.

     She was shuddering now.  "And I couldn't see a way out, no matter what I did, no matter what happened to me."  The pillow muffled her voice and hid her tears.

     So you played your existing game with the newcomers, Ritsuko mentally added the next step in the chain.  Then added the last, "Until the others turned on the most emotionally vulnerable of your group."

     Nabiki's head shot up, her eyes gleaming with rage.  "There's no way he could be eta!  Wouldn't I have found out?  Wouldn't his `Master` have found out?  Wouldn't my dear father have found out his friend or the man's wife was unclean?" she asked hysterically.

     Ritsuko was afraid of the violence she saw in Nabiki's expression, afraid the girl would turn it on herself.  She forced herself to walk over to the bed and sit next to Nabiki.

     "The only thing Ranma ever thought he had was his honor!  The funniest part was he never realized his father and Master had so dishonored his House and School that he had none, yet he clung to that as the core of his being!  When he really found out his honor was nothing     . " Nabiki quit screaming and seemed to fold in on herself.  Ritsuko gathered the girl against her, held her while she could practically feel the emotions raging within Nabiki.

     "Then nothing mattered," Nabiki whispered, "Two seconds of clear thought     . if I'd been able - if I'd tried to get him alone - he could have realized he was never more than a slave to his father's and my father's whims.  I never forced him to face that when it would have hurt him, I couldn't make myself make him face it when he'd lost everything.  It would have killed him - almost - but he would have been free, gone to someone who didn't care about it     . maybe taken me with him when he escaped."

     But that is what happened, isn't it? Ritsuko thought she could see the problem, You wanted him to make a clean break, and help you escape, but that's what he did, and you escaped too.  Except, you don't feel you either deserve the gift, or that you've earned your fare.  You haven't realized you `died` and were reborn, both of you.  He hasn't realized it, and you're going through a difficult delivery.  She asked the next question to prevent the wound from scabbing over until all the bile was out, "Was there -?"

     "Was there anyone he could turn to?" Nabiki asked as spitefully as she could, "Who?  The six-year-old who dedicated a decade to bloody revenge, then changed from murderer to lover with a phrase?  The one who wanted him as a training dummy and breeding stock?  One of the other mad ones who wandered in and out of his life?"

     "Your sisters?" Ritsuko asked and braced for the explosion.  All out, all at once, she reminded herself, wondering about her own cruelty in doing this to Nabiki.

     Nabiki laughed scornfully at her, "My two loving sisters?  Akane, who's so two-faced she's practically a split personality?  She'd be the nicest girl to her loyal friends, but betray her, or worse be a boy who shows her any romantic interest, and you won't see the end of the violence, cause you'll be unconscious while she pounds you into the ground."

     "That's an exaggeration, and you know it," Ritsuko said dryly.

     "You're right, stand up to her, force her to submit, and she'll turn all meek and mild.  All her bravado and independence crumble to dust.  She was a bigger bully than I could ever hope to be, always willing to hurt someone, unless they could force her to knuckle under and crawl."

     "You're saying if Ranma had simply beaten her up, he could have made her behave?" Ritsuko asked another leading question.

     "I'm telling you what I saw.  She'd beat up man or boy who looked at her wrong, but a strong personality, and she'd become a demure, little dolly.  Our family doctor was the best example, and she adored him," Nabiki spat out.

     I'm going to regret this, Ritsuko thought, But I'd best get all the venom out, before she poisons herself on it.  "Of course, Kasumi -"

     "Kasumi was worse!" Nabiki shouted, as she struggled in Ritsuko's grip, " 'She's so good!'  She wasn't good, she was never good!  She was polite!  So tied up on the need to appear as the perfect, the very best, the number one housewife -" Nabiki's mouth snapped shut, again going from rage to tears.

     "She let you and Akane run rampant," Ritsuko concluded, "More interested in appearing perfect to the neighbors than doing a good job."  Causing Nabiki to lie down, still clutching the pillow as though it would keep her from drowning.  At least that's what you believe, she thought, I know what a handful you can be.  Without being able to use you as an `adult` to watch over Ranma and Jeff, and without Jeff to use on you, you three would have run me ragged.  And I'm no underaged girl who'd just lost her mother and effectively, her father.

     "Yes, if she really loved us, she -" Nabiki said in a small voice, "I learned to hurt and frighten people, before they could do the same to me.  When everyone was afraid of me     . they couldn't hurt me anymore.  And none of them figured out how to get past the 'Ice Queen's' armor, to get at the real me.  After a while, nobody even tried."

     "So why the change?  Not just Ranma."

     Nabiki snorted, sounding more like her old self.  "Blackmailing any of you is too much like work," she said with a sneer, then paused and began more thoughtfully, "What would any of you care, about revealing some trivial secret?  You'd either shrug it off     . or you'd take steps.  I like living with all my pieces intact and in place.  I know what pain is, I don't need a refresher course."

     "Do you really think that's all there is to it?" Ritsuko asked, feeling like she'd gotten the horse to water, now she'd have to hold it's head under to make it drink.

     "What else could there be?" Nabiki asked defensively as she sat up and tried to stare down Ritsuko.

     Only I'm more than ten million times older, and I have a near-infinite well of patience to draw on, she thought mildly as she returned the stare levelly, I also learned from an expert how to get people to fill the silence, and I can counter 'The Stare' with some effort.

     "Yes," Nabiki hung her head, the word was almost too soft for a human to hear.

     I heard you, loud and clear, Ritsuko thought, gathering the unresisting girl in her arms again, Do you really believe it's as terrible as all that? she wanted to ask sympathetically.  "Why are you afraid of them, if 'They won't hurt me first'?" Ritsuko asked, "Are you so expectant of pain, that affection frightens you?"  Not that you'd be alone in that, among the pilots     . and the staff of NERV.

     Nabiki sniffed disdainfully, but her beaten expression gave her derision a hollowness.  "Why not?  Asuka yells and threatens, but she'd never attack out of caprice     . and if a raised voice or a raised hand is what it takes, that's what she uses, that's all she uses.  Shinji weathers everything, except the Angels.  It's like he's saved up all his rage for them.  Against them, he's a Berserker.  The others     . Raccoon and Rei-chan wouldn't push or play games, unless that was the rules to win by.  They'd kill instantly.  I can't control them, they don't try to hurt me, Raccoon manipulates everybody, it's nothing personal."

     Nabiki sighed and took a deep breath.  She stared towards the bulkhead for a long time, when she spoke again, it was as if her voice was the same far-away place she was staring at, "What makes me different?  What makes me special?"

     Ah, now we get to the root of the problem, Ritsuko thought with no visible sign of relief.  "Could it be that they know, or sense, you are like them?" she asked, instead of her real thought, You're the only one of them who was allowed to be a child with a family, even for a little while.  They all want to protect the innocent, and wouldn't being considered 'the innocent' be a shock to you?

     "What?  A killer, a destroyer?  A -?"

     "A scared kid who doesn't want to be any of those things?"  Ritsuko watched Nabiki calm down, just a little.  "Jeff has magic, because of his heritage, he's very powerful, but what are his real specialties?  Ranma's martial arts would let him kill with barely a thought, yet he won't fight 'the weak' no matter the justification.  Asuka yells and screams, but about what?  What is her goal?"

     "To make us think, to make us better.  So you think I'm like that?" Mockery and yearning warred in Nabiki's tone and expression.

     "You and I, both know you could sell your skills to the highest bidder.  Yet I'll bet you've never considered that.  If money was your goal, you'd be rich beyond your dreams of avarice.  Or power, you have power now that there are only two others aboard this ship who could challenge you, me and Jeff, yet you're terrified of it.  If it isn't money and power, what do you want?  Do you know, and can't put it into words?" Ritsuko asked as she stood, moved so she was kneeling in front of Nabiki, staring at the girl's expression, "Or do you know, but keep denying it because you're afraid to lose it all if you claim it?"  She saw the tension Nabiki was putting herself under.  Do you `claim` what you want, and risk the loss?  Or do you keep tearing yourself apart wanting, and denying you want? Ritsuko wondered as she watched the war being waged right in front of her.

     Maya kept twisting the towel in her hands as she stared at the cabin's other occupant.  "Well?" she asked Jeff.

     "It's still too dangerous," he replied, "Most people who go through the process go insane, violently so."

     "But they won't have all your knowledge of magic and genetics to deal with the process," Maya countered with a grin she hoped came across as hopeful instead of desperate, she'd been working on her arguments since they'd left San Diego, "I bet none of them wanted to go through the process, or understood what was happening.  I want and understand it."

     "Then why won't you wait?" Jeff countered, "Given a few more weeks, I'll - "

     "Or months, or never?" Maya countered, calmed herself, and explained carefully, "I don't want her to be alone anymore.  You've survived, and stayed rational."

     "If that were true I would have said 'no' and been done with it," Jeff replied as he stood and began pacing, "She's happy with you the way you are, why can't you be?"

     Maya sighed, but she'd worked that part over in her mind.  "Because we humans don't live very long, a century is an eyeblink.  She's immortal, that's how I'd have to be."  She stood to face him.  "And don't tell me about 'giving up my humanity', you keep saying humanity is a state of mind, not a genetic legacy.  If you can hold on to yours, and Sempai can learn, then I can keep mine."

     He frowned, then nodded.  "Okay, all right, well-taken points, but the real concern is I don't know the process well enough.  Chaugnar Faugh didn't develop it, the Elder Things did, and they used Ubbo-Sathla to do it.  That's Outer God stuff, not Great Old One, I can puzzle the process out, but that's a far cry from actually being able to make the necessary improvements."

     She teased, "Then all we have to do is find Ubbo -"

     "Ubbo-Sathla, and killing that particular worthy will take considerable doing.  Whether he or Azathoth is the mightiest of the bunch is an open question.  We aren't up to taking on Nyarlathotep, what makes you think we can kill one of the big two     . whatever and wherever he is?"

     "Very well, you need more knowledge," she shuddered at the thought, but tried to make a joke of it, "Who do you need to eat to get that knowledge?"

     "That's not funny," Jeff said as he frowned, "There's other concerns, and other ways of getting what you want -"

     "None that make me as close to her as this one would," Maya replied determinedly.

     "You know, it's too bad that you can't ask Rei or Ranma, their memories of Nyogtha might be the very clues I need."  He shrugged.  "Somehow I doubt either would be very helpful."

     Ritsuko's arrival, looking worn to a frazzle, prevented further discussion.  "Shouldn't you be in bed?" she asked.

     "Delighted to, only it would make Maya jealous, and she'd slit my throat in the night!" Jeff complained, making Ritsuko smirk and Maya scowl.

     "I think you need to have a talk with Miss Tendo in the morning," Ritsuko said to Jeff, "Right now I think I'm going to get some real sleep.  Just resting isn't going to do it tonight.  And both of you get some sleep too, it's going to be a busy week."

     "You need a bucket or a drum?" Jeff teased as he headed for the door, "By the way, I said 'chocolate', Maya said 'flowers', who's right?"

     "About what?" Ritsuko asked as she sat on her bunk.

     "St. Valentine's Day," Jeff said.

     "Shoes, out!" Ritsuko said as she threw one at the door frame.  She collapsed into bed, was surprised when Maya sat down beside her, "I don't think that's a good idea.  I'm not going to turn into a puddle, but I'm not going to be very human in a few minutes," she explained tiredly.

     "I understand," Maya said, glad her Sempai wasn't ordering her to her own bed, "How is Nabiki-chan?"  I guess I've begun thinking of her as a younger sister, she thought.

     "Her homesickness and culture shock finally let me get through her defenses, and lance a few emotional abscesses she's got, but I really don't want to talk about it.  I just hope she doesn't feel as awful as I do."

     "I understand," Maya said as she laid her hand on her Sempai's shoulder.

     Ranma looked in the bathroom mirror at the redhead staring back at him.  He instantly grabbed his pigtail, as did she.  His was black, her's was red.

     "Not another one of those conversations!" he hung his head and lamented, "They're going to think I'm nuts, talking to myself."

     "Do you hear anything?" his mirror image asked, her hand to her ear.

     Ranma felt an odd need to mirror the gesture, he barely stopped himself, but he did listen.  He heard nothing, not even the beating of his own heart.

     "This is private," she assured him, "Just us."  She pointed from him to her.

     "So why are we talking again?" he asked, feeling especially weird talking to himself, yet not himself.

     "Just a few things bothering me," she said, smiling cutely at him.

     He shook his head violently.  I'm looking at myself, and thinking how cute I am, he thought, then announced, "That's sick!"

     "I know that," his reflection told him, smiling broadly, "I think you're really yummy too."

     Ranma blushed in spite of himself.  Recognizing his own tricks in the conversation.

     "You don't understand," his reflection said, like she was lecturing a particularly stupid schoolboy, "Do you?"

     "What?!" Ranma asked, "What Asuka and Rei are plotting?  Why Asuka keeps looking at Rei and smiling?  No, I don't understand."

     "Then you aren't thinking," Ranko said and paced within the mirror, "Asuka-chan's planning something, it's the idea of surprising Rei that's got her smiling.  You should have figured that out, I did."

     Ranma frowned at that.  "I figured she was planning something, but she never plans anything nice, and Shinji seems to be going along with it.  Helping her.  That's what I don't understand."

     "Me neither," Ranko admitted, with a shrug, "So I figured I'd talk about it."  Then she smiled broadly.  "And Nab-chan and Raccoon are going to be back soon, and boy are you nervous about that."

     "What do you mean?" Ranma accused, waving his finger at his reflection, who struggled not to wave her finger back.  "I'm not afraid of Nab-chan, I'm not afraid of Raccoon."

     Ranko leaned her cheek against the glass and sighed.  "What about the warmth pressed against you, that someone needed and wanted you?"

     Ranma raised a fist to give his reflection a black eye and himself seven years back luck, then lowered it.  "What would you know about being lonely.  You're beautiful, charming Ranko, everybody loves you, everybody wants you."  He stopped, stared at the ceiling.  "This is stupid!  I'm arguing with myself!"

     "And you don't think that's lonely?  Being just a piece of meat to be drooled on?  I can understand why Asuka-chan doesn't care about boys her own age.  Most of them are disgusting!" she shouted angrily.  When she calmed down, and Ranma quit shivering, she explained, "And I'm not you, you aren't me, and neither of us are all there is to Saotome Ranma.  So two parts of Ranma are arguing.  Do you think either one of us could do this and the other couldn't.  I'm as surprised as you are to be here.  But we got stuff in common, we've got differences, but until both of us work together, there won't be one Ranma."

     "Ranma's a guy!" he told her.

     "Ranma's an odd one now," Ranko corrected, "That means `he` can be a guy, or a girl, and `she` can be a guy or a girl.  Or a fire-breathing tadpole now."  She laughed.

     Ranma felt his head spinning.

     "He and she are there."  Ranko tapped Ranma's forehead before he could yank it back.  "Guy or girl is just the covering."  She cupped her breasts and released them before Ranma got too indignant.  "It's always a pretty covering, but it's only a covering.  I think Ranma, the real one, is learning to use Nyogtha's powers, that's why you and I can't control the transformation.  You always hated having water splash on you, you still can't control the change, and you hate that even more."

     "There's the `other` too," Ranma pointed out to avoid acknowledging that the lack of control bothered him, "What, we have to merge with it?"  That thought bothered him even more.

     "I think we have to let it have more say in what we do and are," Ranko said, "Frankly, I don't think it considers anything beyond fighting, 'pack', and kittens."

     Both Ranma and Ranko shuddered at the idea of becoming parents that young.  Especially with the `other` doing the mate-choosing.

     "So the other, what would it do?" Ranma asked.

     Ranko shrugged.  "Dunno, but we should think about it, as long as we're like this."  She pointed to him and herself.  "Split up, unconnected, something might take advantage."

     "We've beaten everything that came at us!" he replied hotly.

     "Like Raccoon's shooting, like the Meliorist in the Dreamlands, or Rei-chan in like     . anything?  Whatever gave us those weird dreams, didn't get beat by us!  It got beat by our friends: Shinji, Toji, the Dragon.  I agree, a straight face-to-face fight, except for Nyarlathotep     . crap, I can pronounce that without trying     . in a fight like that, we'll win.  You and I know there are other kinds of fighting, and some of them we're no good at - "

     "Yet," Ranma and Ranko told him and herself with surety.

     "If we lose, there may not be a 'yet'," Ranko reminded him of something he'd avoided thinking about.

     He sighed, nodded, then looked around, hoping nobody else could hear the conversation.  "What do we do?"

     "First," Ranko said quietly, "You need to get over how you feel about Nab-chan and Raccoon."

     "Get over - !?" he screamed.

     "Don't quit feeling it!" Ranko shouted at him as he turned his back to the mirror, "Gods, I'm dense sometimes!"  She ignored the fist threatening the silvered glass.

     "I'm not afraid of them!" Ranma shouted at her nose-to-nose, his stubbornness mirrored on her face.

     "I never said you were     . you just did!" Ranko shouted back in frustration, "What is with you?  Are you happier with Rei-chan and Asuka-chan who beat you up and yell at you, rather than somebody who treats you nice?"

     Ranma froze, staring at the mirror.  Ranko mirrored his expression and pose.  "That's it, isn't it?" Ranko asked, as if realizing the truth, then she got a smug expression, "The great invincible and sought-after Ranma Saotome, so desperate to be the center of attention, loves being worshiped     . " her tone softened, "Is afraid of people just being decent to him."

     "I got friends," Ranma said defensively.  Now I know why the others hate me teasing them, he thought, It's like having my skin sanded off.

     "Friends like Nab-chan and Raccoon?  You've got rivals and admirers, they aren't the same as friends," Ranko asked quietly, probing rather than teasing, only her quirked eyebrow indicated her feelings, "Let's ask why you are     . uncomfortable."

     "Raccoon's a guy!" Ranma insisted as he turned his back on the mirror, knowing he was hiding.  He glanced over his shoulder cautiously, and instantly turned away from the sight.

     "Is that all you think my interest in him is about?" Ranko sounded and looked more like a mad Asuka, "That all I want him for is to stick things in me?"

     Ranma could feel the sweat pouring down his back.  "I'm not afraid, I am deciding not to turn around."

     "I heard that," Ranko said coldly, a mirror of Nab-chan's tone, "You really don't get it, do you?  You really don't, why me and Raccoon bug you so much?"  Ranko laughed at him.

     "What's so funny!?" Ranma angrily whirled around to confront and demand.

     "You," Ranko said, pointing at him and laughing, "What's really got you mad is that I can beat him, and that 'Nobody beats Ranma Saotome', can't - even - come - close," Ranko teased.

     "Boy, does that tone bug me," Ranma muttered, then shouted, "How do you beat him!?"

     Ranko's anger seemed to vanish.  She looked at him with soft, doe eyes and smilingly held her arms wide open.  Ranma wanted to step up, into that embrace.  Then he shook himself loose of the spell.

     "You be weak?" Ranma said disdainfully, "That's     . " He searched for an insult that could cover his disgust with her and her trick.

     "More complicated," Ranko told him with an irritating smirk, "It isn't just weak, it can also be if he's weak.  You never give yourself permission to be weak, to just cuddle in somebody's arms, even when you're in a girl's body.  That's weak, fine, but you also never drew them into your arms to protect them, to make them feel safe.  When they're feeling weak."  Her voice softened, she let him see and hear how tired she was, "It's a martial artist's job to be ready to fight at anytime, in any conditions, right?"

     "Yeah, sure," Ranma said in confusion, "You know that."

     "Don't you ever get tired of it?  Always having to be on guard, always looking at everybody and having 'how are they going to attack' running through your head?"

     Ranma paused before answering.  The truth is     . I do, but it's a martial artist's job, he thought, then said, "It's the price I - we - pay."

     "Fine, you and I are used to it.  Don't you think the others would like to not have that burden for a time?  Even just a few moments of peace?  Don't you think they'd like to know they can rely on us to protect them, so they can relax a bit?"

     Ranma realized he'd never considered that.  "What's that got     . oh."  It all fell into place, as if he'd mastered a new technique.  One Ranko had mastered months ago.

     Ranko smiled.  "That's right, a few moment of feeling     . not safe, but saf-er, of knowing somebody is guarding their back.  Maybe Raccoon only keeps looking for mystical threats, maybe Rei and Asuka figure we'll point out whatever the problem is with a dumb question.  It also means, we have someone watching our back, we can relax just a bit.  Do you really think all that weird stuff that Raccoon and Asuka-chan described in Nerima would have happened if they, or even Shinji, was there?  I - don't - think - so.  They would have helped protect us, maybe from ourselves, but they would have done it.  Why do you think Nab-chan crawled into Rei-chan's lap and not yours?  Why was Rei-chan the one who could comfort Asuka-chan?  Because being thought of as soft and girly isn't something she's the least bit bothered by, I just bet she loves it.  She loves being thought of as a protector, rather than just a fighter," Ranko sternly told Ranma, "Has that made you less afraid of her?  Has that made you less happy she's on your side in a fight?  Instead of standing against you?"

     Ranma frowned, hating to admit it, "No."

     "So how would you be weakened?  How would you be dim - made smaller in power by giving them a few moments of quiet and safety?  Or by getting a few moments yourself?"

     Ranma opened his mouth to protest, then shut it and thought.

     Ranko continued to press, "How many sacrifice maneuvers do you know?  Maneuvers which make you weak, to put an enemy at a severe disadvantage, if they work."

     "Yeah, I know plenty," Ranma replied distractedly, silently hating where the conclusion led.

     "So what's the problem?"

     "It's not the same!" Ranma insisted, repeating the old argument, without believing it.

     "How is it different?" Ranko asked petulantly, "You risk yourself to gain an advantage, how is that different from letting you and them get closer?  If you find out they can't be trusted, you pull back.  If you can trust them, you're ahead of the game."

     "It isn't that simple," Ranma retorted loudly, then added softly, "There's a big difference."

     "Because you're afraid," Ranko said, throwing up her hands in disgust, "But not of anyone who will hurt you, just of people who might hurt you.  You'd rather have them afraid and uncertain about you, that's pathetic!"

     Ranma raised his fist, and saw the ceiling of his bedroom was not intimidated by him in the least.  "Terrific," he said to the empty room, "Another one of those dreams.  Why don't I just tell myself what I need to know."

     " 'Cause you wouldn't listen," he would have sworn he heard all the pilots chorus.

     He rolled over and buried his face in his pillow.

Then momentarily out of action, temporarily out of gas

     Why haven't you adopted those tactics here? Nabiki asked herself the same question she'd been asking since Ritsuko had tucked her in and left after kissing her forehead, Are you afraid of retribution? She touched her forehead. Or are you afraid of alienating them?  They'd remember slights and insults, they'd never trust you on anything again.  She didn't want to keep thinking this through, arguing with herself over and over again, she wanted to take the wonderful, warm, safe feeling she'd had when Ritsuko had held her, and wrap it around herself again and never let it fade.  She pulled the pillow from under her head and hugged it tightly against her chest.  Instead, I keep torturing myself.  Maybe I should try it, it would solve my worries, since Rei or Raccoon might see clear to 'eliminating the problem', Nabiki lied to herself, worse she knew she was lying and this time she couldn't just dismiss it all, No, it isn't any of that.  The part I always admired about Akane, how strong she was, or rather her willingness to use her strength.  Unlike Kasumi, who had almost no strength and no desire to use the strength she had.  Then when Ranma came     . did I do all the things I did because I was afraid.  No, that's not me.  What could he do to me?  But here     . they could hurt me, they could beat me at my own game.  Asuka, Raccoon, even Rei and Ritsuko have as sharp a tongue as mine.  Raccoon's a better conman.  Ritsuko could probably beat Ranma in a fight.  But all that isn't what scares me about them.  I can't believe it's - loneliness, I was never lonely in Nerima, only a few people didn't despise me, and the rest were either afraid of me, or of no consequence     . no consequence.  There I could be alone, I found out you can be more alone in a crowded room, than you can be in a forest.  It's all about hope.  I never had one bit of hope that those people would like me, would help me.  That's not the case here.  Is that what draws me?  Ranma is full of it     .

     "In more ways than one," Nabiki commented.  Asuka's the same.  The less said about our tactical commander the better, but even Gendo and Simson let 'the kids' go, control us with experience and advice, and otherwise give us free rein.  "Do they hope too?" she asked the room.  I never had any hopes in Nerima, plans, hopes and dreams were just things to be smashed and stolen by other people.  One scam after another.  Filling up all the empty time.  I knew if I could keep someone off balance long enough, I'd win and I could forget about the whole thing until the opportunity presented itself again.

     Nabiki rolled over in her bunk, concentrating on the washer on the floor, she emptied her mind and pushed on it with the stare.  Nothing happened. Even cynical 'I'm going to die instead of you' thinks about and believes in hope.  He's got none, but nurtures it in others.  "Emptiness, if he really understood Nerima, he would have taught me to batter thought and emotion away with a wall of plate steel and worked down," she mumbled, "I guess what really bothers me     . is they like me, my fellow pilots, my `mom`, all those soldiers.  Now, I'm afraid of that.  More afraid of keeping it, than of losing it, though that would hurt a lot too.  Nothing I did in Nerima really changed anything.  Kasumi stayed the same, my father stayed the same, nothing ever really reformed, no matter what I did to try and shake things up.  She touched her hip, remembering how it was broken.  Even that didn't really change anything.  Just methods, and realizing that anything I desperately, passionately wanted     . I could never have.  As soon as I saw something I wanted, it would be destroyed or someone `more deserving` would take it away or be given it.  I guess that's another reason I foisted Ranma off on lil' sis, because if I tried to take him     . she'd just have tried and succeeded in taking him away.  Give her the romantic involvement, and those two would stay at each others throats until the end of time.

     "Was I that selfish?  Knowing I couldn't have him, I made sure nobody would?  That little sis would never appreciate his qualities, or smooth over his plentiful rough edges, but be jealous anytime anyone got near `her` man?" she asked the emptiness around her and within her, then she raised her arm, looking intently at the marks there, "Wasn't that the most small, weak, and selfish thing I ever did?  Since I couldn't have him, I fixed it so no one else would make him happy, or even be allowed to try?  The one thing I ever did that lasted, and the most sadistic.  My legacy: two wounded cats in a sack, eternally tearing each other to pieces."

     She felt confusion from the elemental.  So, you understand why I did what I did, she realized, You just can't figure out why I'm dwelling on it, instead of fixing it.  The answer's easy: I don't like who I was.  I also know Asuka, Raccoon, Ritsuko and I guess, Gendo, all know who I really am, or was.  So why haven't they confronted me?  Why haven't they tossed me out?  Why?  Why?  Why?

     There was silence from the elemental, Nabiki hadn't expected words, or even thoughts.  The winds began, building to an oddly precise hurricane.  Nabiki found her bedding wrapped around her, squeezing her gently.  The winds ebbed and rose, tightening and loosening the wrapping.

     "Okay, okay," Nabiki chuckled at the odd `hug` from her ally and teacher, wondering why even an elemental from another plane understood the gentle approach, when so few in her former home had any idea.

August 13, 1947

     "Why now?" Nabiki asked tiredly as they headed towards the mess hall for breakfast, she hadn't slept well, thinking on all the same topics, until she fell into an exhausted sleep.  Or Coffee `zapped` me, she thought.  "Why are you willing to teach me now?  When you weren't before?"

     "Because you have the power now, and it frightens, you respect it.  It's obvious if you gain more power, you'd respect it as well."  He effortlessly continued the 'head-bagger-knee-knocker' gait as he walked.

     "Yes, Coffee and     . the Brothers," Nabiki admitted and turned away," I suppose it - it did scare me."

     Jeff stopped to wait for her.  "Not just that, you wouldn't simply unleash your new powers on the people who've hurt you all your life.  That's the real development."

     "It hardly seems fair," Nabiki said and shrugged, "Although I wouldn't normally care about fair.  The spell, the winds - " She walked to the entrance of the mess hall, where Jeff waited for her.

     "It's not that.  You have another, even greater power that frightens you even more, it can exceed any spell or wind that you or I could unleash.  It could hunt your targets down and destroy them utterly, and you give no evidence of using or abusing that power either."

     "What power is that?" she asked, mystified about what the power could be, "Not the EVA?"

     "Certainly not."  He opened the hatch and held it for her, displaying all the sailors and Marines collecting their trays, sitting to eat, and in the middle `their` table sat empty.  "Imagine you were sitting in the mess hall at lunch, and one of your foes appeared with a cry, that because of you 'I've seen Philadelphia and you must suffer horribly as you die.'  You could kill them with just two words.  Yet you'd fear to say those words, seek another, gentler, less vengeful way."

     "Really?  What are these words?" Nabiki asked, becoming uncomfortable as one-by-one, every man in the compartment stopped eating and was turning to look at her and Raccoon with growing concern.

     "Open fire."

     Nabiki shuddered as she summoned the image of the bane of her existence facing such a fusillade.  She saw in the faces, the curiosity and concern for her welfare.  All I'm doing is looking unhappy and worried, she thought, noting the number of men who sat and ate while armed, And these men, these soldiers, are ready to go kill something.  She shook her head to banish the image of grisly death, and what the Marines and sailors would do, and had done to protect her.  She smiled to them, waved.  "The 214 offered to fly over and teach us to shoot from a Corsair," she announced and was relieved when most returned to their meals.  "Yeah," she admitted quietly, suppressed a shudder as she entered the mess hall, "If I told them all that - was done to me, I can imagine what they'd do."

     "Power," Jeff said quietly, "Learning to use it, learning when to hold it back, and when to unleash it."

     Nabiki nodded as she picked up a tray.  He's right, back in Nerima it was just me being quicker of mind than the others.  Here I can think and plan, all to direct forces into a coordinated attack.  Very different.

Drop of a hat she's as willing as playful as a pussy cat

     Maya stood on the deck of the carrier.  They had a strong 'following' wind, so the apparent wind over the deck was minimal.  She ignored the occasional blasts of multiple .50's beneath her, and looked over the Marines and sailors who had assembled.  I wish they were still treating me as their `kid` sister, instead of the local expert, she thought of the intense interest they were directing at her.  I could understand that, if I was wearing my usual skirt, instead of the slacks I am wearing and if I were as beautiful as Sempai.  She steadied herself.  I'm more comfortable as a joke, or one of the other's sidekick, she thought as she looked at the men's faces, Not as the teacher.  It would be - almost - better if they were leering at me, instead of attentively listening.  She held up a rifle in one hand and a bazooka in the other.  "These for killing human enemies," she said over the noise of the wind, "Many enemies, bullet-immune are," she told them, "Too many of our new enemies not hurt with bullets, not hurt by rockets, not hurt by bayonets."

     She set the bazooka down, then thrust with the rifle butt.  Just like I was trained, she thought before saying, "That works better."  She let them mumble among themselves for a few moments.  "Fist and club, less immunity, but fist hit pile of dung, who volunteers?" she said as she raised her hand and looked around eagerly, and let them chuckle, knowing it was not her idiosyncratic English, but at the pictures she drew with her words.  She walked up to Sgt. Kilrain.  "I try on Sergeant," she said as she mimed a thrust, "I think I lose all my teeth on deck."  Better if they were laughing at me because I'm just a silly girl.  No wonder Nabiki's so nervous, she thought.

     She let the laughter roll over her.  Feels better, more natural, that they're laughing with me, or laughing at me, she thought as she returned to the bazooka, remembering to bend at the knees to set down the rifle, instead of at the waist.  It only reduced, not eliminated, the wolf-whistles.

     Maya felt herself blushing at the whistles and the comments that accompanied them.  She'd already worked out a counter with Nabiki, "You whistle at me," she shouted back as she lifted a bazooka, "You been at sea too long."

     Many of the men guffawed at that.  Maya held up the bazooka as she straightened up.  "Bazooka rocket, lance of fire kills tanks.  President name for it.  Ask Raccoon, I forget."  She let them chuckle again.  "Tank-killing lance of fire, useless is. Holds bazooka this way, now is a useful club.  However -"  She lifted a practice round.  "If punch works, this is how we really punch enemies.  Practice round is solid.  Warhead of concrete."  She loaded it as she'd been drilled.  "It is the punch we use.  Rocket Punch!" she shouted as she aimed over the side of the ship, making sure the backblast wouldn't hit anyone or anything, and pulled the trigger.

     The rocket streaked away, wobbling slightly under power.  The motor burned out and the rocket dropped into the sea with a tremendous splash.

     "Tactics very old, may seem strange.  Napoleon," she explained as she handed the bazooka to an armorer for reloading, "Many guns not good aiming results.  So line of men, all shoot as one.  Volley fire?" she couldn't keep the question from her voice.

     Why do I keep thinking Sempai and Raccoon set me up to embarrass me?  I have to get used to dealing with these people, and especially dealing with their words.  "Chief Armstead, he knows old drill," she said as she stepped to the end of the front line.

     The Chief stepped in front of the group.  He talked too fast for Maya to follow, but the men seemed to understand and accept what he said.  Eight men and Maya were selected and provided with bazooka's by the armorers.

     "Load!" the Chief called.

     Maya loaded the dummy round as she'd been drilled.  Ignoring the Chief's almost incomprehensible words of explanation.

     "Volley fire present!" the chief ordered and Maya stood and aimed her bazooka, along with the rest of the line.

     This thing is heavy, she thought, Heavier than before, how is that possible?

     She noted Armstead moving to the side.  The Chief won't stand in front of us, even loaded with dummies, just in case, she thought.

     "Volley Fire!" the chief ordered.

     Nine fingers pulled their triggers.

     Gendo noticed the posting on the main message board.  He took down the list, and decided to examine it thoroughly.  " 'Unwritten Rules of NERV'?" he read quietly, as he noted the message had all the proper notations that made it an official U.S. Navy transmission, and for public posting in Task Force 7N, NERV and it's associated elements.

     He saw Rei's neat handwriting and wondered why she hadn't mentioned her own addition to the list.  I never considered the written word as a way for her to more openly express herself.  She has so little patience for the spoken word, he considered her `rule` and added, not a correction, but a clarification.  He considered the list broadly.  A relatively harmless way to deal with tension, the proliferation of typewriters also gives complete anonymity to those who want it, he thought as he glanced at the signals officer, I suspect there are people `guarding` the list to keep it humorous, albeit informative, without it becoming obscene or trivial.  Gendo completed his amendment and returned the clipboard to the wall, wondering how it fit in with his `Diabolical Plan`.

     The signal's officer noted the neat handwriting, in English and Japanese.  '5.) Do not call Commander Ikari's office 'The Ninth Circle of Hell.'

'5a.) Unless you desire a personal interview to test your assertion.  Always willing to please.'

     "I think this place is getting to people," he said as he typed the amendment for the next housekeeping transmission.

     They sat on the floor among the chairs of the 'pilots' playroom'.  Nabiki stared at him.  I don't need a conversation block to tell me she's anxious to get started, he thought.  "You absorbed the powers of the Flying Polyps.  With Coffee's influence, you should be able to summon the winds they controlled."  Out of his satchel, he pulled out a sheet of notebook paper.

     "As Coffee will tell you, air and wind are powerful elements, when used correctly.  The powers you have, will have nothing to do with spellcasting.  This is just you setting your will to a task."

     "It is by will alone that I set the wind in motion, it is by the blood of Polyps that air acquires speed," Nabiki intoned with all apparent seriousness.

     Jeff noted the humorous conversation block and grimaced.  "Uh, yeah I guess," he said, "Anyway, I want you to summon a wind strong enough to -"

     Confetti fluttered down from the ceiling to rain down on both of them.  Jeff glanced at the tiny piece of paper left in his hand.  His usual aplomb was hard to maintain.  "Okay, power training and subtly teaching you to activate your abilities is done, let's talk about control."  He glanced at Nabiki.  She stared at the overhead and descending shreds of paper, and had a piece of confetti on her nose, and seemed content to let it remain there.  He waved a hand in front of her face.  "Are you still here?"

     "Th - that - wasn't supposed to happen?  Was it?" she stammered.

     "Eventually, yes," Jeff told her.  She's scared, he noted from the block of color that hovered over them.  "There's nothing wrong with that.  It was going to happen, as you defeated more enemies in combat.  It's happening to all of us."

     Nabiki stared at him with a horrified expression.

     He plucked the piece of paper off her nose and somberly continued, to calm her down, "Control is the key.  Do you control the power and personalities, or do they control you?  You've got people to help.  Rei and I are probably used to it, Asuka and Ranma are probably as disconcerted by it as you appeared to be.  So you have your choice of coaches and commiseraters."

     "You're okay with this?" she asked on the edge of hysteria.

     "You forget what I am," he said coolly, "I look and try to act human, but I'm not.  No, I'm not okay with this."  He shrugged.  "What's the alternative?  Let our enemies win?"

     "What if we become the enemy?" Nabiki asked, now more hopeless than hysterical.

     He resisted the urge to touch her, not knowing how she'd react.  Cold words, he thought, Colder, calmer is better.  "Rei or I will kill you in that event."

     "Gee, thanks loads," Nabiki commented dryly.

     Good, he thought, Back to sardonic.  "Hopefully, someone will do us the same favor should we lose control."

     Nabiki stared at him in horror.

     "I've said it before, why are you so shocked?" he asked incredulously.

     "I thought you were joking!  You know 'I'm Mister Doomed and Mysterious, aren't I cool?'"

     He smirked at that.  "Ha!  What changed your mind?" he asked with genuine curiosity.

     "I realized if I killed you I'd     . " She stared at her clasped hands in her lap.  "Eat you.  Not your body, but all the parts that make you you     . that's how you beat Sharon     . " She stared at him.  "Isn't it?  You `ate` her?"

     "Yes," he admitted, nodding, "I thought I could do it carefully, hold her together     . put her somewhere safe, then restore her to a living body."  He sighed, shook his head.  I won't breakdown, he thought, I did what I could.  He centered himself and continued.  It doesn't work like that, all my effort, all my skill, she still crumbled like old paper.  Soon there was nothing left except bits.  Just like Chaugnar Faugh."

     He was glad Nabiki was looking around the room trying to fix on something.  He needed to put those emotions aside.  Or I'll lose her too, he reminded himself.

     "That's what we've become.  That's what you volunteered for," he told her carefully.

     "I knew this was too good to be true."  Nabiki grimaced.  "What do we do when it's over?  When we've won?" she asked, frowning in disgust.

     "Depending on when it's over, we either become the avatars of various cosmic principles, or we would just go out into space.  Staying on Earth would be too dangerous.  There's also something I've been trying to ferret out, maybe we won't have these worries."

     "That sounds good," Nabiki said eagerly.  Her smile and conversation block showed it wasn't feigned.

     "We won't have them because we'll all be dead.  I've got independent confirmation of what Shinji was talking about.  I don't know if that will be a good or bad thing."  He shrugged as if it didn't matter.  Hopefully, she's still got a trace of 'If you save Nihon and his August Majesty, then today is a good day to die', he thought, Because dying is about the best deal we can make.  Maybe a Japanese wouldn't find oblivion as terrifying as I did     . Until I realized the alternatives.

     Nabiki nodded.

     "Let's get back to control," he told her, shifting to a less highly-charged subject, "Let's see if you can generate a small wind, enough to move this paper across the floor -"  A mass of flaming confetti slammed into the bulkhead.  "- and keep it in one piece.  Let's try again."  Then he muttered, "I'm glad this is cheap paper.  Maybe I should have brought plate steel."

     Maya walked up to the `pilots' playroom`.  The smoke wafting off her was not entirely due to her mood.  The Marine guards tensed at her expression, but she paid them no mind.  She yanked the list off the wall, completely missing the frightened looks of the ensign who had been following her.  She glanced back over her shoulder, and he decided anywhere else on the ship was a better place to be.  She concentrated on writing in English, muttering angrily in Japanese to burn off some of her frustration.  "Whoever was so clever with the smoke bombs     . the Captain and the Admiral     . and many of the senior chiefs will want to -" she paused, and spotted Jeff approaching, she used the ancient form, "Removing the husk, what is the proper word?"

     "Flaying," Jeff told her as he read her entry over her shoulder.  Switching to Japanese, he said, "Although colloquially."

     He returned to English, "Skinning alive."

     She said quietly, "Skin alive, yes, that's what they say."  She hung up the clipboard and stalked off.

     She heard Jeff reading the entry aloud.  " 'Do not substitute smoke grenades for practice grenades, just to see if they notice.'  Oh, lovely."

     "I think the lady's seriously pissed," she heard one of the Marines tell Jeff.

     She heard a pen scratching as Jeff replied, " 'The difference between a monster immune to bullets and resistant to bullets can be determined with a short burst of .50 API, if it is merely unhappy and not seriously wounded, it's immune.  Further testing is unnecessary.'  Tell the joker that swimming back to the West Coast might be a good career choice."

     She smirked at that as she headed towards the `girls'` shower.

     Kaji entered the commander's office.  Hard to tell which of us is in a fouler mood, he thought as he rubbed a hand over his stubble.  He lounged against a chair near the Commander's desk

     "How did you allow this?" Ikari asked, staring over his steepled fingers.

     "They were fully vetted," Kaji countered, "The vetting process was compromised, we are re-vetting all the important personnel.  Doctor Akagi and Analyst Ibuki are out of reach."

     "The military will take care of that," Ikari said, "I want to know why the immediate defenses were not available.  The idea that such a lapse was allowed to occur - "

     "Afraid of losing control of the kids?" he asked flippantly.

     "Considering our reserves destroyed a number of major mystical enemies, with hand weapons," Ikari lectured at him, "I think fear of a loss of control would be a serious threat."

     More than you do, Kaji mentally completed the Commander's thought, Except I have a control you don't.  "Our investigation has turned up no other SEELE sleeper cells.  The investigation of the school kids has turned up something, while they think we're looking elsewhere, one of their number, Asuka's nemesis, has disappeared, her parents also were found dead.  Some of our mystical types say they were sacrificed.  Maybe she killed them to escape, or we are meant to think she did."

     "Understood, is she any longer a threat?" Ikari asked, continuing to stare at Kaji over his fingers and glasses.

     Kaji was almost immune.  "I doubt she's a threat.  My major concern is that the idea we can't control the area surrounding the pilots seems to be gaining ground among our enemies.  The Navy will be bringing in a large number of troops.  These troops could be used for security and would be beyond our control sheerly by their numbers.  Whether they were Navy or not."

     "That doesn't concern us     . yet," Ikari said, he seemed to concentrate on something Kaji couldn't see, "How do we deal with our internal security concerns.  If SEELE can strike at the pilots, they can strike at more sensitive areas."

     "I have people I can trust looking into that," Kaji assured him, hoping the man would believe him.

     "If they could get in, they could cause trouble we could not compensate for, or conceal."  He returned his full attention to Kaji.

     "I understand."

     "I thought you would be concerned about Miss Langley."

     Kaji snorted.  "As a pilot, yes, but she has more than enough people looking after her."  The last thing I need is her clinging to me while I try to do my job, he thought, And you think I'm being callous to her, or not taking an opportunity to control her better.  I have other, more reliable tools.  "The Mija operations continue unabated.  The books you've been after are on their way, and the special shipment is aboard the carrier.  Although I suspect that young Davis's powder may be a safer and more stable alternative."

     "Wouldn't a pilot make themselves immune to such a chemical?" Ikari asked with a smile.

     Probably not, Kaji thought, Just to reassure us he's 'on our side'.  "Maybe, maybe not," Kaji answered.  Is that respect I hear Ikari? Kaji wondered, Something to look into.  Like where you've been disappearing to on your `special project`, the one the Admiral set on you.  "I think SEELE did not send the attackers, I'd call it a misfire, someone sent them without the high command officially sending the order.  The entire committee could deny what happened.  To prevent anything from coming back at them."

     "Assuming the committee placed that team here in the first place," Ikari corrected.

     True, the committee and their spokesmen aren't the same, Kaji thought and considered the implications.

     "The entirety of the situation concerns me.  Is this a diversion from something else?"  Ikari gestured at the Sephiroth, indicating its many hidden meanings.

     "I haven't found anything," Kaji said, "But I'll look into the chance that someone     . or something, is trying to distract us from its real objective.  I'll also check to make sure that they haven't already succeeded."  He made a list of sources, and what would get back to the Committee through him.

     Ikari nodded, dismissing him.

     As Kaji walked down the corridor, he hid his own smile.  He'll never see the truth until it's right on top of him, Kaji thought, Then it will be too late.

Recommended at the price, insatiable an appetite

     I am not in the mood, Nabiki thought as she dragged herself to her cabin, For anything except falling asleep.

     Nabiki walked into her cabin.

     "Good day, Tendo Nabiki," Belldandy said as she rose from the room's only chair.

     She's been waiting for me, Nabiki thought but kept her smile on her face, I thought I'd never see you again.  God really does hate me.  "Miss Belldandy," she said, trying to ignore the alarm signals Coffee was sending.

     Belldandy bowed her head.  "Your     . lessons, in magic," Belldandy spoke to Nabiki, but could tell the Nabiki didn't want to listen.

     "Yes."  What is she so nervous about? Nabiki asked herself, More than the change in our status would create.  A lot more, so what's going on?  She's forgotten she's supposed to be my `master`.

     "I told you that you would find the means to defend your friends.  There will be     . problems in the future," Belldandy could feel the taint on the girl, the crawling uncleanness that polluted her cells, seemed to defile the very air she breathed.

     "Yes."  Nabiki kept smiling while she waited for the other shoe to drop.  You aren't comfortable with me now, are you? she thought, Now that I'm one of the `enemy`?  That's a laugh, some of them are better allies than you've been.  "When were you going to abandon me?" Nabiki politely asked with a predator's smile, "Or was the lack of warning about the Brothers of Chaugnar Faugh part of a `warning` that I should toe-the-line - or cease to be human?"

     Belldandy could feel the girl's rage.  In part, I agree with it, Belldandy admitted to herself, But how to tell her the truth?  "You fought one of them yourself?"

     "I killed it, others had nearly killed it," Nabiki said coldly, keeping her true feelings hidden, "I also fought several dozen Flying Polyps, but I wasn't alone."  Not a lie, all true, just not complete.  You don't have a problem doing that yourself, so you can't hold it against me, Nabiki thought as she smiled, Does she know about Coffee?  I'm certainly not going to tell her.

     "Yes.  There     . " Belldandy stammered as she hung her head, "There was something you need to know     . about you and your fellow pilots."  I do not wish to tell you this, Belldandy thought, It will only hurt you.

     "That four of them are to be sacrificed to open the locks on the Tablet of Destiny?" Nabiki asked innocently, and enjoyed Belldandy's horrified expression.  "Don't worry, I think we've already got three of the four volunteers.  Rei of course, Asuka, and Raccoon," she told Belldandy, who squirmed at Nabiki's calm tone.

     "Bess, I -" the voice who intruded was particularly unwelcome.

     Both to me and to Miss Tendo, Belldandy thought as Nabiki stared at her fellow pilot.

     Speak of the Devil, Nabiki thought worriedly as Raccoon entered her cabin.  "I can     . explain," Nabiki stammered, her smile fading and reforming like a strobe flash.

     "I bet you can.  But it doesn't involve me."  `Raccoon` walked past her, smiling knowingly all the time.

     Now I feel sorry for Belldandy, Nabiki thought, I would still love for her to wipe that smirk off his face, but I doubt that will happen.

     Belldandy was stunned, the change in attitude was almost physical.  I'd prefer facing Hild herself, Belldandy thought as she scrambled out of her chair and took a step back, then another, then glanced at the mirror she'd appeared through, now cut off from her by the boy's approach.

     "One goddess against two minor Great Old Ones?  We won't hurt you     . much.  Your misconceptions     . I can guarantee they'll get a very rough handling," he said in a friendly tone, "Has the mirror been helpful?"  He stared at her as she pressed herself against the bulkhead to get away from him.

     "Oh, you forgot the one you carry with you," he chided as he took her chin, "Very careless of you."  He took on an expression of sympathy.  Belldandy heard Nabiki gasp as he turned Belldandy's head this way and that.  "Is this your patron?" Jeff asked, facing Nabiki and pointing at Belldandy.

     Belldandy looked revolted and terrified.

     "Yes," Nabiki told him when Belldandy didn't react to the question.  I'm not ashamed of it.  I paid for my mistake and I know what else I'll have to pay, she thought, So he knows.  That's another secret I don't have to keep.  She looked over the pair and wondered if Belldandy even knew she was in a fight, one she was losing.

     He frowned at Nabiki.  "A rookie mistake, but one that shouldn't hurt you too badly."  He returned to his investigation, "No apparent damage.  I'm glad you were a lot more careful putting your head back on, after Sharon ripped it right off your shoulders.  Or is transition through that mirror somehow uncomfortable or disconcerting, it was not my aim for my gift to cause you trouble."

     Unintentionally, Nabiki thought wryly, You seem to enjoy this cruel game though.  Why is that?

     "Of course, being unkillable makes you stupid," he said as he released Belldandy's chin and stepped away.

     Belldandy stifled the urge to wipe away the taint of his touch.  Of course I forgot the mirror, she thought, No there's nothing wrong, except you gave it to me.  So it has to be a trap, doesn't it.  Or is that the trap, that it is perfectly safe and reliable, but I'll never rely on it.

     "I'd be amazed if you haven't revealed the connections you have with the other pilots," he continued.

     His tone and expression friendly, Nabiki thought, His intention clearly as sharp as a knife.  "What 'other connections'?" Nabiki asked in a friendly tone.  One that in Nerima promised pain and anguish, she thought, What else have you kept from me?  For my own good of course!  She tried to remain calm.  I thought I left all the real double-dealers and false friends in Nerima.

     Belldandy stared at Davis, who'd completely lost the playful aspects of Raccoon.  Please don't reveal it.  I came to reconcile.  With both of you.  She glanced hopefully at Nabiki, but saw only the pain at the perceived betrayal.  There were things you couldn't have understood and dealt with, Belldandy wanted to shout, Now you can, that's why I'm here, to tell you     . more     .  of the truth.

     "Not my place to say," Davis said, continuing to pin Belldandy with his gaze, "I, however, have made my positions clear, to the interested parties."

     Belldandy looked at him, the casual, well-mannered malevolence.  Then at Nabiki, whose new alienness disturbed her, and whose new iron-confidence made her even more alien.

     "Have you ever seen an angel?" he asked Nabiki casually.

     Belldandy couldn't believe he'd ask such a question.  Nabiki just stared unbelieving at Belldandy and pointed.  "She doesn't seem like the angels you described," Nabiki said.

     " 'The angels'     . you thought I was talking about creatures like her?" he asked, chuckled, "Ah, I see the problem.  You haven't seen one then."

     "This?" he asked with mocking hilarity as he approached Belldandy, "This is just an interface, like a mouse or a keyboard.  These call themselves 'Goddesses', angels are rather different.  That's why it has to look sweet and attractive, so it doesn't scare people.  No, when I talk about angels, I was talking about the heart of the machine."

     He smiled as he approached Belldandy.  Belldandy wove a defense around herself.  Don't!  Please don't! she thought as he reached through what she thought was her best defense, The wrongness, he's embraced it fully!

     "Then a lesson, a simple spell, practically a meditation," he said as he parted her shield like so many cobwebs, "Even a non-mage can do it."  And he reached inside Belldandy.

     Belldandy couldn't even scream as he reached into her chest, and pulled.

     Belldandy gasped in surprise as she felt his hand close on something within her.  She expected violence and blood, but the touch was alarmingly gentle and bone-achingly humanThat shouldn't be possible! she wanted to shout her confusion to the All-Father, One of them one moment, and fully human the next.  It isn't possible.  The tug was also gentle, no blood or viscera accompanied his hand as he carefully drew it out, but with it, came Holy Bell.  She watched as Holy Bell extended her wings and looked around.  She could feel Holy Bell's unease with the two nascent Great Old Ones.

     Nabiki took a worried step back as the huge, winged figure appeared out of Belldandy.

     Belldandy saw Davis step back in alarm, his surety that he was doing the right thing had vanished.  Belldandy looked at the real terror in their faces, and fell to the deck, she felt like weeping.  Don't fear me, she wanted to console the two terrified children facing her in her true glory, I won't hurt you.  Holy Bell won't hurt you!

     "That's why when you meet a real angel, the first thing they have to tell you is 'Be not afraid'," Jeff told Nabiki, not even trying to conceal his apprehension.

     You don't exactly seem immune either, Nabiki thought as she backed away from the beautiful face staring at her and Jeff, its confusion became disapproval, then outright disgust.  I want to crawl away and hide, she thought, I know I could never get mercy or acceptance from that.  No wonder he hates them.  He     . or I could try our best, but all we'd get would be disgust and hatred at what we are.  Where is God's love?  Is that what we really lost, all of us, when we became Children?

     "When I talked about angels, that's what I was talking about," Jeff continued in a frightened tone, also backing away, "Not that weepy pickle jar on the deck, what you've been dealing with."

     Bell touched her face and her hand came away wet.  I hadn't realized I was weeping, she thought.

     "That's an angel," Jeff said, "So Pickles," he addressed Belldandy, "Are you going to tell your catspaw the truth, or should I?"

     Belldandy could only cover her face and kneel there weeping.

     Nabiki took a step forward, then backed up immediately as the winged creature glared at her.  I'd pay good money to learn that stare, Nabiki thought as she found herself standing behind Jeff, I'd be able to bully anyone.

     "It's a simulation especially for humans.  The pose, the gestures and the tears, they are all designed to evoke feelings of sympathy in us.  In other contexts, other emotions can be cultivated," he warned, "All programmed, like a player piano, she isn't even aware that she's subconsciously manipulating us.  It just feels `right` to her."

     "That isn't true!" Belldandy said, "I wouldn't do that!"  It can't be true! she thought.

     Nabiki agreed.  How about some proof, she thought, Okay, that winged one scares the piss out of me, but that's just one item.

     "Haven't you ever wondered why everyone reacts strongly to you?" Jeff asked.

     "People are basically nice," Belldandy replied desperately, "They want to be - "

     "And the ones who hate your guts on sight?  What about them?" Jeff asked sharply, and subsequently backed into and practically over Nabiki, when Holy Bell glared at his tone.

     Okay it's got you spooked too, Nabiki thought, What was this talk about 'Don't call up what you can't put down'?  If she hates us, why aren't we both smears on the bulkheads, or charred spots on the deck?

     They are just misguided, Belldandy thought, Like Skuld and Urd, they really love - but not everyone loves everyone else as they should, as they could if they wished.  I'm not forcing them to like me, I'm not I'm not.  Keiichi loves me, Keiichi loves me.  She nearly made it a prayer.

     "The ones they call Kami-Samas are the real angels, vast and ancient and powerful.  They've even developed the most fascinating and complex mythology around their symbiosis, how angel seeds need them.  Actually things like Pickles are just containers who walk around containing and socializing the angel, until it's fully developed.  The angels, the one that Pickles is supporting, are what I was talking about.  They use `goddesses` like Pickles here as interfaces."

     "Like keyboards and monitors?" Nabiki asked in disbelief, then realized she was babbling, he'd told her that already.

     "Yes, precisely, also like training wheels.  It lets an angel more effectively work in a human setting, until it learns how on its own.  Humans are confusing things."

     "That's certainly one way to put it," Nabiki said as she inched forward, keeping her hands where the glowering angel could see them, then carefully hauled Belldandy to her feet.

     "I never meant to hurt you," Belldandy told her, tried to control herself and Holy Bell.  She couldn't bring herself to look at Nabiki.

     "You, I'm not worried about," Nabiki said as she backed away, never taking her eyes off Holy Bell, "Her, she'd kill me if I sneezed."  Nabiki saw Jeff's smirk and wanted to wipe it off his face.  Only any violence would give that angel an instant excuse, Nabiki thought, And they'd be picking us out of the paint     . if the ship was even still here.  She deliberately stood behind him, so it would kill him first.

     "This one is called Verthandi, or Necessity.  That entity has been around for over a millennium, she's just the latest incarnation.  They get worn out, they get recycled.  Angels that have learned all they can from their pickle jar go on to greater things, and like any good jar, it gets emptied out, cleaned and reused.  Take the old one apart, put a new one together out of most of the parts, the angel gets the parts they can't reuse and that helps them deal with humanity.  The fact that Pickles might get cleaned out doesn't change the fact that the jar is less important than the contents.  And once the contents doesn't need the jar anymore, they have no use for them."

     "I thought angels were perfect and immortal!" Nabiki exclaimed.

     "I've never heard any of this," Belldandy exclaimed, confusion overwhelming her, "You heard this from the angels you worked with?" she asked desperately.  When Jeff nodded, her thoughts spiraled further down.  It can't be true, but he wouldn't be telling her if he'd only heard it from the demons, and angels can't lie     . what does this mean?  Why has no one told me these things?

     "Only God is perfect, the way you - both - mean.  The memories and experiences of Pickles here will continue in her angel.  But they aren't immortal either, they can be killed.  If you can't die, you can't grow and learn.  Pickles and those like her can't die, but they can be recycled.  Bits and pieces of Pickles have probably been used a thousand times before, other parts are brand new.  Angels have a rigid perfection, which is why they need time with critters like Pickles here, to broaden their perfection to allow it to encompass the vagaries of human imperfections.  The ones I dealt with were more perfect and much less human, just cogs in a celestial machine, and pleased as punch to be just that.  Finely honed to do a precise job perfectly, but completely out of their depth when something didn't meet their template.  One thing they never understood was why any of us humans expected extra out of our service.  Just being in the reflected Glory of God, and serving His needs, should have been enough."

     "It wasn't?" Bell asked curiously.  It should have been more than enough     . but I too have questioned divine wisdom, she thought.

     "No," Jeff told her, like an amused teacher, "Humans always want more.  'The World is not enough,' and we also thought, foolishly so, that they might be grateful for our help to them, and be willing to help us in return.  But it never happened.  The demons were equally contemptuous of us, but for entirely different reasons.  So all we got from both sides was disdain."  He turned back to Nabiki.  "The angels I refer to are those things, not Pickles."

     "You've said that.  Several times," she pointed out tartly, "You're so scared you're blathering."  Which is something I've never seen before, something that terrifies you, she thought, And I hope it's the last time I see it.  "You got anything else disturbing to report," Nabiki asked sardonically, "I don't think either of us will sleep for a week.  She'll be too busy crying and I'll be too scared to turn the lights off for fear of her angel tearing me to pieces in the night."

     "Oh.  The Children were to be like that."  He pointed at Belldandy.  "Vessels for the memories of the Great Old Ones.  Except you know that what's put in, permeates the container until one cannot be separated from the other.  Hence Pickle's disgust with us.  We're flawed versions of what you are, only you obviously didn't know what you were for.  Truly amazing."

     Nabiki punched him, hard.  As he lay on the floor, she shouted, "Do you know what sarcasm is?!"

     "Please don't fight," Belldandy offered.

     "You say -" Nabiki retorted, then spotted Holy Bell's expression, "Oh boy."  Nabiki backed away until she ran into the bulkhead.

     Jeff continued from the floor.  "You should remember, Pickles.  You are what?  Twenty to thirty years old?  But Verthandi has existed for over a thousand years.  So your identity is a function, each was subtly different, but you aren't the first, just one of a chain.  You should investigate what and who you're history is.  There may be some landmines you need to be aware of," he told her in a concerned tone as Belldandy stood over him.

     Belldandy felt the terrible dichotomy of trying to soothe and comfort this pair of troubled souls, While Holy Bell wants to destroy them, she thought miserably, the twin looks of mortal dread they directed at her, hurt worse than the words and revelations had, What am I supposed to do?  She felt like weeping, but steeled herself. I will not give into to his claims I am manipulating them, she thought sternly, But I do want Keiichi so!

     "I would suggest you avoid looking into the purpose of the Great Old Ones," Jeff said with a vicious smile, "You won't like what you find."

     "The Great Old Ones are an abomination!" Belldandy told him, nearly letting Holy Bell vent her growing frustration.

     "See what she thinks of you," Jeff turned to Nabiki and commented sadly, "They abandoned Sharon.  Gwendolen was sickened by what she was dealing with.  She was punished."  He turned back to Belldandy.  "You are walking a fine line Pickles, yet you keep assuming your interpretation is correct.  I'll tell you this, someone way above your pay grade is playing a very interesting and complicated game.  Remember that you are not a queen, but a pawn like the rest of us, and you'll find the going easier.  And don't cry too much.  Four of us will end up staked out and sacrificed, you might even get to watch us suffer and die, so you'll get full recompense for any indignities you suffer at our hands.  I figure me, Rei and Asuka will get the chop, and probably Shinji, since he won't want 'Ayanami-san' to go alone.  That leaves your charge and Ranma to survive after."  He smiled and threw his arms wide.  "So be of good cheer.  All your hemipterans will put their necks on the block of their own free will, and you can dance on our graves."

     Bell lowered her head.  That isn't what I want, she thought, but knew she wouldn't be believed.

     "Keep a stiff upper lip, Nabiki, it is all happening according to plan."  He tipped his hat as he stood, and left.

     Nabiki frowned at her.  "I'm not inviting both of you to the same parties any more," Nabiki said, "You depress all the other guests."

     Bell drew Holy Bell back within her.

     "So," Nabiki said distractedly, "What are you going to give me for my research on your behalf?" Nabiki asked with a smile.

     Belldandy stared at her in confusion.

     "Do you really expect that people will just give you that kind of quality information?" Nabiki asked innocently, "I'll also bet, you don't have the investigational skills.  I've learned that what he doesn't say can cover a whole variety of sins, but when he states something he believes, it is the truth and it is generally a fact.  So I'd take it as gospel, if I were you.  I suspect I can get the information you can't."  Nabiki helped her to her feet.  "I'm just wondering what the information would be worth to you?"

     "Huh?" Bell stared in shock at the smiling girl.  But she is smiling, Bell thought.

     On the hanger deck, one of the Marines walked close to Unit 04.  The open eyes tracked his approach across the hanger deck.  The Unit felt a danger to - not itself, but something that was part of it, an important part.  It closed its eyes as the Marine walked closer.

     "Hey," the Marine called across the empty hanger deck, "Are the eyes supposed to glow at any time?"

     Unit 04 ignored him, trying to determine where the threat was, and why it couldn't reconcile the feeling a huge part of itself was missing, yet it could feel its body was intact and undamaged.

     Davis backed into the room, Holy Bell forcing him back.

     "Please!"  Belldandy knelt, then bowed to them, "I didn't come to fight or argue     . I     . came to beg."

     Nabiki looked at the angel making a graceful bow in stark contrast with the head down posture of her `goddess`.

     "Beg for what?" Jeff asked as contemptuously as she'd ever heard from him.

     He really hates them, Nabiki thought, Doesn't he?  And he doesn't care anymore what happens to him, or he'd acknowledge the danger he's in.

     "My     . a girl     . .  Please, not for me, a friend, a human suffers.  She has been enchanted, a spell I cannot break," Belldandy sobbed, "Terrible nightmares of an evil elephant-Buddha."

     "The Curse of Chaugnar Faugh," Nabiki and Jeff said at the same time.  Nabiki looked at him and he cocked his head.

     "Your witness," Nabiki said with a touch of despair that matched Belldandy's, "I'm new at being Chaugnar Faugh."

     "Of course we'll help her," Jeff said with surprising sympathy, as he gently lifted the girl up, seeming to ignore the angel glaring at him, "We only have to discuss price."

     Nabiki stared at him.  I thought I was mercenary.  "Jeff - "

     "No, if it doesn't cost, it isn't respected."  He held up a hand to forestall her protest.  "My price is: you will tell your paramour about your sterility."

     "I can't!  Please!"  Belldandy raised her head, tears streaming down her face.

     Jeff wasn't going to budge.  "Tendo-san, name your price."

     Something I can't do, that will take her some effort, Nabiki thought, then rolled up her sleeves.  "The people, entities, who care about Coffee will know he is safe and well, and if I am killed," Nabiki said as she showed the mark, "He will be returned home safely."

     Belldandy nodded numbly.

     "Then you will tell us what has happened, all the details, no matter how insignificant they seem to you," Jeff demanded, not unkindly.

     "Several days ago, she was afflicted with a bad dream," Belldandy said, then sobbed, "I couldn't stop it, I tried and tried."

     Rather than slap her, as Nabiki expected, he handed the goddess a pocket-handkerchief.  She wiped her eyes.

     Bell was smart to bring up that the one we're helping is a human, Nabiki thought, That changed his attitude immediately.

     "When I couldn't dispel the dream, I looked at it."

     "And since I and Unit 04 are Chaugnar Faugh, and that Miss Tendo and Unit 04 are all the Brothers of Chaugnar Faugh, you came to us.  Reasonable.  I take it that you want us to break the spell, dispel the nightmares and make everything right," he asked in a jocular tone.

     "Yes," Bell said, all full of hope.

     "There is, of course, our price," he added, in the same tone.

     And Bell is reminded of it, Nabiki thought of Belldandy's shocked expression.

     "I thought - " Bell stammered.

     "For the spell to have this much bite, and you unable to affect it, it must be tied to you in some way," he explained with a smile, "A spell is just a spell, any mage should be able to dis-spell the girl.  So, to break the spell will take an extraordinary effort on our part, and a change in your relationship on yours.  Happily, my price will take care of both."

     Belldandy's horror increased, she mutely shook her head as Jeff continued to explain.

     Okay, your behavior has a reason, Nabiki thought, I still think you're being needlessly cruel.  Has she done anything to you to deserve this?  Or am I reacting sympathetically to her because she's designed to bring out that response?  I hate not knowing myself!

     "Since she's probably his sister, or close cousin, the news will disrupt the connection between you two enough to make unraveling the spell simplicity itself," Jeff explained to Nabiki.

     Belldandy had covered her face with her hands, silently sobbing into them.

     "I think you'll find it will save you heartache later," Nabiki said soothingly, only the angel's presence kept her from approaching the girl.  "Secrets are never as terrible as you think they are.  Take the advice of an expert on that," she added sardonically, "It will save trouble later on."

     Belldandy looked up at her, tears still running down her cheeks.  The goddess nodded her agreement.

     So, the right pressure and you fold, Nabiki thought, So much for being incorruptible.  Nabiki gave Jeff an angry glance.  He frowned, as if to say 'Fine, spoil my fun and ruin my reputation.'  Nabiki would have slapped him, then she glanced at the angel and realized how dangerous any display of violence might be at this moment.  I got lucky - once, she reminded herself.

     Jeff broke the deadlock.  "Let's go.  The ready room should be our best bet."

     Belldandy looked up in confusion matching Nabiki's.

     "It's her responsibility to pay us.  We do the job because it's right, she knows she owes us.  She's likely to weasel out of it, but we do the job," Jeff explained, "That's part of being a mage, occasionally we get stiffed.  Goddesses and angels almost always find a `higher purpose` to get out of all debts incurred to mere mortals.  There's nothing we can do about it, but it's always a good bargaining chip later when you bring up they lied to you."

     Belldandy stared at them as they left.

     "So what do we do?" Nabiki asked.

     "We let her clear out of your room, then we go to our bunks and go into dreams.  Once there, we deal with the problem. Unpaid, of course."

Then again incidentally if you're that way inclined

     "I'm not comfortable doing this," Spineless whined as he looked around Wondergirl's apartment.

     Asuka stared at him, trying to control her temper.  I need him to be part of this, she forcefully reminded herself, I can't just tell him to scuttle down a hole.  "That's why we are here, it is part of the overall plan.  If you're afraid Wondergirl will find us here, don't worry.  I've got Horseface keeping her busy."

     "It's just that - ?"

     " 'Just that' what?" Asuka demanded, confronting him face-to-face, "We discussed this, you agreed, why all the whining now?"

     "She isn't going to like this," Spineless offered, staring at the floor.

     Asuka stepped back and put her hands on her hips.  "And when did you become such an expert?  It's never been done!  So how can you know anything about how she'd react?"

     "I don't like it," Spineless muttered, almost too low to hear.

     Except because of what I'm becoming, Asuka realized, I heard him clearly.  "Then you can hide behind Raccoon and Ice Princess!" she told him, "You can blame the whole thing on me, if that's what it takes.  Now - are you going to keep your promise and help me?  Or are you just going to stand there and whine?"

     "I'll help," Spineless sulked.

     "Good, because there's got to be a clue in here somewhere."  Asuka returned to her search with a smile at what would happen in a few days.

     Ranma stood near the edge of a large, brush-enclosed field on the NERV campus.

     Rei faced him.  Her seemingly placid expression concealing the fire within.  "I do not see the point."

     Ranma had expected her defiance.  "You can run real fast."

     "Compared to you," Rei replied.

     Expected that too.  Why is it people don't think you're competitive? Ranma wondered, Why I picked you first.  If I can convince you, I can convince the others.  "That means you're a lot faster than anyone else.  So there are certain moves to take advantage of your speed," Ranma told her, grinned his cockiest grin and waited.  I'm not going to try to argue you into position, I'm going to try to draw you in, he thought.

     "Is this applicable to combat in the EVA?" Rei asked, without any outward appearance of her desperate interest.

     "It should be," he said, "You're going to have to master the moves out of the EVA, before you test it in the EVA."  Please agree, please agree, he mentally chanted while he tried to give nothing away, so Rei would convince herself.

     "Demonstrate," Rei told him.

     "Okay.  Hold out your hand" he replied as he extended his arm and walked towards her and brushed her hand with his.  "Not much impact," he said, then ran past.

     And found himself staring at the sky with the wind knocked out of him.  "Ow."

     "The principle is sound," she told him as she grabbed him by his collar and lifted him off the ground.  She carefully set him on his feet but didn't let go, until she saw he could stand on his own.

     "Okay, yeah," he said, trying to work out the kinks, and how she'd flattened him so easily.  Hand?  AT field?  Both?  Something else? he wondered.  "The trick will be to run past something and hit it with the edge of your hand, or for an EVA, a prog-knife.  But if there are several opponents, you'll have to move to hit several of them."

     "Maneuver, a combat slalom."

     "Yeah.  Then we can deal with running into something at a dead run."

     "Moving by something, and moving through something," Rei said.

     "Yeah," Ranma said.  She's got it, and she wants more, he thought, I've just got to keep her interested.

     "A course similar to cavalry training, alternating targets.  Mein Grosse Feldmarschall can help set up such a course."

     Of course you think she'll have to rescue me, he thought as he stepped towards the treeline, and through it when Rei followed him, But I already thought of that.  "You mean like that?" Ranma asked as he pointed to the course he'd already set up.  And you follow.  If I offered something to help the EVA's mission, you'd follow to the ends of the Earth, Ranma thought, As long as you believed.  We aren't so different, is that why you hate me so much?  "It's grabbing, not hitting, but we can work on that part later.  You need to run - "

     Rei had taken off, at nearly her best speed.

     Geez, she's fast, and a show off, like all the pilots, he thought as she dashed through the course, grabbing about a third of the targets.  Small stones set atop the poles.  She swung wide and charged in from another direction, getting more.  But not a third, he thought and watched as she ran through the course six times before she got all the targets.

     Rei walked up to Ranma, no sign of her exertion, and dumped the pile of stones at his feet.  "With a proper container I could have completed the task more swiftly."

     Blandly offered, yet every bit a challenge to fight, he thought, grinned at her, You want a fight, I'll give you one.  "Not bad," he loaded the word with contempt, "But if you want to do better - "  He knelt down and sorted the stones into three piles, faster than Rei could follow.  "But getting them all with one pass."  He stared up at her.  "That will be the job to do," he said, "The proper job."  He saw the slight narrowing of her eyes.  You do have some pride in what you do, don't you? he thought and hurried on.  Before she whips out an EVA-scale mallet, and pounds me, he thought, Where'd I get that image?  "You'll need to move as fast as you can.  That will let you hit someone a dozen or more times, or hit people once as you run past them at full speed."  He stood, brushing off his hands.

     "Begin," Rei told him.

     "Okay.  You need to get the pebble from my hand."  He held out his hand with one of the stones in it.  "It doesn't make sense, but you'll be a lot faster extending your hand if you are trying to pull it back."

     "You are correct."

     "Let's try, if you can run without falling or tripping over things, you have to move that fast."

     "Yes."  Rei's hand darted forward, but Ranma closed his hand before she could reach it.

     And no hitting my hand to bounce it loose, he thought, then Rei closed one hand like a vice on his wrist, while her other hand darted forward to pry his fingers open.  "That's not what I meant," he gasped as she easily overpowered his strength.

     Shinji walked with Ayanami-san.  Occasionally, their hands would brush, and both would glance at the other and blush.  They climbed to a high hill to look out over the city as the sunset, turned the entire city fiery.

     "They are our responsibility," Ayanami-san said as she looked out over the city.

     "I know," Shinji said, "We'll save all we can     . but what are we to do - if some don't want to be saved?"

     "Allow them to die," Ayanami-san said, "We cannot allow a few to hold all the rest hostage."

     Shinji sighed.  "I wish we wouldn't have to make those decisions," he said.

     "Then allow them to decide on their own," Ayanami-san counseled, continuing to stare at the fiery-looking city, "None will be forced."

     "You make it sound easy," Shinji said.

     Ayanami-san paused considered, "Stating a problem simply, does not give the simple solution."  She glanced at him.

     "What do we do?" Shinji asked.

     "Watch the sunset," Ayanami-san told him as she turned back towards it.

     He smiled took her hand and watched the sunset.

     Ranma dragged himself into the apartment without a word, headed straight for his room and flopped onto his bed.  I don't want to move, I don't want to speak, even my hair is tired, he thought exhaustedly.  What he least wanted to confront, walked in sunnily.

     "So, Saotome," Asuka stood next to his bed and happily chirped, "How did it work?"

     Asuka could only sound so happy when she's making me miserable, Ranma thought, dropping his head back onto the pillow, Better get it over with.  "You were right, make her dig for it, say it will help the mission, and she'll never let go," he admitted painfully, "You really hate me, don't you?"

     "Just trying to help," Asuka said cheerfully, as she covered him with a blanket.  She even covered his head, shutting out the painful light and sound, for which he was oddly grateful.  "I'll call you when dinner's ready.  I'm making something special tonight, been planning it all week."

     Ranma didn't know what she had planned.  Don't ask, and it will remain edible, he reminded himself, Why do cute, smiling girls make such weird food?  At least if I don't know what it is, I'll enjoy it.  That's gotta be worth something.  He let himself drift off to sleep, wondering who he'd offended, to make his life the way it was.

     Rei stared at the pot of boiling water, patiently waiting in her kitchen for the pot to return again to a full, rolling boil.  The ball bearings inside occasionally clanked or rattled as the bubbles moved them around.

     Once the Fourth explained the possible reasons why chestnuts are utilized, and not some other object, it becomes possible to understand the true procedure required: high, but not above boiling temperature, no edges to cool unequally.  Simulating the practice technique is far easier than extracting the information from the Fourth was, Rei thought as she watched, I doubt that his reticence in revealing the secrets was due to his active defense of the mysteries.  Is it possible he does not understand why he performs the actions that he does?  That he cannot comprehend what he does so effortlessly?  Is that why his inability to teach others required Mein Grosse Feldmarschall's direct intervention?  How can an action be mastered, yet not understood?

     At the appropriate moment, she poured the water into another pot and the bearings into a colander in the sink.  She grabbed the balls out of the colander and dropped them, one at a time, as fast as she could, back into the other pot.  "I believe he really did not understand the subtleties," she said as she ran cold water over her hand and glanced at the pot, she sang a Song of Healing to eliminate the damage the technique had done to her hand.

     Perhaps he is skilled, but not knowledgeable.  Is it possible that he understands not with his mind, but only with his muscles? she considered, Learning in such a situation would be difficult     . which explains why Roku-kun adopted the methods he did to teach Ranko what she needed to learn.  Teaching another who thinks would be even moreso, she considered, Troubling.

     The water was beginning to boil.  Rei set the empty pot beside the boiling one and waited.

     The girl was weeping, Nabiki knew that without being able to see or hear her.  Considering what we're walking through, Nabiki thought, There's nothing to be ashamed of about that.  I'd just like to know why I'm so certain of it, with no sight or sound to corroborate.  The pair had come through a nightmare forest of strange and tortured cries, twisted trees, and glimpses of things unseen.  They'd heard endless calls of suffering from all directions.  And far away, something truly massive crept through the brush, paralleling them.  First on one side, then on the other.  Nabiki had found herself staying right next to Jeff.

     "It doesn't have the powerful effect on us, because this is her nightmare," Jeff explained as he stoically ignored most of it, "We don't know who Keiichi is, so it has less import than it should."

     Speak for yourself! Nabiki thought as she looked around, trying to get a good look at a particular predator who'd been trailing them, It's not because we're unfeeling, inhuman monsters, Nabiki added as she jumped, and Jeff didn't, at a particularly agonized cry, We're just ignorant.

     Nabiki paused as Jeff did, trying to take in the sights and through the wood, get a location for the girl who was the source of all this.  "Like going after Hikari," she said to lighten the mood.  Jeff merely nodded.  Unless we are unfeeling, inhuman monsters now, she thought of her guide and traveling companion, Or just you are, this place makes me scared sick.

     "Like the injured we walked through to get to the hospital.  We can do something about it when we reach the source and center," Jeff reassured her as he held the cobweb-laden tree limbs aside for her to pass.  When he released them, there was a meaty sound and a cry of pain.  Nabiki whirled to examine their trail.  There was blood on the tree limbs, but no sign of what had been hit.

     That's the last time I turn around and look back! she thought of her grinning companion.  "This is all a game to you, isn't it?"

     "It's a task, that's different," he replied, still grinning, "All this is designed to frighten someone else to death, but it cannot inflict real damage on us, unless we let it.  You know that."

     "I guess I can't just turn off my reactions to it, like someone else can," Nabiki replied angrily, "I can't ignore that there's a hurt person in here!"

     "Yet you can ignore it long enough to yell at me for not breaking down and crying with every step?" he folded his arms and replied coldly, "I want to press on and help, you want to stand here and feel.  Which one of us is being callous and self-centered?"

     Nabiki frowned, gestured at the forest.  "Lead on."  I hate it when he's right! she thought as she fell in behind him, keeping her gaze locked forward, I still think these trees look like someone's been torturing them.  She shivered at the thought that followed, And I know why, I know all about this spell, although Jeff never taught it to me, and Coffee doesn't know it either.  I do!  She walked, knowing what they would find at the center of the dream, A girl, terrified of forests, or trees, and willing to `offer` herself, body and soul, as sacrifice to Chaugnar Faugn.  To a carnivorous alien god, that has only one meaning.  To a pair of teen-aged humans     . she shuddered as she let the thought die away, I'm not interested in a slave, or a picnic, or a     . comfort girl, so what do we do?

     "This would have been brought to us eventually," Jeff said, mercifully breaking Nabiki out of her own thoughts, "But the girl would have been more traumatized, and possibly beyond even our help.  So in a way, your patron Pickles did us a favor, but we don't have to tell it that."

     "Are you always so double-dealing?" Nabiki asked.  Calling the kettle black, she included herself.

     "Only with people and entities who are equally untrustworthy.  Like I said, things like Pickles are more reflections of a greater reality.  So they often have no choice, because they have little to no freewill as humans understand the concept.  Do you want to deal     . no, you deal with the girl.  I'll deal with the spellcaster."

     "Why do I -?" Nabiki found herself arguing with the empty air, "And why do you keep doing that?"  How do you keep doing that? Nabiki wondered.  She glanced over to the girl hugging herself tightly and staring at Nabiki in utter terror.

     The girl steeled herself to look up at Nabiki.  "I     . am ready     . to receive my fate."

     Nabiki's quip died on her lips as the girl exposed her throat and pulled her robe wide open.  She glanced around as if for her departed `ally`, Bastard, she cursed silently, Throw me into the deepest end and expect me to swim.  She glanced at the girl and quickly looked away.  I know what she's offering is her heart for me to tear out and eat, but it could imply other things too, Nabiki thought quickly, She is ready to accept her `fate`, that could mean anything: death, slavery, anything I could even conceive of.  She shook her head, remembering the talk with Ritsuko and all her soul-searching after it.  I'm not my sisters, I'm not my father, she thought, glancing down at the marks on her arm, If someone offers me their heart, it's going to be because they want me too.

     I think I may just kill my good friend and colleague when I can find him, she thought as she settled her raging thoughts and knelt next to the girl.  She began pulling the girl's robe back together, I'm no comforter.  I'm supposed to take ruthless advantage of the helpless in these situations.  What am I supposed to do?

     Jeff walked through the wall to reach his target.  The woman immediately sat up in her futon and screamed.  That's very impressive, Jeff thought as he stood and watched with an amused expression, It might even be loud enough to be heard in the Waking World, but no one is going to come to your `rescue`.

     When the girl finally realized her screams were neither summoning nearby help, nor impressing the intruder, she ceased.  "I'll call the Police!" she announced haughtily, but the conversation block told her real feeling was dread.

     Jeff glanced around the room.  Mostly junk, but a few truly fine pieces.  That they haven't been sold indicates they are heirlooms, keepsakes, or both, he thought as he regarded the place and the girl, So she used to have money, and is now just hanging on.  I've let her stew long enough.  "And I'll tell the Police, that you've been torturing that girl," he replied coldly, pressing his aura of superiority to the utmost, "I may even tell NERV about someone using hostile magic based on the Great Old Ones."  He chuckled in contempt.  "You aren't the wronged person here."

     "I didn't mean to get her, I was aiming at someone else.  She just got in the way."

     He saw her certainty had been consumed by fear.  The plot thickens, he thought as he asked, "Why would you use that spell on anybody?"

     "She's not human!" the girl said with venom, "She can't be, she can't possibly be!"

     I think I know who was the intended target.  I wonder what Pickles will think when she learns she was the target     . who am I kidding?  She probably already knows, that's the only reason she didn't bump it up to higher authorities, she thinks it's her fault and her responsibility that girl got zapped.  "So you crossed Belldandy, and she somehow diverted the spell onto someone else?  Did it ever occur to you that that was the most likely outcome of a spell cast on her?  That she might be more capable than you?" Jeff asked while cataloging the girl's expressions, Of course not I'm the most powerful and beautiful in my coven/club, and my family inherited all our money instead of working for it, like peasants do.  So of course my spell will be flawless.

     Openly, he chuckled at the girl's stricken expression.  "I'll take your silence as a 'no'."

     "I didn't     . I didn't mean to     . I just     . she's always so superior!  Smiling as if she's got the kamis' ears!  And we're just dirt under her fingernails!"

     Can't stand the competition? he wondered, Much as I agree with you, you still have to be punished. He pulled the wall aside, folding it against the corner like a curtain.  He ignored the girl's gasp at the impossibility, and the scene he'd revealed.  A forest, like the one in Belldandy's friend had inflicted on herself.  "You will give up that spell.  It's clear it didn't work anyway."

     "But he promised it would!"

     " 'He', describe him," Jeff ordered, letting her see the anger he'd been hiding.

     Her description was perfect for the avatar of Nyarlathotep who'd troubled then months ago.

     "He's a liar and a fraud.  He wanted you to hurt an innocent, not strike at an enemy," he explained carefully, "The pain you inflicted on Belldandy was due to another's suffering.  You got your wish, now live with the consequences of getting your revenge cheap."

     "But what am I supposed to do?!"

     "Endure," Jeff told her as reasonably as he could, "We are     . aware.  I'll say no more."  He walked into the forest, letting the girl deal with the various sounds and glimpses of     . things, that had been the real terror within the other girl's nightmare.  The Unknown! he thought, You fill in the blanks with your own fears.

Perfume came naturally from Paris, for cars she couldn't care less

     Gendo inspected the craftswomen at their task.  He'd already approved their work so far.  So, the Admiral thinks he's so clever, Gendo thought with a smile, This will put that idea to rest.  The pilots won't know what to do, other than accept it.  I can't wait to see their reaction, and the others'.

     He smiled slightly at the thought of the pilots receiving his little gifts, and the terrible embarrassment it would rain on Washington, the Pentagon and even the American military.  All of whom thought they'd considered and controlled everything about him, NERV and Japan.  They'll never be able to look at - 'Ole Stoneface' - quite the same way again.  He examined one he'd recently added to his list, one for Maya.  Patience, he counseled himself as he nodded to the woman, indicating the strange object was exactly as he'd wanted, SEELE will get wind of this too late.  If they don't have Dr. Akagi's new data     . no, they'd never allow me to do this.  They will remain ignorant, and I will not make the connection for them.  None of them, not their strawmen, nor the actual committee, would believe I was capable of such a thing.

     He allowed himself a slight chuckle, which brought smiles to the women's faces.  They knew what they were making, and for whom they were making them.  Most would have done it for nothing, he thought as he turned and left them to their work, Such is the strength of sentiments some have towards the pilots.

     Kaji withdrew into the shadows.  I saw it, he thought, his mind ablaze with the image, But he couldn't be doing this!  It's impossible!  It's insane     . or I am!  He briefly considered who'd he report this too.  Anyone I wanted to, provided I wanted to be shot, imprisoned, or sent on a long `relaxing` vacation until my sanity returned, he thought as he glanced down at the workshop and the women gleefully chattering about their task.  No one would believe this.  Why is he doing it?  There has to be a purpose, it can't be the obvious one.  The Committee knows he has something unexpected planned     . but this?  Does Admiral Simson know about this?  Does Doctor Akagi?  Does Rei?

     Kaji shuddered at the possibilities, and kept wondering if he were missing something obvious.  If Gendo had truly fooled everyone so effectively for so long.

August 14, 1947

     Nabiki considered what damage she could inflict on her dear `friend`, for getting her into this mess.  How about concentrating on getting out of this first? she reminded herself.

     "Why should anyone suffer?" Megumi asked, a faint glimmer of anger that Nabiki wanted to use to rekindle the girl's spirit.

     But I'm no philosopher or theologian.  I never believed in God or gods or religion, now that I've got no choice, I'd rather not know.  "Because -"

     "Suffering makes us wise and noble, makes us ascend to a higher plane?  Because when we can endure, we march towards Nirvana," the girl growled, "Why?  If the gods made this world.  Why'd they make it this way!?  Does suffering amuse the gods?  Do we have to become immune to it before we can admitted to their ranks?  So we can callously play with other mortals because the gods can't develop their own games of cruelty?!  Torturing them on one hand and holding out some reward for not complaining on the other?!  Is that all it means to be Enlightened?!"

     So much for carefully nurturing a flame.  Those questions     . you better ask Belldandy, Nabiki thought as she struggled with her own experiences, her own doubts about the universe and her place in it, And worse, I've got a better understanding of the world and the Greater powers in it.  'No, the gods don't enjoy suffering, they don't care about humans, except as fuel and food', that would really help.  The Great Old Ones know the universe doesn't care, but some of them care for their people or else we couldn't have made a deal with one.  God, are you or anyone else listening?!  I wish I had an answer, for her or for me.

     "So what's all this good for?  Entertainment value?  A better place somewhere else?  If we have to stay in the same place and worship the being who inflicted all of this on us, or ignore it and be annihilated, then what's the point?"

     "What happened to you was -"

     "I'm not talking about torment inflicted by one human on another, we aren't all-wise and perfect, some people enjoy seeing others grovel.  Some enjoy seeing others afraid of them."

     Nabiki winced at that, then hoped the girl hadn't noticed.  I can't figure out if she wants answers, or comfort or both or     . at least she hasn't lashed out - like I did, Nabiki thought as she searched herself for words that had never worked on her, and she knew would never work for Megumi.

     "Gods know the universe is a harsh place," came a voice, deep and vaguely sibilant.  A bald man wearing a cloak approached the circle where the two girls sat.  "A friend asked for me."  He gave Nabiki a slight nod.  "I came to help."

     Nabiki was getting all kinds of danger signals from the man. But I'm the one who     . oh, crap, I got a `wish` from one of the beings we made a deal with.  A bribe to leave him out of the war.  Anything I could want, and instead of gold, stock, a string of increasingly rich husbands, what did I wish for     .   Nabiki shook her head.  Belldandy really is going to kill me, she thought, If Raccoon's laughter doesn't do it first.

     Megumi either didn't notice, or didn't care about the aura of danger surrounding the new arrival.  She did indicate he should sit with them.  "So the universe is harsh?  Why?" Megumi demanded in a tone that should have provoked a different reaction than hissing laughter from the now-seated newcomer.

     "Gods, who want followers not just food, don't want just followers, they want adults capable of standing on their own, without gods, yet who still look to god or gods as an important part of their life.  They want good role models and strong characters.  There is only one way to create that, suffering, in yourself and others.  You - "

     "So you're saying it's all a test?!"

     Nabiki wanted to counsel the girl to take a more civil tone, but the man seemed to enjoy her fire.  Of course, she's becoming exactly the kind of person he was talking about.  Strong enough to stand without him, to challenge the gods themselves, yet desperately wanting the relationship, Nabiki realized, getting a slight raised, hairless eyebrow from the man, Oh, great, now I get it too.

     "I'm saying it is inherent in the system.  The Buddhists say 'endure the unendurable', the Christians say 'fix the irreparable', the rewards are oblivion and paradise.  In both cases, everything you've been practicing all your life become utterly unnecessary with the reward.  Nothing to endure and nothing to fix," he continued softly, reasonably, "Some religions talk of a fall from paradise.  That all innocence was lost, to purchase the right to be free, to take the consequences for your actions, even animals have that.  But understanding and taking responsibility for your actions?  That's too godlike, that's for sentient beings alone.  Sentient beings make deals, give up part of their freedom for other benefits.  That's civilization."  He looked straight at Nabiki.  "The first deal is 'Don't kill me.'"

     "What did I give up to be     . who did I offend to be hurt this way?" Megumi asked softly.  Nabiki moved up, putting her arms around the sobbing girl.

     "Who was hurt was immaterial, there was no plan to your injury, no cosmic scorekeeper.  The blow fell on you, but the test here is not yours Morisato Megumi, but her's."  He pointed at Nabiki.  "Your rescue was her task, and she had to surrender more than you could ever dream of to accomplish it: a guarantee of love that would never fail, wealth beyond imagining, even immortality.  You ask why there is suffering?  Because of what it brings out in others.  You have suffered, you survived, you will grow much stronger once the wounds heal.  She traded a chance for all the frippery of her age, for wisdom.  Was it worth the price, are you worth the price?  She seemed to think so."

     Megumi turned to look Nabiki in the face.  "For     . me?" she asked, wiping away her tears.

     Nabiki looked at the girl's tear-streaked face, and saw precisely the same look she'd seen on the sailors and Marines 'Brown Bess will get us out of this mess, ole' Bess will save us'.  She hoped she had used her wish wisely.  "I'm no saint, I wanted many of the same answers.  I guess part of 'wisdom' is learning to listen to what people have been yelling at you for years."  She smiled ruefully.

     Megumi give a hiccup that might have been a chuckle.  Nabiki glanced over at the man, and realized that considering who and what he was, and that he showed no signs of leaving, she could ask all her questions, and she was finally in a frame of mind to actually listen carefully to the answers.

     "So why haven't you struck at your - our enemies directly?  You have the power, yet you work through us."

     The man smiled at Nabiki's more respectful tone.  "Because we aren't powerful enough, in the right way, to destroy such a creature."  He glanced at Megumi.  "The one who used your suffering to harm another more deeply."  His unblinking gaze returned to Nabiki.  "If you were willing to plunge this entire universe into endlessly dissolving chaos, it could be done, I could even teach you both how.  Otherwise, this requires an epee and splendid timing, not a carelessly-wielded mallet," he added the last with a knowing smile.  Nabiki hoped Megumi ignored her grimace.

     "So we're stuck with the job," Nabiki lamented, beating down her anger and fear.

     "You will be more able to do it than we will, and you'll exchange your friends and loved ones far more carefully than we would," the man explained.

     "Why would you help us?" Megumi asked respectfully, catching Nabiki's tone as a warning, "How could you give her all those things?  Are you a kami?"

     "Not as you mean it, a god wouldn't be able to interact with humans.  The real powers are too terrifying, even the angelic ones," the man said, a hissing laugh, "There are many powers, most don't care, you are too small to notice.  Others regard you as a valuable tool, like a jeweler you despise, yet he is the only one who can make the perfect wedding ring for you."

     Megumi blushed at that, beginning to react more normally.

     "And you?" Nabiki asked.

     The creature actually took on a faraway look.  "Imagine your beloved father, seeking eternally after some goal.  Perfection in form and function, yet beyond the grasp of him, his loyal children, his cleverest servants," the man explained, "Then a group comes along     . and they give it away with their every breath."  He turned and looked at Nabiki and Megumi.  "Such creatures, perhaps they should be protected, think of the wonders they would produce."

     Nabiki woke suddenly with a gasp.  She instantly fell to shudders at the `wisdom` she had gained.  She'd been glad that Megumi had been there when she broke down.  The weight of all the revelations, and what they meant personally to Nabiki and her future, had dragged the pilot to the brink of despair.

     She felt strong arms around her sobbing form, as Megumi had held her.  She was glad Ritsuko was there, as she'd been glad of Megumi's company, and their tolerance at her crying her eyes out without immediate explanation.

     Gendo walked through the corridors of NERV.  So, my `Diabolical Plan` continues, he thought, I also noted that Admiral Simson and General Tomlinson had their heads together about an appropriate military response.  It seems I've discovered a weakness that can be exploited.  He smiled as he thought of the meeting he'd had reports about, with the general officers, their staffs, the adjutant generals for all the services, as well as academicians and historians, all seeking a solution, and finding none.  He smiled at the chaos his simple idea had caused, and Simson's effort that he not be guilty of what he'd accused Gendo of.

     Gendo noticed the additions to the posting on the main message board.  "More 'Unwritten Rules of NERV'?" he read quietly.  I believe they should appreciate an answer to one of their unvoiced questions, he thought.

     He took down the clipboard the message was posted on and displaced the deputy signals officer from his desk while he added another notation on the lines provided.  He immediately signed it.  "Please transmit this to the Bunker Hill as part of the regular housekeeping traffic."

     "Wait," Simson was bustling up, took the clipboard, read it, and undersigned Gendo's addition, then added one of his own.  "I learned my lesson.  Miss Ayanami has some - disturbing insights," Simson explained, Gendo nodded for him to continue, "I had the most fascinating dream     . after I died."

     Gendo raised an eyebrow, all the smile he allowed himself in `public`.

     "Don't ask," Simson explained, "There are things man was not meant to know."

     Gendo nodded, determined to ask Rei later.

     The deputy signals officer accepted the clipboard and looked at the entries.  '10.) You are not authorized to die, without specific written orders to the contrary.

Gendo Ikari, Commander NERV, R. Simson V.ADM., CINC Task Force 7N

11.) Yes, the paint scheme does have a specific meaning, if you don't know, you aren't authorized to know.'

     The deputy signals officer set the clipboard down, added the newly written sheets to the pages he'd been typing to send to the crypto-room, and vowed never to ask how the conversation and the rules fit together.  "I've got enough to worry about."

     Ranma spotted Rei walking through the base's corridors, one of her arms was covered in what Ranma initially thought was blood.  Then he realized it was two-toned, and while blood, it wasn't human blood.  "Shouldn't you wash that off?" Ranma asked, retreated a step from Rei's glare.  He relaxed as it softened, the hatred still there, just not directed at him.

     "You are combat, accompany me     . please."

     Ranma fell in behind her.  He got nervous when she entered a men's bathroom.  Ranma steeled himself and followed.  He watched Rei scan the room carefully before she began washing off her arm.  The fluid stayed two separate colors as it mixed and flowed down the drain.  Rei interrupted his glancing around the room by affixing him with her stare.  When she had his full attention she asked, "Are you carrying a gun or your sword?"

     Her intensity worried him.  "Uh, no, not here.  It's our base, right?" he smiled, tried to chuckle, but it died in his throat as Rei looked at her half-cleansed arm, then stared at him, and looked back to the basin.

     "Start," she told him.  She finished washing, and marched out with a demeanor that said she'd go through any obstacles.  Ranma followed.

     She didn't mean I should go get it right now, did she? he wondered as he followed.

     When Rei arrived at the communications desk, she took down the clipboard and made a notation.

     Ranma's English skills weren't up to reading the English version, but Rei had presumably written the same message in English and Japanese.

     " Number 12: 'All pilots and civilian technical staff will be armed at all times, no exceptions, especially when going to the head'," Rei told him, "Number 13, 'Japanese are not triskaidekaphobic, they aren't too happy about the number 4.'"

     "Is that why you went into a boy's bathroom?" Ranma asked.


     Ranma decided to ask something else, "What does Tris - a phobic mean?"

     Ranko still hated and flinched at the sound of gunfire.  Rei-chan's odd .45 in her hands, and Rei-chan's arms around her made it doubly strange.

     It's almost     . intimate, she thought of the other girl's arms enclosing her, Rei-chan being very gentle with her, for once.  She'd twisted his arm, literally, to get him to come.  Why'd I suddenly become Ranko body and mind when Rei-chan started dragging me here? Ranko wondered idly, I still think guns are stupid, too easy to depend on and too easy to take away.

     "Are you more afraid of the gun," Rei-chan asked as she had asked Shinji, adjusting Ranko's posture, "Or me?"  A smile ghosted across Rei-chan's face as Ranko smirked at the implied challenge.

     "I still don't like them, they aren't honorable weapons," Ranko said shyly.

     "No weapon is honorable," Rei-chan said soothingly, "Unless it prevents conflict.  For a weapon to be used, it has failed its first purpose, to defend.  This will have the greater chance to deter, most would not understand a sword or your art.  Did not Sun Tzu suggest that war is a mental as well as a physical discipline?"

     Yeah, something like that," Ranko replied, not understanding why Rei-chan was discussing and persuading, instead of simply ordering.

     "Just hold the pistol, do not touch the trigger, just feel the weight.  You aim from here, to here, to the target," Rei-chan repeated the instructions Sammi had given Ranma as she'd slid the clip in the GI .45 during her first instruction.  "Understand the purpose of the weapon.  As you can throw, so this throws.  The noise and flash are as much part of the weapon as the edge and point of a sword.  Was not a battle won by shooting a fan from an opposing General's hand?"  Rei-chan's hands covered Ranko's.

     "Yes."  Ranko settled herself, aiming as Rei-chan had instructed, feeling the other girl's body surrounding her's.

     "Remember, just squeeze the trigger," Rei-chan counseled.

     Ranko flinched as the trigger clicked.  She had expected the bullet to miss the target completely, not refuse to even come out of the barrel.

     She could feel Rei-chan smiling at her.  "You closed your eyes before you fired.  Without the explosion even occurring.  The fear is all in your expectations, it does not exist.  Just squeeze the trigger and relax.  It will not harm you.  The noise is unpleasant, but it is part of what is, learn to use it.  Think of ways to use it against your foes."

     "I can do this," Ranko assured her.  She sighted again, slowly pulled the trigger.  She flinched again as it fired, but she hit the target, nowhere inside the rings, but the outer edge of the paper.


     She fired, hitting the corner of the paper, near where the first shot had hit.  She smiled weakly, she set the pistol down.  I feel like I practiced for an hour, she thought, Not fired two shots.  I'm too tense.

     Rei-chan patted her shoulder and helped her to a chair.  "If I may?"  She emptied her revolver, Ranko saw it had only 2 live shells, the others seemed to be empty cartridges. "I am trained.  Only point it at something you intend to destroy."  She raised her pistol, aiming it carefully at the target Ranko had winged twice.  She emptied the pistol at the target by fanning it, making the shots almost a continuous sound.  As the wire shuttle returned the target from the 15-meter distance, she continued, "That is an application of your technique to a slow-firing weapon.  Think not of what you believe of the weapon.  Accept you know little of it, and you must learn its secrets and techniques."

     Ranko nodded.  Rei-chan emptied the pistol again, turned her back so Ranko couldn't see her load it.

     "We will continue," she said as she stood where she could watch Ranko's eyes as she fired.

     Ranko stepped into the stall and took aim.  Remembering an old technique, she tightened up every muscle.  She relaxed them all and fired.

     "Better," Rei-chan said.

     "But I missed," Ranko complained.

     "You are not yet ready to compete with Roku-kun, nor Mein Grosse Feldmarschall, nor I.  That is not the point.  Not flinching is," Rei-chan said quietly, then a little of her usual anger with Ranma/Ranko bubbled up, "Continue."

     Ranko screwed herself up tight, and relaxed as she pulled the trigger.  On a spent round.

     "Again," Rei-chan said.

     I think this is going to be a long day, Ranko thought as she sighted, tightened everything up, relaxed and fired.

To avoid complications, she never kept the same address

August 15, 1947

     The `convoy` had formed, Ranma thought as he glanced around the `force`: Mirei-chan and her two gorillas, with her grandfather following on an old sidecar motorcycle.  Yumiwashi had dragged Toji along to accompany Hikari on her walk with Asuka-chan.  Rei-chan had helped Shinji to complete his morning chores early, so he could stay with the group after the morning practice.  The guards formed up, with Juri driving the jeep with the pack radio.  Both she and Mirei-chan's grandfather knew a smart enemy would take them out first, so they hung back a bit.

     Ranma grumbled a bit at the stern admonishment that he not walk on the fences.

     "The technique has shown some progress," Rei-chan told him, ending his planned protest.

     "It's not like you're gonna master it instantly," Ranma replied.

     "My reasoning dictates otherwise.  If you mastered it, it must be easy," Rei-chan said and stared at him while he fumed.

     Then he got it.  I've been training them how to insult people, he thought.  "Somehow I bet you didn't need training to insult people, you just needed permission."

     She put her hands on her cheeks as Asuka-chan had.  "The world must be ending early."

     Ranma fumed at the swiftly hidden giggles from the others.  "I'm gonna tell Ranko on you!" he mock sniveled at Rei, "You meanie."

     "A blue meanie, what an idea for a silly song," Yumiwashi said, only to be hauled back by Hikari and Mirei-chan.

     "When tigers play, your part can only be lunch," Mirei-chan warned.

     Ranma frowned and shuddered at anyone referring to him as a cat of any kind.  He tried to change the subject as he walked along looking for any treacherous ground to practice his balance on, "Don't you have a big game on Tuesday?"

     "Yeah, it was supposed to be Saturday," Mirei-chan piped up, "But with Yuki-sempai disappearing, they moved it back a couple days."

     "Why didn't they move it to Wednesday?" Toji asked, "Then Raccoon and Tendo-san could watch it."  He glanced around at the curious faces.  "Kensuke told me the carrier's coming in on the 20th."  He relaxed as they did.

     "Here I thought somehow he'd found a crystal ball in his backyard," Asuka-chan said, looked at Ranma balancing on a fallen branch, "I don't see why you have to show off."

     "I'm not showing off," Ranma countered, "I'm practicing."

     "Then you need a higher level of difficulty," Asuka-chan said as she tossed her backpack to Ranma, and motioned for the others to add theirs to his burden.

     "HA!" Ranma exulted as he balanced the unwieldy collection on his head and took his hands away, "Caught all of them without dropping or breaking anything!"

     "Let's just see if you can carry them all the way to school without dropping or breaking anything," Asuka -chan added, "You haven't got the patience for the long haul, especially if it is boring."

     "If that's all the challenge you got, then give up!  I can do anything you can imagine."

     "English homework," Hikari said.

     "Chewing with your mouth closed," Shinji added.

     "Now that's not fair Spineless," Asuka-chan admonished sweetly, "He doesn't chew, he just swallows."

     Ranma ignored that as he continued balancing the ungainly burden, as it shifted with each step.  He almost missed Sammi's angry glance at Asuka-chan for turning him into an eager pack mule.  I don't care why she did it, he thought, It's still good practice, that's all I care about.

     Asuka ignored Sammi's frown, noting some of the kids who were paralleling their course.  They're going to the same school, she thought as Tomiyo and Juri noted her glances, So they are following us, out of necessity     . but why are they only going as fast as we are?  I can't believe they are flocking around us because we're 'Oh!  Wow!  Pilots!'.  They may be here for reasons we'd rather not deal with, Asuka wondered.  She glanced at the guards, hoping they'd get the hint and keep an eye on the newcomers as well.

     Jamie watched Asuka closely, as Asuka watched them.  Jamie screwed on her most embarrassed smile and waved shyly to Asuka.  As just a schoolgirl fan, her presence was erased from Asuka's area of concern.  Exactly as I wanted, she thought, and gave Asuka the same shy smile and wave when her gaze swept over her and her companion.

     "She suspects something," Mihiro said.

     "She expects trouble," Jamie replied as Eriko and several others fell in, dispersed through the crowd, but warding the front and sides, as she and Mihiro guarded the rear.  Too thin, a diffuse shield, the one-time spawn of Nyogtha thought as she looked around, as if gawking at the collection of the pilots' admirers, Something is wrong, I can feel it.

     Mihiro scanned the crowd, feeling the same ill-at-ease, nagging feeling.  "Which one are they aiming at?" Mihiro whispered, "Which one of you will they strike?"

     "We need to get some answers," Jamie said, "Like where Yuki really went, as well as her parents.  However, for the moment, concentrate on being an admiring student going to school."

     Mihiro nodded, but couldn't completely loose her unease.

     It watched them, one in particular.  It knew that one was the most like it in nature.  It decided it would strike that one, but it will allow the humans who orbited leaderless to strike at the others.  It considered the means, and most importantly, how to strip off the outer layers of protection.

     It clacked the tiles of the necklace, worried not how to accomplish it, but which of the myriad ways it could would be the most appropriate.  It knew it must provide a sacrifice.  Each of them possessed enough of a dual nature that any would serve, but one in particular.  It focused on the tallest female in the group, and considered all the ways and means.

     Nabiki caught Jeff before he joined the rest of the mess hall crowd.  "What were you and Maya talking about?" she paused, "If you don't mind my asking."

     "She's in love with her Sempai, and wanted some advice and help in that regard," Jeff said offhandedly.

     Nabiki considered this and shook her head.  What kind of `Respect for the Aged` present do you get for someone 'Megayears' old?  Would she appreciate the reminder?

     "Are you going to be teaching Ritsuko more magic?" Nabiki couldn't keep the dread from her voice.  Every step into that world tears at every certainty I've ever had, she thought with a shudder.

     "Probably, just so she can keep pace with you.  Remember, she has all my memories, so it's more a case of joining the dots."  They entered the mess hall.  "She was as disappointed as you are that she can't just blow stuff up."

     Nabiki smirked at that, then grimaced as she remembered her entire day was going to be practice with the rifles, pistols and the 30 and 50 caliber machineguns.  "Good luck, I know I'm going to need it.  Do you suppose the others are getting firearms instruction?"

     "You didn't read the latest update.  I'd bet Asuka cajoled, then Rei just dragged him to the range."

     "Then Asuka threatened and cajoled some more, or called his bravery, honor or manliness into question," Nabiki said with a chuckle about someone else was being introduced to the fine art of firearms.  "Oh," Nabiki said carefully, "Did you and Rei discuss or arrange this before hand?"

     "I'm not omniscient," he said defensively, "Although, once Rei gets an idea in her head, and if Asuka cares to support her, I doubt even Admiral Simson would get in there way."

     Ouch, she thought of the combination.

     Jeff continued, "Everyone seems to have forgotten she grew up literally inside NERV and she isn't stupid.  Are you glad to be almost home?"

     'Another answer to a dozen unasked questions.'  "Are you?" she asked with a smile as she saw she'd flustered him.

     "I've had places I lived, but rarely a home," Jeff said quietly in English, "I enjoy being with you and the others, although there are times I want to strangle each and every one of you.  From what I know of your growing up, that's part and parcel of having a family."

     That's clear enough.  "I was hoping you'd have some insight, where we're going isn't exactly 'home' for me either, weird.  I miss it, full of people sometimes I want to strangle."  She smiled at the joke, he either missed it or ignored it, "For that to happen, I guess I would have had to get Gendo's and the Admiral's permission, right?"

     "No, just orders through the chain of command."

     Okay, he's in that kind of mood, Nabiki thought as she realized she'd been skillfully diverted, again, I'll have to torture the truth out of Maya about what they really talked about.  It's about time someone tried to straighten her out.

     Hiro walked into the Admiral's office with considerable trepidation.  The Admiral looked up from his seemingly endless paperwork as Hiro was issued into the room.  The Admiral's yeoman closed the door, the pair were alone.

     "Ah, Mr. Takemono, I am pleased to see you.  How goes the project?" the Admiral got up from behind his desk, offered Hiro a small, but polite bow, then his hand.

     Hiro returned a much deeper bow, then shook the offered hand.  Things are going too smoothly, he thought, The security checks to get in here were perfunctory at best, and I was issued directly into the Admiral's presence.  Simson's no fool, he has to know something isn't right, so where are the guards?  Where are the angry men demanding answers?  Not that thumbscrews and hot irons would get them anything, since I don't know.  Better just answer his questions, he thought, Then I can get to the real business.  "I found a musician at Toho, he's very good and open to both Western, Japanese, and even Ainu influences.  He already heard about the project and had done a couple of preliminary pieces, sort of a resume.  I must admit, some of it may sound dissonant to Western ears, but it highlights the conflict the Children are under better than anyone else.  He's already got signature themes for several of the pilots, and I think he appreciates the work."  He felt himself relaxing, as he always did when talking about the documentary.  I wonder if we'll ever get a chance to finish it? he wondered.

     "I do think people will start accusing me of only using men named 'Akira' to do the major work, but I go where the talent is.  I'd like to thank you and the Navy for your emotional and financial support."

     "Happy to help," the Admiral said as he retook his seat, "Please sit.  I know you enjoy talking about your movie, but I doubt that's what you came to talk about."

     "Admiral, there is something you need to know," Hiro said breathlessly as he paced, "I     . I went along with them because - "  He froze as the Admiral pulled a small jar from his desk drawer and set it on the desk in front of Hiro, it was filled with white-veined blue crystals.  Hiro swallowed, not daring to take his eyes off the treasure that literally meant life and death for him.  "How did you know!?" Hiro stammered as he stared at it hungrily.

     "Do your friends really think we are that foolish?" the Admiral asked placidly, "I also know Miss Langley `suggested` a theme to your composer for Mr.  Davis."

     Hiro felt his blood run cold at the promise of true freedom sitting there, almost within his grip.  All I have to do is reach out and take them, he thought as he found himself terrified at the prospect of getting exactly what he'd longed for.  His hand reached for the jar with more care than he would have shown an ancient pottery.

     "Why don't you verify they are correct?" the Admiral said carefully, "Then tell me what you wanted to tell me."

     Hiro stared at the jar as he took it in his hands.  I don't need to examine them, I can feel - I can smell they are what I need, he thought desperately, glanced at the Admiral's neutral expression, If I took even half of what's here - all at once - I'd never need to take any more.  "How?"

     "The pilots have a wealth of knowledge: Martial Arts, literature, music, mathematics     . alchemy," the Admiral said, almost playing with him, but not quite.  "It's amazing what a straight-forward question will net.  If they are inclined to talk.  I suspect they could completely rewrite the manuals on the EVAs' deployment, maintenance, disposition and combat, if we asked.  Take what you need.  Take all you need, so you won't need any more."

     The Admiral watched Hiro as he removed several of the largest pieces and let them absorb into his skin, one at a time.  Hiro shuddered at the growing feeling of completeness that filled him with each addition.  I'm not human, and I never will be, he thought as he came down from the mountains of exhilaration, and stared at the almost-pleased expression on Admiral Simson's face.  He's got me now, Hiro realized, More than if he'd held it over my head as a bribe.  And he knows it, he's realized the power those kids have, one that is completely secret, because no one ever thinks to remark on it.  The others are all too caught up in it.

     "I'm sure you have something important to tell me.  Why don't you take that seat you obviously need, and tell me about it?"

     "How did you know?" he asked again as he slid into the chair.

     The admiral's smile faded.  "You came in, willing to risk your life, to tell me something.  Now that I've removed the greater part of that risk, please - tell - me."

     Although it was a question phrased in the superpolite form of Japanese, that only underlined that it was a direct order and would be carried out, whether willingly or not.  "I know things about General Tembris, a Swiss-based organization called SEELE, and their plans for the pilots.  Their near-term plans for the pilots."

     "Please continue.  Should I have a stenographer brought in?"

     "If you have one you can trust," Hiro said.  I underestimated you, as you have underestimated the pilots, he thought as the Admiral opened the door and issued in a yeoman, I wonder if that's the real joke or their real power.  Anyone around them is drawn in, human, or not, but they still insist on seeing them as clever kids, not the nascent gods they are becoming.  Protective camouflage.  Quite a power, if that was the intention, I wonder who gave it to them.

     "You could have traded for the information," Hiro suggested.

     "You came to us before that was necessary.  This doesn't let you off the hook."  The Admiral shrugged.  "You'll get your punishment as a free man."

     "Thank you.  I've been working for General Tembris.  He's working for some people, they're headquartered in Geneva - I believe - he plays that part pretty close to the vest.  All our communications come from Swiss sources.  He wanted something from Ranma, a sample.  I got it, and they shipped it off.  I rather stupidly thought that getting the sample would be the end of it.  They are waiting for orders, orders I believe will be to kill all the pilots.  They haven't gotten the actual orders, but none of them doubt those will be the orders they'll receive."  He paused, the yeoman looked up, nodded, indicating he was able to keep up with the conversation.

     "Can you get us more intel?"

     He shook his head.  "They moved their base again, until they contact me, I don't know where they are."

     "I suggest you tell Miss Kraznyzamok everything, absolutely everything.  How are the interviews with the kids for the movie going?  I haven't had time to see the bits you've sent over, but the people who have say it's excellent, really captures the pilots."

     The Admiral looked up at the man staring at him.  "You wouldn't have been cleared to make it, unless we knew you were safe."

     "I guess I should have figured you'd have your own spy network."

     "Good.  Please don't let me keep you."

     The Admiral watched Hiro and the yeoman leave.  He'd leave further interrogation to Miss Kraznyzamok and the professionals.  He lifted the phone and dialed.  "Captain Ramsey, Admiral Simson.  Their information panned out.  Put them on full alert.  I want that bastard, I don't care if they bring him to me in a sponge, just as long as we can prove it's him, and all of him."  If they can make a person like Hiro out of chemicals, he thought, They can make duplicates of themselves out of pieces.

     "Understood, Admiral," Ramsey replied.

     Simson hung up the phone and turned to stare out the window.  "I hate waiting.  I hate not knowing if I can trust my own government."

Fastidious and precise

August 16, 1947

     Ranma walked to the now famous list, he was furious and decided it was a good way to express it for all to see.  He noticed someone had crossed out Rei's 'should' in rule 12, and replaced it with a 'will'.  Admiral Simson had initialed the change, and made a formal posting to that effect right next to the list.  Including classes on firearms, been there, done that, got the ringing ears     . from getting yelled at, Ranma thought as he read the Japanese text of the message, and guessed the English said much the same, From what little I can read it seems to.  It also explains why Gendo's shadow gave Shinji and me our swords, before we climbed into the EVAs this morning for sync testing.  He glanced down at the metal on his hip, frowned at it and the necessity.

     The reminder made Ranma's blood boil again.  What was that idiot trying to do? Ranma wondered, nearly breaking the clipboard as his rage nearly took control of him again, Asuka has enough problems syncing with the other EVAs without some idiot on the ground crew phone.  He's lucky I got to him before Shinji did with Unit 02.

     'Do not distract the pilots while they are in the EVA, they may accidentally step on you.'  He wrote in Japanese.  Yeah, one of the other pilots, he thought angrily as he handed the clipboard to the duty signals officer.  "Pretty please transpose that one in for English," Ranma told him in English.

     "Certainly, sir," the officer replied in Japanese.

     The officer looked at the recently arrived list from the Bunker Hill, and saw the `translation` already there, practically word-for-word.  "Somebody's being too generous with the stupid pills lately," he muttered, "Maybe there should be an award for that.  This used to be a nice boring job."

August 18, 1947

     "I hate Mondays!" Asuka announced as they walked back from school.

     "If you want to share your sentiments," Sammi said sweetly, before Misato could interject, "You shouldn't shout them in German.  You had all Sunday to just lie around, and complain how bored you were.  I thought you'd like doing something."  Why has she suddenly taken an interest, Sammi wondered, knowing her jealousy towards Misato was misplaced and irrational, She's not taking care of the kids, probably following orders.

     The others laughed at Asuka's embarrassment.  Hikari, politely, Horseface and Toji a bark.  Asuka glanced at Shinji and Rei, who hadn't seemed to have noticed.  She frowned at that, then grinned evilly.

     Something else to get to the bottom of, Sammi thought as she caught Hikari, Mirei and Yumiwashi all bearing similar grins, A lot of something to get to the bottom of.

     "Is it true that you're making a movie about the pilots?" Yumiwashi gushed to Hiro, who was walking with them, taking notes.

     "It's a documentary.  I'll be interviewing the people who know them too," the scarred man replied.

     Not man, homonculus, Sammi reminded herself, 'Non-humans guard the pilots', the last hope of humanity, that would be a real good idea to put in the movie.  Some god has a weird sense of the absurd.

     "People     . like     . us?" Mirei asked, suddenly looking faint.

     "You won't have to act, just answer question," he smiled and soothed, "Don't worry about saying anything embarrassing.  The military censors are going to go over it with a fine toothed comb, so no secrets will be let out.  Like what Langley-san was doing in Berlin from when the Russians took the city in May, to August when she escaped."

     "I'd rather not talk about that!" Asuka muttered.

     "So would the censors, they told me I couldn't even hint on camera that you weren't in British hands the moment the surrender was signed."

     "What were - " Toji began, and practically formed icicles when Hikari and Asuka glared at him, he smiled wearily, "Never mind."

     "My brother is so smart," Yumiwashi said proudly, then with disappointment, "Eventually."

     The others laughed at someone else getting caught up in the crossfire.

     "Where's the third Stooge by the way?"  Asuka glanced around, eyes falling on Rei.  "You don't have to keep wearing those," she commented on the A10 nerve clip Rei wore, "And how did your hair go back to blue so quick?  That dye should have taken weeks to grow out."

     "On the nights of the new moon, I howl and revel with the mouse-king.  He changed it back.  The 16th was the New Moon."  Rei stared at Asuka until Asuka shook her head.

     "Ask a silly question," Asuka said, "If that was a joke, it wasn't a very good one."

     "It was a tall-tale," Rei replied, "A complete and easily discernable fabrication."

     "Speaking of tall-tales," Hiro asked, pencil at the ready, "What's this list of NERV rules I keep hearing about?"

     "Something that came in from the carrier," Tomiyo said, "Evidently Maya thought people needed a warning about the horrors of L.C.L."

     "It's not that bad," Misato complained.

     "Now that's a tall-tale, Wondergirl," Asuka told her, "Did you hear how it sounds like she actually believes the lie.  Though your level delivery isn't bad."

     "Thank you," Rei replied, "I will study her methods further."

     The group laughed again.  Hiro noted the changing targets and the maneuver-and-strike tactics all the pilots adopted.

     A sense of unease nagged at Sammi.  She noted that the bulk of the followers had peeled off and headed home on their own routes.  It still struck her that the roads were emptier than they should have been, Where are the other guards?  "Juri, raise command, something's not right."

     "What?" Misato asked, her hand resting on her pistol, a gesture mirrored by every armed member of the convoy.

     "There's supposed to be an escort on both parallel streets," Sammi said, "There isn't one."

     "I don't care if the order is signed and authorized by me," Simson managed to avoid shouting at the NERV security man, "Get those patrols back on their stations, right now."  Simson whirled and practically ran into Ramsey.

     "Our auxiliaries lost sight of them," Ramsey said breathlessly, "One moment they were there, the next even a physical sweep couldn't locate them."

     "This has to be the move," Simson said, "Dagnabit!  Call out the Marines, scratch formations if you have to."

     "Right away!" Ramsey turned and left.

     Simson knew the route, knew he could race out there and shoot it out with the enemy, but a commander stayed where he could command.

     Gendo glanced into the radio room, saw Simson.  "I'm leading a search party."  He was gone before Simson could order him to stay.

     Rotten bastard, he thought angrily, Leaving me to mind the radios.  I'm beginning to think rotating one pilot on call at all times might be a good idea.  He waited, it was all he could do, while spotters on the ground and in the air continued to give 'no contact' reports.  Then every one of them, every radio went silent.  That's just terrific.

     Mirei heard the gunshot and watched the pilots scatter.  Misato had been walking with the convoy back from school, now she was searching for the source of the shot.  Sammi shoved Shinji towards Misato and the nearest hard cover, before she spun around and went down, the second shot.  Mirei's guards shoved her under a truck and sandwiched her between them.  Rei was giving Asuka the bum's rush towards an alley, when her head snapped sideways and she screamed in pain, Asuka half-stumbled/half-fell into the cover of the alley while Rei lay where she'd fallen.  Ranko had flattened herself into a door way, and Ranma was nowhere to be seen.  Much as I was thrust under a truck.  Where did Ranma go? she thought as each person took cover and searched the environs for the sniper.  Yumiwashi was whimpering from where Toji had her and Hikari shielded by an ash can and his body, but the trio was still looking around.

     Asuka had been staring at Rei's huddled body when she spotted the sniper and broke cover.

     "Asuka! NO!" Misato yelled as the redhead zigzagged towards the building.  Hiro broke from his cover and ran after her.

     "Hiro!  Come back!" Shinji yelled at the man.

     Right, that's going to happen, Mirei concentrated on the girl in front of her, lying in a pool of blood.  She could hear her grandfather calling for reinforcements, reinforcements that should have already been there, filling the street with bodies.  They wouldn't be armed, but their honor would require them to save the pilots, by sacrificing their lives if necessary.  She saw that Sammi was climbing to her feet, shaking off the gunshot that had put her down.

     Hiro concentrated on the girl in front of her.  I'll never be jealous of the pilots again, he thought as he ran a straight line, closing on the zig-zagging Asuka, I'm not a worthy target, or he knows I'm immune.  This doesn't seem like Tembris's style.

     He concentrated on that fact as he ignored that he was racing into the building with a sniper in it, and who was laying on the sidewalk and street outside.  Where the HELL is NERV security? he thought in a fury, After their previous failures, and my warnings, I would have expected them to be more vigilant.

     Asuka took the stairs three at a time.  If she's the target, she's running into an ambush, if the assassin was trying to escape, somebody needs to keep track of him while I stop Asuka.  He wished he had a loyal, magical animal, or a piece of himself he could separate, to send out with orders to track and detain the assassin. With that covered I can continue pursuing Asuka, he thought sardonically, No, my creators had to be cheap.

     A moment later, Asuka nearly ran him down going the other way.  "Rope ladder," Asuka yelled as Hiro reversed course.  Asuka ran outside through another door and jumped into a storm sewer.  If he's retained his rifle, Hiro thought as he recoiled at the stench, It can't hurt me and I've lived through worse.  "I don't like this at all."  With that, he plunged after the pilot.

     Ranko charged through the sewers after the fleeing redhead.  Dammit Asuka! she thought angrily, You aren't going to help anyone by catching a bullet!  She stopped at an intersection Asuka had disappeared around.  She looked around and saw her.  But there's an echo of Hiro down the other path     . he must be lost, I go after the one I can see! she thought as she took off after Asuka.  The smell's almost as bad as L.C.L., she thought as she ran after her, Where do you think you are going?

     Mirei stood before her father and his `business associates`.  I know what they do, she thought, My father, I love my father, I can't imagine him doing anything `wrong`, but the others     . but I need what people have whispered about him and his associates to be true.  She had finished her tale about what she had witnessed during the most recent attack on the pilots.

     The men spoke quickly to each other, a volatile mixture of anger, worry and cold calculation.  She didn't try to listen, they valued their privacy.

     "Mirei-chan, please step outside," her father said.

     She nodded and moved quickly.  He's angry, but not with me, she thought as two of the `rough` men closed the doors behind her.  She went a short distance down the hall, so she was out of the way, but could easily be summoned if needed.

     After several minutes, the doors practically flew off their hinges as men poured out, all furious, but again, not with her or each other.  Her father brought up the rear.  He stared after the leaving men.

     "We will be moving out soon.  I think you need to come with, the pilots might need to see a familiar face," he said, his rage simmering under the surface.

     "Father, is it correct to be angry with the people who did this?"

     Her father chuckled, "It certainly is, I am quite angry myself."

     Rei slipped off the medical bed and walked unsteadily towards the EVA bays, letting her long practice carry her there.  She knew she was not fully functional, she fully realized her poor condition when she practically ran into a uniform.  She raised her head and stared at the figure.  I cannot focus on it, she thought as she tried to concentrate on the image swaying and distorting in front of her.

     "Miss Ayanami," she recognized Admiral Simson's voice.

     "Admiral," she said, "I apologize."  She tried to steady herself so she could step around him, except the floor kept trying to slip out from under her.

     "It was either me or a wall you'd walk into."  His hands on her arms steadied her.

     Rei said nothing.  Her anger at who or whatever was making footing nearly impossible precluded making civil conversation, so she closed down as she often did.

     "I suspect telling you to return to bed would get me silence," Simson said, "So I'm ordering you to tell me what you had in mind."

     Rei paused, focused.  I am to obey lawful orders, she clung to that thought while she tried to control her mental and physical equilibrium.  "An EVA will be necessary, and I am the only pilot available," Rei said, the room felt as if it were spinning, not just from the emotions whirling with in her at the thought of the danger threatening Mein Grosse Feldmarschall and the Fourth, and the attack on them.

     "There is Shinji," the Admiral said, "What is your thinking on that?"

     She took a deep breath, concentrating on her much safer thoughts and not her maelstrom of feelings.  "Shinji-kun cannot kill humans," she told him, finally taking a firm grip on her fears of speaking and using it against her anger at events, gaining a measure of control, then finally forcing them back down, "I can, if necessary."

     "Very well," he said as he released her arm and took her hand, letting her lean heavily on him, "I have a gurney.  I'll lead you over, and I'll go with you.  You need orders to launch and act.  I'll provide the orders depending on the situation.  Are you certain you can pilot in your condition?"

     "Yes," she said as she laid down on the surface, the world and her mind seeing to come into proper focus once again, "The EVA frees me from - "  She pinched her flesh.  "- this.  I can be without all the limits."

     "I understand," the Admiral said nervously as he pushed her towards the bays.

Met a man from China, went down to Geisha Minah

     The sewers are as fragrant and as dark as I remember them.  I'm just glad these are for rain run off, not the other kind, Hiro thought as he followed Asuka, he found he could see and navigate surprisingly well.  I guess they did spend their efforts where they thought it mattered, he thought of the darkness that surrounded him, Yet I never hesitated.  Of course neither did Asuka, I think I'm being far more rational than she is.

     The assassin had doubled back on the pair, trying to get between them.  Hiro closed his eyes and risked the explosion by making a small flare by lighting a match.  It destroyed his opponent's night vision.  While the man was disoriented, Hiro closed and hit him as hard as he could, before he could bring his gun around.  I would punch someone wearing a flak jacket, he thought he'd hit a wall, So it didn't hurt him as much as it hurt me.  It did get him running, like most wounded rats he's headed right back to his hole.

     Hiro dashed after him, realizing the ridiculousness of his actions. Now Asuka is following me!  He considered pausing, but knew that would give the man a chance to get away and strike again at his leisure. I should be wary of traps and ambushes.

     Within moments, he realized, The fools haven't left any.  He smirked at that.  I should be professionally offended by the arrogance that assumed I'd never pursue him, he thought, considering diverting Asuka somehow, Except she's stayed on his trail like a bloodhound.  I don't think there's anything I could do or say to divert her for long.  Hiro positioned himself to intercept his charge.  I wish somebody was with us.  Somebody she trusted enough not to just ignore.

     As he saw the villain climb through a cover in the ceiling, he grabbed Asuka and dragged her back to another opening.  "I don't want to pop up into an ambush," Hiro told her as she tried to struggle out of his grip to charge right after him.  Asuka took a moment to recognize the odd figure before her.  Once she did, she nodded.

     It worries me, that she isn't stopping to think, Hiro thought as he led Asuka towards another grating, She's just on the attack.  They climbed onto the street, Hiro going first, depending on his non-human nature to immunize him from normal bullets.  He gauged the distance to the other opening, and reckoned it was safe to let Asuka follow him.  Hiro wondered if he'd ever be able to smell again, and was glad he couldn't at the moment.

     Ranma followed Asuka up into the factory floor.  He glanced around, searching for her.  Where did she go? he asked no one.  He climbed out and sprinted for the shadows, before glancing around again.  Where did she go? he demanded of the universe while he tried to catch a sight or sound of Asuka, Even if I could smell her, all I smell is sewer right now.

     He picked another shadowed area and disappeared into it.  Glancing around for his quarry and a place to advance to.  Finding one, he dashed into it, sweeping the area for the sniper as well.  Asuka would be making more noise than this, he thought as he heard the sound of dripping water, fluttering of an occasional bird, and the creak of the metal walls, All this noise, and nothing from Miss Mouth     . can she be quiet, or is she dead?  She can't be that much better at hiding than I am!  Then he caught a glimpse of his own hands, raised them and made a fist.  'I', a guy again?!  I changed back and forth during the attack and then pursuit?  Almost like something was playing with me, he realized, Why now?  Because I can fight better as a guy, or for some other reason?  I wish I'd just tell myself these things! he complained, No answer.  I'm beginning to understand why the others get so frustrated, even I don't understand why this is happening.

     On the metal walkway, a pair of eyes watched, while another pair watched Ranma's inevitable destination.  Thrice, it thought as it considered the possibilities.  Then it considered where Ranma would go, and what he would do.  It drew the shadows and silence tightly around itself and disappeared, knowing another part of Ranma would soon come to fore.

     Four? it wondered, Parallel or opposed?

     The warehouse Hiro and Asuka watched had offices above the storage floor.  While Asuka practically vibrated with impatience, Hiro noted the sun was going down. I hadn't thought we'd been underground so long.  Hours since - he forced the thought aside, I can't keep operating if I think like that.  If I let myself remember.  One office was of particular note, right at the level of the fire escape, it had the only clean window in a long line of them.

     Asuka broke through whatever mental restraint had held her and charged up the fire escape, crashing through the window to confront the assassin.

     Hiro couldn't believe anyone could run up those rusty, rickety steps silently, yet Asuka had managed.  I've followed this far, he thought as he ran a few steps behind her, realizing his noisy passage might alert those within.

     The assassin had no guards and had relaxed, no one would leap through a window forty feet off the ground, no one could.  His rifle was carelessly left where someone could grab it, Asuka had.  Hiro rushed across the room to lock and bar the door, to keep them from being unexpectedly interrupted.  That door isn't going to last an instant if someone gets serious, he realized as he turned back, We have to get out of here!  He noted the cold expression on the girl's face.  Asuka didn't care if she was filthy and acting abysmally stupidly, she wanted to hurt and kill those who had done the same to her friends.

     Only now is she realizing how badly we could be outnumbered, Hiro realized as Asuka glanced around, the rifle remaining steady on the man's chest, I have no way to call for help, without giving away the game.  Hiro crossed the room and looked out the window, and then he rejected that as an escape route, unless he threw Asuka over his shoulder.  The office offered no other weapons either.  An entirely feasible possibility, he rejected the thought and turned back to Asuka and the assassin.

     She was breathing hard, her face a mask of fury, the assassin had his hands raised.  He wasn't sure if he could surrender.  Asuka wasn't sure either.

     "Miss Langley," Hiro said softly in English.  If I could order her, what would I say? he wondered.

     "Not this time," came the ragged reply.

     "Asuka, just wait for the others," Hiro said carefully.  I feel like I'm talking her off a ledge, he thought while searching for the best words to do that.

     "He killed Rei, he killed Sammi, they're the ones who attacked us," Asuka said on the edge of hysteria, "Doesn't that matter to you?  Is your movie all that is important to you?!"

     Hiro winced as Asuka's hot words stung deep, deeper than he wanted to deal with right now.  "What happened matters more than you know," he said as coldly as he could, hearkening back to a few days ago, when he was at the mercy of madmen, for his very survival.  If I had to do it again, I wouldn't survive, he thought, I could feel myself slipping away, bit by bit.  Trading what my humanity could be, for another day, another week.  If I was that way again, I'd just end it.  There's only one other person I can reach out to, to pull me back.  I wonder if she ever realized why I am always around, watching them, asking questions?  "It won't bring them back, destroying yourself won't help anyone."  Asuka's composure was cracking, Hiro pressed, "You've never murdered, not a human, not in cold-blood, not even an Angel."

     Hiro watched her determination fading, the gun snapped up, "Hands on your head!" Asuka ordered, determination returned.  Outside were shouts in English and Japanese, several gunshots.  "The cavalry has arrived, ours," Asuka told their captive. "Let's go."  She motioned with the rifle to the door.

     Hiro cracked the door and glanced outside, it seemed their forces were in control.  I'm not sure how Asuka knew they were our forces, but she was right, Hiro thought as he examined the odd collection of office workers, laborers, Marines, Tokyo police, a few NERV Security troops and a few very large gentlemen in suits and dark sunglasses, I'd bet a year of my life that they are Yakuza.  Mirei's doing.  He opened the door carefully and waved to the troops assembled below.  A platoon of U.S. Marines, half again that number of Tokyo police stood as a ring of guards around the prisoners in the middle of the warehouse floor.  He caught sight of Mirei and Hikari, who happily waved back, and Mirei's grandfather.  Not the bent, old, dignified clown/manservant, but very much in command.  He made a curt gesture to a group of the mixed troops to recover Asuka, her helper and her prisoner.  The old man had marks on his shirt and pants, as well as a missing sleeve.  He still looked as if he was going to drive the cane he leaned on straight through the concrete floor.  What sorcery Mirei performed to assemble the troops I can discover later, he thought as he glanced back to Asuka.  "Help's here."  I'm glad they are alive     . I can grieve for the others later.  He smirked at the sight of Mirei's sweet, fussy old grandfather, suddenly transformed into such a dragon of a man.  He still manages to give the impression the guards, Marines and police are protecting the assassins from him, rather than the other way around, he thought.

     Another old, yet still large member of the suit and sunglasses crowd stood close and held the old man's coat, adding weight to the impression, although Hiro suspected that the old man could stand with the world on his shoulders by raw force of will, the other old man was there as a visible reminder that power rested there.

     I'm still overjoyed to see them, even if nobody else is with them.  They're probably busy guarding those who survived, Hiro thought, Or mourning those who didn't     . Rei gone, maybe Ranma and Sammi too.  He glanced back at Asuka and saw even Asuka was surprised by the force.

     A moment's surprise was all their captive needed, he grabbed the gun barrel and started wrestling for the rest of it.  Hiro tackled Asuka and fell in a tangle, with her protected by his bulk as a fusillade passed through the assassin as he leveled his gun.  He clutched her head to block out the noise and sight of 30 pistols and rifles fired almost at once.  The sniper fell to pieces.  Asuka pushed loose and stared at the ruins that decorated the walls and walkway.  Hiro pulled her to her feet, and turned her away, as the first troops charged up the stairs, their boots ringing on the metal steps.  A pair of the suit-and-sunglasses crowd managed to pass the others and get to the office to cover it.  A trio of Marines and three times that many NERV Security followed, including Juri and Tomiyo-san, and an older cop who could have been Tomiyo-san's father, all three looking chagrined and professional.

     Asuka looked at the corpse and the prisoners, "It isn't enough.  Not for     . " she paused, "Not for one of us."

     "I'd be happy to let you wallow in self-pity," Juri commented, through gritted teeth, the sight having cost more than she was willing to admit.  "You saved her, Miss Langley.  Indirectly, but you saved her."  Juri reached up and tapped the A10 nerve connection Asuka wore and had convinced Rei to start wearing, 'to keep her hair out of her eyes.'  "I never figured they'd stop a bullet.  She's got a fractured skull and a whole series of scalp lacerations.  That's why she yelped, she was getting scalped.  But she'll be fine.  In a week or five."

     "How about Sammi?" Asuka beat Hiro to the question.

     "Fine.  We can discuss the ammunition they were using later.  Let's just say it was optimized for Rei, they didn't expect physical armor.  It saved Rei, it saved Sammi."

     Asuka let out the breath she'd been holding, "So we win again."

     "Not by a margin I'd like to depend on again," Tomiyo admitted, glanced worriedly at the frowning old man.

     Once the tension released, Hiro thought someone would have to carry both him and Asuka down the stairs.  The way we must look and smell, I doubt anyone would want to touch us, Hiro thought, then the old cop stepped up beside Asuka offering an arm to her.

     "Tendo Minayo, Tokyo Police," he said with a curt bow, and a glare at Tomiyo.

     Asuka laughed as she took the man's arm.  Hiro fell in behind, not willing to accept the dismissal of his obligation so easily.  I feel like flying, Hiro thought giddily, We're safe, scared but whole.  They walked down the stair unsteadily, the minders and their various `allies` seemed more solicitous, but there was no room for them to intervene.  So, they took it slow.

     Sammi lifted the grate silently.  Asuka went off one way, Ranma the other, she considered her present options, At least he isn't walking into the middle of an ambush, like I am, she stepped into clear view of any sniper or attacker.

     Except I'm more immune to bullets than he is, she thought as no fusillade or massed ninja charge assaulted her as she walked along.  She scanned the cluttered factory floor and walls for every possible hiding place for threats, and for Ranma.

     He's getting better at hiding, she silently commented as she walked, making no attempt to hide, I hope Ranma recognizes my footsteps and doesn't run away from me.

     Ranma heard the footsteps behind him.  That's Sammi, he thought, but the faint scratching of fingernails on metal drew him forward.  Asuka might have fallen, and gotten hurt, so she's trying to attract my attention, without attracting everyone's attention.

     He found the pit, a squared-off cube of metal, he peered over the edge and scanned the floor and the blanket-wrapped bundle some meters below.  Kid's stuff, he thought, I could jump in and jump out carrying Asuka, or even Misa-chan's car.  He jumped in and turned to face where Asuka's huddled form was.

     Sammi heard Ranma's scream as she rushed forward.  The blast from out of nowhere made her leap for cover.  "Ranma!" she shouted, "I'm on my way!"

     Then she saw the other half of the Ranma-trap, and her blood ran cold.

     Ranma looked at the thing that spilled out of the blanket.  It looked like a necklace of fingers.  Gooo-rrooos! he thought, then it moved.  "Graakkk!" he shouted as he scrambled to the corner of the pit to get as far away from the `centipede-biting its own tail` creature trying to get at him.  The fingers acting as legs, pulling the ring towards him.

     "You aren't related to Unit 04 are you?" he asked as he thought, It's a trap.  Then he smiled. But you won't get me!  He leapt up, and was practically buried in thousands of falling, furry bodies.

     He looked at the pile of meowing, moving forms, slowly submerging him beneath them.  The other creature buried with in the pile completely forgotten.

     The scream of pain outside the pit was matched by the scream of rage and terror boiling up within Ranma.  However, when it escaped him though, it was an inhuman waul of glee.

     Misato and several platoons of NERV troopers arrived by the time Asuka and Hiro were all on solid ground, cleansed and changed to fresh clothes.

     Reporters followed.  Asuka separated herself and walked to them, back straight and head up.  "I would like to point out that swift intervention of a number of concerned Japanese citizens who took the slander of their nation and people very personally, allowed NERV, the Tokyo police and the U.S. Marine Corps to overcome the complete radio blackout and deal with these doomsday cultists who sought to bring about the end of the world."  She turned to the prisoners.  "Gentlemen, you'll get your wish for yourselves, the U.S. Government has a very effective means to deal with treason and crimes against Humanity.  So does Japan.  They'll get you, either way."

     Mirei smiled as Asuka delivered the words that she, her grandfather and Takemono-san had crafted.  A recently bloodstained, still-defiant EVA pilot making such a statement ensured it getting out, she thought happily, Ranma-sama is going to be so proud of me!  Branding the attacks the actions of madmen gave everybody here a clear reason to be cooperating.  Nobody wants the end of the world.

     Asuka ignored the reporters' follow up questions and continued on to the NERV vehicles.

     Hikari and I have nothing to add, Mirei thought as the pair followed, closing the van's door behind them.  Safely hidden from view, Asuka slumped exhaustedly in the seat.

     "I want to check on Rei, then I want to go home."

     "The beer halls in Germany may not be open this early," Mirei said carefully, smiling so Asuka would know she was joking.

     Asuka sighed, "Sammi's apartment.  I want a bath and to sleep in my own bed.  If I want booze, I know who to visit to get enough to be blotto for a week."  Asuka laid her head back and closed her eyes.

     "You didn't have to wait so long to send in the help," Hikari teased.

     "Do you realize how difficult it is to have the cavalry arrive at exactly the nick of time?" Mirei replied hotly, "Those American movies make it look so easy.  Liars, all of them."  Hikari laughed.  Asuka didn't join in.

     "They won't stop." Asuka seemed to melt further into the seat, "They'll try again."

     "Then we just have to kill them all," Minayo said as he entered the van, grimly determined, "You keep the Angels off the neck of my police, I'll get these bastards.  Once and for all.  No more games."  He relaxed again, blushed slightly.  "Sorry, I eventually want grandchildren.  I'd love for them to have no idea what I'm talking about when I mention the Angels."

     "At what price?" Mirei asked.

     "If I have to die or kill to do it?  Many who stood with us would accept that as a fair price.  Maybe I should walk into their headquarters and do whatever happened in Tunguska in 1908.  That would fix them."

     "Why not just use an atom bomb?" Asuka joked.

     "I've only got one, have to save it for a special occasion.  Like when I know where their boss is."  Minayo pulled blanket over Asuka, who immediately fell asleep.

She's all out to get you

     Sammi examined the wound.  That shouldn't hurt so much, she thought as she searched for the source of the attack, then she saw the plate drop down over Ranma's pit.  At least he's out of the line of fire.  There was something terrible about that scream, considering all the cats, I don't blame him for screaming.  He may be in Hell, but he won't be killed on sight.  She looked around the factory and spotted the figure.  She immediately fled her hiding place, as another attack shattered the I-beam she'd sheltered behind.  She fired at the figure as she dodged towards where Ranma was trapped.  Her wound slowed her enough that the next blast caught her squarely.

     She collapsed to the floor and rolled under the shelter of a heavy machine.  She saw the wide open area surrounding the pit Ranma was trapped in.

     Dammit! she thought, There has to be a way to beat this guy!

     On the small catwalk, it looked down and was pleased.  Either the girls' `pet` will destroy Saotome, or he will destroy it, and either will simplify things.  In any case, the sacrifice and the summoning will be made.  It listened to Saotome's screams and was pleased.

     What the Hell were you doing?" Misato confronted Hiro, once they had some privacy, "Trying to be a hero?"

     He winced as he considered the multi-lingual pun.  "No, I was trying to protect National treasures.  I assume your delay was because you had to get Shinji-san and Rei-san to safety, then the problem of the radios.  I was hardly going to let her charge off by herself."

     "And if you'd been killed?" Misato demanded angrily.

     "Then I would be dead.  There are some things worth dying for," he replied, then realized the truth, The kids are expendable!  Even Tembris doesn't know that.  You think if one is killed you can just pick out a replacement!  That's very proper thinking, except it's untrue.  These kids mesh, you drop another in, there's no guarantee the fit will be as good, or all the skills will be there.  He kept the horror of that thought from his face, and continued being inscrutable.  "My movie is quite important, money, time and - "

     "That's not what I meant!" Misato interrupted.

     So, you do care, he waited for her to give some inkling that she had true feelings for him, instead she angrily stared.

     "If your duty and revenge are all that matter to you," he said quietly, "I will say the sutras for a soul I'd hoped was not dead.  Do not lose your anger, Major, it will be all that can keep you warm at night."  He turned and left, without a word, without a backward glance.  I don't want to know if she realizes what she is losing by shutting out the world, he thought sadly, I wonder if anybody at NERV realizes what a gift life and humanity truly are, and if that is why the kids fight so hard.

     Asuka walked through the corridors of NERV.  She'd had it with all the double talk.  I want to know where Wondergirl is, and since neither Captain Ramsey nor Admiral Simson are available, that leaves one source.

     "Hey, Asuka-chan," Kaji hailed her, smiling all the while, "I think the Commander's busy.  It might be better to come back later."  He had eased his way in front of her and was blocking the door.

     She smiled back at him, remembering the effect his grin used to have on her.  Remembering that when she'd been frightened and hurt, he was no where to be found.  Remembering also he'd never visited her, and rarely took the time to talk to her.  You never wanted to be bothered with me, now you have to compete with Hiro for Misato's attention, she thought, holding the sweet grin, Guess what, I won't be played with anymore either.

     "Kaji-dear," she said sweetly in German.

     "Yes, Asuka-chan," he replied, mimicking her syrupy tone.

     "Get out of my way or I'm going to hurt you," she told him flatly.  When he neither moved nor quit grinning, she swept his legs out and shoved him aside.  He fell heavily, but she was through the door and closed it behind her, before he recovered.  Nobody ever said I couldn't learn, she thought, No matter the teacher.

     Asuka marched across the Sephiroth, ignoring it and the glare from Stoneface and his shadow.  "I'll be brief," she said, "Where are Ayanami and Saotome, and why aren't I in Unit 02 backing them up."

     "Admiral Simson is with 'Wondergirl'," Gendo replied coldly, "If he needed reinforcements, he would have called for them when communications were restored.  Good day."

     Asuka nodded to him, spun on her heel and marched out.  Kaji scrambled out of her way as she walked past him.  Asuka could have cared less.  So, Wondergirl left her hospital bed to save Horseface, and Stoneface doesn't want to risk another EVA, what are they facing?

     Sammi sailed through the cinderblock wall and out onto the street.  She rolled to a stop and assessed the situation.  The civilians scattered out of the way.  At least one thing's going right, she thought as she glanced around, Lost my gun and my sidearm, all I have left is a knife.

     She stood slowly, making a show of more pain than she felt.  She looked around for where the next attack was coming from.  Her wounds pained her.  So much for 'mostly invulnerable', she thought as she spotted her target, standing and waiting, Looks like Janus.

     The creature stood some distance away, looking like a manakin or a painted statue, the only `clothing` it wore was a necklace of ceramic tiles.  Not anatomically correct, Sammi tried to joke as she prepared for another attack by the creature, At least he won clear - NO! Ranma get out of there! she wanted to yell at the raven-haired martial artists as he stealthily crept towards the target on all fours.

     "Aaaarrgh!" Sammi charged with a scream.  The creature focused his full attention on her, slamming her back with three powerful bolts.  She didn't even have time to scream.

     "RRAOOR!" Ranma screamed for both of them, voicing an inarticulate rage.  He sprang at the figure and nearly clawed it in half with his first swipe of glowing claws emanating from his fingers.  It survived only by batting the snarling martial artist away.  Sammi tried to rise, but couldn't.  She saw the creature standing amid a massive electrical discharge, so loud she couldn't hear its scream, so bright she could barely see the form writhing in agony within.

     Ranma opened his mouth, dropping the creature's necklace in Sammi's lap, then he closed his mouth on her collar and dragged her behind a solid-looking, low wall.  He held his right arm tightly against his side, and favored his other side.

     Damn, she thought of his injuries, I'm supposed to protect you!  She glanced first at the necklace, next at the man wreathed in lightning, his screams still drowned out by the noise of his `corona`.

     Then a massive, orange foot descended on the creature.

     Geez, Rei, she thought, Talk about overkill!

     Rei raised Unit 00's foot again, and brought it down, grinding it on contact with the pavement, pulverizing the creature further.  She heard the voices in her mind similar to what she had heard when the enemies were destroyed.  She felt the creature's hatred of Roku-kun.  She also felt something else, the creature's satisfaction.  "Oh," she said to Admiral Simson, who stood at the bottom of the entry plug, directing operations through the EVA's radios, "We were too late."

     "How so?  The critter is rather squashed," the Admiral asked, she could see his paleness, feel and smell his deep concerns, "Do you think you can quit stepping on it?  We really need some remains to analyze."

     Rei did as ordered, but also explained, "The creature was able to summon something else, all this was a waiting game.  It has awakened our enemies."

     "How soon?  Where?" Simson demanded.

     She searched the stolen memories.

     "It did not know either," she said, "On purpose."

     "Terrific," he replied, staring at the walls of the plug as he called in a forensic team and an ambulance.

     Asuka walked through the NERV base towards the EVA bays.  She wasn't sure what she'd do when she arrived.

     Do I want to make sure Wondergirl and Horseface are okay, or do I want to strangle both of them at once? she wondered as she watched the huge doors cycle closed, and the EVA locked itself into its cradle.

     He-Horseface practically exploded out of the EVA bays, and straight at her.  Asuka froze for an instant, then realized her mistake as he slammed straight into her.  He knocked her on her behind to the floor.  "Horseface!" she shouted as he climbed up in her lap, "I'm going to - !"  She was stunned speechless as Horseface reared up, gave her a sloppy kiss, almost a lick, then settled back into her lap.

     She ground her teeth and grimaced at the kiss, and the messy wounds on Horseface's side.  Those wounds are the only things keeping me from pummeling you, she thought, fury, disgust and sympathy warred within her.

     "SPINELESS!" she shouted at the boy who'd been following her at a distance, "Call the medical wing and get some gurneys down here, or I'm going to KILL Horseface, and you too if you ever mention this - to anyone, or laugh!"

     "Don't GO there!" she shouted as he began to run, "Use the phone!"  She pointed empathically at it.

     "Idiots, all of you," she pronounced calmly, glared at the boy in her lap, pushed him to the floor.  "Yuck, like you could ever act like a cat," she murmured and stifled the urge to poke his wound or pet him.  "God is punishing me, that's the answer," she concluded as she ignored the bloodstains on her blouse and skirt.

     Ranma woke, took one look at Asuka and left her lap and the room in an all-fired hurry.

     "You'd better run!" Asuka shouted, then stared at the other figure who was huddled up beside her.  Wondergirl and Horseface, when did I become `mommy`? she thought as she sat with her back against the headboard and resisted the impulse to lay her hands on Wondergirl, either throttling the sleeping girl, or petting her, as she'd caught herself doing to Horseface while he purred in his sleep.  "If you two were trying to make me mad," Asuka said softly, "It's working."  She leaned her head back, sighed and stared at the door, wishing that someone she was free to abuse would walk in.

     You've got a weird sense of humor, she thought as Spineless and Admiral Simson walked in.

     "How are you feeling, Miss Langley?" the Admiral asked, pointedly ignoring her reaction.

     "Trampled and crowded," she replied, "Horseface woke up, realized he was curled up in my lap, and left.  As if I might actually hurt him," she added sweetly, sighing and posing as if emotionally wounded.

     Spineless approached quietly, stopped when she glared at him.  He put his hands behind him as if he were suddenly embarrassed by their existence.  The Admiral hid his smile at the interaction.

     "How is Miss Ayanami?" Simson asked.

     "As irritating as ever," Asuka replied, her expression softened for a moment as she looked at Wondergirl.  She hardened it as she looked from the sleeping Wondergirl to the two males.  "She waltzed in here while I couldn't move because of Horseface, and jumped into the bed without asking and completely ignored my orders to leave."

     "You could have pushed her off onto the floor," Spineless suggested innocently, smiling but trying to hide it the whole time.

     "She's hurt," she reminded him curtly and stuck her nose in the air.

     Spineless apologized.

     Figures, Asuka thought.

     Hiro charged in, stopped.  "I beg your pardon     . when I heard.  Are all of you all right?"

     "Horseface is hiding somewhere, Wondergirl got scalped, someone ripped out Spineless's growing spine - "

     "Sorry," he interrupted, glanced at Asuka in a suspiciously challenging way.

     "We'll all live," she said, glared at Spineless, "Especially if some of us learn manners.  How was your odyssey?  Get any insights into the pilots?"

     "I'm fine, nothing like a wild chase through the sewers and an attempted murder to clear your head," he replied, "And I've gotten a very thorough education today, thank you.  Would you feel up to an interview?"

     "No," Asuka said.  I'm not refusing because I don't want     . yes I am.  Wondergirl needs her rest, and I don't want to wake her up.

     "Ask Spineless what he was doing while he was asleep," Asuka said, "I'm sure it will be fascinating."  Setting Spineless to squirming where he stood.

     "Good idea."  Hiro led Spineless away.

     "Have you got something to say?" Asuka asked the Admiral, wondering if she could order him to leave.

     "Two things, first I'm glad you are safe and you realize how foolish you were charging after those people without backup," he said sternly.

     "Yes," Asuka begrudgingly answered.  It didn't stop you from charging out in an EVA's rumbleseat when the chance presented itself, she disciplined herself not to say.

     "Two, I'm glad you seem to be growing up.  When you arrived, you would never have felt comfortable enough to allow Miss Ayanami to do what she has.  Growing up has more to do with tolerating and fixing the stupidity around you, rather than pointing it out     . at the top of your lungs."  He left with a grin on his face.

     And blessing his luck that the only thing I have that's heavy enough to throw at him is Wondergirl! she thought and glanced at the sleeping form of her fellow pilot, And I won't do that.  Everybody's getting into this 'Make Asuka angry to make Asuka happy' idiocy!  "Sometimes I hate you, Wondergirl," Asuka said in Greek so she wouldn't understand.

August 19, 1947

     Asuka sat in her hospital bed, Wondergirl still curled up beside her.  Her forehead resting on Asuka's hip. We've been like this, all night, Asuka thought.  Asuka thinking, unable to settle her thoughts.  In stark contrast, Wondergirl slept peacefully.  Horseface had appeared long enough to toss a paper airplane at her.  Nothing wrong with his throw, she remembered, Lots wrong with his aerodynamics, Stoneface had to pick it up off the floor and hand it to me.  I still don't know why he stopped in, he barely looked at Wondergirl.

     Asuka replayed the thoughts which had whirled around in her head, chasing sleep away, Wondergirl walks in, and without a word, that bandage on her head, lies down in my bed without asking, and goes to sleep.  Asuka felt her anger rise as she raised her hand, but couldn't bring herself to strike.  The second troubling thought occurred, That's the `Major's` way, not mine.  If I can't get what I want with the strength of my arguments, and the force of my personality, then I need better arguments.  If I have to hit a colleague, then reason won't reach them.  And the Major doesn't reason.  I can't afford to act that way, I can feel my powers growing.  Soon, I'll have to learn to control them.  I know Wondergirl will have an intelligent, logical and completely reasonable explanation for her behavior, when she wakes up.  She looked at the once red-dyed, blue hair.  Only a few days, now it's over.  Raccoon and Ice Princess will be back soon from their heroic travels and all the people fawning over them, and here, not a peep, a few friends but no parades, no medals, no letters of commendation.  You nearly had your brains splattered all over the street, then went right back into the battle, why?  You love Spineless.  Horseface is an irritant.  Maybe if I were Ice Princess or Raccoon, I could understand your reaction to me.  Only I'm me, I've never liked you, yet you rescued Horseface and Sammi, then came here to rest.  It makes no sense, except to you.  Something years ago, surely that debt was settled long ago.  Why?  Why me?  Raccoon has always been with me, as himself, or the Dragon.  Why you?  What hold do I have?  Are you the kind of monster I know I'm becoming, hanging on to human things like a drowning man holds a rope?  She noted she'd laid her hand on Wondergirl's shoulders.  It took considerable effort not to yank it away.  Or is it something else? she thought, then cringed as Wondergirl snuggled up against her, Why you?  When everyone else goes away?  Why you, when no one else even tries to understand?

     Wondergirl seemed to sense her turmoil, rolled against her, wrapping her arms around Asuka's leg.  Making Asuka want to jump out of her skin, as Wondergirl acted like a little girl would, with a favorite stuffed animal or blanket.  Asuka slowly forced herself to relax, as her tension caused Wondergirl to try and soothe her, which just made it worse.

     Calm, calm, calm.  Don't belt her into next week! Asuka repeated to herself, until she could unclench her fist and calm down, Unemotional and unexpressive huh?  You are pretty, in your own way.  Maybe you could have more than Spineless, maybe you could have any boy you wanted, any friend you wanted.  Then why do you hide in the shadows until you strike?  Why do you insist on playing the passionless, empty doll, when I know there's a volcano in there somewhere?

NERV's Official but Unwritten Rules

1.) Do not tease pilots who have just exited L.C.L.

2.) Do not do anything to Dr. Akagi's coffee you would not want done to yourself or your children.

2a.) This applies to Commander Ikari's, Admiral Simson's, Major Katsuragi's as well.

2b.) Do not move or mix coffee from one department to another.

3.) Yes, they are nasty-minded little S.O.B.s, they were recruited because of that, not in spite of that.

4.) Knowing a few words in English and in Japanese will go a long way towards a safer working environment.  No, fire, stop.  There are several multilingual people on board, please contact them.

4a.) For any of you comedians, the Courts Martial board will not be amused that one of your students was shouting defecate just before the General stepped on a landmine.

5.) Do not call Commander Ikari's office 'The Ninth Circle of Hell.'

5a.) Unless you desire a personal interview to test your assertion.  Always willing to please.

6.) Do not do anything to Major Katsuragi's beer you would not want done to yourself or your children.

7.) Do not tease the technical staff, especially during important or dangerous experiments.

7a.) Phenopthalien is a powerful laxative, it will not make people 'piss purple'

8.) Do not test if an EVA battery is charged by licking your fingers and touching the posts.

9.) Do not distract the pilots while they are in the EVA, they may accidentally step on you.

10.) You are not authorized to die, without specific written orders to the contrary.

Gendo Ikari, Commander NERV, R. Simson V.ADM., CINC Task Force 7N

11.) Yes, the paint scheme does have a specific meaning, if you don't know, you aren't authorized to know.

12.) All pilots and civilian technical staff will be armed at all times, no exceptions, especially when going to the head.

13.) Japanese are not triskaidekaphobic, they aren't too happy about the number 4.

14.) Do not substitute smoke grenades for practice grenades, just to see if they notice.

15.) The difference between a monster immune to bullets and resistant to bullets can be determined with a short burst of .50 API, if it is merely unhappy and not seriously wounded, it's immune.  Further testing is unnecessary.

16.) The pilots all know the 'relative bearing grease' joke.  You aren't being clever, see rule 3.

Sic Semper Morituri Chapter 56 - One Throw of The Dice

Stories are available in Plain ASCII at:


http://www ri
(these are the original versions)

What has gone before:

      Admiral Adams and Doctor Akagi learn that the faster advance of their carrier battle group might be needed.

      Nabiki and Ritsuko have a heart-to-heart to discover why Nabiki has felt unworthy. Ranma and Ranko have a heart-to-heart about what each one truly wants.

      Nabiki and Jeff discuss their new position as half of Chaugnar Faugn, and how to best use it. Jeff begins teaching her how to use her powers, control is the key, Nabiki has power in abundance.

      Hiro has gotten General Tembris and SEELE their desire, and has learned that SEELE is planning to move against the pilots. Later he reveals all he knows, and discovers that Simson already knew what Hiro was.

      Kaji discovers the details of Gendo's secret plan, and even he can't believe what he learned.

      Asuka begins developing her own plans, after a discussion with Commander Ikari. Later enlisting Shinji to assist her.

      NERV's Official but Unwritten Rules begin to be compiled.

      Maya begins teaching the Marines new tactics to combat their Mythos enemies. Ranma begins teaching Rei the Chestnut Fist, Rei of course modifies the regimen for efficiency, after she practically dragged all the secrets and nuances from Ranma. In repayment, Rei gives Ranma another lesson in using guns.

      Nabiki, Belldandy and Jeff `discuss` the greater realities. Neither Belldandy nor Nabiki are pleased by what they learn. Nabiki and Jeff then rescue Megumi from the Curse of Chaugnar Faugn, although Megumi's despair worries Nabiki. Until a Great Old One responds to Nabiki's wish for answers.

      The attack on the pilots injures Rei, Asuka charges in for revenge with Hiro in pursuit, Mirei draws her father's people in to the battle while Ranma and Sammi are drawn into a battle with the Twins. Rei takes out an EVA with Admiral Simson assisting her.

      Sammi, the Neko-ken and finally Unit 00 wound then kill the Twins. Rei discovers that it successfully summoned another foe. Both of the injured, the Neko-Ken and Rei, curl up with Asuka. Once Ranma reemerges, he takes to his heels.

He said, "Son, I've made a life, out of readin' people's faces.
Knowin' what their cards were, by the way they held their eyes.
So if you don't mind my sayin', I can see you're out of aces."
The Gambler - Kenny Rogers

Chapter 56 - One Throw of The Dice

August 19, 1947

Jacks Or Better

      "You don't know?" Asuka had shouted at Shinji as they walked through the corridors of NERV.

      Why does she take it so seriously? he'd wondered.

      "I don't think she has one," he'd explained to the boiling redhead, "Or she associates one with her surroundings and what she's doing."

      Asuka had stopped walking and waving her arms, and had stared at him, setting him squirming. "You realize that makes absolutely no sense at all?" she'd asked irefully.

      He'd sneezed in response.

      "Are you getting sick? Or is she talking about you? I thought germs wouldn't pick on anyone as pathetic as you. No sport in it."

      Ha, ha, he'd thought. "Just a reaction to Misato-san's fried sausages. My nose started running when I smelled them, and they burned my mouth even after they cooled off."

      He shook his head, banishing the memory and returning to the here and now. As if this place didn't mean far more than I'm comfortable with, Shinji considered as he looked at the two other people with him, Why isn't he bothered by this place? Or is it he just doesn't seem to be bothered? Playing a role of calm competence, a reassurance the rest of us require?

      "You have to hurry," Shinji told Jeff as they stood in the throne room in dreams that also existed in concrete reality on Yuggoth. Both boys momentarily glanced at the chair Nabiki was staring at. "It bears her name."

      "I'll take your word for it," Jeff said, "We have hurried. We'll be there in a few hours, not late tomorrow as planned. What's got you so worried?"

      "I got sick," he paused to let that sink in, "Rei and Asuka have a touch of it too. They got hurt and ran through the sewers, but I didn't. Why am I the sickest?"

      "What's so frightening about that?" Nabiki asked as she turned away, grateful for an excuse to turn away from the throne and focus on the two boys instead.

      "I've never been sick," Shinji said, "Now . . . I shouldn't get sick. Except they're talking about Pneumonia, Malaria or Encephalitis."

      Nabiki fixed Jeff with a stare. "You mean we don't have to worry about diseases now either?" Nabiki asked worriedly as she looked from one to the other.

      "Not diseases that only effect humans," Jeff replied, idly tapping his lips with his walking stick, "It could be a side-effect of contact with the Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath. You were in close combat with them, and creating new life-forms is her specialty."

      "Would she create a . . . germ?" Shinji asked with concern, "Could the EVAs get sick?"

      "I doubt it," Jeff considered, "Unless the illness was especially tailored to them, and you'd need a massive dose."

      "That's not a 'yes' or 'no'," Nabiki pointed out.

      "It's an 'I don't think it's practical'," Jeff replied as she stood and looked around.

      "It could also be psychosomatic," Nabiki said as she stared at Shinji, "You need rest, need to purge your system. You didn't get hurt like the others, so you could have made yourself sick." Nabiki waved her hands at Shinji when she saw his discomfort at her suggestion. "You do worry about things too much."

      "Gee, thanks," Shinji replied as he stared at the floor, "I could have gotten insulted by Asuka."

      "Well, I'm sorry! Ranma hasn't been giving me insult lessons!" Nabiki let the two boys smirk at that before continuing, "You want answers," Nabiki said, shrugged, "Not just answers you like."

      "How soon will you get here?" Shinji asked, "After all that's happened, Asuka and Rei-chan will want some cheering up."

      "Like I said, soon," Jeff assured him.

      "Admiral Adams," the talker reported, "Boxer reports we can now launch for maximum range. Boxer requests orders to bring all aircraft on deck, fueled and fully armed."

      "Don't feel like Admiral Nagumo," Doctor Akagi told him from her spot in the CIC, "By necessity, you have to deal with differing threats."

      Adams nodded, remembering how Boxer's CO and CAG, Wasp's and Bunker Hill's CO, and their staffs, had sweated over the load outs and strike possibilities. "Send to Boxer: Launch reinforced CAP, prepare strike force Baker immediately, but I want the next fighter reinforcements ready for immediate launch. Emergency landings on Bunker Hill, set Condition 2 throughout the group. Light up the Boxer and the Bunker Hill. Wasp and all escorts are to remain dark." He glanced at the crew of the CIC both NERV and USN, lit by the glow of the radar screens and red lights of the CIC. "It will be light before anyone ashore can see us. Might as well make it easy on our boys." Adams felt relieved at having decided. Baker gave him the widest set of options, but it also meant the fewest aircraft optimized for any given action. "Colonel Tyler, how are the Marines?"

      The CO of the battle group's Marine detachments answered, "First to Fight, sir, all A.J. Squared Away. Some of the - auxiliaries - are a bit on the bloodthirsty side, but we've got them if we need them."

      He nodded and left the CIC to climb to the flight deck. There, he watched the darkness and the glow of the ships' wakes.

      No one likes the idea of sending wives and kids into harm's way, but harm's way may come at them, Adams thought of the carrier Wasp, invisible in the darkness and lagging far behind the other two in the group, carrying the families to Japan, But if that's what is necessary. We do it with the EVA pilots all the time. I think the dose of reality did the service brats some good. Although I suspect some of them are going to want to sign up as soon as they are old enough. Sending the pilots over to Wasp for a question and answer session certainly helped. Although I'm not sure if some of the kids could report on anything Davis or Tendo said. Most were just staring at them like a couple of movie stars.

      He watched the exhaust flame of the first aircraft racing off the Boxer's deck and into the night, as the carriers began turning on all their lights to guide them home. He felt strangely at peace.

      Nabiki jerked awake in her bunk. She glanced over at the clock. It's pitch black in here, the clock doesn't glow, and I can see it just fine, she thought frantically, What's happening to me?

      She looked around the room, seeing into the corners better than if she had been unchanged, and in a brightly lit room. It's 0300, and I'm wide awake! And ready to take on the world! she thought in utter horror, Oh gods! I've become a monster! An abomination! I've become a . . . a . . . "A MORNING person!" she wailed.

      Ranma bounced from foot to foot, unconsciously moving through Misato's living room in the most basic footwork kata.

      "Do you even fidget in Martial Arts?" Tomiyo asked in amazement.

      Ranma paused, tugged on his pigtail as he considered. "I'm excited, that's all. This is Mirei's first game as pitcher," Ranma explained, then got an Asuka-like gleam in his eye, "Don't tell me that the only reason you're going is that you traded with Sammi."

      Now it was Tomiyo's turn to be embarrassed. He refused to look at the boy. "She needed to talk to someone in private, so I traded, because she knew you'd never sit still while she talked for hours and hours."

      "So," Ranma said, glancing from Sammi to Tomiyo as he smiled, "Tomiyo goes with me, and you stay here and watch the sleeper?" Ranma glanced from Tomiyo to Sammi, and shook his head. "Boring!"

      "Well, I figure you two will enjoy the ball game together," Sammi replied with a smile, "Who knows, maybe Shinji will wake up."

      "I still think Rei let that thing off easy," Ranma said with a frown. I don't remember anything after all those - things - got dumped on me, until I woke up in Asuka's lap. I'm lucky to have gotten out of that alive! I don't even know what happened to that finger-necklace centipede-thing, Ranma thought, Did the `Other` kill it? GODS! Did the `Other` EAT it?! He shook himself to dispel the images of that from his mind.

      Sammi shuddered. "You didn't see her stomp on it." Sammi shook her head. "Emotionless, don't you believe it!"

      "I think we'd better be going," Tomiyo said, turning Ranma towards the door of the apartment.

      "So, when's the wedding set?" Sammi teased.

      'Mirei's a nice girl, but she's awfully young,' Ranma remembered Sammi teasing him about the girl and her adoration. He considered the rest of the month's events, As far as I'm considered, Ranma thought, This entire month can be written off. First Asuka, then Rei, now Shinji, I don't want to think about what could happen to us next. "At least Nab-chan and Raccoon will be back."

      "Bunker Hill and her group get in tomorrow afternoon. Although they'll offload Unit 04 almost immediately, I doubt those two will be let off the ship until day after tomorrow," Sammi told them.

      "Why not just offload them with the EVA?" Ranma asked.

      "Security concerns," Sammi explained, "As well as a debriefing on all that's gone on with their group and ours. We couldn't exactly send them a radio message of all that, or fly you and the other out to the carrier."

      "Weird," Ranma complained. Why not, or why not fly them here? It would certainly be as safe as everything else that's gone on lately. I'd have both of them in the EVA's entry plug, and debrief them right in NERV, in the EVA bay, where all the pilots can see and talk to them, from inside their EVAs, maybe have Rei and Shinji double up. Ranma considered his feelings, and all he and `Ranko` had talked about, I've got a lot I want to talk about with them.

      "I thought Mirei was enamored of you," Sammi teased.

      "Not when she's playing," Ranma countered, then glanced at Tomiyo, wondering if Sammi had been teasing him too.

      "You just want to talk to Nab-chan again, or is it Ranko wants to talk to Raccoon?" Sammi asked, a picture of innocence, "I think it's sweet."

      Ranma growled at the teasing, mainly because he didn't know for certain himself, and that was embarrassing. Ranko said it wasn't romantic, and you can't lie to yourself, can you? Ranma wondered, But she wants a lot more than a conversation with him. He considered the description of the Nerima dreams that Asuka and Raccoon had had, and all the reports of the Azores-to-San Diego mission, I guess everyone is a little jumpy. I think I just want to know everyone is safe, and we're together again.

      Ranma glared at the smiling man. "Let's get going. How come I couldn't go to school, but I can go to the game?" He'd enjoyed not going to school, but the seeming inconsistency grated on him.

      "Whatever bug Shinji and Asuka picked up, we didn't want to spread it to the entire class," Tomiyo explained.

      "Kids go to school sick all the time," Ranma countered.

      "Not pilots, have you ever known any of you to get sick?" Sammi asked.

      Ranma thought for a moment, then frowned. "Agh," Ranma said as he shook himself, "Mythos germs."

      "Exactly." Tomiyo tried to turn him back towards the door.

      Ranma faced Sammi. "So . . . how can I go to the game?" Ranma persisted.

      "Because it's an hour or two out in the open under the bright sunlight, not six hours cooped up in a room together," Tomiyo replied, "And you haven't shown any symptoms."

      Ranma nodded as he headed out the door. I wish I could just ride my bike there, but security is still itching about events, he thought of the creature his `Other` had crippled and then Rei had killed, She's healing up pretty fast. I'd hoped I could visit her, and see if she's making progress. But they said 'no'. Getting healthy, and see how fast she's gotten. That triggered another question. "Tendo-kun, what would you say is Raccoon's most dominant characteristic, and Asuka-chan's."

      "Both -? Talking!"

      Ranma blinked, and briefly considered a martial art based on that, and got a horrifying image of men and women who could put anything in their mouths. He shook his head to dispel the vile image. "I mean how they fight, and Nab-chan too."

      "What they have in common, or each separately?"

      "What each has," Ranma said as he watched the older man consider.

      Asuka looked around her room and snuffled, both from the cold or flu she'd gotten, and from the fact all her planning was for nothing. Stupid Shinji, she thought, sniffled again, If he hadn't come down with this . . . whatever, we'd be finishing up with the plan.

      She flopped on her bed and sniffed again, feeling put upon and angry, also glad the cold gave her an excuse to sniffle and mope, and nobody could prove it was only because she felt bad emotionally. "I try and do one nice thing for Wondergirl, a stupid birthday party, and the universe plots against me," she muttered angrily, "Figures, Horseface is immune and can go and do what he wants."

      She walked out of her room, noted that Juri was waiting in the downstairs living room. Another memory I can't . . . God in Heaven! She's only been gone a couple of days, and I've nearly forgotten . . . Erin's name! I really am thoughtless, she thought.

      Juri looked up from her book. "You should be in bed," she chided Asuka.

      "I'm bored. I've read everything. Horseface is at a baseball game, Spineless is in bed, Wondergirl is doing whatever she does. There's nothing good on the radio . . . "

      "How about you have a little cheese with that whine?" Juri asked, "You got a mild case. Shinji's practically unconscious in bed. Aren't you really feeling put upon that the Commander canceled your party plans?"

      Asuka growled and returned to her room, closing, not slamming, the door behind her. Of course that's what's bothering me! she seethed, I can't owe Wondergirl, I have to at least try to pay her back! Now, I can't. She thought as she blew her nose and then threw herself on the bed. "It's not fair."

      Rei coughed slightly, despising everything about being sick. I do not believe the Fourth's Martial Arts training was intended to trick me into expending all my healing powers, leaving all of the Children vulnerable, Rei thought as she blew her nose, That he seems immune to the effect does raise questions. Perhaps more about his humanity than his intentions.

      Rei returned her attention to the Garand rifle and two boxes of mixed rifle grenades someone had carefully placed on the balcony outside her door. Placed so that the security men could not see the items or the deliverer. Rei had used her increasing ability to move quickly, to roll the grenades into her apartment and began to check them over, as an armorer had shown her once before. I do not like deceiving the Commander's eyes and ears, she thought as she finished reassembling the rifle she'd just field stripped, carefully dripping oil on the last part as she picked it off the bed sheet. It seems odd. The rifle is ordinary. It has not been sabotaged, nor has it been magically enhanced. So why would someone have delivered a completely ordinary rifle, and all the grenades? Their intentions cannot have been hostile.

      Mirei tossed the ball to Ami, who threw it to Yoko, who threw it back. "Double play," she said. She frowned, considering, No one knows where Yuki-san went, but I get to pitch. I'll show them what I can do, she thought happily as she put one of her sliders right through the strike zone. "I'll show Ranma-san too," she sighed, then noted that her father had provided a few extra men. I wish I could get my hands on the men who hurt Asuka-chan and Ranma-san. I'd do more than just stomp on them with an EVA!

      "Hey, ease up!" her catcher raised her mask and complained, shaking her hand, "Or save it for the game!"

      "Sorry about that," she bowed slightly and said, "I just wish the others could come."

      "Ranma-san's coming," Yoko teased, "Just for you."

      Mirei blushed and shot the girl a venomous look. There isn't a death slow enough or painful enough to sentence someone to, she thought, For teasing me about my Ranma-san. "Let's concentrate on the game!" Mirei shouted, "Without Yuki pitching, we might even win this one from `her Highness`."

      Ami ran up to the pitcher's mound. "Hey, careful talking like that," Ami warned as she looked around for anyone who might report the comment, "People who've talked like that have had bad things happen to them."

      "I know people who make bad things happen," Mirei countered darkly. She'll cheat, or make people unpopular, Mirei thought, Is that the best she can do? My dad's people kill people. Ranma-san and his friends kill dark Kamis and gods! What's Usagi got to compare to that? She saw Usagi and Tomoe walk onto the field. Mirei waved and smiled as she and her friends vacated the field to let the queen and her little bees practice.

      "I hear Nabiki-san and Raccoon will be here tomorrow," Mirei called cheerfully, "I just can't wait to meet them in person! I know you feel the same!" And don't you look sour about that, Mirei thought through her outward smile, I can't wait to see what happens when Nabiki-san gets here.

      Usagi looked over her team. Without Ryuu and Kiki, and with Tomoe playing catcher, Mirei and her brats might actually have a chance of winning, she thought angrily, I can't believe the pounding we got from Saotome in our sleep last night. Until last night, I thought he wasn't supposed to hit girls, but he really opened up on us in our dreams, as if there was no tomorrow. And those claws! It was like fighting a sabre-toothed tiger crossed with a chainsaw! Usagi didn't like secrets, she couldn't understand why things had fallen apart so badly, why her string of successes seemed to end so abruptly and she didn't know why that building had crushed Ryuu. Yuki survived the same thing, but Ikari was the one who dropped the building on her, Saotome never was powerful enough to take us on in dreams, Usagi wondered about the events, wondered whether her guts would spill out, as they had under Saotome's assault, So who or what was behind that dream? Has Tendo gotten close enough that she's defending her friends, and attacking us already? What she did to Ryuu, I didn't think Tendo was that . . . ruthless.

      She remembered getting the news that the girl had died in her sleep, and her parents were quietly disposing of the body. Death does not treat the Chosen kindly, she remembered, I'll need an excuse for the girl's, and her family's, sudden departure. "That's for after the game," she reminded herself. She looked over at Tomoe, who knew she'd get elevated, she just had to hear Usagi actually ask. That will be her glory . . . for a few days, Usagi thought, Then things should return to normal. Yuki's position in the hierarchy also needs to be filled. Tomoe is completely inappropriate for such a position, although she certainly doesn't seem to think so. "Very well, you can play catcher, but none of that nonsense of trying to smoke the ball throwing it back to me, like last time."

      "I promise," Tomoe said with an evil gleam in her eye.

      Usagi didn't really believe her.

      "I'm sorry," Hiro said. "What more do you want?" he asked Sammi as they sat in Misato's living room.

      "That you worked for our enemies and you decided to switch sides?" Sammi asked quietly, "And you think 'sorry' gets you out of it and it squares things?"

      "I never changed sides. I was always supposed to be on the pilots' side," Hiro replied with restrained force.

      "Have you told Misato? Have you told Ranma?" Sammi asked angrily, "They should really know."

      "I will. I . . . I haven't told Ranma because . . . I think I know what they'll use it for."

      Sammi frowned, but restrained herself. "I know very well what they'll use it for! There will be compatibility issues, but they'll overcome them. The same with Misato?" Sammi exclaimed.

      "Misato? Then you know?! They think no one knows!"

      "Quit evading the issue. Does SHE know about what you are?" corrected, "Do the others know?"

      "What good would it do to tell them?" Hiro asked, glanced back into Shinji's room, "Can you imagine how it would hurt him?"

      "You need to at least tell the Admiral," Sammi counseled, "Someone needs to be ready to deal with it when the others learn the truth about them."

      "I think Miss Langley will be the most alarmed. No wonder the Nazis made such a big deal about her. First among equals, and she isn't even one of them," Hiro said, then asked, "Do you suppose they know?"

      Sammi shook her head. "No. I don't think they know. The truth be told, I don't think they'd care. They have to know Davis isn't one, as for Tendo . . . who knows. Besides, how would that change anything? It's not like Rei and Shinji are really blood relatives. And, why Ranma, not Asuka, Davis or Nabiki?"

      "Ranma has been judged to be more pliable, less strength of will," Hiro replied, then held up his hands, "Don't ask, I don't know how they came to that conclusion. It makes no sense to me either. All the pilots are strong-willed, that's one reason you have Shinji and not Toji or Hikari as your back up to Rei and Asuka."

      Sammi sighed and looked into Shinji's room. "They aren't going to have an easy future, are they?"

      "I rather doubt it. It's not just the Outer Gods and the Great Old Ones, the Elder Gods won't like the competition, and like SEELE, there will be human enemies and exploiters. I doubt any of them will live a happy life."

      Sammi glanced at Hiro, then looked at her own hands as she clenched and unclenched her fists. "Monsters guarding monsters from monsters. Which approaches the ideals of Humanity? The monster-born who will never be, or the human-born who wishes otherwise?"

      "My question is, who is the real monster?" Hiro asked, "Us who ape Humanity, the pilots who lose theirs to protect others'? Or the humans who'd gladly see it all burnt on a pyre to fuel their own ambitions?"

      "Depends on who you ask," Sammi replied, "I don't see what SEELE hopes to get out of it."

      Hiro laughed. "That's easy. They intend to offer sacrifice to convince Yog-Sothoth to make them Ancient Ones, who will guard the Ultimate Gate. It's no more complicated than that," he said, his voice thick with hatred and disdain, "The Russo-German war was their plan, between National Socialism and Communist Socialism. They thought the sacrifice of 10 to 20 million lives would get his attention and prove that humanity had no right to survive. Except another group had a similar plan they launched between India, Russia, China and Japan." He interlaced his fingers. "The plans merged and suddenly no one had a firm grasp on any of it."

      "Idiots," Sammi said, shaking her head, "Make the Stars Right for a season, and send the human race down to screaming madness. None of it makes an ounce of sense. Why not make yourself immortal, and just wait it out? That's what a lot of the Serpent Men have done."

      "Maybe the Serpent Men are more patient. Maybe they do what they do to placate and honor Yig. SEELE and their helpers worship nothing but themselves, and everything flows back to their ambitions. Nyarlathotep just loves them," Hiro said with a scowl.

      "So much for the Elder Gods as the friends of humanity, light and hope," Sammi said despondently, leaning back and covering her face with her hands, "A bunch of fractured kids, the pilots, are all that really stand in their way."

      "No," Hiro said, "We do too, and a lot of humans."

      "I hope you're right," Sammi sat up and told him.

      Ramsey watched as Simson paced in his office. The Captain knew that when a 3-star paces like an angry tiger, you say 'Yes, sir', and you keep your head down.

      " 'Conduct unbecoming' . . . that's the first time anyone used those words in relation to me."

      "It was only a personal," Ramsey said carefully, "And private reprimand, nothing official."

      "At ease, Captain. You're making me nervous."

      Ramsey moved his feet the proscribed distance apart, however nothing else about his posture or wariness changed.

      "What was I supposed to do? When a ship is doomed, you transfer your Flag. I needed to be able to direct the action. I was better able to do that from the EVA." He paused in mid-pace. "Remind me to ask the kids about the counter-counter-measures those communication suites use."

      "Yes, sir," Ramsey didn't let his revulsion at the thought of being in an EVA, for any reason, show.

      " 'Conduct unbecoming a General Officer!'" Simson repeated as he prepared to begin pacing again.

      "Sir . . . we do have the meeting with the rest of the staff and the outside consultants, about security." Ramsey wished he could be anywhere else.

      Simson stared at him angrily. "Don't remind me. What are we going to do, when an enemy can perfectly impersonate anyone - or anything."

      "Miss Ayanami saw to that, sir."

      Simson smiled at the memory. "Did you scrape it off Unit 00's feet, or hose it off?"

      "Scraped, sir. It was liquid enough without diluting it further."

      "Well, we can go to the meeting, let everyone know," he said and gave a mirthless laugh, "Maybe when Admiral Adams gets here, they'll give him a promotion, and my job."

      "From what I've heard, sir," Ramsey offered, "He wouldn't want it."

      She caught the ball, and there was a stinging pain. Usagi frowned at the reminder, one on a long list of things bothering her. She glanced at her glove, flexed her fingers. The nail was always a little discolored, and it always looked different from my other fingers, she thought of the Goddess's replacement for her loyal acolyte's sacrifice, But the nail never turned black before, and the finger never became so stiff and sore. We all felt the Goddess's gift die, is this her punishment? Does she think we've reneged on our `contract`, abandoned our devotion? she fumed inwardly, The idiotic action Yuki took, set all these events into motion, and makes any further action on my part impossible. I'll have to start with Tendo-san, when she arrives. If I play it right, after all that has happened to Langley-san, a change of heart won't be so hard to believe. If I can sell it, and convince 'Ice Princess.' Usagi was still lost in thought, when another twinge from her finger brought her around. She saw Tomoe had approached the mound.

      "Get your mind on the game," Tomoe reminded her, as she pushed up the catcher's mask, "There's nothing to be done about tomorrow. If the stories are correct, then she'll be a pushover to a 'I've repented' sob story. She likes having people under her authority. In the meantime, let's win this game." Tomoe smiled as she looked around. "Can you imagine what will happen if just the rumors of her highness' return, gave those losers the strength to beat us?"

      Usagi growled at her giggling sister. That would just make things perfect. People already drawing strength through their worship and adulation, Usagi thought, As if they were already on par with the Goddess. Another twinge brought her out of her thoughts. "You have a very sick mind," Usagi told Tomoe, who grinned maniacally, until a twinge of her own broke through.

      "Boss," Harumi asked as the approached the mound, also shaking and flexing her hand. "Have you noticed all the extra people in the stands?"

      "NERV security," Usagi dismissed the girl's concerns, "After everything, can you blame them?"

      "No," Harumi said sternly, in a tone she never would have dared use a month ago, "Fans of the pilots. Families, military, all ages. They are here because the pilots are going to be here."

      Usagi felt her blood run cold, her dismissal of Tomoe's joke a few moments ago. They do have worshipers! she realized as she scanned the stands, We had assumed . . . I assumed we would have time. Now . . . we have a greater problem. "All that means is greater glory for - her - when they are won over to our cause," Usagi said confidently, trying to hide her own growing uncertainty, "Now do you see why I wanted them to join us freely?"

      Harumi nodded, smiled knowingly. "Of course, Usagi-sama. I shouldn't have doubted you."

      "No, you shouldn't have," Usagi chastened, "I am willing to overlook it, if you work diligently."

      "Yes, I shall." Harumi shook her hand again and frowned. "Just numbness, it comes and goes. With a sharp pain at the beginning and end." Then she ran to take her place on the field.

      "What a brown noser," Tomoe commented about their third baseman, "Don't think she isn't planning to worship by throwing herself at Tendo's feet once she sets foot in Japan."

      "We will need lesser and greater people, and an ally in her camp would be useful. It is good Harumi will be happy as such a servant, and bask in the adoration of her betters, and the Goddess."

      "Now who's dreaming?" Tomoe muttered as she walked towards homeplate.

      Even Tomoe doubts our victory, doubts the power of the Goddess, she thought as she looked around, seeing the military vehicles moving in the distance, patrolling the outskirts of the field. Even I feel the emptiness at the destruction of the Goddess's gift, and the withdrawal of her favor. But we have her Young. Usagi smiled. "And her Chosen One." She smiled at that thought, and put the sting of jealousy about Yuki's blessing in proper perspective.

Hole Cards

      Jamie looked as her fellow servants, who swelled the ranks of the attendees. She noted that Mihiro had not divested herself of her traditional clothing or manners. By the One who are now Two! She even brought a boxed lunch for me and my `dad`! she thought of her self-appointed aide-de-camp.

      "It's good to see someone has some manners," the lieutenant said, bowing slightly at the proffered gift.

      Maybe you should marry him. Jamie frowned, but ignored Mihiro's demure smile, instead greeting Eriko and several of the others. It would improve our cover, and her documents say she's of age in Japan.

      "It's good to see that someone is finally taking on that bunch," Eriko said, taking a seat near them. "I heard Ranma-sama is coming to see the game. I hope the security is up to the job. If Mirei-san wins, Usagi and company will probably try to kill her."

      "That's not funny," Jamie said glumly.

      "It wasn't meant to be," Eriko said, as she stared at the game, "The power struggle among the various factions must be decided today, before Nabiki-san and Davis-san return. The cults are going to have to decide as well. We know they know more than they are telling ONI."

      "Once they return, they can unite a core of the factions into the new dominant group," Mihiro said with a cultured chuckle, "It seems that Nabiki is finally one of them in truth. Chaugnar Faugh divided between the two, and you all remember what a trouble maker he used to be. Perfect for those two, making ripples just to keep things stirred up." She let the others laugh at the possibilities.

      As the others laughed, Jamie's `dad` was left looking and feeling confused.

      "It would make more sense if you'd actually lived through it," Jamie explained to the man, "Imagine Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie rolled up with Daffy and Donald Duck, thinking they're Bela Lugosi."

      "I just want to know what I should be concerned about," he replied, clearly not able to grasp the concept.

      "Nothing, at the moment," Jamie replied, then looked at a boy whispering something to Eriko, who couldn't believe what she was hearing. "What's all that about?"

      "Gendo's secret plan, you won't believe it either," Eriko said wide-eyed, then leaned close to tell Jamie.

      Gendo glanced at those around the meeting table. Only MacArthur's staff and his Majesty are missing, he thought of Ramsey, Simson, Tomlinson, himself, Kozu, Kaji, the head of the Tokyo Police, heads of the various military Intelligence agencies, representatives of certain unnamed American agencies, and all their spear-carriers and dog-robbers lining the walls, serving coffee, whispering warnings and messages to their masters. No wonder SEELE meets virtually. Their members would never stomach the war of egos going on here, he thought, And each would like it even less, when they lost a battle.

      "As you've all been briefed," Simson began, "This creature, called 'The Twins', managed to penetrate the most secure facilities, and impersonate me, to withdraw the outer perimeter security forces guarding the Children. If not for some timely and unexpected interventions, it could have been a disaster." He looked around at the men. "I am not expecting this meeting to produce a new and revolutionary security system. However, I do expect you will form action groups within your agencies to secure both your orders and chains of command from usurpation by outside forces."

      Gendo had scanned the presentation. Nothing we did, not passwords, not locks, nothing kept that thing out, Gendo angrily thought, We've been depending too much on the dubious protection of their refusal to work within our systems. But we can no longer make such heart-warming assumptions. They will now deign to use our own methodologies to destroy us.

      He woke with a screaming shout.

      For an instant, he didn't remember whether he had fallen asleep to escape reality, or if he'd been awakened from a nightmare into reality. Jean's arm around his chest made him decide he preferred this reality.

      "The dreams again, old friend?" she asked her lover of more than 10 years.

      "Yes, I -"

      The door burst open, admitting into the room, a man with a Sten gun, and a willingness to use it. He and Jean frowned at the massive man, who promptly frowned back. "Francois, if you do not wish me to charge to your rescue, please do not awaken us with the howlings of Hell itself." The big man turned and pulled the door closed after him. Leaving the pair alone.

      He felt Jean's fingers idly playing with his hair. "Francois, will you at least tell me now what the dream is?" she asked.

      "It is the same as it always has been. The pilots are in England, one of them discovers something they should not, and the British Tommies sent to `guard` them, gun them down. Separately, but at the same moment."

      "For the British Operation Catapult, and my father and brother . . . I cannot love them. But the pilots? Why would they be so mad? Discover what secret? Steal the EVAs? They don't have the pilots to operate them."

      "That was the dream, some fight, some receive a premonition, but all are cut down eventually. I have never seen what they discover. I do know they don't recognize it if they do discover it."

      "Are the pilots even coming to England?"

      "Ask the Section Chief," he told her, "When we go in today."

      Jean sighed and flopped back onto the bed, pulling a cigarette from the bedside table. She lit it, and practically smoked the entire thing with one angry drag. "Tiresome girl . . . " she said as she exhaled a cloud of smoke, "Marie, she is well named. She would say 'Let them eat cake', and mean it." She turned slightly to look at him. "Are the others so troublesome? I met Miss Langley, when she was held by the British, and I trying to discover how to repair our unit. She was the typical, clever, little Boche. Always eager and willing to help her inferiors with how clever she was. Charming in that a 12-year-old could be so chidingly patrician. Damnable thing was, she was right, all the time."

      He let her stay in her memories, he too had met the girl, and found her charming and ingratiating. It helped I could discuss music at her level, which Jean could not, he thought, So I was obviously not an idiot, just not as clever as she. "Davis . . . is an American."

      Both chuckled at that.

      "The rest are Japs, what could they be otherwise?" He had no way to judge them.

      "Go back to sleep. We can be depressed about this tomorrow," she told him as she crushed out her cigarette and closed her eyes.

      He watched her sleep for a time, before he could relax enough to fall asleep again.

      Misato was furious. "And you felt no need to tell me?" she practically screamed at Hiro. Sammi fully expected her to leap across the table and physically attack him, as she had others.

      "I didn't pick you up at that bar to get to NERV. I didn't know who you were. My cover was as a documentary film maker. I'd already made my contact with the Navy."

      "I bet you took advantage though," Misato growled as she sat at the dining room table with the other two. Her fists clenched and veins bulging.

      Misato wants that clenched fist to hit someone, or to wrap it around a beer, Sammi thought, But has been denying herself. What intrigued her most was how PenPen, standing under the table, stayed close to his mistress, and to Hiro. As if he wants the `grownups` to kiss and make up.

      "I didn't take advantage to get close to NERV secrets. I did take advantage to help my film."

      Sammi laughed at that, earning a glare from Misato.

      "You think this is funny?"

      Sammi decided to give Misato the verbal slap she needed. "He took less advantage of you than practically every other man in your life has, except the pilots. Is that why you're so mad?" At him and at them? she wisely didn't add.

      Misato looked like she'd been splashed with ice water. Hiro stared at the ceiling and wanted to be anywhere else.

      Too bad, I've heard all the comments about you - Major. If half of them are true . . . you're no fit guardian nor officer. Otherwise, you're lucky, Sammi thought, matching Misato stare for venomous stare.

      "So I'm supposed to just accept that?" Misato asked in a more subdued tone, her underlying anger undiminished.

      "We have interrogated him fully. With the entirety of Section 2 coming under suspicion, we've had a lot of security concerns. He is no longer one of them," Sammi replied carefully, "How you treat him in your private life, is your concern. The Admiral and the Commander want the film to go forward, and have no objection to supervised visits with the pilots and staff. You've got no say in that decision."

      "I don't think I can trust you," Misato told Hiro, then looked at Sammi, "I don't see why you do."

      "I don't trust anyone, except the pilots," Sammi replied coldly, "And I trust them to be teenagers."

      "There are procedures you don't need to know about," Sammi added in a more business like tone, "There will be consequences, but I thought it important that you hear it from him." Leaving out he's actually an artificial creation, she mentally added, That's not what you need to know. That and we're all aware you've been drinking a lot less since you met him, and have almost caught up on your paperwork. The High Command decided he was good for you.

      Misato continued to glare at Hiro, then looked away if she thought he might be looking. Hiro tired of the game and started looking steadily at her. The deadlock seemed destined to continue.

      "So how's Shinji?" Hiro asked.

      "He's got a worse case of whatever Asuka and Rei have a touch of. We're hoping it isn't encephalitis. But this is the season for it," Misato answered, glancing worriedly at the room where the Third Children was bundled up in blankets despite the heat and humidity that gripped the city.

      "He'll pull through," Hiro said with confidence and a smile, "He's a tough kid."

      "They're just kids," Misato muttered angrily.

      It was vaguely surreal, the looks of rapture on the faces around him. Captain Ramsey let them ooh and ahh at where they were, and focused his thoughts on the mission at hand. We've still got enemies out there, he thought unhappily, Considering the implied infiltration of our chain of command, these people may be our only troops of guaranteed loyalty. Although whether they'd be loyal to the kids themselves, or their image of the kids, remains to be seen.

      Before coming here, Captain Ramsey had left the meeting on the security situation. He'd checked on the assassin team and the continuing interrogation of them. They still haven't told us anything we hadn't figured on our own, he thought, Except that they weren't working to a coherent plan, it was multiple operations working without coordination. Now we know their remaining forces will strike with coordination. But does that mean today, tomorrow, next week, next month, when? And how good will our coordination be? When are we going to run out of rabbits to pull out of our hats?

      He looked at the groups, and factions within the groups of people who'd come here. I've got a more productive meeting to attend. It seems that the groups are as conflicted as the pilots themselves, some enemies, some allies, even within the same group. I have to wonder what the pilots would think of these people and their beliefs, he thought as he approached the group who'd gathered at the site of the school building, The pilots' old school. It's almost fitting that this is where they agreed to meet. With everything that is going on at the other school, I wonder if we'll move them back here soon.

      Leaders and their aides from all the cults were waiting for him, the uneasy peace among them seemed to be holding. The construction of the building was continuing, but enough had been completed to allow a meeting out of the view of prying eyes.

      They act as though they were meeting at church, or more likely, a cathedral, he thought as the cultists spotted him and pointed him out to the rest of their group. "You've all read my reports, and have heard and shared all the rumors?" he asked, dropping into his role as messenger and guardian of the gods.

      "One cannot find the invisible, nor can we see what will happen. Since the move to the new school, we make the auguries, and cannot interpret them," the unofficial hierophant told him.

      "Auguries? Like Tarot cards, chicken entrails?"

      "There are other methods," the black suited man said fearfully, "You don't usually pour molten metal into a vat of water, and get dozens of exactly identical tesseracts. We're planning to offer them to various universities as Christmas ornaments." He handed Ramsey one of the odd structures of rods and plates that perfectly diagramed the hypercube.

      I wonder if the kids would see this as I do, Ramsey idly wondered as he turned the solidly made object over and over in his hands, Or would they see it as it truly is? "How many do you have?"

      "One hundred seventy-five kilos, about 385 pounds, in ten different metals. Every augury we've done for a month."

      The hierophant spoke up, "The rest of us have had the same luck, the readings are gibberish, yet eerily similar."

      Ramsey decided not to comment on the idea, As if anything about the children and their enemies could be anything but eerie.

      "I suspect if we tried chicken entrails," the hierophant continued, "The bird would spontaneously batter and fry itself while we watched. A good picnic lunch, but a poor prognosticator," he joked to lighten the mood, it utterly failed.

      "The situation remains as dangerous as it was when I first contacted you. We must find those people, and soon. Before, they were working behind the scenes," Ramsey told them, "Now they are working to orders and a plan."

      The cultists glanced around, looking both worried and ashamed.

      They are on the verge of failing their `gods`. We already failed the kids once, that they know of. If Gendo is right, the kids simply won't have it in them to fully trust us again. If the `grownups` screw up badly enough again, we'll only have fear and threats left to control them. As big a bastard as Gendo is, even he knows that can't work in the long run, Ramsey thought.

      Rei waited atop the building across the road from Mein Grosse Feldmarschall's apartment. Juri is in there with her, Rei thought, But I desire to be her point guard. I have told the Commander about the girls, and my suspicions of the links among our woes and their actions. He said he was preparing a response. She considered the possible and reasonable responses. I doubt they will be allowed to live. That is not my choice, unless they come at me, or Shinji-kun, or Mein Grosse Feldmarschall.

      She wrestled with her desire to protect Shinji-kun. Sammi can guard Shinji-kun adequately. With Erin's death, Juri must take over her guard duties, and she does not know Mein Grosse Feldmarschall as well as Sammi does and Erin did. So, perhaps they will reason, as I have, that the weakness lies here. She looked at the Garand that had been left for her. I will have to inquire to that officer in ordinance who has assisted me in the past, she remembered the instructions that the rifle grenades could be shoulder fired, but also could be used as a mortar, and she waited, I am good at waiting.

      In the apartment, Asuka was playing cards with Juri. She's quiet, Juri worried, She's normally loud. 'Quiet Asuka is a violation of the Natural Order', Erin had said often enough. It bothers me.

      "One card," Asuka said so softly, Juri almost missed it.

      "The Bunker Hill will be here tomorrow," Juri said as she gave Asuka the card.

      "Is Horseface moving out?" Asuka asked. No emotion, no outward signs.

      "If Dr. Akagi is coming back, I would think so."

      Asuka merely nodded.

      No shouts of joy or cries of protest, Juri thought, Simple acknowledgment of the information. Juri took two cards. No exhortation of victory or defeat. Her card playing is a good deal less aggressive that I'd heard. I just wish I knew what to do. Loud and abrasive is hard on the people around her, but none of them were comfortable the last time she was this quiet. This seems even worse. Juri knew that the pilots and guards were concerned about what Asuka would do in combat, in her present condition. I don't know how the High Command will react, she thought as she laid down her cards. "Three fives," Juri said.

      "Four of a kind," Asuka said, quietly laying down her cards, and seemingly waiting a moment, for permission to rake in the pot. Asuka stared at the door, with the first look of real concentration on her face. A moment later it was gone.

      I wonder if the others can draw her back out of her shell, Juri wondered, I can only hope.

      Mirei smiled and waved at Ranma-san and Tomiyo-san, then returned her attention to the softball captain's exhortation to play their best. Easy to say, when we've only come close to beating you twice. If Yuki had let us give 100%, we would have won. Not likely, Mirei thought to herself, The `battle` will be joined soon. Mirei smiled as she walked not to her usual shortstop position, but to the pitcher's mound. Let's see if you're as tough as everybody thinks you are, she thought.

      The meeting was interminable, as all such bureaucratic maneuverings were. Why can't they just accept we know it was no one's `fault`. We are just trying to make certain it doesn't happen again, Gendo wondered as he noted that both Simson and Tomlinson had adopted the completely thorough stone mask that many Japanese bosses had. Letting none of their irritation show, It seems they too can learn and adapt. Officer Shigeru approached and waited for Gendo or Simson to acknowledge him.

      "Report," Simson ordered.

      "Sir. We've discovered some unusual activity around the city. No Angels, but very strange. I -" the man's statement cut short as something materialized beside him and hurled him aside.

      Gendo looked around frantically as dozens of other similar twisted, misshapen humanoid creatures appeared. Gendo glanced at Fuyutsuki, and cast his spell, leaving the others to their fate.

      Simson had been as stunned at Ikari's and Fuyutsuki's instant disappearance, as he was by the invaders' shark-toothed, crab-clawed, rubbery appearance, and their subdual or dismantling of the Marine guards. He was even more shocked when several humans arrived in the same manner as the monsters had. In the background, he heard several explosions and an exchange of fire.

      "Communication," Tomlinson said and frowned, leaving Simson to judge how the situation had degenerated.

      There has to be something we can do, some warning we can get out! he thought angrily as he considered his sidearm, his constant companion now, And useless as a thrown rock against most mythos enemies.

      "Surrender, and you will not be harmed," one of the humans ordered.

      Simson could tell that whatever force Security and the base's Marines had put together was being pushed back. So likely they can't rescue us in the next few minutes, and these bastards are likely to kill us if they can't take us prisoner, his mind raced, And the quicker we're gone, the quicker Ramsey and Stedman can get the base back up and running.

      He glanced at Tomlinson, who nodded.

      I agree, we can do more damage at their base than getting slaughtered here, he thought as he put his sidearm and two clips on the table in front of himself. "We surrender." He saw the shock on the faces of the Japanese, who had been waiting for someone to guide the group. They put whatever pistols or knives they carried down at the end of the table and retook their seats. To await further orders. That's the problem, Simson thought, One, thankfully, the pilots don't share. If an idea's wrong, they say so. I'm guessing, that because I'm `the boss`, these men don't question. Very dangerous, but I can use it later.

      The oddly misshapen creatures surrounded the table. "Where is Ikari? Where is Fuyutsuki?" the human asked angrily.

      Didn't get the two key players, did you? Simson thought, That's another wedge to use.

      "They were here when you appeared, and they vanished," Tomlinson said, "I thought you'd gotten them."

      "We did not, but we have you, no matter," the human's bravado failed to convince the two general officers as the staff room at NERV was replaced by another unfamiliar room that looked like a poor copy of the NERV auxiliary control station.

      Now, what was it Saotome said? Watch, learn, wait and strike! Simson thought, Sun Tzu would approve.

      The half-track passed through the brush bordering the ball field. One of dozens of increased patrols around and alongside the places the pilots frequented. The quad mount 50's aimed at nothing in particular, passing the same trees and shrubs they had since yesterday morning.

      None of them knew or considered if that same brush had been there before they began their patrols.

      "Three to two," Ranma said, "They're doing the best job yet." He applauded a catch by Mirei, fielding a grounder into a double-play. "YES!" Ranma jumped from his seat and shouted with the rest of the crowd. He glanced at Mirei's parents who beamed proudly as the two teams switched sides. Mirei gave Usagi a tremendous smile as they passed on their way to and from the pitcher's mound.

      "Perhaps, you could learn a little about teamwork, even you can't be everywhere!" Tomiyo sat down as he commented, getting a frown in return, "Misses Tomoe don't seem too pleased."

      Ranma already had his revenge on one front planned. All I have to do is spring my trap, he thought and waved to the old man who seemed to be looking for them.

      "Father?!" Tomiyo exclaimed.

      Ranma turned to smile at Tomiyo. "Yeah, I invited him. I thought you two might want to meet `at work,`" Ranma said as he sat down, "I promise to be as much trouble as possible. Prove you can do your job."

      "That may not be a good idea. I doubt he'd approve of Mirei-san's parents."

      "BALL? ARE YOU BLIND?" Ranma sprang to his feet and shouted. He sat down in disgust. "You aren't meeting her family. You're showing off for your dad." Ranma didn't understand why that seemed so important to him.

      The girl at bat managed a single, and Mirei was up at bat.

      "Hit it out of the park!" Ranma shouted his encouragement, and Mirei belted the ball. Only to have it go foul.

      "Control," Tomiyo chided him, "A Martial Artist should know that. Can you imagine a girl with tremendous strength and little self-control?"

      Ranma briefly considered a girl with Rei's strength, Asuka's temper and his own problems with controlling his impulses. He shook his head. Rather face the Elder God of . . . those furry things, he decided. "There are some things man was not meant to know," Ranma muttered.

      Usagi glared at Mirei, who smirked back. This time the ball sailed over Usagi's head and into the trees, Mirei stood, dropping her bat disdainfully and smiled at the other girl. Hate roiled off Usagi like a cloud. The girl seemed to be glowing with it. Her fists clenching and unclenching as she could only be controlling herself by pure will. A will that seemed to be slipping by the second as Mirei began a leisurely walk around the bases. Tomoe took a few steps after the girl

      The explosion shocked Ranma, for an instant he thought Usagi and Tomoe had literally exploded with rage. The places Mirei and Tomoe, and Usagi, had been standing a moment ago, were only clouds of smoke and columns of dirt racing into the sky. He didn't hear the explosion, he barely felt the hot wind that plucked at his clothes. He could only stare and remember that weeks ago, when those explosions had seemed to come hunting him. They aren't alive, he thought as he noticed that several more explosions had annihilated those who'd been standing on the bases, But I can't fight them, I can't save anybody.

      Ranma felt the impact on his chest as Tomiyo shoved him off the back of the bleachers. The man seemed backlit for an instant as Ranma fell. Ranma landed on his feet as explosions shattered the bleachers and the people in them, throwing pieces of wood and people in all directions. As bits struck his face, his clothes and the ground all around him, he could smell the burnt wood, explosives, and blood, but he could hear nothing, as if he was watching a silent movie. Every instinct told him to advance, attack, and defend those weaker than himself. There's no target, there's no one to hit, he thought as he came out of his initial shock.

      Sound returned, practically throwing him back with its intensity. Tomiyo probably told me to run, he thought as he turned, running away from the carnage, while every variation of the word 'coward' rang in his mind, This isn't a fight I can win. I couldn't beat the mortars before, when they killed Nancy Thompson, I cannot beat them now. He increased his speed, hoping to outrun whoever was adjusting their aim.

      Shinji and Asuka! he realized as he turned and ran at his best speed, he glanced over his shoulder as the ground behind him continued to erupt. The explosions seemed to be stomping on the bleachers. He tore his gaze away and faced forward, concentrating on where he was running.

      He let his training and Sammi's endless lectures take over. He pointed himself to Misato's apartment and ran.

Call Or Raise

      Rei watched the men with guns approaching the apartment. None wear uniforms or act as authorized personnel would, Rei thought as she loaded the HE grenade and the rifle blank.

      As she had been trained, she popped up and fired, then ducked back down.

      The explosion sliced through the men. Rei glanced up to see if the other escape routes were clear. A second group was approaching the upper door, but had frozen at the explosion that had shredded the first group.

      The first group were to flush Juri and Mein Grosse Feldmarschall, Rei thought as she emptied her pistol into the upper group, Into the hands of the second. She ducked as she came under fire from somewhere. She glanced at the other building, then shot and killed the sniper who'd thought to pin her down. She loaded a white phosphorus grenade on the launcher and fired it like a mortar into the second group. She immediately loaded another WP round. I hope someone has called NERV or the police, she thought as she crept along behind the building's parapet, to pop up and see where her next target was. The survivors of the lower group peppered the parapet with fire, as Rei fired the grenade in a high arc to land amid the men. She ignored their screams as she loaded another HE round, crawled to a new position and prepared to pop up again and to determine which of the two groups she would fire directly into next shot.

      Sammi watched as Hiro `retreated` towards the patio and Misato headed towards the kitchen for a beer. Poor PenPen, she thought as the penguin looked from one to the other, He seems torn who to go after. The bird has more sense than both of them put together.

      The penguin let out a horrendous scream, and raced for Shinji's room. Sammi saw Misato reaching for her pistol as she reached for her own.

      "Behind us!" Hiro called about the men landing on the balcony.

      The cacophony was almost deafening. "Cut off those channels!" Admiral Adams ordered.

      "Colonel Stedman in the clear, sir!" a rating reported.

      "Report!" Adams ordered.

      "We're just hanging on, sir. They've hit every opening they can find and a few we didn't know about. An armed Marine beats a locked door, and we have both, but we've got a lot of infiltrators."

      "Hold out as long as you can. Help is on the way."

      "Aye - " noise replaced the Colonel's voice.

      "Sorry, sir," the man apologized, "We get a hole, and they close it."

      "Keep on it," Adams said in a controlled tone as he turned and marched towards where Dr. Akagi and her group were putting the fragmentary information together. "Status."

      Analyst Ibuki pulled out the map they'd been working on, and held it so Adams could see it. Dr. Akagi indicated the areas in red, areas critical to NERV operations and military support of them.

      "They knew exactly where to hit us," Akagi told him quietly, "I doubt it's more than a battalion or two. Mostly standard infantry, with a few items of magical support to stymie us."

      "Who, and why?" he whispered back.

      "I don't know. I do know that this is now the only integrated and coordinated military force between Nagoya and Sendai. And the only one with full air and artillery support." She looked pointedly at where the ship's 5-inch gun turrets would be.

      Adams looked grim and considered the targets, deployments, and all the things he and his staff had been wargaming since Dr. Akagi had counseled more speed and keeping their true location secret throughout the group. "Initiate plan Alpha 7, a fleet-supported invasion against a prepared enemy," he told his officers, "We'll add units already on the beach to our TOE as they become available. Boxer will remain far enough offshore to continue to operate aircraft. All other vessels, including this one and Wasp, will move up to support the landing troops. As soon as we're in range, signal the Coral Sea, Tennessee, Alaska, South Dakota, and any other warship that isn't actively shooting at something, to use their radios to break through this damned interference and gather some useful intelligence on what is going on out there." Adams turned back to look at the map and contemplate the invasion of Tokyo. "The EVAs, how effective will they be against the attackers?"

      "That depends on the pilot. Pilots Davis and Ayanami will give you good results, but the others, I have doubts," Ritsuko admitted.

      Maya looked as uncomfortable as Adams felt about sending kids against these people.

      Ritsuko continued, "But against infantry, they'll need infantry support themselves."

      "We'll provide that," Adams said.

      "There is one thing, sir," Maya piped up, when no one shouted her down, she continued, "The EVAs have very powerful and complicated radios."

      "A sophisticated communications suite with automatic counter- and counter-counter-measures integrated," Dr. Akagi quickly explained.

      "Captain Madison is qualified on the EVA and with communication," Maya finished.

      Adams nodded. "I don't think I can command as well from an EVA, and I've never been sync tested," Adams said, "Someone should give Captain Madison the good news."

      Jamie felt the rescue workers lower her onto the stretcher. While she'd been too close to the blasts for a human to have survived them, she was not human, nor were her compatriots. She hoped that they'd been able to save their current `guardians` from the bulk of the blasts, and that her deafness was temporary. From what I smelled as I lay there, I'm almost glad I couldn't hear, she thought, Too many years, and too much knowledge. At least Ranma got away, but we're in no condition to pursue or assist.

      She could barely move to look around, so she didn't know the full extent of the carnage. She couldn't hear, so she didn't ask. Ayanami lives, and so does Ranma, in neither case can anything be done, she thought as the ambulance doors closed, darkening the interior, and allowing her to openly reform her wounds. The odd, yet unmistakable smell of war wounds filled the air around her. Explosives, burnt metal, blood and more told the tale. There will be Hell to pay for this lapse, or this infiltration. With all that was supposed to occur at the meeting at NERV, I doubt there will be anything but finger-pointing for some time, she thought, the rough ride of the ambulance tempted her to leap out and begin her hunt. She refused. When I catch these men. I shall crush their balls, she thought, as she transformed her clothing to a nurse's uniform, Then I will laugh.

      Minayo looked down at the corpse of his son, then over to where the medics were evacuating Obayun Shimurata and his wife. At least I will have something to bury, he thought, Saotome wanted me to be proud of my son. Now I am, and there is no way for us to reconcile.

      He turned away, leaving the grieving father at the side of his dead son, and returned to being a detective. The military is in chaos, but I know all the places they will need to go, he thought angrily, Japan is our home, our place, we should be the ones to defend it. Perhaps we can, if only second-hand.

      Nabiki concentrated. The gentle winds moving the dust around the map, gave it an odd, crawling appearance. More like a bug than wind-blown sand, she thought. Only Ritsuko and Maya were with her in the `Pilot's Playroom`, as she cast the spell. All three watched as the dust crawled off in two piles towards the edges of the map.

      Nabiki felt the hair on the back of her neck rising. I'm casting and controlling the spell, and I'm still freaked out by it, she thought as the dust settled in two piles near opposite edges of the map.

      "Figures," Ritsuko said as she marked the locations, then explained, "The one outside of Fuji is Gendo's bolt-hole. The one at Matsuhiro is the backup base, in case we lost the first base in Tokyo. I think the situation goes beyond mere 'communication difficulties'."

      "So," Nabiki said as she released the spell, grateful that Maya caught her as she sagged, "This is hard work. Do we go after the Admiral or the Commander?"

      "Split up," Maya offered as she steadied Nabiki on her feet, "I'll take a force to contact the Commander. You two can get the Matsuhiro base up and running."

      Ritsuko raised an eyebrow. "You'll 'take a force'? Doesn't the Navy have anything to say about this?"

      Rather than wilt, Maya smiled. "I'm sure they'll say 'yes'."

      "That assumes that you are going after the Commander," Nabiki said, "Once that dust separated, I had no idea which was which, and still don't."

      Ritsuko considered. "You'll go with me to Matsuhiro, Maya and her new army can go to Fuji and collect whomever is there."

      This time Maya blushed and stared at the deck.

      "What about getting to HQ and getting another couple of EVAs?" Nabiki asked.

      "We'll leave that to the commanders in the field," Ritsuko told them, "I think Admiral Adams at least needs to be informed of our plans, before he has to carry them out."

      "It's never stopped us before," Nabiki said as they trooped out.

      Ranma ran headlong for Shinji's apartment. The speed and motion let him focus on the problem and ignore all he'd seen. Sammi will know what to do, who to call, he told himself as he raced up the stairs. Some instinct told him to freeze, so he quietly crept up the last few flights, to peer at the hallway in front of the apartment.

      The man standing in front of the door wasn't military or NERV, and while apparently unarmed, stood like an armed guard would. The sound of gunfire from inside spurred Ranma on. The guard barely had a chance to register Ranma and begin bringing the concealed sawed-off shotgun around when Ranma piled into him. The martial artist kicked the man through the door and into the apartment, knocking over a half-dozen men who'd been waiting in the hallway. The cacophony of automatic fire made Ranma dodge away from the doorway.

      Ranma jumped through the doorway, ready to attack. Those who waited were down, wounded by their own weapons. Rather than exult, Ranma felt terrified about the possibilities. Got to know, he thought as he ran through the short hall and ducked into the kitchen, ignoring the bloodied men he stepped on. In the quick glimpse, he saw men shooting at Sammi from behind the furniture. Hiro was already down, lying near the shattered patio doors. One of the living room chairs had gone through the patio doors, and skewered a man on the balcony. Misato was in a heap beneath the dining room table, she'd never even gotten her gun out. He saw all this in an instant, his senses alive and drinking in the information, prioritizing targets, planning attack patterns.

      While the time since his first kick had seemed long to him, he realized that his enemies were only starting to react to the disturbance, Ranma felt his need to protect Shinji and the others boiling up in him. Go! he commanded himself, the blue-white ball that erupted out of his chest to explode among the attackers surprised them as much as it did Ranma. Ranma recovered first, and an instant later, he was among them.

      These aren't school kids, or monsters from another dimension, he realized as he struck with full force, They're flesh and blood combat troops. Ranma ignored the fact that they seemed to be practically standing still in comparison to his speed. He still held back only enough not to kill. I won't kill people, he thought as he shattered one man's gun and most of the ribs behind it, I will hurt them! They won't hurt anyone else ever! He waded through them. Striking to break bones and joints. A dozen men had stood against him, now they were writhing on the floor, if they could even move.

      He kicked their guns onto the patio and jumped to where Sammi lay in the short hallway to the bedrooms. He knelt beside her and reached out to her. Her skin was painfully hot to the touch, beyond fever. A light passed over her face like a spot light, and she convulsed.

      "Ranma," she sobbed, taking his hands, "Please . . . "

      "Shinji's okay, I knocked them down." Her grip was so strong, he wanted to cry out, but the pain anchored him. He glanced briefly at his opponents, they weren't moving. Neither was Hiro. PenPen glanced out of Shinji's room, and withdrew.

      "Please take me," Sammi sighed, "I can't last much long." She grimaced. "Hurts so much."

      "You'll be fine. Help's on the way," he assured her. I can't carry her and Shinji, Ranma thought, Without hurting them.

      "Always . . . a bad liar." She convulsed again, her face and hand tightening as light shone on them, but this time, her grip had no strength. "Forgive Ritsuko, she only wanted you safe." She looked at him, her expression softened as she gained a moment of peace. "I loved you. I couldn't help it . . . but so many others do - " She flushed as her face glowed again.

      What are you talking about? Ranma wanted to shout.

      When the moment passed, Sammi grew determined. "Take me. You don't need the EVA anymore. I have knowledge, insights that you need about the others. About you. Don't let it be lost, let it be my legacy."

      "I don't understand," he replied in horror, turned to ask Hiro's help, but instead of a body, only a handful of blue and white crystals spilled out of the man's deflated clothes.

      "As you take from our enemies - accept from a friend," Sammi gasped, "Please say yes, even if it's a lie."

      His flesh crawled at what he thought she was asking, at Hiro's disintegration, at the attacks. "Yes, I . . . I don't understand," Ranma said miserably, knowing he was missing something, knowing that she was beyond what little healing he could do.

      "You will - I can give you that. Forgive me, forgive Ritsuko, we only wanted you safe."

      "You've done it, Shinji's safe . . . " he trailed off as she went limp in his arms. He couldn't even scream as she began to break down, becoming the gray dust the Angels did as they died. Ranma reeled back, falling to the floor as he felt his mind exploding. He clawed at the carpet, tried to back away until the wall stopped him. He couldn't run away from what cascaded through his mind and into his soul. Unlike the disgusting feeling of a Great Old Ones' `self` slithering into his mind, forcing him to fight for his life and sanity, this was gentler, softer. An offer, not a battle. Thoughts, Sammi's thought, was all he could manage of his own. He centered himself, knew that he had to do something, and Ranma Saotome never lost and always figured out a way to win. He tried to keep the thoughts, feelings, emotions, bits of Sammi together, keep her together. He desperately raced around in his mind, trying to herd them back together. Even as they escaped, he developed better techniques from his thoughts and the other's experiences, but her thoughts and emotions were like quicksilver, slipping through his fingers even when he caught them. Knowledge and information began to pile up. Promised insights into the other pilots, understanding of himself, martial arts, bits of other languages and sciences. Triumphs and tragedies.

      All I want is you whole! he wanted to wail as more of her eroded and faded away, becoming him, nothing he did slowed the process, as if she sought oblivion within his mind, as if she sought to get away, from her pain, from him, Don't you love us, don't you love me? Then stay! Don't leave me, don't throw me away! He turned away, tried to claw at the walls to escape. Please, somebody help me! Anybody? I can save her, if somebody can help me!

      Realization hit hard, he tried to deny she was gone, even as her last warm thought ensconced itself in his mind. He tried to deny it, tried to promise that he would reverse the process, or the others would. Acknowledgment came as he watched the odd splashes as his tears struck the fine gray dust his thrashing had scattered all over the hallway. He slid to the floor, staring at the carpet and the tiny heaps of dust scattered like a mountain range from a titan's point of view.

      He lay there, helpless. I was too late. If I'd been here, if I'd stayed instead of . . . Memories of Mirei's death, and Tomiyo's crashed into him. Even as he blamed himself, a soft voice comforted him and told him, 'Not you or anyone else could have changed things. You can only live with what is, not what you wish it as.'

      I have no choice now, he thought, his fingers idly moving through the dust, all that remained of his teacher, his friend - - my mother, more than almost anyone else was. I'm crying, why don't I feel something? Why is all I feel . . . wonderment? Joy, her joy at being with us, protecting us. He raised himself up from where he'd fallen. His thoughts were finally clear, because his mind felt empty, as if he'd been destroyed too.

      He heard more as the attackers began stirring. Now all he could feel was rage, cold not hot. They killed Mirei, and Tomiyo, and Hiro, and even Usagi and Tomoe. They killed us all, and for what? he demanded of his new found knowledge, and found he had only one answer. "It doesn't matter," he said calmly, his rage had fled along with all other thoughts, as if they feared contact with the one thought that remained. One cold and rational conclusion, a sea of clarity in his troubled life. There were no words, but Ranma knew, These men have hurt us over and over, now they will never threaten the pilots again.

      As he stood, Ranma ignored PenPen's squawk of alarm, and the arrival of Captain Ramsey and a squad of troops. He had a mission.

      Captain Ramsey ran through the door into the apartment, followed by the dozen men he'd managed to scrape up. He saw Saotome poised to strike. His victim glanced at Ramsey.

      "I know the whole network," the man told Ramsey, "You'll lose it all."

      Ramsey knew, We need that info! But he looked in Ranma's eyes and saw madness, not anger but a cold insanity. Ranma's glance registered Ramsey and the combat troops, but returned to his target. I can order Ranma off. I know he'll obey . . . and that would be the last time I could be certain of an order to Ranma by anyone being obeyed again. I'll have used up all the respect I and the others have built up. "Saotome, that's not necessary," he said, trying to persuade rather than order.

      Ranma glanced at him. It isn't stubbornness in those eyes, or any of the other traits Ranma had that I know I could manipulate, Ramsey realized, feeling a creeping horror that he was witnessing a murder, He looks at us with tolerance. Tolerance of me, the men with me, and our moral qualms.

      He paused out of politeness, Ramsey realized, Now he's going to act. He watched as Ranma knelt next to his target, taking especial care. This is like one of those samurai movies, Ramsey thought as he approached, They take special care when they kill themselves. Then it struck him, That bastard down there is going to destroy Ranma, or our ability to use him. Either way we lose! Crap! "Saotome, it's a trick. If you kill a helpless man it's a line you've never crossed. He's trying to make you destroy yourself, even if he dies, he will have won." When Ranma paused, Ramsey hoped he had gotten through to him. "Leave him to us," Ramsey said as he drew his sidearm as he got close, "I'll do it. You can make sure it's done."

      Ranma ripped the gun out of his hand and threw it away. Making it clear the death and the killing would be his alone. Ramsey glanced at the men who'd come with him, none were willing to face Saotome in combat, not over a man who would be executed anyway. There's nothing I can do, he thought as his failure and helplessness closed in on him, Not if I want any of them to follow orders in the future. I can either lose Saotome, or lose all use of him. The answer came simply. My oath is against all enemies foreign and domestic, he thought as he reached for Ranma, Not to live through it.

      Ranma appreciated what Ramsey was trying to do, but he'd made up his mind. I know the cost, and the risks, he thought as he tossed Ramsey away as gently as he could, Sammi wouldn't want me to hurt someone who was trying to help. But I don't want that help. He raised his hand to strike. I give you a clean death, he thought, More than you deserve.

      The sandy-brown hand occupied the entire patio windows, and struck before Ranma could. The immense fist enclosed Ranma and carried him outside. Even Ranma's martial arts skills gave him little chance against an EVA. Ranma's violence and rage, beating on the massive warmachine, screaming insults and twisting to escape, might have gained the leverage he needed to escape. You don't dare use your full strength against me, he thought as he struggled. For a few moments, he thought his skills old and new might prevail. Then he remembered how ruthless his opponent was.

      "DAVIS! GODDAMN YOU!" Ranma shrieked as something new enclosed him, setting off echoes in his mind and heart of Sammi's love for him, and Nab-chan's, even Asuka and Rei's in their weird way. "Damn you! Damn you! Damn you!" he shouted as his resolved crumbled.

      The martial art's frantic counterattack availed him nothing against the EVA that held him. Then the huge machine opened its fist, and Saotome made no attempt to escape. Instead, pounding weakly on the machine's palm.

      Ramsey watched as Ranma's black hair and screams of protest and rage, changed to red hair and became sobs of grief. The EVA held the martial artist no less tightly, but the intent had changed completely. While it soothed and cradled Ranko, another arm came in the window.

      Did you deny Ranma the kill, just to make it yourself? Captain Madison thought of the pilot floating in the plug bottom, Yes, Tendo or you might -would do - exactly that.

      His attention returned to the scene in the apartment as the man's expression changed from smug condescension to alarm as the EVA pinned him to the ground. No, I was wrong, he thought, You aren't going to kill him, because that would be too easy. After all he's done to you and the others, you are going to destroy him, an inch at a time.

      The EVA didn't crush him as Ramsey and the target expected, but the man's screams of terror soon outstripped Ranko's cries of unconsolable grief. Madison squirmed at the sounds, and watched Ramsey and his men react much the same. Then the EVA removed its hand and revealed what the target had been going through.

      Rather than bending in the usual places, each of the man's legs zigzagged like a child's drawing of a lightning bolt. Ramsey and the other soldiers drew back in horror at the scene.

      At least he's alive, Madison thought as he turned away, Davis, you are a sick bastard. He looked into the faces of the horrified troops who accompanied Ramsey and arrived later.

      "Get some people upstairs to res - receive Saotome," Ramsey ordered, "And get a medic for Katsuragi." The man looked ready to lose it right on the carpet.

      Madison was gratefully the EVA put Saotome in the makeshift stretcher and walked away from the apartment. I doubt Saotome will be in any condition to pilot in any case, he realized, That leaves Ayanami, Langley and whoever is still aboard the carrier. And God help anyone who gets in their way!

      The destroyer approached the pier. The pilot boat shearing away, but still staying in range of the 40mm guns, as if offering itself as hostage to the good behavior of the men and women waiting on shore. Colonel Tyler looked out of the windows of the destroyer's lightly armored bridge. Every squad has either a police officer or a man with a cap from the Imperial Army or Navy. They look like they're on review, he thought nervously, They also outnumber my first batch of Marines, although a destroyer at point-blank range evens things up considerably. He noted the AA gunners with their automatic cannons covering the men who waited on the dock.

      "Thank you for the smooth ride, Commander. What do you make of that?" Tyler asked Evans, the destroyer's captain.

      "Saw it on the Philippine landings, the populace wants to help. I watched teams of cops directing traffic, until the MPs could take over, and people pulling the jeeps and prime movers across the beach to get them moving," Evans replied, "They led us in and tied us up proper, good evolution. My boys have them covered, and they know it."

      "Might as well get this over with," Tyler said, "Weirdest goddamn invasion of all time."

      Captain Tendo Minayo felt the sweat crawling down his spine as the Marines landed. Three destroyers had him and his entire force in a crossfire. I vouch for all these men and women, or someone I trust does. There will be no untoward actions on our part, he tried to reassure himself, And I can't exactly order them to hurry.

      The Marine Major started as the entire formation saluted, and held it until he'd returned it. Minayo nodded to two of his aides to follow him as he walked forward and a 40mm quad Bofors tracked their every step. "We have assembled what forces and volunteers we can. All the armor is still locked behind locked gates and green lieutenants with no orders," he said as he offered his hand in an American-style handshake, rather than the more fitting bow. He was relieved when the Marine took it and shook it once, but firmly.

      He gestured for his two aides to open the maps they had sketched out. "Several of the larger armories are held by scratch forces of whoever could be trusted," he said as he pointed out the friendly positions, and politely ignored the Major's guards pointing their guns at him. I'm a cop, not a soldier anymore, my job is to defuse problems, he reminded himself. "There are groups of soldiers who have assembled, ready to fight, but not knowing where to go or in which direction to attack. My people are not so married to radios as you Americans are. Perhaps one day all Japanese will have a radio, perhaps everyone in the world will have a Japanese-made radio," he said and chuckled at his foolishness, getting the American Marines to smile for once, a sign that violence would be either occur this instant or be indefinitely postponed. "That is not today. Today, boys too young and girls have their bicycles as our radios."

      "You offer yourself as guides?" the major asked, signaling to someone still aboard the ship.

      "We know you would not trust us with weapons, Major. Do not mistake us," he explained, "We do not want you here. Like any child who thinks they are an adult, they despise the reminder that they are not. But the robber is at the door, and if we must take a second role to defend our homes, we shall do so."

      "I think we may be able to do better than that," the Major said grimly.

      Gendo ran. He didn't know if they were closing on him and Fuyutsuki, or not. The old man was obviously laboring. How did they know? he wondered about the team pursuing him, Only Dr. Akagi and Kozou knew about that hideout. I hadn't even told the U.S. military. So how were they waiting for us?

      "Can - can't - go - on," his old friend told him, leaning on a tree, gasping for breath, "Even if that Dark Young catches me."

      Gendo too was out of breath, too out of breath to waste it assuring the man he'd be fine. Not that he'd believe it, Gendo thought as he directed Fuyutsuki under some cover.

      "Draw them off," he promised as he dashed away. He didn't know if he meant Fuyutsuki would draw them from him, or he'd draw them from Fuyutsuki. But now they'll close in, I'm too tired to keep running for long, he thought as he ran.

      "Admiral Adams," Captain Miller said, "The Marines have met allied partisans, as well as scattered Allied armed force units. Colonel Tyler requests permission to incorporate these elements."

      He's asking High Command's position on arming the Japanese. I can hear the screaming from the Joint Chiefs if I say 'yes', but nobody will hear anything if our enemies are able to gain the secrets at NERV, he thought and wished the NERV officers hadn't departed.

      "Tell him to follow his best instincts, Captain Miller. Light weapons only, and keep them spread out over the formations," Adams told the Captain. He returned to the map that the officers and noncoms were filling in to give him an accurate picture of the actual situation.

      "Reports from Dr. Akagi's group," the rating reported, "They've reached the outskirts of Matsuhiro."

      "Let me guess, they're meeting stiff resistance," Adams said.

      "Yes, sir. That was the impression I got before they were cut off," the rating reported.

      "Nothing about today has been easy or simple," he muttered under his breath. "Send them air support and arrange for gunfire support by our group and the battleships. All of you please remind the units that locating the other pilots is our highest priority." He waited for the chorus of 'Aye, aye, sir's and returned his full attention to the map. I never wanted Simson's job, I just took an action that will make certain I don't get it, he thought, But I will not go down without using every weapon in my arsenal to their best effect. Odd that only at NERV and Matsuhiro has resistance been encountered. They wouldn't have been stupid enough to assume they could hold off the U.S. Army forever did they? Even if we didn't show up early. Our knowledge of the operational art may be the biggest advantage we have. It's an advantage we'd better pass on to the pilots P.D.Q.

      He watched one of the Marine infantry platoons being scratched out on the clear map boards, and replaced with another symbol, the marker for an armored battalion. "Everywhere we find guides, applause and all the help we could ask for," he told the Captain quietly, "It's going to be the Champagne Campaign all over again. As long as we don't hit any further snags."

      "They can still hurt us," the Captain reminded him, "The pilots are the key. If they've gotten them, we've lost."

      "If we can find the source of them, we have a carrier airwing, an EVA and two battleships to silence it."

      "Yes, sir. Until then, it's the Marines' job."

      Rei looked in disgust at the bent end of the rifle. It will not function now, she thought, Even if I ignored my own safety and the weapon's accuracy. She briefly considered throwing the rifle at her foes, or the grenades. I do not know how to arm them for hand-throwing. A serious gap in my knowledge. Potentially fatal, she thought, a brief amusement at her joke.

      She crawled to a new locations and popped-up for a glimpse. As she ducked back down, she registered the four additional groups of men closing in on the doors on both levels, from opposite directions. They wore uniforms, a mix of NERV, Tokyo City Police, USN, USMC and even the Imperial military, she thought of the groups. The sound of sustained submachine gun fire brought her up for another glimpse. The new groups were gunning down the besiegers, then spraying the bodies with additional gunfire. Odd, she thought, then sensed movement behind her. Another group of uniformed men were arriving on her roof. She fired a warning shot from her pistol as she maneuvered to take cover from either side.

      The ensign looked up from where he'd thrown himself flat. He spotted the hole in his helmet, and the chief shaking his head.

      "Son, you should just stay away from the pilots," the chief warned as he stayed behind cover and began tying a large, white cloth to his rifle's sling.

      "I've got that damned code-phrase," the ensign answered angrily from his prone position, riffling through his notebook, "Blue hair, got it." He rolled over and then shouted, "Roku-kun sends his regards! Have you found another violinist for a string quartet?"

      "What kind of a password is that?" the ensign asked quietly.

      The white flag the chief extended and waved didn't get a bullet through it. "One that works," the chief told him, "Now we're getting somewhere." He waved the flag and stepped out of cover, and didn't get a bullet through himself.

      Ritsuko and Nabiki followed the combat troops, who were methodically clearing away the enemy guards with no mercy. A few tried to report or cry for reinforcements. Such men usually were cut to pieces.

      This is going to easy, Ritsuko thought, then saw one man simply fall over backwards. The others rushed towards him, and stumbled when they stepped where he had been. Force field of some kind, Ritsuko realized. "There's an invisible wall out there. Have the men probe for the edges, but look out for mines."

      The Marine Captain nodded as one of the tanks bounced a 75mm shell off the wall and everyone took cover.

      "Don't do that," Ritsuko suggested forcefully, "And don't probe the shield with gunfire. We don't know where those bullets will bounce."

      The enemy began firing at the troops. For whatever reason, their bullets could get out of the field, but none of the return fire could get at them.

      "Fall back!" the captain ordered, then turned back to Ritsuko, "You NERV ladies have any suggestions?"

      "Call the Admiral," Nabiki offered, "You're going to need more than what you brought, and I know where they have some very big guns."

      Asuka peered at the chart, her mind awhirl as she calculated. A hapless ensign had made the mistake of suggesting she shouldn't be in the CIC. Asuka had just glared at him momentarily, then turned away to continue writing. She saw someone escort the man away.

      "Admiral Adams, I have a solution for you on how to deal with those shields," Asuka announced as she approached the man, who was realizing all the pilots were like this. "A Time On Target barrage."

      "A what?" Captain Miller asked.

      Asuka sighed. "You Americans invented it. You calculate the flight time of each shell and you make a firing schedule based on that, so all the shells arrive simultaneously."

      Adams frowned, then began, "That would take - "

      "I've got it." Asuka handed him the paper she'd been writing on. "I simplified it by assuming the center of the ship and I assumed only the 5 inch 38 caliber guns would fire. That gives you approximately 142 guns that bear, the dispersion will probably be on the low end of two to five seconds, but I was in a hurry and I don't think your people are trained in this maneuver."

      Adams stared at the list of ships, angles of elevation, powder charges and firing times, then back at Asuka. Adams gave up to the inevitable. He turned to an equally shocked Captain Miller and ordered, "Have this transmitted to all ships along with a time synchronization signal. Then tell the ground troops to stand by, no use sacrificing perfectly good infantry when artillery will do the job, thank you Miss Langley."

      Asuka smiled and marched off to find some other problem to solve. She overheard Adams saying to his flag captain, 'I don't want Simson's job. Monsters are one thing, we can shoot them. The tricks these kids pull off, and out of left field, are just scary.'

      Wonderful, Raccoon and Ice Princess have him trained, Asuka thought happily as she approached the communications operators and the problem of enemy jamming.

Wild Cards

      "Black Sheep Actual, this is Lost Lamb," Nabiki called into the radio, "The target is 35 degrees eight minutes from panel marker, best course is 55 degrees magnetic to put it right down their throats. Over."

      "Black Sheep Actual, Black Sheep two and six are standing by Bess, but the Navy wants to start the show. Over."

      Nabiki ignored the snickers and smiles of those around her to concentrate on getting better cover. "Probably the battleships," she told the radio man, "Get under cover."

      Then it seemed that every ship in the harbor opened up at once. The silence that accompanied such a display of violence gave the event an eldritch feel. The noise of that many shells ripping through the air, followed by the noise of their firing was incomparable to anything in Nabiki's experience, even the ordinance car going up outside of Roswell hadn't been that loud. The detonation of the shells was worse. The noise was muted by her ears refusing to register a sound that loud, and it was mercifully short. Once the dust finished raining down around them, Nabiki glanced at Ritsuko who stared back at her in shock. Both stared over the ridge of the dugout at the real target of all the shell fire.

      "Radiation?" Nabiki asked as she looked up at the mushroom cloud and the huge disrupted area viewable only by glimpses through the dust and smoke.

      "Don't be ridiculous. They don't have battleship-fired nukes." Ritsuko didn't sound like she believed it.

      "Bess, report on target, over," the radio demanded.

      "It's covered with dust and smoke," Nabiki replied, then realized she'd automatically answered to 'Bess', "Wait one, over." She watched as the dust settled and all the outer defenses were devastated by the shell holes. "Black Sheep Actual, Lost Lamb, target has been neutralized, I say again, target neutralized, over."

      "They got it, over?"

      "They got it and a half," Ritsuko commented under her breath.

      Nabiki ignored her and replied, "That's affirmative. Don't run off, we may still need you, over."

      "Everybody else is waiting on this dance," Black Sheep Actual replied, "Against the main base, they'll be sending in the EVA, over."

      "I think I feel sorry for them," Ritsuko commented.

      Nabiki nodded. "Depends on who's driving. With Rei or Jeff, the level of kill is - way over."

      The roots had seemed to leap out of the ground at him, tripping him, and throwing him to the ground and his glasses gods knew where. He looked at the shapes approaching, cringed at the blast of gunfire that one of his attackers let fly, so Gendo would know who had absolute control over his fate.

      "You will die now!" one of them shouted.

      Gendo couldn't make out the figures well enough to know who had said it and whom he should focus on.

      'STONEFACE! HIT THE DECK!' he heard the shout in English and threw himself flat on the ground. The sound of several American 50's opening up filled the air. He heard the whine and wet thwack of bullets, for a brief instant, then the sound of someone scrambling towards him. The figure was just a blur, but he recognized the color and pattern of Marine combat fatigues.

      "Commander," the voice said in Japanese, an oddly familiar voice. Then he saw two rods heading for his eyes. He scrambled back against a tree, trying to avoid having his eyes gouged out. The rods neatly missed his eyes, slid on either side of his head, carrying the red lenses of his glasses with them.

      "Better, Commander?" the soldier who'd come into focus, asked in Japanese.

      He stared at the determined face under the helmet, unable to speak, believing he'd truly gone mad. It's impossible! he thought. "Lieutenant Ibuki?" He looked over the kneeling woman in the Marine uniform, including the M3 `Greasegun` cradled in her lap.

      "Yes, Commander," she replied with a smile and a salute.

      "Lieutenant." A grizzled Marine sergeant approached, also carrying a submachine gun, this one ready to be used at a moment's notice.

      Maya carrying a submachine gun? Commanding armed troops in combat? This is like watching a lone duck eat a lion alive, he thought, looking around at the troops appearing on both sides, She set up this ambush?!

      "We picked up another old man," the sergeant informed her, "And something big thrashing around out there."

      Gendo felt, but hid, a stab of fear. They don't have any special weapons teams, he thought of the device he still carried with him, This looks to be a standard infantry platoon. Then he saw Maya's determined look, the fear he expected was still there, but so was a confidence he'd never seen before.

      "Do you have a direction, Sergeant?" Maya asked as she stood.

      When the sergeant nodded, Maya nodded and composed herself.

      "Squad! Volley fire, present!" Maya ordered.

      Eight men hefted bazookas. They all acted as if what they were going to do would actually matter.

      And Maya seems to believe the same thing, Gendo noted. "That won't stop it," he explained. Maya gave him a gamine smile, hiding a secret.

      The Dark Young crashed out of the trees.

      "Aim! I said AIM!" Maya shouted, forcing the men's training, and her own, to overcome their instincts to flee. "Fire!"

      A volley of eight bazookas fired at once. The Dark Young reeled back at the impact and fell with a crash, while the bazooka team frantically reloaded. He watched in fascination as the creature almost instantly quit writhing and lay still. He also stared as Maya of all people deployed troops, arranged for transport, leaving the sergeants and the Master Chiefs to actually place the troops, but they were clearly following the lieutenant's orders.

      "There are other problems, sir," she told him, "We'll get back to a secure point and better be able to deploy our forces."

      "They sabotaged the communications system at headquarters," he told her.

      She frowned, appearing cute rather than ferocious, until she glanced at the combat veterans awaiting her orders. Cute she might be, he realized, But she is obviously in command.

      "We'll have to get back to the carrier," she told the troops, "Bring up the trucks and arrange aircraft to pick us up."

      The radio man nodded and gave the orders. Gendo stared at Fuyutsuki as he arrived. The old man was also staring at Maya, as if she were a rabid lion, rather than their rather shy bridge `bunny`.

      "This is the old man," a corporal said to Maya, nodded to the deputy commander.

      She saluted Fuyutsuki smartly and smiled at them. "Professor Fuyutsuki, I presume." Then turned to the others. "Don't worry about the pronunciation. You'll get it soon enough."

      Gendo had been watching the entire exchange with well-disguised fascination. Two months ago I would have bet my library this was impossible, he thought, Yet, here it is. I guess Simson is correct, we need to adapt and grow.

      "Commander," Maya addressed him in formal Japanese, standing at attention, "We should move out."

      "You are in command of these troops," Gendo told her as they walked, "They neither know nor trust me enough to follow my orders. Until we get back to NERV and can straighten out the chain of command."

      "How badly did I hit my head to be hallucinating all this?" Fuyutsuki asked.

      Maya chuckled at that.

      The troops advanced cautiously, carefully. Near the rear of the formation, Nabiki and Ritsuko scanned the area with more than human senses. "Funny," Nabiki said, "You'd be the first to stick me in an EVA, or rush out yourself to fix one in the field, but against ordinary humans with guns, you hold us back."

      "First," Ritsuko replied, "You're a girl, so we trained you first." She smiled at the old joke. "Second, against the Angels we would risk you, not against an ordinary infantryman. Third, do you really want these men to see how bulletproof we are?"

      Nabiki considered and decided to wait for the all clear.

      "This is it," the captain said, smacking his fist against the heavy door. "They'll be hostages in there, but we'll need artillery to crack that door."

      "No, I just need you and your men to clear the corridor and the adjoining areas," Ritsuko said coldly while staring at the door, "Wait for my signal to return."

      "Ma'am, that goes against the Admiral's direct orders," the captain told her.

      "We have scavenged some alien equipment, and we'll use that to open the door," Ritsuko replied, smiled at the man and continued, "You don't want to see it operating."

      "We have clearance, ma'am," the captain said, trying to stay polite as he argued, "Perhaps a small security force -?"

      "Captain, have you heard the stories, rumors that at NERV there's a boy that changes into a girl?" Nabiki asked.

      The captain glanced around. "One hears all kinds of strange things, ma'am."

      "What do you think started the rumors in the first place?" Nabiki asked, looked at the other men and smiled broadly, "Or rather, what were the rumors started to cover up?"

      The captain saluted. "I'll assemble a security force just around the corner, and we'll be ready to move in as soon as you call, or the doors are open and the device is off."

      "Very good, Captain, also call up someone with an oxyacetylene cutter," Ritsuko said, "Miss Tendo will operate it." She pulled out a soup can-sized object. "We have an enhancer for that too."

      "Very good ma'am." The men hastily removed themselves to their new guard post.

      "Very good, Miss Tendo," Ritsuko said with a smirk.

      "Can you really pull this door open, Doctor Akagi?"

      "Easily." Ritsuko put a foot on one door and dug her fingers into the joint between the doors, and pulled.

      Kaji watched without reacting as their captors received reports. I wish I'd studied the Matsuhiro base better, he thought, Then I might have a plan. He watched as their captors panic slowly ratcheted up, neither Admiral Simson nor General Tomlinson were anything but calm and collected. They must have gone to the same training as Commander Ikari,he thought.

      "Have you ever encountered an enraged pilot?" Simson asked calmly, as he glanced to his fellow captives, and the leaders of the kidnappers, "It is quite something to see."

      The leader had already sent off his Spectral Hunters, and was facing the attackers without them.

      "Your kidnappers are helpless against a pilot," Simson added smoothly, sounding vaguely sympathetic.

      "Seal off the room!" the leader ordered. The heavy doors rumbled closed, side-to-side.

      Kaji knew, The complex was supposed to be the stronghold where his Majesty and his general staff would direct the defense of Tokyo. It was supposed to be proof even against gunfire from battleships, Kaji thought, I doubt it would stand against fully equipped combat troops, without infantry support of its own.

      "That won't be enough," Simson replied, shaking his head sadly.

      What are you playing at? Kaji wanted to shout at the arrogant American. The general, on the other hand, seemed calm and composed, not even deigning to speak with his inferiors. Kaji glanced from one to the other.

      The loud explosion from outside the sealed door, drew everyone's attention. The simple hum of the hydraulic pumps `idling` to keep the doors closed became a squealing protest, rising in pitch and signaling imminent, if not immanent, failure. The metal of the doors began to groan loudly as something outside began working on them, forcing them open against their own mass and the power of the hydraulics.

      And the hydraulics are losing, Kaji thought in horror, looking at the Americans who seemed far too satisfied with themselves for his peace of mind, Perhaps their confidence has a reasonable cause.

      "Close the blast doors!" came the sharp order.

      The leader whirled around. "Admiral! You are not - " The loud clang of the blast doors slamming down into position told everyone that fear ruled, not the hierarchy.

      "Look, I don't know what you've been told about the pilots," Simson leaned forward and said reasonably, explaining, not pleading, "I do know you don't have the equipment or training to deal with one. That's clear enough. So consider what kind of person you would have to be to face a Great Old One, or Outer God, not only without soiling yourself or running away screaming, but able to fight and kill to orders?"

      The leader looked at Simson, then back at the door.

      "Once they slip the bonds we hold them on," Tomlinson's patient tone was anything but reassuring, "There's very little to use as a control. If you've infiltrated us to that extent, you must know that very subject has been a matter of some discussion."

      The kidnappers were all looking around the room nervously now. The sounds of the outer doors' death struggle to remain closed were muted, but the final squeal and the vomiting forth of hydraulic fluid from the pumps gave unmistakable proof that even the blast doors were only a temporary respite.

      "Only their respect for us, and the chain of command, allows us to control them," Simson explained reasonably, "If they get in here, and see there are no legitimate controls, I doubt they'll stop even when they realize they are attacking - killing - us."

      "They'll be filled with regret later," Tomlinson added helpfully while nodding sagely to Simson, "Of course, that won't do any of us any good."

      The boom of something powerful striking the blast doors themselves, carried more weight than the logic of the Americans' arguments.

      Kaji wondered how much was shaded truth, and how much was 'Kentucky windage'.

      "Those people hold the entrance, we don't! Over," Aoba reported from outside NERV command. For some time, the NERV and U.S. military troops had been playing frequency hopping games, transmitting in the clear until the enemy jammed them, then finding another clear band. Slowly they were assembling a force.

      "You have reinforcements on the way," came the American voice over the radio.

      Only an American could sound so chipper when the world is coming to an end, 'We'll make it better out of the ashes!' he thought as he waited for a chance to remind the radio operator that reality was out there.

      "We have reports they have some kind of shield over the entrance, over," the American added.

      "Yes, they've got one over the main entrance, but not over the entrance to the EVA bays. They're just waiting for us to try that one, over," Aoba replied.

      A loud burst of sustained static meant their enemy had found the frequency and jammed it. "Find me another hole," he told the communication officer as he moved to the dugout that was serving as the makeshift CP.

      "We heard," a Marine sergeant told him. Pencil marks on a map outlined the limits of the screen, and also outlined where the enemy gauntlet was waiting for them to make a dash for the `unguarded` EVA bays.

      "You'd better get out an eraser, the Navy sure has," another sergeant said, and pointed to a stream of Corsairs and Avengers, laden with ordinance.

      They watched as the planes strafed the suspected positions before dropping their cargoes of bombs and napalm. The flash of the explosions beat the dull woomph of them by several seconds.

      Aoba winced, remembering comrades who'd fallen victim to that stuff on Saipan. Better them than us, he thought, A couple more strikes like that, and we'll be able to breach those defenses. Then what? We've got no pilots and we don't know what's in the EVA bays. More troops, or the EVAs themselves? He shuddered. Maybe with other pilots in them.

      Adams had heard that the scratch formation of Army troops had been repulsed in their attack on the cultists holding NERV's main base.

      "Order them to fall back and regroup. The EVA will be up to support them, along with Marine and Army units with their full load outs," Adams ordered.

      "The Tokyo police and civilian volunteers are making sure that our units have guides to the armories and have been rounding up units," Captain Miller reported, "I think we could just pass out rifles and let the citizens deal with these idiots." The man chuckled. "A banzai charge of 4.6 million angry people would deal with the problem once and for all."

      "I think Colonel Tyler was more scared of the greeting he got, all those people lined up waiting to be helpful," Adams admitted, "How soon will Lt. Ibuki and her force be back?"

      "About half-an-hour, Commander Ikari is with them."

      "Then we should find Admiral Simson and General Tomlinson at Mats - Masu - the other place," Adams said, "How soon will Captain Ramsey be at NERV HQ, we need officers familiar with the layout to guide our troops in."

      "He's there already," Captain Miller said, "

      Adams knew that Ramsey had left the pilots, who'd been brought on board, with Miss Juri. And asked me to give orders not to let them out of our sight. 'The pilots will go after whoever did this, once they hear about their dead friends,' Adams looked over the maps and considered Ramsey's warning, 'We need them clearheaded and ready to deploy their EVAs, in case'.

      "The cultists should have whistled up an Angel, if they wanted to win," Miller suggested, "Instead of striking at us this way. All they did was rile up everybody."

      Adams nodded as he continued to monitor the situation. I don't really know what more I can do that my troops can't, he thought, The 5 inch barrages might cause less collateral damage than the Tennessee's and the South Dakota's main guns, but they are having the desired effect.

      Aoba watched the troops and tanks pulling back, but the enemy wouldn't let them disengage. They know we can't call in our heaviest firepower while they were mixed with our own men. Marine close-support aircraft tried to hit the enemy, and the shield around the main entrance with guns or rockets, bombs were almost out of the question.

      Then he saw it rising out of the ground. Twisting and writhing as it moves, as if clawing at the very air around it. It looked horrible and that was having an effect on some of the troops. When an armed man went mad amidst other men, they could either shoot him or try to subdue him. The latter took a lot more time and men, so the creature took advantage of it by intentionally disturbing the troops. Occasionally a tank would get off a clean shot, the monster would create a hole through itself, shell would pass through and detonate in the distance.

      They'll need the EVAs to fight this thing! he thought as he stepped to the radio dugout to make the call. He found the radio operator staring at the apparition. "Why didn't you call in -?" Because the radio's useless, he thought, Nothing intelligible was going to get through.

      The monster sailed through the air and landed in the distance, more stunned than hurt. Cheers went up from the troops as Unit 04 walked onto the scene. The creature disentangled itself from the mess of trees and stones it had landed on and faced Unit 04. The creature charged the EVA, it punched, kicked, and dodged, its blows landed, but to no effect.

      How much damage can an EVA take? Aoba worried about finding out.

      Unit 04 made a shout, the creature shock and clawed at the air, then vanished.

      "Just an illusion," Davis's voice came through the Unit's speakers, "More help is on the way."

      Maya checked her helmet, sidearm and the submachine gun she still carried. It had been her plan, but she still worried about the safety of the advance. The EVA reaching down into `her` troops, and plucking her out of them shocked her. As Jeff aboard Unit 04 set her down, he scolded her, "Leave the sergeants to run the companies, the lieutenants the regiments, there's too few officers who know where all the defense positions are. You want to help your troops, either get up here and use the EVAs radio, or stay back with the maps to direct the artillery."

      Maya felt an odd anger and disappointment that she'd be out of the line of fire. She acceded to the logic, and the fact that it was pointless to try to argue with an EVA. I can command, she thought ironically, But I can't persuade. "Very well," she said, then she raised her voice, "Get some mortar up there!" She pointed at the EVA's broad back. "And plenty of shells, I want to rain on those . . . gentlemen!" She ignored the shouts from the troops as she headed for the makeshift HQ.

      It's not fair. I'm sending them in, with my plan, and if it doesn't work . . . I'll be safe behind the lines, she thought, Quite a change from timid little Maya who left Japan. She arrived at the HQ and began marking out on the map the positions she knew, and their expected firing arcs. She looked around at the officers. The few NERV veterans seemed surprised by her demeanor, the Bennington and Bunker Hill Marines took it in stride. One only knew the old me, the other the new, she considered, The ones who know me as the fighter outnumber but don't outrank the ones who know me only as the bridge bunny.

      Colonel Tyler arrived, he glanced around and saluted Maya. Maya stood at attention and returned it. "Lieutenant," Tyler said formally, "We'll make a proper Marine of you yet."

      "Yes, sir," she replied.

      "Brief me on the position we're assaulting," he ordered as he and his staff crowded around the map table.

      Maya ignored the stunned looks from the NERV veterans as she spoke as a respected fellow officer to these combat veterans.

      The Marines, NERV security and Occupation Army troops advanced steadily. Before them, Unit 04 sidestepped, its AT field protecting the unit and the troops behind it. A dozen mortar crews atop the EVA continued to salvo rounds at the bunkers. Firing on the move made a hit doubtful, but that wasn't the point. Suppressive fire was. Any bunker above ground level was sheared off as the AT field pressed forward. Fire teams sprayed the surprised men with submachine gun fire, or with a flamethrower. Positions further out were targeted by artillery and hunter-killer groups with bazookas and rifles.

      Maya watched the killing, and was disturbed that when the Marines incinerated a bunker and anyone left alive, she felt nothing. Yet when one of the soldiers on her side fell, she felt a tear at her heart.

      I should lament any deaths, she thought, But those who die on my side, they may have been my friends. And those on the other side brought pain and death for no reason, so I don't care about them.

      The advance continued to the doors of NERV.

      "We must advance with the first wave and retake critical areas," Rei said as she arrived with the Commander.

      "I'm certain the troops can take any positions that need taking," Maya assured Rei. Why do I feel the need to tousle her hair and treat her as something fragile and in need of protection? When I left here, I was intimidated by her, all knowing, and never caring, except for the Commander's goals. Now she seems lost and trying to please the adults.

      "Is something amiss Analyst Ibuki?" Rei asked, staring at Maya as intently as Maya had been looking at her.

      This time Maya did not look away and try to divert the girl's attention. Maybe she was always like that. Maybe it's me who's finally grown up, Maya thought. "I think you should leave the attack to the troops. It's not like you could be replaced, despite what you've said in the past. A novice pilot might be replaceable, but an integral member of the team is far less so." She glanced up at the Commander who was watching her carefully. "The Commander needs maximum combat effectiveness. Replacing you at this point might harm that efficiency for some time, perhaps a critical time."

      Rei stared at the Commander, as if seeking confirmation.

      "The idea should be considered. The gain weighed against the loss," Commander Ikari said.

      Rei stared at Maya. "I will consider it." She paused for a moment, then said, "I should accompany the second assault wave."

      Maya realized that was the best she was going to get. "Maybe a few support troops?"

      Rei considered. Then shook her head.

      Should I mention Sempai? Does the Commander know? she looked at the Commander whose expression seemed to say 'take what you got, you won't get any more.' "Perhaps the EVA? That would certainly be able to assist you."

      The thrum of powerful motors sounded through the corridor and everyone took cover behind whatever they could find. The huge blast doors rumbled back up into the ceiling.

      I hope nobody wonders about all the marks cut into the metal by Ritsuko's fingers, Nabiki thought as she and Ritsuko put the bulk of a truck between themselves and whatever would come storming out of the room.

      Nothing attacked. Not a monster, not a spell, not even a sound issued from the room. The leader of the assault troops hand-signaled his men, and they prepared to charge. Nabiki could feel the tension. With hostages inside, we can't simply throw in a handful of grenades, she thought nervously, And sort out the bodies later.

      With the massive obstacle finally cleared, the troops stormed into the room. The shout of 'clear' a moment later absolutely stunned Nabiki, as she and Ritsuko exchanged confused looks, before walking around the truck and into the room. The troops had surrounded the prisoners, who were all on their knees, their hands behind their heads. All of them cultists, the hostages stood around and watched their rescuers enter.

      Except Kaji, Nabiki thought, The man looks positively ill. What happened?!

      Although they'd been supplemented by the troops from Bunker Hill and Boxer, it was clear that Admiral Simson and General Tomlinson had been guarding the 40 plus prisoners using only their sidearms.

      "Don't worry Miss Tendo," General Tomlinson assured her, "We had them under control before you arrived. Right lads?"

      When the half-hearted agreements from the captives failed to satisfy him, Tomlinson repeated, "I said 'Right, lads'?"

      There was emphatic head nodding and affirmatives in four languages Nabiki recognized and more in some she didn't. With the troops now outnumbering the prisoners by two to one, the soldiers began separating them and searching them. Simson and Tomlinson headed for Ritsuko and Nabiki.

      "I'm glad to see you two, especially so early," Simson said as he grinned, "It seems I misread Admiral Adams slightly. I wouldn't have credited him with the guts to pull off a sneak attack like this. I am glad he did however. He's up for a Navy Cross, if I have any say in the matter."

      They stepped out into the corridor and headed outside. Nabiki and Ritsuko numbly followed. "So you didn't need rescuing?" Nabiki asked. Why do I sound disappointed? she wondered.

      "Oh yes, Miss Tendo, your arrival and the little demonstration on the outer doors was very helpful," General Tomlinson said jovially, patting her on the shoulder, "We couldn't have done it without you, that's a fact."

      "I know you two are enjoying your little joke," Ritsuko said, sounding more like Asuka than herself, "Boys will be boys, and all that. But if I don't get some answers - " She let the threat hang.

      The two general officers looked at each other as if they'd been caught snitching cookies.

      Maya had one destination, NERV Central Dogma, NERV's master control room. And I'm just bringing 500 of my close friends to see to it I arrive, she thought as the troops walked through the corridors that the sappers and infiltration troops had cleared. We'll have to debrief them, to find out all the places they got in, so we can close them, she thought as she walked, I hope the Commander finds the EVAs undamaged and the equipment still working. She smiled as she thought of the troops retreating from the Commander's forces, only to run into Unit 04 and another contingent of troops.

      Lt. Aoba started at the apparition who approached, as did Colonel Stedman.

      "Lieutenant Ibuki reporting, sir. You'll need a second operator to reinitialize the Magi."

      "Yes, Lieutenant," the Colonel said quietly, returning the salute and closely examining the scene and the incongruities in it.

      She removed her helmet and pulled her headset from the drawer. Just where I left it, she thought, How many months ago? And who is it who returns? Me, or someone else? She noted the men had taken up positions to return fire on any remaining snipers.

      "Ma'am, get under cover," Colonel Stedman ordered, "We're short operators."

      She nodded and slipped under the console and let herself drift, to link with the Magi. I just wish people would quit staring, as if they don't recognize me. Even Aoba, who was always teasing me, acts like I may shoot him any second. She initialized the interface and called up the 'functional but not there' keyboard. "Ready?" she asked Aoba, who nodded as he prepared himself.

      They began calling up diagnostic subroutines, checking for intruders in the system, and trying to find any sabotage or booby-traps an enemy might have left behind.

      It's like coming back home. Not this city or this job, but supporting all of this, being important. This is home. "No anomalies, proceeding to second-stage activation," she said as the data rolling in front of her eyes seemed to be in acceptable patterns. She ignored the odd stares from those who knew her as a soldier. This is what I do, this is what I am, and I wouldn't change a thing, she thought. Then something caught her attention. "Fire alarms, junction 610, level five." She caught herself as she started to stand. No, I can't rush off to fight them, she reminded herself, That's not my job now. I'm the complex's eyes and ears, not its hands.

      She turned to Stedman, who was already sending a pathfinder with the platoon of soldiers. I'm stuck here, again the 'bridge bunny', she thought then glanced down at the M3 Greasegun beside her on the floor, and resisted the urge to reach over and safe the weapon. I'm not ready or willing to go back all the way, she thought with a smile, Not yet, maybe not ever.

      Rei sat up and prepared to roll off the bed when the dizziness nearly hurled her back down.

      "Let's start with a gurney this time, Pilot Ayanami," a voice that sounded like Analyst Ibuki told her.

      "Yes," Rei replied.

      "You can stand down, Pilot," Ibuki told her, "You've done more than enough for one day."

      "No, there is more to do."

      "Killing yourself to no great effect will not help anyone," Ibuki counseled, "The Commander and Mr. Kaji have detailed troops to deal with the more sensitive areas. Doctor Akagi has certified the secure areas were never breached."

      That is a good point, but the Commander's plan and the pilots are in jeopardy, Rei considered.

      "We've got communications restored, and conventional forces are hunting down the insurgents, and all the pilots and VIPs are safe and under guard."

      "Then I can rest." Rei lay down and returned to sleep.